Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 January, 2009

The Thing: Tribute and Prequel

Seeing as I've had a couple zombie-related posts recently, I think this homage to John Carpenter's The Thing is wholly appropriate.

BTW, there's a prequel in production.
|| Palmer, 11:50 AM || link || (0) comments |

A Roots Festival

For dinner last Sunday I made Rinderschmorbraten in Bier or, for you non-German speakers, Pot Roast in Beer. It's not too dissimilar from the pot roast that many of know and love – you brown a chunk of meat and throw it in a pot with liquid to cook for a while. The main difference here is that the roast is marinated in beer. For the occasion, I used Sprecher's Black Bavarian.

In addition to the familiar carrots and onion, I used some parsley root.

This was my first time cooking with it. I found it at a grocery store in Chicago and, never having seen it available in Madison, I bought a bunch. The store had celery root (celeriac) as well and I bought some but I am told it can be found at Woodman's.

The roast marinated overnight in the beer with the vegetables and seasoning which included bay and juniper berries. I've really grown to like the pungent sharpness of juniper. (In cooking, that is. I've been a fan of gin for some time.) I suspect that it was a much more common spice, especially here in Wisconsin, back in the day as it has a reputation for seasoning wild game very well. That and Northern Europeans are the juniper's biggest fans.

There's the final product: pot roast in beer with boiled potatoes and green beans. All swimming in gravy.
|| Palmer, 9:49 AM || link || (0) comments |

29 January, 2009

Madison Needs Zombie Road Signs

|| Palmer, 12:19 PM || link || (5) comments |

26 January, 2009

My New MP3 Player

The Sansa Clip is a tiny thing at only a couple inches tall. But for thirty-some-odd dollars, I can listen to my Wormwood audio drama or a LOST podcast as I fall into the arms of Morpheus without disturbing anyone.

I can plug it into my PC's USB port and have it pop right up in Computer as if it were just another hard drive. From there it's easy to copy mp3 files directly into one of its folders, disconnect, and go. No synching necessary. Although small, the display uses large text and scrolling to get me through the menus and to display track info. Here is the Sansa Clip in action:

It has 2GB of fixed memory – no hard drive – and no slot for a micro SD card to expand capacity. (I think the next model up, the Fuze, has such a slot.) Two gigs is not a whole lot by today's standards, but enough for a couple weeks worth of bedtime listening, if not more. (And it has a sleep timer.) It also has an FM tuner, which I've not yet tried, if I, say, want to mellow out to the Rev. Velveteen on a Thursday night. In addition, it has a microphone and can transform into a voice recorder should the need arise.

The interface is pretty basic and, having used The D's iPod previously, I found it easy to figure out. Zipping through the menus I found a very basic equalizer which had presets for Rock, Jazz, and Classical as well as the ability to customize the setting. The sound is not bad. Using the generic set of ear buds that came with it, I found the audio fidelity to be about what I thought it would be – flat but highly listenable. I suspect that spending a few hundred dollars on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones would improve my experience but that's not going to happen.

The Clip was fine when listening to an amateur audio drama and a roundtable podcast about LOST's season opener. But high quality mp3s of a professional audio drama and music fared less well. MP3s sound flat to me to begin with and I accept this as a limitation of a format that discards data in pursuit of small file sizes over fidelity. What I found disappointing was the stereo separation. The higher quality files had none and instead sounded like I had two speakers sitting right next to one another in front of me. Disappointing but not unexpected for $35. I intend to try another set of headphones to see if that helps.

Perhaps the most annoying feature of the Clip is the inability to create playlists with the device itself. You must use a media player on your computer. I ended up using Windows Media Player 11 for this simply because I found the instructions for this process first. I've been a Winamp user for years and I can use it instead. Perhaps I'll get around to it one of these days. In fact, I should probably do so soon as I don't care much for WMP. Version 11 is better than 10 but I find that, in the course of performing what I feel are simple tasks, the panes suddenly shift and begin displaying information that I don't want it to display. This being said, I have to admit that creating playlists in WMP11 is not particularly difficult and neither is synching. The only real hassle I've encountered is, after I create a new playlist, the right-hand pane sometimes shifts to a space to drag items into for an Unknown playlist. This despite having highlighted my newly-created one. I am forced to right-click on my playlist and select on option from the context menu.

Since the clip displays info about tracks that it culls from the metadata of my mp3s, I thought it might be a good idea to update all that information. I spent over an hour yesterday evening correcting and adding album names, track titles, years, genres, etc. and I only got through D. And that's just my mp3 music collection, which is comparatively small. I've got many more audio dramas, radio documentaries, and other spoken word ditties than I have mp3 music files. The process of getting the metadata up to date is going to take months. For this task, I've been using a freeware app called MP3tag which is pretty decent. I just need to figure out how to rename a tag in batches. E.g. - if I have 10 tracks from the same album that have no album name, I'd like to be able to change the Album tag on all these files at once since the value will be the same instead of doing one at a time. This is no doubt possible; it's just that I've yet to figure out how.

And that's my sorrowful tale. I kind of feel like I'm in high school again with my Sony Walkman tape player when I've got the Clip cranked. Perhaps things will change and it'll make sense to get a more expensive PMP with or without video. We'll see.

So what PMP do you have? How do you sync it? Are there better tag editors? Any other Clip owners out there?
|| Palmer, 5:31 PM || link || (2) comments |

Shopping For An MP3 Player

Last weekend I celebrated going out of debt by purchasing a PMP (Personal Media Player). I'd been thinking about getting one for a couple months but, in the last couple weeks, I actually researched the topic. Out of the gate I had decided that I didn't want an iPod. For starters, I don't like iTunes, which is what you have to use for synching purposes. (I suppose there are 3rd party utilities to bypass this.) This is, I assume, because iPods use the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) or some variation which supports DRM. Media Storage Class (MSC) just lets your device be seen as a hard drive. I am a Windows user and iTunes for Winders is a bulky, lumbering memory hog. In fact, I have it on my PC for the sole reason of being able to listen to .m4a files, which are essentially mp3 files enhanced with images. Launching iTunes spawns two or three other processes having to do with iPods which I don't want running and updating the program also means installing Bonjour, some network utility from Apple which I neither want nor need.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-Apple. The Dulcinea has a MacBook and an iPod and both are nice little devices.

Having cast off the possibility of an iPod, I looked at Microsoft's Zune – for all of 2 seconds. A) It seemed like it would be the like the bearded Spock to the iPod. Instead of requiring iTunes, one would be doing everything with Windows Media Player, another situation I wanted to avoid. B) The Zune doesn't exactly sell very well and I wouldn't be surprised if MS pulled the plug on it in the near future.

So I started looking at other makers and soon discovered that the PMPs which met my needs were only available in Korea and Japan. Aside from only being sold in the Orient, these PMPs were all video-capable. At best, I'm ambivalent about the ability to watch video on a screen that's only about 2" in size. In theory, being able to watch video wherever the hell you are is pretty neat; on the other hand, why would I want to watch a micro-simulacrum of a TV show or movie? We have a nice HDTV in our living room that's in the 30" range which is perfect considering the size of the room. Perhaps watching a soap opera on a 2" screen wouldn't be so bad. After all, the soap's bread'n'butter is close-ups of faces which clearly reveal the emotions of the character. But small screens are murder on depth of field. Imagine watching Citizen Kane on an iPod – all the detail in the background would be lost. Like that scene where we see the young Charlie K. playing in the snow through a window. How the fuck can you see that on a 2.5" screen? And panoramas are reduced to postage stamps. I don't care how much acid you take, the stargate scene in 2001 just can't be much of a trip on an iPod screen when compared to a nice TV, much less the big screens in a cinema.

While I didn't want to pay for video capability, it looked like I didn't have much of a choice if I was going to get what I really wanted – the ability to play at least some lossless compression audio files, i.e. – FLAC, Monkey's Audio, and Shorten (.flac, .ape, and .shn, respectively). My music collection in mp3 is dwarfed by that in a lossless compression format. Most is FLAC, a sizable amount in Shorten, and a small number of songs in APE.

I was resigned to getting a cheap mp3 player until I stumbled across the incredibly handy site AnythingButiPod. There I discovered that there are, in fact, PMPs available here in the States that support the reigning king of lossless compression formats, FLAC. I was enchanted by the Cowon D2 which supported not only FLAC, but also APE. Here it is in action:

But did I really want to spend $200-$300 for a device that I had planned to basically use when going to sleep? The idea was to find something to allow me to listen to audio dramas, podcasts, and music when going to bed when either A) The Dulcinea didn't want to listen to what I wanted to listen to or B) when M. was asleep in the bedroom across the hall precluding putting a CD in the boom box.

In the end, I my frugality won out and I opted to forego FLAC compatibility. Instead, I bought a nice utilitarian 2GB Sansa Clip.
|| Palmer, 5:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

Dead Snow To Hit U.S. Theatres

IFC has picked up the Norwegian Nazi zombie flick, Dead Snow, for U.S. distribution after it showed at Sundance. Hopefully it will make it to Madison. It had better since we have Sundance Cinemas here.

|| Palmer, 12:47 PM || link || (4) comments |

22 January, 2009

The Why and Wherefore of Passenger Rail in Wisconsin

James Rowen posted recently about the need for rail service between Chicago and Madison if we Cheeseheads are going to be hosting Olympic cycling events in 2016.

I agree with Rowen that bringing Amtrak service to Madison is a great idea but I remain skeptical that it's going to happen anytime soon, not least because President Obama's (how nice to type that instead of "President Bush") stimulus package has morphed into something not nearly as public transportation friendly as it once was. Here's what Obama said to the U.S. Conference of Mayors a few days ago:

The reason for the reduction in overall funding -- we took money out of Amtrak and out of aviation; we took money out of the Corps of Engineers, reduced the water infrastructure program, the drinking water and the wastewater treatment facilities and sewer lines, reduced that from $14 billion to roughly $9 billion -- was the tax cut initiative that had to be paid for in some way by keeping the entire package in the range of $850 billion. (Emphasis mine.)

Gotta have those tax cuts.

As long as we're talking about trains, I'd like to point out this map from the folks at the Midwest High Speed Rail blog:

View Larger Map

This map is entitled "U.S. Regional Rail Projects Shovel Ready Within Four Months". If the Feds provide the cash, these projects can get underway within four months. Notice that Wisconsin has nothing on the map. Perhaps extending Amtrak service to Madison is one of those ready within a year projects.

There are a few proposals for rail in Wisconsin: put Madison on the Empire Builder route, a commuter line between Madison and Milwaukee, a commuter line between Sun Prairie and Middleton, a commuter line serving Milwaukee, Racine, & Kenosha, and light rail within Madison. Everyone wants rail everywhere but that's just not possible. A rumor starts that federal funding might be available and suddenly everybody has a pet rail project.

I think that Wisconsin needs a commission to figure out what rail projects should be a priority. The federal coffers are not going to be open for any and all rail projects so we as a state should prioritize things and make an effort as a state to secure federal funding. The Madison area has certain rail desires as does the southeastern corner of the state - I think we need to take a larger view.

People like Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council promote regionalism, which is to say that we ought to stop thinking about the Madison business climate and instead think about partnering with Milwaukee, if not the Upper Midwest as a whole because Milwaukee is not our competition – other countries are.

The governor, the DoT, officials from Madison, Dane County, the Milwaukee area, and Green Bay should get together and talk strategy. The rail pie is shrinking and it seems like local officials are working at cross purposes as they compete for federal funds. Instead, representatives should get together and discuss the benefits and disadvantages of the various proposals.

How would the proposed Midwest Regional Rail System, which adds Amtrak service to Madison and Green Bay, affect Wisconsin if it were to be implemented?

What does commuter rail accomplish? Would more people benefit from the proposed Kenosha Racine Milwaukee line than from a Sun Prairie to Middleton line?

In what ways would Wisconsin benefit by linking its two largest cities via a commuter line?

What does rail mean to Wisconsin? Is it about reducing traffic and pollution? Or about strengthening regional economic ties? Both? None of the above? Are the goals long term or short term? Medium term?

Keep in mind that we're in the middle of a recession. Additionally, the anti-rail crowd would do well to remember that, while rail does indeed cost a lot of money, our existing system of roads costs billions and billions of dollars as well. Similarly, pro-rail folks should understand that existing rail networks do not have an infinite capacity.

There's more at stake here than whether or not Wisconsin looks bush league in the eyes of Olympic participants and observers in 2016.
|| Palmer, 9:50 AM || link || (0) comments |

20 January, 2009

Goodbye Cruel Student Loans

Goodbye, cruel student loans
I'm paying you off today
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

I will soon be joining the elite ranks of the few, the proud, the debt-free. Checks will be in the mail shortly so, by the end of the week my student loans will be paid off as will my credit card.

Thinking back, I remember my high school history teacher coming into class one morning all excited. When I asked him why he was so happy, he replied, "I just paid off my student loans!" And now, some 20 years later, I know exactly how he felt that day first hand. I've been paying them back for 13 years but no more. It seemed like this day would never come back when I had just graduated from college.

It's difficult to recall the last time I had no debt. I suppose I was 18, just before I took out my first student loan. No doubt I'll take on some debt this year so I am going to enjoy this moment while it lasts. Perhaps I shall start my celebration by giving some money to the Madison Repertory Theatre which has fallen on hard times.
|| Palmer, 9:53 AM || link || (0) comments |

Previously on LOST

LOST finally premieres tomorrow night after a long break. In the meantime, I am keeping myself occupied with ditties like this one.

|| Palmer, 5:24 AM || link || (0) comments |

19 January, 2009

Damn Vox Populi - Transportation Edition

Not long ago I wrote a post about some profoundly irritating things I'd read at blogs or in the paper. Unsurprisingly, I came across another one over the weekend when I read an editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal by Bill Richardson called "Time to nail a silver spike in 'Count Trackula'". In his screed, Richardson, rails (ahem) against light rail here in Madison.

While he makes some great points and I find myself to be at least nominally on his side, as it were, I found this statement about getting light rail up and running here to be pathetic:

Over five years and over a billion dollars will be spent before the first passenger steps aboard a 19th century marvel -- a train.

Of course, over the next five years billions and billions more dollars will be spent ensuring that people are able to use another 19th century marvel: the horseless carriage, a.k.a. - automobile. (Which itself uses - gasp! - the wheel which dates back to at least 3,500 BCE.) Does Richardson not know that the car was invented in 1885 – you know, way back in the 19th century? Or are there new shiny quantum transportation devices of which I am unaware that are everywhere at once and only find themselves at a destination when someone reads the bumper sticker thusly collapsing the waveform? If so, where do I get one of these Schrödinger sedans?

If Mr. Richardson is so ignorant, I invite him to head over to The Library of Congress website and check out "Who invented the automobile?"

But Richardson knows this already. He just likes to omit facts that don't reinforce his idea that light rail is a harbinger of the Apocalypse. Curiously enough, this exact same behavior is exhibited in the group of which Richardson claims membership: The Great Train Robbery. Dedicated to defeating light rail in Madison, the group's highly one-sided website is a treat for propaganda lovers.

When you go to the page, you're greeted with an old black & white photo of a train robbery that looks like a still from Edwin S. Porter's 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. (It may in fact be so.) One thing you won't see is a photo like this one.

You know, that 19th century novelty, the horseless carriage car.

To further reinforce the notion of trains as being quaint outdated technology, the sidebar uses old-timey fonts.

At the site is a page called "Transportation Disasters" which features a smattering of photographs of train accidents. The name of the page is a bit of misnomer because it doesn't include pictures like these:

(Photos from car-accidents.com.)

It doesn't really help your scare tactics to show that horseless carriages cars – those 19th century marvels – can get into disasters just fine on their own, does it?

The "Transportation Disasters" page also shows some absolutely hideous, life-threatening traffic backups. You know, cars waiting at a crossing for a train to pass. What they don't mention is that traffic jams happen all the time without a train being within miles of the street. Again, that 19th century marvel – the horseless carriage automobile – can fuck up just fine by itself, thank you.

One caption above a photo showing a backup as a freight train crosses East Washington reads:

Imagine 6-13 per hour-- shorter commuter trains blocking all lanes of E. Wash and nearly all other main highways into Madison - some several times - during rush hour(s).

I'm surprised the site doesn't have a page dedicated to the testimonials of drivers who had to suffer the indignity of waiting a train crossing.

"I was in my Hummer driving my dog to her yoga session when I got to the crossing…"

As Col. Kurtz once said, "The horror…the horror…"

Well, let me testify to the horror. A couple days ago I was in Chicago at the intersection of Central and Devon Avenues when one of those dastardly Metra commuter trains pulled into the stop there and blocked traffic. I sat there for two minutes – two minutes! – before I could continue. The world almost ended and two days later I am still suffering emotional distress. I think I'm scarred for life. I'd better listen to some Los Lobos.

|| Palmer, 9:27 AM || link || (0) comments |

Digging in the Dirt

Geology was never my favorite subject in school but I've always had an interest in the subject and maintained a healthy respect for folks who like hanging out atop active volcanoes and have the patience to delineate layers of sedimentary rock. With my interest and M., the nine-year old, in tow, I headed down to the UW Geology Museum a couple weekends ago to meet up with my friends Dogger, Mel, and Miss Regan.

Walking into the lobby, we were greeted by a rather large and familiar looking blue ball. Here's a close-up of the Sunda Trench with an X marking the spot of the supposed crash site of Flight 815.

Being a geology museum, there was a panoply of rocks. This is a chunk of red granite which is the official rock of Wisconsin.

The museum is also home to a nice bit of the Canyon Diablo meteorite.

This fragment weighs in at 320 pounds and is but a small portion of the 150 foot meteorite which crashed into the Earth 20,000-40,000 years ago in what is now northern Arizona leaving a crater about 4,000 feet in diameter. That's what tons and tons of iron will do when it hits something traveling very quickly.

In addition to rocks, there were plenty of fossils, including dinosaurs.

Directly above is Edmontosaurus annectens, a duck-billed dinosaur whose remains were found in the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota. (What is with all these references to Hell and the Devil? Hell Creek, Crater Diablo…?) The beast roamed the Earth in the Late Cretaceous Period about 65 million years ago.

The museum's Prep Lab has a window through which visitors can watch as technicians carefully wipe the dust off of the precious fossils. The gentleman there that day looked familiar and I discovered that he was a friend of a former dinosaur-loving co-worker. He also proved to be very informative as there wasn't a question that he wouldn't field. Indeed, he took great joy in sharing his knowledge with us.

Now here's an eldritch looking creature that lived strange aeons ago. A spawn of Cthulhu?

This one was in the cephalopoda display case and I couldn't help but think of fellow heathen blogger P.Z. Myers when I saw it.

Miss R. and M. got a big kick out of the black light room where minerals provide a chthonic light show. Personally, I really enjoyed all the maps illuminating the Madison area.

For instance, he's a nice cut-away of the Madison area illustrating its hydrogeology:

All the grey matter is glacial deposits. That little white spot on the isthmus is the Capitol and the line beneath it is one of Madison's wells. Tunnel City and Wonewoc are layers of sandstone while the Eau Claire layer (cutoff) is shale. Further down and out of the frame is a Precambrian foundation which is, as we say, older than dirt. The rock down there is measured in Carl Sagan units – billions and billions of years.

Here's a section of another map that I'd love to have hanging on my wall:

That's Dane County in the middle. The bluish green area shows just how far the ice of the last Ice Age extended. I believe the sheet in question here is called The Green Bay Lobe. It carried rocks from the size of pebbles to large boulders along with it. As the ice advanced, the detritus frozen within carved the land. Sometimes it produced elongated hills or drumlins, one of which has the Capitol sitting atop it.

It is quite awe-inspiring when you think about how old the ground beneath your feet is and how geological forces worked for ages and ages to produce the landscape that surrounds you. And while it is certainly chilly outside now, at least there's not a huge sheet of ice covering most of our state slowly churning away and turning your neighborhood into a drumlin.
|| Palmer, 7:25 AM || link || (0) comments |

15 January, 2009

Return to Inverness

My review of ZBS' audio drama Return to Inverness has been posted. This sequel is superior to its predecessor with none of the cloying Eastern mysticism.
|| Palmer, 11:54 AM || link || (0) comments |


With it being colder than a witch's tit in a brass brassiere here in the Upper Midwest, I finally busted out my winter coat and my Doctor Who scarf. I managed to stay pretty warm while waiting for the bus this morning.

The weather reminds me of the classic Onion piece, "Chicago Rolls Out Cold-Weather Prostitutes".

Unlike many other parts of the country, where milder temperatures and lighter snowfalls allow for the convenience of all-year prostitutes, citizens of Chicago must turn to thicker, sturdier working girls who can provide the high performance needed to get through the worst their notorious winter has to offer.

|| Palmer, 10:50 AM || link || (0) comments |

Be Seeing You

Patrick McGoohan died earlier this week. Bummer. For me, he'll always be Number 6 from one of the best TV programs of all time, The Prisoner. It's too bad he didn't make it long enough to see the remake of the show. (Some info on the new version can be found here.)

Goodbye Mr. McGoohan. I'll crank up some Iron Maiden in your honor tonight. Be seeing you.

|| Palmer, 9:35 AM || link || (0) comments |

14 January, 2009

Goodbye Babcia

Monday morning started off poorly enough. I was standing at the bus stop when I heard my cell phone beeping. I had voice mail. My mom had called at about 6 that morning while I was in the shower. Listening to her message, the resignation in her voice shone through. My grandmother was in the hospital and not expected to last the week. I called my mother and she filled me in with a few more details including to expect to attend a funeral on Saturday. We didn't speak long as my bus arrived shortly thereafter.

That afternoon I went grocery shopping but it was hard to do my usual meal planning routine on the fly because I kept thinking about my grandmother. It is from her that I get my Polish blood and she's really the only grandparent I ever knew. My maternal grandfather died when I was about six years old while my paternal grandfather and I, to the best of my knowledge, never crossed paths as he and my father always were crossing swords. I do have some memories of my paternal grandmother but I didn't see her very much as she lived in Minneapolis and she passed away when I was about 10.

So there I was wandering around the store on a chilly afternoon thinking about grandma lying in a hospital bed. Potatoes – I need potatoes. Reaching for a bag, I remember eating potatoes at grandma's place. Of course tears well up in my eye but I hold them back as I have to get through this so I don't have to leave the house during the cold snap heading our way.

Next aisle - Polska kielbasa D'oh! More tears. Steady…steady…I begin thinking that I should go grab some frozen pizzas and be done with it as I've no memories of my grandmother associated with pizza pies. "Aw, fuck it," I think to myself. Why not embrace my inner Polack?

So I buy kielbasa, sauerkraut, and potatoes. I've got pickles at home but I grabbed a cucumber to make cucumber salad. Potatoes go well in pierogi, right? So I walked out of the store with a veritable Polish feast – just like I remember my grandmother cooking. Some Polish beer and vodka and I'll be all set.

That night everyone was asleep except for myself when my mom called. My grandmother had passed away shortly after I had spoken with her earlier in the morning. I thought about the Polish dinners that my grandma had cooked, her smile, and just what an incredibly kind person she was. I thought about those 2 months during which I lived with her and how she'd wake me up by grinding coffee. I remember her telling me stories of growing up on a farm and having to clean the outhouse every Wednesday. She came to Chicago in 1933 to check out the World's Fair. Entranced by the fair, Navy Pier, and all the big city had to offer (presumably including indoor plumbing), she decided that city life beat farm life and decided to stay.

I also thought about all the things she saw in her lifetime. At 93, she saw quite a lot. A world war, the rise of radio, TV, and the Internet; when she moved to Chicago, most rural areas of the country didn't have electricity; she was around long enough to see 13 presidents and the first bi-racial president-elect in our country's history. The idea of Barack Obama being president must have seemed incredibly far-fetched when she was growing up during the Harding administration. The Cold War, the Moon Landing, and on and on.

So goodbye babcia. I miss you very much and will be thinking about you as I roll out pierogi dough in the near future just like you used to do.
|| Palmer, 4:55 PM || link || (0) comments |

Damn Vox Populi

It is not uncommon for bloggers or commenters to say things which irritate me profoundly. No doubt you have experienced the same thing. Here are some recent posts/comments which got in my craw.

First there's Scott Milfred's opinion piece from last weekend called "Tempt me with tickets, not an Overture Center bailout" at the WSJ which is, from my experience typical of folks you complain about the beleaguered arts center.

"Just three shows -- that's all I've ever paid to see at the center.

So here's my point: I'm willing to give the financially-strapped Overture more of my money for tickets to shows I actually want to see."

Here's what he's paid to see: Clifford the Big Red Dog (for his young child), Wilco, and Ryan Adams.

Great. Just what Madison needs – another venue for fucking indie rock. Lord knows there just aren't enough of those in town. I take that back. Not just any old indie rock band will do as Kicksville found out back in November as they played to a couple dozen people at the Capitol Theatre. Nothing less than the Pitchfork-Approved Parade of Hits will do, apparently. Maybe, just maybe, all the Scott Milfreds in this town could find it in themselves to be a little more adventurous and try to cultivate tastes that are slightly more eclectic than that of a dead amoeba.

I'm not going to hold my breath, though.

There was much to be irritated about when the Madison Beer Review posted "A Comment on Kathleen Falk's Alcohol Initiative" which contained this ditty regarding the county supervisor's attempt to bring people together to combat our fair state's "culture of alcohol":

I'm not sure what's worse. The fact that the commission exists at all. Or, maybe it's the fact that the commission consists entirely of "nurses, teachers, alcohol and drug counselors, school counselors, administrators, local officials, religious leaders, business people, activists and community organizers." Or, maybe it's the fact that the opinion of these people actually means anything.. (Emphasis theirs.)

Now, I'm not in favor of prohibition, but I have to question just how deep an alliance people looking for sanity in dealing with issues such as drunk driving want to make with someone who maintains that a blogger's opinion on the matter is inherently more meaningful than that of alcohol counselors. Why are the opinions of community members about an issue affecting the community meaningless? What does it take for a citizen of Dane county to have a "legitimate" opinion on the matter? Presumably MBR would not question whether or not the opinion of a Dane County resident is meaningful if he or she agreed with MBR.

The post continues:

I've said it before, and I'll say it again (though, I suspect it's sort of like banging my head against the wall, or Stockholm Syndrome - if the abuse continues long enough maybe I'll come to like it) the problem isn't the weapon, it's the user. Guns don't fire themselves. The weapon itself, without a moron to pick it up, load it, turn off the safety, point it at someone else, and pull the trigger, is not a particularly good bludgeon.

Likewise, alcohol, in and of itself, is not a societal ill. Or rather, the discussion that alcohol is, in and of itself, a societal ill, is a completely separate discussion. For now, we operate under the idea that, absent abuse, we have no problems with alcohol. So, we start from the premise that there is no need to ban alcohol. While we tolerate its regulation (don't want any funny stuff going on) we don't ban it completely.
(Emphasis theirs.)

Plato would be proud to read MBR ask us to consider the perfect form of alcohol - a colorless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars. But so what? That's not the issue here. Falk's efforts aren't concerned with the perfect form but rather with the shadows on the cave wall – the intoxicating effect it has on certain carbon-based life forms. Am I supposed to feel sorry for an inanimate liquid which that big baddie Kathleen Falks seeks to punish? The correct starting point is not that alcohol is "innocent" but that people drink too much and get behind the wheel. Anything that exists in a vacuum away from human beings is harmless to them a priori. Landmines are harmless in some imaginary world where there are no people, but in this world there are people who die because of them long after governments halt their wars. The nature of alcohol in and of itself is irrelevant here. The problem at hand has two components to it - alcohol and people – which are indivisible.

The final person I'll mention here is Chuck who left some comments at a couple posts by Paul Soglin concerning the fates of newspapers.

Trying to shore up newspapers in the wake of the Internet seems a bit like trying to rescue Budweiser in the wake of the microbrew revolution.

Does the company that holds nearly 50% of the beer market is this country really need rescue? I hate to break this to Chuck but the microbrew revolution has affected a very small number of people.

I relish the fall of the ivory tower of newspapers in the same way I hope to see the Overture center collapse. Officially approved institutional news, opinions and culture are not the voice of our democracy or our[sic] and they never have been, they're just the easiest thing to find for people that can't be bothered to care.

First, I take issue with the notion of there being a single "voice of our democracy" which is inherently pure and good. Secondly, I take issue with the idea that this nebulous "voice of democracy" would exclude reporters that work for the mainstream media and that the Madison incarnation of this voice excludes groups such as the Madison Theatre Guild and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and their respective work. This is pseudo-populist bullshit. Simply not being the member of a large news gathering organization doesn't mean that your voice is worth listening to. (Neither does reporting under the imprimatur of a paper guarantee quality either.)

The idea that information needs to be orderly and vetted and from some central source is an artifact of a bygone age when information cohesion and distribution was prohibitively expensive.

People do the investigations and the reporting, and the newspapers pay them part of what it's worth, minus the huge legacy costs of doing business the old fashioned way. News aggregation sites can provide far more visibility than a print journal at a fraction of the hassle and cost.

Every day, we are more in a world where the people who know and care the most about any particular idea or event can make their minds available to the entire world instantly, freely and for free, and the people who care to listen or read can find them.

What's so good about an information free-for-all? And why is vetting so bad? How is the "voice of democracy" to be heard when it is scattered in an electronic diaspora and can only be reassembled by those who have access to computers and a lot of time to go tracking down websites and judging their reliability? It's one thing to tell a well-heeled old fart that they're just going to have to get used to getting their news online, but it's another thing to tell a member of the working poor in this community that, in addition to working a couple low wage jobs and trying to tend to their families, that they have to shuffle off to the library so they can get on the Internet and surf for hours to find the news.

After watching Bill Moyers Journal this past weekend and see a segment about Seattle Times reporters digging through mounds of data about pork barrel spending, I wondered if people who know and care about this issue will be able to spend months and hire the services of accountants or other experts to examine reams of numbers and make sense of it all. Will individuals be able to fly into war zones to report on conflicts and then post their experiences for free? There's more to reporting than simply making your mind available for free over the Internet. News aggregation sites are indeed great but people still have to do the reporting, they still have to go places and gather information.

None of this is to be a cheerleader for news organizations as they are today. But to say that we'll enter a utopian news age once newspapers disappear is absurd.
|| Palmer, 2:49 PM || link || (0) comments |

08 January, 2009

Ramblings of an Eater

This has been an interesting week from a culinary perspective.

It began with a co-worker sharing a slice of the duck prosciutto that he'd made. It was quite delicious with the fat tasting all buttery. Mmmm….

Then a couple nights ago my friend Pete stopped by with some homemade lefse. A little butter, some cinnamon sugar, and I was all set.

The Dailypage added on with Kyle Nabilcy's "Madison eats trends in 2008 and wishes for 2009". While I was disappointed that Nabilcy generally avoided places that abet one's cooking activities in favor of restaurants, it did remind me of a couple eateries that I've been meaning to try but whose doors I've just never gotten around to entering.

This year I definitely want to head to Africana and have some West African cuisine and Doug's Soul Food for, well, soul food. Such are my modest culinary goals for the new year.

Not being a foodie, I don't have oodles and oodles of recollections from 2008 to give to you. But I do have one.

Last year I moved from the far east side to the isthmus. This gave me the opportunity to sample the pizza pies that provide relief for the newest generation of hippie stoners with the munchies. I'd had slices from Roman Candle previously and the first time I ordered a pie to be delivered it was good. However, the next one I got was horrible as the sauce tasted like someone had put 4 hectares of oregano in it. The stuff was more bitter than death. I haven't ordered a pie from them since. (Though I'm not ruling out doing so again.)

Moving near Willy Street meant being close to Pavlov's whose pizza I hadn't eaten in ages. I ordered a pie one night when neither I nor The Dulcinea felt like cooking. For some reason, they have always done a great job with feta, tomato, and onion. The problem is that the joint is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. (And they're open only from 5-10:30 or so which is blatantly odd for a pizza place.)

Then I ordered from La Rocca's. As far as I'm concerned, the folks there make the best pie in town. Thin crust, at least. The crust was crispy but not overdone while the sauce found a nice balance between tomato and herb flavors and it wasn't sugary sweet. And their sausage! It had fennel in it like it's supposed to. I could taste the individual ingredients instead of this bitter, mushy blah that passes for pizza at so many places. (I'm thinking of you, Glass Nickel.) This is how pizza should be done.

My final culinary note is to refer you to "White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey", a nice little expose demonstrating that authentic Chinese food has nothing to do with what is to be found in Chinese restaurants here in America. (h/t to the Angry Asian Man.)

|| Palmer, 2:57 PM || link || (0) comments |

07 January, 2009

What the FFRF Does Right and What It Does Wrong

Being a godless heathen and member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I was disappointed to read that it is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to prevent prayer at Barack Obama's inauguration later this month. I say "disappointed" because this seems a fool's errand to me. When the FFRF moves to prevent teachers from promoting religion in the classrooms of public schools, I cheer; I backed them in Hein v FFRF when they sought to take on the Bush administration's faith-based funding program; and I fully support the group's efforts to help out non-theistic members of our military who want to be able to practice their non-religion within the confines of the service without threat.

But going after the inauguration just seems pointless to me. I'd rather they help out average folks on the ground than go after ceremonial theism. While it'd be nice to see our presidents stop swearing an oath to an imaginary deity, it'd be nicer still to have atheists in the military not have their commanding officers verbally assault and threaten them. Godless soldiers put their asses on the line just as much as any believer in Yahweh does. Granted, the plaintiffs, including Michael Newdow, have some good points. For instance, they object to the "so help me God" bit of the Presidential oath. Indeed, the oath is in the Constitution for all to read:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Invoking Yahweh didn't become par for the course until 1933. (Just as "In God We Trust" wasn't added to our currency until 1864 and "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.) So none of the presidents whose faces are carved in stone up on Mount Rushmore said "under God" when they took the oath to uphold our Constitution. But having Barack Obama do so doesn't bother me as much as having Intelligent Design taught in public schools, the feds showing favoritism to Christians, or having military personnel who are not Christian getting grief for their beliefs or lack thereof. And so reading about this lawsuit and the kinds where they sue to have Christmas trees removed from state houses, I just sit back in frustration. (Let me be clear, I think the FFRF should sue when they encounter officials who think that government property becomes the sole domain of Christians just because it's December.)

This frustration was exacerbated when I listened to a recent episode of FFRF's radio show, Freethought Radio, hosted by the Foundation's co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker. In one segment they played the part of the interview Rick Warren did with Larry King wherein he said that he could not bring himself to vote for an atheist. Barker then chimes in by saying that this is unconstitutional. But it isn't. Barker refers to the "No religious test clause of the Constitution. However, this clause is not meant to dictate the conscience of individual voters nor to coerce them into voting for one person or another. It's about candidates, not voters, and it disallows laws requiring candidates to hold particular religious beliefs as a prerequisite for running for office.

I don't have the full Freethought Radio archive at my disposal to cite more examples, but I do want to note that, the more I listen to it and the more I learn about the Founding Fathers, the more the show grates on me. They have fascinating guests and point out issues which I feel are important. In addition, I generally share their secularist views and, as I remarked above, feel they fight some very important fights. But I think they do a disservice to the cause of secularism by trying to ground their views in those of the Founding Fathers as they do by portraying them as strictly secular and anti-religious as they themselves are.

Gaylor and Barker would do well to remember that none of the FFs were atheists. If you're going to be critical of religious people of the 21st century for having a belief in the supernatural, then you can't overlook the fact that the men who founded this country gave credence to the supernatural as well. Some of them may have held reason over revelation, but they didn't discount the latter altogether. Likewise, Washington and others didn't go around proclaiming Jesus his lord and savior at every turn and instead used terms like "natural law" and "Providence", but that doesn't make their views on religion the same as Gaylor's or Barker's.

Another thing that occasionally bugs me when listening to Freethought Radio is how Gaylor and Barker prove all-too eager to portray themselves as simply carrying out the collective will of Jefferson, Madison, and other FFs who, contrary to the notions of the FFRF co-presidents, did not have simple, unfaltering views about religion and its role in American society.

It would behoove them to consider views such as those expressed by my Internet friend Jon Rowe in his post "America Was Founded to be A Religious Not a Christian or a Secular Nation" in which he tries to demonstrate that the FFs felt that a multitude of religions "were 'sound' and valid ways to God". Rowe lists: "Orthodox or unorthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, certain forms of Deism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Native American spirituality and pagan Greco-Romanism". Elsewhere Rowe talks about how certain FFs thought that the country they were founding would have what he calls a "civil religion". While there were many different "ways to God", religion in general was thought to be essential to a free society as it would impart morality to its citizens.

I am a secularist just like the FFRF folks; I wouldn't have joined the organization if I weren't. It's just that I wish it would try to argue its case less on the "we're doing what the Founders wanted" and more on the benefits of having a wall of separation. While some elements of the so-called Culture Wars are chimerical, I'd still rather be fighting a war of words than an actual war. Freethought Radio is at its best when it demonstrates the harm that can be caused when religion or one particular vision of religion wields power and when certain religious groups would deny to others the rights they themselves enjoy in moves that certainly run counter to our prevailing notions of freedom and equality. And while the erstwhile preacher Dan Barker is incredibly nuanced when it comes to talking about Christianity, it would be nice if he and Gaylor could be equally nuanced when speaking about the Founding Fathers and their visions for this country.
|| Palmer, 2:39 PM || link || (2) comments |

02 January, 2009

Looking Forward to the New Year

My 2009 started off both well and poorly. Let me begin with the poorly. Barnes & Noble or UPS or both screwed up my order which means that I've begun the year without my copy of the latest incarnation of The Intellectual Devotional – the Modern Culture edition.

I have started each of the last two years with a tender, juicy nugget of knowledge but the tradition is blown. Those bastards want me to suffer without my quotidian dose of devotion until Monday. How can they be so cruel? The book is stuck in Louisville waiting to cross into friendly Yankee territory.

On the bright side, I looked ay my bank accounts yesterday and discovered that I was a few hundred dollars richer than I supposed. Surely, I thought, this must be wrong. A check musn't have cleared. But I could find no check or checks that would account for the discrepancy and so I am going to declare it a victory for my parsimonious penny-pinching.

While I don't have a proper New Year's resolution, I do have a pecuniary goal for 2009: to get out of debt. While I did charge my new PC on my credit card, I can pay that off easily enough. What I'm really aiming to do is to pay off my student loans.

I took out around $17,000 in loans for my higher education. With interest, it surely comes out to much more. But all my book learnin' has allowed me to write witty, erudite blog posts. I've been paying on them for nearly 14 years and enough is enough. The beast has been beaten down to a bit less than $2,100 and it's going to die come the spring when I get my tax return. Once that's done, I will have an extra $230/month in my pocket which shall make riding out this recession more bearable.

This is the only plan I have for 2009 that resembles a resolution. Of course, there are lots of things that I'd like to do but time and money will dictate whether or not I get to enjoy them.

The first month of the new year should be fun. Not only is LOST finally returning, but new episodes of The Simpsons start airing again as well. The Dulcinea and I will be heading to Milwaukee to hear & see The Musical Box recreate a Genesis concert from 1976. I missed Genesis doing "Squonk" live and this is the next best thing. A couple days later Madison's proggy cover band has a date at the High Noon. Lastly, Facets Cinematheque in Chicago will be screening 4 films by Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó and I would love to see Red Psalm again with its expertly staged scenes of folk rituals tucked inside 9 minutes shots. The scene where a loaf of bread is passed around stays with me to this day.

Later this winter astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and philosopher Daniel Dennett will speak at the UW while an exhibition of Edvard Munch's work opens at The Art Institute in Chicago.

The spring will see not only the snow driven away and flowers begin to bloom, but also the Wisconsin Film Festival, Adrian Belew playing in Milwaukee, and a play starring zombies.

But more important is my plan to resuscitate something I gave up a year ago – donating to charity every month.
|| Palmer, 9:07 PM || link || (0) comments |

New Doctor Announced Tomorrow

The actor or actress to assume the role of The Doctor is to be announced tomorrow!

|| Palmer, 10:54 AM || link || (0) comments |