Saturday, February 20, 2010

Apt metaphor on icy Lake Mendota for the sad state of American democracy?

Apt metaphor on the Ice for the State of American Democracy?
There's gridlock in Washington and what looks like a disaster scene on Lake Mendota in front of the UW Memorial Union. An angry scar runs across the ice. Lady Liberty looks to be in bad shape. Why has she cast down her torch -- once such a hopeful beacon of the American Dream for millions? Has she tossed it aside out of fear? Frustration? Anger? Helplessness? The bottom has fallen out. She's up to her eyeballs in the icy waters, in danger of drowning. The people are milling about, unsure what to do, wondering whether they can put their broken democracy together again.

Sound familiar?

Silver lining -- the good news about outrageously escalating health insurance prices

The outrageous individual health insurance price increases by Wellpoint subsidiary Anthem in California -- as high as 39% in some cases -- are shaking up the politics of healthcare reform. The free market seems to be demonstrating more effectively than it's critics ever could that it simply can't cope with providing a basic human right like healthcare.

Paul Krugman comments on the California mess, which is simply the same situation faced by the rest of America writ large.
Why the huge increase? It’s not profiteering, says WellPoint, which claims instead (without using the term) that it’s facing a classic insurance death spiral.
This may be good news. At the rate they're going with their outrageous price increases, the big insurance companies really are locking themselves into a classic death spiral -- the more they charge, the more people drop out, leaving only the sickest policyholders who can't afford to cancel no matter what the price, driving up costs further, raising prices more, in an endless feedback loop that is rapidly escalating. Soon there won't be anything left.

Hard to imagine what we can do when that happens except to start over with universal coverage and a public option -- at least if doctors, other medical providers and hospitals ever hope to get paid.

Madison's snow doesn't just come down as flakes but also as streamers

Madison's Snow Doesn't Just Come Down in Flakes but in Streamers
Winter is long and fun is short.

Friday, February 19, 2010

By far my favorite Olympics commercial

AT&T's spot with U.S. Olympic snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler using the universe as her half pipe, to the sound of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." I suppose you could call it "2001 Lite," or even "2010: A Snowboard Odyssey."

Who doesn't wish they could fly to the stars? When I read the Alfred Bester science fiction classic "The Stars My Destination" as a kid I used to dream I was protagonist Gully Foyle who found a way to travel to the stars simply by thinking, or "jaunting," as the process was called in the story.

Now that I'm older and wiser -- and had my eyes opened by AT&T -- I know you don't need any of that scifi stuff. Just a skateboard. Today the Olympics, tomorrow the stars.

Really sad about Tim Browning's dancing bears being stolen and his derricks vandalized

Oil Sure Must Be Running Low If They're Pumping It Out of Lake Monona
I blogged earlier about Timothy Browning's BLINK public art project on Lake Monona near the Monona Terrace consisting of oil derricks and dancing bears. Recently some jerk stole the bears and vandalized the derricks. Channel 3 has a story about it.

View Large On Black to get a better view of the bears.

Everyone Is All Dressed Up In Black

Everyone Is Dressed in Black
San Francisco, 2002, Olympus XA, Kodak Gold 200

Film cameras do have their advantages. This could probably not have been shot digitally, at least not with my equipment. I shot several pictures of the crow. Because the XA shutter is so silent, the crow wasn't startled and didn't fly off. Instead he just looked at me with wry amusement. The D90 dslr would have scared him off with the first shot.

I saw the surfer walking into the picture while I was photographing the crow and waited for him to move into just the right position. With the Coolpix point and shoot, I would probably have missed this exact moment because of the shutter lag.

Who knows. Maybe I'll finally get a new battery and some film for the XA. This time around I could get some decent scans made when the film is processed.

Nostalgic for the abstractions I used to make with my analog camera, the Olympus XA

Nostalgic for the Abstractions I Used to Make with My Olympus XA
Back before I got into digital photography, I was really attached to my Olympus XA. I took it everywhere. Surprisingly few compromises for a full frame 35mm pocket film camera: excellent 35mm, f/2.8 lens, flexible manual controls, etc.

And it had an endearing little quirk that practically forced me to make abstract photographs frequently. When you loaded the camera, there was no way to advance the take-up reel without making exposures. I would start a roll of film by snapping a couple "throwaway" shots since I didn't want to risk a "real" photo getting lightstruck from the loading.

To distinguish the throwaways from the rest, I would shoot them blurry and out of focus. I'd set the shutter speed at about a tenth of a second, focus on infinity, and then wave the camera around near a light source with a dark background. Abstraction ensued.

And it was always a surprise. Now matter how pedestrian the rest of the roll might be, I could always look forward to seeing my little quota of new abstractions when I opened the envelope of prints.

Could I do more or less the same thing with a digital? With the Coolpix P50, just about, although it's only partially manual and won't let me depart too far from the program. With the D90, sure -- but what's the point? It's just one more thing to preview on the LCD and then delete.

Part of the magic was the ritual. And waiting for the photos to be developed. The little surprise in each package of prints.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

10 ways to interpret poll showing unqualified Palin nevertheless running well against Obama

Here's an eye-opener.
A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) finds that an overwhelming majority of Americans do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president -- but a significant number of those people would still vote for her against Barack Obama.

The poll asked "Do you think Sarah Palin is or is not qualified to serve as President?" The answer was only 30% qualified, 59% not qualified, 11% undecided. However, in a direct match-up against President Obama, Palin attracts 43% of the vote to Obama's 50%. This means that there are 13% of Americans who either do not think Palin is qualified to be president, or are undecided on the matter, and would nevertheless vote for her.
Some possible interpretations:

1. People respect Palin's intuitive grasp of social media and her "little Twittering thing."

2. People who would vote for an unqualified candidate against a black president are racist.

3. People who would vote for an unqualified candidate against a highly educated incumbent president are stupid.

4. People who would vote for an unqualified candidate against a qualified incumbent are populists.

5. People think being qualified is a synonym for being a compromised defender of the status quo.

6. People will say anything to pollsters just to get them riled up.

7. If qualifications are so important, why have the best and the brightest made such a mess of things?

8. Almost anybody would be better than a president who thinks people who speculate with public money are hard workers who deserve to succeed.

9. Better dead (no healthcare) than red (government-imposed socialist healthcare).

10. Hey, who needs qualifications if you look hot in red?

Remembering when Lady Liberty planted her torch on Lake Monona instead of Mendota

When Lady Liberty Planted Her Torch on Madison's Other Major Lake
I was going through some old prints I shot with my old Olympus XA film camera, when I came across this 2001 photo of Lady Liberty on Lake Monona near the Monona Terrace. Her torch was taller and it had a hand holding it, unlike the current iteration on Lake Mendota in front of the UW Memorial Union. I had completely forgotten that she had spent any time on the other major Madison lake, but seeing is believing.

DSCN3618-KitesOnIcePanorama-smIt happened in February of that year, during the first of the short-lived Kites on Ice festivals at Monona Terrace and the frozen lake out front. It was a great venue, and a marvelous event. Kiters came from all over the world to fly their kites on the lake. There were indoor workshops and demonstrations, and Monona Terrace provided the perfect vantage point to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate and watch the colorful action on the ice. There were fireworks at the close. I still miss it.

DSCN3611-KitesOnIceOlin-sm In 2002, the on-ice activities shown here were moved across the lake, offshore from Olin Park, because the ice in front of Monona Terrace wasn't safe. But after a strong initial run with thousands of spectators, including many families with kids, the festival sort of petered out and came to an end after several years. As I recall, there were both scheduling and cost conflicts with Monona Terrace, which had been happy to host the first festival, because it was new and hadn't lined up much winter business yet, but after that it seemed to become a less hospitable venue. Whatever the reason, I think Madison really missed an opportunity. City leaders could have embraced Kites on Ice as a catalyst and built a unique and exciting ice carnival around the event. It would have brought thousands of people to downtown Madison in the winter, and anything that does that is all to the good. Maybe one of these days...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rock pools of consciousness linked by the tide

California Coast Somewhere Between San Francisco and Santa Cruz
When the tide goes out, tide pools all have their own unique identities. But when the tide comes in, they all become part of one sea.

Christopher Isherwood employs this as a powerful metaphor in his novel, A Single Man, which I wanted to compare it to Tom Ford's movie version. I'll do that in another post, but I wanted to put this quote up because I think it's such a beautiful passage. It's a sort of framing device that comes near the end of the novel, as the author's voice emerges directly from the third-person interior monologue in which the rest of the story is told. It also reflects Isherwood's interest in the mystical tradition of Vedanta.
Up the coast a few miles north, in a lava reef under the cliffs, there are a lot of rock pools. You can visit them when the tide is out. Each pool is separate and different, and you can, if you are fanciful, give them names, such as George, Charlotte, Kenny, Mrs. Strunk. Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual identities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness -- so to speak -- are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures coexist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And, throughout the day of the ebb tide, they know no other.

But that long day ends at last; yields to the nighttime of the flood. And, just as the waters of the ocean come flooding, darkening over the pools, so over George and the others in sleep come the waters of that other ocean -- that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars. We may surely suppose that, in the darkness of the full flood, some of these creatures are lifted from their pools to drift far out over the deep waters. But do they ever bring back, when the daytime of the ebb returns, any kind of catch with them? Can they tell us, in any manner, about their journey? Is there, indeed, anything for them to tell -- except that the waters of the ocean are not really other than the waters of the pool?

Let there be light

Let There Be Light
And make it green. So important this time of year. Bolz Conservatory, Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

View Large On Black

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A film I really can't wait to see

I this aging magician looks familiar, there's a good reason. In Screen Daily Lisa Nesselson reviews "The Illusionist," which just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.
An aging French magician who is a dead ringer for Jacques Tati uses sleight-of-hand to give a clueless Scottish girl a poetic assist toward adulthood in "The Illusionist." Five years in the making, master animator Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to "The Triplets Of Belleville" deploys superb hand-drawn imagery to bring to life an unproduced screenplay the late Tati finished in 1959. Told with no dialogue but carried along by deeply evocative sound design, this visually rewarding film’s timeless, near-universal appeal should translate to widespread critical praise and art house play.
Read the whole review here and find out how the film almost didn't happen, how Chomet found out about the old script almost accidentally when he asked Tati's daughter for permission to use a clip of her father on his bicycle from "Jour De Fete" in "Triplets."

I love Tati. I love "Triplets." Can't wait.

(Via @ebertchicago.)

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!
Happy Mardi Gras! Starting tomorrow some serious Lenten discipline will be in order, but on Fat Tuesday we're living big. And the oyster po' boys wouldn't be complete without some baubles, bangles and beads from Mallatt Pharmacy and Costume.

Afghanistan: Turning people whose history and culture we don't know into abstractions

I recently came across this photograph again in an old museum catalog, and it reminded me of how the degree to which Afghanistan remains a mystery to us in the West and, in particular, to the Obama administration's policymakers.

It's by a famous American photographer better known for a much different body of work. As noted at the link, "Migrant Mother" is the most famous photograph in the Library of Congress. Lange will always be known for this and the other beautifully observed works of documentary photography she did for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression. She also documented the Japanese internment in World War II. In her documentary work of that time, she immersed herself in her subject matter, and it shows.

This is a very different image. It appeared in the retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that opened shortly after her death at the age of 71 in 1965 (she had worked with curator John Szarkowski in preparing the exhibit). The catalog was published posthumously by MOMA, and this photo is on p. 58. It's titled "Pathan Warrior Tribesman" and was taken in the Khyber Pass in 1958.

It's a beautiful image, haunting in its way, but it relies more on abstraction than close personal observation. Lange traveled with her husband, agricultural economist Paul Taylor, on his travels around the world and photographed what she saw. This is the Other, seen as totally opaque and alien, through western eyes, passing through. It's a tourist photo -- albeit a tourist who is an extremely talented photographer -- rather than a documentary photograph. We see, not an individual, but a type, his face shadowed and enfolded by swirls of dark fabric. Who is he? What is his name? How does he live? Why is he a "warrior"? What does it mean to be a "tribesman"? Instead, we have an image that is as mysterious as it is graphically powerful.

"Pathan" is a term that used to be used more widely to describe the people who are now more often referred to as "Pashtun" -- the tribal community from which most of the Taliban are drawn. They were a mystery to the West in 1958, and we haven't learned much in 50 years. We're still making the same mistake in Afghanistan that we made in Vietnam of conflating an indigenous nationalistic insurgency with an international conspiracy and then being unable to distinguish them.

Are we fighting the Taliban? Al Queda? Or both? We never seem to really know who we are fighting or why. In Vietnam, we came to regard this confusion as a "morass." We seem to be sinking deeper and deeper into the same thing now, with no end in sight.

Monday, February 15, 2010

As overstressed publishers focus more on established talent, what are new writers to do?

Stressed by the disintermediating effect of the web, many publishers have all they can do just to hang on. As a result, most are doing less and less for new and midlist writers, while focusing more of their promotional efforts on their best-selling authors. It's tough for new writers trying to develop an audience. Even if they published, who's going to promote their work? Novelist Marie Mockett, who published her first novel last fall, comments on what this means for emerging literary talent in her blog (Via Moonrat).
Not long ago, Nielsen announced that Kirkus, one of four trade reviewers of books (which charged a fee, mind you), was closing. Ron Charles, the Washington Post Fiction editor, lamented via his Twitter feed: “Everytime we lose 1 of these rare independent voices we grow more dependent on publicists, authors' parents/ friends clogging blogs w praise.” Well, yes, that’s right. That is what will happen—and it is what is happening. It is, in fact, what has helped me with my book—the collection of readers and mothers and writers who are looking for something new. As far as I’m concerned, the bloggy-internet-online-bookclub-nightmare of publishers and editors can’t happen fast enough. As a reader, I don’t need to read reviews of the same writers over and over and over again. Yes, I understand that there is a hierarchy, that Margaret Atwood has been at this much longer than I have, and that she deserves my deference. I don’t believe, however, that I’m not supposed to have a career at all. New writers, after all, are the lifeblood of this profession that we are supposed to care about so much. I say we level the playing field sooner, rather than later.
As bookstores start to go the way of record stores, new writers will be more and more responsible for promoting their own work -- the same situation that faced musicians earlier. For some writers this will be an opportunity. For others, not so much. After all, musicians are by nature performers. Most writers are not.

Any good public places in Madison without wifi for addicts who want to get some work done?

I used to love to write in public places like cafes and coffee shops -- just enough people and social activity around me to keep from drowning in my own solipsism, but not enough distraction to keep me from getting any work done. But when I got a wireless laptop and everything changed.

Addiction is a terrible thing. If Seth Fischer's description of the tortures of the damned doesn't strike a nerve, you probably don't use the internet much.
A couple weeks back, I was in a bad way. I’d recently joined Twitter, was always on Fa cebook, and checked my email (and I don’t exaggerate) about 75 times a day. I couldn’t stand it, but I also couldn’t stop. I spent more than half my waking hours on a screen.

It’s not heroin. I should have been able to stop myself. But I couldn’t. Really. I wasn’t getting any writing done. I was ignoring my girlfriend and my friends. I was reading George Packer’s musings on how all this technology needs to stop and tearing up. I read this article about heavy web users being depressed. I agreed. I checked my email again.
Fischer sought out an alternative and found it in Borderlands Cafe, which is wireless-free by design and affiliated with Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco. Fischer finds salvation at last.
Not only do they not have wireless, but they don’t have music, and everything is remarkably well lit.

By the time I left the coffee shop, I’d cleared my head and written 3,000 words. With the Internet and music to distract me, it would take me a month to write that much, and I would have ended the day more panicked then when I started. I also couldn’t help but notice how many people were buying magazines and coffee. Even more striking was how many people thanked the barista for the store’s policies.
Fischer's post in The Rumpus about owner Allan Beatts explains his policy and its reception by customers. (Via @maudnewton.)

I had a similar experience myself recently when our DSL modem burned out and I spent a few hours waiting for the replacement to be installed (we upgraded to AT&T's U-Verse and got a new router gateway). At first I was in a panic. Withdrawal set in as I couldn't access my usual sources of information. I couldn't connect with Blogger or Flickr to post. And at first I couldn't even write, because I've become so accustomed to using Google Docs online. Then I remembered -- oh, this computer comes with something called a word processor. Got more done in those few hours than I usually do in days.

Now I'm looking for a public place to (occasionally) reproduce this experience. Any suggestions?

Partial eclipse of the Capitol the night of Valentine's Day and all month long

Partial Eclipse of the Capitol
This month the bright white floodlights illuminating the Wisconsin State Capitol dome are being replaced by this dim red glow to celebrate Go Red for Women, American Heart Month, and not so coincidentally, Valentine's Day. The traffic lights join in when they can.