Friday, October 02, 2009

At least nobody was killed. It was no Bay of Pigs. Maybe now we can get down to business.

I was stunned by the news from Copenhagen about Chicago's Olympic bid, not because I cared all that much about where the 2016 Olympics end up, but because I had convinced myself that President Obama wouldn't have put the prestige of his office on the line without having some inside knowledge that Chicago's acceptance was a done deal. Yeah, right.

Most presidential administrations begin with a period of almost giddy hubris in the White House. This is a bit different from the "honeymoon" they always talk about, which has to do with some vaguely defined period of goodwill extended to the new president by Congress and the public. It's arrogance, pure and simple. It's as if the enormous power of the office starts to deprive the president and his staff of more and more of their normal common sense and judgment. They don't sense the limits of their power until they're forced to confront it by some embarrassing public humiliation. It's after this that the real presidency begins.

For Kennedy, it was the Bay of Pigs. Chicago's getting so ignominiously kicked off Mt. Olympus was hardly a tragedy. Nobody was killed. But what the defeat lacked in tragic dimensions, it made up for in the farce of humbled hubris. It was all the more embarrassing for being so gratuitous. Obama had already said he wasn't going. It made his knuckling under to narrow parochial interests seem all the more inept, once the results came in.

Maybe this is the wake-up call President Obama needed. It's not as if his leadership on healthcare in the last few months hasn't suffered from a lot of the same ineptitude. We can only hope he's becoming aware that good words are not enough. Healthcare would be a good place to begin. And some real economic reform. The new unemployment figures today are horrible -- 9.8% unemployment, with the "real rate" up to 17%.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Black and White Postcard from the Deindustrializing Heartland

Postcard from the Deindustrializing Heartland
For some in this increasingly two-tier economy, it is forever Christmas. But for others it's definitely not, no matter how much people say the recovery is under way -- especially in the deindustrializing Rust Belt.

I took this picture on Labor Day in Kenosha. WI, the old manufacturing city on Lake Michigan with a double-digit jobless rate. It has taken many hits in recent decades, especially when the auto industry and many of its suppliers pulled out. I was reminded of Kenosha by the headlines yesterday saying that the Fed's Midwest manufacturing index had dropped again -- down now more than 20% compared with a year earlier, vs. a national decline of "only" 12%. It's possible to see the silver lining in all this -- but you probably have to be Corporate Report Wisconsin to see Kenosha and similarly afflicted Racine just to the north along the lake as "shining beacons."

And what is it about this "jobless recovery," anyhow? A recovery for Wall Street only? How can some people be basking in a stock market-fueled "recovery," when the country is filled with areas where the real unemployment rate, by the time you add in the people who have stopped looking for work, is flirting with Depression levels and people are losing their homes left and right? What kind of recovery is that?

It makes you wonder about the corporate news media. If the Great Depression had been broadcast in living color on television every night, would we have a sunnier view of it as well?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lake Winga's underwater wonderland is tinged with gold now, and it's more visible

Wingra's Gold-tinged Underwater Wonderland Is More Visible Now
Autumn color comes to the bottom of Lake Wingra as well as to the trees around it, and you can see it better this year. All summer long, it seemed that the water in Lake Wingra was clearer than in the past. You could see the bottom to a greater depth, where there just used to be impenetrable murk. At first, I wondered if it were an illusion, but it turned out it's not.

It's because of a carp management program. This experimental attempt to improve water quality in the lake, sponsored by Friends of Lake Wingra, has been strikingly successful, according to a story in the Wisconsin State Journal a few weeks ago that Chris Gruhl pointed out to me.
Limnologists with UW-Madison say recent tests have shown that Lake Wingra is cleaner than it has been during the past 12 years or more.

But it doesn't take a scientist to see the difference. All you have to do is stand hip-deep in the lake and look through the clear water to the sandy bottom where native aquatic plants make it look like you're wading around in an aquarium. The reason for this turnaround? Carp. Or, more precisely, the lack of carp.

Limnologist Dick Lathrop said the removal of more than half of the carp in the lake over the last two winters has resulted in less silt being churned up by the muck-loving fish. Not only is the water clearer, according to Lathrop, but native plants are doing better and outbreaks of blue-green algae have been minimal. The popular beach on the lake has not been closed once this year due to water quality.
So, why do the carp have such a big effect on the water quality in the lake? It's because when there are too many of them, they stir up the bottom. More of the sediment is suspended in the water, carrying nutrients with it for algae blooms and invasive species to feed on. The nutrients, of course, come from storm water runoff into the lake, which Friends of Lake Wingra has been trying to reduce. Which is why they got involved with the carp project in the first place.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Is our mission in Afghanistan worth the cost?

Afghanistan: Worth the Cost?
Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time walking in Arlington National Cemetery, haunted by history in this great national national monument to courage and sacrifice. It's a profound testament to the human and emotional cost of war.

This was already on my mind because of the young men and women I saw at the airports in Charleston and Atlanta on their way to our current conflicts. Their heavy backpacks were the least of the burdens they carried. One young woman in her crisp camouflage uniform especially stood out in my mind -- the little stuffed animals lashed to her huge backpack made her seem achingly young and vulnerable. Bob Herbert caught this feeling in a recent Times column.
A friend of mine who lives in South Carolina sent me an e-mail about a young serviceman in civilian clothes whom she and her husband noticed as he talked on a public telephone in the Atlanta airport last week. He was 19 or 20 years old and quite thin. His clothes and his shoes were worn, my friend said, but the thing she noticed most “was the sadness in his eyes and his sweet demeanor.”

The young man was speaking to his mom in a voice that was quite emotional. My friend recalled him saying, “We’re about to board for Oklahoma for the training before we move out. I didn’t want to bother Amber at work, so please tell her I called if you don’t think it will upset her too much. ... I miss you all so much and love you, and I just don’t know how I’ll get through this.”

At the end of the call, the serviceman had tears in his eyes and my friend said she did, too. She wrote in the e-mail: “I stood up and wished him good luck, and he smiled the sweetest smile that has haunted me ever since.”
Spend some time in Arlington, and you're immersing yourself in the best and worst in American history. You're reminded of how many people have served in America's wars, how many paid the ultimate price, and how many others returned, their lives forever changed by their injuries or the emotional toll of combat.

You ask yourself, was it worth it? There's no simple, reassuring answer. Every death is tragic. But you can't help but think that some died in great causes that changed the world and made it a better place. It's hard to call any war a good war, but some have come as close as possible in this fallen world. Others have simply been a testament to folly, misguided policies and the spinelessness of expedient politicians.

Now the Obama administration is weighing whether to vastly increase our military commitment to the Afghan war. It's hard to see how we could prevail in what would become our longest war, with little public support, in a faraway land that has been the burial ground for the hubris of empires from Alexander the great to the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Would it be worth it? Or would we someday look back on it as one more chapter in what Barbara Tuchman called "the march of folly"?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Madison Public Library Monroe Street Branch reopens Sunday after getting a facelift

Mayor Dave at the Reopening of the Monroe Street Branch of MPL
One of the cool things about Madison is its impressive support for its public library system at a time of tight budgets and economic uncertainty. In some communities, libraries are among the first things that get tossed overboard in a budget crunch. Not in Madison.

A case in point: The reopening of the Monroe Street Branch after a facelift that created a more functional facility in the same space, with more computers and a more open layout. I was there to take photos for the library, but also because it is my neighborhood branch.

A year ago, it looked as if the branch might be forced to close due to budget problems. Now, a year later, it's not only still open, but better than ever. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who put funding in his budget to keep the branch open last fall, spoke at the reopening reception Sunday, both about the branch and also his $37-million plan to rebuild the downtown library, only $17 million coming from taxpayers. Orange Schroeder of Orange Tree Imports and president of the Monroe Street Library League recalled the days last year when it looked as if the branch might close and thanked those who helped keep it open.

Harmony Crossing Wrote and Performed the Musical EntertainmentThere were other speakers as well, but it's fair to say these three women stole the show. Who says you can't make libraries entertaining? From left to right: Tanya Cunningham, Doleta Chapru and Marli Johnson of Harmony Crossing. They got things off to a rousing start by performing a library song they wrote for the occasion. In addition, the library's annual book sale was held as part of the Monroe Street Festival.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Stalking an elusive Sandhill Crane from Wingra Park to the UW Arboretum

Stalking a Sandhill Crane in Wingra Park
I couldn't get any closer, and it flew off when I tried. At first I thought it was a heron, but if you view it large you can see just a hint of the characteristic Sandhill red spot.

It flew off to my right, along the shore, and I thought it might be flying over to Ho-nee-um Pond in the nearby UW Arboretum, and I walked through the woods to get there. It had started drizzling lightly and I slipped my camera under my jacket to keep it dry. Arriving at the pond, I couldn't see anything. I leaned over some underbrush toward the pond to get a better view.

Suddenly a pair of huge gray wings exploded almost from beneath my feet. The crane's enormous wings completely filled my field of vision for an instant and then rapidly receded across the pond. As I struggled to get the camera out of my jacket and into focus, the crane's powerful wings propelled it past some trees across the pond and out of sight. Next time.