Saturday, March 15, 2008

Pausing for a moment of pastel tranquility in the heart of Madison's morning rush hour

Morning Light

Peter Patau Photo

Madison's South Park Street is a typically cluttered urban thoroughfare -- a hodgepodge of body shops, beauty parlors, restaurants, bars, gas stations, carwashes and miscellaneous small businesses. I drive to work that way every morning and usually don't even take my eye off traffic long enough to really look at my surroundings. But when I got to the corner of Park and Fish Hatchery the other morning, I happened to look to the left down Parr Street, toward the lake. I was staring at a pastel epiphany that could have come straight from an Old Dutch landscape painting.

The sun was blocked by clouds, tinting everything with an otherworldly pastel morning light. The line of trees on John Nolen Drivey behind the rippling puddles on the ice of Brittingham Bay could as well have been lining a dike in Holland. It was too late to turn left on Parr, but I circled back to the lake as quickly as I could, hoping the light would hold until I got there with my camera. It did -- providing this strangely tranquil vision of natural beauty in the heart of a city preoccupied with getting to work.

Friday, March 14, 2008

TGIF Countdown: In 312 days we can start fixing this tattered, broken thing called the economy

Just 312 days and George Bush will no longer be doing Herbert Hoover imitations like the one he tried out on the Economic Club of New York today.

The LA Times set the stage.
His speech today came on the heels of an unlucky trifecta on Thursday: Gold prices hit $1,000 an ounce for the first time in history, oil prices hit a record $110 a barrel, and the dollar fell below 100 Japanese yen for the first time since 1995. Also Thursday, a report showed that home prices in Southern California had plunged nearly 18% in February from the year-earlier level, for another unwelcome record.
That was just Thursday. Today we saw the sudden Bear Stearns meltdown, another Fed rescue, and an unenthusiastic stock market responding by pretty much pissing away the gains posted during Wall Street's brief bout of euphoria after the Fed announced its $200-billion bank bailout earlier in the week. How did Bush respond in his speech? He said the country "obviously is going through a tough time," but that the tax rebates would kick in soon. He counseled caution.
"The challenge is not to do anything foolish."
He should know . . . January 20, 2009 can't come soon enough.

Floating village on a melting Lake Monona

Small Village on a Melting Lake

Peter Patau Photo

Some of us will never understand the appeal of sitting for hours staring into a hole cut into the ice of a Madison lake, but for devotees of ice fishing, it's an addiction that's hard to break when warm weather comes. This photo, taken from Olin Park yesterday, may be a bit misleading -- what looks like open water is just a thin layer of meltwater coating the surface of the ice. But all too soon there will be real open water, and some will continue to test the limits. Inevitably, a few will get soaked.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Running down toward the gutter in this, the winter of our discontent

Meandering Toward the Gutter in the Winter of Our Discontent
I originally posted this picture on Flickr as one more in my series of "what a crappy winter this has been in Madison" photos: Now that the ice that has rutted Madison streets for weeks is starting to melt, it's being carved into deep, dark ice canyons a small animal could get lost in. The more runoff there is, the more these fissures grow, becoming the only channels in which water can flow toward the gutter. Was this how the Grand Canyon started?

Maybe the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is driving me crazy and has made me snap, but the more I look at the photo, the less I see a winter picture, and the more I see a roadmap of the fight for the nomination. Grand Canyon? The growing fissure in the party threatens to dwarf it.

Even so, the split in the party isn't really what worries me. Democrats have a history of coming back together in the fall (sometimes at the last minute) after a tough primary fight. They joke about the Will Rogers line, "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat." Then they focus on the Republicans.

But this year seems different. It's the gutter in this picture that concerns me. Both camps are demonizing the other side in ways that set the stage for similar, but far more savage Republican memes in the fall. Want to call Hillary a monster who will do anything to get elected? Fine. But how are you going to defend her when McCain's surrogates say the same thing and then add, helpfully, that she's a murderer as well? (With McCain saying, all the while, that she's a fine senator and he enjoys working with her.) Want to position Obama as an affirmative action candidate who gets an unfair boost from being black? Fine. But how are you going to defend him when McCain's surrogates say the same thing and add, helpfully, that he's also a brown-skinned, Muslim terrorist sympathizer? (With McCain saying, all the while, that he's a fine senator and he enjoys working with him.)

Sound far-fetched? It's not. This fall, one of the Democrats will be running against a ruthless operation that just a few years ago knocked a great American war hero and paraplegic -- Max Cleland -- out of the U.S. Senate by successfully smearing him as a Saddam Hussein sympathizer. Republican surrogates will say far worse than anything either Democrat's followers have said about the other, and nobody will be forcing them to step down. Republicans have plenty of real racists and real misogynists in their big tent, and they don't restrict their free speech rights.

Karl Rove must be beside himself with glee. (And I don't even want to think about what he may have done already to deepen this rift. How hard is it for dirty tricksters to pose as Democratic partisans of one candidate or the other on the blogosphere, injecting ever more toxic charges into the comment threads in a medium that encourages anonymity?)

Are we really winding down toward the gutter and threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against a weak Republican candidate? Will both contestants end up so tarnished in the public eye that neither will be a viable candidate?

Maybe we do need a brokered convention that goes a few ballots. It might give a lot of people's number two candidate a chance to get the nomination. Maybe it will take John Edwards to run a campaign that can win.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

One more example of something everyone used to know for sure was true that isn't true at all

True or False? Identical twins are identical because they have exactly the same DNA.

False. According to this week's NYT Science Times, identical twins have very similar genes, but their DNA is not identical.
It is a basic tenet of human biology, taught in grade schools everywhere: Identical twins come from the same fertilized egg and, thus, share identical genetic profiles.

But according to new research, though identical twins share very similar genes, identical they are not. The discovery opens a new understanding of why two people who hail from the same embryo can differ in phenotype, as biologists refer to a person’s physical manifestation.
It's not a trivial difference either. In the study cited by the Times, some of the DNA examined by scientists came from pairs of identical twins that included one who had dementia or Parkinon's disease, while the other did not. The differences involved copy number variations, which were only discovered a few years ago.

For more about copy number variations, which all people -- not just twins -- have, check out this earlier story in Science Daily, "Genetic Variation: We're More Different Than We Thought." The implications of this emerging line of research are huge -- not just for better understanding evolution, but for studying genetic factors in disease.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

As the mother of all meltdowns looms, Fed bails out banks, while homeowners cash out 401k accounts

Nothing better illustrates the brutal economic asymmetry of the Bush years than today's headlines. "Stocks Shoot Higher on Fed Credit Plan" is how AP described the biggest market rally in more than five years. In what may yet prove to be another case of irrational exuberance, bank stocks surged and investors were bullish about the Fed's plan to pump $200 billion into the financial markets. (Or were they just giddy with schadenfreude about the downfall of Wall Street nemesis Eliot Spitzer?)

Meanwhile, the USA TODAY headline "401(k)s tapped to save homes" told a more depressing tale of how a growing number of financially strapped homeowners were cashing out their 401(k)s to stave off foreclosure, incurring hefty tax and penalty burdens, while depleting their retirement savings. The paper writes about Tamara Campbell, who lives near Denver and dipped into their 401(k) after her husband was laid off from his job last year and they fell behind on their mortgage. Campbell said they raided the 401k to stave off foreclosure. Now they're considering raiding the kitty again.
As Campbell considers whether to make another withdrawal, she notes, "It's not the kind of thing you want to use your 401(k) for. And if I keep doing this, I'm not going to have any retirement savings."
There's the asymmetry: Homeowners who can't make their payments either walk away from their homes or throw good money after bad in an attempt to hold on, mortgaging their futures to save their mortgages. In contrast, banks that can't raise capital can now borrow $200 billion from the Fed, unloading their bad debt on the Fed as collateral.

Paul Krugman wrote about the plan yesterday. While noting the bailout aspect, he was even more concerned that the $200-billion measure was a drop in the bucket compared to the true magnitude of the approaching meltdown.
The Fed’s latest plan to break this vicious circle is — as the financial Web site interfluidity.com cruelly but accurately describes it — to turn itself into Wall Street’s pawnbroker. Banks that might have raised cash by selling assets will be encouraged, instead, to borrow money from the Fed, using the assets as collateral. In a worst-case scenario, the Federal Reserve would find itself owning around $200 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities.

Some observers worry that the Fed is taking over the banks’ financial risk. But what worries me more is that the move seems trivial compared with the size of the problem: $200 billion may sound like a lot of money, but when you compare it with the size of the markets that are melting down — there are $11 trillion in U.S. mortgages outstanding — it’s a drop in the bucket.

The only way the Fed’s action could work is through the slap-in-the-face effect: by creating a pause in the selling frenzy, the Fed could give hysterical markets a chance to regain their sense of perspective.
Though Krugman dutifully noted the "face slap" has sometimes worked in the past, he didn't seem very optimistic.

Meanwhile, embattled homeowners at the other end of the economic spectrum have been getting slapped around a lot, and the situation just keeps getting worse. An America that has become radically divided along economic lines is experiencing our long, gradual financial meltdown in radically different ways.

After you meet by accident, check out Madison's post-accident, one-stop shopping for body repair

One-Stop Shopping for Post Accident Services in Madison
Meeting by accident has never been more convenient. This one-stop shopping opportunity allows you to patch up your body while they patch up your wheels -- Renu Auto Body, St, Mary's Hospital and Dean Health System, are all clustered in one convenient location off South Park Street in Madison. Who says our health care system is broken?

Liberty is a lovely lady

Liberty Is a Lovely Lady
She always has a bright smile and a friendly wave for all who drive by on Madison's South Park Street. But if you find yourself enjoying the special delights of her company, she'll only sweet talk you and take your money. Didn't you know? The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance taxes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Corrosive tears, flowing like the passing of time

Corrosive Tears, Flowing Like Time Itself
Definitely showing the ravages of time, as well as our avian population, this is one of my favorite works of public art in Madison, in one of my favorite places -- the Madison Public Library's courtyard on West Mifflin Street. It's called "Hieroglyph," and it's been there since 1964, the year the library opened. It's a hammered copper sculpture by Beloit artist O. V. Shaffer.

The figure above is just a detail of the larger sculpture on the right, a mostly abstract work that has several figures embedded in it, although you have to look for them. They're not immediately visible as you go up the front steps on Mifflin. "Hieroglyph" was surveyed in 1993 by the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Inventory of American Sculpture. Here's what their database said about the sculpture's condition at the time.
Condition: Surveyed 1993 March. Treatment needed.
That was 15 years ago. I know that art preservation isn't particularly sexy and doesn't score a lot of political points, but I hope the preservation budget can be boosted in years to come to something more closely approximating the real need. What's the point of putting up more and more new public art, only to have entropy erode it all too soon? Nothing lasts forever, but our public art deserves a chance to be seen and enjoyed before it fades away.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Enough already: Isn't this acknowledgement thing sort of getting out of hand?

This weekend I picked up from the library's new fiction shelf "Best New American Voices 2008: Fresh Fiction from the Top Writing Programs," edited by Richard Bausch. I was browsing the bios at the back when I came across this statement of indebtedness by author and NYU MFA Garth Risk Hallberg in connection with his short story, "Early Humans."
"The author is indebted to Tad Friend, whose reportage for the New Yorker suggested several of this story's daffier turns of phrase."
This raised several questions in my mind: Is reportage like reporting, but with phrases just tuned to a more daffy frequency? Is it presumptuous for an author to declare he has truly achieved daffiness in his prose, or should it be left for others to judge? And finally, were lawyers involved in this acknowledgement?

In Madison, drivers consider 25 mph a minimum, and that's why this spells trouble

What, Exactly, Does a Speed Limit of 25 Mean in Madison?
I'm pretty sure that the speed limit in Vilas Park used to be 15 mph. I remember being terrified of getting a speeding ticket whenever I drove through the park to the beach, because when I was younger slowing a car down to 15 seemed like a thoroughly unnatural act to me. Most people weren't as worried about tickets as I was, and the limit was eventually raised to conform to existing practice -- although, of course, this had the net effect of raising actual speeds even higher. Or at least that's how I remember it, even though I don't have a clear memory of when they made the switch.

Anyone who spends any amount of time driving in Madison, riding a bike, or even trying to cross the street as a pedestrian, knows that, these days, most drivers consider 25 mph an absolute minimum, certainly not a maximum. And that's another reason why I consider this bridge the Vilas Park Deathtrap, a serious accident waiting to happen.

See the car in the photo? Its brake lights are on, because it realized at the last minute that there's a fairly hard right turn heading into the bridge.

See the corner of the stone wall just to the left of the car? That's where, every couple of years, I'll bicycle by and see some new masonry work from repairs dues to auto damage by a driver whose reflexes weren't fast enough.

An approach like this is asking for trouble, especially with its confusing welter of signs, none of which mention approaching pedestrians or bicycles. It seems especially hazardous at the base of a steep hill that encourages some (mostly younger) drivers to speed up, because the sinking feeling -- whoopee -- is fun. Again, this is a narrow bridge that in the summer is crowded with pedestrians, kids and bicyclists, many of who can't be seen by approaching cars until it's too late -- especially if they're going to fast. There should be some sort of impossible-to-miss warning, or better yet, a way to force drivers to slow down. Again, what would be so bad about a stop sign?

In all fairness, when I shot this photo this weekend, I didn't see any signs of trouble. The drivers all seemed to be locals, going slowly out of respect for the icy streets, but also the bridge itself, further narrowed by accumulated snow on both sides of the roadway. There were few pedestrians, and when they crossed the bridge, cars left them room to pass. The situation will be different in the summer, especially on sunny weekends, when the bridge becomes a crowded recreational thoroughfare.

Plenty of time to put up a stop sign. I hope they do.