Friday, June 30, 2006

Ben Masel: Senate candidate, or public enemy #1?

The UW-Madison Police don't seem to know the difference.

Is this what we mean by "the new urbanism"? Just wondering. We seem to be on a slippery slope. One day the mayor's office is floating a trial balloon about unconstitutionally fencing off State Street the night of the big Halloween bash. Next we start roughing up U. S. Senate candidates. What's next?

I've put this update about their ridiculous macing and arrest of Ben Masel at the Union Terrace last night at my original post about his U.S. Senate run against Herb Kohl.

What is it about the First Amendment that UW-Madison Police don't understand?

Masel was put on the ground, maced and arrested at a public hip hop concert last night on the Memorial Union Terrace, where he was circulating his nomination papers. -- and where other local politicians have done so with no problem. There's an interesting discussion of the event at The Daily Page Forum, starting with Masel's account of the incident.
Asked to show ID, I inquire whether they are there as Agents of the State, or "are you working for a Private Club?" I'm grabbed, maced, put to the ground, and with at least one knee on my back, the rest of the mace emptied into my eyes.

Trip to UW stationhouse, charges of Trespass, Disorderly Conduct, and Resisting/Obstructing an Officer. Released on recognizance, return date July 24.

Coincidentally, Mayor Dave was playing cards with pals at a table 8 feet away. He'll make an interesting witness.
That should be quite a court appearance -- especially if Masel succeeds in dragging Mayor Dave to the witness stand. Masel has quite a track record of coming out on top in false arrest cases, and I'm sure he'll do so again. But you do have to wonder what the hell is going on in downtown Madison -- especially with the selective nature of this "law enforcement" action.

I remember when Michael Moore was speaking at the Union Terrace in front of thousands on a cold, blustery night before the 2004 election. There was a group of wingnuts trying to disrupt his talk. They were standing in the very spot where Masel was arrested, but nobody that I could see called the cops. Somebody dumped a pitcher of beer on the hecklers, which seemed to shut them up, but that was a different matter...

Downtown Madison priorities

I love this place -- a bookish oasis where you can spend hours without spending dollars, where there’s no admission charge, where books are free for the borrowing and you can roam as far as your dreams will take you without ever leaving your seat. It’s the Bernard Schwab Building, the downtown branch of the Madison Public Library.

It's been open for 41 years and it's showing its age. It's also starved for space. Until recently, they had a mural in the entrance showing an architect's concept drawing of a proposed spiffy-looking upward expansion at the site (which was built to accommodate new construction on the roof). I was pleased that the library was at last going to get some new finery of its own, to hold its own against the splendor of the Overture center across the street.

But the mural has disappeared, replaced by a bland map of the library system's branches, and it's my understanding that there are no current plans to expand downtown. It makes me wonder what the allocation of resources on the two sides of West Mifflin Street says about the future of Madison's downtown. On the one side, an aging library that serves everyone but lacks funds for a facelift. Across the street, a lavishly funded arts complex that serves a considerably more elite demographic group -- the Overture Center, aka the condo magnet, for the role it has played in spurring nearby residential development.

In Seattle, they did things differently. For about the same amount of money that it cost to build the Cesar Pelli facility here, courtesy of local philanthropist Jerry Frautschi, Seattle built a library designed by Rem Koolhaas. We got a competent design that received scant notice outside Madison. Seattle got an instant classic, a breathtaking reinvention of the library concept for the information age, which became world-famous overnight. You might say it's the Bilbao of libraries.

What does all this say about our priorities? The condo magnet is having an impact. You hear more and more nervous laughter these days about downtown Madison becoming a gated retirement community. Until now, this was only a metaphor. But the recent trial balloon floated by the mayor's office -- fencing off the State Street Halloween festivities in order to charge admission and better control the crowd -- threatens to make the metaphor literal. Paul Soglin takes a well-deserved swipe at the idea in his blog, and in a series of linked posts suggests some common sense alternatives. (Remember when we used to have common sense and competence in the mayor's office?)

My question is: How close are we to the threshold at which too much luxury condo development deprives the downtown of the very life that attracted the buyers in the first place? What happens when we reach it?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Paul Soglin succumbs to Misleading Catchy Headline Syndrome

One of the occupational hazards of blogging is Misleading Catchy Headline Syndrome (MCHS). We’re all prone to it. After all, we’re competing for eyeballs here, trying to score some clicks and book some page views. Who can resist adding a little extra hype, a little sizzle, a little bait-and-switch? Probably not Madison Guy. And certainly not Paul Soglin.

The title of his post today definitely caught my eye:

Environmentalists Trash Madison Rights-Of-Way With Signage.

“Et tu, environmentalists!” I lamented. “Oh, no -- how could they sink so low? Not the environmentalists! What have they done now? We sure as hell better make them stop -- damn hypocrites!” My blood pressure sure was rising.

Then I saw what he was writing about.

Now come environmentally friendly organizations like the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation with one of the most massive sign pollution efforts in Dane County history. The safety campaign is meritorious; its method questionable.
The Ghost Bikes campaign? These signs aren't clutter. They're more like traffic signs people actually pay attention to. It all goes to show -- MCHS creeps up on its victim in stages:
1) Distort somewhat to even get the word “environmentalists” into the headline. Leave out that the “Ghost Bike” campaign is really about safety, not the environment.

2) Add a paragraph hyping the headline to your estimable but not otherwise eye-catching post about signage clutter. Crank up the volume with “environmentally friendly organizations like the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation” and “one of the most massive sign pollution efforts in Dane County history.”

3) Retire to bed with your blog fever and your traffic stats.
Fortunately, MCHS -- not to be confused with a former Madison high school that no longer exists -- is not a serious illness. More like a one-day flu. The prognosis for Soglin is excellent, and he can be expected to resume his usual high standards at Waxing America soon.

This is NOT the worst-case scenario

These images are from the July 13 issue of The New York Review of Books. On the left is Florida as seen from space today. On the right is what’s left of Florida after a sea level rise of only 18-20 feet. Again, this is not a worst-case global warming scenario.

The photos are provided by NASA’s chief climate scientist Jim Hansen, whose essay in the current issue delivers a powerful warning, “The Threat to the Planet.” Hansen’s article is prefaced with an unusual note for a government scientist:
His opinions are expressed here, he writes, "as personal views under the protection of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."
That’s a reference to the contretemps about the Bush administration’s ham-handed attempts to muzzle him earlier this year -- and the constitutional protection that still allows him the freedom to speak out, despite the administration's best efforts to silence him.

THIS is the worst-case scenario
If we continue on our current business-as-usual course, according to Hansen, there will be a five-degree Fahrenheit increase in global warming by the end of the century, resulting in an 80-foot increase in sea level, which would doom almost all of Florida and a whole lot more.
How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth's history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.

Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.
But that’s a future that may yet be averted. Meanwhile, global warming is real today and already having significant impacts, as Hansen movingly relates in the opening of his essay.
Animals are on the run. Plants are migrating too. The Earth's creatures, save for one species, do not have thermostats in their living rooms that they can adjust for an optimum environment. Animals and plants are adapted to specific climate zones, and they can survive only when they are in those zones. Indeed, scientists often define climate zones by the vegetation and animal life that they support. Gardeners and bird watchers are well aware of this, and their handbooks contain maps of the zones in which a tree or flower can survive and the range of each bird species.
The question is, will the one species that has the ability to adjust the thermostat have the insight and the political will to do so before it’s too late? That’s what the works reviewed by Hansen are about.
“The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth,” by Tim Flannery, Atlantic Monthly Press, 357 pp., $24.00

“Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, 210 pp., $22.95

“An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It,” by Al Gore, Melcher Media/Rodale, 325 pp., $21.95 (paper)

“An Inconvenient Truth,” a film directed by Davis Guggenheim
Hansen has special praise for Gore and puts him in some pretty good company.
Indeed, Gore was prescient. For decades he has maintained that the Earth was teetering in the balance, even when doing so subjected him to ridicule from other politicians and cost him votes. By telling the story of climate change with striking clarity in both his book and movie, Al Gore may have done for global warming what Silent Spring did for pesticides. He will be attacked, but the public will have the information needed to distinguish our long-term well being from short-term special interests.

“An Inconvenient Truth” is about Gore himself as well as global warming. It shows the man that I met in the 1980s at scientific roundtable discussions, passionate and knowledgeable, true to the message he has delivered for years. It makes one wonder whether the American public has not been deceived by the distorted images of him that have been presented by the press and television. Perhaps the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it.
“An Inconvenient Truth” is playing at a multiplex near you. Go see it -- while the theater is still above water.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Figuring out how to reset the global thermostat

Is it possible to cool the climate and offset the impact of global warming? Sure. Mother Nature apparently did it with a plague of rats back in the 14th century. More recently, there was “the year without a summer,” otherwise known as “Eighteen hundred and froze to death” -- the great cooling of 1816, caused by the massive explosion of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) the year before. While volcanoes aren’t under human control (yet), we could achieve a similar, or even more dramatic, impact with a massive nuclear exchange that would trigger “nuclear winter.” Let’s not go there.

Is there anything less drastic that we could do if global warming threatens to turn into a self-reinforcing runaway greenhouse effect? What if we just can’t summon sufficient political will here and abroad to bring greenhouse emissions under control in time? Do we just sit back and watch whole ecosystems broil away? Not necessarily, according to today’s NYT.
In the past few decades, a handful of scientists have come up with big, futuristic ways to fight global warming: Build sunshades in orbit to cool the planet. Tinker with clouds to make them reflect more sunlight back into space. Trick oceans into soaking up more heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Their proposals were relegated to the fringes of climate science. Few journals would publish them. Few government agencies would pay for feasibility studies. Environmentalists and mainstream scientists said the focus should be on reducing greenhouse gases and preventing global warming in the first place.

But now, in a major reversal, some of the world's most prominent scientists say the proposals deserve a serious look because of growing concerns about global warming.

Worried about a potential planetary crisis, these leaders are calling on governments and scientific groups to study exotic ways to reduce global warming, seeing them as possible fallback positions if the planet eventually needs a dose of emergency cooling.
Great. It sure beats waiting around for another big volcano to bail us out.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Walking in the cemetery with Al Stewart,
Nostradamus and missed opportunities

At noon I often walk in the cemetery near the office. Four times around my circular, hilly route is two miles, good for trying to get rid of the extra pounds from last winter and spring. There always seems to be a bit of wind rustling in the pines, and it’s a peaceful place to sort things out.

I’m listening to Al Stewart’s “Past, Present and Future,” that haunting meditation on the blood-stained history of the 20th century. It’s a reminder that our parents and grandparents lived through terrible times -- including the rise of the Nazis (‘the last Day of June 1934”), World War II and the gulag (“Roads to Moscow”), postwar traumas and assassinations (“Post World War Two Blues”).

The events of the last century have taken on the burnished glow of history. Looking back now is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope -- things seem small and distant, and the miniature images seem sharper and clearer than they really were at the time. History has sorted things out, and we think we know who the good guys were. Many of them are buried all around me.

Now the iPod is playing the last track on the album -- “Nostradamus.” The song finds many of the events of the 20th century foretold by Nostradamus, often with names misspelled (hey, nobody's perfect), including the rise of Hitler (Hister) and the Kennedy assassinations. But Stewart’s oracle falls strangely silent after that. While seeming to look ahead to the end of the Cold War, there’s no Osama, no Saddam, no George Bush after that. We’re on our own.

I’m afraid that Yeats better spoke to our condition than old Nostradamus.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The “worst” would be Karl Rove, of course. Who but Rove could orchestrate blaming Democratic senators for wanting to “cut and run,” while having the military talk about troop withdrawals a couple days later?
At first, many Republicans thought it was time to start talking about drawing down U.S. forces. But in the White House, Karl Rove decided that talk had to be squelched. Many hours of arm-twisting later, GOP legislative leaders are back following the president's script. It's called staying the course - keeping soldiers in Iraq keeps the war on terror from U.S. shores and keeps Americans safer.
My walk’s over, and nothing is resolved. Time to go back to work.

Joe Lieberman provides classic demonstration that senators who lose touch with their constituents risk losing touch with reality itself

Inside the D.C. Beltway, there’s so much helium puffing up the egos of incumbent U.S. senators that they are always at risk of floating away and losing all touch with the ground, or what’s commonly called reality.

That’s why keeping in touch with constituents is so important. It’s just about the only force with the power to keep a senator grounded and down-to-earth. And keeping in touch with constituents -- as Russ Feingold constantly demonstrates -- is about more than providing them contrived, manipulative gimmicks.

I’ve never been a big fan of Joe Lieberman. You name it: The way he won office in the first place by running against liberal Republican Lowell Weicker from the right. The way he sandbagged Clinton. The way he prematurely caved in Florida in 2000. And, of course, his position on the Iraq war and Bush’s handling of it. Gore’s having selected him as a running mate is the main reason I still have doubts about Gore’s judgment.

Still, there’s something sad about seeing an incumbent who’s been in office too long lose touch as dramatically as Lieberman is now doing. I don’t know what else to call it when “the Republicans’ favorite Democrat” has even Ann Althouse calling his little gimmick “pathetic.”

Note to Joe: There’s a war on. People don’t like it. What are you going to do about it? Ignore it? Blame Ned Lamont?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The view from my bike

Anti-Bush, pro-impeachment graffiti on Wingra Bike Path: 2. Pro-Bush, anti-impeachment graffiti on Wingra Bike Path: 0. In case you were wondering.

A few more letters, and they'll have a restaurant... Work was going on Sunday on the outdoor terrace of the new Paisan's. The neon sign, when it's completed, will be visible from John Nolen Drive -- a sign that the old campus favorite will have reopened in the 131 West Wilson location where the old Library Club used to be, near the square. We spent much of the spring saying goodbye to the old Paisan's, again and again. We'll probably spend much of the rest of the summer saying hello, again and again, looking out over the lake.

Eerily deserted BB Clarke Beach Sunday afternoon. World Cup soccer? Competition from Goodman Pool across the lake? Doppler radar showing thunderstorms? Alien abductions?

Bicycles seem to be invisible to so many motorists. Perhaps these skeletal frames will get some attention. "A crash is not an accident...a crash can be prevented," the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin reminds us. Their Ghost Bike campaign aims to do something about the proliferating non-accidents. The link leads to a wealth of safety information for motorists as well as bicyclists, including links to the Wisconsin State Bicycle Laws.