Saturday, June 23, 2007

Shakespeare's children do Dickens


Two of Madison's near West Side institutions meet: Budd's Auto Repair, 2422 Monroe Street, owned by Dennis Budd, and the Young Shakespeare Players, located just off Monroe behind Trader Joe's, a few blocks up the street from Budd's. This Capital Times story explains the headline, and more.
In an age of TV, the Internet and severely shortened attention spans, mounting a 9-1/2-hour play would be an ambitious undertaking for adults.

But these are children.

The Young Shakespeare Players, for 27 years an important training ground for young artistic talent in the area, is for the first time turning its attention from Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw to another large-scale English writer, Charles Dickens.

Two casts, with a total of 36 actors performing multiple roles among the more than 130 characters, have spent six months preparing and rehearsing to perform the 1980 Royal Shakespeare Company's critically acclaimed 9-1/2-hour dramatic adaptation of Dickens' "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," a novel from 1839 that concerns a mother and son reduced to poverty by the death of the husband-father. (YSP received special permission from the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform the adaptation.)
For ticket information and more about the YSP, check out their website.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Trivial but far from unimportant reason not to elect (another) conservative GOP businessman president


Mitt Romney's PowerPoint: Terrorism. Is. Bad. (Screen capture made during one of those "creative" fades). Click here to see the whole thing.

Far-right hatemonger Bill Donohue strikes again

I saw Bill Donohue on the Today Show this morning. As Joe Sudbay's post on AMERICAblog notes, Donohue is a far-right, bigoted homophobe. He was attacking Robin Williams for his satirical remarks on Jay Leno about the Church's handling of pedophile priests. He claimed this was anti-Catholic bigotry, and he sounded like a nutball trying to dissect comedy with a meat cleaver. Robin can take care of himself, thank you.

But the guy's far from harmless. This was the guy who started the "grassroots" outcry of the "faithful" that resulted in bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan being swiftblogged out of the John Edwards campaign, basically for words that weren't that different from what Robin said. I like Edwards, but maybe if he had stood up against Donohue more forcefully, David Gregory wouldn't have been talking with him on the Today Show this morning as if he were a person whose views should be seriously considered.

In the case of the bloggers, Donohue's criticism was picked up and amplified by the right blogosphere's echo chamber, aided by out-of-context quotes, and then fed back into the media. It's starting to happen all over again, complete with the out-of-context quotes -- "Find the priest, find the pedophile. Find the priest, find the pedophile..." For an example, you need look no further than at the NewsBusters: Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias site.
Commenting on Williams' anti-Catholic bigotry being aired on a major network, Catholic League President Bill Donohue said: "Isiah Washington lashes out at one gay person in private and he is banished from 'Grey's Anatome.' Robin Williams lashes out all priests in public and he suffers no consequence. To top it off, Williams suggests that most molesting priests are pedophiles, when in fact they are homosexuals. But to make a joke about gay priests could get him into trouble. So it's better to lie. This is justice--Hollywood style."
What's next? A boycott of "Licensed to Wed," the new movie in which Robin plays a priest? Deja vu all over again.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Beatrix Potter's "jog trot" through science


Yellow Grisette (Amanita crocea) and Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) Beatrix Potter, 1897 / The National Trust

In a different time, Beatrix Potter -- who drew these fungi -- might have gone on to a career as a scientist, and she might be known today as a great mycologist. Instead, she is known as a great children's book author and illustrator -- and as one of England's most important environmental preservationists, one who was a strong advocate for preservation in her time and who deeded her land holdings to the National Trust.

She loved to draw fungi, and was led by that path to study them more systematically. She became a formidable scientific illustrator at a time when that was a vital and highly prized skill. Encouraged by her uncle, a well-known chemist of the time, she studied fungi through both observation and careful experimentation. She was one of the first people in England to confirm the heretical foreign notion (which originated with the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener) that lichens consist of two different organisms in a symbiotic relationship, a fungus and an alga. But her overtures were rejected by the Victorian scientific establishment of the time. Sexism was a big reason. Being seen as an amateur at a time the sciences were rapidly professionalizing and becoming dependent on formal credentials was another. She was also on the wrong side of a paradigm shift. The option of a scientific career effectively foreclosed, she turned in another direction. She was effectively erased from the pages of British science for the better part of a century, until her drawings were belatedly used to illustrate a guide to fungi in 1967.

Potter was born the year after the Civil War ended, and she died in 1943 during World War II. Spanning such different eras, perhaps it's not surprising that her scientific accomplishments were denied recognition not once, but twice -- and that the second time was in the 21st century, in the film Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellweger.
The true story of the woman who created some of the most beloved characters in children's literature comes to the screen in this drama leavened with elements of comedy and romance. Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellweger) is a imaginative but gently eccentric woman living in the socially and intellectually confining circumstances of Victorian England.
The movie just totally ignores Beatrix Potter's first career and focuses on her second career. This time, I think the problem was not so much sexism as Hollywoodism -- also evidenced in the choice of director, Chris Noonan, who is known for directing the talking pig film, Babe. They needed a talking animal director, no doubt, because in the movie's conception, Beatrix Potter has cute, cloying conversations with imaginary, animated animals. In short, the filmmakers came up with a typical, stereotyped Hollywood plot: charming girl talks to animals, writes kiddie books, gets guy, loses guy, buys farm to compensate, gets another guy and lives happily ever after. Why spoil that with a bunch of messy fungi?

Outside of Hollywood, there's a growing awareness of Potter's other career in science. Former Boston Globe science columnist Chet Raymo blogged about her last year.
From babyhood, Beatrix Potter had been interested in the workings of nature. She collected passionately and sketched everything. She wrote: "I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, and all the thousand objects of the countryside."

[...]

With fewer barriers to her advancement, it is easy to imagine that Potter might have become a professional botanist, or, combining her skills of careful observation and literary expression, a successful naturalist and nature writer. But it was not to be; in the age of John Muir and John Burroughs, nature writing too was an almost exclusively male preserve, jealously guarded.

A glance at the Norton Anthology of Nature Writing tells the story. During the years spanning Potter's life, women authors are sparsely represented, in spite of the best efforts of the editors to be inclusive. Not until the latter part of the Anthology -- well into the 20th century -- is it chock-full of women naturalists, including such wonderful contemporary writers as Ann Zwinger, Sue Hubbell, and Terry Tempest Williams.
Linda Lear's recent biography Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature provides the sort of complex, rounded view of Potter's life that the movie did not. She goes into detail about her scientific career, as well as her life as a writer, artist and preservationist. She reminds us that Potter had the bad luck to live at a transitional time.
Beatrix attempted to obtain a hearing for her scientific observations at a time wen the line of demarcation between amateur and professional scientist was newly drawn and jealously defended. She was not singled out for mistreatment. Her experience was the norm, not the exception.
And then there was the fact that she advocated a theory about lichens -- those organisms that blanket rocks the world over -- that was at odds with the dominant paradigm of British botanists at the time. The conflict pitted the dominant late 19th century Darwinian position that held evolution was all about competition against the heretical view that there was a place for cooperation, and Potter was one of the heretics.

Tom Wakeford considers this conflict so important that it's the subject of the first chapter, titled "Beatrix versus the Botanists," of his book, Liaisons of Life: From Hornworts to Hippos -- How the Unassuming Microbe has Driven Evolution. The chapter (click here) makes fascinating reading.
Had Beatrix Potter been allowed to follow her vocation, Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle might never have been born. Instead of writing and illustrating stories loved by children all over the globe, she would have been writing groundbreaking articles for scientific journals. Beatrix's ambitions were thwarted not only because she was a young woman attempting to contribute to a profession almost entirely dominated by Victorian men, but also because she was a symbiologist—a proponent of the dissident theory that some organisms were composed of not one but two different beings. Her story has become a legend of youthful scientific inquiry stifled by pomposity and prejudice, and of a heresy that was later vindicated.
Wakeford writes that these conflicts reached the breaking point in 1896, when she was snubbed by both the Linnaean Society and by the director of the Royal Botanic gardens in Kew.
After what she describes as a "storm in a teakettle" she left Kew, never to enter the world of professional biology again. She disliked what she sarcastically called the "grown-up world" of science. Two venerated institutions, which had embraced the theory of evolution by natural selection forty years earlier, were now shattering the aspirations of one of Darwin's most able successors.

Beatrix was dispirited that the excitement of the last few years, and the great hopes of being able to make a significant contribution to science, had so cruelly and abruptly been snuffed out. She knew her passion for lichens and fungi would now only lead to further public ridicule, both for herself and for her favorite uncle. One by one, she laid her treasured folios of watercolors aside. It would be 1967 before William Findlay, president of the British Mycology Society, returned them to their rightful place as outstanding scientific studies of nature, when he used them to illustrate his field guide to the fungi and lichens of the British Isles.

Despite their initially vicious reception, the ideas of Schwendener and Potter were accepted by most biologists within a few decades. Lichens were shown to be true dual entities, the association of a bacterium or an alga with a fungus. In 1929, H. G. Wells and Julian Huxley remarked in The Science of Life that "a lichen is no more a single organism than a dairy farm is a single organism." In this encyclopedic textbook, the authors describe a diverse range of similar alliances that had been recorded in a wide variety of plants, animals, and fungi. Far from being primitive taxonomic obscurities, irrelevant to the rest of evolution, lichens could be, they suggested, the dual ancestor common to all plants. More recently, Schwendenerism has not only been rehabilitated, but has provided the key to understanding the role of intimate associations in the evolution of our plant-dominated landscapes. Arriving with their radical networking manifesto 400 million years ago, fungi are the alliance-building kingdom that built the power supply for almost all terrestrial life.
Potter's ramble through the science of botany was brief but intense, spanning only about five years from the early to the late 1890s, from the time she was 26 to the time she was 31. A century later, she received a belated apology from the Linnaean Society for the way she had been treated.
Having received posthumously an official apology from the Linnaean Society for its treatment of her, at a meeting held in her honor in 1997, exactly one hundred years after it had barred her from speaking, Beatrix Potter is now beginning to receive the recognition she so richly deserves.
Although Beatrix Potter experienced great disappointments in her life, she excelled at picking herself up and moving on. She was acutely aware of how much of what is important in life is in the quotidian day-to-day moments between the major events. Linda Lear reflects on this near the end of her book.
Many years earlier she had written about the course of human life as she sorted through old bundles of family letters -- records of illness and death. "They give a distorted impression," she thought. "The milestones are all tombstones! But the record of the cheerful jog trot round of life between them is not kept." Although she had always been somewhat ambivalent about how she wished to be remembered, Beatrix Potter had left abundant testament of her unique "jog trot."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

UW emeritus prof outlives his expertise and finds himself stranded on the far side of a paradigm shift

It was with very mixed emotions that I read the Cap Times front page story about 87-year-old UW emeritus professor Reid Bryson's adamant opposition to the idea that human CO2 production causes global warming.
Reid Bryson, known as the father of scientific climatology, considers global warming a bunch of hooey.

The UW-Madison professor emeritus, who stands against the scientific consensus on this issue, is referred to as a global warming skeptic. But he is not skeptical that global warming exists, he is just doubtful that humans are the cause of it.
Bryson seemed to absolutely revel in the opportunity to feed outrageous quotes to CT report Samara Kalk Derby.
Bryson didn't see Al Gore's movie about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."

"Don't make me throw up," he said. "It is not science. It is not true."
Bryson is one of the few people expounding such pigheaded nonsense I would even listen to, and that's because I remember him as a brilliant scientist who was also a natural, gifted teacher, one who enjoyed teaching undergrads as much as graduate students. He taught an earth sciences survey course I took at the UW years ago, and it's one of my fondest memories. He was a poet of climate, a lyricist of weather, a mesmerizing lecturer about climate's impact on humans and vice versa.

As the article notes, he was one of the founders of modern climatology. His pioneering, interdisciplinary studies of tree rings and pollen samples proved that climate could change in less than a century and helped overthrow the old orthodoxy that it could only change over millenia, laying the groundwork for later generations of climate researchers to make the real breakthroughs on global warming. He notes that some of the proponents of global warming are students of his students. Maybe that's the problem.

Growing old is a long, usually losing struggle against the natural tendency to become an irrelevant old coot, hopefully a lovable old coot, but definitely irrelevant in a rapidly changing changing world where the certainties of one's youth and the experience of a lifetime become an ever less reliable guide to the present day.

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the field of science, where even the most brilliant minds -- especially the most brilliant minds -- can be led astray by their own accumulated experience in the face of the relentless advance of knowledge and the paradigm shifts that accompany that advance. For example, the theory of continental drift was hardly adopted overnight in a sudden surge of insight. Far from it. It became the dominant paradigm over time, as its opponents became increasingly irrelevant emeriti and then left the field altogether, due to death or infirmity.

Physics Today had a good article several years ago summarizing the stages in the climate change paradigm shift that took place gradually over the course of decades and which wasn't completed until Greenland ice core samples provided irrefutable proof in the early nineties. As the article notes, Bryson played a significant role 40 years ago in laying the groundwork.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reid Bryson scrutinized entirely different types of data. In the late 1950s, he had been struck by the wide variability of climates as recorded in the varying width of tree rings. He was also familiar with the dishpan experiments that showed how a circulation pattern might change almost instantaneously. To take a new, interdisciplinary look at climate, Bryson brought together a group that even included an anthropologist who studied the ancient Native American cultures of the Midwest. From radiocarbon-dated bones and pollen, they deduced that a prodigious drought had struck the region in the 1200s--the very period when flourishing towns of the Mound Builders had gone into decline. Compared to that drought, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s had been mild and temporary. By the mid-1960s, Bryson was announcing that "climatic changes do not come about by slow, gradual change, but rather by apparently discrete 'jumps' from one atmospheric circulation regime to another."8 His group further reported pollen studies showing a rapid shift around 10 500 years ago; by "rapid" they meant a change in the mix of tree species within less than a century.
But that was 40 years ago. Here's a typical reaction of one of his colleague at the UW today, according to the Cap Times:
"My views are very similar to those expressed by I.P.C.C.," said Steve Vavrus, an associate scientist at the UW-Madison Center for Climatic Research. "Reid Bryson maintains his long-standing opinions on anthropogenic climate change, and he's certainly entitled to them."
Of course, he's entitled to his views, and he's earned his right to express them. But are they science? In his summary of Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which examined the role of paradigm shifts in science, Frank Pajares explains how the process works.
What is the process by which a new candidate for paradigm replaces its predecessor? At the start, a new candidate for paradigm may have few supporters (and the motives of the supporters may be suspect). If the supporters are competent, they will improve the paradigm, explore its possibilities, and show what it would be like to belong to the community guided by it. For the paradigm destined to win, the number and strength of the persuasive arguments in its favour will increase. As more and more scientists are converted, exploration increases. The number of experiments, instruments, articles, and books based on the paradigm will multiply. More scientists, convinced of the new view's fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practising normal science, until only a few elderly hold-outs remain. And we cannot say that they are (or were) wrong. Perhaps the scientist who continues to resist after the whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist.
This seems to describe what has happened to Bryson. I prefer to remember him as a great teacher who was one of the people who first made me aware of the fragility of our planet's environment and how easily its delicate balance can be disturbed. It saddens me to see his reputation as "dean of U.S. climatologists" exploited by know-nothing global warming opponents.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Killing them softly with their mulch?


Is the City of Madison Parks Division killing its trees with all that mulch? It's something we wonder about as we bike around the city and notice what seems to be an unusual number of dead or dying trees, along with the mounds of bark mulch piled up around so many of the trees in the parks (serving primarily, it seems, as protection against those huge, powerful mowers that the overworked Parks employees use to try to keep up with the fast-growing grass). We're not experts, and it may just be a coincidence. We're just wondering.

One thing's for sure: They seem to be violating their own Mulch Guidelines (emphasis added).
Newly planted street trees are mulched at the time of planting. Mulch settles and breaks down over time, therefore, adding a little mulch each spring or fall is beneficial. Please remember that mulch should NOT be heaped next to the trunk of the tree. A small gap should be left between the trunk and the mulch.

Benefits of Mulch

• Retention of soil moisture
• Weed and grass control
• Protection of the trunk from mowing equipment
• Erosion control as mulch breaks the impact of rain
• Improved soil structure (better aeration, temperature and moisture conditions)
• Improved appearance.
It's hard to see much of a gap between this mulch pile and the trunk. The mound more closely resembles the dread "mulch volcano," albeit a volcano with a little crater in it, than the preferred doughnut model, with the tree untouched in the center of the hole. Why all the mulch? I suspect it's nothing more insidious than a bureaucracy which sets up a program that then is carried out over-eagerly by zealous staff until it turns into a caricature of itself. They seem to have lost sight of what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

The hazards to trees of mulch mounded up too closely to trees have been well-documented: It can actually cut the amount of water reaching the roots. It can create a hospitable environment for fungi and other pests to attack the tree. And recently T wondered about another danger: species mixing. Putting different species into intimate contact with each other that don't naturally have contact in nature seems unwise -- as we learned with animal feed and mad cow disease. Do we know where the bark mulch comes from and where it's been? What's the effect of piling it up against a completely different tree, one that naturally thrives in the midst of its own mini-ecology that does not include heaps of bark mulch?

Again, just wondering is all.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The seventh day, the weedwhacking fleet rested


The four Dane County weed cutting barges currently on Lake Monona were tied up at Olin Park on Sunday. Wondering where they will be operating during the week? Click here.