Monday, December 31, 2007

Not everyone agrees with the Democratic leadership that impeachment is a dirty word

Vigil for Peace at the State Capitol
Since I work out of town, I don't see much of downtown Madison during the week -- except when I have a few days off, last Wednesday being one of them. That's when I saw these guys with their peace sign at the State Street corner of the square, demonstrating that not everyone agrees with the Democratic congressional leadership that impeachment is a dirty word (funny how the Republicans never had any such qualms when it came to Bill Clinton's lies about a private sexual matter, while the Bush administration's lies about matters of life and death have been given a pass). Like a lot of Americans, Steve Books of Veterans for Peace (left) and Jeff Granby of the Wisconsin Network for Peace & Justice don't think that's right. And they're trying to do something about it, as part of the regular Wednesday peace vigil in front of the Capitol.

It encouraged me to see them. I've been thinking of this as the Year of Living Irrelevantly, ever since we held an election in which the public gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress because voters were so fed up with the war and the Bush administration. What did the Democrats do with their new majority? Nothing. And when the Democratic congressional leadership took impeachment off the table earlier this year, they lost the last possible chance to actually halt the outrages being committed by this administration. Impeachment might not have succeeded. But voting articles of impeachment would have slowed the bastards down, put them on the defensive and given Congress more power to investigate how the Iraq disaster came to be. Didn't happen. Instead, we've had a year of getting ready for the 2008 election, with the democratic candidates still afraid to take on Bush directly and competing with each other to see who can come up with the most bland platitudes. If ever there's been a Year of Living Irrelevantly, 2007 was it.

Here's hoping that 2008 will be better. If it is, it will be because millions of Americans insist. I signed the peace sign and promised myself I would do more in the new year to live more relevantly and push for peace. Even if a Democrat is elected, they'll still need lots of pressure to make sure we actually pull out of Iraq and hold these criminals responsible.

The Holiday Fantasy in Lights in Madison's Olin Park ends New Year's Day

Madison's Holiday Fantasy in Lights Ends New Year's Day
If you haven't caught it yet, there's not much more time to see the annual lightshow at Olin-Turville Park. The 19th annual Holiday Fantasy of Lights ends tomorrow, New Year's Day. (The photo was taken last year, when Santa and his reindeer still overlooked the downtown skyline. Another display has taken its place, and this one has moved to another part of the park.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Blogging standing up in the Madison Apple store at West Towne Mall while getting tires at Sears

Port in the Storm
I was out at West Towne Mall Saturday getting new tires put on my 216,000-mile Toyota commutermobile (I bought a set three years ago, thinking they were the last tires I would buy for this car, but it just keeps on keeping on). So where was I going to kill a couple hours?

I headed for the new Apple store. It's an oasis of serenity in the hard-sell commercialism of the mall. Good lighting, clean design, cool products displayed without clutter on maple veneer tables, and a helpful, no-pressure sales staff that's not paid on commission. Of course, you're being sold -- but it's marketing that doesn't hit you over the head. If Steve Jobs wants to build these sleek temples where we can go to worship his products in a non-threatening environment, that's fine with me. Besides, I had some questions to ask about setting up my Apple wireless router with the new 24" iMac. And I wanted to check my email. Which I did on a MacBook Pro.

That done, I still had time to kill. I decided to go ahead and write the blog post I had been meaning to write about Kites on Ice. I went to my Flickr account, made the photo stored there public, and imported it into Blogger. Then I wrote this post about the winter kite festival on Lake Monona that I used to enjoy so much, and about how I wish it could be brought back, about how Madison needs a winter festival on the lakes to make our long winter more endurable, and how a kite festival would make a great focal point for the event. Before I knew it, I was done.

A couple times sales people came over and asked if they could help me, but there was never any pressure and when I explained that I was doing some blogging while getting my tires changed at Sears, they were nothing but encouraging. Nobody seemed to care that I was tying up a computer -- there were plenty more to go around. A blog post is nothing. In New York, one woman wrote a book in the Apple store.
Unable to afford a computer, Ms. Jade, 25, began cadging time on a laptop at the Apple store in the SoHo section of Manhattan. Ms. Jade spent hours at a stretch standing in a discreet corner of the store, typing. Within a few months, she had written nearly 300 pages.

Not only did store employees not mind, but at closing time they often made certain to shut Ms. Jade’s computer down last, to give her a little extra time. A few months later, the store invited her to give an in-store reading from her manuscript.
I'm sure I'll be back. There are always questions to ask, email to check -- and one day, when they get the damn thing right, an iPhone to buy.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

This is such a brutal winter, can't we bring back Kites on Ice?

This Is Such a Brutal Winter, Can't We Bring Back Kites on Ice?
I took this photo nearly five years ago, in February of 2003. Kites on Ice was a midwinter kite festival that was held several times in Madison, originally at the Monona Terrace convention center. People came from all over the world to fly kites and attend seminars and workshops in Monona Terrace. It was a wonderful way to brighten the long Madison winter, a festive occasion complete with wonderful kite demonstrations, both indoors and outdoors. You could warm up in the building, watch the kites while sipping a hot chocolate. When you got warm, you could go back out on the ice and visit with the kiters. And on Saturday night there were fireworks. It was so cool. And then it all went away. One year the ice was too thin, and the kite flying was moved across the lake to Olin Park. The final year there was a schedule conflict and it moved to Lake Mendota, with the workshops shoehorned into the Memorial Union. The next year it didn't come back.

I always thought it was a missed opportunity to establish a real midwinter festival on the Madison lakes, with Kites on Ice anchoring the event. Anybody up for bringing it back? We could sure use some of that excitement and color in a sky that this year has produced nothing but snow.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

How did Santa know?

How Did Santa Know?
Because I made a list, of course, and made a point of putting Exit Ghost by Philip Roth on it. I'm about 70 pages into the book. It's hard to put down, a great read. A sequel of sorts to The Ghost Writer, the first of Roth's novels about his fictional and literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The two novels bookend the Zuckerman series -- the first about the young Zuckerman, a sprinter in the literary race, and the last about the 71-year-old Zuckerman (the age Roth was in 2004, the year the events in the book take place), nearing the end of the long marathon, an incontinent, impotent prostate cancer survivor who has distanced himself from the world but is swept by a last wave of passion for a much younger woman. All while being revisited, almost 50 years later, by his youthful encounter with the novelist E. I Lonoff, his wife Hope, and Lonoff's young lover Amy Bellette, portrayed in The Ghost Writer. Humorous, poignant, satirical and written in Roth's characteristically supple, effortlessly fluid style -- it has all the Roth elements. He's one of the greats, and he just keeps on keeping on -- one of my favorite writers. Appropriately, the jacket design is by another cool older dude who just keeps on keeping on -- 78-year-old Milton Glaser.

1/03/08 UPDATE: Dr. Diablo's skepticism in the Comments to the contrary, I did finish all 304 pages. An updated review is posted at The Book Book.

A whole herd of illuminated sheep pays its respects to the Baby Jesus

A Herd of Illuminated Sheep Pays Its Respects to the Baby Jesus
I'm concluding this year's holiday coverage with my annual attempt at an image of one of Madison's most amazing Christmas displays, the lighted Nativity scene on Tokay Boulevard between Midvale and Segoe. It's sort of a Malthusian population explosion of worshipful illuminated sheep.

They're hard to photograph: If you come in close for more detail, you lose the widescreen kitsch grandeur of the entire scene. If you photograph the assembly in total darkness it doesn't read right, but the lights don't get turned on till it's nearly dark, so you have to come at just the right moment. And then everything has to go right. As usual, it didn't -- I had left the lens on the macro setting from an earlier photo, so the focus is a bit softer than I would have wished. Next year...

(Click on photo to enlarge in Flickr.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Holiday light show at the Overture Center

I was walking down State Street in Madison after sunset when a pillar of light in the lobby of Cesar Pelli's Overture Center for the Arts caught my eye. I went in and got a belated look at their holiday decoration, a pillar of light ascending to the atrium dome. It had a science fiction feel to it.

Beam me up, Scotty!

Ascending to the Starship Enterprise.

Caught in the Chronosynclastic Infundibulum.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Dr. Jack Kammer's Annual University Avenue Tree Lights Display

Rainbow of Holiday Lights Along Railroad Right of Way
One individual really can make a difference. In 1986, Madison dentist and UW-Madison alum Jack Kammer planted 228 arborvitae trees next to the railroad right of way along the 2700 block of University Avenue. It took awhile for the trees to grow up, but in 1995 the fun began. His website states:
In addition to his professional accolades, Dr. Jack is no stranger to his community. His annual University Avenue Tree Lights display has become a local tradition since 1995. Every late November for a decade, Dr. Jack dons his 'Santa' cap for Madison by stringing over 120,000 holiday lights on a beautiful row of 228 arborvitae trees three and a third football fields long which run parallel to University Avenue. Dr. Jack planted the trees eighteen years ago, and continues to maintain them to an identical height of 6-7 feet for his impressive display each winter.
The lights are a magical part of the holiday season in Madison, and I'm sure I'm not the only Madisonian who alters his driving route this time of year to pass them regularly. A few years ago he started phasing in energy efficient LED lights, and since last year, they've all been LED lights. Some of the expensive, hard-to-find colors regularly got swiped. That might have discouraged a lesser man, but not this dedicated fan of winter lights. Thank you, Dr. Jack!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Wishing You a Merry Ho! Ho! Ho! Rather Than an Oh! Oh! Oh!

Wishing You a Merry Ho! Ho! Ho! Rather Than an Oh! Oh! Oh!
Several years ago, this scene brightened the last stretch of my homeward bound commute. It was on Drake Street in Madison, in an area with a lot of student apartments. The painted plywood figures seemed to have been made by a student with a flair for woodworking. For four years or so, the figures appeared after Thanksgiving and were illuminated through Christmas. They always made me smile about all the mishaps of the season, funny when they're not happening to us. Haven't seen them for a few years now. I always assumed their maker graduated and moved on.

Here's hoping your holidays have more in common with the former spelling than the latter.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Reflecting on the failures of the Bubble Wonders

The real estate bubble of the last decade, fueled in the final years near its peak by a vast infusion of new suprime mortgage money, has collapsed as surely as if it fell into a sinkhole, leaving just a pale reflection of its former self floating near the surface.

The collapse of the subprime mortgage market was as predictable to some as it was surprising to others. Probably it was inevitable, since the bubble's expansion was presided over by some of the best financial minds of their generation, or at least people who thought they were the best financial minds of their generation. They were the geniuses I like to think of as the Bubble Wonders. First and foremost among them was Alan Greenspan, the free market ideologue and Ayn Rand acolyte who presided over the Fed during the bubble's emergence -- the Gray Eminence of the Bubble Wonders, as it were.

Paul Krugman reflected on the Bubble Wonders this morning. He took particular note of Greenspan's role as cheerleader for the bubble.
So where were the regulators as one of the greatest financial disasters since the Great Depression unfolded? They were blinded by ideology.

“Fed shrugged as subprime crisis spread,” was the headline on a New York Times report on the failure of regulators to regulate. This may have been a discreet dig at Mr. Greenspan’s history as a disciple of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of unfettered capitalism known for her novel “Atlas Shrugged.”

In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand’s newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”

It’s no wonder, then, that he brushed off warnings about deceptive lending practices, including those of Edward M. Gramlich, a member of the Federal Reserve board. In Mr. Greenspan’s world, predatory lending — like attempts to sell consumers poison toys and tainted seafood — just doesn’t happen.
But some of Krugman's ire is bipartisan. If the Democrats didn't cause the bubble, they also didn't do much to stop it. And now that millions of families are in danger of losing their homes, are the Democratic presidential making an issue of it in their campaigns? Not that anyone can see.
Given the role of conservative ideology in the mortgage disaster, it’s puzzling that Democrats haven’t been more aggressive about making the disaster an issue for the 2008 election. They should be: It’s hard to imagine a more graphic demonstration of what’s wrong with their opponents’ economic beliefs.
Or a better example of how cautious the Democratic candidates all are being. Wouldn't want to be accused of "class war," I guess.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Big Brother held a press conference this morning, and I ran screaming from the house

"Nothing But Blue Skies" -- Big Brother Explains the Forever War
I was getting ready for work and wasn't really watching, but I heard him say something like "citizens need to be able to take their crops to market." Amid visions of Bush's crumbling economy turning us all into a nation of poorly paid agricultural workers eking out a miserable existence from the globally warming earth, I fled. But apparently he did not, in fact announce a new program to put us to work on the farm and get those crops to market. Instead, he dodged a lot of questions about the destruction of the CIA tapes. Other bits of assorted wisdom:
“And so, it’s like I said about the presidency,” Mr. Bush went on. “People in America, you know, like the presidency, and sometimes they like the president. Get it?”


And he again defended the Iraqi government from critics who say that it has failed to seize the opportunity provided by improved security conditions to achieve the reconciliation goals laid out long ago.

“Are we satisfied with progress in Baghdad? No. But to say nothing’s happening just isn’t the case,” he said. “If you trying to judge the Iraqi Parliament based upon our own Congress’s ability to get things done — is that what you’re saying? — I’d be a little careful.”

Asked about foreign investments in the United States that have soared with the fall of the dollar, like the announced sale by Morgan Stanley of a $5 billion stake to a Chinese investment fund, the president said he had no reservations whatsoever.

“I’m fine with capital coming in from overseas to help bolster financial institutions,” he said. “Protectionism would be a huge mistake for this country.”
Right. Wouldn't want to restrict his Saudi friends' ability to invest in America, would we?

(Note: I've been trying to ignore Bush as much as possible. I put together the image the last time he drove me slightly nuts -- when he announced the surge. Click on the photo to go to my Flickr stream and see my commentary at the time.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

'Tis the season for a temporary moratorium on discussions of gloomy weather and winter sadness

Festive Floral Wreath Embedded in Snowy White Softness
There's enough of that already. Instead, rejoice -- the Year of Living Irrelevantly is almost over. Soon enough we will be making decisions about the future of the nation and the world. For now, let's join Madison's Olbrich Botanical Gardens in celebrating the season with some festive and snowy white softness.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In this brutal winter, architecture gets its revenge, flinging darts of ice like Brutalist spears

Flinging Darts of Ice Like Brutalist Spears
You have to pick your way carefully these days around Vilas Hall and its cousin across University Avenue, the George L. Mosse Humanities Building. Shards of broken ice litter the icy pavement. Vilas and Humanities are two of the University of Wisconsin's Brutalist icons. Their stark concrete architecture has dominated their surroundings so long that, now that the University has plans to eventually demolish Humanities, they've generated a kind of nostalgic, protectionist backlash after years of being reviled by occupants and passers-by.

This fondness is, however, being tested by the the unseasonable amount of snow and ice Madison has had this year. The meteorological nastiness seems to seek out areas of heat loss like the rooflines of these old buildings, only to coalesce into huge icicles that hang from ledges and overhangs high above ground level. And then they fall, as if propelled by angry Norse gods throwing frozen thunderbolts. The price we pay, apparently, for living with memorable architecture -- dodging Brutalist spears thrown from on high.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Are you feeling Lucky? In the Madison real estate market, it's all in the roll of the dice.

The other evening you could see the partially completed Lucky, the huge mixed use student apartment complex near the UW campus campus on Madison's University Avenue, rise into the night behind Vilas Hall in the foreground. On their website is the tagline, "You only live once. Live Lucky," which seems to be a pretty realistic reflection of how the local real estate market has turned housing into a crapshoot.

The University of Wisconsin student newspaper The Daily Cardinal recently turned a skeptical eye on the Lucky project in particular and real estate development in Madison in general.
The upscale transformation of Madison is underway, and if you blink, your eyes may open to a completely different place. As Madison’s skyline changes, the city’s identity also undergoes a transformation.

Madison’s eccentric culture is in danger of drowning in a mass of pre-fabricated housing that brings Madison’s identity closer to that of nearly every other developing city in the nation. The campus is also in danger of further socio-economic segregation in housing as the price gap widens with the establishment of new, more expensive apartment buildings.


The newest high rise in the campus area is Steve Brown’s building, Lucky, which is the largest mixed-use project in the history of the city of Madison, according to the building’s website. Lucky continues the trend of new high-priced apartment buildings along University Avenue and West Gorham Street.
Several miles to the west, the Hilldale Shopping Center developers, Joseph Freed & Associates, have not been as lucky. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that The Heights, an 11-story condo, has been put on hold due to market conditions, to await "a date that more appropriately and effectively meets the supply and demand of the Madison condominium market."
That date could be months from now, or it could be years from now, said Ald. Tim Gruber, District 11, who represents the area.

This is the second time the developer has delayed plans for condominiums at Hilldale. In September, Freed & Associates swapped a 90-unit condominium building for a six-story hotel. Plans for Hotel Indigo will go before the Madison Plan Commission for approval Monday.

The Heights building is part of the second phase of redevelopment at Hilldale that also includes a Whole Food Store and a parking garage.

Freed & Associates may modify its designs for the building so that it houses office space, rather than condominiums, Gruber said. But any changes would first need to be submitted to the city and approved.

At least 15 percent of the condo units have already been sold. But Gruber said sales had stagnated.
All in the roll of the dice, apparently.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

When the weather forecasters can't help but traffic in euphemisms

When the Weather Forecasters Start to Traffic in Euphemisms
It snowed lightly in Madison most of Saturday afternoon -- light fluffy stuff, just enough to be irritating and make even more of a mess of the streets. The forecasters can no longer bear to face reality. They're starting to traffic in euphemisms, not wishing to aggravate their viewers' already oppressive seasonal affective disorder. They said we would get a "dusting" of snow.

The verdict in our household, where we felt provoked beyond endurance: "That was no dusting -- I shoveled that s**t!"

12.19.07 UPDATE: Too dark? Check out Letter from here's Holiday Moratorium on discussions of gloomy weather and winter sadness.

Driven by the winter wind

Kite Snowboarding on Lake Wingra
Last year at this time, ice boats flashed across the mirror-like surface of Madison's Lake Wingra. This year, with all the snow we've had, snow boards and kites are better suited to tapping into the power of the wind.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Even with the warning signs, these traffic calming islands are wrong for this climate

At Least It's Marked Now, but It's Still Wrong for This Climate
More news about the traffic calming islands on Madison's Edgewood Avenue, which disappear from view and become invisible when it snows. They've finally put up warning markers -- but problems remain. Madison's Channel 3 reported yesterday on the nightmares for snowplow drivers created by the obstacles.
"First of all, when you see them, you don't see them, and you hit them and it jars the whole truck," Endres said.

He said that missing a traffic island can bounce a driver through the roof of his truck. He called that "teeth shattering."

But he added that even those traffic calming devices that are plainly marked pose a challenge.

At one roundabout Wednesday, Endres demonstrated how his plow could not go around it correctly -- it wouldn't fit. He had to stop and back up, clogging traffic. He ended up making an illegal left turn in front of the roundabout just to continue his route.
Check out Channel 3's video report here.

If you ask me, the traffic calming roundabouts are a triumph of good intentions over common sense, of manipulative traffic engineering ideology over the realities of climate. They just don't belong here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Better off dead?

These eyes have followed me around town all week, peering out at me from newspaper displays all over town, including this one in yesterday's snowstorm. It's the cover of Isthmus featuring Vikki Kratz's provocative, eye-opening article about euthanasia at the Dane County Humane Society. I was among those who thought the Humane Society had pretty much become a no kill shelter a few years ago when the leadership was replaced by a group that wanted to reduce the number of animals killed. I also assumed the big new shelter the organization built would help reduce euthaniasia rates.

The reality is far more complex. Kratz begins with her own experience when she volunteered to foster cats for the organization.
But after leaving several phone messages and sending an email, I was told that the shelter was scaling back its foster-care program. If I wanted to help, I should come back in two months.

Frustrated, I turned to Dane County Friends of Ferals, a local rescue group. A couple days later, I had two Siamese kittens in my home. They had bright blue eyes, gorgeous markings — and colds. They sneezed long ropes of mucus over everything I owned. But after a week of antibiotics, the kittens recovered. Two weeks later, they were adopted.

I was surprised to learn the kittens had come from the Humane Society — the same shelter that had rejected my offer of help. And because the kittens were sick, they had been marked for euthanasia. In fact, by the time Alison Colby, then director of Friends of Ferals, got to the Humane Society to pick them up, three of their littermates had already been killed.

The Humane Society regularly kills animals with treatable medical conditions.
The story that emerges is one of conscientious, well-meaning people with different ideas of what's the right thing to do. The bottom line isn't pretty.
And in March, the Humane Society implemented a new set of animal-care guidelines, which included reducing the number of cages available for cats on its main adoption floor. As a result, the shelter's euthanasia rate for cats went up. This year, for the first time in five years, the shelter reported killing cats — 29 so far — for "space." Its euthanasia rate for cats reached 40% in October of this year, up from 29% in October 2006.
If, like me, you find this figure shocking and depressing, be sure to read Vikki Kratz's entire article. In addition, here are some places to go for more information: Ted O'Donnell's No Kill Madison blog, Dane County Friends of Ferals, and the Dane County Humane Society -- although, in view of their euthanasia rate, I sort of wonder about the Human Society's URL --

12.12.07 UPDATE: Vikki Kratz comments on the Human Society's (lack of a formal) response to her article here and provides a link to their letter to volunteers and supporters.

In Madison we were lucky that our precipitation mostly came as snow

The Good News
The bad news was that I had to shovel out the car once again. The good news in Madison yesterdayy was that it was cold enough so that, other than a bit of icy sleet in the morning, almost all our precipitation fell as snow -- another five inches or so. To our south, people weren't as lucky, as massive ice storms tied up the central part of the country, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes, especially in Oklahoma.

Americans have always relied on their state National Guard units to help out in natural disasters like the ice storms sweeping across the Midwest, and I wondered what the Oklahoma National Guard was doing to help out with transportation, food, shelter and emergency electric power. I came across this short news item.
Members of the Oklahoma National Guard are heading to Oklahoma City to help with recovery efforts. Two members of the 1245th Transportation Company based in Madill are being called on to offer assistance.

Two members of the 1245th joined members of the 1120th Maintenance Unit in Ada. The group is expected to transport back-up electrical generators to Oklahoma City. The mission may seem different from those units that have orders to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq, but staffers say they are trained to serve wherever called, home or abroad.

"We get called in to do things, you know, any kind of disaster, help, or anything that involves states," Sgt. Jason Herndon of the 1245th says. The group is expected to be in Oklahoma City for at least one day.

The majority of the 1245th is currently at Fort Bliss, preparing for deployment to Iraq.
Two members, when half a million people are without power? No comment.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Seeing Olbrich's Bolz Conservatory through the fog of winter lens condensation

Canary Photographed Through the Mist of Lens Condensation
A canary became a spot of foggy yellow in the tropical Bolz Conservatory at Madison's Olbrich Botanical Gardens when shot through the fog of lens condensation caused by bringing a cold camera into the warm, moist air. It seemed to work for this photo, but in general, if you're planning to take pictures both indoors and outdoors at Olbrich in the winter, take the indoor photos first. Otherwise, your camera will be hopelessly fogged for quite a while. Trying to wipe it off is not good for the delicate lens coating, and you'll just have to wait. And wait.

Winter Photography Note: This is the season that cold cameras become condensation magnets when brought into almost any indoor environment. If you need to use the camera soon after coming indoors, you can minimize the problem by putting the camera into a Ziploc bag before going in. The condensation will fog up the bag instead of the camera, and you can warm the camera while it's in the bag by any available means -- a warm hand is better than nothing, a warm air vent or hair dryer is even better.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mad City's Mad Capitol

Mad City's Mad Capitol
This may seem to resemble the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, but it's actually a "faerie capitol." For the second year in a row, faerie cottages by Tatiana Katara are on display at the Olbrich Holiday Express Holiday Flower and Model Train Show at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. Find out more about Tatiana and her work here.

In general, Tatiana's faerie cottages are a bit on the fey side for me, but this strangely over the top take on the State Capitol is a keeper. (If you click through to the large size of the photo on my Flickr stream, you can read the very appropriate message on the book in front of the capitol.)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Quick, someone give Paul Soglin a bag of emoticons so he has some smileys handy to label his satire :-)

Blue Bike on Ice
Last year was a great year for winter bicycling in Madison. Believe it or not, I took this photo of my bike on Lake Wingra the day after Christmas. Still hard to believe, but that's what the file says.

This year, of course, it's very different. Not only have we had a number of snowfalls in quick succession, but there was a nasty hard freeze in between, so we have a lot of ice lurking under the snow. Just plain ugly -- and it's not even winter yet. Madison's bicyclists are a hardy bunch, however, and a substantial subset have continued biking on the streets, provoking the ire of former mayor Paul Soglin in his blog Waxing America.
The bicyclists who braved the week's second storm should be taken out and shot. Spare them and the poor driver, when they skid on treacherous streets and slide under the wheels of a truck delivering fresh vegetables.

I will give them a pass on the first storm. Not because it was not forecasted (it was), but because every one gets a little giddy and reckless with the season's first major storm.
Soglin's post started quite a tempest in a blogpot, going viral and attracting outraged comments from bicyclists as far away as Alaska, many of them urging a similar treatment for the former mayor. Soglin grouped the responses and replied to them in another very funny post the next day. And today the controversy ended up in the newspaper, as George Hesselberg of the Wisconsin State Journal interviewed Soglin about the flame war.

Soglin had a point. I love to ride my bike, but since I was a kid and sometimes tooled around my paper route in the snow on my big balloon tire Schwinn, I've stayed off the streets in the winter. The blogosphere can be a very literal-minded, humorless and angry place. Would a bunch of emoticaons have helped Soglin? Probably not. :-(

Thursday, December 06, 2007

First trash pickup after the snow

First Trash Pickup After the Snow
A decision needs to be made: Shovel it out, or drag it over the snowbanks? I was going to shovel but said the hell with it and opted for dragging instead. Just another one of winter's little joys in Madison, Wisconsin.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Defining professionalism down

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" in 1993 he launched a linguistic meme that has seen countless words substituted for the asterisk in the construction "defining * down." A few that come up in the 89,000 Google hits are democracy, victory, torture, delinquency, conservatism, decency, smart and depression. And that's just in the first two pages.

"Defining professionalism down" does not appear on the list, but I think we need to add the phrase to the canon. Its time has come.

It seems to be the only way to explain this breathtakingly craven quote by the Washington Post's David Ignatius several years ago, describing the media's role in the buildup to the Iraq war.
In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own. And because major news organizations knew the war was coming, we spent a lot of energy in the last three months before the war preparing to cover it -- arranging for reporters to be embedded with military units, purchasing chemical and biological weapons gear and setting up forward command posts in Kuwait that mirrored those of the U.S. military.
If that's what Ignatius thinks of as professional conduct, then he's definitely defining professionalism down. Thanks to Media Bloodhound for this revealing look at the inside of a Beltway journalist's mind.

They used to call it influenza di freddo in Italy for good reason, and now scientists know the reason

As long as the flu has been sweeping the world with its epidemics and occasional dangerous pandemics, people have wondered about its link to the winter season, which may even have been responsible for its name, as Gina Kolata notes in today's New York Times.
As long as flu has been recognized, people have asked, Why winter? The very name, “influenza,” is an Italian word that some historians proposed, originated in the mid-18th century as influenza di freddo, or “influence of the cold.”

Flu season in northern latitudes is from November to March, the coldest months. In southern latitudes, it is from May until September. In the tropics, there is not much flu at all and no real flu season.
Over the years, many hypotheses have been invoked to explain this seasonality, among them, winter crowding indoors, reduced immune efficiency, lower vitamin D levels due to lack of sunlight, lower melatonin levels due to shorter days, and even upper atmosphere air currents. But none have survived scientific scrutiny. Now, Kolata writes, a new study with guinea pigs appears to have pinned down the real reason for the flu bug's fondness for winter. It turns out that the virus is more stable in cold air, and that it remains airborne longer in dry air.
By varying air temperature and humidity in the guinea pigs’ quarters, they discovered that transmission was excellent at 41 degrees. It declined as the temperature rose until, by 86 degrees, the virus was not transmitted at all.

The virus was transmitted best at a low humidity, 20 percent, and not transmitted at all when the humidity reached 80 percent.

The animals also released viruses nearly two days longer at 41 degrees than at a typical room temperature of 68 degrees.

Flu viruses spread through the air, unlike cold viruses, Dr. Palese said, which primarily spread by direct contact when people touch surfaces that had been touched by someone with a cold or shake hands with someone who is infected, for example.

Flu viruses are more stable in cold air, and low humidity also helps the virus particles remain in the air. That is because the viruses float in the air in little respiratory droplets, Dr. Palese said. When the air is humid, those droplets pick up water, grow larger and fall to the ground.
So, if you're worried about catching the flu, should you just stay indoors during flu season and crank up the humidifier? No. Peter Palese, the lead author of the study and chairman of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, recommends flu shots.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is little more than a misplaced faith in technology

I don't have a GPS unit for my car yet, but I've been on business trips where the driver rented a car equipped with a Garmin, and I've seen how compelling that pleasingly authoritarian computer voice can be. It always knows where to go, where to turn, and when -- at least until you're trying to return the rental to the airport counter, and it has a sudden nervous breakdown on the badly mapped local roads surrounding the airport.

Aside from the occasional glitch like that, it's easy to see how motorists could come to depend on them a little too much. Or way too much -- as has been happening in England lately, where truck drivers have been following their "sat navs" with reckless abandon through tiny village lanes not designed for truck traffic, just because their GPS system identifies this as the shortest route.
“I’ve just come from a community today where a lorry had literally lifted the roof off a house as it tried to get past,” Mr. Matthews said.

Some communities have begun putting up signs warning drivers to ignore their G.P.S. devices on rural roads. But signs seem to be less and less effective as people increasingly rely more on G.P.S. systems and less on maps, common sense or their own eyes.

“We’ve heard some very hilarious stories where people just blindly follow the sat nav instructions,” said Vince Yearley, a spokesman for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, using British shorthand for “satellite navigation.” “Like if the sat nav says, ‘Drive into this muddy field,’ they think, ‘That’s weird,’ but they do it anyway.”
Ironically, on the same day that the New York Times ran this cautionary report from the English countryside, their science columnist John Tierney, sounding as if he were a bit punch drunk from too many hours behind the wheel of a lorry himself, wrote a bright-eyed, speculative column on the promising future of driverless car technology.
As the baby boomers cruise into their golden years, I have good news for them — and for everyone else in danger of being run over by these aging drivers. The boomers will not be driving like Mr. Magoo. An electronic chauffeur will conduct them on expressways, drop them at the mall entrance and then go park their cars.


In the near future, guided not just by G.P.S. satellites but by high-precision internal maps and inertial sensors, they’ll know their position so precisely that they won’t even need lane markings for guidance. They’ll communicate with other smart cars on the road, enabling a swarm of closely spaced cars to move in unison (and react more quickly to problems than humans drivers could). A road system filled with these cars wouldn’t even need traffic lights — the cars could just talk among themselves.
Not so fast Mr. Tierney. Keep your hand on the wheel a bit longer. You might want to check out some of those villages in England before giving the keys to your robot driver.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The picnic is over, winter is coming and, no, we're not just talking about the weather

The Picnic Is Over
The early winter storm that swept into Madison from the West over the weekend turned the city into a winter wonderland or frozen wasteland, depending on your point of view and on whether your primary mode of transportation is a sled or a car. The time of easy living is definitely over, and so is the picnic.

This might also be a metaphor for what's happening to the American economy. Just as summer has to end eventually, the artificial financial boom fueled by easy money, cheap credit and relentless deregulation of the Greenspan years was bound to end eventually. For two decades, the country revered this Ayn Rand disciple and free market ideologue as a financial Wizard of Oz, and he could do no wrong. The collapse of the dotcom boom and the the resulting deflation of the ballooning stock market did little to impair his credibility. He continued to preside over the Fed as America's financial markets were transformed into a giant Ponzi scheme. As Avedon noted:
And then I noticed that the same people who had been calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme - which it isn't - were failing to notice that the hot new market they were investing in actually was a Ponzi scheme. (That was obvious to me when I realized that the value of my house seemed to double over night, and banks were telling people that they could afford mortgages that were five times or more what they made in a year.)
For awhile, it was as if Greenspan and his accomplices had invented perpetual motion. Everything would keep on keeping on, getting better and better, and real estate values would keep on going up. By securitizing mortgages, which once had been clearly defined financial instruments with a fairly certain value, and selling them on the secondary market, a housing market on steroids was created. The underlying assets were sliced and diced in so many ways that it became almost impossible to measure their actual value. This was sold as innovation, but as in a Ponzi scheme, investors had little idea what they were buying, and once the whole flimsy structure stopped growing, it just became more and more shaky. Paul Krugman wrote about this crisis of trust and confidence today.
How did things get so opaque? The answer is “financial innovation” — two words that should, from now on, strike fear into investors’ hearts.

O.K., to be fair, some kinds of financial innovation are good. I don’t want to go back to the days when checking accounts didn’t pay interest and you couldn’t withdraw cash on weekends.

But the innovations of recent years — the alphabet soup of C.D.O.’s and S.I.V.’s, R.M.B.S. and A.B.C.P. — were sold on false pretenses. They were promoted as ways to spread risk, making investment safer. What they did instead — aside from making their creators a lot of money, which they didn’t have to repay when it all went bust — was to spread confusion, luring investors into taking on more risk than they realized.

Why was this allowed to happen? At a deep level, I believe that the problem was ideological: policy makers, committed to the view that the market is always right, simply ignored the warning signs. We know, in particular, that Alan Greenspan brushed aside warnings from Edward Gramlich, who was a member of the Federal Reserve Board, about a potential subprime crisis.
Looks like a long, hard winter.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The good news is that this morning they plowed the side streets in Madison.

The Good News Is They Plowed the Side Streets
The bad news is that this morning they plowed the side streets in Madison. Now the real work begins -- digging out the car. Big chunks of wet, compressed snow piled high around the car where the snow plow went by. Hey, it's good exercise, if you don't throw out your back. Also an exercise in applied geometry -- what's the path of least resistance you can carve out with the least effort? After that, the delicate part of the procedure -- pulling out smoothly and gently, without slipping sideways and digging your wheels into the deep snow that accumulated in the gutter, reacquainting yourself with reflexes that have been unused for eight months or so.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Note to city of Madison officials: This is just plain dumb (and downright irresponsible)

Note to Madison City Officials: This Is Really Dumb!
In the midst of Madison's snow emergency today, I was driving north on Edgewood Avenue on the near west side, slowly and carefully following the ruts in the snow. Suddenly there was a terrible, jarring ka-WHOMP!, followed by another an instant later.

Fortunately, I was going well under 20 miles per hour, or serious damage might have ensued. My car seems to be fine, but I still can't believe I ran right over the very unmarked traffic calming island I warned a couple weeks ago would become a hazard in the snow. And as you can see from the tracks in the snow, I wasn't alone.

This is so dumb, it's enough to make you wonder what's really going on here: Is this a test for drivers? Is the traffic calming island hidden beneath the snow meant to be an unpleasant surprise for those who fail the test? Or is some disgruntled planning person trying to punish all motorists, because if there were no motorists traffic planning would be so much simpler? Or is it some experiment in natural selection, whereby all the presumably bad drivers would disable their vehicles by crashing over these things, and then all that would be left on the streets would be the good drivers? Or is it some bureaucratic scheme so Kafkaesque in its scope that it's impossible to imagine?

More likely, it's an oversight, and it needs to be fixed. Really, I think the city could spare a few warning signs or orange traffic cones for these things.

12.13.07 UPDATE: What about the snowplows?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Sigh. Back to reality.

Sigh. Back to Reality.
Every bar in Madison with satellite television was packed, and some had to turn people away. At the Blue Moon I was told at the door, "Sorry, we're at capacity." That was probably true at the Laurel Tavern, too, but I managed to squeeze in. We were there to find out how long a 38-year-old quarterback, holder of almost every record in the book, could hold back time. The answer proved to be 11 games, not 12, as the Packers lost their game plan, their composure, their iconic quarterback and the game, by a margin of 37-27. Now the road to the NFC championship, if there is one, will lead through Texas Stadium, not the Frozen Tundra in January. Sigh.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pondering the future of books and reading in the MPL's Sequoya Branch parking lot

Pondering the Future of the Book in the Madison Public Library's Sequoya Branch Parking Lot
All during my 45-minute commute home through the Wisconsin countryside, I listened to a discussion on the radio about the effect of the Internet on the future of books and reading. I was stopping at the library branch near my home to pick up a book I had reserved after reading about it on the Internet, which seemed ironic given the subject matter of the discussion. Since they were still talking, I parked the car in front of the library and listened.

What had caught my attention was this broadcast of public radio's On Point, which airs here in the evening. The guests were Stephen Levy, who wrote the Newsweek cover story on the future of reading, and literary critic Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies. They were discussing Amazon's new Kindle e-book and the future of reading, going on to discuss, in a broader sense, the future of books in a wired world. This was just a day after the National Endowment for the Arts issued this gloomy report on the state of reading in America.
The percentage of adults who are proficient in reading prose has fallen at the same time that the proportion of people who read regularly for pleasure has declined.

Three years ago [the NEA's] “Reading at Risk,” which was based on a study by the Census Bureau in 2002, provoked a debate among academics, publishers and others, some of whom argued that the report defined reading too narrowly by focusing on fiction, poetry and drama. Others argued that there had not been as much of a decline in reading as the report suggested.

This time the endowment did not limit its analysis to so-called literary reading. It selected studies that asked questions about “reading for fun” or “time spent reading for pleasure,” saying that this could refer to a range of reading materials.

“It’s no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists,” said Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis for the endowment. “Let’s not nitpick or wrangle over to what extent is reading in decline.”
Fewer and fewer people are reading for fun. That's the context in which Levy and Birkerts were discussing the technology of reading. The reason I remained in the car was that I was waiting to hear a single mention of the word "library."

I waited in vain. Levy and Birkerts did not talk about libraries. This strikes me as an incredible omission. I don't see how you can discuss the future of books and reading without discussing libraries. Public libraries encourage a love of reading among the young and sustain it among adults. And Amazon's Kindle alone will never do that. It can only be filled with content you purchase, and in order to purchase it, you need to know what you want to buy.

Sometimes, we go to the library because we know what we want to read. Sometimes we don't. To go to the library is to go swimming in a vast sea of literature -- not just today's latest self-help books and heavily hyped best sellers -- but books from every time and place, one vast backlist that doesn't get remaindered, or at least not very often. The library is where one thing leads to another. The library is the place where a walk in the stacks can change your life -- where you go to find something to read, and in the process discover yourself. It's hard to see e-books totally replacing that, which is why it's so important to support and nurture our public libraries.

This is what I was thinking as I parked in the dark in front of the Sequoya branch of the library and listened to the guys on the radio. I would have called in and told them, except that the show is taped in the morning in Boston.

Sign of the times? Leading political and economic indicator?

Political and Economic Indicator?
I passed this on the way to work today. A distress signal? A dire prediction? Someone's protest? Things can change so quickly. Somebody or something loosens the top screw and the whole thing pivots upside down in just the blink of an eye -- like the U.S. economic and political situations. Hwy 12&18, east of Madison, Wisconsin.

I saw the sign after reading today's Paul Krugman column "Winter of Our Discontent" about the recent Gallup report showing American economic pessimism at a record high -- despite the fact we're not even in a recession yet. Bush supporters say this is because the media don't report the good news. Krugman says it's because most working Americans have not shared in today's prosperity, and contrasts today's situation with that a decade ago.
One way to drive this point home is to compare the situation for workers today with that in the late 1990s, when the country’s economic optimism was almost as remarkable as its pessimism today. For example, in the fall of 1998 almost two-thirds of Americans thought the economy was excellent or good.

The unemployment rate in 1998 was only slightly lower than the unemployment rate today. But for working Americans, everything else was different. Wages were rising, yet inflation was low, so the purchasing power of workers’ take-home pay was steadily improving. So, too, were job benefits, including the availability of health insurance. And homeownership was rising steadily.

It was, in other words, a time when Americans felt they were sharing in the country’s prosperity.
We're sure not sharing in it today. I wonder if we'll be seeing more upside-down traffic signs.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Putting the ped back into pedestrian -- with or without a pedometer

Putting the Ped Back in Pedestrian
Time to start walking off those holiday calories -- and, in my case, those six additional pounds I picked up with the munchies that replaced my cigarette habit two years ago. Could be worse, but on the other hand, I wasn't exactly a beanpole when I stopped. For me, it's pretty simple -- walk at least 45 minutes a day, or gain weight. Walk more than 45 minutes a day, and lose weight. It's as simple as that (plus, of course, cutting down on the trips to the snack machine at the same time). It's time to start taking it off again, even if the approach of winter makes me want to curl up in bed and pull the blanket over my head.

Some people find a mechanical aid like a pedometer a useful motivator. It doesn't do much for me (I've tried, and for me, the total number of steps is irrelevant -- I already know what I need to do), but if you're interested, the NYT health blog had an interesting discussion of pedometers the other day, especially in the comments, where readers talked about their experience with different kinds of pedometers. It seems that 10,000 steps per day is the magic number.
In a review of more than two dozen studies, researchers at Stanford University found that people who used pedometers to monitor their daily activity walked about 2,000 more steps every day, or about one extra mile, compared to those who weren’t counting steps. People who used pedometers also showed statistically meaningful drops in body mass index and blood pressure.


Once pedometers were used primarily to map distances during exercise. Now health experts are advising people to wear the devices daily in order to monitor all their steps, including the most routine ones, like those taken while walking to the car. National fitness programs encourage people to take at least 10,000 steps a day.
If worrying about weight isn't your thing, there's another reason to get up off your duff. A growing body of research shows that vigorous exercise like brisk walking slows cognitive decline with aging, reduces Alzheimer's risk and promotes the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, which governs short-term memory.

Friday, November 23, 2007

That worked so well last time, didn't it?

That Worked So Well, Didn't It?
I get so fed up with the Democrats. They won control of both houses of Congress a year ago, in an election that was a referendum on Bush, the war and the status quo. What have they done in the year since then? The war drags on, the Democrats have offered no meaningful resistance to Bush, and the status quo continues. I think of it as the Year of Living Irrelevantly, because there's not much any of us can do to influence events when the party that should be the party of change in Washington has postponed any real change until next year's election. Bush can pretty well do what he wants until then. Who's going to stop him? That's when, in a moment of weakness, I start thinking that our two-party system is really a one-party system, the party of money and special interests. Democrat, Republican -- what difference does it make? And that's when a blast from the past like this can remind me of what's at stake. It really does make a difference which flawed, imperfect and ridiculously compromised party we choose. Just look at the last seven dreadful years.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

'Twas the night before Thanksgiving and all through the park not a creature was stirring

Magic Happening in Wingra Park the Night Before Thanksgiving
Madison had its first snowfall of the season. A little more than an inch, just a dusting really, but it was enough to paint the grass white in Wingra Park and turn the night into a magical, mysterious dreamscape on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Santa arrives when? Happy Thanksgiving!

Santa Arrives When? Happy Thanksgiving!
Progress - ain't it great? First they tear down one of my favorite theaters, and now they move up Santa's arrival by more than a month. For what -- efficiency? Oh, never mind... November 23rd is, of course, the day after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas shopping season begins in earnest everywhere except the megastores that will actually be open on Thanksgiving Day for the really crazed bargain hunters. The 23rd is the day Santa comes to Hilldale Shopping Center. Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy the long weekend!

Monday, November 19, 2007

First the cute little Parking Wizard pays a visit, but after that they send the Memory Tax Collector

First the Parking Wizard Visits, Then They Send the Memory Tax Collector
The Parking Wizard stopped by our neighborhood early this morning and dropped off these flyers about winter parking, including the alternate-side parking rules that are in effect through mid-March. The warning flyer, adorned with a whimsical portrait of Mr. Wizard by Madison cartoonist P. S. Mueller, was part of our kinder and gentler enforcement policy. But after this the gloves come off and the Memory Tax Collector starts taking his bite at about $20 a pop. (The funny thing was, I'm so prone to alternate-side parking guilt, that I assumed the flyer stuck under my wiper was a new, more graphic orange ticket, and that I was parked on the wrong side. Then I realized that everyone had one, and anyhow, I was on the right side.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

New traffic calming islands on Edgewood Avenue: Expect the fun to begin when the first snow falls

New Traffic Calming Islands on Allen Street: The Fun Starts When the First Snow Falls
I passed this fairly new traffic calming island on Edgewood Avenue yesterday, where I was driving by force of habit with my reptile brain and had to swerve at the last minute to avoid hitting it. I know, I know -- the idea is that these little mini roundabouts will slow down speeders in residential neighborhoods by forcing Madison drivers to cut their speed in order to navigate around them. All very well, when you can see them. All I can think of is, what happens with the first good snow cover, when drivers can't see them? I see a lot of broken axles in the future of Edgewood Avenue.

12.13.07 UPDATE: Yes, they really are invisible in the snow. Also, what about the snowplows?

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Constitution says George Bush must step down in 2009, but it doesn't say anything about Cheney

Why Don't I Find This More Reassuring?
That's the real reason I don't find this bumper sticker as reassuring as I should. It's not only that the deadline still leaves 14 months and 4 days for Bush to screw up, the consequences of which we'll have to live with a lot longer than that -- such as bombing Iran, for example.

It's mainly that the sign only refers to Bush, not Bush and Cheney. That's because the Constitution says nothing about a vice presidential term limit. Here's the relevant part of the 22nd Amendment:
Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term [a term is four years] to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
Nothing there about any restriction on the term of the vice president, nor anywhere else in the Constitution. Vice presidents can serve as long as they want (if their party will have them). Of course, prior to Cheney, the office was considered so undesirable, nobody would have wanted to serve more than two terms. So it would have seemed silly to even talk about prohibiting it.

Now it's a whole new ballgame, and Cheney seems to be writing the rulebook as he goes along. He apparently was the first person to ever really appreciate how remarkably well-suited the vice presidential bunker is to exercising power without leaving too many fingerprints at all (especially if the courts are mostly friendly toward your administration).

Cheney seems to enjoy the power. Why should he give it up? All he has to do is find another front man. Giuliani could strut while Cheney ruled, and both men's temperaments would find their perfect expression. Ditto McCain. Ditto Romney.

All along, it has seemed strange that in the midst of an unpopular war the Republican candidates have done so little to distance themselves from the administration. Maybe they know something we don't. It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Cheney is "drafted" to remain in place.

For example, imagine that Iran provokes us unforgivably (or is portrayed as doing so in the all too complaisant media) just before the Republican convention. A "reluctant" President Bush is forced to fight back. The Republican nominee appoints Cheney as the vice presidential candidate in a patriotic show of national unity and purpose -- and they hit the campaign trail lashing out at Democrats who want to surrender to the aggressor. With the help of more than a little Election Helper on election night, the two Republicans sweep to an easy election and reelection, respectively.

Yes, George Bush will leave office on a winter day in January, 2009. But it could be a cold day in hell before Cheney ever leaves.

Social Security facts vs. the unbearable lightness of primary campaign rhetoric

Let's face it. Reality really takes a beating during the unbearable lightness of political discussion during our longer-than-ever primary campaign season, when scoring points replaces reasoned discourse, sound bites replace thought, and tactical considerations seem to govern every word. Endless debates long before America is even ready to focus on the presidential campaign turns the candidates into parodies of themselves. We get absurdities like Barack Obama conjuring another Social Security "crisis" out of thin air and accusing Hillary Clinton of not doing enough about it. Yeah, right.

In a useful column today, Paul Krugman takes on this canard and reminds us of a few facts.
  • Inside the Beltway, doomsaying about Social Security — declaring that the program as we know it can’t survive the onslaught of retiring baby boomers — is regarded as a sort of badge of seriousness, a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you are.

  • But the “everyone” who knows that Social Security is doomed doesn’t include anyone who actually understands the numbers. In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided.

  • How has conventional wisdom gotten this so wrong? Well, in large part it’s the result of decades of scare-mongering about Social Security’s future from conservative ideologues, whose ultimate goal is to undermine the program.

  • The anti-tax activist Stephen Moore gave the game away when he described Social Security as “the soft underbelly of the welfare state,” and hailed the Bush plan as a way to put a “spear” through that soft underbelly.

  • In October, The Washington Post published an editorial castigating Hillary Clinton for, um, not being panicky about Social Security — and as we’ve seen, nonsense like the claim that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme seems to be back in vogue.

  • And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.
  • Good points to keep in mind. As the campaigns continue heating up heading into the first caucuses and primaries, things are likely to get worse before they get better. We're going to have to keep our wits about us.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    My camera hungers for a solar battery charger. but its owner is confused about where to find a good one.

    The good news about my Coolpix P50 is that it runs on (disposable or rechargeable) AA batteries. The bad news about my Coolpix P50 is that it runs on (disposable or rechargeable) AA batteries. So, what to get to keep this hungry little guy fed?

    The NYT had an article about this the other day. "In Battery Buying, Enough Decisions to Exhaust That Bunny" gave a semi-exhaustive overview of the options -- store brand vs. brand name, alkaline vs. other alternatives, disposable vs. rechargeable, etc. It recommended Duracell's top-of-the-line rechargeables.
    To address the problem of batteries that drain quickly, Duracell has introduced a nickel metal hydride rechargeable battery that retains power for up to a year. Called Duracell Pre-Charged Rechargeable, it is intended specifically for use in digital cameras, MP3 players and portable games, with a price of about $12.99 for four.
    Rechargeables sound good at first glance, but there's something missing here. The reason I called the story semi-exhaustive was that it never once used the word "solar." A conventional battery charger still pulls power from the grid. It may slow environmental litter, but by adding to the demand on power plants, it still contributes to global warming. Charging the batteries to power all our small consumer devices would seem to be one of the most obvious solar applications., one that it should be easy to implement.

    The trouble is, when I look online, there are plenty of solar battery chargers, but nothing that seems to have a large, happy installed user base. The only one Amazon sells direct has a single, highly negative review. Others are sold by other Amazon resellers, but there's nothing there that inspires confidence. I'm not sure who to trust. Does anyone out there have experience with a solar battery charger? What would you recommend?

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007

    The Hobbesian world of the Mormon cricket, revealed in the NYT's science story about swarming

    "From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm" is the title of the NYT story summarizing current research on the physics, biology and mathematics of swarming, which happens throughout the animal kingdom and may even happen among the cells in our brains.
    If you have ever observed ants marching in and out of a nest, you might have been reminded of a highway buzzing with traffic. To Iain D. Couzin, such a comparison is a cruel insult — to the ants.

    Americans spend a 3.7 billion hours a year in congested traffic. But you will never see ants stuck in gridlock.

    Army ants, which Dr. Couzin has spent much time observing in Panama, are particularly good at moving in swarms. If they have to travel over a depression in the ground, they erect bridges so that they can proceed as quickly as possible.
    It's a fascinating article, especially the material about how computer scientists are studying swarming by creating simple rules, such as maintaining a certain distance from your neighbor, that can be used to create realistic computer models of highly complex swarm behavior.

    Swarming is a beautiful example of complexity emerging from simplicity. Some of the simple rules apply to many species. Some are highly specific, such as this dramatic rule that applies to the Mormon cricket in Utah.
    Mormon crickets will sometimes gather by the millions and crawl in bands stretching more than five miles long. Dr. Couzin and his colleagues ran experiments to find out what caused them to form bands. They found that the forces behind cricket swarms are very different from the ones that bring locusts together. When Mormon crickets cannot find enough salt and protein, they become cannibals.

    “Each cricket itself is a perfectly balanced source of nutrition,” Dr. Couzin said. “So the crickets, every 17 seconds or so, try to attack other individuals. If you don’t move, you’re likely to be eaten.”

    This collective movement causes the crickets to form vast swarms. “All these crickets are on a forced march,” Dr. Couzin said. “They’re trying to attack the crickets who are ahead, and they’re trying to avoid being eaten from behind.”
    Kind of makes that famous statement by Thomas Hobbes that life in a state of nature without a social contract is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" seem like a huge understatement.

    Do you know where your car is? Madison's annual memory tax starts November 15.

    For most Madison residents, winter parking, alternate side parking rules start Thursday, November 15 and run through March 15. Get the details here: Park on odd-numbered sides of the street on odd-numbered days (between 1:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m.), except in the congested downtown where the rules only apply in a declared snow emergency. Certainly makes sense during a snowstorm, when overworked crews are trying to plow the streets, but we don't have that many snowstorms.

    The rest of the time, the policy serves as a memory tax, with the forgetful being aggressively ticketed by enforcers who seem to prowl the streets at night looking for every possible municipal revenue enhancement. For me this functions as a handy check on the state of my mental acuity and memory. Most years I get one or two tickets. If I see a major spike over that baseline, I'll know I'm in trouble. Last year I had none. My memory must be getting sharper.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Misplaced creativity on the Southwest Bike Path

    Brain Teaser on Madison's Southwest Bike Path
    It's certainly an interesting abstract pattern -- but if you're biking along Madison's Southwest Bike Path at a decent clip, heading south near Brittingham Bay, you may be across the railroad tracks before you ever figure out what, exactly, the sign means. If you can figure it out, you probably don't need it. And if you do need it, you probably can't figure it out.

    This may be a stupid question, but why don't they use one of the universally recognizable symbols for a railroad crossing used on roads and highways? Aren't creativity and originality rather counterproductive in a warning sign? Just wondering.

    Life imitates art for Sandra Day O'Connor

    It turns out that it's not uncommon for advanced Alzheimer's patients to forget their spouses and fall in love with someone else -- often someone who is a familiar presence in the treatment facility where they are staying. That was the subject of the Julie Christie movie last spring, "Away from Her," a film that was based on an Alice Munro short story in The New Yorker. Now USA Today reports that the husband of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has fallen in love with someone he met in his Alzheimer's facility, and that his family, including Justice O'Connor, is happy for him.
    Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's, has found a new romance, and his happiness is a relief to his wife, an Arizona TV report reveals.


    Offering a glimpse into the private life of a woman who has remained on the public stage since her Supreme Court retirement in 2006 to care for her husband, the report spotlighted John O'Connor, 77. He and the woman, referred to only as "Kay," live at a Phoenix facility for people with Alzheimer's.

    "Mom was thrilled that Dad was relaxed and happy and comfortable living here and wasn't complaining," Scott, 50, told KPNX-Channel 12 in Phoenix in a story that aired Thursday.
    Munro's story, "The Bear Came over the Mountain," was published eight years ago and is once again on their website. It provides a powerful, dark and poignant look at the depths of love and loss experienced by Alzheimer's victims, their spouses and their families.

    Traveling back through time the other night by walking along Lake Mendota at twilight

    Time Travel Made EasyEvery step of our walk the other night semed to take us back through time as all vestiges of the present seemed to fade away into the dusky shadows, and we could have been out for a stroll a hundred years ago. We walked through a soft Lake Mendota twilight, looking as if it might have been a lost Alfred Stieglitz photograph from the early days of the Photo-Secession, before he discovered the angularities and hard edges of Modernism. (Howard Temin Lakeshore Path, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Wisconsin.)

    Monday, November 12, 2007

    Abstract art on the Wingra Creek Bike Path

    Wingra Creek Bike Path Abstraction
    Anyone know what the white tape is that is stuck to the asphalt patches? It looks like toilet paper, but I imagine it's not. Seems more functional than that. Does it help cure the asphalt? Or is it mainly there to protect shoes and bike tires from picking up asphalt before it sets? Whatever it does, it also functions as an accidental work of abstract art -- an unconscious homage to Jean Dubuffet, perhaps.

    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    The fifth Veterans Day of the Forever War, which has now dragged on longer than World War I

    November 11: Veterans Day
    November 11, 1918 -- the end of the "War to End All Wars." That didn't work too well. Now celebrated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in the rest of the world, Veterans Day in the U.S., celebrated both on Nov. 11 and as a Monday holiday. This is the fifth Veterans Day of the Forever War, which has dragged on longer than World War I. We no longer talk about ending all wars. We can't even figure out how to end the one we've got.

    How to review a book you haven't read

    One way is to quote from a blog post you wrote months before the book was published. The book is Pierre Bayard's new book, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, which is reviewed in today's NYT Book Review by Jay McInerney, and my post was written last May, in response to a John Updike speech at a booksellers' convention, in which he lamented the decline of our book culture under the influence of new media and the Internet.

    "The book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets," warned Updike. I suggested that what constitutes reading is larger than that, and has more sturdy, maleable boundaries than Updike seemed to think.
    Is individuality really that clear cut? Are book boundaries really that inviolable?

    I forget so much of what I read, even the work of my favorite writers—especially my favorite writers. Sometimes I’ll go to retrieve something from the library stacks of my mind, and that’s when the fuses blow and the lights go out. More often, I’ll emerge with what I’m looking for, but in a form that bears only a passing resemblance to the original. Is this normal, or should I be seeing a neurologist? I used to worry a lot about this.

    I became more accepting of my literary amnesia after I happened upon a sly 1970 essay, “My Recollections of Kafka,” by John Fowles, in which no less a literary light than the author of “The Magus” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” makes what he calls an “appalling confession of ignorance”—that he has forgotten almost everything he ever knew about Kafka and his work, which he had read while at Oxford. “What I think I know well is his spirit, his tone of voice, his coloration (or lack of it), his drift, his one brilliant metaphor,” writes Fowles, and that’s about it.

    As an Oxford graduate and former schoolmaster, Fowles may have been gently mocking the academic assumption that the more you can accurately recall of a work of literature, the better. But we don’t have to prove anything to ourselves when we read for pleasure. Outside the classroom and the pages of literary journals, you could almost view literature as the residue that remains after all the details have faded, living on in a kind of twilight zone of the dimly remembered and half forgotten. No sharp edges at all, just a big blur, really.
    For Bayard, the blur is extended beyond our own fuzzy memory to include skimming and secondhand knowledge as well.
    Lest the reader, or the nonreader, think that Bayard underestimates the power of reading, he proposes that we are all essentially literary constructs, defined by our own inner libraries: the books we’ve read, skimmed and heard about. “We are the sum of these accumulated books,” he writes. (And make no mistake about it, this prof is far more literate and widely read than he pretends to be.)
    Sounds like an interesting book. I might even read it, if I get around to it.

    Friday, November 09, 2007

    Fix that sucker yourself

    Fix That Sucker Yourself
    No, nothing's wrong with my trusty old iPod -- and I hope nothing's wrong with yours, either. But they do go down sometimes. And when that happens, you want to know where to go. The New York Times this morning had a handy roundup of websites devoted to do-it-yourself repair of household objects, including iPods. They titled it "Don't Throw Out Your Broken iPod; Fix It via the Web."
    A few months ago, Stephen Ironside, a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, confronted a minor but modern tragedy: the iPod that filled his life with song stopped working.

    The device was out of warranty, and Apple would not fix it free. So he left it in a drawer until he happened to read a blog posting on that described how he might fix it — with a small, folded piece of paper. Mr. Ironside celebrated by posting thanks on the blog: “I’ve been on CDs for months. You saved my life (and my iPod).”

    The author of the blog post, Matt Hickey of Seattle, says that using paper as a shim to put pressure on the hard drive has worked on about 70 percent of the failed iPods he has encountered — even though he is not sure why it works.
    Very nice, as far as it goes, but in typical infuriating fashion, the Times just gives a link to the home page of CrunchGear, but not the permalink to the post itself. Here it is, complete with instructions and comments from readers about their experiences.

    Needless to say, you should not open up an iPod that is still under warranty and start mucking about with it. But after the warranty expires, after it has turned into a mini-doorstop? Anything goes. Does a paper shim putting pressure on the hard drive really work? I don't know -- but I know it's the first thing I'll try when the time comes. (And if it doesn't work, the post also explains how, now that you've got the thing open, you can replace the hard drive for a lot less than the cost of a new iPod.)

    Wednesday, November 07, 2007

    My shadow is the one with the camera. The other one is the suspicious security guard.

    Our shadows are engaged in something that starts out slightly tense and edgy -- a bit more than a conversation, a little less than a confrontation. We're in the parking lot of the Kastenmeier Federal Courthouse, the striking and colorful Kenton Peters building that was completed in 1984. It's one of Madison's most interesting buildings, one that is always a photographic temptation.

    That's how it started. When T and I passed by on the way to the Farmers' Market last Saturday, I walked into the parking lot to take a few shots. I had the Sigma 10-20mm ultrawide zoom on the camera and began with a vague idea of getting some sort of up-close, off-kilter angle on the building, the red pillar, and the scattered yellow autumn leaves in the parking lot.

    To do that I need to get pretty close to the building, closer than it seems in this photo, because the 10mm lens is exaggerating the distance. Just as I'm framing the scene I notice the door open and a tiny figure come out. I think maybe he is a judge working on the weekend, which seems odd. The figure comes closer, and in the viewfinder, grows larger. That's when I see the badge.

    "What are you doing?" asks the security guard. He looks like he could be a retired cop -- trim but a bit heavyset, with thinning gray hair and glasses. He looks very suspicious, and he's not smiling.

    "I'm taking a picture," I reply. "I really like this building. It's fun to photograph."

    "Taking a picture? Then why are you so close? You can't even get the whole building in the picture from here. People usually shoot from back there on the sidewalk.

    "Why do you have to be so close?" he asks again, fixing me with a skeptical look. "This is a federal building, and we have to be careful."

    "I have a wide angle lens, so I have to get close" I say. "Here. Take a look through the viewfinder. It's really cool."

    "No, I can't see through that with my glasses. Do you have any ID?"

    My moment of truth. I have a funny feeling that he won't consider "Madison Guy" an appropriate response. I'm an American citizen and a taxpayer. This is public property. I helped pay for it, and I have a right to be here. I have not committed a crime. Why should I have to identify myself? I consider refusing.

    But like a motorist pulled over in a traffic stop, I have already reflexively started to reach for my wallet. Meanwhile, he's asking why I want to take pictures of the building.

    "I'm a photographer and a blogger," I say, hoping that would explain my unseemly interest in photographing nearly empty federal buildings. I hand over my driver's license.

    "A blogger, huh? Do you have a job?"

    I say I work as an editor but that the job had nothing to do with my blog. The pictures are for me.

    "So are you going to put them in your blog?"

    I say I might. "Anything wrong with that?"

    "No, but we have to be careful. You know, all kinds of people come through here." He wrote something in a tattered little drugstore spiral notebook. My name and license number, I figure. Something to ID the guy with the camera they captured on their security cam.

    I say something noncommittal. And I take the photo shown here.

    "I like to take pictures, too," he says, looking at my camera. "The other day I was at the Olbrich Park beach on Lake Monona, looking across the lake toward the Capitol, with the sun setting behind it. Just then, the sun shone through the windows at the top of the dome. It was beautiful. But I didn't have my camera with me."

    "Too bad, I know what you mean -- that's a beautiful view of the Capitol from there."

    "So you like this building? I think it's a great building. Beautiful," he saya with obvious pride. "But it has one little hidden design flaw. Do you want to see it?"


    We walk around the building to the Henry Street entrance as he explains that skateboarders bump and crash into the building all the time. Mostly they just scuff it up. The blue metallic siding is pretty tough, and the building is solid. With one exception.

    He leads me to one of the large blue pillars that seemingly hold up the weight of the building above the entryway. "Here. Give it a shove."

    The seemingly solid surface gives way and bends inward. It's even less solid than the sheet metal on a car.

    "And look at this," he says, leading me to the other side of the pillar. "This is where a skateboarder crashed into it."

    There is a big, crumpled dent in the sheet metal. It looks as if it needs to visit an auto body shop. We talk a bit more as he explains that he wished they would open up the pillars and put something solid behind the metal siding. I thank him for the tour, we shake hands, and I hurry off to the Square to join T at the Farmers' market.

    Looking back on the experience now, I'm still surprised by how quickly and automatically I handed over my license on request. Am I a man or a mouse? Maybe I'm neither -- just a typically cowed citizen of the post-Timothy McVeigh, post-9/11 United States.

    The other thing I found out doesn't surprise me at all: The pillars that hold up our temple of justice aren't as solid as they seem.