Saturday, April 26, 2008

Returning to town on a stormy Friday night

Returning to Madison
There were thunderstorms and threatening weather on the way home from work yesterday. Thought I'd try for some lightning shots to pass the time on the drive. Set the lens at infinity, underexposed a couple stops, shot a lot and hoped to get lucky. Never did, but captured some weird cloud effects instead. This was shot coming back into Madison on John Nolen Drive at Rimrock Road.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Crane Blogging: Living Dinosaurs?

Sandhill Sequence

Peter Patau Photo

This time, when I encountered a Sandhill Crane on my noon walk, I had the big camera with me. Got wet feet following it, too. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

In today's NYT there's a story about scientists using new molecular data extracted from T. Rex bones to confirm that birds are descended from dinosaurs.
The research, being published Friday in the journal Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific team reported. The link was previously suggested by anatomical similarities.

In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in evolutionary relationships.
I'm reminded again of Richard Powers' description of Sandhill Cranes in The Echo Maker: ". . . something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter step away from pterodactyls." It's not just poetic license. It seems to be true.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Memories of Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes
This seems to be wildlife week at Letter from Here. I like to take a camera with me on my noon walk, but sometimes it's the wrong camera. A couple days ago I took a DSLR with a telephoto zoom with me, because I hoped to see some Sandhill Cranes. No such luck -- all I saw was a couple of woodchucks. Yesterday I decided to leave the big camera behind, and -- of course -- there were cranes. All I had was my wide-angle point-and-shoot with the short telephoto. So this is not nearly as detailed as I would like, and it's cropped out of a much larger image.

It's hard not to be captivated by these magnificent birds, with their haunting, prehistoric cry. Most but not all Sandhills migrate from the arctic tundra to the Platte River. They're unusual among migratory birds in that they find their way not by celestial or magnetic navigation, but by memory -- a memory so accurate that it guides a pair back to exactly the same nest in the arctic tundra where they hatch their young, year after year, and within months begin teaching them the same route.
They converge on the river at winter's end as they have for eons, carpeting the wetlands. In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for real, it's a beginner's world again, the same evening as that day sixty million years ago when this migration began.
That passage is from the novel, The Echo Maker, a haunting meditation on human and animal memory by MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award winner Richard Powers -- a book that begins with the great birds' migration.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

As the sun sets on the Pennsylvania primary, can Obama and Clinton rise above their caricatures?


Far away from the sights and sounds of this never-ending campaign, there's a serenity to the natural world these days, as spring unfolds across the country and the geese fly north to their summer homes. They can get away from it all. We can't.

With Clinton's win in Pennsylvania by a big enough margin to keep going but not nearly enough to win, this awful Forever Campaign seems bound to keep going until the final round of June primaries nearly six weeks from now (Puerto Rico, Montana and Douth Dakota, totaling 110 delgates) -- and probably beyond. And each day the Democratic candidates become smaller and smaller.

The Democratic race has come up against the oldest law of media: If you repeat anything in the media long enough, it will become a parody of itself, unable to elicit anything but weary laughter. The Seinfeld show became such a parody of itself that the late-night reruns were painful to watch. Repeat yourself often enough, and you wear out your welcome. Now it's happening to Clinton and Obama.

The candidates are being transformed into caricatures of themselves, their policy positions lost in the shuffle of gotchas and spin: Obama, the well-spoken elitist who talks a good game but can't close the sale or get anything done. Clinton, the disingenuous opportunist who will do anything to win and refuses to concede that she's lost. Two bright, thoughtful candidates are being eclipsed by cartoon versions of themselves.

It's tragic. Two of the best candidates the Democrats have had in years, each candidacy a historic first, are diminishing each other, day by day, and in the process, the charisma is draining out of each of these talented politicians.

A few months ago, it was a foregone conclusion that a Democrat would be elected president in November. Now it's less certain. The longer they keep running narrow, tactical primary election campaigns that are geared to driving up each other's negatives, the more they look like political hacks, just out for themselves. It's a recipe for disaster.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both so much better than this. Each has the power to inspire, to evoke a vision of a better America and how to get there -- to rise above today's petty bickering for political advantage and to speak directly to the American people. If they do, one of them is lkely to become the next president. If not, it probably goes to McCain by default.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Woodchuck bravery

Woodchuck Bravery 1
I was taking my noon walk when I saw a woodchuck just ahead of me ten yards or so. They usually run off, but this one didn't. It seemed to be nuzzling a rock. As I drew closer, I saw it wasn't a rock at all, but another woodchuck just emerging from a burrow -- probably its mate. I imagined this conversation:

"Honey, don't look now, but there's one of those huge creatures approaching us with a big black thing hanging around it's neck. You'd better go. I'll distract it."

"Go without you? Why? Can't you come with me?"

"No, I'm going to stay here and keep an eye on it until I know you're safe. Hurry home. Use the back door, and I'll meet you there. Now!"

She scurried off through the underbrush and disappeared.

With the camera to my eye, I approached closer and closer, continuing to shoot, the DSLR mirror slapping loudly in the stillness. Chuck did not move. It seemed strange, because they're usually such shy creatures, quick to run at the slightest sound or movement. Instead, he stood his ground and did not budge while his mate made her way to safety. He seemed to be challenging me.

"You want a piece of me?"

For a moment I thought he was actually going to charge. Then, in the blink of an eye, he ducked into the hole at his feet and disappeared. Mission accomplished.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monday morning cube farm blues


Monday: After a great weekend, back to the same old same old. (Sooner of later, it seems everyone has to experiment with putting some amateur video up on YouTube. I guess my time has come.)

Unlike some people, our cat follows a prudent asset management strategy

Our Cat Follows a Prudent Asset Management Strategy
Our cat does not leverage his glitter balls. He values them and treats them with respect. He has not taken out any glitter ball equity loans to buy an SUV or boat. Nor has he taken out a second glitter ball mortgage to finance any glitter ball remodeling projects, and consequently his glitter ball mortgage is not underwater. And any assets he is not currently using, he keeps on deposit in the bank -- the food bank, that is. Good kitty.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Saturday night at the Cinematheque: Barbara Stanwyck in an early Capra film


I'd see Barbara Stanwyck in anything. She's always been one of my favorite stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, someone who usually transcended the trashy material she often found herself in. That was certainly true of the Cinematheque's Saturday night showing of a restored print of Forbidden, an absurd but very watchable 1932 romantic melodrama directed by Frank Capra and costarring Adolphe Menjou and Ralph Bellamy. Robert Keser wrote about Forbidden in the online film journal Sense of Cinema.
The flame of backstreet melodrama may have died out on the modern screen, but Frank Capra's Forbidden still feels powerfully alive, drawing its energy from the glowing 25 year-old Barbara Stanwyck and the director's response to her. At the time, the project was an admittedly crass attempt to ape Back Street itself, Fanny Hurst's best-selling novel, before John M. Stahl's more elaborate version at Universal hit the screen. Capra won the race even though production on Forbidden was suspended for six months while Stanwyck and Columbia boss Harry Cohn settled a salary dispute.

One of the first stars created in the talkie era, Stanwyck now looks the most modern and least affected of her contemporaries imported from Broadway for their expertise with dialogue (“actors popped out of the ground like crocuses in April”, in one contemporary Hollywood observer's words) (1). If Capra's Ladies of Leisure (1930) made her a star, the fast-moving Forbidden – Columbia Pictures' top moneymaker for 1932 – consolidated her popularity. For the first time Stanwyck's talent expanded to fill an entire movie, thanks to Capra's fresh staging and the gathering intensity that rode over its plot improbabilities.

Judging from the marked intimacy evoked on the screen, star and director clearly were working with more than professional affection. Though Stanwyck was still wedded to the pathologically jealous vaudeville comic Frank Fay, Capra admits that he proposed marriage while shooting Forbidden (or shortly afterward) and was rejected. While no primary evidence proves that they were lovers, and he soon married another woman, the emotional undercurrents pulse unmistakably through Forbidden.
As Keser notes, Forbidden was Columbia's top-grossing film of 1932, and it generally received favorable reviews at the time. One exception was The New York Times. Reviewer Mordaunt Hall begins this way:
With its intermittent bickering and embracing between the principal characters and its peculiar conception of human psychology, "Forbidden," the present pictorial feature at the Rialto, is a cumbersome effort at story-telling. Although there is little, if anything, to inspire them, Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou do all that is possible with their rĂ´les.
He tries to summarize the plot (a hopeless venture, really) and then concludes his review dismissively.
After that there comes the pardon and various other happenings, most of which are somewhat tedious.
I wondered whether in 1932 the august Times considered movies so frivolous that they had people writing reviews under pseudonyms. Certainly "Mordaunt Hall" sounds more like a nom de plume than a name of a real person. But it turns out -- oops -- that Mordaunt Hall was not only a real person but the first film critic of the New York Times.

Mark Your Calendar: On Friday, May 9, at 7:30 they'll be showing another restored Capra film, American Madness. Archivist Grover Crisp who was responsible for the series of restorations they've been showing will introduce the film and answer questions.

Loons and turtles and cranes, oh my -- a glorious day for biking in Madison Sunday, April 20

Perfect Day for Biking in Madison
Sunday was glorious biking weather in Madison -- sunny, with mild breezes and temperatures in the lower seventies. The Madison skyline floated above Lake Monona like a dream.

There were a couple of loons in Lake Monona, conducting their diving exercises in full view of the Capitol. (Click through the photo to view large in Flickr, if you want to actually see the loons.)

Every spring turtles come out to sun on this log in Wingra Creek near Fish Hatchery Road, but this year the water level is so high most of the log is submerged. There was just enough space for these two to perch and do their sunbathing thing. As we rode by on our bikes we also heard the strange, primeval cry of cranes in the Arboretum, but we couldn't see them. But it was as if all of nature was celebrating the arrival of spring along with us -- finally, after such a long winter.