Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 September, 2008

Barack Obama, Health Insurance, and My Bottom

I was out on the porch yesterday when the mailman arrived. "Anything good?" I asked.

"Well, it depends on what you mean by good," came the reply.

"Anything but bills."

He sorted a small stack of missives before assuring me, "No bills."

Well, that mailman was a liar because there was a bill; a medical bill - not what I wanted to see. I've seen four doctors this month which is more than I'd seen in the previous 20 years. I recalled that the stock market had just lost 777+ points which means that my 401K plan was down the shitter and that it can't be long before the NYSE sends me a bill saying I owe them money. The last thing I wanted was a medical bill. It was from Dean Health System which was the last clinic I'd been to and I'd not yet gotten bills from the first one that I had the displeasure of going to four times.

I hate hospital bills so much because, somewhere in the back of my mind, I perceive them to be penalties incurred by the living for having a loved one die. After my stepmother passed away, I helped my dad sort through piles of medical bills. If the cancer hadn't killed her, all those letters saying "You owe us $2,500" most certainly would have. Looking through them all, I would have sworn there were some from facilities that didn't even treat her. It was as if some billing drone heard about the case through the grapevine and just piled on hoping to score. $20 for a box of facial tissue, $30 for a few cotton swabs, $50 for each "e" used in a sentence by a nurse or doctor, and so on.

And so I was hesitant to gaze upon my own bill. (Had I died and not known it?) As I opened the envelope, my thoughts turned to my girlfriend who was (and is still) in the hospital and to whose 9-year old son I'd just finished explaining that she was going to be alright. Seeing her in the ER was scary and I was consumed with concern. There were wires running in and out of her gown and expensive-looking machines that went "Bing!" with colorful displays of numbers and line graphs. She was going in and out of consciousness and, when she was in, I joked to her that it looked like she was being turned into a Cyberwoman. A chuckle later, the doors of consciousness shut once again when suddenly one of the green numbers in a friendly typeface started dropping to zero. 93…85…60…30…Red lights flashed and a warning klaxon sounded.

Was she dying? Where are the fucking nurses?

Luckily this was all my fault. I had been leaning on the railing and, unbeknownst to me, also on a cable. So, when she set her hand down, there was no slack and the alligator clip hoolie came off of her finger. This was quickly corrected.

She was eventually moved upstairs to some unit with an acronym I can't recall. Let me tell ya, hospitals are pretty slick these days; the new penthouse floor of Meriter, even slicker than slick. (No doubt my friend Mel's stroke a few years back helped pay for a significant portion of the hospital's expansion. Thanks Mel!) We're long past the days when hospitals were these sterile tiled affairs with iron lungs sitting in the corners. I'm talking a flat panel TV, DVD/VCR combo, mood lighting, wood paneling – the whole nine yards. With my sweet out of the woods, I then became paranoid. How much is going to be tacked onto the bill when I wash my hands? I could just envision a $25 charge on the bill for hand soap. Was the cable TV complimentary? The nurse informed me that the tube of charcoal that my sweet had sipped maybe 4 tablespoons of would be well into the three figure range. Had I known that, I would have grabbed some briquettes from the garage and made my own.

When I looked at my bill, I found it to be for $621. My (level 3!!) consultation with a colorectal surgeon cost $370. This consisted of him taking three minutes to confirm the notes of the doctors at the other clinic and about seven to look at my ass and tell me that the abscess was healing well. For another $251, I paid for about five minutes in which he alternately stuck one of his fingers and a camera in my bum before pronouncing that I had no thingy which I can't even remember the name of and that my anal glands were looking spiffy. Personally, I think I should receive a discount because A) the anoscope was cold and B) he gave me no warning. Seriously, not a hint. You'd think that, if you have designs on a person's sphincter, you'd at least give fair warning. If not verbal, then the slapping sound of a rubber glove being put on at the bare minimum. Afterwards, he had the audacity to remind me that, since my father had colon cancer, that I was near the age of my first colonoscopy.

Now, I'm lucky and have health insurance. I expect to pay none of that $621 out of my pocket. But, if being manhandled like a pretty boy in a prison shower by Mr. Big who's in with the warden cost me that much, it is perfectly understandable how a more serious illness or injury could bankrupt a person or family.

It reminded me of this article - "Curb Your Enthusiasm for Obama" which contains the following quote from Dr. John Geyman, the former chair of family medicine at the University of Washington and author of Do Not Resuscitate: Why the Health Insurance Industry Is Dying, and How We Must Replace It:

Obama offers a false hope…We cannot build on or tweak the present system. Different states have tried this. The problem is the private insurance industry itself. It is not as efficient as a publicly financed system. It fragments risk pools, skimming off the healthier part of the population and leaving the rest uninsured or underinsured. Its administrative and overhead costs are five to eight times higher than public financing through Medicare. It cares more about its shareholders than its enrollees or patients. A family of four now pays about $12,000 a year just in premiums, which have gone up by 87 percent from 2000 to 2006. The insurance industry is pricing itself out of the market for an ever larger part of the population. The industry resists regulation. It is unsustainable by present trends.

Now, I'm no expert in this field but the doctors I've spoken to in the past 10 years all seem to share Geyman's attitude. I've watched my health care premiums go up as well as my copays. I recently had a chat with someone who works at one of the hospitals here in Madison and he expressed surprise at how much they spend on advertising these days. After having read the above article, I had even less hope that a President Obama would help move health coverage into the realm of the commonweal.

|| Palmer, 2:55 PM || link || (2) comments |

25 September, 2008

The Continuing Saga of Joe Walts and the Republic of Beer

On Tuesday evening The Dulcinea and I met up with aspiring brewpub owner Joe Walts. His full-time job is concocting plans for a new brewpub – The Republic - here in Madison and he keeps the world abreast of his adventures at his blog. Joe was an incredibly affable fellow who related to us his humble origins in suburban Detroit and how he fell in love with Madison. If his amicability wasn't enough, he revealed that he is a fan of LOST which endeared me to the man even more than I am instantly endeared to people who brew.

I asked Joe about his business plans and he slowly laid forth his vision of a neighborhood tavern. It would be a place where folks can walk in to enjoy a good brew and good company. Although no large menu is in the works, Joe still wants a modicum of food available for hungry patrons. We talked about The Malt House and its lack of televisions which prompted him to say that he'd have a TV but would probably have it on only for sporting events.

I inquired as to his beer menu and, luckily for you, dear reader, he posted it the next day at his blog:

House Ale - the signature session beer of RePublic!
Belgian Blond
Pale Ale - we'll name it Heartattack and Bine if Tom Waits doesn't sue us.
Chocolate Porter

Ordinary Bitter
Summer Pils

Scottish Heavy - the name is misleading; it's a session beer.
Belgian Pumpkin - a Squashed Stereotype, if you will.

Grapefruit Lager - a light lager spiced with grapefruit zest.
Wildflower Belgian Pale - a restrained Belgian ale brewed with wildflower honey.
Cardamom Coffee Stout - thanks, Kevin, for the Arabic coffee idea.
Maple Biere de Garde - a farmhouse ale with unrefined Maple syrup.
Old Ale - a blend of fresh beer and stock ale that's been inoculated with Brettanomyces and aged in wine barrels.
Grand Cru, aka the Raspberry Belgianwine.
Imperial Black Lager - aged for a year before serving.

Joe emphasized the fact that he wasn't out to join the big beer race. They would be available, but he was keen on providing session beers and, more generally, just offering an interesting variety of brews.

Because I like to help out my local zymurgists, I offered to slap some paint on the walls of his new place or any other grunt work he may need done such as checking on the tap lines by pouring myself a few pints. So stayed tuned as I intend to be the second blog in town to announce the brewpub's color scheme.

I walked home with high hopes for a brewpub in my neighborhood and this baby:

20+ ounces of Joe's second batch of mint porter. Soon I hope to open it and enjoy some in a glass and the rest on top of some ice cream or custard, as per the brewer's strict instructions.
|| Palmer, 9:32 AM || link || (0) comments |


There's an interesting interview at Salon today with author and chef Jennifer McLagan about her new book, Fat. In the book she preaches the virtues of animal fat, gives instructions on how to render it, and includes some recipes which are, no doubt, very tasty.

Unlike vegetable oils, animal fats are very stable and don't turn rancid easily. This makes them ideal for cooking, which involves heating the fat. And they have no trans fats.

It is much easier to roast a bird or a joint of meat if it has a good quantity of fat. The fat guarantees taste and succulence. Without it, the meat will be dry and tasteless.

Animal fats have lots of good fatty acids that fight disease, help absorb vitamins and lower cholesterol. Your body burns the short-chained fatty acids found in animal fats and stores the long-chained ones found in polyunsaturated fat. It is a myth that eating animal fat makes you fat.

Animal fat also has a good ratio of essential fatty acids. Many of us have a skewed ratio thanks to too much vegetable oil. When this ratio is out of balance, it results in illness and depression.

But best of all, fat -- with its big round molecules -- tastes good, it feels good in your mouth, on your tongue and it carries flavors.
|| Palmer, 8:37 AM || link || (2) comments |

24 September, 2008

Will Falk's Plan Mean I Have to Retire Later?

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk is featured in The Cap Times today as she prepares to take on Wisconsin's drinking culture. Her program was announced this morning and some details are here.

Reading the articles, I was reminded of a post up the Frekonomics blog entitled "Can Binge Drinking Save Social Security?".

But here’s one unintended consequence of teaching young people responsible drinking habits: it could make Social Security bankrupt faster.

A 2004 study by Frank Sloan and Jan Ostermann at Duke University found that heavy drinkers contribute slightly more to Social Security, through their higher average lifetime earnings, than nondrinkers do. What’s more, since alcohol abusers tend to die sooner than moderate or nondrinkers, they draw less money, over time, from the Social Security trust fund.

Their conclusion: the elimination of heavy drinking (three or more drinks a day) from each successive group of American 25-year-olds would cost the Social Security trust fund $3 billion over the cohort’s lifetime.
|| Palmer, 11:56 AM || link || (0) comments |

23 September, 2008

Calling Christopher Lee

Good news for horror film fans - Hammer Films has been resurrected!

Legendary British production banner Hammer Films is back in the business of making pictures, with "The Wake Wood" going before cameras this week.

The label, owned by Jon de Mol's Dutch investment vehicle Cyrte Investments, is returning to the horror genre that made its name with "Wood" more than 30 years after it last produced a fright fest in 1976 with "To the Devil a Daughter."

Will Christopher Lee return to the fold?

|| Palmer, 12:50 PM || link || (0) comments |

Overture Center vs. Nattering Nabobs

Fellow Madison blogger Emily Mills had a post yesterday concerning the recent news that the Overture Center's trust fund is to be liquidated.

Reading it made me realize all over again that the Overture Center has a huge PR problem. Mills' post is bookended by nonsense. Here's the first sentence: "News came on Friday that Madison's ivory tower of the arts, the Overture Center, was being forced to liquidate its trust fund in the name of paying off some substantial debt." (Emphasis mine.) "Ivory tower" has a pejorative connotation so right off the bat Mills is bashing the Overture Center.

And here's how she ends her post:

Perhaps if the center was more accommodating of local bands, artists, and functions, that would held to bring in more attendees and more cash. Perhaps not. It would, at least, make it more of a community space and not just an incongruous behemoth in the midst of otherwise homey State Street.

None of that will matter, of course, if the people who run the place can't get their financials in order. I wish them the best, honestly, because it would be nice to have the chance to transform the place into something the whole community can enjoy, and not have it become a stone around the city's neck.

So where can one find an example of these mystical arts centers that are enjoyed by a whole community? There is no way for the OC to be everything to everyone in this city. No arts facility can do that. And what does it mean to be a "community space"? When scores of families are gathered there on Saturday mornings for Kids in the Rotunda – a free event featuring local performers – what the hell do you call that? Sheer coincidence that a large group of free agents just happened to be in the same room at the same time?

Mills finds a quote from Alderwoman Brenda Konkel to be her "favorite" part of the article she links to at The Cap Times: "I'm not even sure a lot of our community even particularly wanted [the Center], to tell you the truth," she said. "I think our community appreciates the arts, but we're more into local arts, and I don't think this venue that really promotes that very much." Nothing like a little schadenfreude at the OC's expense.

Maybe in Konkel's bailiwick and at Progressive Dane meetings, but, while I think local art is most certainly appreciated, Madison as a whole is just like any other town or city – it values pop culture, the lowest common denominator, and the tried & true above all else, Richard Florida be damned. Thousands of Madisonians were all over "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Producers". Broadway musicals do well; Wilco was a sell out at the OC; Hollywood blockbusters do great here as do independent films that get the blessing of critics in New York – foreign films, films that don't receive the Sundance seal of approval - not so much; MSO audiences don't want to hear new or challenging compositions, they want Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms; and how many local playwrights find their work being performed here in Madison exactly? Look at the Bartell schedule and tell me how many of those plays were written by a local. Where's all this local art that Madison audiences supposedly crave above all else that is being rejected by the cultural arbiters of the OC ex cathedra?

If Madison has such a hard-on for local art, then the commodes at the Bartell should be lined with gold; the Broom Street Theatre would be in a larger venue; local bands would be selling out the Barrymore and the Orpheum on a constant basis instead of complaining that large swaths of the community don't support the music scene enough; locally-made films would be having month long runs. On this one, Ms. Konkel is full of shit up to her ears and the rest is sawdust. A run of Phantom of the Opera will always dwarf the productions of local theatre groups and bands like Wilco and Ryan Adams will fill Overture Hall while few, if any, local bands could do so. This group of people that eschew non-local art is a chimera because Madisonians demonstrate time and again that they're willing to march like lemmings to see big name acts from out of town.

While I think the OC can rightly be criticized for having made pledges to certain segments of the local arts community – I'm thinking local theatre troupes – and reneging, too many people in Madison thoughtlessly bitch about the facility, call it an "ivory tower", and, in general, think it elitist, in large part to my mind, because it doesn't direct all of its programming to 20-somethings. The OC ought to be commended more often for its programming, much of it free, directed at audiences that aren't served very well by other venues. Are there free activities for kids at Bartell every Saturday during the school year? Does The Frequency have shows for senior citizens? I guess I missed those listings in the paper.

Back in August Mills described Dane101 as an "effort at providing a comprehensive local resource for music, art, sports, recreation, politics, and everything else you might find in Dane County." Never mind that the vast majority of events at the Overture Center are ignored by Dane101. You can elide the culture promulgated at the Ivory Tower when bandying about the term "comprehensive", I guess. (And don't take this as a slam against Dane101 because it's not. Most of what happens at the OC is just simply beyond the purview of the site. I fully expect the site to make mention of Wilco or Ryan Adams at the OC but understand completely when it doesn't note a ballet performance there.) This, to my mind, is the problem here. It seems like Mills is so angry about how local theatre groups were betrayed that she can't look beyond that and see what actually happens at the OC. (See this post of hers from last fall.) There are walls constantly lined with the art of locals; there is a steady stream of performances by locals. But again, the OC has a tremendously broad potential audience. Of course, if you don't have kids, you're not going to give a shit about events like Kids in the Rotunda and the Children's Art Festival. If you're young, it's no surprise that you'd reject programs aimed at older adults. But just because you personally don't find community at the OC doesn't mean it's not there. If you feel left out by the OC then remember that there are lots of people in Madison who feel the same way about the clubs and other venues in this town that get petagallons of ink, both real and virtual.

If you want to argue that the OC is elitist because tickets aren't particularly cheap, then rethink that position. There are cheap seats to be had and there are even subsidized tickets available for folks who qualify. $29 can get you into many of the shows and is comparable to a lot of events at the Barrymore or the Orpheum. Is $40 a head for a BoDeans show elitist? Some prices are positively plebian: I can get a $15 ticket for the Madison Symphony Orchestra yet that wouldn't even buy me a pot to piss in at a Badger football game. $75 for the pukka seats at the Overture – what do you suppose the best seats at Camp Randall cost? (Want to grab a ticket from the Badger webpage's Wisconsin Football Ticket Marketplace? Well, cough up a $50 donation to Wisconsin Athletics for the privilege of just being able to login to the site.)

Emily, if you're reading this, please, please tell me:

1) Where can I find an arts center similar to the OC that appeals to the whole community? Do they exist anywhere except your imagination?

2) What incarnations of "community" does the OC lack?

3) What is the OC lacking for you personally?

4) Last fall you wrote: "I haven't seen much local content since (and I mean really local--not just the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the occasional jazz band in the Rotunda)." Please define "really local". When the Bartell schedule features either no or perhaps one play written by a Madisonian, does that count as "really local"?

The OC is not perfect but it cannot be everything to everyone.

Not all performances there appeal to me.

Any pledges regarding the facility's use by local groups that were never followed through should be explained and addressed.

The Overture Center is certainly not beyond criticism but how about offering some instead of merely using pejoratives, holding it up to an impossible standard, and complaining that it doesn't have "community", a nebulous, undefined concept.
|| Palmer, 11:30 AM || link || (5) comments |

22 September, 2008

Ye Olde Willy Street Faire

A brief note on funnel cakes. You may hear that the Pennsylvania Dutch invented these but that's BS. Funnel cakes have been around at least since the late Middle Ages. Back in the day they were called "cryppys" or "cryspes". And they weren't just for riff raff like me. King Richard II's master chefs were making cryspes for the court back in the late 14th century and one of their recipes survived in The Forme of Cury:

CRYSPES. XX.VIII. II. Take flour of pandemayn and medle it with white grece ouer the fyrer in a chawfour and do the batour þerto queyntlich þurgh þy fyngours. or thurgh a skymour. and lat it a litul quayle a litell so þe þer be hool þerinne. And if þer wilt colour it wiþ alkenet yfoundyt. take hem up & cast þerinne sugur, and serue hem forth.

Medieval Times would do well to add funnel cakes to their menu for a little authenticity.

Things just ain't like they used to be on Willy Street. While there were all kinds of Obama supporters…

…I saw only one guy with a Green Party placard on Saturday and none on Sunday. On the big day of the fair, there were no barkers championing Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader. None while I was there, anyway. So much for radicalism in this town.
|| Palmer, 12:56 PM || link || (0) comments |

Some Will Rob You With a Six-Gun and Some With a Fountain Pen

So Wall Street wants $700 billion of taxpayer money for a bailout. Talk about socialism! Glenn Greenwald at Salon had some good comments on the bailout.

He begins by noting that the Federal government is seeking to "seize control of the largest and most powerful insurance company in the country, as well as virtually the entire mortgage industry and other key swaths of financial services".

Haven't we heard all these years that national health care was an extremely risky and dangerous undertaking because of what happens when the Federal Government gets too involved in an industry? What happened in the last month dwarfs all of that by many magnitudes.

Other countries are debating it. The headline in the largest Brazilian newspaper this week was: "Capitalist Socialism??" and articles all week have questioned -- with alarm -- whether what the U.S. Government did has just radically and permanently altered the world economic system and ushered in some perverse form of "socialism" where industries are nationalized and massive debt imposed on workers in order to protect the wealthiest. If Latin America is shocked at the degree of nationalization and government-mandated transfer of wealth, that is a pretty compelling reflection of how extreme -- unprecedented -- it all is.

The bailout proposal as of Friday included this ditty:

Sec. 8.
Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Secretary of the Treasury Paulson gets $700 billion to do with as he sees fit with no oversight?! I watch as my 401K loses money every quarter and now those assholes on Wall Street want another few grand from me to bail their asses out. This shit would stop pretty quickly if we instituted the death penalty for this kind of thing. I think the sight of the heads of a few CEOs on spikes would send a good message to those seeking to fleece the taxpayers.

Personally, I'm not going to hold my breath for any meaningful reform. According to the Wall Street Journal, McCain has received $19.6 million in campaign contributions from the financial industry while Obama has been given even more - $22.5 million. And the people that got us into this mess are the ones helping their campaigns develop policy positions and drafting legislation for their own regulation:

This week, two of the biggest financial groups in Washington, the Financial Services Roundtable and the Mortgage Bankers Association, have drawn in members from across the country to grill economic advisers from both campaigns, develop policy positions and urge prudence as both parties struggle to craft a regulatory stance on the deepening crisis.

The Financial Services Roundtable has developed draft legislation that calls for the Federal Reserve to regulate brokerages and dealers that seek access to its discount window; a new federal insurance regulator within Treasury; and a mechanism for federal agencies to coordinate regulation among themselves.

Must be nice to be able to write your own laws.

Hopefully this bailout won't be rushed and in the end will include some provisions for accountability and to try and ensure this won't happen again. If by some miracle our legislators get some balls, both Ralph Nader and Robert Reich have some suggestions.


No bailouts without conditions and reciprocity in the form of stock warrants
No more lobbying for any company that is bailed out
No golden parachutes and get out of jail free cards for guilty executives
No bailouts without public hearings

Reduce the moral hazard in U.S. mortgage markets by introducing covered bonds for the majority of mortgage products as they do in Western Europe. That gives institutions that finance mortgages an incentive to be prudent, because they cannot just unload them and wipe their hands clean of the liability, but are instead on the hook if the homeowner defaults.

Maintain neighborhood stability and housing security by passing a law with a sunset clause allowing below median-value homeowners facing foreclosure the right to rent-to-own their homes at fair market value rates.

Avoid future housing bubbles by removing implicit government guarantees for new mortgages that exceed thresholds of greater than 15-20 times the annual fair market rent value of the home.

Make the Federal Reserve a Cabinet Position, so it is accountable to Congress, as well as making sure all Federal Reserve Bank presidents are appointed by the President and answerable to congress.

Reduce conflicts of interest by taking away power for auditor and rating agency selection from companies and placing it in the hands of the SEC to be administered on random assignment.

Implement a securities speculation tax, starting with derivatives to deter casino-style capitalism.


1. The government (i.e. taxpayers) gets an equity stake in every Wall Street financial company proportional to the amount of bad debt that company shoves onto the public. So when and if Wall Street shares rise, taxpayers are rewarded for accepting so much risk.

2. Wall Street executives and directors of Wall Street firms relinquish their current stock options and this year’s other forms of compensation, and agree to future compensation linked to a rolling five-year average of firm profitability. Why should taxpayers feather their already amply-feathered nests?

3. All Wall Street executives immediately cease making campaign contributions to any candidate for public office in this election cycle or next, all Wall Street PACs be closed, and Wall Street lobbyists curtail their activities unless specifically asked for information by policymakers. Why should taxpayers finance Wall Street’s outsized political power – especially when that power is being exercised to get favorable terms from taxpayers?

4. Wall Street firms agree to comply with new regulations over disclosure, capital requirements, conflicts of interest, and market manipulation. The regulations will emerge in ninety days from a bi-partisan working group, to be convened immediately. After all, inadequate regulation and lack of oversight got us into this mess.

5. Wall Street agrees to give bankruptcy judges the authority to modify the terms of primary mortgages, so homeowners have a fighting chance to keep their homes. Why should distressed homeowners lose their homes when Wall Streeters receive taxpayer money that helps them keep their fancy ones?
|| Palmer, 10:28 AM || link || (0) comments |

Andrew Sullivan, Hypocrite

I spend Saturday mornings in front of my computer drinking coffee and catching up on TV from Friday night. One of the shows I watch is Real Time with Bill Maher. Sure, some guests are funnier and/or more enlightening than others, but there's always some great discussion and it's probably the only television show on a major network/channel hosted by a godless heathen who gives religion no quarter.

This past Friday Andrew Sullivan was one of the panelists. I find myself in agreement with much of what he says and he did link to this very blog once so I want to find him likable. However, he was a total hypocrite the other night and it really pissed me off.

Maher had made a comment about how religious people claim to have certainty about an afterlife and then got snarky and described Christianity as being about Yahweh sending his son on a suicide mission only for people to find out Yahweh and Jesus were the same guy. Exasperated, Sullivan told Maher, "Don't describe my faith to me."

These words drew a goodly amount of applause yet they were uttered by the same mouth that earlier had said, "The problem is not religion, it's dumb religion. That's the problem, Bill. And there is a distinction." When Maher describes his religion, Sullivan gets all defensive yet he has no problem describing the religion of others and vehemently labeling it "dumb".
|| Palmer, 8:43 AM || link || (2) comments |

19 September, 2008

Online Literacy

Since you are reading this blog post, I am assuming that you're no stranger to reading things online. How much of this post are you planning on reading? Are you going to skip down a few paragraphs? Does italicized text draw your attention?

In my interview with Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders, I asked him about the difference between reading news online and reading a newspaper. He opined, "I personally think that having a paper in hand allows for better absorption of content than looking at stories online. I think people read faster and grasp less online." This view is shared by Mark Bauerlein who has a thought-provoking article up at The Chronicle of Higher Education called "Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind". In it, Bauerlein argues that browsing the Web, IMing, hanging out at social networking sites, and the like fosters reading skills that promote glossing or a giving texts a brief once-over to glean certain bits. The result of the codification of this mindset is that the ability to slowly analyze writing in-depth is lost; texts that demand the reader scrutinize it as a whole instead of grabbing a few bullet points are not understood or, worse, ignored.

Bauerlein begins by pointing out the research of Jakob Nielsen:

When Jakob Nielsen, a Web researcher, tested 232 people for how they read pages on screens, a curious disposition emerged. Dubbed by The New York Times "the guru of Web page 'usability,'" Nielsen has gauged user habits and screen experiences for years, charting people's online navigations and aims, using eye-tracking tools to map how vision moves and rests. In this study, he found that people took in hundreds of pages "in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school." It looks like a capital letter F. At the top, users read all the way across, but as they proceed their descent quickens and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown around the middle of the page. Near the bottom, eyes move almost vertically, the lower-right corner of the page largely ignored. It happens quickly, too. "F for fast," Nielsen wrote in a column. "That's how users read your precious content."

In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational e-mail messages, and news feeds, Nielsen exclaimed, "'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else. A 2003 Nielsen warning asserted that a PDF file strikes users as a "content blob," and they won't read it unless they print it out. A "booklike" page on screen, it seems, turns them off and sends them away.

For Bauerlein, a professor of English, these findings have pedagogical implications and these are what capture his attention. How should computers be integrated into the classroom? What role should "slow-reading" have in education today? I do not teach and I graduated from college 13 years ago so, after reading the article, I was inclined to ask why. Why should it be that sitting before a computer screen promotes a superficial reading style? The article doesn't address the issue, at least not directly. Is there something about sitting before a computer screen vs. having printed text in our hands? Maybe there's a part of our brains that equates computer screens with television so we are inclined to think that which happens on the display should be akin to the soundbite qualities of TV. The tactile quality of print, perhaps? Or is there something about the circumstances surrounding computer use? What about how computer technology and the Internet evolved? With the limited hard drive space and dial-up connections of the mid-1990s, webpages were designed with a certain aesthetic, namely, concision, and this has carried over to the age of terabyte hard drives and broadband connections. What do you think?

I'm not sure exactly why I developed this preference, but I don't want concision from most of my online reading. Sure, it's great for some things but when I'm out to learn or understand something, I tend to seek out lengthy articles. When I see that one has, say, four pages, I am elated because that means it'll likely be something I can sink my teeth into as opposed to an ephemeral burst of trivia which I can discard before moving onto the next one.

Then there's that last sentence: "A 'booklike' page on screen, it seems, turns them off and sends them away." Does anyone reading this post actually read e-books? I admit it, I do. I sometimes dig into one during my lunch hour these days but read many more a few years ago when I was housesitting. I just copied a bunch onto my laptop and brought a mini-library with me to Edgerton on it instead of a stack of books. E-books come in various formats. Excluding those for PDAs, there's PDF, Microsoft Reader, plain text, Word documents, HTML, and other less common ones. Personally, I prefer a more "booklike" page on my screen as I like the idea of pages – of discrete sections of text – instead of a continuous stream of it. While a computer screen can mimic a book only so much, I just don't want my reading area cluttered with buttons, toolbars, and rulers. Adobe Reader has come a long way with version 9 being quite good for reading e-books. There's a full screen mode which sets your page against a black background, which is nice. However, I'm still a fan of MS Reader. I appreciate the ability to fine tune my ClearType settings plus I can bookmark pages, highlight text, and add e-marginalia.
|| Palmer, 3:17 PM || link || (2) comments |

Murder in the Abbey

Regular readers and folks who know me know that I love all things medieval. I dabble in medieval cooking, think siege engines are cool, watch documentaries on the times, and take the odd medieval history course at the UW. Plus I recently finished reading A Book of Medieval Seasons.

And so I was quite pleased to see the release last month of a new videogame called Murder in the Abbey which leans heavily on one of my favorite books and films, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. In the game, one plays this guy, Brother Leonardo of Toledo.

The game begins with Brother Leonardo bringing his acolyte, Bruno, to the Nuestra Senora de la Natividad Abbey where he is to take up his studies. Upon arrival, Leonardo finds that one of the monks there has died under mysterious circumstances. And so the player is left to wander the abbey to interview his fellow monks, gather clues, and admire all the nice tonsures.

The Disneyesque cartoon style here seems at odds with a murder mystery but, heck, it may just work. It offers a soundtrack in Dolby Surround and an orchestral score by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra which will play as you wander around 20 locations in what is billed as "a complete reproduction of a medieval abbey". (I wonder if you get to hear the monks singing at compline.) To top things off, it looks like they've included the Venerable Jorge!

Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms, uh, the lineaments of the face and makes men look like monkeys!

I think Brother Leonardo is going to find his way into the Library here.

Murder in the Abbey looks to be fun. From the reviews I have read, it's not a groundbreaking title by any means. Rather it's familiar adventure gameplay but that's OK by me. I've been playing Lego Star Wars a bit lately and it'll be nice to sit down with a game that doesn't have stuff blowing up and moves along at a more gentle pace.
|| Palmer, 9:27 AM || link || (2) comments |

18 September, 2008

Oldest Bowling Alley in America Celebrates Centennial

The Holler House in Milwaukee recently turned 100 and is the oldest bowling alley in the U.S.A.

The lanes are real wood, not the synthetic wood of modern lanes, and it's so resilient it's never been changed since it was set in place 100 years ago. Pin boys reload the manual pin mechanism by hand, and numerous photos on the walls document the history of the nation's oldest bowling alley.

Signs on the walls recall life in that bygone era. Original handbills dating back to 1912 and 1916 announce upcoming bowling tournaments, and other signs advertise a hot beef sandwich for a nickel and a half-gallon of beer for 25 cents plus deposit.
(Emphasis mine.)

|| Palmer, 10:33 AM || link || (4) comments |

17 September, 2008

New Hitchhiker's Book?!

The Beeb is reporting that a new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book is in the works. It's to be penned by a children's author whom I, unsurprisingly, have never heard of, Eoin Colfer.

Children's author Eoin Colfer has been commissioned to write a sixth instalment of the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series.

Mostly Harmless, the last Hitchhiker book, was written by its creator, the late Douglas Adams, 16 years ago.

Now Adams's widow, Jane Belson, has given her approval to bring back the hapless Arthur Dent in a new book entitled And Another Thing...

Eoin Colfer, 43, is best known for the best-selling Artemis Fowl novels.

The book is slated for release next October and I'm not getting my hopes up. Look what happened when Arthur C. Clarke handed the reins to Rama over to Gentry Lee.

Also note that the radio adaptation of Adams' second Dirk Gently novel, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, starts on 2 October. Check out the series' page at BBC Radio Four.

|| Palmer, 8:31 AM || link || (0) comments |

16 September, 2008

Phil Collins to Partner with the Gene Genie?

I knew there were multiple reasons for me to like Philip Glenister, a.k.a. Gene Hunt of the BBC show Ashes to Ashes. Like me, he's a Genesis fan and wants to have Phil Collins guest on the next series of the show.

“I love Genesis. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings . . . Hi I’m Philip Glenister and I’m a Genesis fan.”
|| Palmer, 9:31 AM || link || (2) comments |

12 September, 2008

Infidel P.Z. Myers Is Coming to Madison

|| Palmer, 7:43 AM || link || (0) comments |

My Collider is Bigger Than Yours

The Large Hadron Collider went online this week despite worry on behalf of some people that experiments there would create black holes and destroy the world. (One scientist recently received a death threat too.) As predicted by sane people, the world is still here.

And what is the LHC good for?

What it will do is help researchers answer some big questions about the universe—why particles have mass; what dark matter may be made of, and why matter survived its brush with antimatter when the universe was young.
Will the Higgs boson be found? Will researchers find themselves caught in a hypothetical blizzard of nonbaryonic matter? Stay tuned!

In the meantime, check out the LHC webcams where you can watch the Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment in progress.
|| Palmer, 7:12 AM || link || (0) comments |

09 September, 2008

I'm Voting for Palin

The other Palin - Michael Palin for President!

|| Palmer, 8:42 AM || link || (0) comments |

05 September, 2008

The Onion's Darwinic Pilgrims


"Evolutionists Flock To Darwin-Shaped Wall Stain".
|| Palmer, 1:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

Crush the Republican Scum

Thanks to The Dulcinea for pointing this out to me.

|| Palmer, 10:21 AM || link || (0) comments |

Brief Encounter (With Bill Lueders)

Yesterday evening I left work and unsuccessfully dodged the rain drops on my way up to the Square. The occasion was to meet reporter and Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders. Safely tucked away in my bag was a copy of his book Cry Rape which I would, in full fanboy mode, have him autograph for me.

Things began at Isthmus World Headquarters where I met Lueders. Now, from his reporting and sometimes harsh words for government officials, you might be inclined to think of him as being 6'6" 300lbs with a stentorian voice to match. But you'd be wrong. Instead he's of rather average height and weight and the roar is left to his writing. All in all, he's a very approachable guy. First came the tour. It being a Thursday with this week's issue on newsstands, there was a rather subdued atmosphere about the joint. Lueders said that he'd spent a good chunk of the day in meetings where the Isthmus brain trust tried to hash out what you and I will be reading next Thursday. His office is on the second floor tucked away into a corner. Perhaps tellingly, he opted not to show me his desk so I can only imagine what it must have looked like. In my mind, I envision a keyboard and mouse struggling against a mass of papers weighted down by a dog-eared copy of the AP Style Manual that is open to a particularly coffee-stained page relating to the use of semi-colons.

We decided to go get a cuppa joe at Ancora and would leave via the back door. Heading down an aisle, we found ourselves standing before an empty office. "This was Marc's office," my tour guide solemnly informed me. That would be former editor Marc Eisen, who left Isthmus just a few days ago in a bid to help out the paper during these trying times. It was rather spooky because the room looked as if Eisen had merely left for the day – the computer was still perched atop the desk, papers were strewn about randomly, and there was just this general sense of controlled clutter which I associate with newsrooms. I remarked that no one had touched a thing and Lueders said that people were afraid to go inside lest they get a dose of bad mojo. Perhaps they should just leave it as it is. The office would make a good cenotaph for all those newspaper workers who have seen their jobs lost as bloviators like me go to the Web for news.

Once at Ancora, Lueders kindly bought me a coffee. We went to the stand in the corner to get some cream but had to wait briefly as a couple who looked like they'd just walked down the aisle were dressing their drinks. Lueders immediately began to chat with the newlyweds. I suppose reporters can't merely be approachable; they must also be gregarious. A young woman near the fireplace abandoned a table just as we were surveying the scene for one.

Our conversation began with the pleasantries. "What do you do for a living?" he inquired.

"I'm at IT geek for the state," I replied. "It's not glorious but it's OK."

"At least you're a state employee."

I chuckled to myself as I pulled up my ID badge which I still had affixed to my belt loop with one of those retractable hoolies. "State employees get green badges", I lectured. "I'm a redback." That is, contractors get red ID badges. "I'm saving you taxpayers money. Or so Jimmy Doyle tells me."

Lueders smiled and remarked, "There's more people working at the state now than there was before the downsizing." I believe it. My friend doesn't call this the Golden Age of IT Contracting for nothing.

I asked him what his next book was going to be about and he replied that he wasn't going to write anymore books. This led the conversation moved to, Cry Rape, Lueders' account of Patty, a rape victim here in Madison who ended up having to defend herself against the Madison Police Department. It was sad hearing him relate all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the book only to have it ignored beyond a select few. The likes of Oprah and Dateline came a-nibblin' but, in the end, decided the story wasn't for them. I got the impression that, not only was he frustrated that Patty's tale didn't get wider play, but also that the whole experience was just mentally exhausting regardless of exposure.

Much to my surprise, Lueders told me that he'd recently given a speech to the Rotary Club about the decline of the newspaper and he'd incorporated an idea or two that came up during the interview I did with him last month. It was pleasing to know that I was able to contribute, ever so slightly, to his crusade to restore respectability to the newspaper.

Unsurprisingly, the topic turned to politics and I discovered that my interlocutor was insane.

I admitted to him that I hadn't watched any of the convention speeches up to that point. He replied, "Are you going to watch tonight?"


"You aren't very curious for a blogger." Well, I guess I've been called worse.

"What is John McCain going to say to me that would impress me?" I retorted.

He related to me the vicious attacks that Rudoplh Giuliani and Sarah Palin had made at the Republican Convention.

"Yeah, but people eat that shit up. That kind of stuff works," I offered.

"I guess they do," he said before briefly going quiet, his gaze wandering to the world outside the window.

Nothing odd so far, right?. Then Lueders dropped the bomb – he watches the likes of Joe Scarborough and Bill O'Reilly every night. (With Keith Olbermann thrown in for a "progressive" respite.) My jaw hit the table. He and his wife watch these programs and laugh at them, commenting ala MST3K the whole time. I told him that, if I were to do so, I'd go insane. This blog would become nothing more than the ramblings of an H.P. Lovecraft character documenting his descent into madness from a cell at Arkham Asylum.

I will not deny, though my memory is uncertain and indistinct, that this witness of yours may have seen us together as he says, on the couch, watching Bill O'Reilly, at half past 7 on that awful night. That we bore popcorn, beer, and a curious remote control, I will even affirm; for these things all played a part in the single hideous scene which remains burned into my shaken recollection. But of what followed, and of the reason I was found alone and dazed on the edge of Lake Monona next morning, I must insist that I know nothing save what I have told you over and over again.

That and the fact that I don't have cable.

I told Lueders that I was lucky to have been put into a gifted & talented program starting in the fourth grade. In addition to the usual science, English, and math, I had a Logic and Philosophy class which means that my classmates and I were taught to detect bullshit starting at an early age. Ergo I can't stand the talk shows. All the ad hominem attacks, hasty generalizations, examples of post hoc ergo propter hoc, double standards, and downright lies just repulse me. O'Reilly and his ilk couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag.

At least Lueders' brand of insanity is understandable to me even after our brief encounter. Newspapers are in his blood and he has an insatiable curiosity about news and current events. You could see this when he struck up a conversation with two passing strangers and in the way he'd look around the room. His eyes are always peeled because there is always something going that he wants to know about; there are good causes that need to be fought for and one must know one's enemy.

All too soon it was over. Lueders had some work to finish up and I a wet bus stop to amble over to. It was a success in my eyes due, in no small part, to the fact that I emerged unscathed. I figured that the newspaper reporter, when confronted by a blogger, would pull out a sharp instrument yanked from an old IBM Selectric and try to poke me in the eye. Luckily that never happened.

If you get the chance, say hi to Bill Lueders and then buy him a cup of coffee. Don't forget to ask him about the four most important things to impart to your children.
|| Palmer, 10:15 AM || link || (5) comments |

04 September, 2008

Sarah Palin Makes Me Want to Run to the Hills

Sarah Palin gets more frightening all the time. P.Z. Myers pointed out this video of Ms. Palin speaking at her church:

Yikes! Our invasion of Iraq is "a task that is from God". Yeah, Yahweh has a good track record of giving out tasks that involve killing. ("Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.")

I see that local blog Caffeinated Politics has found some more video:

Wowzers! They do prophecy. Makes me want to listen to some Iron Maiden.

I had their lives in my hands
Their fate their fortune in my vision
No one believed in my true prophecy
And now it's too late

The proprietor of CP also noted that Palin has been accused of seeking to ban books.

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

How about standing up for freedom of speech instead of banning books? I hope that Ms. Palin knows that freedom of speech is precisely for speech with which she doesn't agree, that which offends her or some of her constituents.

|| Palmer, 11:48 AM || link || (0) comments |

03 September, 2008

Go Directly to the Cinema on Saturday

Last weekend I mentioned the documentary style "direct cinema" when discussing the film about Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free, which was recently released on DVD. (Direct cinema is where the camera acts as a fly-on-the-wall and tries to observe the action. Plus there's no omniscient narrator.)

A pioneering example of this style will be projected this Saturday at the UW Cinematheque - Primary. It follows JFK and Hubert H. Humphrey around Wisconsin during the Democratic Presidential primary in 1960. The scene of Humphrey standing by himself on a corner in downtown Tomah shaking hands with passers-by is one that always stands out for me. It contrasts sharply with the highly-polished shots of candidates these days who are constantly surrounded by a retinue of advisors and security personnel.

The film is only an hour so it won't cut too drastically into your Saturday night partying schedule.
|| Palmer, 9:00 AM || link || (1) comments |

02 September, 2008

The Alaskan Family Palin

The media is agog with news that Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, in the words of Jay, loves the cock. I say let the Palins welcome the newest member of the family in peace. Until, that is, someone from the McCain campaign says a single word about girls getting knocked-up who aren't white or don't happen to have a parent vying for a bed at the corner of 34th Street and Massachusetts Ave in Washington D.C. At that point, McCain, Palin, and the Republican Party should be roasted on the flames of fornication and their charred corpses shoved into the gaping maw of hypocrisy.

Instead, let us turn our attention to Ms. Palin herself. First we have the news that, at best, she's one of those "teach the controversy" people. That is, she favors the teaching of creationism in the science classrooms of public schools:

"Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject -- creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides."

At worst, this means she's a creationist keen on infecting biology classes with her particular religious views.

Second there's this revelation that she seems to love flag waving along with her ignorance. When asked if she took any offense to the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, she replied:

Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers, its good enough for me and I'll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance.

Considering that the Pledge was written by a Baptist minister in 1892 without the offending phrase, I am forced to wonder just exactly which Founding Fathers she was referring to. Were Charles Oakman and Homer Ferguson at the Constitutional Convention? Maybe James Madison and recording secretary William Jackson just forgot about them.

I'm perfectly willing to let Ms. Palin's foreign policy inexperience go. Lincoln didn't have much experience in civil wars when he took office but he got by okay. But there's only so much an experienced cabinet can overcome.
|| Palmer, 11:28 AM || link || (0) comments |

01 September, 2008

Beer Notes - 1 September 2008

Last Wednesday I wrote about the possibility that The Malt House may carry some unhopped beers in the future. A couple days later, the Madison Beer Review wrote a nice piece about such brews. In it, the author noted that Fraoch Heather Ale and Alba Scots Pine were two uhopped brews commonly found here in the Madison area. On Saturday I went to Steve's Liquor and found that the Fraoch was all gone, though some Alba remained. Did MBR cause a rush on the heather ale? Hopefully. This would indicate that there are some adventurous drinkers out there.

Via my fellow beer-drinking blogger Oz comes a few ditties. First is the news that Leine's is changing both their holiday and spring seasonals. No word on the vernal brew but the holiday suds are going to be Fireside Nut Brown – a lager, apparently. Also courtesy of Oz is a link to this page which is a nice interactive wall of beer. Click on a bottle and you can find out how long the beer has been brewed and who is the current owner.

I recently discovered that there's a new brewery in Wausau - Bull Falls. Any readers ever sample their suds?

In addition, I also recently read that Bull Falls, along with some of Wisconsin's other microbreweries have formed a co-op to grow barley and hops since the price of both has gone up dramatically in recent months. Although the endeavor won't be certified organic, the crops will be so. Plus the malting will be done by Breiss Malting up in Chilton. Wisconsin used to grow more hops than you could shake a stick at back in the 1850-60s but the hops market bottomed out in 1867 just as nearby Sauk County became a leader. Hopefully this turns out well for everyone involved.

We Wisconsonians know that our fair state leads the nation in drunk driving. My alma mater, the UW-Madison, has been a leading party school for ages. There is indeed a culture of drinking here in Wisconsin which Gannett newspapers says makes our state no. 1 for alcohol's impact on lives. Driving under the influence has been a hot topic as of late here and the latest salvo comes from a magistrate up nort, Harold V. Froehlich, who recently penned an editorial in which he called for "limited prohibition":

Upon conviction for a second offense operating while under the influence of alcohol, the offender would lose the right FOR LIFE to enter a tavern or liquor store. The offender would lose the right to purchase alcoholic beverages FOR LIFE.

Concomitant to the debate here in Wisconsin is the suggestion by a group of college and university presidents under the nom de guerre the Amethyst Initiative, to lower the drinking age. The Madison Beer Review come out in favor of the idea while people like Darshak Sanghavi at Slate disagree.

How can Wisconsin change its culture of drinking? Would it help if parents drank with their kids to take away the alluring mystique of the illegal? Maybe introduce them to John Barleycorn via a low alcohol session beer and a micro to boot?

A few points from Sanghavi:

1) When the drinking age in this country was raised, instances of underage drinking dropped.

2) Concomitant to this, a decrease in fatalities from drunk driving amongst young adults also occurred, with a likely causal connection.

3) A 2004 report notes, "As the committee demonstrates in this report, countries with lower drinking ages are not better off than the United States in terms of the harmful consequences of youths' drinking."

4) "Impressively, states that severely restrict the promotion of alcohol and its purchase in large quantities—for example, by requiring registration of keg sales, restricting happy hours and beer-pitcher sales, and regulating advertising like billboards—have half the college bingeing rate of states that don't."

5) "Alcohol consumption mirrors its price."

I've noticed at various forums and blogs a problem when discussing the issue of underage drinking. It is almost always seen as a problem on college campuses. Certainly when college presidents make the statement that a debate about the drinking age is warranted, campus is where conversation is going to start. However, underage drinking is not limited to institutions of higher education.

Similarly, many discussions I've read about drunk driving here in Wisconsin focus on public transportation and taxis as methods for curbing the problem. Good ideas but they only work in urban areas and Wisconsin is still a very rural state. Where I lived up nort, taverns were 10 miles north in Eau Claire, 10 miles south in Eleva, or 9 miles east in Foster. (Improbably, I don't think Cleghorn had a tavern.) Simply put, buses and taxis aren't going to work in areas like the one in which I lived so something more is needed.

Anyone wanting to cut down drinking & drunk driving in Wisconsin should probably: A) push for a sharp increase on beer & liquor taxes; B) seek to increase the penalties for breaking the law – drunk driving and selling to minors; and C) try to impose more regulation on advertising and the ability to buy large quantities of alcohol.

Admittedly, inviting government taxation and coercion won't be popular with a lot of people and would no doubt elicit cries of a "neo-Prohibition". In addition, such changes have the potential to negatively affect our state's brewing as well as its nascent distilling industries. They could also have the effect of hurting our tourism industry as well since fishing, snowmobiling, and the like are often done with drink in hand.

An uphill battle, to say the least.
|| Palmer, 12:52 PM || link || (2) comments |