Saturday, November 27, 2010

Significant milestone in the Forever War sneaks up on a nation distracted by Black Friday

A nation of shoppers reached a significant milestone on Black Friday, one that had nothing to do with retail sales. Maybe that's why few people noticed. Nine years and 50 days -- that's how long the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan. On Friday the U.S. tied that modern-day record. News stories announcing it were discreetly tucked into Thanksgiving Day newspapers, between the shopping inserts. Starting today, we're working on a new record.

The Soviet Union's occupation of "the graveyard of empires" was far more massive and brutal than anything the U.S. has contemplated, and still it failed, paving the way for the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. The expense of the war, in lives and rubles, the sense of futility and the widespread cynicism resulting from the war gave the house of cards that was the Soviet Union a final shove and it collapsed.

Although the war in Afghanistan is our longest in the new century, it's still short of the record set by Vietnam. But we're working on it. And events like the recent negotiations with a con man posing as a high-ranking Taliban emissary suggest we'll be there for some time. If you don't know what you're dealing with, it's hard to know how to get out of it.

Hint of winter as Madison's lakes start to freeze

Lake Wingra Starts to Freeze Over Along the Shore
Nothing makes ice look colder than a bit of green. Whipped by wind and waves as temperatures plummeted the last few days, these stalks of seaweed tore loose from the bottom of Lake Wingra and ended up on top of the ice instead of sheltering underneath it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dark underside of the American Dream

Black Friday, the Dark Side of the American Dream

We want to save! We want more bright new shiny things, we want them cheap -- and we want them now -- or if not now, as early as 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday (your mileage may vary).

If the only way to bridge the huge gap between our insatiable desires and our limited means is to outsource the production to the absolutely cheapest producers elsewhere, well then, of course we'll outsource. The consumer is king, and the consumer wants to save, wants low prices at any cost. And so we've been hollowing out our economy to feather our nests, and now we wonder what happened.

The day after Thanksgiving is the biggest retail day of the year. It seems strangely symbolic that we call it Black Friday -- a term that has been used in connection with financial crises since the mid-19th century.-- almost as if there's a widespread awareness that there's something unsustainable here. The favorite way to deal with it seems to be to stop thinking and keep shopping.

Thanksgiving has marked the beginning of the holiday shopping season for a long time now, taking on its modern form in 1939, when FDR controversially moved Thanksgiving up a week to its current date in response to merchant dismay about that year's late Thanksgiving and short shopping season. The day after Thanksgiving has always had a lot of traffic, but it used to be about window shopping as much as actual shopping. Crowds occasionally got out of hand, and the term Black Friday started to be used in that connection (it wasn't until later that the explanation that this is when retailers begin to break into the black came into widespread use).

Still, in the years before 9/11, Black Friday was no higher than fifth in total sales volume on the retail calendar. In 2002 it moved up to second place, and only since 2005 has it actually been the number one day in retail sales volume.

George Bush told us to go shopping, and as a nation, we seem to have taken his words to heart. How long we can afford to keep doing so is another question.

Update while the night is young: Thanks to Chris Norris for the link to this Madison Police Department Incident Report.
On 11/26/10, several hundred shoppers were waiting in line for the Toys R Us store to open when a 21 year old woman attempted to move to the front of the line. She was confronted by numerous shoppers and in turn she made threats to retrieve a gun and shoot the shoppers. No gun was found and the suspect was arrested for disorderly conduct and taken to the Dane County Jail.
This happened about 10:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. Couldn't people at least wait until Friday to start with the craziness?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The bison are ready for Thanksgiving

The Bison Are Ready for Thanksgiving
Bison Prairie Gateway, Midvale Heights, at the intersection of S. Midvale Blvd. and the Southwest Bike Path. The sculptures by artist Bill Grover commemorate the fact that Madison was at the northeastern edge of the North American bison's range and at the edge of the tallgrass prairie that provided the habitat for the bison. More information. There's also a video of the construction of the gateway.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tattered hopes in black and white

Tattered Hopes
I was downtown yesterday afternoon and passed the now-deserted Madison campaign office of Senator Russ Feingold on W. Mifflin St. We're going to miss him. There was something so desolate and poignant about the empty room in the slanting, late afternoon sunlight, with the campaign's text address still painted on the window and its shadow falling on the back wall.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crazy, unseasonable weather this afternoon

Crazy Weather
Sun, dark clouds, 64 degrees, rolling thunder and tornado watch for Dane County until 6:00 p.m. as a low pressure front came racing through from the southwest. Strange -- especially for late November. (A few minutes after this, it was pouring rain with a bit of hail. And a few minutes after that, the sun was out again.)

Pulitzer Prize-winning NYT photographer puts Hipstamatic war photos on the front page

Apparently I'm not the only person who can't resist shooting with the Hipstamatic photo app for the iPhone, even when he has a "real" camera available. Damon Winter, a staff photographer for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the Obama campaign, landed these Hipstamatic images from Afghanistan on the front page of the NYT today.

It's not as if Winter wasn't carrying lots of conventional photojournalistic gear. He had a Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital single lens reflex, which he used to shoot stills and video. But, as he explains in the NYT's Lens blog, the Hipstamatic had its own appeal.
But it happens that Mr. Winter quickly realized — after trying a few shots — that his iPhone would be an effective way to capture the day-to-day trials of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan.

“Composing with the iPhone is more casual and less deliberate,” Mr. Winter said. “And the soldiers often take photos of each other with their phones, so they were more comfortable than if I had my regular camera.”

Mr. Winter even found himself taking a few iPhone pictures during firefights while he was shooting video with his single-lens reflex (a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, as long as we’re on the subject). The Hipstamatic app forced him to wait about 10 seconds between photos, so each one had to count.
That's an interesting point about the 10-second delay with the Hipstamatic, something I've found true as well. (There's not much of a delay when shooting low-res pictures for web use, but it does take the Hipstamatic about 10 seconds to do all the processing for a high-res image that makes full use of the camera's resolution.)

In 10 seconds, a conventional modern photojournalist might shoot dozens of images of an important scene in order to make sure they captured just the right instant. Winter is right -- the delay forces you think about what your are doing, and fosters a much more deliberate sort of photography. It's like going back to a much earlier era in photography, when Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, did not have access to motor drives, burst modes, or even rapid advance levers. He had to advance the film by winding the film-advance knob by hand. It didn't take 10 seconds, but it did preclude getting a second shot of "the decisive moment." It forced him to focus his attention.

There's an extended slideshow of nineteen of Winter's Hipstamatic images at the Lens blog. Take a look -- they're excellent.