Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 February, 2008

Bill, Sue, and Me

William F. Buckley, Jr. passed away yesterday. Glenn Greenwald did a good write-up in the wake of the news which talked about his life, his views, and describes how conservatism left him and not the other way around. He died an opponent of, as he called it, our venture in Iraq. Although I differed with Buckley more often than finding agreement, I've had a soft spot for him for many years. As a kid in the first half of the 1980s I watched his program Firing Line on Sundays. (Which were sometimes followed by those excellent roundtable discussions hosted by Fred Friendly.) As Greenwald notes, the show featured Buckley and guest engaging in "erudite and civil debates" which were, at times, quite formal. (Well, mostly civil as I believe the arch-Conservative once threatened to punch Gore Vidal in the face.) Despite not understanding every topic and Buckley's sesquipedalian ways forcing me to head to a dictionary frequently, I enjoyed the show quite a bit.

At the time I was a student at Luther Burbank Elementary School in Chicago and was in the Gifted & Talented program there which was modeled on the classical liberal education of English public schools. Hence, we were taught Latin and how to play the recorder. (This is perhaps why I love Jethro Tull's "Mother Goose" with its descant & alto recorders so much.) We also had a Logic & Philosophy class and took field trips to the Goodman Theater and Orchestra Hall.

The G&T program had kids bussed in from around much of the city. However, there was also what was called the "regular" part of the school. This just meant that Burbank was also the local school for neighborhood kids. Unsurprisingly, there was tension between us and them. I suspect some of this was provoked by haughtiness on our part while some was unprovoked. Regardless, there was resentment and it often played out at recess during matches of Kill the Guy With the Ball. One major effect this tension/conflict had on us in the G&T program was that we became acutely aware that there were people out there who disliked us merely because we were smart.

And so as a lad watching Firing Line, I found that I really admired Buckley, not only for his intelligence, but also because he didn't try to hide it or dumb anything down. He, along with my father, helped reinforce that being smart and well-read is a virtue, not a vice. Sure, Buckley had patrician airs that annoyed people, but he wasn't putting them on – that's how he was. I appreciated that he was himself and told people to take it or leave it. As I said above, I didn't agree with Buckley on much. But, as an 11 or 12 year-old who faced resentment at school much of the time for being an intellectually-inspiring nerd, it was really nice to see the presence of someone on television which reassured me that learning and being a dork were good things.

OK, tangent time. But it is somewhat related.

Susan Jacoby has a new book out called The Age of American Unreason. I haven't read it but I have read her recent column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review called "A nation of dunces" and saw her appearance on Bill Moyers' Journal. From her website:

Throughout our culture, disdain for logic and evidence is fostered by the infotainment media from television to the Web; aggressive anti-rational religious fundamentalism; poor public education; the intense politicization of intellectuals themselves; and—above all—a lazy and credulous public increasingly unwilling or unable to distinguish between fact and opinion.

Bill Buckley's Firing Line wouldn't stand a chance today – even on PBS. While I agree with much of what I've heard her say, I must admit that I do get a sour taste in my mouth when she says things like: "the triumph of video culture over print culture" and "First and foremost among the vectors of the new anti-intellectualism is video. The decline of book, newspaper and magazine reading is by now an old story." I guess having grown up when video culture surpassed print culture, I feel the need to defend it.

At about the time I started watching Firing Line, I also began plundering my dad's bookshelf, specifically the 10-volume Prelude to the Great Books of the Western World, which included John Erskine's The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent". Written in 1914/15, he recognizes anti-intellectualism in American life. Such attitudes as those Jacoby describes are nothing new and she admits as much. So what's genuinely new about our situation now? I'd like to read the book and find if she gives any proof for linking the rise of video culture to the current age of unreason. If not, how to tell if she's merely engaging in Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

I am always weary of "better in my day" screeds, with those of Thomas Reeves of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute being a particular peeve of mine. Such commentaries tend to romanticize certain eras and whitewash any reasons why changes since then may have come to fruition. Reeves loves to eulogize the 1950s and portray it as some prelapsarian time. Straight white Christians collected in nuclear families all lived together in harmony and didn't have to think too much about the folks at the back of the bus; queers stayed in the closet and people who didn't share his particular delusion about the myth of a deity named Yahweh kept it to themselves.

As for Jacoby, I have to wonder if there was ever a time when print culture meant that everyone engaged their faculty of reason to the highest degree. Just because folks read newspapers back in the day doesn't mean that the Hearst family ensured the quality of the reporting. In addition, people today might be reading less newspapers but they might be reading the same material online. I sympathize with her notion that discourse has moved from the slow, deliberate side of the spectrum to short, get-'er-done side where most of what we get is merely quanta of superficiality. But I think it's unfair of her to demonize technology by using the lowest common denominator to stand in place of the whole enterprise. She is right to say that people waste time on YouTube watching videos of teenaged skateboarders planting their faces in the concrete. But it's a disservice not to mention that one can also go to YouTube and watch & hear a performance of Beethoven's 9th or a Richard Feynman lecture. I can go to my local independent bookseller and get Ms. Jacoby's book or I can download an e-book copy of it. (For free, if I'm so inclined.)

While utopian predictions about the Internet becoming a panacea for the worst aspects of the video age have surely been proven false, people now have access to more information, more learning opportunities, and more chances for informed debate with others. The problem is you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Sure, there are more ways to waste time today, but I remain unconvinced that there was some time in our past when a significantly large portion of the population devoted itself to reason and learning.
|| Palmer, 11:58 AM || link || (0) comments |

27 February, 2008

Mr. Scott, Tear Down This Fourth Wall

Wowzers! First Oliver Stone announced that he wants to make a film about Dubya and now Uncle Ridley is looking at doing the same for Ronald Reagan:

Sir Ridley Scott is to make a film about late US president Ronald Reagan's dealings with ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, according to reports.

The still untitled project will focus on the 1986 arms control summit that took place in Reykjavik, Iceland.

What's the attraction to filmmakers of our Chief Executive?

On an unrelated note, I want to let Hillary Clinton know something. I was listening to NPR the other day and a commentator was blathering on about how Ms. Clinton (pronounced /klin-tahn/ like Kang and Kodos say it) was bloviating that Obama doesn't have enough experience to be the Commander-in-Chief. Two things:

1) The President is not "Commander-in-Chief". Please re-read Article II, Section 2. It reads: "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States". The President is Command-in-Chief of the armed forces alone, not of entire the country.

2) New Rule: Ms. Clinton has got to stop with this whole spiel about Obama lacking experience. As The Alligator notes, Abraham Lincoln, the man who kept the Union together, had 2 years of experience at the federal level before being elected President. And that guy on our one dollar bill who also has a district and a state named after him? The big goose egg. George Washington had 0 years of experience before becoming this country's first Prez.

So enough of the "experience" rigamarole.
|| Palmer, 3:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

26 February, 2008

No Carbs, No Fat, No Gluten, No Calories...No Shit

Last night The Dulcinea and I did a stint of shopping at Woodman's. At the end of one aisle, we came across this goop:

Turning the label on the neck of the bottle around, one would find out that the makers of this stuff, Walden Farms, have created a product that has no carbohydrates, fat, sugar, cholesterol, gluten, nor calories. They claim it's "The Worlds [sic] First and Only" pancake syrup to have absolutely no nutritive value and, presumably, they guarantee you shit it right out.

And I thought corn syrup with artificial maple flavoring was bad enough. Who would eat this crap? I love the company's name – Walden Farms. You get these warm, gushy feelings about Henry David Thoreau and nature yet no farm yields food that just zips right through your GI system leaving nary a trace of sustenance.

Don't give me any bullshit excuses about food allergies – this crap is about catering to a large segment of Americans who view food as poison instead of as necessary for life and a source of gustatory pleasure to boot. The fear of food that diet gurus and advertising companies can instill into people is astounding. I know people who were on one of those no carb diets a few years ago and they recoiled from the sight of potatoes. You know, that vegetable capable of preventing scurvy and that sustained the Irish people as well as various peoples native to South America. Fat, sugar, carbs – these are some of the building blocks of our mortal coils, not impediments to having a body suitable to be air brushed for a magazine cover.
|| Palmer, 3:43 PM || link || (4) comments |

The FDA Smackdown

The FDA recently gave some purveyors of snake oil the smackdown:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today announced that Brownwood Acres Foods Inc., Cherry Capital Services Inc. (doing business as Flavonoid Sciences) and two of their top executives have signed a consent decree that effectively prohibits the companies and their executives from manufacturing and distributing any products with claims in the label or labeling to cure, treat, mitigate or prevent diseases.

The consent decree of permanent injunction is a result of the companies and their executives making unapproved drug claims and unauthorized health claims about their products, such as "Chemicals found in Cherries may help fight diabetes." The companies are prevented from making these claims until the products are approved by the FDA as new drugs, exempt from approval as investigational new drugs, or until the claims on the products' label and labeling comply with the law.

I went to the Brownwood Acres website but didn't find any claims such as those to which the FDA objects. Nor could I find any links to supposedly independent sites touting their products. Back to the FDA:

The companies have a history of promoting unapproved claims on their product labels, brochures, and Web sites, stating that the products cure, treat, mitigate, or prevent various diseases. Most recently, the companies' Web sites referred customers to an apparently independent Web site, which was actually controlled by Brownwood Acres' president and contained similar unproven statements claiming benefits for their products.

False claims and deceptive advertising from a natural foods company? I am shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you. The company's fruity products are touted with the line, "Powerful Antioxidants - To Attack Your Body's Harmful Free Radicals". (Oddly enough, preservatives such as BHA and BHT that are so scorned by natural food lovers are…guess what?...antioxidants.) So, do antioxidants actually attack the free radicals in your body?

According to Dr. Steven Novella, the jury is still out.

He points to a few studies which have shown the effect of antioxidants to be ambiguous, at best, and having no effect, at worst. One is the recent study which found that vitamins C and E, both having "significant antioxidant activity", did not lower incidence of dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Novella:

The evidence for antioxidants in ALS is largely negative. In Parkinson’s disease (PD) the picture is a bit more complex. There is some evidence that eating Vitamin E rich foods may help prevent PD but not Vitamin E supplements. So perhaps it is something other than the Vitamin E in these foods that is of benefit, or perhaps eating healthy foods is simply a marker for some other variable that protect against PD. In other words, the evidence is ambiguous.

He concludes:

Antioxidants may one day play an important role in the treatment of certain diseases or in routine health maintenance, but so far there is insufficient evidence to make any confident predictions or to make specific recommendations.

Yet the public laps antioxidant claims up like water. I take back what I wrote above. The worst case scenario isn't that antioxidants have no effect, but rather that using some antioxidant supplements can increase your chances of dying sooner.
|| Palmer, 2:51 PM || link || (3) comments |

25 February, 2008

Too Fat for Film

I don't know about you, but looking at the above photo of actress Hayley Atwell, the last thing that comes to my mind is that she is overweight. Yet that is exactly what Mirimax Films thought:

The English actress Emma Thompson has stepped in to protest about an up-and-coming British actress, of seemingly perfect proportions, being required by an American film company to lose weight for her next role. Hayley Atwell may be the latest muse of Woody Allen, starring in his new film Cassandra's Dream, but she didn't measure up for Miramax Films, who are behind the big-screen remake of Brideshead Revisited.

Says Atwell: "I went round to Emma's one night and she was getting very angry that I wasn't eating all the food she was giving me. I told her why and she hit the roof." The no-nonsense Thompson was so outraged that she called the producers the next day and threatened to resign from the film if they forced Atwell to lose weight. Faced with Thompson - a two-times Oscar winner - on the warpath, Miramax Films swiftly relented.

There's no doubt in my mind that the studio execs asked her to lose weight because of potential reactions by American audiences. I also don't doubt that test screenings would reveal that American audiences found her to be "chunky" or some such euphemism.

Remember the recent casting call for Public Enemies here?

"We are currently looking for men no taller than 6'1", women should be no taller than 5'8", and no larger than a size 12.

Even extras can't be too high up the BMI scale. I mean, if you're watching Johnny Depp, can't have those extras be too plump lest they be distracting.
|| Palmer, 2:39 PM || link || (0) comments |

Great New Site About Madison

OK, it's not about Madison specifically but there's a lot of our fair burg there. It's called Stuff White People Like and it's got Madison pegged. Here are just a few examples:

"Knowing what's best for poor people"

"Indie music"


"Natural Medicine

"Whole Foods and Grocery Co-ops"

|| Palmer, 2:25 PM || link || (0) comments |

Tempest Bebende

The annual festival of standing around and drinking beer in the snow entered its second decade Saturday. Bockfest over at Capital Brewery enjoyed a second straight year of pleasant weather. The celebration marks the first taste of Capital's Blonde Doppelbock of the year. Old Man Standiford picked The Dulcinea and me up and we headed to meet Steve for breakfast. He looked like he'd been rode hard and put away wet. Indeed, he'd spent longer than he'd planned the night before at the Old Fashioned. All Spotted Cow and no sleep make Old Man a dull boy. It was jam packed at every restaurant we went to but we finally settled in at the Bavaria Café in Middleton. The food was tasty and, since we were close to the brewery, The D and I decided to walk over to the brewery after breaking our fasts. We traversed the show piles and ice sheets masquerading as sidewalks so deftly that even Shackleton himself would be proud. Unsurprisingly, we found a long line at the gates.

At 11 folks were allowed entrance and the line moved fairly swiftly. We got our wrist bands with the precious "beer" tag which gave one the opportunity to buy the limited release Blonde Doppelbock. Our first order of business was to buy 1-liter mugs which we did in no time. That being done, we ambled over to the bar attached to the building and waited. And waited and waited. While the gates opened at 11, the taps would not flow until noon. It got crowded in there really quickly. At midday, Kirby, the brewmaster, gave a brief thank you and then the nectar flowed. We filled our steins with the Maibock, a welcome reminder that spring approacheth. With hundreds of thirsty patrons, it was a zoo.

Mardi Gras beads were thrown from the roof while folks were huddled around drinking and showing off their breasts.

During this whole time the line outside the gate didn't seem to shorten. Hundreds and hundreds of thirsty people had been lining up for over an hour and the taps just couldn't keep up. After having had our beers for about five minutes, we concluded that it would be best to get in line again because, by the time we got to the taps, we'd be about done with our first round. Midwestern Boy was not alone in seeking less crowded confines at nearby taverns. The D and I hit one line while Standiford and Steve hit another. It took more than an hour before we got served and in the interim they had decided to seek refuge at the Village Green where they ran into yet more people who had jumped ship. On the bright side, we got their wristbands which meant two servings of the Blonde Doppelbock, should we ever get to a tap again.

Charles, Princess, and Dan eventually showed up and, by 2, the lines had become manageable. We had a good time drinking and chatting in the rather nice weather.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get many good photos as I spent most of my time standing in line. Ergo I missed the chub toss, Pupy Costello, and the running of the blondes. I also want to express my disappointment that the Blonde was served at noon. Last year it wasn't available right away. Instead, about an hour in, Kirby came out and officially blessed it before we could get our lips around the nectar. I missed the ritual.

This is, of course, a minor quibble when compared to having 1,000+ very thirsty people milling about for an hour with no beer. When the taps finally opened, it was like announcing the availability of a lone hit of junk outside a methadone clinic. The place then turned into an L.A. freeway for two hours with people at virtual standstills in the lines. While I am not vowing to boycott the event in the future, it would be nice to open the gates and have the beer flowing. Either that or cut down admissions so the hordes aren't quite so numerous.

Having complained, I will say that I was happy to have had 2 Blondes and my share of Maibock. Hopefully next year's fest will be organized so as to accommodate the thirsty in a more timely fashion.
|| Palmer, 11:27 AM || link || (2) comments |

There Is No Dark Side of the Moon, Really

I tried to get some decent photos of last week's lunar eclipse but failed. I'm unsure as to whether the spectacle was fast-acting or whether I need a new tripod.

For much better photos, go here.

This evening would be a good time to see Zodiacal light emerging from the western horizon if it weren't for the impending snowstorm.
|| Palmer, 9:38 AM || link || (0) comments |

21 February, 2008

Let Tammy Baldwin Decide for Herself

That Rep. Tammy Baldwin is threatening to give her super-delegate vote to Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama because of the former's health care plans has some folks here in Madison up in arms. A majority of Baldwin's constituents that voted in this past Tuesday's primary voted for Obama. But does this obligate Baldwin to deny her conscience when she pledges her super-delegate vote?

Both Ben Brothers and Emily Mills have expressed the opinion that, since Baldwin's constituents have expressed a preference for Obama, then she too must do the same. Brothers notes:

Thanks to arcane bylaws written decades ago, Tammy Baldwin has the ability to trump the expressed wishes of her constituents…

Mills writes:

Tammy has every right, during the primaries, to support and campaign for any candidate she wants. That's not up for debate here. What I and a number of other folks find irksome, however, is the fact that Baldwin is still promising to vote for Clinton come convention time, regardless of the fact that the vast majority of Baldwin's constituents supported Obama in the primary.

What I find irksome is that constituents are expecting their representative to conform to their every view. Did I miss something when I voted for Baldwin? Did I not vote for her to represent me in Congress? Her super-delegate vote is not part of Congressional proceedings; it is part of an intra-party process. She represents us in the House of Representatives, not in the inner workings of the Democratic Party.

Besides, Ms. Baldwin is not a marionette fated to do the bidding of her puppet master constituents. Do our educational institutions no longer teach Edmund Burke and his "Speech to the Electors of Bristol"?

"You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect."

When you elect someone, you do so not so that they will blindly follow your every whim; in each vote is also an expectation that the representative will use his or her own conscience, reason, and judgment. Liberals who voted for Baldwin in the last cycle know that health care is her primary issue. In this case, she is using her judgment to pursue that very end which prompted so many to vote for her.

Loosely speaking, Tammy Baldwin begins to represent her district when she enters the House chamber and ends when she is with her fellow Democrats deciding party matters.
|| Palmer, 2:33 PM || link || (2) comments |

Up and Ride to the Burpee

I awoke from my slumbers on Monday morning quite happy because my girlfriend was lying next to me on a huge bed and I didn't have to go to work. Instead the plan was to spend some time at the Burpee Museum of Natural History. I'd been meaning to make a visit for a while. About six and a half years ago my friend Jeffrey informed me that his father had discovered a dinosaur out in Montana and that it would be put on display at the Burpee. I had to go see.

The Burpee is on Main Street right on the Rock River. It is a beautiful building as you can see. While dwarfed by The Field Museum in Chicago, I found the Burpee to be very cozy and a very interesting place. The unimposing façade betrays the rather large space inside which holds three levels of exhibits. It's not huge but you won't see everything in 10 minutes either. We spent about three hours there and began the afternoon on the first floor by learning that Rockford was once underneath the Ordovician Sea and by looking at fossils including this fish…

…and this rather eldritch looking thing which rather resembled a baby Old One.

Unfortunately my photos of the coprolites (fossilized feces) aren't in focus. And no, there weren't any 5-foot mounds of hardened dinosaur poop on display. Nevertheless, I was awestruck by looking at the remains of creatures that lived millions of years ago – long before our ancestors had decided that the Quaternary Age would be a good time to improve their posture for a night of hunting and gathering on the plains. It was at this time as my imagination was roaring back to the Primordial Soup that The D revealed to me that she is a young earth Creationist type.

Moving along, we found a miniature replica of the skeletal system of an ancient sea creature. It was rather like a Terminator in that it had plate armor on the inside. The creature was vicious yet had no teeth. Instead the bits of the armor around the mouth were shaped like them. The description noted it was one bad-ass predator in its day and that it essentially ate whatever the hell it could get its mouth around. This last statement amused The D and found that it reminded her of me. Hence this portrait:

I remain unsure as to whether being compared to an ancient eating machine 25 feet in length is a sign of her love or whether I should take offense.

The exhibit on Jane was quite nice. The area we entered had a video installation which featured a computerized reenactment of Jane's death. It is theorized that she was killed by a predator along a shoreline some 66 million years ago. I'm not sure how her death throes were recorded, but they were rather disturbing.

Jane's corpse laid there as the Cretaceous Period gave way to the Paleogene which, in turn, gave way to the Neogene. In the late Quaternary Age (i.e. – summer 2001) Jeffrey's father, Bill Harrison, a professor of Latin American Studies at Northern Illinois University, was working on his PhD in archeology when he took the highway to Hell Creek (Montana) to dig for bones. It was there and then that he and the rest of the team from the Burpee stumbled upon Jane.

Jane herself stands in the middle of the room surrounded by a fence which has a series of small but interactive video displays. Using a touch screen, you can learn about how a doctor at the nearby hospital was enlisted to determine what a mysterious bulbous outcrop on one of Jane's bones was. If memory serves, they recovered about 50% of the skeleton which, to this non-archeologist, is amazing. As Jane was being pieced together, there was a debate as to whether she was a tweener T.rex or a nanotyrannus which is a genus similar to the T.rex but, for anyone not familiar with prefixes derived from Greek, smaller. A meticulous comparison was made and it was determined that Jane was the former. Regardless of species, she was much bigger than any homo sapiens sapiens. Here's a rendering of what her head looked like:

Whether or not she had a taste for long pig, I'd still rather not meet this visage in a back alley. A documentary about the discovery and identification of Jane called The Mystery Dinosaur was made and shown on cable (Science Channel, Discovery Channel) in 2006 and 2007. Presumably it will be re-run but I took the initiative and TiVo'd it. I've been waiting to visit the Burpee before watching it so let the viewing commence! Even if you don’t get a chance to watch it, you can watch a couple short videos at the museum about the discovery and how the remains were excavated.

Wandering past a mock-up of a Carboniferous Coal Forest, we ascended the stairs and went from paleontology to geology. This meant memories of grade school science came flooding back as I was reintroduced to the terms igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Plus there were lots of neat rocks to look at.

There were also displays about this stuff:

Coal. I had no idea that Illinois had the "largest reserves of Bituminous coal in the world". (Bituminous is the mid-grade variety.) It had been a long, long time since I'd been to see the mineshaft at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Looking at the mannequin, I was reminded of the Uncle Tupelo version of the song "Coalminers" by Sarah Ogan Gunning:

Mining is the most dangerous work
in our land today
Plenty of dirty, slaving work
for very little pay

It also made me think of my great-grandfather, Kuzma. He and my great-grandmother, Parsaka, immigrated from Galicia which was, I believe, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time they came over. I presume they were part of Galicia's Great Economic Migration. They came here speaking Ruthenian, though Kuzma learned English while Parsaka did not. They eventually made their way to Buckner, Illinois where Kuzma worked as a coalminer. My great-grandparents had a boarder at their house named Theodore Urkovich and he too mined coal. Considering that there were 6 kids there as well, it must have been exceptionally crowded.

I stood there for a bit imagining what life must have been like for a great-grandfather whom I never met – what it must have been like for him to come to a new country and to dig coal to support his family.

The third floor of the Burpee is dedicated to the flora and fauna of Illinois as well as to the state's original Native American inhabitants. I realized that I had forgotten every bird call I ever learned while living in the country. Not that I knew many, but I could easily recognize a few common ones. But the exhibit on birds and their calls had me flummoxed. Pointing out that there are deer and squirrels living in northern Illinois isn't news so I'll move on to the Native American displays.

The first one I checked out noted the competing claims of how peoples got from what is Siberia today to Illinois. There was the old Bering Land Bridge theory but also a newer one which posits that those people sailed along its coast. Continuing, I learned about the Mississippian/Cahokian culture and that there were effigy mounds in Rockford, just down the river from the museum. Here you can see The D checking out a wigwam.

And what did they eat? Gourds, amongst other things.

There was also a dugout canoe which, to this 21st centurion, was incredibly small. Not a cat in hell's chance of me fitting in there. Part of it is because I am a typical overweight American but it's also because we are just bigger these days. I'm about the same height as Thomas Jefferson – around 6'2" – and he was a giant in his day. Me? I'm just about 3" taller than the average man. So I can only imagine just how much smaller than me the Illinois natives were.

The D loved this:

The owls are not what they seem…

On the way out we passed by The Shrunken Head with the Andy Warhol haircut.

Leaving the Burpee, The D got a hankering for custard so it was off to Culver's for a gourmet meal and the flavor of the day. I have to admit that my first visit to the Burpee left me mighty impressed. It was much larger than I thought it would be, had some neat interactive bits, and I found the emphasis on local history to be extremely interesting. Plus I got to see fossilized poop.

While I cannot pledge to make Rockford a yearly vacation site, I can see myself going back. The Burpee made for a fascinating few hours and, if there are kids around for the next trip, there are other sites to be seen such as the Discovery Center Museum. There is more to Rockford than can be seen from a quick breeze by it on the interstate.
|| Palmer, 1:58 PM || link || (0) comments |

Wandering Rockford on a Snowy Evening

Rockford, Illinois probably isn't at the top of any tourist's list of places to go. Nothing against the town, but it's always been a fairly nondescript city in my eyes that I drove through to get to Chicago or home from there. Thusly I was a bit surprised to enter the city limits and find that it had a population of around 150,000 which makes it the third largest city in the state. The population distribution of Illinois is very different than here in the Land of Cheese. In Wisconsin, we have about 5.5-6 million people with the two largest metro areas (Milwaukee and Madison) accounting for less than half of that. Illinois, on the other hand, has 12-13 million people with 9-10 million of them living in the Chicagoland area. Hence anything outside of the Chicago metro doesn't get much attention. Sure, Springfield and Champanabana do, but, generally, there's Chicago and then there's the rest of the state. And so I tend to think of areas outside of the city as being little burgs like Eau Claire.

The Dulcinea and I pulled into the hotel parking lot Sunday evening and checked into our room. After relaxing for a tad, we headed out for dinner. I discovered that Rockford had much in common with Madison. For instance, the interstate runs along Rockford's eastern perimeter as it does here. Does anyone know why the interstate runs so far from the center of Madison or Rockford? Granted, running it through downtown Madison would be highly impractical because of the lakes, but why so far away? Was the idea to encourage growth towards the freeway? Or perhaps to keep the noise and pollution away from the city?

Our hotel was next to the Highway 20 (State Street) exit and we took it west in search of food, bound and determined not to eat at a chain restaurant. This meant a fair amount of driving as the east side of Rockford was a disaster area of nothing but hotels, malls, parking lots, and chain stores & restaurants that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was just like area here where 151 and the interstate meet – a wasteland of malls where minimally-paid purveyors of fast food turn their eyes and backs upward from deep-fat fryers at the violet hour and head home. No Ionian white and gold to be had – just pre-fab big boxes.

As we approached the Rock River, nice old homes started appearing. I'd been to downtown Rockford several years ago to attend a show at the lovely Coronado Theater but didn’t take a grand tour of the area. We found it deserted that chilly Sunday night. The D was finicky but finally settled on this joint:

This is the Irish Rose Saloon. (Yes, I horked the photo from their website.) The place was absolutely gorgeous – a genuine saloon with pressed tin ceilings and lots of wood. I think the only thing that was missing was a duo of spittoons bookending the bar. By the door were some free papers and I grabbed copies of Rockford's alternative weekly, The Rock River Times as well as the latest Chicago Reader. Seeing the Reader there served to reinforce my notions of Chicago having great gravitas in Illinois. Here we were some 80 miles from the city yet its main alternative weekly was right in front of me. That being said, the cover of The Rock River Times featured a review of Richard Thompson's recent show at the Coronado.

The Irish Rose was a slightly upscale place with most entrees being around $13 and including a $25 rib eye. Our waiter was a nice gentleman who spoke just like Jim Belushi and even resembled him a little. The D ordered Chicken En Croute which had cheese and minced mushrooms tucked inside while I got the Chicken Breast Stuffed with Prosciutto & Chevre. Both were tasty although bits of the prosciutto were like shoe leather by the time they arrived at my table. Despite this and that the waiter had neglected to put in our order for a Fresh Tomato and Four Cheese focaccia hoolie on time for us to have it as an appetizer, our meal was tasty overall and it was nice to be able to support a locally-owned business.

Wandering out into the cold once more, we started our post-prandial trek with miles to go before we could sleep.
|| Palmer, 9:35 AM || link || (0) comments |

20 February, 2008

Total Eclipse of the Heart Moon

There is going to be a total lunar eclipse tonight. Unfortunately, I have to be at a meeting from around 7 until 9:30 so I'm not sure how much I'll actually get to see. I shall have to bring my camera to the meeting with me. I'll be up on a hill so I could get a decent view. Here's the skinny:

I think the eclipse presages Jupiter being in the 9th house which, in turn, leads to a harmonic convergence as Pluto deflects the energy from the Photon Belt due to arrive here on earth in 2012. Ergo I am going to win the lottery.
|| Palmer, 4:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

Brides and Evil Brothers

Last weekend The Dulcinea and I made our way south for the wedding of a cousin of mine. The ceremony and reception were in Des Plaines. With nearly 200 people in attendance, it provided the opportunity to see family new and old as well as for The D to plot against me with my brother. I wish I had a photo of the look on my mom's face when she saw my brother in a suit as the mixture of shock and delight was priceless. However much he says that I am the milkman's son, his claims are belied by our undeniable similarities. Among them are a common fondness for progressive rock (we have duetted to Genesis' "Squonk"), predilections for RPGs and things Cthulhu, and a shared taste for bacon that some might label preternatural. We also have similar sartorial inclinations, namely that our standard uniforms consist of jeans and t-shirts.

Consider the above photo. The D and I spent last Friday night at JC Penny with her playing the role of Patton and I but a shell-shocked soldier. The result was the outfit above. My brother's appearance amused me because I knew that he and a haberdasher would go 'round in circles like a couple mutes in the Tower of Babel. If nothing else, my brother is honest and he revealed that his suit was picked out by his friend Helena. This made sense.

Notice the violence towards me yet the loving sweetness directed at our cousin. Older brothers are evil.

Girlfriends must be as well because The D spent more time talking to my family than I did. I was greeted with "Hello" and "How are you?" while she got all the enthusiastic hugs and "Wonderful to see you agains".

The ceremony was really nice with the best part being its brevity. My cousin must have given up on Christianity because officiating the affair was an honorable cousin of ours who was a circuit court judge in Illinois. The reception started shortly thereafter and featured much merriment. I found myself on The D's dance card even though I have two left feet. It was the first time I had shook my booty to Madonna.

After a decent night of sleep, we checked the weather forecast only to find that Madison was in media res of a storm that promised rain, sleet, and snow. Hence we decided to hang around the land of Lincoln for a day. We decided to get a room in Rockford and ride the storm out in a jacuzzi. Before trekking north, we decided to stop at the newlywed's (fairly) new home. I'd never been there before so, after The D eschewed a stop at Ikea which could have been costly, we headed to Border's where I could get my hands on a map and she could do a spot of homework due that night. While she toiled away, I got directions from my uncle and looked at some books about Chicago architecture including the Rookery where my maternal grandfather had worked. The city has some wonderful buildings. It made me feel bad that Madison is so keen on replacing old buildings with bland condos and making the outer areas of the city limits into McSuburbs that are indistinguishable from subdivided areas anywhere else in this country.

Sprawling on the fringes of the city…

Speaking of suburbs, the happy couple live in Schaumburg. Their house probably wasn't even 10 minutes from Woodfield Mall. Alas, my cousin is a suburbanite. At least she doesn't like in an exurb. Truth be told, my brother is looking at becoming one as well. While he wants to buy a house, he can't afford anything in the city so he's looking at burbs like Forest Park or Berwyn. (Anyone remember Son of Svengoolie?) At least they're nice places and are closer to and have more in common with the city than places like Schaumburg.

Despite my dislike of suburbs, the visit was fun. Besides the happy couple, my uncle and his wife were there as well. Our visit included photo albums being busted out for The D's benefit and she was able to gaze at the long, shiny blonde locks of hair I had as a wee lad. We were also told a humorous little story by my uncle which concerned my dear departed dad at a tavern and some rather potent horseradish.

As evening settled upon us, The D & I bid farewell and hit the road for Rockford.
|| Palmer, 2:48 PM || link || (3) comments |

Here Comes the Ban on Plastic Bags

The ban on plastic bags is coming.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, have introduced a bill that would ban retail stores from providing non-biodegradable plastic bags to consumers.

I knew it was only a matter of time before this happened. According to the article, Mark Pocan says:

Moreover, because plastic bags are made with petroleum, they increase the United States' reliance on foreign crude oil, Pocan said. Biodegradable bags, in contrast, are made with the starch from corn and other agricultural products.

I find Pocan's statement disingenuous as it's the cars in the parking lots of grocery stores that undergird our reliance on foreign crude oil, not plastic bags. As I noted at the post linked above: "Plastic bags are extraordinarily energy-efficient to manufacture. Eighty percent of the plastic used to make plastic bags in the U.S. comes from North American Natural Gas, not oil. Less than .05% of a barrel of oil goes into making all the plastic bags used in the US while 93% - 95% of every barrel of crude oil is burned for fuel and heating purposes. Although they are made from natural gas or oil, plastic bags actually consume less fossil fuels during their lifetime than do compostable plastic and paper bags."

Newsflash: corn starch and other agricultural products take dead dinosaurs to be made into shopping bags. Trucks burn the same amount of diesel hauling bags here whether they're made of plastic or corn starch or paper. Instead of wrapping oneself in green and banning plastic bags to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, let's instead work on those cars in the parking lots of retail shops and grocery stores. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Wisconsonians are driving more trucks (PDF) these days.

If it seems a bit more crowded on state roadways, here’s a couple reasons why: the number of vehicles registered in Wisconsin now totals about 5.5 million, up over 2% from last year. The popularity of trucks continues to increase with autos now outnumbering trucks by a mere 4,745 vehicles. Meanwhile, the number of licensed drivers in Wisconsin is also edging upward to just over 4 million. Male drivers slightly outnumber female drivers by about 1%.

Again, compostable plastic and paper bags use more fossil fuels during their lifetimes than plastic bags; and it's all those trucks (and vehicles generally) that represent our reliance on foreign oil.

If reducing fuel consumption is your thing, how about bolstering public transportation instead of futzing around with grocery bags? Contact your representatives in Washington and ask them to get Amtrak into the federal transportation bill because, as of now, it isn't. Perhaps Mr. Pocan can start looking at reducing traffic in the southeast corner of our state by investigating a bistate commission to oversee the Amtrak Hiawatha line which runs between Milwaukee and Chicago. I think the Midwest High Speed Rail Association makes a good case for one.

The Cap Times article is a great example of the crappy journalistic standards these days where a reporter can give the opinions of two opposing sides and assume everything has been covered and done fairly. One side says X and the other Y - what more do you need? Why can't Davidoff do something more than he said-she said with evil industry on one side and green politico on the other? How about finding out if Pocan's or Scholz's statements are true. Why not find out how much foreign crude goes into plastic bags or how recycling efforts are going? When was the statistic Pocan quoted from? Is he citing one from 1990? How long will it take a biodegradable bag to biodegrade in a landfill where it is not exposed to air or sunlight? Are any greenhouse gases released when biodegradable bags break down?

Sure there are competing sides to the issue but that doesn't mean that there isn't truth in between them somewhere. Would Davidoff and the Cap Times write an article about someone who claims the earth is flat by merely getting a round-earther's opinion and saying that there was a controversy?

Use a little skepticism and give us some data too - give us readers something to work with instead of simple he said-she said.
|| Palmer, 1:29 PM || link || (2) comments |

19 February, 2008

Ite Magna Aut Ite Domum

Around 5:00 this evening I cast my vote. I was #487 at the AmFam polling place over here in Ward 8. A trio of women who were speaking (gasp!) what sounded like a Slavic language were leaving as I was entering along with a couple other women who were not registered there. Considering that the parking lot dedicated to voters was packed, I figured there'd be more folks at the polls.

Now, where is Pat Buchanan when I need him to bitch about feriners voting?
|| Palmer, 5:39 PM || link || (0) comments |

13 February, 2008

The Gene Genie is Back!

A year ago I fell for the BBC show Life on Mars and was disheartened when it ended. Then I heard that a sequel was being made - Ashes to Ashes, which has some of the same characters and transports them to 1981.

Gene turns his attentions to taking on the "southern nancy" criminal scum and flanked by his faithful sidekicks DS Ray Carling and DC Chris Skelton, he transfers down South to the London Met.

But Gene gets a surprise when he is thrown together with a sexy, ambitious and intelligent officer in the shape of single mother DI Alex Drake.

Alex has risen rapidly through the ranks of the Met and in the modern world of 2008 is renowned for using her skills as a psychological profiler to capture suspects.

But Alex is ripped from her current world of equality and respect when she and her daughter are kidnapped. She is shot while making a bid for freedom and wakes up in a brothel in 1981, surrounded by men who look like something out of Miami Vice and is confused, to say the least.

I had neglected to pay attention and found out last week that the show is on the air. Thanks to torrents, I quickly acquired a copy of episode 1. Methinks The Dulcinea is looking forward to watching it as well because she has the hots for Ray.

This fall was a real bummer with no good TV on. Last month I got Lost and Torchwood and now I have the Gene Genie. Life is good.
|| Palmer, 6:44 PM || link || (0) comments |

Snow, Snow Everywhere

Earlier today I spoke with my cousin down in suburban Chicago. Our conversation meandered from her impending wedding to the weather. She was surprised to hear that we have had the snowiest winter in Madison's history. We got a big push from last week's storm which let loose 13.3 inches of the white stuff. This was Madison's second biggest storm with the snowiest having been on 3 December 1990 when we got 17.1 inches.

Anyone remember that one? I was a freshman at UW living in Witte Hall. When the announcement came over the PA system, there was much rejoicing. A group of us grabbed a fellow student from Hong Kong who had never experienced snow before and headed outside for a snowball fight. This revelry eventually spilled onto the street in front of Ogg (which still sucks) & Sellery. Any car that dared traverse that stretch of University Avenue was greeted with a barrage of snowballs from dozens of college kids, many of us not sober. Eventually cars turning onto University from Park Street started reversing once they saw what was happening. And woe betide the Women's Transit authority safe ride car that entered our realm. The poor co-ed in that car. She tried to escape potential muggers and rapists only to happen upon a horde of dormrats engaged in a bit of mayhem. One driver stopped and got out of his car and began throwing snowballs back in fun when someone walked up behind him, leaned into the car, and put it in gear. It took the police a while to get there but arrive they did.

While that was a doozy of a snowstorm, I've seen worse. The winter of 1978/79 was bad in Madison but worse in Chicago where I was a wee lad. I still recall the Blizzard of 1979 when the city was blasted one weekend.

The Blizzard of 1979 started on Friday night January 12 and lasted until 2 a.m. Sunday January 14. On top of 7-10 inches left over from a New Year's Eve storm, 20.3 inches of new snow fell--setting a record for total snow on the ground… And by the end of January, there was an accumulation of more than 47" on the ground, most of which was compacted ice!

What a glorious weekend of fun in the snow that was. Here is a shot of my winter wonderland.

Of course, I didn't have to shovel and, instead just had fun while nearby the El struggled and much of the city was paralyzed. About a month and a half later, Mayor Bilandic lost his bid for re-election in the primary. Locals will tell you that they were all disgruntled over the city's handling of the blizzard when walked in the voting booth and pulled the lever for Jane Byrne.

We should be able to beat Chicago's total from that season of 88.4 inches. 100" here we come!
|| Palmer, 6:28 PM || link || (0) comments |

12 February, 2008

Happy Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day. Uncle Charles was born 199 years ago.

Unfortunately, the Darwin Day activities here in Madison all seem to have transpired this past Saturday. However, there's still a celebration to be had at UW-Whitewater.
|| Palmer, 2:14 PM || link || (0) comments |

08 February, 2008

The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles

A nice little story for a Friday night. Featuring the music of Jethro Tull and some great homemade claymation.

|| Palmer, 9:20 PM || link || (0) comments |

Ban the Ban on Plastic Bags

Earlier this week I asked What Makes a Ban Progressive?" and had a nice exchange with Emily Mills. I had linked to a post she had written in favor of banning plastic bags. Just before my post above I started listening to a BBC radio documentary called Driven By Oil and it is alarming. With the information I heard there and Emily's comments & post in mind, I decided to investigate plastic bags just a bit more.

The result? Get yourself canvas or cloth bags.

Emily said what I think a lot of people here in Madison feel:

As you can see from the above list, a plastic bag and bottle reduction plan wouldn't be as bizarre and infeasible as some of those in the opposing camp might have us believe. It would be part of the very welcome and much needed green revolution that's slowly but surely taking hold worldwide.

There is little doubt in my mind that Madison will ban plastic bags. I honestly don't know if this will mean more paper bags, the prevalence of some kind of biodegradable bag made out of corn starch usage, or whether everyone will go cloth. As this article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes, however, grocers there are heading towards more paper bags since they're cheaper and more readily available than other alternatives. With more paper bags being used, what does this mean for the environment? Is Emily right? Would banning plastic bags be more "green"?

Plastic bags don't biodegrade – we all know this. And they make for unsightly litter. But do Emily and supporters of the ban on plastic bags know that paper bags "generate 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags"? Paper bags take up "a lot more landfill space" as well. (See above link.) The Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment concluded:

Through a lifecycle energy analysis, plastic is the better bag. At current recycling rates two plastic bags use less energy and produce less solid, atmospheric, and waterborne waste than a single paper bag. Moreover future improvements only increase preference in plastic bags. Increasing recycling rates and reducing the 2-to-1 ratio through proper bagging techniques would further the energy preference for plastic bags.

Check out these Top 10 Myths About Plastic Grocery Bags:

Myth #2:
Paper grocery bags are a better environmental choice than plastic bags.

Plastic bags are 100% recyclable and for all environmental impacts related to air emissions, water emissions and solid waste – those of paper bags are significantly greater than that of plastic grocery bags:

~~Plastic bags use 40% less energy to produce and generate 80% less solid waste than paper.
~~Paper bags generate 70% more emissions, and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.
~~Even paper bags made from 100% recycled fiber use more fossil fuels than plastic bags.

Myth #5:
Plastic bags feed America’s addiction to oil.

Plastic bags are extraordinarily energy-efficient to manufacture. Eighty percent of the plastic used to make plastic bags in the U.S. comes from North American Natural Gas, not oil. Less than .05% of a barrel of oil goes into making all the plastic bags used in the US while 93% - 95% of every barrel of crude oil is burned for fuel and heating purposes. Although they are made from natural gas or oil, plastic bags actually consume less fossil fuels during their lifetime than do compostable plastic and paper bags.
(Emphasis mine.)

Folks are pointing to San Francisco and saying, "Well, they banned plastic bags". According to the above site, "San Francisco is requiring that larger grocery stores and larger chain pharmacies use paper bags or compostable plastic bags instead of 100% recyclable bags." In other words, the city of San Francisco is requiring that more energy be used, not less. Instead of immediately jumping on the Plastic is Evil bandwagon, perhaps we can consider potential outcomes. None of the blog posts I've read in support of the ban spent any words considering an increase in the use of paper and compostable bags and the attendant pollution and energy usage associated with them. It was just assumed that plastic bags are a pox upon our house and that ridding ourselves of them would automatically bestow benefits.

And what about banning the sale of bottled water at public events? If someone wants water, are they turned away if they haven't brought a drinking container with them? Whatever we do, let's think twice before we hand out paper cups. A chemist at the University of Victoria named Martin Hocking studied paper cups and here are some of his findings:

Hocking calculates that paper cups contain six times as much raw material by weight. On average, paper cups weigh 10.1 grams; a polystyrene cup weighs only 1.5 grams. 'The paper cup consumes about 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity and twice as much cooling water. About 580 times the volume of waste water is produced for the pulp required for the paper cup,' says Hocking.

The effluent from paper making contains 10 to 100 times the amount of contaminants produced in the manufacture of polystyrene foam. For each tonne of bleached pulp, 22.7 kilograms of air pollutants are generated, compared with 53 kilograms for each tonne of polystyrene. But cup for cup the polystyrene generates less air pollution.

According to Hocking, paper cups cannot be recycled because they contain chemical additives. Contrary to popular belief, the polystyrene ones can. Nor do paper cups break down quickly if buried. Even if they did, the breakdown of just 2 per cent of the paper in the cup would give off methane to match the greenhouse warming potential produced by all the pentane gas used to 'blow' the foam of a polystyrene cup.

Demonizing plastic containers and calling for a ban doesn't seem particularly green to me in light of the above statistics. If any of these are wrong or need to be updated to reflect 2008 technology, please let me know. Banning evil plastics and going with "natural" alternatives sure sounds nice but can anyone here in Madison that is in favor of banning plastic bags point me to any evidence that doing so actually saving energy? I'd love to see it. Ditto for bottled water at public events. Because, unless the city can do something to stop the use of paper bags concomitant to stopping the use of plastic ones, then merely banning those handy, collapsible, water-resistant white containers is nothing but a feel good measure. The problem isn't the inside your grocery store in the form of plastic bags. The problem is outside in the parking lot.

If grocery bags are to be the next environmental battleground, then let us forego a ban on 100% recyclable plastic bags and start recycling them. Perhaps we can tax paper and plastic and use that money to provide cloth or canvas bags. Or maybe we can use that lucre to have those bags turned into diesel fuel.

So, as Madison begins deliberating the above bans with all good intentions, can we take off our green blinders and set aside biases against the petrochemical industry for a moment and try to consider all aspects of the path we're paving? I suspect that won't happen.

For your consideration: Cloth bags made in the U.S.A.
|| Palmer, 8:06 PM || link || (7) comments |

07 February, 2008

Want a Nickname?

Does the green-eyed monster rear its head when Sawyer calls Hurley "Pillsbury" or when he refers to Locke as "Mr. Clean"? Well, fret no longer because ABC now has a Sawyer Nickname Generator.

I'm Brainpan.
|| Palmer, 5:57 AM || link || (2) comments |

06 February, 2008

kaniktshaq moritlkatsio atsuniartoq '08

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray...

...when I turned aside from the main road, where a dim and little-travelled trail led northward through the subdivided backyards.

It is bloody windy out too. I am thankful that I didn't have to go to work today. Some of the drift patterns are pretty neat.

|| Palmer, 3:24 PM || link || (0) comments |


To answer Emily's question, why yes more of us were downtown last weekend for WinterFest. The Dulcinea, M, and myself met up with Dogger and Miss Regan to explore the winter wonderland. We began by locating the hot dog and coffee stands before heading over to watch a guy making an ice sculpture. In the process I think I stepped in from of Ms. Mills as she was attempting to take photos of her own. Oops!

A Makita?! Why is he not using a Husqvarna?!

I wasn't really aware that there was a WinterFest. Presumably I've been at trivia competitions or elsewhere in early February. M wasn't keen on doing much other than playing in snow mounds, so it was up to Miss Regan to give things a go.

There was also snow sculpting but it seems the sculptors were disallowed the use of the nice white fluffy stuff that had fallen that morning. Instead they were apparently left to forage for whatever was at the curb. Still, their creations were pretty neat.

I had no idea that one of the sculptors was an insane cultist who reveled in creating likenesses of eldritch gods.

After some hot dogs, we then made our inaugural trip to Fromagination.

While a French-speaking woman ahead of me ordered some brie and thereby became a living stereotype for this ignorant American, I got a chance to drool over cheese with cocoa rubbed into the rind as well as take an in-depth look at some Swiss.

The store also carried wines, crackers, and other companions with which cheese is found. This includes the largest selection of Vosges Chocolates that I've seen in town. Much to my disappointment, the Bacon Bar was not to be had. I procured some Maytag bleu and a wedge of Winsleydale Cheddar with Caramelised Onion. I've had the Maytag before as my father was a bleu cheese addict and he used to buy a wheel once a year or so. But the Winsleydale was fantastic as well.

At $20/pound or thereabouts for these cheeses, Fromagination is not going to be a regular destination for me. They have lunch kits with cheese, nuts, et al that go for $9. I hope the condo owners, Capitol big whigs, and turophiles go for that stuff because I'd like to have Fromagination around on those odd occasions when I can afford the good stuff.

|| Palmer, 3:10 PM || link || (2) comments |