Friday, February 08, 2008

TGIF Presidential Countdown: Just 347 days until somebody other than McCain succeeds Bush

At noon on January 20, 2009, George W. Bush will leave office, and someone other than John McCain will take the oath as his successor. Though not if Dubya has anything to say about it. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington today, Bush implicitly endorsed McCain.
"We have had good debates and soon we will have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond," Bush said. "The stakes in November are high. . . . Prosperity and peace are in the balance. So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory and keep the White House in 2008."
He's right about a couple things -- the stakes are high, and peace and prosperity do hang in the balance. Less than a year to go, and counting . . .

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The environment's gain is a newspaper lover's loss: No more dead tree daily for The Capital Times

The Capital Times will suspend publication as an afternoon daily newspaper with the April 26 issue and become a daily internet paper, with additional twice-a-week free distribution of two new print editions -- one for news and opinion, and one for entertainment.

The announcement on their website didn't knock the ball out of my ballpark. The caption said, "The Capital Times newsroom will be increasingly focusing its efforts on the Internet," but the photograph looked more like a random snapshot of an insurance company cube farm. This is the operation that is going to take the Madison internets by storm? Nor was talking head Paul Fanlund's video announcement exactly cutting edge new media.

All good things end. Sometimes this is signaled by an eloquent, nostalgic evocation of a proud history and past glories, invoked to put the best face on a less than proud and glorious present. That seemed to be the case with today's Cap Times editorial.
The Capital Times was founded in 1917 with the modest purpose of promoting peace and economic and social justice. We also hoped to gather all the news that mattered and to sell some papers.

Not much has changed over the past 90 years.

In 1917 we opposed an unnecessary war in Europe and defended the rights of those who dared to challenge the munitions merchants and the war profiteers.

Now we oppose an unnecessary war in the Mideast and defend those who dare to expose the excesses of Halliburton and the high crimes and misdemeanors of Dick Cheney.

In 1917 and 1918 we were on the cutting edge of information technology. Relying on better wire services and smarter judgment, we got the story of the end of World War I right while our competitors got it wrong.

Now we are still on the cutting edge of information technology. The only difference is that, instead of telegraphs and wires, we're digital and wireless.
The achievements of the past are real enough, but the present seems more iffy. Some things that come to mind:
  • The internet is an increasingly visual medium. Graphic design has never been a CT strength (either in print or online to date), nor have they demonstrated much video expertise.
  • It's tough for traditional media without very deep pockets to succeed on the internet. There seem to be two main avenues to success: Talented amateurs or volunteers with a great idea filling a unique market niche, subsidizing the gap between today's content and its future monetization with sweat equity. Or, enormous amounts of capital devoted to site design and promotion (NYT, Amazon, etc.) The CT doesn't seem to fit in either category.
  • They're trying to compete in a very crowded local market. Not only have Isthmus and Dane 101 staked out a lot of territory with their daily updates, but the local television stations are becoming compelling online presences. Not only do they have trusted weather reports, but they have a lot of video clips of local news, and they have well-known on-air personalities driving traffic.
  • Besides, once your primary identity is online, you're no longer competing in a purely local market. You're one click away from all the best known names in American media, as well as all the resources of the blogosphere, and we haven't even discussed YouTube. Most people's online habits are already formed. Carving out a successful niche against this near-infinite competition is much harder than publishing a dead tree paper.
You can't help but wish them well. But you also can't help but wonder whether the new move is just a face saving way to push The Capital Times off-stage into permanent retirement.

They're probably not alone. Ironically, today's announcement came on the same day that the NYT published a really spooky story about the desperate state of today's newspaper industry, "An Industry Imperiled by Falling Profits and Shrinking Ads." Clearly, The Capital Times won't be the only daily newspaper facing major changes in 2008.

Walking up a deserted Monroe Street to pick up some necessities at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's, a Beacon of Sustenance on a Winter Night

Peter Patau Photo

We needed to get some frozen pizzas and other necessities of life, and I was reluctant to start experimenting with the car on our unplowed side street. So I volunteered to walk to Trader Joe's, about a 15-minute walk. On a night when Madison was locked up tight as a drum (even the Laurel Tavern was closed, and they never close), Trader Joe's was open till 9:00, their usual closing time.

I walked up Monroe Street. Literally. Normally traffic on this major artery is so heavy that you need a red flag to cross the street, and even then, you're taking your life in your hands. But with virtually no cars on the road, the freshly plowed street was like a well-tended sidewalk (in much better shape than many of the residential sidewalks on the way). It was a surreal walk. Usually Monroe Street is only this deserted very late at night, and there's not a person to be seen. But now there were plenty of people walking on the snowy street, almost as if they out on an evening stroll on the nearby Southwest Bike Path.

The lights of Trader Joe's shone like a beacon of sustenance in the night. Actually, I had been surprised they were even open when I called. After all, the store relies on a "just in time" inventory system whereby they restock daily from a huge 18-wheeler that somehow squeezes into the loading dock behind the store on a residential street. But I found out when I was in the store that the truck had arrived at 4:30 in the afternoon after driving up through the blizzard from Chicago, via Milwaukee, where they have another store. The truck somehow made the trip without incident, through weather that put lots of cars and trucks in ditches or left them stuck on the roadway itself -- until the driver got to the Madison Trader Joe's loading dock. That's when they got stuck, trying to pull up to the loading dock. Staffers worked with snow blowers and shovels for two hours to help get the truck unstuck, pausing now and then to help cars that got stuck behind the truck, which was blocking the street. And that's why everyone in the store was flying around restocking when I came in about a half hour before closing time. They were running a bit behind schedule. I was just glad they were open.

As I walked home back down the magically deserted Monroe Street, I marveled at the Trader Joe's driver who made it about 170 miles through a raging blizzard, while I had been reluctant to drive my car one unplowed block after the snow stopped. I felt absurdly grateful.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Snowbound in Madison


Peter Patau Photo

Madison got nearly 14 inches of snow. Southeast of us it was worse, and much further south, they had those awful tornadoes that killed some fifty people at last count. A thousands people stranded on the Interstate near Madison for nine hours. Quite a tally for the big blizzard of 2008.

In "Snowbound: A Winter Idyl," his hoary old chestnut from the mid-19th century, John Greenleaf Whittier perfectly caught the gradual way one of these big storms gets started.
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told . . .
Otherwise, being snowbound in the 19th century and the 21st century are very different. Whittier's New England family gathered round the fire talked, told stories, played games and made the most of being cut off from the world for an entire week. In 2008 the office is closed, we're cut off from our busy schedule for one day at most, and it feels like an adventure.

Even so, we're only cut off in relative terms. I'm reluctant to try navigating our unplowed side street with the car, although I'm sure I could in an emergency. And, naturally, we're connected. A client calls my cell phone from a southern state, wondering why we Yankees let a little snow close our office when they have tornado warnings down there. I'm online much of the afternoon. We listen to Super Tuesday being dissected on NPR, and we watch the evening news, which includes the story about the people stuck on the Interstate just a few miles from here. We shovel snow. I walk to a neighborhood grocery.

In the 1865 poem, Whittier's father commanded, "Boys, a path!" With buskins on their feet and mittens on their hands, the boys excavated a tunnel to the barn. We excavated our car and tunneled from one side of the street to the other in order to comply with the alternate-side snow parking rules. It's tough being snowbound.

After Super Tuesday, on to Wisconsin -- and maybe we'll live up to what JFK said after all

After Super Tuesday, on to Wisconsin!
When this sign went up at the Madison Labor Temple on South Park Street weeks ago, it seemed like a dutiful argument for civic virtue -- vote even though it doesn't matter. At the time, it seemed that everything would be decided by Super Tuesday.

This year's early primary schedule had looked as if it would relegate our historically important primary election to obsolescence. The Wisconsin primary was the nation's first presidential primary -- one of those reforms Robert M. LaFollette's Progressive movement early in the 20th Century. I learned this history lesson as a kid from no less a teacher than a future president of the United States, when JFK campaigned in Madison. I was there when he had this to say about the Wisconsin primary.
In this important primary process, the state of Wisconsin has played a leading and a vital role. In 1905 - disgusted with the machinations of party chieftains - Wisconsin under Governor LaFollette enacted the first law in our country’s history calling for the direct election of all delegates to national party conventions. Three years later - acting under that law - the people of Wisconsin sent to the Republican national convention a slate of delegates pledged to Robert LaFollette, and dedicated to the liberal principles of the Progressive movement. This group - the first popularly elected delegation - gained national renown and made a lasting contribution to our political history. According to a journal of the time, the Wisconsin delegation "stood in that convention, a little band of fearless men, fighting to the last ditch for platform pledges vital to the public interest. Their contest in the Chicago convention fixed the attention of the country and forced the candidate nominated for President to broaden the platform by declarations--in favor of several of the important Wisconsin proposals which the convention had impatiently rejected." This Wisconsin example initiated a wave of political reform which led to our present primary system.
JFK went on to talk about a number of key Wisconsin primary elections that had played a significant national role. And, of course, his 1960 campaign in Wisconsin added another chapter to the history of Wisconsin making a difference. It was in Wisconsin that JFK defeated Minnesota senator and front-runner Hubert Humphrey in his own backyard. Eight years later, Eugene McCarthy's stunning upset of LBJ again put Wisconsin on the map.

All that history threatened to become a thing of the past this year. Wisconsin could have joined the Super Tuesday throng and got lost in the shuffle. It could have left its spring primary a spring primary and doomed it to further insignificance. Or it could do what it did, move it up to Feb. 19th. But until recently, the conventional wisdom had it that the race would be over by then.

Now our historic primary has a new lease on life. It's going to be a busy couple of weeks in Badgerland, as Peter Rickman, chairman of the Democratic Party of the 2nd Congressional District, notes in MyDD. The Wisconsin primary will matter. A lot. And we should see a lot of the candidates. Cool!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Bush submits budget to Congress that's so radioactive it glows in the dark

George Bush submitted his final budget to Congress, and as he demonstrated in a Cabinet meeting, it's so radioactive it glows in the dark. The frightening illumination was emitted by a $3.1-trillion toxic waste dump of record military spending, an inadequate and misguided stimulus program, massive cuts in programs for the poor and elderly, and skyrocketing deficits for years to come. Glowing like H. P. Lovecraft's "The Color from Outer Space," the budget's unearthly aura seemed to spook Congress, which is unlikely to go anywhere near it. Maybe they'll wrap it in lead and bury it six feet underground.

Bush scarcely seemed to notice. He was too busy repositioning himself as a tree-hugger.
"I submitted the budget today to Congress -- it's on a laptop notebook, an e-budget. It saves paper, saves trees, saves money. I think it's the first budget submitted electronically. And it's a good budget."
Sure it is. It's as good a budget as Bush is an environmentalist.

Madison Winter Festival features only art form that eventually melts into a puddle

Ice Sculptor Maurie Pearson

Peter Patau Photos

Maurie Pearson is a La Crosse, Wisconsin artist who works in the most transient of media, one that will eventually melt into a pool of water -- although it certainly doesn't start out that way. Pearson was sprayed with icy particles as he roughed out the shape of an ice sculpture with a chain saw at the Madison Winter Festival Saturday afternoon.

Pearson drew a rapt audience on North Carroll Street just off the Square. Pearson's firm -- Black River Ice Sculptures -- creates ice sculptures for personal and business events. As his bio notes, he arrived at ice sculpture by a roundabout route.
Maurie Pearson is a nationally acclaimed professional ice sculptor. He developed his love for carving ice during his career as an Executive Chef for Hyatt and Radisson hotels. In the late 1980's, Pearson began to carve competitively at ice sculpture events around the country and began to hone his talent as an ice sculptor. His sculptures are known for their attention to detail and unique style.

Pearson gave up the kitchen and began carving ice professionally in Chicago during the early 90's. He began Chicago IceWorks in 1992 and the company produced about 2500 sculptures per year - mostly wholesale to hotels and country clubs. In 1999, he relocated to "God's Country" to spend more time with his family, where he owns and operates Black River Ice Sculptures in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

People always like to watch artists at work, but I think they were especially drawn to Pearson because what he does seems so magical. (Also he's damn good.) He creates beautiful objects with only one function -- to delight, briefly, before the substance out of which they are made reverts to its preferred state. I especially liked this example of his work because of the visual pun it embodies. This is Bucky Badger as a "real" ice fisherman, because of course, he is made of ice. It's amazing what Pearson can make out of a block of frozen water.

(Click on photos to enlarge in Flickr.)

Sunday, February 03, 2008

No shadows to be seen on Groundhog Day, but there were some kites on Lake Monona

Monona Terrace with Kites and Snow

Peter Patau Photos

Groundhog Day has always puzzled me somewhat. Every year we attend the auguries of the various regional rodent weather wizards with great fanfare, but the alternative outcomes seem suspiciously similar: No shadow = early spring. Shadow = 6 more weeks of winter, which this year would be March 15, i.e., an early spring. What's the difference?

Hairsplitting aside, there was not enough sun to cast any shadows for Madison area groundhogs. Sun Prairie's renowned Jimmy the Groundhog predictably forecast an early spring -- which, as Madison heads for a record snowfall accumulation, isn't necessarily all that reassuring, since we get some of our heaviest snowfalls in the spring.

Not only could you not see any shadows, but there were times Saturday afternoon that you could hardly see anything at all, as our light but surprisingly frisky snow sometimes approached whiteout conditions, especially on Lake Monona, which was already fairly white to begin with. The weather didn't bother this wedding party, which went out on the ice to frolic in the snow and have their pictures taken (click on photo to enlarge in Flickr).

Nor did it deter a handfull of intrepid kite fliers who labored valiantly to launch their brightly colored wind-powered craft, weighed down as they were by the wet, driving snow. The kiters were invited by Kites on Ice founder Craig Wilson (the guy with the kite camera), who put together an impromptu 10th-anniversary reunion on Lake Monona in conjunction with the Madison Winter Festival. Unlike the earlier Kites on Ice events, which drew thousands of spectators and hundreds of kite enthusiasts, this event was mainly for the participants. The Winter Festival crowds were up at the Capitol Square for a variety of events, including Nordic skiing around the Capitol. Few ventured down to Lake Monona, where the kite enthusiasts were pretty much alone with themselves, their aerial epiphanies and the swirling snow.