Friday, February 05, 2010

David Brooks looks at the quaint natives of Madison and finds a "happy Midwestern cult"

David Brooks has one of his contrarian think pieces in the Times today. He looks at how sports build character and social cohesion and asks whether big-time college sports have grown too big, corrupt and commercial to accomplish this valuable objective. Predictably, being David Brooks, he takes the road less taken and comes down solidly on the side of a platitude favoring bigness.
But bigness has virtues as well as vices. Big-time college sports are absurd, but we would miss them if they were gone.
How does he arrive at this conclusion? Through solid anecdotal personal research involving looking out his taxi window at the curious inhabitants of Madison.
Several years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., for a conference. It was Saturday morning, and as my taxi got close to campus, I noticed people dressed in red walking in the same direction. At first it was a trickle, then thousands. It looked like the gathering of a happy Midwestern cult, though, of course, it was the procession to a football game.
Ah, those happy simple folks in the Midwest. Aren't their folk rituals quaint?

What's with the open water on Lake Wingra?

What's with the Open Water on Lake Wingra?
We finally bestirred ourselves from our winter torpor yesterday and went for a sunny walk in the Edgewood College woods and the nearby boardwalk along Lake Wingra.

What's with the Open Water on Lake Wingra?The fresh snow from the day before was was still pristine and white. The weather was mild, the sun was bright and felt warm and optimistic. We were startled by the panoramic view of the entire lake from the boardwalk, a view that's obstructed by a wall of marsh grasses and cattails in summer and fall.

Even more startling was this pool of open water near the shore of the smallest of Madison's lakes, which is mostly frozen solid this time of year. It's spring water. The local blog Unseen Madison has more:
Lake Wingra has open water here because of a spring. New Millennium spring, located near the boardwalk at Edgewood College, appeared in 2000. Lake Wingra’s springs may explain why it was at the center of an incredibly dense concentration of effigy mounds. About 8 of the lake’s original 30 springs still flow -- reduced groundwater affects spring output.
After all the grim gray and dirty white of January, the little blue pool of open water was a delightful foretaste of things to come, contrasted by the snow and ice on all sides.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

What hath the internet wrought?

The iPad, the Kindle, and all the other readers, and the internet itself -- they're all just part of a historical seachange every bit as radical as the invention of movable type. Not just the iPad, but the entire modern process of unfettering text from the printed page. A revolution in human consciousness is under way and nobody knows where it’s going. See Memo from the Monastery -- an incredibly funny and thought-provoking take on what it looked like the last time change on a scale like this swept across the civilizations of the world. (Via Chris Norris.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Only Carly Fiorina could be responsible for an ad as weirdly bizarre as this alien sheep frightmare


Sure enough. Talk about failing upward. First Fiorina does her best to run HP into the ground (not only did she engineer the ill-fated Compaq merger, she was named to many worst CEO lists, drove down HP stock prices more than 50% during her tenure -- and, worst of all for a technology executive, she was dubbed the "anti-Steve Jobs" by Infoworld). Then she became John McCain's economic adviser. That worked out so well. Did McCain even have an economic policy? Now she apparently hopes to wreck the U.S. Senate. All she has to do is unseat Barbara Boxer this fall.

Only one problem. She's running well behind former California Congressman Tom Campbell in the Republican primary. This seems to be her attempt to rally with a Hail Mary pass. It's an agonizingly long throw that seems to have been tossed in super slow motion. Check out that painfully long running time.

The commercial progresses by stages from bad to worse to totally bonkers. Metaphors that are weirdly inappropriate for her message are tossed about in confused, paranoid fashion. One moment her opponent is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and then all we're seeing is sheep with demonic alien eyes. Who knew?

Part of the job description of being the antiSteve Jobs is to counter his brilliant TV commercials with some of the worst ever made. She's been here before. In the aftermath of 9/11, Fiorina authorized strange Orwellian TV spots that seemed to be set in some totalitarian country where HP where responsible for tracking down dissidents and dragging them off kicking and screaming to the paddy wagon with some sort of virtual cybernet. She wasn't just the anti-Steve Jobs, these were the anti-Apple Big Brother ads.

Nice to see she hasn't lost her touch.

Video links for the day the music died

There are Buddy Holly-related video links at Roger Ebert's blog. The links include include, in addition to Holly singing "Peggy Sue" and Don McLean's original version of "American Pie," Madonna's bizarre rendition of the latter -- about which, of 2,500 comments from more than 1 million viewers, this is one of the more printable responses: "HOPE U GO TO HELL FOR THIS! THIS IS A PIECE OF SHIT." Others really hated it. (Of the fans who liked the Madonna version, quite a few said they had never heard the song before.)

If Madison were Colorado Springs we'd be starting to turn out many of the street lights

And selling the police helicopter, except we don't have a police helicopter to sell . . . It's easy to forget how lucky we are in Madison with our relatively low unemployment rate and residents willing to pay property taxes for basic city services. It could be so much worse. Take Colorado Springs, for example -- another mid-size city that until recently was often listed as a great place to live and work.
This tax-averse city is about to learn what it looks and feels like when budget cuts slash services most Americans consider part of the urban fabric.

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.
Must be that Wild West tradition. Sounds exciting, until you have to live it.

Madison's headless snowman as big as a house -- almost as mysterious as the Pyramids

Headless Snowman as Big as a House
Questions abound: How did they get that torso up there? What happened to the head? What's up with the ladder? Wyota Avenue, off Monroe Street behind Mallatt's.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Let's hear it for the strength and stability of Canada's boring banking (and healthcare) system

I was watching a PBS program about the Donner Party last night. This almost archetypal cautionary tale of American risk-taking gone wrong unfolds with all the inevitability of Greek tragedy, and like a classical tragedy, it's all about hubris and its tragic consequences. It was also a reminder that American culture has an optimistic tendency to overvalue recklessness and risk-taking for their own sake, turning them into entrepreneurial virtues. No wonder we had a banking crisis.

Canadians, like their American cousins in so many ways, seem more buttoned-down about risk. Maybe that's why some Americans mock them as boring (and the real loonies misrepresent them as socialists). Paul Krugman comments that, when it comes to banking, boring is good. Canada avoided our banking crisis because their banking system is fundamentally boring, in the sense of being more risk-averse than ours.

Given the similarities between the two countries, Canada's experience throws an interesting light on what happened here. Like the U.S., they have banks too big to fail -- there are only five major banking groups in all of Canada. And their interest rates were about as low as ours. So why didn't their banks also fail?

Mainly because they resisted turning their banking system into a giant casino. Krugman comments:
Canada’s experience does seem to support the views of people like Elizabeth Warren, the head of the Congressional panel overseeing the bank bailout, who place much of the blame for the crisis on failure to protect consumers from deceptive lending. Canada has an independent Financial Consumer Agency, and it has sharply restricted subprime-type lending.

Above all, Canada’s experience seems to support those who say that the way to keep banking safe is to keep it boring — that is, to limit the extent to which banks can take on risk. The United States used to have a boring banking system, but Reagan-era deregulation made things dangerously interesting. Canada, by contrast, has maintained a happy tedium.
Check out the rest of the column. Krugman makes some good points. His column is tightly focused on one issue. He refrains from dragging in another area in which the Canadian attitude toward risk is different from ours in the U.S. -- healthcare. I'm not as disciplined.

Canada has universal healthcare. We don't. I've often wondered why this country has failed to provide universal coverage. Is there really another, more primal reason lurking beneath the surface of all the usual arguments against universal coverage? Is there something in our cultural DNA that always erodes political support for healthcare reform?

Maybe it's just that all too many Americans are willing to gamble with their health, betting that they'll never get really sick with a serious, expensive illness, and that if they get really lucky -- hey, maybe they'll live forever. And that, like the Donner Party taking their fateful shortcut to the promised land, many of us would rather be positive thinkers than prudent planners.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Downtown Madison viewed from the little village of temporary shacks on Monona Bay

Little Village in the Big City
Although it's nominally a city, Madison is still a small town in many ways. But viewed from the ice fishing shantytown on Monona Bay, it kind of looks like a real metropolis gleaming in the sun.