Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

31 December, 2008

Thoughts From Hogmanay '08

Hogmanay is cruising to an end. My friend Pete will be going out to get cold tomorrow morning (i.e. - hunting) and may very well end up being our first footer so we're soaking lots of black eyed peas for a big batch of Hoppin' John. And we'll have plenty of coffee and beer on hand.

The Capital Times printed a couple looks ahead at 2009. In one, the paper says that next year will be Mayor Dave's chance to shine.

But it is often in times of adversity that opportunities present themselves -- especially for those leaders with the boldness to think big.

What a joke. Exactly how much boldness is required of our mayor when he's flush with cash courtesy of the feds - money from taxes that he didn't have to levy? I'll be impressed with our mayor when he finds a way to shine sans the largesse of the federal government.

While 2009 may end up being a good year, I'm not holding my breath.

The recession will continue unabated when I wake up tomorrow and I fully expect to hear of more and more layoffs for some time to come while corporate America suckles at the teat of a taxpayer-funded recovery program. Our soldiers will still be in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan while innocents will continue to die in those countries. Israel prepares for a ground offensive in Gaza which just can't be helpful in the war on terror that Barack Obama plans to continue. We can expect more of our men and women to come home in body bags.

Can someone give me a reason to be optimistic?
|| Palmer, 11:42 PM || link || (3) comments |

Close Encounter With HP Tech Support

It took all of 5 days for me to have a problem with my new computer - a dead DVD drive. While I'm not sure when it met its ignominious death, I noticed the thing's distinct inability to burn CDs yesterday evening. My trash can is now filled with coasters. I tried two different brands of blank CDs in multiple programs and the device was un- and then reinstalled all to no avail. Of course, there were also numerous reboots and a cold boot or 2 as well. I had a Sony CD drive exhibit the exact same behavior a few years back so I knew it was dead.

It had been 11 years since I'd bought a PC, having built the most myself. I felt genuinely irked having to contact HP technical support and be at the mercy of someone else. Not only that, I knew that business customers with expensive contracts get help from folks right here in the U.S. of A. while we lowly consumers suffer with the hit or miss proposition of a drone in India. Please don't take this to mean I have something against the people of the sub-continent because that is certainly not the case. Instead I mean such interactions are occasions for a native speaker of English and non-native speaker to wildly miscommunicate and waste time endeavoring to simply understand one another as opposed to finding a solution. And so it was off the HP site for a chat, i.e. - a chat window. There wasn't a cat in hell's chance of me calling support.

I am generally a patient person and, having done technical support over the phone for the general public, I am sympathetic to the plight of those who are unfortunate enough to have the technical vocation equivalent to flipping burgers at McDonalds. Believe me, the people who try to help you fix your computer have a lousy job. But it can be interesting.

For instance, I learned that there is a certain neighborhood here in America that defies all known laws of geometry and topology. When I did phone support for AT&T's dial-up internet access, I spoke with all of AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong's next-door neighbors. All 100+ of them. How can a guy have that many next door neighbors? I don't know but I had lots of angry people tell me they lived next door to the guy and that they expect the best customer service. Otherwise the next time they go yachting with Mr. Armstrong, he’s gonna hear about it. The customer is never wrong, right? I couldn't give a rat's ass because, little did they know, I was not an AT&T employee. Instead I worked out on Madison's west side for Sitel.

And then there was the time that my boss gave me the urgent task of making one particular customer happy who happened to be a reporter for the New York Times. The big boys at AT&T's telecomm equivalent of the Hall of Justice didn't want bad publicity. I was to satisfy this customer at all costs. Luckily they turned to the right guy. In my possession were super-secret access numbers that were never given to the general public - they were for used for testing and maintenance purposes. So I switched the reporter over to one of those numbers and he was set. Feeling all proud of myself for having saved AT&T face, I went on the Net and looked up just who this guy was. My bosses got their panties in knot over a fucking restaurant critic. What were they expecting him to do?

"The foie gras was delicious as was the roast capon with a terragon reduction. Oh, and my internet service provider sucks."

No, there’s no glory in being a first-level tech support person.

Things started off well enough as my chat request was answered quickly by a Renuka. I give her the basic info she desires such as model, serial number, and version of Windows before meticulously and clearly explaining my troubleshooting failures. This didn’t matter because she did what her HP overlords demand of her – stick to the script and follow procedure. People like Renuka are monitored in their job performance. They get in trouble when they don’t address a customer just as they are told and are docked points for not following the standard troubleshooting steps, the demands of the situation and customer be damned.

Now, I am a PC technician by trade and I thought that selecting “Expert” from the Technical Ability drop-down menu would mean that the person with whom I would chat could take off the kid gloves and perhaps deviate from the script. But no. Renuka diligently had me repeat the same measures which I explicitly told her I had already done. Such is technical support. I bet that 75% of the problems these folks encounter are solved by a reboot or by directing the user to the correct button to push. The remaining issues probably end with the technician having the customer reinstall Windows. This alleviates the need to actually troubleshoot a problem to any great extent which means technicians don’t need a great deal of technical knowledge which, of course, means you don’t have to pay them very much.

From out of left field, Renuka says she wants me to uninstall Nero. I am flummoxed because A) I told her previously that the same problem occurs when I try to burn with Windows Media Player and B) I also noted that I had already uninstalled it. Was this because of her limited ability with English? Not reading what I typed completely? Or was she simply following the script? The last one. I knew this because I’d already consulted HPs website and we were covering the same old ground as the website article.

Luckily I noticed a handy hardware diagnostic utility on my PC. I ran the CD write test, first with a Brand X CD and then a Brand Z disc and it failed both times. The only reason I can think of for HP to not include the running of the diagnostic in the script is to get the techs to reinstall Windows and get rid of the customer. Renuka tried to pull a more minor stunt at first. She told me that she wanted me to reinstall Nero and then politely typed, “Is there anything else apart from this, we may support you with?” Yeah, how about helping me solve the problem. I am sure she got into trouble for spending too much time assisting me.

I proceed to explain to her that the drive failed the hardware diagnostic and go so far as to include the exact message I get: "The CD-R test has failed. The failure could be caused by a scratched, dirty or defective media, or it could be an actual hardware problem." Her reply?

“Okay, are you sure that your sytem failed the hardware diagonistic test for cddvd drive.”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that I am reading “has failed” correctly. Mind you we are 45 minutes into the chat session and I am losing patience. I realize that she deals with people who think the DVD drive tray is a cup holder (yes, there are really such people) and those who, upon being asked to close all their windows, actually get up from their chairs and slide panes of glass framed in wood or aluminum downwards (I shit thee not), but I gave her the exact error message which included the word “failure” twice.

I finally convince Renuka that I have a hardware failure and she inquires about my warranty. I inform her that the unit is 5 days old – it had fucking better be under warranty. (No, I didn’t use the f-word.) She continues, “Then one another option is that ,you can do recovery.” I nearly lost it. She is telling me that I can either wait 5 days for a new drive, the option which will fix my problem, or I can spend 20 minutes reinstalling Winders and then another few hours putting all my applications back on with a DVD drive that’s still inoperable. I am just too nice because I told her that I was more than happy to wait 5 days for a new drive. Lastly, I ask Renuka if they can just ship the thing to me as I can install it myself instead of trying to coordinate a time for an overworked contractor to come to my home and do it. She informs me that, unlike in the bad old days, HP does not send techs to people’s homes and all customers must do the installs themselves. I can just imagine how frustrating it would be for a technophobic grandma to be told that she is going to have to pop the case open and tinker with the electronics herself. Does HP include a wristband in the packaging? Presumably such people take the ailing PC and the part to a local tech at Milwaukee PC or Best Buy to do the install which probably costs at least $75. I really should start a PC repair company up again.

The moral of the story here is to avoid online or phone technical support if at all possible. Instead, drop me a line and I’d be happy to undercut the Geek Squad or Milwaukee PC.
|| Palmer, 8:34 PM || link || (2) comments |

30 December, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I'd wanted to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button because of its director, David Fincher, who'd helmed Se7en and Zodiac, two films I greatly enjoy. Much to my dismay, the screenplay was penned by Eric Roth whose credit includes Forrest Gump, a film that I loathe. The two have much in common: they are both epics chronicling the life of a man who isn't "normal" and doesn't quite fit in wherever he may go. Whereas Gump sugar-coated the brackish realities of life, Button is inclined to accept fate, however harsh it may be.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born in New Orleans as the city celebrates the end of World War I. Although the size of a normal infant, he has the body of a man in his 80s preparing to return to the soil. Benjamin's father recoils from his hideous visage and his deeply wrinkled little body. He leaves the child at the doorstep of Queenie, who runs an old folks home. She takes the child in despite his deformity because, in her eyes, Benjamin is still one of God's children.

Benjamin's childhood is thusly rather morbid. Born old, he grows larger and younger while the elderly folks around him shrink and eventually fall prey to mortality. To compound the grave fates of those around him, a faith healing preacher falls dead shortly after laying hands on Benjamin. Surrounded by infirmity and death as well as being afflicted with a condition which made him an outcast, it's little wonder that he grows up to be rather stoic.

When youthful enough, Benjamin strikes out on his own by joining the crew of a tugboat led by Captain Mike, a colorful man clad in tattoos and with a great fondness for the drink. Our protagonist experiences life on the water as well as a fling with Elizabeth Abbott, the disgruntled wife of a British diplomat in the port of Murmansk. The film emphasizes Benjamin's outsider status via his narration in which he rather dispassionately observes the personalities of his fellow crew members as well as that of his inamorata. He describes them like a scientist describing the behaviors of lab rats. World War II hits home when the tugboat meets a German submarine in a close encounter which leaves Benjamin as the lone survivor. He returns home to New Orleans.

Benjamin's near indifference towards other is not boundless, however. He has great affection for Queenie throughout and falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whom he first met when she was a girl visiting her grandmother at the home. She pursues a career as a dancer which is cut short due to an accident. Having led separate lives for too long, she returns to New Orleans and to him. She is ready to settle down while Benjamin has become a handsome man bereft of grey hair – both in the primes of their lives. But nothing good ever lasts. Benjamin leaves her in the middle of the night when he can no longer bear the thought of descending into infancy with her as she enters middle age.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like Fincher took what was essentially Forrest Gump 2 and made it darker. "Life is like a box of chocolates" has been replaced with the slightly menacing "You never know what's coming for you" as the memorable pithy phrase but Benjamin knows and, I would argue, all of the main characters know what is coming for them – the Grim Reaper. The film constantly reminds us that life is short. It heavily emphasizes the vita brevis at the expense of carpe diem. Only at the end of the film after Benjamin has left Daisy does the preaching swing from the former to the latter as we see a very youthful Benjamin out traveling the world. The narration here is very direct – seize the day. This sequence felt tacked on as if Fincher wanted a blatantly happy moment to take the edge off the previous two and a half hours of bittersweet. But it was too little too late; the floodgates just can't hold back the torrents of fatalism.

My other gripe with the film is Daisy. I found her character oddly uncompelling. In contrast to Benjamin, she is one dimensional with her sole motivation being to fulfill her feelings for him. She is deep but very narrow. More interesting, I felt, were some of the subsidiary characters who, although shallow, were also wide. Captain Mike's drunken proclamations about art, his father's legacy, and his willingness to sacrifice himself add a lot of complexity to a character that gets relatively little screentime. Elizabeth also had a myriad of motivations and conflicts in her life - regret at not having tried to swim the English Channel again, the loneliness of living far from home, and having a husband who is a spy. While comparatively shallow, the breadth of these two characters makes their pursuits of adding quality to their lives in the face of ever-decreasing quantity much more intriguing propositions than Daisy's status as love interest.

On a more technical note, the make-up and CGI work at add or subtract age from the characters was exceptional. Claudio Miranda's cinematography was beautiful but unexciting to my eyes while Alexandre Desplat's score was melodramatic as expected but the use of his music was admirably restrained, i.e. – not every scene had music trying to tell me how to feel.

I'm rather ambivalent about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. On the one hand it's an engaging story that attempts to deal with profound themes. It also has some very touching moments, the most potent of which was seeing Daisy's face as she watches Benjamin leave her with neither saying a word. On the other I didn't find Daisy compelling and the film's happy near-ending stuck out like a sore thumb. In addition, much of it just felt clichéd, as if it was trying to hit all the right (ahem) buttons to get an Oscar. Most of the film was typical Hollywood fare, however glossy, and I found myself waiting for a curveball to be thrown at me, for something unexpected to rear its head but nothing ever did.
|| Palmer, 9:34 AM || link || (1) comments |

29 December, 2008

I Killed Vista

Well, I managed to kill Vista within a couple days of getting it. I made the mistake of checking off "Show processes from all users" on the Task Manager only to have it disappear and never return as if it had disappeared into the Redmond Triangle. I tried opening it a few more times to no avail. So off to a command prompt I went but the taskkill command was impotent. So was Process Explorer. Resigned to a reboot, I figured I'd do so when my downloads had finished. I tried opening another program but, like the Task Manager, it too never appeared. Alas poor WinAmp, it then hung. I closed a couple open apps and then tried to reboot. This too failed so a hard boot it was.

In addition to taking Vista down, I found more annoyances. Firstly, I am unable to launch my newsreader application unless I run it as an administrator. This is odd since I am logged in as a user with admin rights. The program failed to modify a file that it installed and that was located in its installation directory. Was the application trying to modify the file using an account other than mine (he who launched it)? Obviously I need to learn more about Vista's security.

But not for this alone. There's no bloody Local Security Policy editor in the Home versions of Vista. How the hell do you lock it down for certain user accounts? Heck, maybe the standard accounts are useless and already locked down. Let's say you have a wayward teenager so you create a standard account for her. Can she logon and disable the anti-virus? Will she be able to map network drives? How do you prevent her from taking IE 7 out of protected mode or disabling the anti-phishing filter? Do you have to set permissions on folders so she can't run certain programs? Would she be able to modify the firewall? These aren't highly esoteric things that only concern power users in a business environment.

Lastly, I want to figure out how to modify the All Programs menu in the Start Menu. Right now it looks only slightly more organized than Hiroshima after its encounter with Little Boy back in the summer of '45. I want to group apps together instead of parsing a heinously long list.

On the bright side, Microsoft actually included a productivity program with Vista that I find useful – Windows Calendar. I had Mozilla Sunbird on my old PC and use it on my work computer so I was able to grab my calendar info from my box at work which was, for some odd reason, always more up-to-date than the one at home. Microsoft is to be commended for making it compliant with the iCalendar format which is widely used. Thusly, as with Sunbird, I can subscribe to a remote calendar on the Internet. There are some nice ones to be had at iCal Share. You can add Sri Lankan holidays to your calendar, if you like. In my case, I have upcoming astronomical events listed as well as DVD release dates, NOVA's schedule, et al.

I unthinkingly opted for the 64-bit version of Vista. While it thunks 32-bit apps just fine, I have a few 16-bit programs that are unable to run on the shiny new version of Windows. However, thanks to a handy little program called DOSBox, I was able to get one of my all-time favorite games to run - The Last Express.

TLE was released in 1997 and its lovely rotoscoped Art Nouveau graphics have aged well, in my opinion. Since I've got some other games that are older than dirt, I am looking at a VMWare solution so I can just run Windows 98 from Vista when I want to bust out some old skool g@m3z. I am hoping this will also allow me to finally try out the Connections game that didn't work on XP. You may remember the Connections TV show by James Burke which ran on the Discovery and Science channels. Burke would focus on some modern apparatus or method and then go back and demonstrate a series of interrelated events which led to the creation of the modern thingy. For instance, in one episode he showed how the rise of sheep farms in the Scottish Highlands during the 18th century led to the invention of the computer.

Also, I'd like to get Microsoft Art Gallery running again. It came out in 1994 after Microsoft realized that computers running its OS could do more than process words and crunch numbers in spreadsheets. This was the time of the multimedia CD-ROM craze when it was thought that every reference and educational need could (and probably should) be met by the computer. You could read e-books that contained supplementary material or listen to Beethoven's 9th as the score flashed by you after having read some knowledgeable commentary and saw some nice pictures. Voyager Company became known for quality titles including attempts at, for want of a better term, interactive computer art, by the likes of Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel. For instance, Gabriel's XPlora1 allowed you to remix "Digging in the Dirt" while the remixing activities on Eve are much more expansive.

These multimedia CD-ROMs died in the late 90s with the rise of the Internet. (Plus it's debatable as to just how fun it is to read a book on a desktop computer.) It's too bad, really. While there were many crappy titles which were hastily thrown together to cash in on the trend, there were also some really good ones. And, while the Internet contains all of the information on these discs, there seems to be precious few websites which actually present the material in the way they did.

Microsoft Art Gallery was a virtual tour of the collection of The National Gallery in London. In addition to viewing the art, one can read about the artists, movements in the art world, and get background info relating to the work. If you want to check out the art of Florence, you can. Or of a particular artist, time period, or subject matter. Notably, one cannot do this at The National Gallery's website itself. While the Net wins hands down on the quality of pictures available (MAG is limited to 640x480), you have to go to one site to see the photos, another to get something more than a cursory overview of the artist, and probably yet another site to get more background info on art movements, the times & places in which the artists lived, etc. Here, everything is in one spot and you can easily change how you go about viewing the collection.

I also hope to run Escher Interactive wherein I can see the man's work and create my own artistic spatial anomalies and a CD-ROM about Bach which allows one to compose in his style. My cunning plan is to compose a 7th Brandenburg Concerto.

|| Palmer, 7:25 PM || link || (2) comments |

26 December, 2008

New PC

I type from behind the keyboard attached to my new computer. While the first choice in PC was out of stock, I ended up with a rather nice second one. It’s got an AMD dual core CPU and 5GB of RAM so it moves pretty swiftly. Aside from the goofy green design on the front, the most noticeable feature of my new toy is how exceptionally quiet it is. New case fans are good that way.

My adjustment to Vista goes fairly well. The biggest thing is the new iteration of Windows Explorer which doesn’t have my dear toolbar with File, Edit, View, etc. I am still not sure how to open Folder Options without doing so via Help and Support.

Hey! There it is under Organize. (And not Tools.) Will wonders never cease?

I see 4 Removable Disk drives here and have no idea what the hell they are…wait…I get it. They are the multiple media slots that adorn the front of the case. You know, you can just slip the memory card from your digital camera in one of those. Another mystery solved.

My two biggest gripes:

1) I don’t get a Vista CD and instead the image resides on a partition on the hard drive. So what happens if the drive dies?

2) The confirmation prompts. I get 4 prompts asking if I really want to move the fucking mouse. There must be a registry hack to get rid of those.

Also annoying is the fact that I have no idea how to modify the Start Menu other than by accidentally dragging a shortcut to the Desktop from it that I didn’t mean to.

Here’s how it all started. After getting the tower out of the box and plugging everything in, I power up. I stumble through an annoying HP intro/setup thingy before getting to my desktop. Despite having Service Pack 1 installed, I am immediately told by Windows Update that I have 31 updates waiting to be downloaded and installed, some 20+ of them being security patches. Frustrating but hardly surprising. Windows Defender also barks at me that it needs to be updated so I proceed to give it what it wants. At least I can forego installing Ad-Aware. (Or so I think.)

I am using the shiny new Aero GUI. While I can’t say that I am really using the new features much, I do appreciate how icons are bigger and more detailed. Also, icons for pictures use a thumbnail which is handy.

There are some nice troubleshooting features here but I haven’t putzed with them. Yet. I did, however, get most of my applications installed and only a couple really gave me a problem. Perhaps best of all, Murder in the Abbey got past the spot where it hung on my old PC so I am going to say that it now works. The Dulcinea is currently tying up all of our IP address’ connections to Charter’s news server so I can’t setup my newsreader. This is especially odd since she’s never ventured over to Usenet until today. My podcast reader is all setup with my feeds (except one) and I have to get some folders copied over to my new hard drive so I can get DC++ up and running again. Firefox has my bookmarks now but I’ve got to reenter info into my FTP client. In other words, there’s still some tweaking to be done but so far, so good.
|| Palmer, 10:46 PM || link || (0) comments |

R.I.P. - My PC

Sadly my computer died on Christmas Eve. In fact, this is the second time I've had a computer die over the Xmas holidays. The first time was 4 years ago when I returned home from Chicago only to find that I needed to replace my motherboard and CPU. This year's fiasco saw me doing some e-mail when it suddenly went out. After poking around, I discovered that the plug from the power supply that plugs into the mobo had two pins that were completely fried. The exact extent of the damage is unknown at this time but I suspect that the power supply and mobo are fried.

It was time for an upgrade anyway. The thermal grease on the CPU is dried and withered; the CPU runs only at a measley 1.93GHz; the ball bearings on my case fans tell me that they are not long of this earth; and Windows needed to be reinstalled. So Christmas will come late for me and I head out this evening in search of a deal.

I've got most of my data backed up so, in the event that my 3 hard drives are toast, I really won't lose very much. But it's going to be a lot of work. For starters, I've got to get used to Vista because, in all likelihood, I am going to get it on my new PC. Being an IT geek, I suspect that it will be a fairly short learning curve. I've actually looked at some of the new apps that come with it, especially those for organizing media – Windows Media Center, Photo Gallery, etc. – and it has reinforced the notion I got recently that my computer was incredibly unorganized. About 2 weeks ago I decided to try and make my MP3 collection make some sense by getting my act together with WinAmp.

I'd love to have an all-in-one media player but I just can't find one that really suits me. I have a boatload of music in lossless compression formats - .ape, .shn, and .flac. WinAmp has plug-ins for all these formats. I've always felt that WinAmp was sluggish when it came to video and I heard good things about VLC Media Player so I went with it. It plays pretty much anything including the new .mkv format which is becoming more common for HDTV quality video files. My computing life would be easier if I played only MP3 and AVI files. This is what I get for valuing quality over quantity.

So there I was trying to get my MP3 collection (and FLAC – it too carries metadata) organized with WinAmp a couple weeks ago. Having album covers to look at sounded neat so I started grabbing them. Somehow I ended up at an AOL Music search portal and couldn't find my way back to the normal media organizing bit. I'm dead certain that this is not a complicated maneuver but I just couldn't figure it out for the life of me and didn't have the heart to reinstall WinAmp.

In the grips of frustration, I read about Mozilla's Songbird, an open source media player. It had native FLAC capability and, being a Mozilla product, one could use add-ons such as the one which noted when bands in your music library were going to be playing in your town. So I loaded it. Much to my dismay, it had a footprint the size of Texas using, as it did, more memory than my browser after a long night of surfing the Web.

Thus ended my attempt at organizing my audio media. Will any of Vista's shiny new features help me organize my audio, video, and photos? Only The Shadow knows…

Before I attempt to organize anything, I am going to uninstall all the crap put on the PC like trial versions of anti-virus software, lite versions of DVD authoring apps that try to get you to buy the full version by letting you use a completely useless one, etc. After this I've got a list of essential programs I need on my computer. Anti-virus and anti-malware will come first. From there I've got about two dozen essential apps to install: media players, lossless audio compression apps & plug-ins, Firefox, Office, audio editing software, an FTP client, e-book readers (Adobe Reader, Microsoft Reader, and something to for .cbr files so I can read comic books), a file compression utility so I can deal with RARs, GIMP for photo editing, and on and on.

After that I'll throw some games on. I am really looking forward to being able to play Murder in the Abbey. I bought it a couple months ago but a new sound card and several e-mails with tech support later, I wasn't able to play. In fact, the tech support folks abandoned me.
|| Palmer, 9:57 PM || link || (0) comments |

23 December, 2008

"First you start with a roux"

That's what I've always been told about Cajun cooking. People from Natchitoches to Houma to Breaux Bridge all say the same thing. And so last night I did.

I celebrated the end of this cold snap by making something that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike gumbo. Let's get this clear: gumbo has okra. What I made last night did not have okra. Ergo it wasn't really gumbo. Q.E.D.

While I don't know why, I just love the smell of roux. Apparently the scent of deep-fried flour had some evolutionary advantage way back when and it has survived until today. Down South you can buy jars of roux in grocery stores but I've never seen a Yankee grocer carry the stuff. If you're in a hurry, I can understand the convenience of the pre-made stuff but, if you have the time, make it yourself as it is a zen-like experience. You stand huddled over a pot for half an hour stirring all the while. It's the culinary equivalent of one of those rock gardens. Instead of raking sand you slowly stir your mixture of fat and flour. Left to right then back to front – maybe some kind of swirled pattern thrown in for good measure. Over the course of 30 or so minutes the roux changes from yellow to light brown and finally ends up a nice chocolate color.

Despite the absence of okra, I chopped up plenty of Holy Trinity and had not one, but two different kinds of sausage. I had a large stash of Polish varieties from Chicago in my freezer and it was time for them to be eaten. So into the pot went Kiełbasa Polska (the smoked stuff you find everywhere) and Kabanosy (stick sausage).

Ooh mama! The pot sat on the stove uncovered for quite a while so the whole place was sweetly scented with bay, smoked sausage, etc. And just as the kitchen smelled of venison stew yesterday morning, last night's dinner remained when I awoke today. If I keep it up, even this stuff will be powerless against me.

There was some basmati-wild rice mix leftover from last week that was dying to be eaten so I threw some of that in a bowl. I figured the wild rice would give the dish a nice Upper Midwestern touch. From there I ladled my almost-gumbo into the bowl and topped it off with some filé.

Since I didn't have any French bread, I had an onion bialy with it. Mo bettah!

For dessert, I had some vanilla ice cream topped with a mint porter brewed by Joe Walts:

It was quite delicious as the hop bitterness and a hint of mint alternated with the sweet ice cream on my tongue. Indeed, I added more beer a couple times.

Although good on ice cream, the beer was best from a glass after having let it warm up a bit.

It poured a nice frothy head which dissipated quickly. Sticking my nose into the pint glass, I beheld a chocolate aroma at first, and then I swear there was some of that estery banana goodness as well. Never having tasted a mint porter that wasn't on ice cream before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect once the beer had warmed up and its flavors allowed to bloom.

I ended up drinking a damn fine porter. The hops were assertive but I could taste the mint clawing away at them for the attention of my taste buds. At the end of each sip, I think they found a way to co-exist peacefully on my palate. About a quarter of a pint in I had a nice mellow mint burn in my throat. Certainly one of the more unique beer drinking experiences I've had. Great stuff.

You can keep track of Joe as he pursues his dream of opening a brewpub here in Madison by going to his blog.
|| Palmer, 8:37 AM || link || (0) comments |

22 December, 2008


Here's a cool video I found via the Chicago Reader. It's of George Gelashvili and Arkady Kats making puri and shoti – Georgian breads – in a toné which is a Georgian brick oven. Kats is the co-owner of Bread ’n’ Bowl Company in Niles, a northern 'burb of Chicago.

Making Georgian puri at Bread 'n' Bowl Company in Niles, IL from mike sula on Vimeo.

If anyone wants to get me a Christmas gift, might I suggest the Ferran Adriá Sferificación Mini Kit?

Adriá is a Spanish chef known for his work in molecular gastronomy, a.k.a. – the applied science of deliciousness. His kit allows one to make perfect spheres of liquids. Think having a piece of roast with balls of gravy on top.

And to round out this culinary post, I read that a book of this woman's recipes has been published:

That's Emma Darwin, wife of Charles. The poor woman had to feed not only her husband as he sussed out evolution, but also seven children and twelve servants. Why a servant or two was not doing the cooking remains a mystery.
|| Palmer, 2:40 PM || link || (0) comments |

A Chilly Vespers Wherein I Make Venison Stew

If you're not from the Upper Midwest then know that it's colder than a well digger's ass today and was so yesterday. Here's what my thermometer looked like Sunday morning:

That's Fahrenheit on the right.

Such temperatures call for crankin' up the hearth and making a nice hearty meal. And I made it so. A friend of mine was gracious enough to give me some venison from this year's hunt and this allowed me to try a recipe that I've been meaning to for a while: a venison stew made with Guinness and endowed with mustard & horseradish dumplings.

I cried and cried as I cut the onions but all was forgiven once I had them all browned up along with the venison.

The recipe calls for using Guinness but I opted for a local brew – Central Waters' Satin Solstice Imperial Stout. Here I am pouring the brew into the pot along with some balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. The second photo is of my concoction just prior to being relegated to the oven for 2+ hours after having been seasoned.

First the kitchen then the whole apartment was permeated by the wonderful aroma of the stew which featured the bittersweet stout and bay leaves prominently with a hint of the juniper berries. In fact, the kitchen was still venison stew scented this morning.

A bit before the stew was done, I made dumplings. I quickly looked up ratios to make self-rising flour on the Internet and, before you know it, I'm cutting lard into the flour which was seasoned with mustard powder. The recipe called for horseradish sauce but I skipped the sauce and used plain old horseradish.

Fifteen minutes more in the oven, and dinner was ready.

The venison was very tender and had only a very mild gamey flavor. My choice of stout lent a slightly bitter flavor but not overly so and the dumplings were fairly light and fluffy. The baking powder had done its work.

All in all, a very tasty meal which took the chill off the cold winter night.
|| Palmer, 11:09 AM || link || (0) comments |

Saturday Night's Alright (For Chai)

Saturday was busy. I got up and, before making my coffee, dug out my car from the detritus the snow plow had left behind. I have to tell ya, those ergonomic shovels are a godsend. While moving snow boulders that are as dense as neutron stars will not allow your back to emerge unscathed, it will nonetheless thank you for not using a normal shovel. With a cup o'joe finally in my gullet, I went shopping for Xmas gifts. The one I'm looking forward to being put into action the most is the one I got M. - The Dangerous Book for Boys. For a 9-year old, he is woefully lacking in the skills a lad his age needs for creating low-level mayhem. Plus it will hopefully encourage him to do some things other than watching TV and playing video games. Of course, if he actually does take the book to heart, it will mean I'll be taking him on trips to the hardware store and helping him out. But I suppose that won't be bad.

Later in the afternoon I joined The Dulcinea on a trek downtown on which she was looking to fulfill a couple remaining gift orders. Parking was a zoo with hundreds and hundreds people and their children trying to find a spot near the beleaguered Overture Center which was putting on a Christmas performance of some ilk. It was almost like driving in a real city.

We found State Street to be bustling with shoppers and hangers-on. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's store was crowded with people snatching up bric-a-brac that I wouldn't give to my most hated enemy. At least they had some good books. Tallus Mater proved more interesting with a nice selection of Polish pottery and lots of kitchenware at which I ogled with green eyes. In addition, there were oven mitts that got me drooling.

Having had enough of downtown, it was off to the east side and Monona for some shopping as I needed a few key ingredients for my weekend cooking plans. It was at this time that The Dulcinea decided to get the appetite of a horse. A stop at Super Tienda Latina yielded not only something for Sunday night's dinner, but also a bag of their tamales with which they she became enamored. I can't say I blame her. The folks at STL make them every Saturday and they're absolutely delicious. These did not prove enough as she bought a sandwich at Fraboni's whereas all I needed was some peppercorns. A final stop at Viet Hoa provided me with the ginger I needed for my chai although the whole walleye sitting on ice was tempting. And don't get me started on the pig brains. These three stores plus Ken's Meats make Monona Drive one of the best streets for grocery shopping in town.

I love chai but the pre-made stuff you get at the grocery store and at coffeehouses is just too sweet. I suspect that Oregon Chai is in cahoots with the corn syrup industry. The flavor of the tea is lost as the pugilistic sugar and spices fight over space on your taste buds. And so I prefer to make my own.

One of the great things about chai is that most of its ingredients are aromatic and make your kitchen smell nice. I use a recipe given to me my Jolene, an erstwhile barista. Start off by boiling ginger root. Then add the super-secret spice mix and boil for half an hour before adding the tea to steep.

Elements heat and cauldron bubble!

Next time I'm going to add more cardamom pods. And I'm going to bruise them. Still it turned out pretty well.

Now what is that for…?
|| Palmer, 9:25 AM || link || (4) comments |

21 December, 2008

TV From the Days of Yore

Kenneth Burns has a post today which mentions a TV show from his childhood. After reading it, I went to YouTube in search of some clips of programs from my own childhood growing up in Chicago.

Here's a scene which I recall well from a show called Gigglesnort Hotel. Bill Jackson owned the titular hotel which was populated by an array of zany characters. In this clip, Jackson help Blob prepare for a date.

And then there was Son of Svengoolie who did gags during breaks in showings of old and really bad horror movies.

Any readers from Chicago have other favorites? Did Madison have any locally-produced programming like this?
|| Palmer, 6:09 PM || link || (0) comments |

19 December, 2008

Prison Is Too Good For Him

Col. Theoneste Bagosora has been sentenced to life in prison for “genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes” during the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994. Bagosora, a Hutu extremist, was Minister of Defense for the Rwandese Government Forces. The U.N. tribunal which tried him found that he was:

…responsible for the killing of the Rwandan prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana; the president of the Constitutional Court, Joseph Kavaruganda; and three top opposition figures: Frederic Nzamurambaho, Landoald Ndasingwa and Faustin Rucogoza. These events set the stage for the slaughter that was to follow.

Colonel Bagosora was also found guilty in connection with the killing of 10 Belgian peacekeepers by soldiers at Camp Kigali, and in the organized killings by soldiers and militiamen throughout Kigali and Gisenyi, in the west of the country.

I am elated to hear of this news. Personally, I think imprisonment is too good for him.

I've written about the Rwandan genocide a few times so read up if you know nothing about it. While genocide doesn't make for joyful reading, there are also some incredible stories of survival, bravery, and kindness in the face of horror. Truly both the best and worst of humanity was on display in Rwanda back in the spring of 1994.

"We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families"

"Shake Hands With the Devil"

"Shaking Hands Yet Again"

"Rwanda: A Killer's Homecoming"

"God Sleeps in Rwanda"
|| Palmer, 2:16 PM || link || (0) comments |


President Bush has decided to offer U.S. automakers $17.4 billion in loans.

Citing danger to the national economy, President Bush approved an emergency bailout of the U.S. auto industry Friday, offering $17.4 billion in rescue loans in exchange for tough concessions from the deeply troubled carmakers and their workers.

The money will be coming from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. You know, the one that was supposed to bail out Wall Street. This irked Robert Reich who wrote a post on the trouble this decision represents.

GM and Chrysler say they desperately need money to avoid bankruptcy in the next few weeks. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson now says the Big Three "will get the money as quickly as we can prudently do it."

But didn't Congress just vote down that money?

Under our Constitution, Congress is in charge of appropriating taxpayer money. If Congress explicitly decides not to appropriate it for a certain purpose, where does the White House get the right to do so anyway by pulling the money out of another bag?

If TARP is a slush fund, everything's arbitrary. We're no longer a nation of laws; we're a nation of Treasury and White House officials with hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to dispense as they see fit.

It's certainly not surprising that Bush would defy the will of another branch of government and plow ahead with his plan; but it's doubly sad to see Congress once again abdicate its responsibility as it has done for the past several years. Reich is in favor of helping the automakers but finds that Bush's actions here circumvent democracy. I don't suppose that Congress can actually do much but it sounds like they didn't create TARP with any safeguards to prevent this kind of thing and ensure that the money went where it was supposed to go.

$8.5 trillion has been committed to get our economy going again (not spent, mind you). That's the equivalent of having every single human being on this planet cough up nearly $1,270. And many details of the bailouts are shrouded in secrecy with taxpayers getting redacted paperwork for their troubles.

Personally, I feel like I'm caught in the middle of an internecine struggle among various elites. Bush is going to divert money meant for Wall Street to Detroit; Wall Street banks continue to pay dividends to shareholders that "will consume 52 percent of the Treasury's investment over the initial three-year term." (No wonder the credit markets are still frozen – most of the bailout money is going to shareholders.); the Treasury Department has apparently illegally allowed banks to buy other banks so they can pay less taxes. It seems like industries are competing for government favors and money while the rest of America waits for relief to trickle down as homes and jobs are lost.

(By Tab, The Calgary Sun)
|| Palmer, 1:30 PM || link || (0) comments |

A Morning Adventure

Somehow my bus this morning was on time. It was right behind the sortie that was running about 15 minutes late. There weren't many brave souls aboard so I presume that it had made up the time lost because of the bad roads by not having to stop very often to pick up passengers. Things were going well until we got to Jenifer & Ingersoll. A bus was stuck on the west side of the street. The late-runner in front of us stopped next to it to grab passengers and we pulled in right behind to get a couple ourselves. After the bus in front of us takes off, our driver firmly put the pedal down but only managed to move forward a couple inches and spin a few feet along its X axis.

Our driver backs up a bit and makes another go but to no avail. I can hear the voice of a Metro dispatcher on the radio clearly saying "…bus stuck…" and thought that we'd be next. Another attempt to traverse the snow proves equally futile. The intersection is beginning to look like Donner Pass and I begin eying up my fellow passengers should I have to break my fast on long pig. The bus starts moving in reverse once more. I was unsure if we were going to pull over and wait for help or if the driver was looking to get a bit farther away from the intersection to make another attempt to plow through it. It soon became obvious that submitting to the snow was not in the cards. The bus kept going and going and going…

I must admit to being extremely impressed by our driver as he backed up a 40' box on wheels down a slick street covered with 7 + inches of snow and cars parked on both sides. He laid on the horn as the bus lumbered into the intersection with the snow loudly grinding beneath and finally came to a halt. He was most decidedly not messing around. A brief pause ensued before my ears were engulfed by the roar of the engine - he had gunned it.

OK, putting the pedal of a bus to the metal in several inches of snow doesn't exactly build up a large head of steam but it proved large enough. We made it through the seemingly impassible intersection handily and left the snowbound behemoth at the side of the street behind.

I ended up getting to work only about 6-7 minutes later than usual despite having to reenact a scene from The Gauntlet. So many hearty thanks and a garland of Martian fire flowers to the gentleman who proved himself no mere mortal bus driver this morning.
|| Palmer, 8:50 AM || link || (0) comments |

17 December, 2008

Body Spray of Seduction, With a Hint of Flame-Broiled Meat

Finally! After decades of waiting. Burger King has at long last introduced its own cologne, Flame.
|| Palmer, 3:13 PM || link || (0) comments |

16 December, 2008

The Fourth Tower of Inverness

My review of the classic ZBS audio drama The Fourth Tower of Inverness has been posted up at Green Man Review. My take on its follow-up, Return to Inverness, should be up there soon.
|| Palmer, 8:38 AM || link || (0) comments |

15 December, 2008

I Lost 1d6 Points of Sanity Yesterday

It was a cloudy, windy day in the Windy City yesterday as we entered the Athenaeum Theatre for a production of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House" by WildClaw Theatre. Perfect weather for a bit of supernatural horror.

Adapting Lovecraft for the stage must have been quite a challenge. His stories are not exactly action-packed and instead chronicle slow descents into madness amidst the unnatural and eldritch. They are about characters' inner states as they struggle with the indescribable and the ineffable. But UK transplant Charley Sherman did an admirable job adapting and directing the story.

Walter Gilman is a young man attending the fictitious Miskatonic University in the equally fictitious Arkham, Massachusetts. He is a boarder in an old house which was once home to a witch named Keziah Mason. The room inspires macabre dreams and eventually they and reality become a distinction without a difference. Whereas Lovecraft began his tale with Gilman already suffering from the first hints of madness, Sherman begins his version with infanticide and shows us Gilman leaving his hometown of Haverhill. He also introduces us to Lillith, a character not found in Lovecraft's original. Heavy with child, she escapes her abusive husband by killing him and flees to Arkham. Purists may cry foul but Sherman adds to the story lovingly. When he creates something new or enacts events that Lovecraft mentions almost in passing, he generally does so in the spirit of the author.

The first act is a bit scattered as the story is set up and multiple characters are introduced in rapid fire. These short scenes felt lacking but they are suitably moody despite being heavy on the exposition. The second act really shined, however. As madness seeps in even further, things get weirder and the performances more intense. Sherman peppered his story with humor as well as references that only Lovecraft fans would catch. He did so at just the right times and so provided some relief in the midst of an otherwise strange and horrific tale.

The set was rather interesting. Lillith's prison cell is on the right while Gilman's room in the witch house is on the left. Not only does this arrangement allow action to easily go from one character to another, but it also echoes the relationship of the two characters. The space in the center stands in for various locations around Arkham as well as the eldritch non-Euclidian dimensions that Gilman enters in his dream states. Judicious use of black lights, tennis balls, and sound effects made our protagonist's ventures into the void much more creepy than I ever thought could be realized onstage. And there were tentacles!

The acting was also excellent. I appreciated how Thomas Wittingham didn't overdo his flailing upon entering the void and how his madness caused him to continually look skyward. Brian Amidei played up the role of Father Iwanicki just to the point of parody without going over the line. (Not too far, anyway.) His break with sanity was marvelous! Similarly, Michaela Petro hammed it up a bit as Keziah Mason but she never went overboard. The crowd favorite, however, had to be Ron Kuzava who portrayed Brown Jenkins, Keziah's half-rat, half-human lackey. He menacingly scurried about the stage and at one point gleefully chomped into Gilman's arm. A perfect companion for Keziah.

Sherman obviously adores Lovecraft's story but, to his credit, he adapted it in a way that was true to the spirit of the original while playfully channeling Ken Russell all the while.

The Dreams in the Witch House closes next weekend so catch it while you can.
|| Palmer, 10:47 AM || link || (0) comments |

11 December, 2008

Is It January Yet?

I read today that David Cronenberg is slated to helm a remake of the Spanish time travel movie, Los Cronocimenes (Timecrimes) which screened this past spring at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I saw it then and thought this tale of a man named Hector who, upon investigating a naked woman in the woods, gets stabbed and stumbles into a time machine, was a blast. Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors so I trust that he won't take Nacho Vigalondo's wonderful film and make it into a hackneyed blockbuster-type affair as would someone like Joel Schumacher. Hopefully the remake will retain some of the original's humor yet also be darker and more perverted.


While news that one of my favorite comic books, Y: The Last Man, is busy being ported to the big screen, is old hat, I found out that a comic book that was recommended to me will be coming to the small screen.

Fables concerns fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood who dwell in New York City incognito. A friend told me to check out the comic earlier this year and, although I haven't done so yet, I do have a copy of the first compendium picked out at Netherworld Games. I plan to have it in my grubby hands, however, before a proposed series based on the comic appears on ABC, which has ordered a pilot episode.


Lastly, will it just be 21 January already?! I am getting tired of reading about Jin hanging out with DHARMA folks, a new DHARMA station with a lamp logo, and seeing teasers on YouTube for the coming season of LOST. If only it would just start now. So thanks to all you jackasses who find re-runs to be such an incredible burden that you had to go and whine to the producers so they'd the show would premiere in the winter instead of autumn. Now there's an eight month waits between seasons and – what? – eight less episodes per season.

I'd rather have the re-runs. I could be at the virtual water cooler today promoting my theory that Richard Alpert was aboard the Black Rock when it was marooned on the island with some fresh new ambiguous dialogue from season 5. But no. Why must certain fans delay my research into Jacob and his relation to the island? I am this close - | | - to a breakthrough.
|| Palmer, 2:45 PM || link || (0) comments |

08 December, 2008


Back in 1509 Erasmus described life as a sort of comedy in which we mortals play our parts disguised by costumes and masks. Four hundred and fifty years later sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a book which demonstrated this idea in action. On Friday night I trekked downtown to the Overture Center for a night of entertainment by Faustwork Mask Theatre. While the performance took the theatrical metaphor seriously, it didn't take it too seriously.

The show turned out to be a solo outing with the Faustwork's founder, Robert Faust, doing The Mask Messenger. The spartan set consisted only of a large table clad in black littered with masks and a solitary chair to its side. Faust took center stage and introduced himself and the show which was a series of vignettes that added up to Masks 101.

Throughout the night Faust talked with reverence about masks. This should be no surprise as, not only does he perform with them, but he has also been making them for many years. I highly suspect he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. At one point he noted how they are used ceremonially in parts of Africa and at another quoted such luminaries as Oscar Wilde who perceived them to be vehicles for truth in that we feel able to speak more freely when our faces are hidden. Oft repeated was that masks are "magical". But make no mistake – it was not a night of anthropology and sociology lessons. Instead observations about Faust's passion were sprinkled among large doses of folly.

Faust began things with some masks which covered his entire face. Strutting around the stage and taking various poses, he illustrated what we all know but rarely think about consciously – facial expressions and body language work in concert. A mask with a rather neutral face took on sinister tones when Faust moved his arms away from his body and hunched over the audience. But bringing his arms to his chest and turning slightly so that his side was facing us, the mask turned into an almost pitiful expression.

In addition to full masks, Faust also sported Commedia Dell'Arte style half-masks which allowed him to talk. The photo above shows once which I call the ornery football coach mask. Pacing back and forth he'd point at someone in the audience and chastise them. The hat was a mask, of sorts, as well. Faust noted that such quotidian things as make-up and clothing were masks in their own way. They disguise us and carry their own meaning. For instance, it was the hat, I think, that made me think of the football coach. These masks not only let Faust speak but also sing such as when he donned a jacket and Elvis hair and let loose in a Branson-worthy rendition of "All Shook Up". (If memory serves.)

In two or three instances, Faust wore masks on top of his head such as the one above. He would then proceed to crawl about the stage on his hands and feet. He was remarkably dexterous and crawled into the audience several rows deep atop the backs of the seats. In another, he threw on a ballet tutu and placed a mask on the back of his head before proceeding to amuse us all with his graceful movement and occasional checks to make sure the tutu sufficiently covered his derriere. Before the show ended, a couple audience members got a chance to go onstage and don masks themselves.

It was an incredibly entertaining night with some food for thought thrown in for good measure. If the clapping and laughing I heard are any indication, then I can only conclude that most of my fellow audience members felt the same way.
|| Palmer, 3:24 PM || link || (1) comments |

07 December, 2008

Norwegian Zombie Flick to be at Sundance '09

Dead Snow, a Norwegian film starring Nazi zombies will be screened at Sundance next year. Hopefully it'll land an American distributor. If so, having a Sundance Cinemas here in Madison should increase the odds of it coming to town.

|| Palmer, 9:17 AM || link || (0) comments |

05 December, 2008

New Restaurant Opening on Willy Street

I walked by the old Star Photo building on Willy Street this afternoon and noticed a placard in the window. It indicated that the new renters have applied for a liquor license for a new bar/tavern and restaurant.

Does anyone know what is going to be opening up there? Arbat East? The New Jada's Soul Food? Is Linda Falkenstein's dream about to come true with a Burmese eatery?

We'll see...
|| Palmer, 5:29 PM || link || (2) comments |

Synecdoche, New York

Walking out of the theatre last night I was relieved to be out in the open. The little lady and I had just finished watching Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. She was nearly in tears while I was happy to feel the claustrophobia dissipating.

The film, Kaufman's directorial debut, concerns Caden Cotard, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is the director at a regional theatre in Schenectady, New York which is putting on Death of a Salesman. Caden has decided to make an artistic statement by casting young actors in the well-worn story. We are introduced to our protagonist as he wakes up one morning and sits at the edge of the bed staring at the sickly visage in a nearby mirror. This scene is perhaps a synecdoche for the film itself as Caden goes on to see his life as through a play, darkly.

Meanwhile Mrs. Cotard, a.k.a – Adele Lack, is helping their 4 four-year old in the bathroom which begins the film's brief flirtation with bodily fluids and excretions. Just after this, as Cotard shaves, a freak plumbing accident sends part of a sink fixture into his head. A visit to the doctor for stitches begins a series of unfavorable diagnoses. To make matters worse, it is soon revealed that Adele and Caden are virtual strangers living under the same roof. Adele decides not to attend the premiere of Caden's production, ostensibly to work on her own artistic endeavor which is painting nearly microscopic pictures, and eventually announces her intention to go to Berlin with their daughter but without him for the opening of a show featuring her work.

With a marriage in shambles and a new malady afflicting him everyday, Caden warms to the flirtations of his theatre's box office secretary, Hazel, but the resulting encounter doesn't go quite as he would have hoped. Having hit the bottom, he gains respite when he is awarded a generous MacArthur Foundation grant to help him pursue his artistic whims. He decides to produce a play about his life that takes place in real time where the dramaturgical realm and Caden's "real life" become inexorably intertwined in a Gordian knot.

At first I assumed that Caden's break with reality had a fairly clear line of demarcation, like David Lynch gave us in Mulholland Drive (when Rita rushes home and looks into the blue box). Kaufman, however, has different ideas. I thought at first that poor Caden had lost it when he begins his epic act of solipsism. But, when I saw the actor who is cast as Caden in the play, I recognized him from the beginning of the film. You see the guy briefly in the scene where Caden goes outside to get the newspaper and the man is standing across the street. The man tells Caden that he is right for the part because he's been watching the director for years. So the whole story is one big delusion.

When I began this post, I noted the claustrophobia that the movie induced. This is mostly because of Frederick Elmes' cinematography. Elmes is no stranger to the surreal having shot David Lynch's Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart. Here he boxes Caden in and with him, we viewers. I think I can count the number of long shots in Synecdoche, New York on one hand. Establishing shots seem to confine Caden more than tell us where the action is. For instance, there's the scene at the restaurant where he's waiting for one of the actresses, Claire, to show up. We see Caden penned inside a corner booth instead of a shot of the restaurant letting us know to where the action has gone. In addition, Elmes favored long lenses which means shots have little, if any, depth of field. Most of the film has the characters or their faces taking up the bulk of the frame with the background out of focus. There is a lot of shot-reverse-shot and you rarely, if ever, see the shoulder or any part of a character's interlocutor. As a result everyone seems isolated in their little realm of focus. These techniques made me feel like I was trapped in the story, doomed to watch the characters' problems unfold before me.

Kaufman weaves a very dense tapestry here which includes a love story, some dark comedy, as well as a dose of absurdity illustrated by Hazel's house which is perpetually in flames. There's also a motif concerning the female body which seems to preface trouble for Caden. Adele's micropaintings are of female nudes and they are the proximate cause for defection to Germany; Olive, Adele and Caden's daughter, grows into a body covered in tattoos and seeing a picture of her pubescent form laden with ink on the cover of a magazine sends Caden into a fit whose denouement is his realization that he has lost his daughter; there are two scenes, one with Hazel and the other with Adele's friend Maria, which are shot from a high angle giving the viewer a pukka glimpse at some extensive cleavage. Caden has a relationship with Hazel that goes sour while Maria proves to be behind Olive's tattoos. We see Claire in a top which barely covers her breasts and Caden goes on to have an unsuccessful relationship with her. This is all rounded off with the sight of Tammy's breasts, she being the actress playing Adele in Caden's epic, as she seduces Caden.

There is a scene at the beginning of the film in which Adele is with Olive, Caden and Adele's daughter, in the bathroom as the girl sits on the commode. Most of it is a medium shot in which both characters are in the frame. However, there is a brief cut to a shot from Adele's POV where she looks at Olive's hands which are stacked one atop the other on the front of the toilet seat between her legs. When I saw it, I had no idea why it should have been included. By the end of the film, I still didn't understand. Perhaps her green bowel movement is meant to preface Caden's impending health problems.

Ultimately Synecdoche, New York is a jumble of dead ends, loose ends, and questions without answers not unlike life itself. It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside and enigma which takes Shakespeare's adage that all the world is a stage to heart. And it's also a helluva lot of fun to try and piece the puzzle together.

|| Palmer, 5:27 PM || link || (0) comments |

04 December, 2008

Hope For the Central Library Remains

I was pleased to read yesterday that a second proposal for a new Madison Central Library is on the table. It comes from Fiore Companies and it looks like this:

I've written previously of my dissatisfaction with T. Wall's proposal which would give the library three floors in nine-story mixed-use building. By contrast, Fiore envisions the six-story structure above which would be dedicated to the Central Library. The library is one part of a larger plan for the block which includes renovating the existing library building for retail, office space, or a hotel.

Personally I find the Fiore building to be unexciting from an aesthetic point of view. It looks like a generic apartment complex from a typical bland gentrification scheme to me. How about a cornice to make it interesting? Combine the first and second floors so you have a clerestory. When I walk into a library, I want to feel like I'm entering a temple to the knowledge and cultures of the human race, not feel like I'm walking into a suburban shopping mall. I would prefer something a bit more gothic. You know, a building a medieval monk going to work in a scriptorium would find inviting. Failing this, neo-classical would be my next choice. But beggars can't be choosers so I'm prepared to take whatever comes along for the library if it promises a stand-alone facility.

This is not to say the current library is an architectural masterpiece. However, I do like the little courtyard at the front entrance and I think it makes for a more pleasant view from the Overture Center than T. Wall's proposed building, pictured here:

I will say, though, that it doesn't look atrocious or, at least the rounded glass bit doesn't. Still, I have to wonder why modern architecture means adorning the windows of a building with more windows. Where have all the lintels and friezes gone?
|| Palmer, 4:18 PM || link || (4) comments |

Getting All Retro

Although I'm an IT professional, I rarely write about computers. There's always a lot going on in this field with the new version of Windows ("Windows 7") getting a lot of press now. Here in Madison, Google has officially opened its office down on Blount Street. The politicos were out in full force touting our city and the UW for the occasion. Be nice to those folks if you see them on the street. They are hardcore geeks who are designing Google's infrastructure which will be able to remember every search for porn that you make at their site.

I was chatting with a co-worker recently and found out that, like me, he had a Commodore 64 computer back in the 1980s. Our discussion turned to GEOS, a graphical user interface for the C64 that came out in 1986. I remember it well. It was odd to go from using a command line exclusively to having a GUI like my Mac-loving friends.

I found a detailed history of the OS which made for some interesting reading and I figured I'd link to it if any old C64 users stumble by here. Computer geeks should find it interesting as well since it explains how the programmers managed to create a GUI for the C64 which had such limited computing power. Improbably, the article notes that there are folks today who just can't give up the C64 and have retooled them to do things like serve streaming audio.

Reading the article brought back a lot of fond memories such as typing up a school paper on the GEOS word processor, geoWrite, and printing it out on my daisy wheel printer. Plus there were the games. The C64 had some great games written for it. I played a lot of Hardball by Accolade in the second half of the 1980s. Their football game, 4th and Inches was also a favorite. Another great title is Portal. It came on several floppy disks – it was massive for its time. You play an astronaut who returns to Earth from a galaxy far, far away only to find that it is devoid of people. So you hunker down in front of a computer terminal to access planetwide databases in order to suss out where everyone went. Plus there were all the great text adventures by Infocom such as the Zorks and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And I can't forget those text adventures that had some graphics like Mindshadow. Lastly I'll mention the LucasArts games that I loved – Maniac Mansion and Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders.

For some more good retro-geekage, check out the video below of The Mother of All Demos. The demo's 40th anniversary is next week. It featured computer scientist Doug Engelbart showing off a mouse in public for the first time as well as other computer features that we take for granted these days – copying & pasting, hyperlinks, et al. He even did some video conferencing and outlined the Internet. It's a real treat to see core PC functions back when they were bleeding edge.

|| Palmer, 1:00 PM || link || (4) comments |

02 December, 2008

Killing Two Birds With One Stone

Here's a bit of a shock that would make Naomi Klein proud: parking meter rates in Chicago are set to quadruple.

Two-third of the city's meters now cost 25 cents an hour, but once the paperwork is finalized, any metered spot costing less than $1 per hour will increase to $1 next year, city officials said today. And by 2013, those same metered spots will cost $2 an hour, according to City Hall.

The most expensive meters, which are found in the Loop, cost $3 an hour now. They will increase to $3.50 an hour next year and $6.50 by 2013.

Mayor Daley decided to semi-privatize parking meters by leasing them to Chicago Parking Meter LLC for 75 years which will bring the city a cool $1.1 billion. Apparently Chicago's financial hole merited desperate action.

We should try this in Madison. Those who claim that the city is a socialist haven will see a city function handed over to private industry. And those who want measures to get people to drive less will see a dramatic increase in parking rates that could help their cause. It's a win-win situation.
|| Palmer, 2:02 PM || link || (2) comments |

01 December, 2008

The Simpsons last night...

...was classic as Apple entered its crosshairs.

Mapple - The Simpsons
by aarplane
|| Palmer, 12:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

All Those Lean Greens

Yesterday at the laundromat I ran into Dave, a homeless man that I'd spoken with this past summer. He didn’t remember me and he gave me the abbreviated version of his life story again. This day, he was waiting for a friend, who was living out of his truck, to return from a check cashing place. All he wanted was a few bucks to buy some beer. With cash in hand, Dave would be off to the gas station to get his liquid breakfast before retrieving his blanket and throwing it in the dryer.

We chatted as my clothes dried. Once again Dave told me that he's an alcoholic, his wife had died several years ago, he is a Gulf War veteran, etc. His big plan was to get into a rehab center for a 60-day period of drying out to be followed by job counseling and, hopefully, getting a place to live. As we stood outside, I couldn't help but notice a couple who had earlier thrown a couple loads into the wash. They sat in their SUV with the engine running rather than take in the free heat of the laundromat.

Dave's buddy returned just as my laundry finished drying which meant Dave had the $4 he needed to get his beer. He took off promising to return. I finished folding my clothes but Dave had not yet returned. I drove down Willy Street but never saw him. Presumably he was somewhere out of the cold enjoying his breakfast with John Barleycorn.

When I got home, I put away my laundry and read some news online. I found some amazing statistics about the ongoing bailout. Whereas Dave just wanted $4 to get himself some beer, the financial industry has received $4.655 trillion in financial aid. That's a lot of goddamn money. To illustrate just how much that is, Jim Bianco of Bianco Research did some cipherin'. Take a look at this list of other instances of government spending:

Marshall Plan: Cost: $12.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $115.3 billion
Louisiana Purchase: Cost: $15 million, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $217 billion
Race to the Moon: Cost: $36.4 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $237 billion
S&L Crisis: Cost: $153 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $256 billion
Korean War: Cost: $54 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $454 billion
The New Deal: Cost: $32 billion (Est), Inflation Adjusted Cost: $500 billion (Est)
Invasion of Iraq: Cost: $551b, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $597 billion
Vietnam War: Cost: $111 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $698 billion
NASA: Cost: $416.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $851.2 billion

All of this cost only $3.92 trillion. We were able to help rebuild Europe, buy huge tracts of land, prosecute 3 wars, and send a man to the moon for less than the current bailout. For just a little less in adjusted dollars, $3.6 trillion, we fought & defeated the Nazis as well as the Japanese and helped stop genocide.

The folks at Bloomberg are reporting that we taxpayers are looking at shelling out something more on the order of $7.76 trillion to repair the credit markets. As Barry Ritholtz notes, that comes out to $24,000 for every man, woman, and child.
|| Palmer, 9:41 AM || link || (0) comments |