Saturday, April 12, 2008

Stuff that's left behind when the University of Wisconsin's snow mountain melts

Mountain of Dirty Snow
This was how the University's snow mountain looked about a month ago when it was near its height. Every time we took one of our rare winter walks along the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path, we marveled at this rising pile of snow, dirt, oily street sludge and the various kinds of residue that end up on the University's streets and sidewalks and get swept up by the snowplows and removed. The University has to dump it somewhere, so they deposit it on the west end of the campus, north of Goodman Field and next to the marsh that borders Lake Mendota.

We always wondered how they kept it from harming the environment when it melted. Normally, they have some barriers in place. However, it turns out that our record snowfall this year overwhelmed the defenses somewhat, as Anita Weier reports in the Capital Times.
UW-Madison has been storing snow north of Goodman Field and south of a marsh that borders Lake Mendota for years, but this winter the snow overwhelmed the storage space and caused passers-by to worry about effects on the lake.

"A berm surrounds the snow pile, and silt fences and hay bales help filter the runoff from the snow pile. But with this year's snow, as much as we've had, some snow was pushed over the bales and barrier so some runoff is going directly into the marsh," said John Harrod, director of the physical plant for the university.

"We are working to clean it up so we can minimize impacts on the marsh."
Just one more way this winter has been one of the worst in years.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

That was Attorney general John Ashcroft on the so-called Principals meetings at which senior White House officials discussed and signed off on specific CIA "enhanced interrogation techniques" for individual "high-value" al Queda suspects. According to ABC News:
Highly placed sources said CIA directors Tenet and later Porter Goss along with agency lawyers briefed senior advisers, including Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Powell, about detainees in CIA custody overseas.

"It kept coming up. CIA wanted us to sign off on each one every time," said one high-ranking official who asked not to be identified. "They'd say, 'We've got so and so. This is the plan.'"

Sources said that at each discussion, all the Principals present approved.

"These discussions weren't adding value," a source said. "Once you make a policy decision to go beyond what you used to do and conclude it's legal, (you should) just tell them to implement it."

Then-Attorney General Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.

According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."
By asking for approval each time, Tenet seemed to be trying to get additional cover for his people's use of the interrogation techniques, which were torture in most people's minds, though not in the opinion of White House legal hacks. Perhaps the meetings also promoted a sense of shared complicity, mutual buy-in and an incentive for secrecy. After all, who was going to talk -- if talking meant confessing to participating in detailed discussions of war crimes.

Call me naive, but I still find it shocking that discussions like this were held by senior officials of my government, in the White House yet. So much for the idea of Abu Ghraib as a few bad apples.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Listening to a ghostly singer whose voice transcends time and space -- and the limits of the possible

It's almost drowned out now by random static and the hissing noise of time, but her voice was recorded before the Civil War, and her song now seems as ghostly as a faded daguerreotype.

It's amazing that we can hear it at all, and that I can play it on my iPod. It was recorded in France 148 years ago, in April of of 1860, a year before the Civil War started. Even stranger, the recording was made 17 years before Edison patented the phonograph, and 28 years before the first surviving Edison recording that can be played back. It could not be heard in its time, and it was never meant to be played back. It makes you wonder what other echoes are embedded in the world around us.

My time machine is a 10-second recording of a woman's plaintive French voice singing “Au Clair de la Lune.” The recording was discovered last month in a Paris archive by a group of American audio historians.
It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

“This is a historic find, the earliest known recording of sound,” said Samuel Brylawski, the former head of the recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress, who is not affiliated with the research group but who was familiar with its findings. The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison.
The device consisted of a barrel-shaped horn that was attached to a stylus that traced the sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened with soot. These wavy white lines on a black background charted the vocalizations of the singer, but there was no way to play them back or listen to them. Scott's device was really meant as a research instrument, making recordings of the human voice that could be studied -- and perhaps deciphered later. The recordings were no secret. Until now they've been considered curios by audio historians.

What's new is the technology used to decipher the recordings and play them back. Researchers who are part of an informal collaborative called First Sounds scanned the paper recordings and then used a computerized virtual stylus to play them back. The New York Times posted mp3 links for both the 1860 song and a modern recording to help orient you when you listen to the original. There's additional information at the First Sounds website, including drawings from Scott's original patent application.

Precisely because it is so crude and simple, the phonoautograph opens up some fertile territory for speculation: As Scott's recording demonstrates, you don't necessarily need fancy modern audio equipment to record of a sound wave's passage, though reading the record may be a different matter. Who knows? Maybe somewhere a dinosaur roared and a twig reverberated with the sound and left squiggles on a bit of wet clay that became fossilized. Perhaps this sound, or something like it, is just waiting for its traces to be discovered and decoded.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The last days of the St. Raphael's Cathedral Madisonians have known for more than a century


Peter Patau Photo

We were on our way to the Wisconsin Film Festival Saturday when we passed St. Raphael's Cathedral. Although we were already running late, the stained glass windows glowed so brilliantly in the late afternoon light that we had to pull over and take some pictures (click on photos to enlarge).

Normally, stained glass windows glow in a darkened interior, but ever since fire destroyed the roof and the sanctuary three years ago, while leaving the walls and the steeple standing, the sun streams right through the empty building when it's low in the sky, and the windows put on a dazzling light show on the shadowed walls.

The reason the steeple looks so new is that it is new -- it was replaced by a replica of the deteriorating spire (built in 1885) just months before the fire broke out. The cornerstone of the former parish church was laid in 1854. In 1946 St. Raphael's was chosen as the Cathedral Parish of the new Archdiocese of Madison, which encompassed an 11-county area. St. Raphael's has long been a part of life in Madison, as well as its downtown skyline.

Soon, however, it will go on leave of absence from the skyline until a new cathedral is built. Demolition is scheduled to start soon and be completed this year. A fund-raising drive was recently put on hold for a year because of economic conditions, but the plan is to build a larger cathedral on the same site , retaining as many parts of the old building as possible -- including undamaged windows, parts of the interior and, especially, the ornate and familiar spire. Click here for more background on St. Rapahel's in the Madison Catholic Herald.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Lining up at the Majestic for the Wisconsin Film Festival showing of "My Brother Is an Only Child"

Lined Up at the Majestic Theater for the Wisconsin Film Festival
We only had a chance to cach one showing at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival. In this tenth anniversary year of the festival we went to a showing at the Majestic, the former art house that has long been one of the favorite haunts of Madison film buffs, partly because of its long history as part of the local film scene, and partly because of its amenities, which include a cool balcony and a bar that serves drinks you can take to your seat.

Sitting in the same balcony where I saw my first Fellini movies, we saw a more recent Italian import, "My Brother Is an Only Child." This 2007 film that opened recently in New York and Los Angeles isn't especially experimental or cutting edge, but it's a fascinating look at the political chaos in Italy during the sixties and seventies, represented by the conflict in a wildly disfunctional family -- between two brothers, one a Communist and the other a Fascist. It's a comic drama of sibling rivalry, told from the viewpoint of the Accio, the misfit family scapegoat with a good heart who drifts into (and eventually grows out of) a flirtation with Fascism in its postwar form. His brother, Manrico becomes a Communist who loses his bearings in the ever more radical seventies -- the family's golden boy, the ironic "only child" of the title. And, naturally, they both fall in love with the same girl. Italy, during the period covered by the film, was actually a very dark Cold war battlefield with the U.S. and Soviet Union waging war by other means through local proxies, and the film doesn't really go into the deeper history. But it's an entertaining look at the political battles of four decades ago, reflected in the emotional turmoil of one screwed up family