Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

29 April, 2008

Blaska: DuBois Was Looking for Hand-Outs

David Blaska continues his demonization of Madison's homeless today with a blog post called "Bumbots and Bill Cosby". Eager to push the Rhonda Byrne-like argument that society's ills can be dispatched with if only everyone were as self-reliant as Henry David Thoreau, Blaska champions Bill Cosby's crusade. The merits of Cosby's Urban II posturing aside, Blaska is now distorting history. To wit:

Essentially, he is preaching the gospel of self-reliance, a return to the philosophy of Booker T. Washington as opposed to the rival platform of reliance on government solutions espoused, at roughly the same time early in the last century, by W.E.B. DuBois.

I missed that part of The Souls of Black Folk where DuBois advocates for the government to do everything while the Negro sat around waiting for its largesse to descend up them.

Head over to this webpage at the Yale site for some info on Washington v. DuBois. Their views from 100 years ago do not fit neatly into Blaska's simple-minded anecdotal view of today where there are those who are self-reliant and those who suckle at the teat of his billfold. Here's a relevant passage:

Washington’s career is full of paradoxes. He advised blacks to remain in the South and avoid politics and protest in favor of economic self-help and industrial education. But he became a powerful political boss and dispenser of patronage, the friend of white businessmen like Andrew Carnegie, and advisor of presidents. Washington publicly accepted without protest racial segregation and voting discrimination, but secretly financed and directed many court suits against such proscriptions of civil rights. He preached a gospel of Puritan morality and personal cleanliness, yet engaged in acts of sabotage and espionage against his black critics. Before whites he was a model of humility and ingratiation; to his staff and students at Tuskegee he was a benevolent despot.

DuBois firmly believed that persistent agitation, political action, and academic education would be the means to achieve full citizenship rights for black Americans. His educational philosophy directly influenced his political approach. He stressed the necessity for liberal arts training because he believed that black leadership should come from college-trained backgrounds. DuBois’ philosophy of the “Talented Tenth” was that a college-educated elite would chart, through their knowledge, the way for economic and cultural elevation for the black masses.

To say that a liberal arts education as opposed to an industrial one is to rely on government is ridiculous. For all the talk of self-reliance, Washington's appeasement of whites brought "substantial contributions from white philanthropists were given to Tuskegee and other institutions that adopted the Washington philosophy." Neither DuBois nor Washington were perfect and the two men certainly had their differences.

Both Washington and DuBois wanted the same thing for blacks—first-class citizenship—but their methods for obtaining it differed. Because of the interest in immediate goals contained in Washington’s economic approach, whites did not realize that he anticipated the complete acceptance and integration of Negroes into American life. He believed blacks, starting with so little, would have to begin at the bottom and work up gradually to achieve positions of power and responsibility before they could demand equal citizenship—even if it meant temporarily assuming a position of inferiority. DuBois understood Washington’s program, but believed that it was not the solution to the “race problem.” Blacks should study the liberal arts, and have the same rights as white citizens. Blacks, DuBois believed, should not have to sacrifice their constitutional rights in order to achieve a status that was already guaranteed.

So where does DuBois say that blacks should rely on government? How is demanding one's civil rights immediately instead of kowtowing to whites until an indeterminate point of economic success in the future indicative of a reliance on government? Did the civil rights movement of the second half of the 20th century rely on government?

Regardless of whether DuBois' plan ever had a shot, it is wrong to just write him off as promoting reliance on government.
|| Palmer, 11:43 AM || link || (0) comments |


Production on the remake of The Prisoner has started. According to the Daily Mail:

"The Prisoner, which baffled millions of TV viewers in the 1960s with its complex plots, is being remade with U.S. actor Jim Caviezel in the title role. Currently filming in Libya, there’s a special guest appearance by the show’s original star Patrick McGoohan. And by luvvie’s luvvie Sir Ian ‘Serena’ McKellen."

Let's hope they keep the flogging to a minimum.

Another remake has been announced: Blake's 7.

Now Sky One is hoping to continue the successful reinvention of the genre with a multimillion-pound remake of the 1970s British favourite Blake's 7. The broadcaster yesterday announced that it had approved the development of two new scripts from the production company that holds the rights to the series.

It will hope to retain the addictive plots, realism and moral ambiguity of the original, which featured Roj Blake and his crew on the run from a totalitarian government called the Federation which rules the galaxy with an iron fist.

Everything is in the early stages but I'm anxious to know if Avon will return and, if so, who'd they get to take Paul Darrow's spot. That would be a tough act to follow.
|| Palmer, 7:01 AM || link || (0) comments |

26 April, 2008

Irony Misses the Mark

Amanda Marcotte has again found herself the center of controversy. This time it's with her new book, It's a Jungle Out There. More specifically, it's with some of the illustrations which precede certain chapters that are in a retro style. Here's an example of one of the offending pictures:

Marcotte's initial response:

I think nowadays retro imagery used by avowed liberals can safely be assumed to be at least an attempt at coy irony. I’m not committing to whether it’s successful or not. I think it’s a fool’s errand to lay claim to definitive interpretations of archly ironic imagery.

The whole heroic-white-people-defeating-the-savage-brown-people thing didn't trip the irony meter of many blogging women who have more melanin in their skin than Marcotte. You can read up on the brouhaha at Dear White Feminists.

This comes less than a year after fellow white feminist blogger Jessica Valenti saw the cover of her debut tome, Full Frontal Feminism, stir up a shitstorm of its own.

In a similar vein, we have this lovely Cubs shirt:

Kosuke Fukudome left Japan for a baseball career with the Cubs and this is how he's greeted. The Sun-Times has the story.
|| Palmer, 5:45 PM || link || (0) comments |

New Interview with Errol Morris

The Onion has a new interview with documentarian Errol Morris. His latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, about the Abu Ghraib scandal, is now in limited release. In addition to being one of America's best documentary filmmakers, he is also a UW grad, having gotten his B.A. here in 1969.

Check out the film's trailer as well as the interview.

|| Palmer, 8:57 AM || link || (0) comments |

25 April, 2008

Rebates Are Coming Early

Our tax rebates are going out early with direct deposits coming Monday. Will this spell a turnaround for the economy?

Bush has suggested the rebates could trigger a spending spree. "When the money reaches the American people, we expect they will use it to boost consumer spending," he said last month.

I don't know about you but I am going to tuck my rebate away – no spending spree for your humble narrator. What are you, dear reader, going to do with your rebate?

On a related note I wanted to say that I got my credit card statement earlier this week. My balance read "NONE". NONE. It is so nice to not owe those usurers at Visa anything. A couple grand in credit card debt was driving me crazy so I cannot fathom what it must be like for the people about whom I hear stories where they owe $50,000 or more to the likes of Visa and MasterCard. And I got the paperwork a few days ago to remove my credit union as a lienholder on my car. This is because I paid it off. It is also really great to own my car.

Getting these debts paid off in March was way ahead of schedule for me. I'd planned on having them done in June. Unfortunately, my next financial goal is not going to be met. But this is because of a security deposit due on a new apartment that The D and I are moving into. That should be a hoot!
|| Palmer, 3:26 PM || link || (0) comments |

del Toro to Direct Hobbit Films

It's official - Guillermo del Toro will direct the two Hobbit films.
|| Palmer, 1:54 PM || link || (0) comments |

Fit To Bear Arms

Chicago suffered through a violent couple days last weekend only to be confronted with more on Wednesday when five people were targeted and murdered in a south side home. Mayor Daley has called for a summit with community leaders to try and stop gun violence which has seen 40 people shot in less than a week with 12 deaths.

In a recent post, local blogger Emily Mills inveighed against the activities of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a group that wishes to see college students be allowed to pack heat on campus. Her post comes on the heels of the visit by the Green Bay gun dealer Eric Thompson to the Virginia Tech campus which recently commemorated the first anniversary of the shooting rampage by Seung-Hui Cho which left 33 people dead. Thompson sold Cho one of the guns used in the murders. In addition, Thompson sold handgun accessories to the man responsible for February's shooting spree at Northern Illinois University. An anonymous commenter at Emily's blog opined that "we should never completely deny [gun owners] their rights." Here's the relevant bit from the 2nd Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I've been reading about the right to bear arms recently and here's what I've found.

A draft of Nathan Kozuskanich's essay "Originalism, History, and the Second Amendment: What Did Bearing Arms Really Mean to the Founders?" is available online and is very interesting. He posits that, today, most folks fall into one of two sides. There's the Individual Rights camp – the Charleton Hestons of our country – who say that the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to own guns for individual reasons. (E.g. – self-defense, hunting, et al) Then there's the Collective side which argues that it speaks to the states and their ability to maintain militias.

Nozuskanich looks at the use of the phrase "bear arms" in documents of the Founding period available from the Library of Congress. He concludes:

The sources prove that Americans consistently employed “bear arms” in a military sense in times of peace and in times of war, showing that the overwhelming use of bear arms had a military meaning. The results show that the militia and the common defense was a perennial concern often discussed in pamphlets and newspapers, unlike the individual right to self-defense.

I would urge anyone interested in the subject to read the paper. However, I'd like to provide one example of how a reading of old texts allows us to distinguish amongst meanings. I'll again quote at length:

In 1765, Georgia passed “An Act for the better ordering the Militia of this Province” which demanded that “every person liable to appear and bear arms at any muster . . . shall constantly keep and bring with him to such muster…one gun or musket fit for service…” Needless to say, concern for the common safety was heightened in Georgia because of the slave population. In the same year the Assembly passed an act “for the security and defence of this province” mandating that white men “be obliged to carry fire arms” in places of public worship. The law was very explicit in restricting such carrying of arms to “every white male inhabitant…who is or shall be liable to bear arms in the militia…” The distinction between “carry” and “bear” is quite clear and shows that the two terms were not synonymous, as some individual rights scholars have claimed. While men could carry arms in church, they could not be said to be bearing them since that was reserved for militia service.

Important too is how Nozuskanich shows that our modern binary oppositions on the issue do not completely apply to the Founding period.

The results also show that the individual rights and collective rights paradigms are too limiting in their conception of arms bearing and ownership in early America. The historical record is clear that Americans owned guns (which Individual Rights scholars have proven), but also equally clear that those guns were subject to robust regulation, most often by the militia organizations and through the militia service laws. The right of self-defense was widely accepted as a natural right that had been incorporated into the Common Law, but none of the sources in these databases make the crucial link between personal safety and a constitutional right to bear arms…Rather than an individual or collective right, Americans viewed the right to bear arms as a civic right linked to militia service.

It is interesting for me in the 21st century to see a right to linked to a shared responsibility as common discourse these days don't often link rights to responsibilities.

Saul Cornell argues much the same as Nozuskanich in his book A Well-Regulated Militia. A brief excerpt:

The original understanding of the Second Amendment was neither an individual right of self-defense nor a collective right of the states, but rather a civic right that guaranteed that citizens would be able to keep and bear those arms need to meet their legal obligation to participate in a well-regulated militia. Nothing better captured this constitutional ideal than the minuteman. Citizens had a legal obligation to outfit themselves with a musket at their own expense and were expected to turn out at a minute's notice to defend their community, state, and eventually their nation. The minuteman ideal was far less individualistic than most gun rights people assume, and far more martial in spirit than most gun control advocates realize.

Although each side in the modern debate claims to be faithful to the historic Second Amendment, a restoration of its original meaning, re-creating the world of minuteman, would be a nightmare that neither side would welcome. It would certainly involve more intrusive gun regulation, not less. Proponents of gun rights would not relish the idea of mandatory gun registration, nor would they be eager to welcome government officials into their homes to inspect privately owned weapons as they did in Revolutionary days. Gun control advocates might blanch at the notion that all Americans would be required to receive firearms training and would certainly look askance at the idea of requiring all able-bodied citizens to purchase their own military-style assault weapons. Yet if the civic right to bear arms of the Founding were reintroduced, this is exactly what citizens would be obligated to do. A restoration of the original understanding of the Second Amendment would require all these measures and much more.

Cornell and Nozuskanich make convincing arguments that the Second Amendment was not intended to give individuals the right to own guns for self-defense. Indeed, Cornell shows how the interpretation for an individual's right is a product of the 19th century. But this is the 21st century and we live in a very different society from the one that existed when James Madison authored the Second Amendment. In the short term, understanding Madison's words are important for deciding whether to allow college students to pack heat on campus. In the long term, though, it's up to we the people to decide what kind of gun laws we want. Just because the Founders wanted one thing doesn't mean we can't demand another. If it comes to it, the Constitution can be amended. Discussions about the direction of our national policy should not focus on what Madison and the other Founding Fathers wanted but rather about what we here in the 21st century want.
|| Palmer, 11:09 AM || link || (4) comments |

24 April, 2008

You're gonna make me spill my beer if you don't learn how to steer

We Cheeseheads are reeling in ignominy from a recent study which shows that we lead the nation in drunk driving.

Wisconsinites drive under the influence of alcohol - or, at least, admit to it - at a higher rate than the residents of any other state, a newly released federal study shows.

More than 26% of Wisconsin adults 18 and older told government researchers in massive nationwide surveys that they had driven under the influence in the previous year.

I went to look at the study but "driving under the influence" and "drunk driving" weren't defined for me. What questions were asked and how were they phrased?

If I drive over to my local watering hole, drink several Boilermakers, and hop back into my car for the trek home, we would all say that I am a drunk driver. Now, let's say I drive the family over to the Avenue Bar for a ritual Friday night fish fry. With my meal I have a beer. As I prepare to get behind the wheel once again afterwards, am I "drunk driver" either in the vernacular or by the definition used by the study? Technically I would be driving under the influence of alcohol. Wouldn't I also be so if I had had but one sip of my girlfriend's beer?

The report doesn't tell anyone who lives in Wisconsin anything they don't already know. It is so broad as to be useless. The authors of the study, Paul Soglin, and others are correct to note the drinking culture of Wisconsin generally as the main factor involved in the raw numbers. But how do you change the state's culture? The study doesn't seem to offer any help here. It gives statistics for persons aged 18 and older. So do we need to look more closely at young adults or are our senior citizens the most heinous offenders? Should we start pulling the liquor licenses of supper clubs or should taverns in towns and urban areas be shuttered? How many people have a drink after work at home and then drive? Do we commit resources to try and convince people to not drive even after having one drink with a meal? Or do we want to try to use limited resources in preventing people who've had several drinks from getting behind the wheel?

Another thing that the study doesn't address is why 74% of Wisconsonians didn't drive "under the influence" the year prior to being asked. To be sure, some folks just don't drive. Do the rest not participate in Wisconsin's culture of alcohol? And just what is our culture of alcohol?
|| Palmer, 12:00 PM || link || (2) comments |

23 April, 2008

Madison to Lose Another Paper?

Just on the cusp of The Capital Times going online-only, I read that we may be losing another newspaper – the Chicago Tribune. They're going to start distributing the Midwest Edition to fewer areas soon.

Spokesman Michael Dizon (DEE'-zahn) says the newspaper is ending contracts this month to print the paper at sites in Champaign, Illinois, and Madison, Wisconsin.

That means service to some areas downstate and in neighboring states will be discontinued. Dizon says it's a cost savings measure that also will make the Tribune run more efficiently.
|| Palmer, 3:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Men's Naughty Bits

Yet again researchers are claiming that masturbation may help prevent prostate cancer. There's nothing particularly new to this news and it's not as if men have needed a doctor's recommendation to lay stomach pancakes. Still, the study found that

Men who ejaculated more than five times each week were a third less likely to develop prostate cancer.

So now we have a benchmark. Five times a week? No problem.

In other news relating to male genitalia, many folks in Congo are angry about penis thieves.

Purported victims, 14 of whom were also detained by police, claimed that sorcerers simply touched them to make their genitals shrink or disappear, in what some residents said was an attempt to extort cash with the promise of a cure.

At least the police chief had some sense.

But when you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it's become tiny or that they've become impotent. To that I tell them, 'How do you know if you haven't gone home and tried it'," he said.

Wow! There are some hyper-insecure Congolese men, apparently. This would be funny except for the fact that some people are getting the crap beat out of them and some had lynching proceedings begun against them.

We've had a number of attempted lynchings. ... You see them covered in marks after being beaten," Kinshasa's police chief, Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Superstition is not always so harmless.
|| Palmer, 1:22 PM || link || (0) comments |

Global Warming or Not, There Will Be a Human Toll

Patrick McIlheran's column "Consider the humans on earth, too" is linked to at WisOpinion and I have just had the misfortune of reading it. There's nothing like it when someone takes the fringe view and portrays it as mainstream. He does this by saying that those who wish to see a cleaner environment have more sympathy for the ecosphere than human beings. Does anyone else see the irony in someone from the most solipsistic country on the planet asking for a Humans Day?

An interest in moving away from internal combustion engines isn't motivated by sympathy for moles and moles of air particles having to congregate with nasty particulate matter; it's about things such as people's health being put into danger which forces the state to issue air quality alerts.

McIlheran pleads for us to see the "human costs". What does he think is going to happen when petroleum becomes scarcer and scarcer? No human costs will be incurred as China, India, Europe, and the US of A compete for dwindling resources? I guess states have never warred over natural resources before in his universe.

And his argument about the economic consequences? The first thing that sprang to mind was John Calhoun and his ilk. "We can't get rid of the peculiar institution! Think about the South's economy!" He says:

What's disturbing is the blithe assertion that the economy will adapt.

What?! Will the move away from fossil fuels make the Invisible Hand of the market disappear in a big green poof of regulation? Surely McIlerhan doesn't have that low an opinion of American entrepreneurs. When wood was replaced by coal did various entrepreneurs just throw in the towel or did we have an industrial revolution? Come on, Mr. McIlheran, give our captains of industry a little credit. Little things like World War II and the Holocaust never stopped IBM, Bush's grandpappy, and others from reaping millions. Besides, making a transition does not mean that the changes must be completed overnight nor that the government and our tax dollars can't help foster the process and make it as smooth as possible.

Putting aside the issue of global warming completely for a moment, there are still very good and very human reasons to transition away from dead dinosaurs: our economy and our lifestyles depend on oil and most of it is underneath the Middle East. Operation Iraqi Liberation won't be the last such venture we undertake that results in the loss of human lives. Jared Diamond can probably tell us a few things about what happens to societies that let their environs go to the dogs. We can see it happening now in Darfur.

Conservatives want the working class to just deal with it as our economy moves from manufacturing to service so if we move from non-renewable to renewable energy sources, McIlheran and his ilk can just deal with it. It's a big shit sandwich and we're all going to have to take a bite.
|| Palmer, 12:07 PM || link || (0) comments |

22 April, 2008

Get 'em While They're Young

I know kids mature faster these days but this is just sad. An eight-year old Yemeni girl was recently divorced. Her father arranged the marriage for her two and a half months ago as he feared that she might be kidnapped. And so, instead of, say, sending the girl to live with a relative in another town or moving, her parents gave her to a real class act of a husband as if she were a heifer. Here's what the 28-year old ex-husband said in court:

[the] marriage was consummated, but I did not beat her.

He consummated his marriage to a second grader. I know that men tend to like younger women but that's taking more than a bit too far. So, is there a cultural thing that obligated him to beat her or is beating just so common that everyone assumes husbands just beat their wives?
|| Palmer, 12:35 PM || link || (0) comments |


I am pleased to read that the Madison police have a witness in the murder of Brittany Zimmermann. When the man or men responsible are caught, they should be put in stocks on the Square with Zimmermann's fiancée, who had the misfortune of discovering her lifeless body, having first crack.

Still, I feel a bit relieved knowing that Madison, unlike Milwaukee, didn't have five shootings in 2 hours. Nor did we suffer last weekend, as Chicago did, with 36 Shot, 2 Stabbed, and 9 Dead.
|| Palmer, 12:14 PM || link || (1) comments |

21 April, 2008

A Touch of Thai (Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia)

A couple days ago I wrote about a visit to the new Viet Hoa grocery store. Well here are the results:

Truth be known, The Dulcinea did the bulk of the cooking and the presentation is hers as well. (I grilled the sausage.) We have Thai sausage, steamed carrot & broccoli, Hmong spring rolls with sweet chili sauce, and finally sour curry. Oh, and jasmine rice.
|| Palmer, 6:17 PM || link || (0) comments |

Whither POST

What happened to POST over at madison.com? It seems to be on life support with only Game On and a couple photobloggers posting frequently while Madison Interactive has been dead for nearly a year. (I was on the last panel so perhaps it's my fault.) Have all the folks over there who service the webpage been committed to moving TCT to its new home on the web?

Things were so hopeful last year with plenty of talk and action in an attempt to nurture (and perhaps capitalize on, depending on whom you talk to) the Madison blogosphere. Regardless of motive, a lot of time and effort was put into creating a local bit of New Media that even went through the trouble of getting bloggers to meet face-to-fce and now it all seems to have been for naught. Quite a shame.
|| Palmer, 8:16 AM || link || (0) comments |

Mark Duchow Grabs Gold

Congratulations to the Wisconsin winners at the 2008 World Beer Cup. They are:

Lakefront Bock by Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee
Silver medal for Traditional German-Style Bock

Amnesia by The Grumpy Troll Brewpub in Mt. Horeb
Gold medal for Baltic-style Porter

As a side note here, I'll also mention that the original Goose Island Brewpub on Clybourne is closing due to exorbitant rent.
|| Palmer, 7:33 AM || link || (0) comments |

19 April, 2008

Sherman's Turn For Worst Person in the World

Earlier this month Illinois Rep. Monique Davis publicly derided the godless such as myself and showed a keen interest in denying one atheist in particular, Rob Sherman, his rights. Davis has subsequently apologized, albeit rather lamely, in my opinion.

Well, now Sherman has come out as an asswipe by referring to Davis on his blog as a "Negro".

Now that Negroes like Representative Monique Davis have political power, it seems that they have no problem at all with discrimination, just as long as it isn't them who are being discriminated against.

Further, he claims that he didn't know that the term has, how shall I put it, fallen out of use. When confronted with this new knowledge, he refused to apologize and apparently still does.

Keith Olbermann named him Worst Person in the World and deservedly so.
|| Palmer, 7:03 PM || link || (0) comments |

New Thai Restaurant Anon

A new Thai restaurant is opening next to the Fair Oaks Diner here on the east side. It's in the storefront that used to be a Mexican grocery store. The name is going to be Sala Thai Restaurant, if memory serves.
|| Palmer, 6:48 PM || link || (0) comments |

There are more things in Viet Hoa, Linda, than are dreamt of in your culinary philosophy

While all the hipsters were welcoming the return of the Dane County Farmers Market, The Dulcinea and I made our inaugural visit to Viet Hoa. I noted back in January of its impending grand opening but it wasn't too impending. However, they opened their doors yesterday. As we approached, a family of 4 was pushing a full shopping cart out the doors.

The place is substantially sized, being slightly larger than the Jenifer Street Market. While the staff probably laughed at this gringo behind his back as he was wielding a camera, folks were friendly. Considering that this is Madison, the selection was a bit overwhelming. This feeling began in the tea aisle where The D sought some of that powdered ginger tea that she drinks when we go to Lao Laan Xang. And of course they had it.

Next we perused the frozen seafood section which was very large. There were whole fish all kinds, sea cucumber, eel, octopus, and mollusks.

In addition there were some tasty looking frog legs and whole frogs, which I'd never seen before.

In the chest freezer in the middle of the aisle, there were more delights such as bags of mixed seafood as well as grubs.

Turning the corner, we found ourselves sandwiched between shelves full of noodles. There were the ramen types as well as plain. The next couple aisles featured some sweets as well as snack foods. If you want to make your own bubble tea, they had plenty of tapioca. A couple highlights for The D were shrimp chips and dried anchovies with sesame seed.

For my part, I was agog with delight at the sight of multiple varieties of fried pork skins and ears.

Once we entered canned goods territory, I found many things that I'd never eaten and/or heard of. Soursops and lychees were in abundance, for example. There was also several brands of quail eggs to be had. When my eyes caught sight of the many jars of pickled lemons, I was reminded that I had recently found a recipe for them but, unfortunately, I still remember what recipe that was. Hopefully it'll come back to me. Pickled sour mustard, turmeric in brine, leek flower sauce, fermented bean curd, jars of fish sauce with filets inside, and on and on. I grabbed a jar of fried garlic – kind of like those fried onions you throw atop casseroles/hot dishes. However, after getting home and trying some, we found that it was very potent stuff indeed. Best to cut it with the standard fried onion bits.

At the back of the store in the middle, I spied some folks wrapping produce.

Moving further down the line, we came to aisles of refrigerated goods and more frozen stuff as well.

There was Chinese sausage and Laotian as well. The Laotian stuff was a nice find as we'd had some a couple days ago at Lao Laan Xang and we both found it incredibly good. If beef meatballs (with tendon, mind you) don't strike you as appealing, the freezers were bursting with dumplings of all sorts and pork buns aplenty. In fact, the selection so flummoxed The D, that she couldn't make up her mind and we left sans buns. This section was also able to satisfy my every beef bile need.

Perhaps the oddest items in the frozen food section were found in the popsicle section.

Now, I've never had a red bean popsicle before but, since we bought a package, I shall soon.

After traversing about 10 aisles, we came to the sound end of the store. They had a good selection of produce and some sweets from the Feida Bakery in Chinatown in Chicago.

Coolers here had cans of fruit juice as well as other pastries that were cream or custard filled. And, if pre-cooked duck eggs don't trip your trigger, then know that they also had the fresh ones.

The meat counter is at the back of the store. Be warned – they don’t have too much in the way of small cuts so be prepared to buy in something akin to bulk when you go. (You are going, aren't you?) In addition to pork shoulder and various cuts of beef, there was plenty of duck. If a whole duck is too much for you, then just get the heads.

There was also a hotel pan full of shrimp on ice.

I've only scratched the surface of what Viet Hoa offers. There's little doubt in my mind the proprietors got sick of hearing me say, "That looks so good!" Meandering through the aisles was a tough reminder that I know next to nothing about the cuisine of Southeastern Asia. On my next trip, I hope to have some meals in mind so I know what the hell to get.

The D and I were both pleased that Viet Hoa had no token shelves of American food. So no mac & cheese, Twinkies, or Coca-Cola. At least none that we saw. And this was fine with us. The cashier had a bit of trouble with the POS machine but nothing major. I don't think all the items are in the system yet. She was helped out by a gentleman who also gave us an official Viet Hoa lagniappe – a $3 phone card.

It's odd to think that Park Street is getting all fancy these days while Monona Drive sports ethnic grocery stores. Viet Hoa, Fraboni's, and Super Tienda Latina are all within a fairly short distance of each other with Woodman's also being a short drive away. (Woodman's has been going downhill lately, but that's a different story.) Anyway, I think we're having curry tonight. Sour curry, to be exact. However, I have this intense desire to dip a spring roll into some sweet chili sauce...
|| Palmer, 4:53 PM || link || (5) comments |

17 April, 2008

A Real Horrorshow

Yesterday evening I headed over to Westgate Cinemas and caught a matinee of A Clockwork Orange by one of my favorite directors, Stanley Kubrick. The film was only one of two that I hadn't seen on the big screen (the other being Barry Lyndon) so I just had to go. I will admit to being disappointed when the screen lit up and a commentary track started playing. Alas, we would be watching the DVD projected instead of an actual print of the film. Like David Bordwell, I am a bit of a purist and like the grain of film. In addition, a DVD just can't match the resolution and contrast ratio of film. Despite this, it was nice to see the movie on the big screen.

I believe that I first saw it when I was 12 or so and it was interesting to watch it through the eyes of a 35-year old. Although my conscience is supposed to be dulled by having grown up watching violent television, I can honestly tell you that there are scenes in A Clockwork Orange which still send a shiver down my spine. For instance, there's the bit where Alex and his droogs beat the homeless guy (or vagrant, if you're David Blaska). But even more moving is the home invasion scene where they beat author Frank Alexander and rape his wife. Unlike the scene in the theatre where a woman is about to be raped by Billy Boy and his gang, there is no playful non-diagetic music (Rossini's La Gazza Ladra) to take the edge off of things. Instead, the events in the Alexander's home are stark and raw. Alex's singing and the thuds of his boots landing on Frank's body mix with Mrs. Alexander's muffled screams and Dim's mindless repeating of Alex's words to create chaos and a truly disturbing scene. Plus we get Frank's POV shots as he lay on the floor helpless which help put the viewer into his shoes.

As a 12-year old, I think the film was more about the visceral thrill of the violence and titillation of seeing naked women. But watching it yesterday it yielded more nuanced reactions. I thought of how Alex and his droogs, however exaggerated their characters were, really do stand-in for the male teenage experience. There's the pack mentality with its leader, the disregard for authority as well as for one's own safety, and the preoccupation with sex.

Regarding the last of these, sex, naked bodies, and representations of genitalia are everywhere in the film. There are female mannequins serving as tables and drink dispensers at the Korova Milk Bar, the Catlady's yoga room is adorned with paintings of the naked body, the painting in the lobby of Alex's apartment complex has penises spray-painted on it, etc. The scene where Alex hits the Catlady with a wobbly sculpture of a penis is probably the most telling image of the whole film. Watching ACO for the umpteenth time, I now interpret the pervasive nudity and phallic symbols in the set decoration as serving a similar role as the sets in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari did, i.e. - they represent Alex's inner life. Or, at the very least, they serve to reinforce Alex's preoccupation with sex just as much as they might serve to depict the futuristic society portrayed in the film. When Mr. Deltoid pays a visit to Alex at home on a day when he skips school, Deltoid ends his lecture by punching Alex in the yarbles which are quite arguably the well-spring of the behavior of teenage boys. This is also emphasized by the costumers which have Alex and his droogs wearing codpieces.

Seeing ACO on the big screen also led me to appreciate the cinematography more than I had in the past. The scene in the tunnel where the boys beat the homeless drunk features stark contrasts and long shadows, for instance.

Kubrick became enamored of tracking shots early in his career (see The Killing from 1956) and we have them here as well such as when the camera backs away from Alex and his droogs as they sit in the Korova Milk Bar. There's also hand-held work which perhaps prefigures the Steadi-cam work of The Shining. This is used well in the scene where Alex fends off the Catlady with the phallic statue. Plus we have the aforementioned use of wide-angle lenses in low angle shots which draw the actors and the action to the camera. To top things off, John Alcott, the cinematographer, even does what students are taught to avoid in their Intro to Film classes – he zooms. He slowly zooms out from the drunkard in the tunnel and, in the following scene, he zooms out again from a bit of adornment above the stage at the theatre to reveal the action on the stage. Add in a bit of both slow- and fast-motion and you have a film with a great variety of camera movement and shot staging. Alcott would go on to work with Kubrick on his next two films - Barry Lyndon and The Shining.

Between what Kubrick put into the film and what I read into it, ACO, like all of his films, provides a visceral experience with plenty of food for thought.

|| Palmer, 5:56 PM || link || (0) comments |


That's Fine Italian Beef and Sausage, a new food cart down on Library Mall. Might there now be a good Italian beef available here in Madison? Anyone tried their grub?
|| Palmer, 11:56 AM || link || (0) comments |

Secrecy Comes to Life Before Our Very Eyes

At the Wisconsin Film Festival this year I saw Secrecy. In my review, I mentioned how the movie argued that secrecy was used by government agencies to preserve and expand their power. And now we have a very recent real-life example of this.

Wired is reporting that in 2005 the FBI delayed a terrorist investigation in order to avoid judicial oversight.

Counterterrorism officials in FBI headquarters slowed an investigation into a possible conspirator in the 2005 London bombings by forcing a field agent to return documents acquired from a U.S. university. Why? Because the agent received the documents through a lawful subpoena, while headquarters wanted him to demand the records under the USA Patriot Act, using a power the FBI did not have, but desperately wanted.

The documents shed new light on how senior FBI officials' determination to gain independence from judicial oversight slowed its own investigation, and led the bureau's director to offer inaccurate testimony to Congress.

Will heads roll? Will conservatives denounce this power grab which delayed an investigation into terrorism? I suspect not. I also suspect we'll see it spun as an extraordinary measure taken in the name of national defense and blamed on Democrats.
|| Palmer, 11:05 AM || link || (0) comments |

16 April, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma?

For this omnivore, there was no dilemma on Saturday. I'd gotten the equivalent of a press pass for the 2008 Convention of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors and was looking forward to a few hours of observing judges diligently looking at, smelling, and tasting meat while trying not to drool on the slabs of bacon. Instead, when I walked into the Marriott West, I was told that they were short-handed – would I be a judge? "You bet your sweet ass I'll be a judge!" I replied. Well, I was a bit more tactful than that. After putting my stuff away I was given a hairnet and white lab coat and joined the judging process which had just started.

My cohort was a 30+ year veteran of the competition named Terry. We were assigned Whole Muscle Jerky and Traditional Bratwurst that was Smoked, Cooked, and Cured. Now, while I like jerky, I knew that judging 26 brands of the stuff would not make my jaws happy. I walked into the judging room to find that Terry had already started the jerky.

Jerky is made by first taking a cut of meat and removing fat. Then you slice it into thin strips, marinate, and then dry or smoke. It's an ancient method of food preservation as people have been doing it for centuries. Note that I judged Whole Muscle Jerky. There was also a Reconstructed Jerky category. If Whole Muscle is a potato chip, then Reconstructed is a Pringle.

Judging jerky – or, indeed, any kind of meat – begins with looking at it. Color – is it too dark or too light? Is the color uniform? Next is the uniformity of shape. Would the jerky look appetizing to a shopper? Smoke streaks or marks from a dirty smoke screen meant points were deducted. One product looked like shoe leather. At this point, we also examined the jerky from a tactile perspective, i.e. – we touched the meat. You don't want it too dry. There was another sample which came as two sizeable slabs of meat which were both incredibly dry. I theorized that it was Fred Flintstone's first and failed attempt at bronto-jerky.

Step 2 is to smell the meat. I was disappointed because most of the jerky had very little aroma. While I didn't need the stuff to be super-pungent, it would have been nice to have had a little more to tantalize my taste buds as I put the stuff into my mouth. This brings us to the next step – tasting. Tasting is actually two-pronged. First there is the flavor of the jerky and then there is the mouth feel. Regarding the latter, a few were too rubbery and a few more too dry, but most had a good texture. Points are taken away for excess connective tissue/gristle but I found that only one product suffered from this.

Taste. Even if a strip of jerky doesn't look perfect or have much aroma, it can still be a joy for your tongue. There was a great variety in flavors of the tastes we sampled. A couple samples, oddly enough, had no seasoning while a few others were heavily peppered and left a burning aftertaste. Yet another had a very pronounced honey flavor. In the end, the winner was one that had a good mouth feel and a flavor which deftly balanced traditional jerky seasoning with smoke. It was from Geiss Meat Service up in Merrill and here's a snap:

Before heading over to the corner table to judge the brats, I strolled around the floor a bit.

(Summer sausages and an example of Luncheon or Jellied Loaf.)

My buddy Ed was judging the Smoked Kielbasa or Polish Sausage and I got a couple snaps of him playing with his meat.

Next up for us was Smoked, Cooked, and Cured Bratwurst. There were 17 entrants in the category. We were assigned a man servant who opened the packages, cut the links, and eventually heated samples for us to taste.

As with the jerky, appearance was judged first. Here, however, we judged both internal and external. Although there was variation, most looked from the outside to be in the expected range of reddish browns and they all were uniform in shape. In fact, we gave high marks to all the products for their appearance. As Terry explained, there was a lot more variation when he started judging back in the 1970s. These days, though, all the sausage makers have basically the same automated equipment which make near-perfect links. The casings were stuffed completely so there were no large pockets of air. On the inside, all of the products had the fat and visible seasonings distributed evenly. I think the only brat to get a strike against it in the appearance department was one brand that made the links too short. Sitting in a bun, the first bite or two would yield only bread.

I don't recall a lot of variety as far as aroma goes. Some yielded very little for my nose while others gave something. Nothing really stood out here. Taste, however, was a different matter. One sausage was quite rubbery while a couple others had very tough skins. These are easy things to dock points for but it got tricky when it came to mouth feel. I personally prefer a coarser grind for most sausages. If the meat is ground too finely, it becomes baby food mush in my mouth very quickly and I just usually like a chunkier, more solid mouth feel. And so the texture scores were often compromises between Terry and myself.

One product had a very pronounced mustard seed flavor while another featured clove. A few were much too greasy. Personal preference has a huge role and I found that Terry tended to like brats that I thought tasted odd. Not bad or rancid, mind you, just that the seasoning didn't taste like a brat to me. A lot of them…lacked umami? They just had a very thin taste or flavors that came sequentially instead of in an enticing gustatory gestalt.

The winner ended up being from Sorg Farm Packing in Darien. Terry liked it more than I did but it wasn't bad.

When we were done judging, I poked around some more and drooled over what is perhaps my favorite meat – bacon. There was regular bacon as well as the flavored varieties.

With the judging done, Ed and I strolled over to the trade show room where we greeted at the door by some sausage sculptures such as this one.

Vendors had tons of items on display such as walk-in smokers, sausage casings, and sanitation equipment galore. One of the odder things I saw was this sampling of condiments you can cut.

Yes, someone had a brick of ketchup (loaf?) and made a few slices. Ditto for mustard, sauerkraut, horseradish, BBQ sauce, and pickle relish. There's a packages of hot dogs ready to eat. No need to dress the dog as everything is already inside. Disguting.

We walked out with bags full of seasoning and marinade samples as well as some sauces. I now have enough marinade mix for about 200 pounds of meat. With the weather turning, I see myself doing a whole lotta grilling soon.
|| Palmer, 11:26 AM || link || (2) comments |

15 April, 2008

Almost Time To Be a Student Again

My regular readers (all 2 or 3 of you) know that I am interested in Medieval Europe. I occasionally cook a medieval dinner and find that The Name of the Rose is a favorite film and book. If I hear of something related to the Middle Ages, it just piques my interest. I'm not sure when my fascination with the period started but I think that I've had an attraction to it for some time.

As I've gotten older and more knowledgeable (though still grossly ignorant) on the subject, I have found that my perspective has changed. For instance, learning about it in high school history class, I was taken with the differences between than and now – the feudal system, the lack of modern technologies, etc. But some 20 years later, I often find myself more interested in the commonalities of that time and mine. It is especially interesting for me to learn about the origins of modern devices and practices that are from Medieval times. As far as food goes, people cooked roasts just as we do now; they baked bread and boiled vegetables; and they used salt and pepper too. Modern accounting practices as well as the rifle (arquebus) date from this time. And so does time. Our conception of it, anyway. It was during the so-called Dark Ages that the mechanical clock was invented and began transforming how people structured their lives. The more I look into it, the less dark this period appears.

(Photo by J. Podolsky.)

I'd love to audit a credit course at the UW but, alas, there are no Medieval Studies classes offered during the evenings. (I'd love to take some folklore classes as well but, again, they're all during my work hours.) However, this Thursday my non-credit class on the Medieval world starts. It's called "Early Christian and medieval monasticism" and I'll learn about "various monastic orders, the lives of monks and nuns, and monastic architecture and spaces from the early Christian period through the late Middle Ages". Should be very interesting. This will be my third or fourth non-credit Medieval studies class.

In addition to my class starting, I see that BBC Four has started The Medieval Season, a series of programs on Medieval Britain and the Middle Ages generally. In Search of Medieval Britain started last week It's a 6-part series featuring Medieval art historian Dr. Alixe Bovey who journeys through Britain using the oldest known route map of the country.

Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press aired last night. They build a working replica of Gutenberg's original press! Tomorrow we get The Saint and the Hanged Man which examines the "clash between reason and the supernatural at the heart of the medieval mind". On Thursday the first of a four-part series called Inside the Medieval Mind airs: "Professor Robert Bartlett of St Andrew's University, investigates the intellectual landscape of the medieval world." Episode 1 is "Knowledge" wherein Bartlett "explores the way medieval man understood the world as a place of mystery, even enchantment - a book written by God".

Later in the spring we get Christina: A Medieval Life where a historian uses court records to illuminate the life of a Medieval peasant family. Lastly there's The King's Cookbook where recipes from England's oldest cookbook – The Forme of Cury – are dragged screaming from the vaults.

So get your torrent client or newsreader ready.

|| Palmer, 1:11 PM || link || (2) comments |

11 April, 2008

WI Film Fest 2008 – The Slavic Edition

Being a member of the Polish Heritage Club of Madison, it should not surprise anyone that I attended the screening of Pora umierać (Time to Die). There were a few of us PHC members in the audience and I also said hello to Szymon Wozniczka while I was standing in line. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon yet many folks spent their time at the Majestic watching a film whose title promised a less-than happy ending. My companion for the showing, a fellow PHC member, remarked to me that she was keen on seeing the film, not only because it was Polish, but also because her 82 year-old father was in ill health.

Having seen the film, however, I can honestly say don't let the title fool you - Pora umierać wasn't quite the terminal experience that it lets on. It revolves around Aniela as played by Danuta Szaflarska, who is apparently an icon of Polish cinema. In the opening scene, Aniela is at the hospital and sheepishly pokes her head into a nurse's office. The nurse could have starred in a Macintosh commercial back in 1984 with her cold demeanor and mechanical directive for Aniela to come in and undress. Frustrated, she tells the nurse to kiss her ass and storms off.

The gorgeous black & white cinematography steps into its own as the scene moves to Aniela's beautiful old house nestled amongst trees. From hereon out, the action would take place in her home. There are visitors such as the rich next-door neighbor who wants to buy the place to tear it down as well as Aniela's good-for-nothing son and her whiny granddaughter. However, the remarkable thing is that Szaflarska mostly interacts with her co-star who can only whine, whimper, and bark - a Collie named Phila. To my knowledge, an old woman and a dog haven't been the stars of a buddy film before but it works very well here. The feisty Aniela complains to the pooch like a DVD commentary track about the children next door who wander onto her property while Phila can only look wide-eyed at her.

Although the film almost wholly takes place in Aniela's home, the filmmakers do a great job of dispelling an overly cramped atmosphere from settling in. Bob Richardson and Oliver Stone did this in Talk Radio by keep the camera in constant motion. Here, cinematographer Artur Reinhart and director Dorota Kedzierzawska accomplish this through judicious cutting between medium shots and close-ups and, while we never really leave the house, we do get glimpses of the outside world as Aniela peers out her windows. Indeed, they put as much glass as they possibly could in the mise en scène. We see Aniela looking out her window with the camera in the room as well as just outside. Other times she grabs her binoculars and voyeuristically gazes into her neighbor's windows. When we get a POV shot, there is a pane of glass in front of us, so old that it has dripped down and distorts our view.

While the title gives away the ending, we see Aniela pass away as happy as one can. She has given her house to the neighboring music school for kids. As the young students run in, the house seems much larger as empty rooms are filled with their instruments and is suddenly alive with laughter.

Walking into the theatre to see Aleksandr Sokurov's Aleksandra, my familiarity with his work extended to Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark) and no further. And so my points of comparison are very limited. Russian Ark was a grand exploration of Russian history and the Russian psyche. Aleksandra too sought the grand but did so via intimate and down-to-earth means. Instead of a visitor walking through a vast museum and meeting historical figures, we have the title character journeying to Chechnya to visit her grandson. The film shows Aleksandra as she boards a train to Chechnya where her grandson Denis, who is in the army, is stationed. A Hollywood film would have condenses the train ride to a couple minutes – tops – but here it takes several. At the station she boards an APC for the final leg to Denis' camp.

Upon the pair being reunited, Denis began to alternate between being a grandson and a military man. In the guise of the latter, he would go on missions which left Aleksandra to wander the town alone where she strikes up friendships with a Chechnyan woman her age. But this isn't a simple anti-war film. There's no bloodshed here, for instance. The conflict is really a backdrop for something else. One of the most revealing scenes is when Denis complains to Aleksandra that she let her husband dominate her and that she did the same to his mother who, in turn, did the same to him. The soldier involved in a conflict between nations is seen to have personal demons as well. And the kindly grandmother is revealed as having been the victim and cause of family violence.

While I'd love to simply say that Aleksandra is an anti-war film that juxtaposes personal and international violence, I cannot. This is because I don't see how one could possibly see it that way. Sure, there are a couple lines of dialogue about how the Chechnyans just want peace, but there's too much going on here for such a simplistic reading. For one, the idea of a grandmother being shuttled to the front lines of a war is patently absurd. And so is the portrayal of the Chechnyans as being passive with aggressors in their midst. There's more than meets the eye here and I just can't grasp it because of my ignorance of Russia and my unfamiliarity with Sokurov's oeuvre.

Aleksandra had the most simple narrative of all the films I saw at the festival this year yet it was also by far the most complex. I left the theatre wishing that there had been a pre-show lecture on Russian archetypes or on Sokurov as auteur. If nothing else, more of his films show in tandem with Aleksandra would have been handy. The austere plot and unassuming style means that you have to connect disparate details – there are no larger than life historical figures staring you in the face.

I draw two things from my experience:

1) The film fest needs more movies like this. It was my hope that the arrival of the Sundance Cinema would make available more such challenging films. It hasn't. Instead they're screening 21 and now a foreign film dubbed into English (which is pathetic).

2) Once I have my ticket, I need to get my ass to Four Star Video and prepare.
|| Palmer, 11:40 AM || link || (0) comments |

The Madison Central Library Deserves Better

It's being reported that efforts for a new Central Library downtown have been proposed.

T. Wall Properties is proposing to demolish the worn, 43-year-old facility on the 200 block of West Mifflin Street and replace it with a $45 million, nine-story structure with ground-floor retail, a three-story library and private offices above it.

As the article notes, the current building is in a sad state with poor HVAC, an elevator that needs to be replaced, and a leaky roof. On top of that, more space is needed. Here we are in the Information Age yet what should be the city's pride and joy of information repository goodness is instead run down and inadequate. While I appreciate Wall's overture, I am disappointed that the main branch of our library system would be just another tenant in the building, sandwiched between Starbucks below and private offices above.

Here is what the developers propose:

It's certainly not the worst looking building ever devised by mankind but it's not really classic library style. I mean, take a look at what Chicago and Milwaukee have for their central libraries:

These are what libraries should look like – colonnades and gargoyles and arches and whatnot. They should be architectural tributes to the intellectual roots of Western civilization and the buildings which kept its knowledge safe during The Dark Ages. Instead we get a demo for the Pella window company.

While Madison doesn't need anything quite so vast, the Madison Central Library should at least no have to share a building. Do any other cities or towns make their central libraries share space with stores and private offices? When I lived up by Eau Claire, the L.E. Philips Memorial Library had its own space. Sure, there were some offices in the basement but they were for related groups like Literacy Volunteers of America. I didn't see a bait shop next to the fiction section at the Stoughton Library last fall when I was there. Did Andrew Carnegie erect mixed-use buildings and tell towns to slap their libraries in the middle somewhere or did he fund stand-alone structures which highlighted the importance of libraries and learning?

Let it be said again – libraries are important. Think of all the knowledge lost when the Library at Alexandria was destroyed, for example. In 378, the Roman historian Marcellinus said, "The libraries are closing forever, like tombs." It didn't take long for the Empire to fall. Today in Madison people are checking out items by the millions and the library provides Internet access to more people each year. Our library deserves better than just being one tenant among many. Check out the Madison Public Library Foundation for more info about their capital campaign for a new Central Library.

Andrew Carnegie called public libraries the "cradle of democracy" and Madison's central cradle should be deemed more than just another tenant on par with fast food restaurants. William of Baskerville sought the finest library in all of Christendom and we should seek the finest library in all of south central Wisconsin.

|| Palmer, 7:49 AM || link || (2) comments |

10 April, 2008

Visions of Murder: An Interview with David Accampo

Back in January, I wrote about a new audio drama podcast that I'd discovered - Wormwood. I had been watching my shiny new Twin Peaks DVDs when I discovered Wormwood and the TV show's influence was obvious. It was impossible for me not to be drawn to the adventures of the acerbic Dr. Xander Crowe in the titular town as he sought to understand a vision he'd had – a vision of murder. One of the shows co-creators, David Accampo, found the post and left a comment. I asked him if he'd be so kind as to answer a few(!) questions and he generously did so.

What was the genesis of Wormwood?

The Wormwood production was borne out of a couple of different elements. First, from a story side, I had long wanted to write a long-format story, something resembling the TV series and comic books I grew up with. Something that would really let you get to know characters over a long period of time. Habit Forming Films had, until that point, mostly concerned it self with independent film productions, where budget was a great concern. So in addition to the long-form story, I wanted a chance to bust out of the restrictions of film production and do something where our imagination could be unfettered.

On top of all of this, I wasn't just frustrated with budget restrictions, I was also frustrated with the TIME it takes to shoot a film. You can spend hours lighting a set for what ultimately ends up being 10 seconds of film. I figured that we could record actors reading scripts much, much more easily. And we can all work in sweatpants if we want.

Audio seemed like an ideal solution. The web and online stores -- like iTunes -- are primed for audio formats. And I love the idea of bringing back a classic, often forgotten form of storytelling!

How did you go from video production to an audio drama? How is working in the two media different/similar for you?

As I mentioned in my previous answer, you've got a lot fewer restrictions and less to prepare. Our recording studio consists of four microphones, a small, portable mixing board, and a laptop. We record everything with the actors sitting around a table (except for occasions where we can't get an actor to come in, and then we record them separately).

I think that the similarities come from our experiences working with actors. While audio and video have different emphases, it still comes down to working with actors and making sure they create performances that follow your blueprint while allowing them a personal spin on the character.

The post-production process is also an odd one. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about picture, so you can easily edit out gaps or squeeze things together to speed up a scene. It's easy to lose bits of scenes if you realize you don't need them. On the other hand, you don't have the visual anchor of the picture, and audio editing can be a bit tedious in that way. You've really got to LISTEN carefully to everything because there's no picture there to show you you've got the wrong clip, etc.

Was Wormwood always intended to be a podcast or was a CD release planned?

While we've put Wormwood onto promotional CDs on occasion, it was always meant to be a podcast. The whole idea was launched from my purchase of an iPod and subsequent addiction to podcasts. I realized that this was a totally easy way to get content to people, and that people might listen to something like this while at the gym or sitting in traffic. The podcasting format is a fantastic independent distribution channel. And as independent producers, that's like a godsend. A mainline to the world, via the web!

Besides Twin Peaks, what were some of the other inspirations for the program?

With six writers, you can imagine there are probably LOTS of influences, but I'll stick to mine. Twin Peaks, as you mentioned was a huge one, but so are a lot of TV shows. We talk about Lost a lot in the writer's room, in the way they structure the narrative and reveal characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is also a big one for me as I loved the teen dramady merged with action/horror. I think you see elements of that in the Rachel/Jacob storyline, and as well, in a lot of the banter between Sparrow and Crowe and Jimmy Details. And while this may not be readily apparent, Veronica Mars was also a big influence. I loved the way the first season of that series wrapped up as one giant mystery novel. I mentioned that to the writers a lot as we plotted the course of the
first season.

Outside of TV, there are the obvious influences of the old-time radio shows. I used to work a graveyard shift at a dot-com company, so late at night, I would find old radio shows on the web and crank them up. The Shadow, Hermit's Cave, stuff like that.

Lastly, I have to mention comic books. Hellboy, The Sandman, even the serialized soap opera of the Uncanny X-men (circa the 1980's) left an indelible impression on the long-form story.

I just realized I haven't even touched on authors like Lovecraft and Poe and Clive Barker and Stephen King! Basically, Wormwood is the distillation of nearly EVERYTHING I've ever loved in fiction, whatever the medium!

How did you hook up with (co-creator) Jeremy Rogers?

I met Jeremy in 1999 at the aforementioned dot-com company. We both worked the graveyard shift, and we had lots of time to talk about movies and writing. He gave me an amazing script he had written, called "Adapting Monsters". It blew my mind. After that, we just kept talking about writing, and we eventually collaborated on a feature-length screenplay called Bad Habits, of which a short film was eventually made (as Habit Forming Films inaugural effort).

How did the other writers of show get involved?

Jeremiah Allan was a writer we met on a short-lived writer's forum. He was working primarily on comic book scripts (still is!), but he loved the idea of collaborating, and he came and really helped us put some flesh on the skeleton that Jeremy and I had drafted. In fact, Rachel's plight in Season One stems from a short spec he submitted to us to get the job. Rob Allspaw is a long-time friend. We had never written anything before, but I needed something to fill in an episode (Episode six) for us, and he volunteered. Really surprised me with some fun, fun stuff! After that, Tiffiny Whitney and Rick Bata came on board. We had met Tiffiny through an LA based networking group, and we knew she was funny and talented, but we quickly learned she was a hell of a writer, too. Rick was a friend of Rob Allspaw's, but he was eager to get involved in the project, and he turned in some great stuff for us as well.

Tell me about the casting process. Did you have to audition a lot of actors before settling on the cast?

The casting process was interesting. We posted some notices, and having done this for a couple of films, we knew it might take a while to find a cast the size we needed. However, things fell into place fairly quickly. On the first day of casting, we met Sonia Perozzi, who surprised us with interpretations of Sparrow and Rachel that we loved. And Peter Dirksen came in and gave us a killer Jimmy Details and Jonesy. And then Rob Grindlinger came in, and he completely understood our influences and what we were trying to do, and he made a great Sheriff Bradley.

The second batch of auditions were actually held online. This was an
interesting process. We used Skype and we asked people to come and read for us. This was a purer audition process because we could really ONLY hear the voices now. The first thing was that some actors, when allowed to read the script, really ended up reading the script instead of truly acting it out. The stand-outs are people who can read but ACT what they're reading. It's a subtle but crucial difference. It took a few rounds of casting, but we eventually found our entire cast. We're really pleased with the way it all turned out.

Did you have all of the season 1 episodes written before you recorded? If not, did the characters & story evolve as the recording process went along? Did any of the actors influence how their characters were developed?

Good questions. First, we had eight scripts in hand for the first recording session, and that's what we recorded. After we finished that, the writers came back and we broke the next eight episodes, wrote them up, and then recorded those. That said, we weren't working without a blueprint. Jeremy and I crafted a pretty elaborate series bible, so we knew how Season One would end before we ever wrote the first scene. So while we only had eight scripts, we knew where we were headed.

However, the characters and story did evolve and grow as the process
went along AND as the actors brought life to their characters. I think Arthur Russell's manic Crowe encouraged us to let him go on longer, wilder tirades. Dave Johnston's Wayne Drexall turned a bit-character into one of my favorite voices on the show. But all the actors gave us some great performances, and by episode 24 I could hear no voices in my head save those of our actors! Cheyenne Bsaies IS Lemora Haskell! Koralee Nickarz IS Deidre Frost! Anna Maganini IS Lynette Bradley. I write for those voices now.

I should also mention that a side effect of this is that we trust our actors with some level of improv. It turns out that Rob Grindlinger and Joe J. Thomas worked together in the past, so we often utilize the two of them for mob goons or talk show hosts, and Jeremy and I won't even script anything for them. We'll just set the scene and let them go!

Tell me about the production process. Where do you record and how long does it take to record an episode?

A season is divided into three recording sessions, eight episodes at a time. We can usually record eight episodes in about eight and a half hours, give or take. We record at a house in the San Fernando Valley. It's not the ideal recording location, but it makes it comfortable for our large cast. They can relax in the living room while they're not recording. In production, Jeremy and I serve as directors, although we don't really direct that much at this point. We offer little bits of guidance, but our cast is like a well-oiled machine. Jeremy usually also plays script supervisor, crossing off chunks of script as we record them. I play production engineer, monitoring sound levels and exporting files as we go.

Do you create the sound effects from scratch or do you grab them from compilation albums?

Sound effects come into play in post-production. We hired a sound engineer to generate/find some sound effects for us. He created the Muddy Man sounds and gave us a big selection of sound effects based on our requirements. After that, Jeremy and I (who do all the editing) create additional sound effects or find them online, as needed.

How do you finance the production?

This is an easy, short answer: out of our own pockets! We do have an online store set up to buy Wormwood merchandise, but really, with no advertisers or anything like that, this really is a self-financed production.

What's it like trying to promote an audio drama podcast? Do you folks advertise? Do you try to draw the attention of certain reviewers/writers?

That's been an interesting learning experience. We don't advertise. We do try to attract people's attention, but it's usually through very grass roots means. We spend time on message boards, online venues like that. Because I'm a big comic book geek, I actually thought that our series would appeal to people who like comic books, so I sent a press release to a comic news site called Newsarama.com, and they ran it for us. That got some attention. We also brought promotional CDs down to the huge San Diego Comic con International show last year, one of the biggest pop/geek culture venues of the summer. And, as word got out there, we discovered new forums that existed JUST for folks in our niche, like the amazing www.audiodramatalk.com. We were led to that by a podcast called the Sonic Society that features a lot of audio dramas. In fact, both that show and Radio Drama Revival have been HUGE boosters for Wormwood. These guys LOVE the medium, and they totally embraced our freshman effort. We owe them a lot!

Are there any plans to continue Wormwood beyond season 2?

Right now, we have the main story of Wormwood mapped out as three seasons. This has always been our plan: 72 episodes. However, we've always joked and talked about possible spin-offs or sequel series. Anything is possible. We've really tried to create a vast landscape here, a canvas we can paint for years.

Do you have any aspirations to do other audio dramas?

Aside from the possibility of spin-offs, I'd love to do more in the
medium. It's absolutely a great medium, and has such great potential. But right now I am just completely enjoying living with these characters! I can't seem to focus on any other long-term ideas. I suppose maybe a mini-series of some sort would be really cool. I think we're still finding out way as audio storytellers, and I'd love to keep experimenting!

David Accampo on MySpace

Wormwood: A Serialized Mystery

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09 April, 2008

WI Film Fest - Vikaren (The Substitute)

All too often my movie diet consists of serious narrative films and documentaries where I am intent on learning something. I take too few opportunities to just watch a film which requires little piecing together of plot elements or where I can just sit back and immerse myself in the world of the story without taking copious notes on the cinematography. Having said this, I am pleased to say that watching Vikaren (The Substitute) was pure fun.

This Dutch film by director Ole Bornedal reminded me of The Goonies with its young protagonists who find something rotten about their new substitute teacher. The opening prologue tells us that we earthlings are not alone in the universe but that what makes us unique is our ability to feel empathy and to love one another. However, there is another race out there who live in a Hobbesian world of constant war and they send a metal orb to Earth to do a little reconnoitering. It lands at a chicken farm and proceeds to inhabit the body of the farmer's wife. The wife is reborn as Ulla Harms who becomes the substitute teacher. The main protagonist of the class is Carl. Carl's mother recently died in a car accident and he is in the process of moving forward with his life.

The kids find Ulla to be very strange and eventually learn that she is an alien. In classic horror movie fashion, their attempts to convince their parents of the situation fall on deaf ears.

Paprika Steen plays Ulla and she is marvelous throughout. The confidence with which she holds herself and her array of facial expressions endow Ulla with an eerie sense of menace that is always lurking just beneath the surface. A lot of people behind the camera also contributed to the creepy atmosphere of the film. There's a wonderful shot in the beginning with the camera at one end of the aisle between the rows of chicken cages on the farm. A line of fluorescent lights hovers overhead flickering. You have all these symmetrical lines in a grey room with our view constantly lapsing into darkness – a great shot. Although this is a sci-fi movie with an alien, there's very little CGI and this works to the film's advantage by placing the emphasis on Ulla.

If I've made Vikaren out to be a serious horror-thriller, don't be fooled. It's actually very funny as well as being suspenseful. The kids' parents' gullibility is comical and Carl's interminably cute younger sister provides humor with her pleas for their father to find love again. The gore of Ulla eating a live chicken is defused by placing the camera behind her and instead showing her head shrouded in a flurry of feathers.

Vikaren reminds me of a fairy tale. Not the emasculated versions of Disney, but the original stories collected by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. For instance, there's a scene where Ulla shrinks someone down to just a couple inches in size and pops the helpless figure into her mouth. And I suppose Bruno Bettelheim would point out that the kids are on the cusp of being teenagers and that their relationships with their parents here mirrors the process of growing up. The kids' disagreements with their parents and their breaking into Ulla's house to investigate are akin to the rebellion and the move towards independence that is part & parcel of being a teenager. But I'll leave such speculation to fans of Bettelheim.
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