Saturday, January 05, 2008

Pardon me while I rant about the dismal state of snow removal in Madison

Snow Removal in Madison
They were removing the snow mountains from the corners near my home the other morning. It's high time -- nobody can see around the corners, and on the snow-narrowed residential streets of downtown Madison, you're taking your life in your hands just pulling out into an intersection.

Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing but the highest respect for the overworked men and women who have labored so long and hard to try to clear our streets this winter. I don't see how they could possibly do more.

What I'm upset about is their management. From insane roundabouts that aren't designed for this climate and create a major obstacle for snowplows, to an underfunded fleet of the wrong sorts of snowplows, snow removal has been a real mess this year. It's as if city officials from the mayor on down gambled that winters would always be as mild and snow accumulations as light as they were in recent years. As a result, they let cycle times deteriorate in a way that spelled trouble in a hard winter. In effect, they were gambling that they were on the right side of global warming.

And now we're about to encounter another ugly consequence of their lack of foresight. Starting tomorrow, the weather forecasts call for serious warming and a lot of rain. The streets are going to be full of water with no place to go. That's what storm sewers are for, but if my neighborhood is any indication, the drains are all buried under deep, icy snowbanks. Have the overworked city crews had time to go back and clear them out? Of course not.

That's why I've got to go now -- have to start chipping away at the layers of ice and snow covering the storm sewers in front of my house and across the street, where nobody's home. I figure if I keep chipping away, a little bit at a time, I have a fighting chance of burrowing through by tomorrow.

If not, I'll probably be living in a lake in a day or two.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Deja vu all over again, revisited once more

"Prediction is difficult, especially of the future," said Niels Bohr, or somebody. One way to try is through drawing historical parallels, although as likely as not, it's little better than reading tea leaves. I certainly blew it last year when I suggested that the success of Richard Nixon in 1968 might foretell an Al Gore comeback in 2008 -- you know, two vice presidents each go down to defeat in disputed elections in their first try for the Oval Office, and then come back eight years later to win it all. Seems a rather quaint notion now.

But who knows? Maybe the tea leaves just needed to be stirred a bit to fall into their proper alignment. Let's try this again:
1960: The public is getting restless after eight years of Republican rule. The country is locked into a Cold War that looks like it will last forever, with no end in sight. The economy is falling into recession. The incumbent president is known for his lack of communication skills. There's a youthful newcomer on the scene, a senator whose accomplishments are mainly oratorical, who is known for his quick-tongued wit. His appeal to a new generation propels him into the White House.

2008: The public is getting restless after eight years of Republican rule. The country is locked into a Forever War that looks like it will last forever, with no end in sight. The economy is falling into recession. The incumbent president is known for his lack of communication skills. There's a youthful newcomer on the scene, a senator whose accomplishments are mainly oratorical, who is known for his quick-tongued wit. His appeal to a new generation propels him into the White House?
Obama certainly has the wit part down. What he said in his first New Hampshire appearance after the Iowa win:
"This feels good. It's just like I imagined it when I was talking to my Kindergarten teacher."
That's a zinger JFK could have been proud of.

The Speech

Not only did Barack Obama deliver an electrifying speech last night in Des Moines, a speech that built on the energy of a historic moment, but he managed his photo op better than his rivals. The background was not cluttered with friends and family, looking stiff and uncomfortable in their ritual roles. Instead, the screen was filled with wildly exuberant supporters, waving signs calling for change (photo at the link). He left it up to Hillary Clinton to make some sort of inscrutable statement by sharing the stage with Madeleine Albright. Want to read what he actually said? Here's the transcript.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The caucuses suck: A modest proposal for reform

Like exhausted contestants in a quadrennial dance marathon, the candidates staggered toward the finish line in the Iowa caucuses today. It's the first rough cut of the season, the end of the beginning. The 2008 campaign has started for real.

So far the major Democratic candidates have been holding up pretty well. I watched some clips on last night and Edwards was still passionately populist (it's hard to fake passion when you're dead tired), Hillary was still determined, dynamic and solidly planted in the middle of the road, and Obama was still reaching out and building bridges -- to, among others, Iowa Republicans disenchanted with their own candidates.

It's a crazy system for starting the process of picking our presidential candidates, undemocratic as hell, given the tiny number of people in a small state who actually participate (or are even able to participate -- no absentee ballots for Iowans deployed in Iraq, for example). Much fulsome lip service is paid to the ideal of grass roots American democracy, rooted in the traditions of town meetings and local civic participation. Everyone knows that's mostly bs. The caucuses are mainly about sleep deprivation. That's why proposals for reform are mostly beside the point. Kos, for example, perhaps driven by memories of Dean's meltdown in 2004, has been posting about the need for reform.
There's a conceit in Iowa that the only people who have a problem with Iowa's undemocratic and undeserved vanguard position in the primary calendar are its losing campaigns. The fact is, the whole process stinks, and demands for reform -- which made some headway after 2004 -- will now be stronger than ever.
This misses the point, which is not the caucus process, but the need of a big, sprawling democracy like ours to have some sort of an ordeal with which to test candidates and see who cracks first. We voters know there's a lot about the political process we can't control. But we can at least satisfy our curiosity about how candidates will handle themselves under pressure. Ordeal by sleep deprivation seems a good choice. It's certainly more humane (and job related) than ordeal by fire, for example. There are times when a president will have to make important decisions that affect millions of people while tired beyond belief. We want to reassure ourselves they'll still be able to function.

Granted, the process malfunctioned with Bush. Who knew we would be getting a president so convinced of the wisdom of his folly that the problem wouldn't be cracking under pressure, but rather not responding to pressure at all. But, hey, nothing 's perfect.

And the Iowa caucus process is far from perfect. It's an anachronism from the past haunting modern political life, a 20th century institution that seems out of place in the sleek new wired 21st century. It's a huge waste of time and money, the raising of which forces candidates to make compromises and promises they'll spend the rest of their political lives living down.

Once you focus on the ordeal, and not the process, you realize it could be so much more efficient and less time-consuming. It needs to be streamlined. Why not simply put the candidates in sensory deprivation tanks and keep them there as long as a consensus of expert medical opinion says it will take to thoroughly destabilize them. -- 24 hours, 48, whatever it takes. At the point of maximum disorientation, bring them out in a nationally televised ceremony, give them 15 minutes to shower and let them begin debating. Some might not even make it to the starting line. Some would start to babble. And a few would somehow manage enough composure to debate more or less rationally. A consensus would begin to emerge. And then, a couple weeks later, repeat the process in New Hampshire one more time to give the losers one more chance -- it only seems fair, and in keeping with tradition.

Iowa and New Hampshire might choose to retain their caucus and primary, or they might not -- but if they do continue them, they would be held right after the sensory deprivation debates, with none of today's endless campaigning. Finally, after a suitable interval, the real primary campaign would begin -- after the voters had learned all that we learn now about the candidates, but in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the expense.

How would you make up for the entertainment and excitement of the televised campaigning we see today in Iowa and New Hampshire? Well, for openers, you might have web cams in the sensory deprivation chambers with streaming video on the Internet. Instead of watching candidates struggle with each other, we could watch them struggle with themselves. Far more interesting.

A simple, modest proposal, but I suspect it's far too straightforward and sensible to ever be implemented.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Georges Seurat: The painter as street photographer without a camera

Georges Seurat: Photographer Without a Camera?
Sometimes it seems as if the whole history of Western painting from the Renaissance through the late 19th Century was a vast conspiracy to will photography into being before the technology existed, or existed only in bits and pieces that had not yet been put together, by creating demand for a kind of imagery we now call photographic.

It began in the Renaissance when the camera obscura (the lens or pinhole that created an upside down image in an darkened room or enclosure) and projective geometry gave rise to the laws of perspective that still govern the way the camera sees the world. The process continued even after the invention of photography with the Impressionists, who captured fleeting effects of light that the camera would not be able to capture -- or imitate -- until the development of 20th Century technology.

I've always loved the work of Georges Seurat, the late 19th Century painter who died all too young at the age of 31, probably of diptheria, and whose work is at the apex of this line of development. His stately, mathematical compositions like "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" heark back to the great compositions of the Renaissance. His technique of building up a painting with colored dots that he called Pointillism anticipated both the grains of colored dye that make up a color film image, and the pixels that constitute modern digital photographs. But what always struck me as most photographic were his black and white conté crayon drawings.

Artists have used charcoal, and more recently conté crayon, for hundreds of years, but not in the way Seurat did. In one way or another, they played off the white of the paper against the black lines of the drawing. There is no white in most Seurat drawings, and no lines. He covers the entire page with smudged shades of black and gray, essentially creating what photographers call a black and white grayscale image. Although it lacks photographic resolution, it's the same principle of building up an image out of tones, not lines, that cameras employ.

Roberta Smith comments on this aspect of his work in her New York Times review of “Georges Seurat: The Drawings” at the Museum of Modern Art, an ehibit that closes all too soon this January 7th.
But as this exhibition emphasizes, Seurat first formulated his ideas about color and atmosphere on paper, in drawing, working in black and white. Applying his beloved black conté crayon to the specially textured Michallet paper that he almost always used, he created an impressive tonal range of velvety blacks, gossamer veils, crazy all-over scribbles, porous grids, methodical cross hatchings and uncrossed hatchings.
It's not only Seurat's means of representation that were essentially photographic. His subject matter, his epiphanies of everyday life caught in street sketches and nightclub scenes showed the sensibility of a street photographer. Long before Cartier-Bresson coined the term, Georges Seurat was pursuing the "decisive moment" in the streets and cafes of Paris. He was a street photographer before his time, lacking only a camera to capture his vision.

Political portent written in the slush at Knickerbocker Place?

Political Portent Written in the Slush?
Coming out of Victor's Coffee in Madison's Knickerbocker Place, that's how I chose to read it, anyhow: a sign pointing toward a leftward turn in American politics in 2008, as the wintery campaign season begins tomorrow with the Iowa caucuses, in a country whose people are sick of war and worried about their economic future.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

Hoping for a New Year as Peaceful as This
It's a stretch, but let's hope the new year is as peaceful as this view of Madison's Glenway Golf Course in the snow. Bringing the troops home would be a great start. No "October Surprise" involving Iran would be a bonus.

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.