Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Now it's time for today's medicinal dose of green

Today's Medicinal Dose of Green
The winter blahs are said to be caused by many things -- less exposure to bright sunlight, carb loading, less exercise and a supposed "hibernation response" are just a few. I think the absence of green probably plays just as big a part. After all, when our species evolved in Africa, it was surrounded by green most all the time. Why wouldn't we crave it, and feel sad when it goes away? So here's a bit of the green you won't see outside for a few months yet.

Today's Medicinal Dose of GreenIf you're hardy and have the right bike, you could go for a bike ride now (the wind chill is currently -6°F), but you won't see much green here in Madison. You could,however, go to the Bolz Conservatory of Olbrich Botanical Gardens. It's a riot of green. And you won't risk slipping on the ice.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Don DeLillo, A-frames, and gentrifying Miffland

Miffland 1969
"They heard the voices more clearly now, ripping from stereo speakers set in the windows of A-frames along Mifflin Street." -- Don DeLillo, Underworld, 1997, p. 597

I usually have a hard time sticking with really long books, but for some reason I couldn't put down Don DeLillo's 827-page epic novel about Cold War America, which I read not long after it came out in 1997. I was still reading on my return to Madison from a business trip as we came in for the landing. My tray table and seat were locked in their upright position, and so I was holding up the bulky volume awkwardly in front of me in the crowded seat. Oddly enough, I had just gotten to the part that was set in Madison three decades before. And as the passengers braced themselves for landing, I got to the sentence about the A-frames and burst out laughing loudly in the suddenly silent plane just before it touched down. It must have sounded like some strange, nervous laughter. The reason I laughed was I had a sudden, absurd vision of Miffland transformed into one big neighborhood of Door County A-frame vacation homes.

This was at the beginning of DeLillo's fictional mashup of late sixties rioting in Madison, in which DeLillo conflates the 1967 Dow Chemical protest and the events following the police-student confrontation at the first Mifflin Street Block Party in 1969 (very different events) with his own ideas about media amplifying civil unrest. The A-frame reference was so spectacularly goofy that I had a hard time taking any of the passage seriously after that, even in a literary sense -- but then, that usually happens when you read a fictional account of events you have experienced first-hand. I did wonder whether DeLillo was writing about a neighborhood he had never even seen, even in pictures. But later I decided that, because DeLillo had so many references to frame houses, probably a careless copy editor had simply changed one of them for variety's sake, to what the editor thought was a synonym.

I was reminded of the DeLillo book because Miffland -- the historic student neighborhood near the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- is on my mind these days, partly because gentrification is once again threatening the continued existence of Miffland as a low-rent student neighborhood. And also because aspects of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt are so reminiscent of the idealism of the early antiwar movement in the U.S. before everything turned dark and Nixonian.

Mifflin Street Coop 1975I didn't shoot a lot of color in those days, but one of my photos of the Miffland window (taken in 1969) seems to capture some of the spirit of the time, with the psychedlic broken glass and the sign offering legal help. The photo at the right was taken in 1975 and shows one of the earlier murals on the wall of the Mifflin Street Coop. I've always liked those words of Black Elk, which never go out of date -- "It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost."

So much has changed in the years since then. The country is different, Madison is different, and so is the University of Wisconsin. The draft is long gone. The Mifflin Street Coop is gone. And students today are preoccupied most of all by their mounting student loan burden and the difficulty of finding a job after they graduate into our rotten economy. Still, Miffland retains a low-rent bohemian identity of its own. The Mifflin Street Block Party continues to be a popular event that draws a large crowd in late spring.

It would be a shame if the neighborhood became too gentrified. If there's anything more absurd in Miffland than an A-frame, it's a condo. The two- and three-story wooden frame houses are a link to an older Madison. Let's not replace them all with bland concrete and masonry boxes.

The extraordinary TV interview of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was imprisoned in Egypt

The much overused phrase "must see TV" is usually empty hype. Not this time. If you want to really get a feeling for the events in Egypt, watch this interview of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and pro-democracy activist who went missing for 12 days and turned out to have been picked up by the security service. He was interviewed by Mona El Shazly, host of a popular talk show on the Dream TV channel in Egypt. The first part is Mona El Shazly's summary of the events leading up to and surrounding Wael's disappearance. The following clips are her interview with Wael. It's some of the most emotionally powerful television I have ever seen.

The video clips are in Arabic, but if you click the CC button at the bottom of the screen, you'll get English subtitles.

I wouldn't do the interview justice if I tried to summarize it. If you'd like to see a written summary, here's one account that does a pretty good job. But, really, just watch the videos.

Stormy weather for public libraries -- and a powerful defense of the important role they play

There's Nothing Like a Library on a Rainy Night
We're lucky to have the support for the public library that we have in Madison, but elsewhere libraries aren't so fortunate. Libraries are caught in a crossfire between financial pressures and the forces of technological change.

In the UK, the Conservative government is threatening to make massive cuts in the funding for public libraries. Philip Pullman, best-selling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, spoke movingly at a Jan. 20 meeting in the Oxford Town Hall about the role of libraries and the need to preserve them.
I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight . . . Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.
Pullman traces the history of libraries back to Alexandria, the Egyptian library that was the greatest in antiquity until its destruction. Poignantly, the library in modern-day Alexandria is one of the cultural treasures that people of the city formed a human chain to protect during the pro-democracy uprising. We may be called on to protect ours from a less physical -- but nonetheless real -- harm in the form of political, financial and technological pressure.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Sideline photo fun when Badger football press passes were easier to come by

Sideline Fun When Badger Football Press Passes Were Easier to Get
In the late sixties and early seventies, when the University of Wisconsin football program was still trying to rebuild after the impact of the tumultuous sixties, sideline passes for still photographers were much easier to come by than they are today, when major college football is a big business more geared to the needs of television. Just about any pretext would get you on the sidelines back then.

One year I was doing a weekly newspaper sports column I called "Instant Replay." Perhaps the most far-fetched excuse was to illustrate a magazine article, "The Management Game," a roundup of management experts offering business tips in the form of football metaphors. That's what these photos were used for. (Today, of course, such an article would be illustrated with iStock photos -- but, hey, we were still using film back then.)

Sideline Fun When Badger Football Press Passes Were Easier to GetSince I wasn't shooting for a daily newspaper, I wasn't concerned with capturing peak action or the most significant moment (except perhaps for the sports column), and in any case I didn't have the right equipment like a fast motor drive and super-long lenses. Instead, I went for arty motion blur photos.

Kodachrome, with its slow speed and great reds and whites, was perfect for the purpose. When I was trying to capture the overall flow of action, as in the photo of the running back above, I usually used 1/4-sec. as the exposure. A lot of the photographs combined two kinds of motion blue -- both the subject and the background, as I panned with the action. Sometimes, if I got lucky and used a slightly higher shutter speed (1/15-sec. in this photo of the defensive back), I could blur only a detail, like the legs. I had a ball.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Madison's winter geography -- new mountain ranges everywhere, sculpted by wind and weather.

Snowscapes in Black and White
For days after the blizzard ended, we watched new mountain ranges of pure white form and shift around us. The snowfall ended Wednesday morning, but the drifting kept on for the better part of two more days. Even where it had been plowed, new drifts would start to reach out across the road. The wind sculpted the fine white snow into intricate mountain peaks, cliffs, ledges and valleys. There was something fractal about it, the way that -- in a few short hours -- the wind copied on a smaller scale features normally formed by geological forces over millions of years.

Three SnowscapesThe abstract patterns formed by the drifts were a photographer's delight. I began by shooting in color, but I soon found the results overly domesticated -- just too pastel and pretty. The color photos didn't really suggest the incredible power of the storm, its savage, inhuman beauty. So I switched to black and white. (More photos in this Flickr set, Blizzard of 2011.)