Friday, January 11, 2008

And the winner of the coveted 2008 Toto Pulling Back the Curtain Award is. . . Maureen Dowd

Hillary Clinton certainly touched a nerve that runs through the American body politic when she choked up in the coffee shop in New Hampshire last Monday, the day before the election -- a nerve that set almost the entire media establishment twitching in a paroxysm of Clinton-bashing schadenfreude. Maureen Dowd once again proved that she'll yield to nobody, certainly not the obnoxious, Hillary-hating Chris Matthews, in her spiteful contempt for the presidential hopeful. She titled her spewing "Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?" No matter that Hillary didn't actually cry. Why should that get in the way of a catty headline and a quote from a Times reporter saying she did?
When I walked into the office Monday, people were clustering around a computer to watch what they thought they would never see: Hillary Clinton with the unmistakable look of tears in her eyes.

A woman gazing at the screen was grimacing, saying it was bad. Three guys watched it over and over, drawn to the “humanized” Hillary. One reporter who covers security issues cringed. “We are at war,” he said. “Is this how she’ll talk to Kim Jong-il?”

Another reporter joked: “That crying really seemed genuine. I’ll bet she spent hours thinking about it beforehand.” He added dryly: “Crying doesn’t usually work in campaigns. Only in relationships.”
By itself, the column was just one more example of the piling on by the media that followed Hillary's showing some feeling, notable only for its nastiness even by those standards. But that's not why she's winning the coveted Toto Award.

No, the 2008 Toto Pulling Back the Curtain Award goes to Maureen Dowd for performing a vital public service -- pulling back the curtain and vividly demonstrating just how much hatred for the Clintons there has always been on the staff of the New York Times, and how it warps their news judgment. The Times insiders never thought the Clintons belonged in Washington, still don't think they belong in Washington and no longer feel they even need to hide their feelings (and their failings as journalists). People had many different reactions to Hillary's show of emotion. Some were moved, some were not. Some thought it was a staged manipulation, some thought it was a train wreck. Some pitied her, some did not. The one thing that nobody except true, dyed-in-the-wool Clinton haters felt was the kind of gleeful mockery portrayed by Dowd. Thank you, Maureen Dowd, for showing so dramatically exactly where your paper stands, once the curtain of "objectivity" is pulled away.

I was going to let my subscription run out anyhow. This is the newspaper whose reporting by Jeff Gerth on Whitewater helped set up the impeachment debacle, and whose Mideast reporting, aided by by the notorious Judith Miller, helped set up the Iraq debacle. Let them continue to talk among themselves. We don't need to listen.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Madison native and UW grad who was the first person to win two Nobel prizes in the same field

Fifty years ago last month, the journal Physical Review published a paper titled “Theory of Superconductivity.” The authors were Leon N. Cooper, John Bardeen and J. Robert Schrieffer. Although superconductivity had been discovered early in the century, nobody knew how it worked. The problem had puzzled some of the best minds in modern quantum physics. It was a significant breakthrough, as a story in this morning's New York times recalls.
Superconductivity was discovered in 1911 by a Dutch physicist, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. He observed that when mercury was cooled to below minus-452 degrees Fahrenheit, about 7 degrees above absolute zero, electrical resistance suddenly disappeared, and mercury was a superconductor.

For physicists, that was astounding, almost like happening upon a real-world perpetual motion machine. Indeed, an electrical current running around a ring of mercury at 7 degrees above absolute zero would, in principle, run forever.

If the phenomenon defied intuition, it also defied explanation.

After wrapping up special and general relativity, Albert Einstein tried, and failed, to devise a theory of superconductivity. Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who came up with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, struggled with the problem, as did other pioneers of quantum mechanics like Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli. Felix Bloch, another thwarted theorist, jokingly concluded: Every theory of superconductivity can be disproved.
One of the authors of the paper, John Bardeen, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics the year before, for his work at Bell Labs as a co-inventor of the transistor. Bardeen was a Madison native who graduated from Madison Central High School in 1923 at the age of 15 and the University of Wisconsin in 1928. This year is the centennial of his birth.

When he was awarded the 1956 Nobel prize in Stockholm, Wikipedia relates that he was scolded by the King of Sweden.
Bardeen brought only one of his three children to the Nobel Prize ceremony. His two sons were studying at Harvard University, and Bardeen didn't wanted to disrupt their studies. King Gustav scolded Bardeen because of this, and Bardeen assured the King that the next time he would bring all his children to the ceremony.
His work on superconductivity resulted in his second Nobel Prize in physics, making him the first person ever to be awarded two Nobel Prizes in the same field. He did, in fact, take all three of his adult children with him to Stockholm in 1972 to accept the second award.

The Uncle Sam of Park Street wants to recycle your old cell phones for the troops

American Icons
I was gassing up at the Shell Station on South Park Street the other day and stopped to take a photo of the American Spirit neon sign in the window. Just then Uncle Sam walked by, and I asked him to pose with the sign. Two American icons.

Madison residents will recognize him as the Uncle Sam figure who stands outside Liberty Tax Service across Park Street from the gas station and waves to passing motorists during tax season. We chatted briefly, and I found out that his name is Glenn Unzicker, or as his business card puts it, Glenn "Uncle Sam" Unzicker," Character & Marketing Promotions, Liberty Tax Service.

"Actually, I'll be spending less time outdoors this year, and more time indoors working on marketing," Unzicker said. He's hiring more people to play Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. If this combination of theater and marketing is your thing and you've always had a hankering to exhibit yourself publicly in a patriotic costume, give him a call at 608-251-4242.

But what he really was excited about was his firm's Cell Phones for Soldiers event, which recycles cell phones to help soldiers overseas call home. They're holding an all-day open house and cell phone drop-off at their east side office at 4102 Milwaukee Avenue on January 19 from 9 to 5.

Actually, it's not the phones they're interested in, but the small amount of gold each phone contains in its electrical contacts. This is reclaimed and the proceeds are used to buy calling cards for the soldiers. If you have some old cell phones gathering dust, this is an opportunity to get them out of the house and do some good at the same time.

Monday, January 07, 2008

On eve of New Hampshire primary, Clinton still trails far behind Obama and Edwards on Flickr

Since I'm a photographer who regularly posts photographs on the photo-sharing site Flickr, I was interested in how the Democratic presidential candidates used Flickr, especially since there's been a lot of talk about the importance of social networking websites. While Flickr is known as a photo-sharing site, it also has social networking aspects, and so would seem to offer one more way for candidates to reach out. Last August, I posted about the three front-runners and their relationship to Flickr.

At the time, the Barack Obama site caught my eye because it focused mainly on photos of his supporters at events around the country, almost as if he had snapped them himself (though the camera data showed they came from many different cameras). It struck as a shrewd way for a candidate to connect with people -- by putting the spotlight on them. Especially as it's done with a kind of casual, snapshot esthetic. The photos simply have file numbers rather than titles, though they are tagged and put in sets by location.

The John Edwards site is the oldest, and a bit more fully developed. Photos are titled, many are captioned, and they are also tagged and sorted into geographic sets. Photos on the Edwards site look more professional and include more pictures of the candidate than Obama's does. But there are also some wonderful photos of supporters.

And Hillary Clinton? Well, she really doesn't have what seems to be an official site. What can I say? The only thing I could find that comes close seems to have been put up by a local Kansas group of Clinton supporters in March, 2006, and it has languished ever since, with no updates. Meanwhile, the Obama and Edwards camps have both uploaded thousands of additional photos since I wrote about this last August: Currently Obama has more than 12,000 images on his site, and Edwards has more than 5,000.

Since then, not much has changed. The Obama and Edwards have been actively using their sites, while Clinton still hasn't bothered to get one started. Obama's site contains more photos, while the Edwards site seems a bit more polished and slightly better organized. The main thing is that both candidates are using this new medium to reach out, and Clinton is not.

Also, in this age of user-generated content, Flickr users are also using Flickr to reach out to the candidates, by posting pictures they're taken relating to the candidates. Hillary trails here, too. Flickr users have posted 20,551 photos that show up in searches for "Barack Obama," 16,807 in searches for "John Edwards," and 11,116 in searches for "Hillary Clinton."

I'm not suggesting that most of America looks to Flickr for information on candidates. Obviously not. While it may be the best known photo sharing network, most people don't frequent photo sharing sites. Can you campaign without Flickr? Sure.

But it does seem to make a kind of proxy indicator of a campaign's interest in new communications technology, especially the sort of internet technology favored by younger people. Iowa demonstrated the importance of being on the right side of change and reaching out to young voters. You wonder if Hillary wouldn't be better served by getting rid of some of her expensive, "experienced" Democratic campaign consultants and replacing them with some kids who could help her come across better on the Internet.

"The Ripple Effect"

"The Ripple Effect"
"The Ripple Effect" is the title of the splashy work of public art by San Francisco artist Eric Powell that forms the entryway to Madison's Goodman Pool. But there won't be too many ripples in the pool for another five months. Sigh. Summer is such a fleeting thing in this climate.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Documenting the world of Rennies, a "great good place" long before the Starbucks era

RennebohmsMontage copy
I've never felt comfortable poking a camera in strangers' faces, but sometimes I make sketches of them -- doodles, really -- while sitting in public places. This is a montage of a few I made long ago in Rennies, a Madison institution for much of the 20th century.

Talk to older native Madisonians, and chances are that sooner or later, they'll slip and refer to Rennies in the present tense, as in "I'll pick that up at Rennies." What they're referring to is Walgreens, the drugstore giant that bought the local Rennebohm-Rexall Drugstore chain in 1980, after the death of Oscar Rennebohm, the UW alum and pharmacist whose drugstores made him a wealthy man, a respected philanthropist and governor of Wisconsin.
Rennebohm's was the pharmacy owned and operated by Oscar Rennebohm, himself a 1911 graduate of the UW Pharmacy program. Rennebohm's drugstores became iconic in Madison. There eventually were more than two dozen locations, and they had lunch counters that were famous in their own way. There are city residents who still rhapsodize about the grilled Danishes and hot fudge sundaes. Oscar Rennebohm, the patriarch, was an imposing figure who was elected governor in 1948.
Sometimes it almost seemed there was a Rennies at every streetcorner, including several adjacent to the UW campus. Each had a food service facility -- ranging from soda fountains to lunch counters, cafeterias, and table-service restaurants, all featuring the same inexpensive, bland American menu (roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy was one of my favorites). You could sit all day with a brownie a la mode and a cup of coffee for 37 cents, complete with endless free refills. I often did. In all fairness, the coffee, brewed in huge industrial strength vats, probably had more in common with dishwater than today's high-end gourmet blends, but hey, we weren't paying gourmet prices, either.

Rennies was a true "great good place" in the sense author Ray Oldenburg wrote about. The stores were public spaces and hangouts that were enormously egalitarian, in a way that Madison hasn't seen since the city became more socially and economically stratified, starting about the time that Walgreens dropped the food service. Scholars mingled with street people, students rubbed elbows with working people, and all enjoyed a no-hassle environment where nobody was trying to maximize turnover. The person next to you could be a schizophrenic drawing elaborate charts documenting the force fields trying to take over his mind -- or a physics student struggling with his dissertation. Today's coffee shops with their wireless networks provide some of the same all-day hospitality to cybersquatters with their laptops, but its not the same thing.

Given the affectionate memories so many people have of Rennies, you'd think there would be a lot about Rennebohms on the Internet, but the web is remarkably spotty when it comes to pre-Internet history. Sometimes it's there, and often it's not. That applies to photography as well -- it's really hard to find images.

With one exception. In 1979 a UW student named Chuck Patch set out with a friend to eat breakfast at each of the Rennies in town. His boss at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, where he worked part time, heard about the plan and offered to provide film and enlarging paper to document the odyssey. Fortunately, Patch was not as shy about photographing people at Rennies as I was, and that's how the Historical Society came into possession of the images, which they made available online a couple of years ago. They provide a wonderfully evocative look at a Madison institution that has vanished forever.

Patch gives a little more background about the series at his Flickr site. His other Flickr photos are worth your attention, too -- especially the set called Old Silver. Patch was an accomplished street photographer who gave it up as his work became more time-consuming. He came back to photography in recent years, lured by the simplicity of digital photography and the ability to share his work online at Flickr. You can learn more about Chuck Patch and how he returned to photography in an interview with photographer Michael David Murphy in his photo blog 2point8. <