Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 January, 2010

Doyle's Sixth Sense Sees People In the Middle of Nowhere

Yesterday the Wisconsin State Journal had an article in which Gov. Doyle categorically states that Madison must have a train station out at the airport:

"You clearly have to stop at the airport," he told the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board. "You’ve got to be there."

Why? What makes this imperative?

This statement contradicts another one he made earlier:

"You have to stop where the people are," Doyle said.

And this is where the people are?

The people aren't out in the boonies by the airport, an area which local maps label HIC SVNT DRACONES.

Convenience, Mr. Doyle. Convenience, convenience, convenience! The people have spoken:

The survey showed Americans would be most excited by the possibility of more convenient travel (71 percent), less expensive fares (69 percent) and faster trains (55 percent) with the introduction of high-speed rail in their region.

Dropping passengers off on the outskirts of town like contestants on Survivor is not convenient. Generally speaking, folks in Milwaukee favor a stop as close to downtown as possible – see this piece at Urban Milwaukee:

Why does this matter to Milwaukee? The station’s location significantly affects the mobility of travelers from Milwaukee and Chicago upon arrival in Madison. A more central location affords flexibility for spouses to work in different cities, greatly increasing the number of available jobs. It allows students to more reliably get from one city to the other. A downtown-to-downtown connection also greatly increases the ability for businesses to collaborate and grow in both cities.

…and this one at the Journal-Sentinel:

If traveling to Madison, what possible reason would I want to be dropped off at the Dane County Regional Airport, miles from downtown?" Danielsen wrote in a recent e-mail to state and federal officials. "If I snail transportation to get from the airport / have to take local bus to where I wanted to be in the first place downtown, you just put me back in my car again, time-wise and convenience-wise.

Note that Danielsen listed convenience and travel time, both of which are listed above in the survey results.

While not all travelers have the same destination, I find it difficult to believe that a majority of riders wouldn't be headed downtown or to campus. The Capitol & other apparatuses of state government, sports arenas, the Convention Center, the UW, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, museums, the hotels some visitors to these places would probably stay at, etc. are in and around downtown. Events that attract folks from out of town such as the Ironman competition and the Great Taste of the Midwest either happen downtown or are easily accessible from downtown. Amtrak's Hiawatha line, of which Madison is to be a stop, is in many ways a commuter line and commuter rail is about getting to the center of a city, not its periphery. Ideally, the train stop would be right downtown, such as at Monona Terrace. This ain't gonna happen so we've got to locate it as close to The Square as possible because Badger Bus and the state employee car pool are going to run rings around the train in terms of convenience.

In addition, the train will, at some point, need Internet access and other amenities to try and lure commuters away from buses and cars since they are more convenient.

On the other side, a location closer to downtown will be much more convenient for many Madisonians heading east as it is better served by bus and closer to where most of Madison lives. Plus a station at the airport can lead to only little or no development at all around it whereas a station on East Washington is more likely to spur growth.

I am seriously flummoxed as to why Doyle wants to put the station out at the airport.

|| Palmer, 7:50 AM || link || (5) comments |

29 January, 2010

Anthony Bourdain in Milwaukee

If, like me, you missed Anthony Bourdain at the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee last week, you may be interested to know that someone recorded the show. Well, here it is. While it's not a magnificent example of audio fidelity, it can still be good listening. It's rough going at first, but gets better as the recording progresses.

The taper has provided the following titles for the segments of his routine:

Rachel Ray's Fruitbasket & Terror
FN Shows
Golden Arches
Travelling Vegetarians
Spaghetti Bolognese

The show runs about 92 minutes.

Also of note, Milwaukee will be featured on an upcoming episode of No Reservations.

Download show
|| Palmer, 6:28 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Doctor Explains Supernovas

This is pretty slick. Dr. Megan Argo explains the discovery of a jet of radio energy from a supernova in the form of a short Doctor Who story. (The real version will appear in Nature magazine as "A mildly relativistic radio jet from the normal Type Ic Supernova 2007gr".)

"You see that one?" he said, pointing to a large red star to one side of the cluster. "It's just one ordinary star doing what it does but, any minute now, for a tiny fraction of time, it will become brighter than this entire galaxy! The explosion will be visible in the skies of thousands of species across hundreds of galaxies. To most of them it's just another transient star, but not you humans, oh no! Scientists on your planet point as many telescopes as they can at it. They even give it a name: 2007gr."
|| Palmer, 6:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

How To Report the News

|| Palmer, 1:22 PM || link || (0) comments |

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Trailer

There is now a trailer for Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to his 1987 film Wall Street. Cell phones have come a long way in 23 years.

|| Palmer, 8:43 AM || link || (0) comments |

28 January, 2010

Clocks and Culture by Carlo Cipolla

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

I recently finished reading Carlo M. Cipolla's short tome Clocks and Culture: 1300-1700 and was a bit disappointed. I bought it expecting to understand how the introduction and proliferation of clocks affected daily life in Western Europe but got something very different.

Don't get me wrong, it is not the case that his book is uninteresting, but rather that it's more of an economic history than a cultural one which makes the title all the more confusing. The focus here is on horology as a craft and how it developed over time. The ancients had water clocks and fire clocks (I presume a fire clock is a candle with a known and rather uniform rate of melting.) but it was the mechanical clock which arose in the second half of the 13th century where things really take off.

At first only your local liege could afford one. Besides, they were huge so you didn't want to transport them too far. As time wore on, technology advanced. Clocks became smaller and more affordable. Horology went from being a field dominated by singular artisans (think da Vinci) to a one where division of labor dominated. Instead of one guy designing and building the contraptions, you had an engineer design one, smiths make the parts, and, at sucking hind teat, assemblers assembling them. Cipolla goes into how the centers of clockmaking in Europe shifted. Early on the Italians were at the forefront. Then it was the Germans and the Swiss. Later the Dutch and the English had most of the renown.

Interestingly, clockmakers often moved to where there was work. I got the feeling that medieval people, while not as mobile as we are today, traveled and moved about a lot more than we generally think they did. Well, some of them, anyway.

So that's the first half of the book. The second half describes the reception of mechanical clocks in China and Japan. In the Orient clocks were a novelty owned by the rich. They weren't installed in towers and had no practical value for a long time. Cipolla offers some explanation but concedes that there is no easy answer to the question of why the West went and organized everything in life around them while the East did not.

I did learn, however that Europeans sold pornographic clocks to the Heavenly Kingdom. Just imagine some mandarin presenting a big phallic timepiece or some pudendum shaped clock to his master.

As I said above, the book doesn't really address the issue of people used to a day consisting of the time between sunrise and sunset suddenly having to contend with uniform lengths of time. Ergo I'll have to keep looking for a book that does.
|| Palmer, 4:14 PM || link || (0) comments |

Space Shuttle Gone To Pieces

This is incredibly cool, if a bit disconcerting. Done with still pictures, Photoshop, and After Effects by The Faking Hoaxer.

|| Palmer, 3:19 PM || link || (0) comments |

Mr. Doane, Tear Down That Wall

The Orpheum is returning to its single screen roots.

There is no definite timeline yet, but owner Henry Doane said Tuesday that the downtown icon will return to a one-screen theater format, choosing instead to focus on more live performances by musical theater companies, musical acts and comedians.

"Broadway-style productions, dance recitals, ballets or operas even - those type of things we'd like to focus more on in the future," Doane said.

Doane said the Orpheum will still show films, listing options like retrospectives and smaller film festivals.

Considering the loss, I'd say the added variety will be Madison's gain. When was the last time a commercial theatre in Madison gave a run to an old film that had been re-released? (Film festivals don't count.) It's been a while. Perhaps during Westgate's last gasp when they screened DVDs. Movies aside, I think adding more live performances of every stripe is a great idea.

I just know the folks in Squonk Opera are dying to return to Madison.
|| Palmer, 12:55 PM || link || (0) comments |

WI To Get $823 Million For High-Speed Rail

I am happy to say I was wrong yesterday and that Madison shall soon see its first regular passenger rail service since 30 April 1971. Our fair state is getting an $823 million chunk of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for high-speed rail.

Wisconsin will receive $810 million in federal stimulus money to establish high-speed passenger rail from Milwaukee to Madison and to study the possibility of extending it to the Twin Cities, President Barack Obama's administration will announce Thursday.

The 80-mile Madison to Milwaukee line will receive $810 million for new and renovated stations and track improvements to extend Amtrak's existing Hiawatha service from Chicago to the state capital, according to advance details from the White House. The state's existing Milwaukee to Chicago line will receive $12 million to do track and signal improvements to improve timeliness and prepare for eventual 110 mph service. In October, state officials estimated the project would cost $651.8 million, and said the remainder of the money would be used as a reserve if the project goes over budget.

Another $1 million is being awarded to study a possible high-speed rail line between Madison and Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Mayor Dave blogged about the announcement saying, "We'll now get down to work on finalizing our station locations. We'll go for something on the Near East Side and perhaps another station at the Dane County Airport." This would appear to mean that he favors Yahara Station as our first/primary station as opposed to simply having a solitary one at the airport, which is great news.

Whoever is our mayor next term should give high priority to using a near east side rail stop to spur redevelopment of the East Washington corridor. In the near term, once a station location has been chosen, Madison Metro should begin investigating possible route changes to make getting to and from the station as convenient as humanly possible.

Lastly, can we please have a train station that doesn't look like a prefab from a Sears catalogue? Let's build something interesting instead of a plain box. Perhaps something akin to the architecture of the Capitol. And don't forget to put a cheese shop and brewpub in there as well.
|| Palmer, 6:07 AM || link || (0) comments |

27 January, 2010

Historical Society Reading Room Redux

The renovation of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Reading Room is nearly complete. You will soon be able to investigate your family's genealogy in style. It's been restored to its turn of the century goodness.

The carpet adhesive has cured and furniture sits atop.

The ceiling is quite ornate and just gorgeous.

|| Palmer, 3:32 PM || link || (0) comments |

High-Speed Rail Funding Announcements Tomorrow

Exactly how that $8 billion pie of high-speed railing funds will be disbursed shall be revealed tomorrow by Obama.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden plan to announce grants for 13 major corridors during a town hall meeting in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, the president's first public appearance following his speech to the nation. It's an attempt by the White House to show that getting Americans back to work is the president's top priority and that he has a plan for how to do it.

The president's visit to the region means Florida's proposal for a high-speed line connecting Orlando and Tampa is likely to receive funding. California's proposal for an 800-mile-long rail line from Sacramento to San Diego and a nine-state proposal in the Midwest are also considered strong contenders.

We Midwesterners shouldn't despair that Florida is getting cash, however. Obama's "railroad czar" Joseph Szabo recently praised our region's HSR plans.

I'm not sure if these funds must be spent directly on HSR or not. If not, my guess is that any money coming to the Midwest will likely go to relieving bottlenecks and updating infrastructure in the Chicago area to accommodate passenger rail and facilitate the passage of freight trains through Chicagoland which would certainly benefit Amtrak routes.

Regardless, I doubt that Madison will be getting a train stop out of these funds as it seems like speeding up the Chicago--St. Louis route is getting a lot of attention. If Madison is unaffected by this round of funding, proponents of Yahara Station should step up their campaign as there will be no more excuses about keeping the stop at the airport because of a desire to not change plans at the last minute.

Remember, when it comes to high-speed rail, people want convenience.
|| Palmer, 12:17 PM || link || (0) comments |

DeForest is Ablaze

First Naughty Novelties goes up in smoke and now it's Club 51 up the road apiece.

All businesses on Highway 51 should be on alert.
|| Palmer, 10:52 AM || link || (0) comments |

Best Acceptance Speech. Ever.

The A.V. Club is right - this is the best awards show speech ever. This is what happens when you live in Sweden and don't get enough sunlight.

UPDATE: This is apparently a send-up of Lady Gaga.
|| Palmer, 10:44 AM || link || (4) comments |

Auf Wiedersehen Bill Moyers and NOW

PBS is axing both Bill Moyers Journal and NOW, two of their flagship public affairs programs. Regardless of the political bent of these shows, they often looked at issues that get little to no play in the rest of the media. I will especially miss Moyers as he brought on people who were fascinating to listen to. I mean, where else would you find an hour devoted to discussing Thomas Paine featuring UW Green Bay prof Harvey Kaye?
|| Palmer, 10:36 AM || link || (0) comments |

26 January, 2010

Campbell's + Ore-Ida = Hotdish

I was reading Katjusa Cisar's article about the Slow Food UW's Family Dinner Night and was reminded about a dish in a completely different vein that I had this past weekend.

You see, I attended a funeral on Saturday up in Eau Claire for a friend's mother who had passed away earlier in the week. After the service there was food served at the Masonic Temple. One of the dishes was this stuff:

(Photo found here.)

It looked like they had taken a bag of mixed frozen vegetables (i.e. – corn, peas, and carrots), stirred it into some cream of chicken soup, and topped it with tater tots. For some reason, tater tot hotdish/casserole just seems blatantly small town Wisconsin to me. I'm sure the Ore-Ida & Campbell's folks have done their best to make sure that this dish is universal, but I don't recall eating it as a kid in Chicago. It appears neither in Apple Betty & Sloppy Joe nor The Flavor of Wisconsin so I am at a loss to say if it's a regional thing or what. Presumably it appeared in the late 1950s and, for whatever reason, really took off up nort.

Where is Terese Allen when you need her?
|| Palmer, 1:05 PM || link || (5) comments |

25 January, 2010

We Are All Suckers Now

I just had to laugh upon reading Paul Soglin's the-sky-is-falling reaction to the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United v. FED. He wrote: …the fanatical right wing U.S. Court majority tore up the Constitution and legislated from the bench." The ruling has "plunged our nation into political chaos".

Zoinks! You'd think that McCain-Feingold was our last desperate bulwark against the influx of corporate money into our political system, which as we all know, has been free of corporate greenbacks for centuries.

Soglin continues:

As any school child knows, the freedom of speech is not absolute. You cannot shout "Fire" in a crowded theater intending to create a panic or disturbance. Two mobsters cannot discuss the execution of their boss and get away with it, even if they do not kill him. And you cannot go up to a stranger in a convincing manner and threaten to punch out his lights.

The implications here are: 1) that political speech paid for by corporations is equivalent to threats and discussion of murder and 2) that, any abrogation of free speech by Congress is automagically Constitutionally sound. Firstly, if you think an ad for a particular candidate is the same as trying to incite a riot or threaten physical violence, then you need your head examined. Exactly how are they the same? Well, Soglin doesn't bother to say, presumably because this would expose some kind of derangement which equates threats and violence to political speech. Secondly, sure, freedom of speech is not absolute, but this generalization doesn't mean Congress can limit freedom of speech as it pleases nor does it shed any light on the case at hand. The issue isn't whether freedom of speech is absolute, the issue is whether specific laws were unconstitutional or not.


For over a century, from state houses to the U.S. Congress, there were laws limiting contributions to political campaigns, particularly by corporations.

Pretty slick, eh? Nice job of changing the subject there, Mr. Soglin. Citizens United v. FEC wasn't about donating money to political campaigns. From the SCOTUS blog linked to above:

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the government may not keep corporations (and probably, as Lyle reasons in his post yesterday, labor unions) from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While the business entities may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast. (Emphasis mine.)

Glenn Greenwald's reaction to the case was much more level-headed and he addressed the argument that precedents were overturned:

Then there's the always intellectually confused discussions of stare decisis and precedent. It's absolutely true that the Citizens United majority cavalierly tossed aside decades of judicial opinions upholding the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions. But what does that prove? Several of the liberals' most cherished Supreme Court decisions did the same (Brown v. Bd. of Education rejected Plessy v. Ferguson; Lawrence v. Texas overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, etc.).

I don't know for certain, but I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut that Soglin didn't think Brown v. Board of Education was a most heinous example of legislating from the bench. Legislating is only an egregious offense for Soglin when he personally disagrees with the outcome.

Another Madisonian, Gregory Humphrey, also takes a myopic view of the ruling.

The idea advanced by Republicans that this ruling bolsters the First Amendment is cock-eyed. (Shocking!!) Who will be the victor when large and uncontrolled corporate concerns start to thrash around the airwaves with ad after ad while the average voice of the citizen is muted?

Again, nothing about the text of the decision, only that he doesn't like the results. Greenwald addresses this in another blog post:

When a court invalidates Law X or Government Action Y on constitutional grounds, it's always so striking how one's views about the validity of the court's ruling track one's beliefs about the desirability of Law X/Action Y on policy grounds (e.g., "I like Law X and disagree with the Court's ruling declaring Law X unconstitutional" or "I dislike Law X and agree with the Court's striking down Law X").

It's critical always to note that these are two entirely distinct questions: (1) is Law X/Government Action Y a good thing?, and (2) is Law X/Government Action Y Constitutional?

He also notes that it isn't simply Republicans who see political speech by corporations as being free speech, as Humphrey would have you believe, but Democrats do as well.

Humphrey's sarcasm is very disappointing and, to me, that he takes his own freedom of speech for granted. That it's never been threatened has lead to complacency. Freedom of speech, if I may paraphrase Noam Chomsky, is for the speech you don't like. It is something you should be happy to extend to others and not something the expansion of which you should reflexively deride. Perhaps if Humphrey spent a sabbatical somewhere else where there was no freedom of speech and people who, say, advocated for gay marriage could be whisked off the street never to be seen again, he might think twice about casually viewing the expansion of freedom of speech as something only to be celebrated by evil people like Republicans.

Humphrey is also wrong in asserting elsewhere that "newspapers are front line in democracy". The front line in a democracy is an electorate that doesn't have its collective head up its collective ass. Corporate political speech wouldn't be a large issue if voters responded critically to political speech generally and demanded that candidates do more than wrap themselves in the flag and spout meaningless slogans such as "Yes we can!" In 2004, many progressives demanded nothing more from a Democratic candidate for President other than not being George Bush. In 2008 a blatantly centrist candidate named Barack Obama was hailed by lefties as the second coming of Christ. Instead of looking at his platform, many simply heard the word "change" and drooled like a Pavlovian dog.

I'm not exactly thrilled at the idea of corporate money in our electoral process. Greg Palast worries:

Under the Court's new rules, progressive list serves won't stand a chance against the resources of new "citizens" such as CNOOC, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Maybe UBS (United Bank of Switzerland), which faces U.S. criminal prosecution and a billion-dollar fine for fraud, might be tempted to invest in a few Senate seats. As would XYZ Corporation, whose owners remain hidden by "street names."

I share his concern but I can't help but worry that fears of corporations funding more Swift Boat ads is also an indictment of we the people for being suckers.
|| Palmer, 11:06 AM || link || (0) comments |

22 January, 2010

The Knave Abideth!

The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski

|| Palmer, 4:29 PM || link || (0) comments |

A Little Sci-Fi Now and Then

I received 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: The Year We Make Contact on Blu-Ray for Christmas. A week or so ago I made my inaugural viewing of 2010 and I have to say that I enjoy it more now than I did the last time I saw it which was back in the days when VHS ruled the home theatre land.

One thing very noticeable was how grainy the non-SFX shots were in contrast to the SFX ones. The shots of the space ships and Jupiter were absolutely gorgeous. But those of the crew inside the ships were really rough looking. I found a handy site which explained why this is:

Unlike its predecessor, the majority of '2010' wasn't shot on 65mm film, just regular 35mm. Further, director Peter Hyams performs double-duty as cinematographer on all of his movies. His preferred visual style is dark and grainy. He favors source lighting and high-speed film stocks. You'll find a consistently drab appearance among most of his pictures ('Timecop', 'The Relic', 'End of Days', et al.).

The special effects footage (which was shot on 65mm by an entirely different crew than the live action scenes) looks terrific. The model shots are as sharp, clear, and well-lit as you could hope.

Watching the movie again after many years I noticed a lot of things. Some aspects have dated rather poorly such as that the Cold War is still ongoing in the story. In addition, some of the music sounds like what it is – a product of its time. Luckily, not all of it suffers. The real menacing sounds played as the ships approach Jupiter and when the black spot on the planet appears hold up pretty well 25 years on. But what struck me the most was Hyams' shot lengths which, by today's standards, are of Wellesian duration. Plus his framing minimized the need for shot-reverse-shot as he often put his interlocutors in the frame at the same time. A good example is at the opening when Floyd is talking to Moisevitch at the radio antenna. There is a long shot that shows the entire antenna which dwarfs the characters. Floyd and Moisevitch are these specks onscreen yet Hyams lets the scene go on for some time before cutting.

Another thing which hasn't improved over time is Roy Scheider. Nothing against the guy but I've just never been able to completely warm up to him in his role here as Heywood Floyd. It's not like I watched it pining for William Sylvester to return, but there's just something…something too old school Hollywood about him, if that makes any sense.

Lastly, I want to point out that Helen Mirren is a total fox in 2010 as Tanya Kirbuk. I wish some freak accident involving a faulty kannuter valve and a hatch had been put into the script which caused depressurization resulting in tovarich Kirbuk's space suit and all her clothing getting ripped off. How could Arthur C. Clarke be against that?

A day or so after watching the movie, I finished reading Polkabilly by UW Prof. James Leary and was left to decide what to read next. Being in a sci-fi mood, I chose to buy and re-read James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars.

Honestly, I had a flashback to 1994-95 when I spent a year reading more classic sci-fi than is perhaps safe. If memory serves, I began by ODing on Isaac Asimov by reading his Foundation series. And I don't mean just the first three books he wrote in the 1950s – I mean I read those and then the sequels from the 1980s. You'd think that the Foundation series proper would have satiated my sci-fi desires, but no. My exercise in masochism was only beginning. I then plowed through god-awful prequels, the last of which was published in 1993. As I scanned the pages, I was furious inside. "No! All these chases and a love interest – you're ruining Hari Seldon!" OK, maybe not a love interest but doesn't he kiss Dors or another woman at some point?

I figured Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama would be a good follow-up. And it was. I adore the book and I also highly recommend the BBC Radio dramatization of it. Some truly great listening. But again, I was not content with the original classic from back in the day. Nope. Instead of having learned my lesson, I read the three "sequels" which were really written by Gentry Lee and rubber stamped by Clarke. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to finally turn the last page of Rama Revealed and to be done with them.

At this point, I decided that I just couldn't handle another series and needed to read a stand-alone novel. A friend told me to check out Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz and so I did. I loved it. It had Latin in it and I'd had many a Latin course so I was able to put my skills to work.

This brief sojourn didn't last long as I next began Dune. Luckily for me, I read 100 pages before deciding I just couldn't take any more. This spared me the pain of an agonizing six book read and any temptation to delve into the countless books that have followed written by Frank Herbert's son. Today I am a different reader and would at least finish Dune but not go any further. I don't think I've even cracked the spine of a Herbert book since this time.

Having dodged the Dune bullet, my memory tells me that I then proceeded to read something by Harry Turtledove. Why I did so I can only speculate. My best guess is that this was because I had read and loved Philip K. Dick's alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle and thought it'd be a good idea to try something else in this vein. And, when it comes to alternate histories, Turtledove is at the top of the list. Now I am unable to recall which book of his I devoured so I assume that it was an amusing though not particularly memorable read.

Then I somehow found Hogan's Giant series, which has grown to five books since my little reading escapade. I'm still in the middle of the first book and am having a blast. The year is 2028 or thereabouts and a 50,000 year old corpse of a creature, given the name Charlie, that is for all intents and purposes human is found well-preserved inside a space suit on the Moon. Where did this first cousin of ours come from? How did he get to the Moon? How did he meet his demise?

The hero is Victor Hunt who is loaned to the United Nations Space Arm by his employer to lend a hand in poking and prodding Charlie's corpse and effects to try and answer the questions above. It's what I call a hard sci-fi procedural. Hunt hasn't fallen in love with anyone and the story is preoccupied with scientific minutiae such as examining cranial structure, trying to decode numerical sequences, and attempting to determine Charlie's sleep cycles by looking at toxins in his blood. While there are probably a million books like this, the closest analogy in style is Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. Things unfold slowly as data emerge and are studied.

Perhaps not the most thrilling way to tell a story but I dig witnessing an intriguing enigma slowly become untangled and, eventually, solved.

It's rather funny because, after this burst of sci-fi reading in the mid-1990s, I have generally avoided the genre. Not completely, but I don't read anywhere near as much sci-fi these days and am completely out of the loop.

So what am I missing? I have read or tried to read a goodly cross-section of the classics from the 1950s-70s. I suppose I should get my butt in gear and read Neuromancer, thereby knocking down an 80s classic. But what is happening now in the 21st century? Any recommendations? And no one had better say the 83rd Dune novel or the latest installment of the Rama series penned by Arthur C. Clarke's friend's grandson.
|| Palmer, 12:23 PM || link || (3) comments |

21 January, 2010

LOST Returns in Less Than Two Weeks - Expect Me to Be Annoying

Final Season Of 'Lost' Promises To Make Fans More Annoying Than Ever
|| Palmer, 10:36 AM || link || (0) comments |

20 January, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam's latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is perhaps more well-known for being Heath Ledger's final film than for anything else. Labeling it as such obscures that the movie is also one of Gilliam's best.

The titular character, portrayed by Christopher Plummer, is the proprietor of a performing group that travels in a double-decker horse drawn carriage. With him are his daughter, Valentina, Anton, who does sleight of hand, and a dwarf named Percy. As the film opens, the carriage pulls up outside a tavern which vomits out drunken young adults onto the street. One in particular heckles the performers and causes a ruckus. He ends up running into the mirror at the back of the stage. He stumbles through and finds himself in his own imagination where he must choose between good and evil. His choice is the latter, in the form of a pub, and, upon entering, it explodes.

We learn that Parnassus has made multiple deals with the devil, Mr. Nick, and the latest is that, in exchange for youthfulness in order to ensnare the love of a woman, any of Parnassus' children would become Mr. Nick's upon their 16th birthday. One night as the carriage crosses a bridge, Anton and Percy save a man hanging underneath it. Although rescued from death, Tony is stricken with amnesia. And so he joins the group as their barker. As the film progresses, we learn about Tony's shady past and witness Parnassus' attempt to outwit the devil and save his daughter.

Gilliam's films are famous for their fantastic worlds. Here he adds CGI to his toolbox to create the imaginations of people after they pass through the mirror. They are refreshing for their originality as they offer chances for fun as well as looks at the interiors of characters. These landscapes of people's minds provide visual nourishment but they are also notable for the rather restrained way Gilliam uses them. For Imaginarium is less about fantastic worlds than the characters who inhabit the mundane world of 21st century London.

Plummer imbues our protagonist with a weariness of Shakespearean depth. Indeed, Parnassus is like a hands-off Prospero. Instead of controlling others through magic, he offers magic as an option. Ultimately those who traverse the looking glass must look within and decide between good and evil for themselves. Tom Waits was a superior choice for Mr. Nick. With his gravelly voice and thin penciled moustache he doesn't look demonic but there's certainly something unsettling about him and his beguiling ways.

I choose these two characters not because anyone in the cast gave a bum performance – they were all great – but rather because this film is about, amongst many other things, adults growing old. Valentina is a teenager. She has her beauty, as we see in the scene when the Imaginarium is revamped but she is, like all people her age, wanting to create her own identity independent of her parents. Being so young, she has little experience to draw upon or to reflect upon. Tony is important mainly because he mirrors Parnassus in certain ways. For instance, he's made his own wagers with evil.

I found Parnassus to be an intriguing character on many levels. He opens people's minds to themselves (perhaps in imitation of Gilliam); he is something of an anachronism struggling in the modern world (also perhaps like Gilliam); he is part of the eternal confrontation between age and youth and man versus gods; and, having had such a long life, Parnassus has much to reflect upon and regret.

But not all is doom and gloom for our protagonist. In a flashback sequence, Parnassus tells of how he used to be the equivalent of an abbot in a monastery. His monks spent their days constantly telling a story which kept reality going. This, I think, is a lovely and, ultimately, hopeful view of ourselves. The fabric of reality may not hang in the balance, but humanity is certainly propped up by the stories we tell one another whether it be in cinemas or face to face.

In these ways, Parnassus is probably Gilliam's most complete character.

I tend to classify Gilliam's films into two groups: those that establish a "real world" and see characters venture into the fantastic (e.g. - Tideland, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm) and those that are more rooted in the fantastic to begin with (e.g. - Munchausen, Time Bandits, Jabberwocky). The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus straddles the (admittedly indistinct) line between these two. The sequences in London are not overshadowed by those behind the mirror and, instead, the two complement one another.

Imaginarium's closest relative is surely Gilliam's 1988 film The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen. That movie also examined age but did so in large by having a young girl as protagonist for contrast. Here Gilliam is able to confront the theme on its own terms and, in certain ways, Imaginarium benefits from this. A wider swath can be cut when not having to bring thematic material back to a child. The film succeeds in addressing adult themes by using devices that are often thought of as childish – imagination, fantasy, and the like.

Gilliam is going to have a tough time topping this one, to my mind.
|| Palmer, 3:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

Yes, Madison Got In on the Pollo a la Brasa

On Saturday night The Dulcinea and I were out on the west side when we found a menu for Pollo Inka, a new Peruvian restaurant about which I spread rumors last month.

It resides in the mall at Old Sauk and High Point – the one with the Ashman Library in it. The space is fairly small but had a cozy atmosphere. We did take away so I can't really comment on the service other than to say that the guy who took our order was really friendly and eager to refill my soda glass as we waited. He also told us that the place had opened on Friday so we were only a day late for the grand opening.

Pollo a la Brasa or rotisserie chicken is the house specialty and that's the route we took. Also on the menu are a bevy of apps including four varieties of ceviche. In addition to the house specialty, main dishes include Brocheta de lomito (beef tenderloin shish kebab), Aji de Gallina (a chicken casserole), and a Peruvian-style pasta dish called Tallarin Verde. Two soups are available with the Parihuela, a mélange of seafood, touted as "A restorative aphrodisiac".

We opted for the Inka Combo which was comprised of a whole chicken, rice, beans, French fries, and an avocado salad.

As the sides went, the fries were fine. The salad was tasty as well with lots of avocadoes, as one would expect. It was leaf lettuce and a special dressing. Although the dressing was very good, I thought they used a bit too much. Dress the salad, don't drown it. The saffron rice was great – cooked well and just the right amount of seasoning. It made a nice complement to the red beans which were also cooked just right and very flavorful. They used enough fat to give the thick gravy some heft instead of being watery, as is the wont of some joints.

The pollo was great and it came in four quarters. Now, mind you, we lugged it across town and ate it at home so the chicken goodness had cooled down a bit. Still, the flesh was tender and very flavorful with sage really standing out on my palate. The skin was a bit limp but I suspect that, had it not been in a styrofoam container for a stretch, it would have been nice and crispy. If you get some, be sure to savor the wings. They're not the meatiest part of a bird, but the marinade is able to penetrate thoroughly so each bite is jam-packed with fine Peruvian flavor.

Although available, we didn't get any dessert and the take away menu doesn't list what they offer. While the desserts sounded tasty, I was a bit perturbed at the presence of a can of Cool Whip in the refrigerated display case.

Next time I go, I plan on trying the Chicha Morada, a purple corn drink with pineapple water, cinnamon, and lemon. They keep it in vat atop the display case and it had fake ice cubes it in that lit up. All they need now is a Jacob's Ladder.
|| Palmer, 9:10 AM || link || (0) comments |

19 January, 2010

Werner Herzog Reads Curious George

Thanks to The Dulcinea for passing this on to me.

|| Palmer, 11:05 AM || link || (0) comments |

Cheeseheads and Mud Ducks Unite for High Speed Rail

|| Palmer, 9:23 AM || link || (0) comments |

14 January, 2010

"Meat is meat, but sausage carries the culture"

Here's an interesting article from the Smithsonian magazine called "For German Butchers, a Wurst Case Scenario" which chronicles the decline of the German butcher.

There were 70,000 butchers in Germany in the 1970s; now there are 17,000, with 300 to 400 dropping out or retiring every year.

...these days tradition counts less than appearance. It’s mainly pensioners who continue to buy their sausages from the butcher rather than the supermarket, because they know the difference; younger people never learned the habit. Children today prefer sausages with smiley faces or animal designs, something no German butcher can do by artisanal means.

The author of the piece even visits a German butchers museum near Stuttgart which I will be sure to put on my itinerary when I get over to the Fatherland.

Unfortunately the article doesn't try to explain the ultimate causes behind this. He notes more proximate causes - Germans are eating less meat these days and doing more shopping at large "American-style" grocery stores - but why are they eating less meat and eschewing local butchers in favor of mass-produced crap? No doubt there's a German grad student investigating the issue at this very moment.
|| Palmer, 4:25 PM || link || (0) comments |

"Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too"

An interesting article up at the NYT.

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.
|| Palmer, 4:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

@ the WI Film Festival 2010

A documentary called Typeface is going to be at the Wisconsin Film Festival this spring. It features the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum up in Two Rivers.

Also at the festival will be Harmony and Me, a comedy. UW film prof J.J. Murphy reviewed it here.

|| Palmer, 12:40 PM || link || (0) comments |

Sundance Screening Room Calendar Full of Cinema Goodness

A clutch of flicks that I'm looking forward to seeing are now on Sundance Cinemas' Screening Room Calendar. A program of Oscar-nominated shorts will be shown once again as will new films by Werner Herzog, John Woo, Frederick Wiseman, and Richard Linklater. Also on tap are the black metal doc Until the Light Takes Us and the Chilean film La nana (The Maid).

And these films come on top of the previously-announced Los abrazos rots (Broken Embraces) by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and The Runaways by Floria Sigismondi, which will be here fresh from the Sundance film festival on the 28th of this month.

So, will Marcus Theatres be showing any of these films? We shall see. Whatever the case, cheers to the folks at Sundance!

For more on movies around town in the first few months of 2010, head over to the A.V. Club Madison.
|| Palmer, 10:22 AM || link || (2) comments |

12 January, 2010

Dear Foxy Veronica's Peach Pies

Dear Foxy Veronica's Peach Pies,

I am writing not to tell you ladies how to shake your shapely butts or jiggle your supple, tender ta-tas. Instead I just wanted to offer you some advice should you want to increase the number of fat guys in your audience who listen to progressive rock, play Dungeons & Dragons, read H.P. Lovecraft, and the like. Do something like this:

Your humble fan,

P.S. – Is that Kid Rock wannabe gone yet?
|| Palmer, 3:02 PM || link || (0) comments |

11 January, 2010

Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust Now Online

The Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust collection is now fully armed & operational at the website of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The genesis of the project goes back to 1974 when WHS archivist Barbara Kaiser found herself frustrated with the then-current books giving oral accounts of the Holocaust. Seven years later interviews wrapped up with survivors who took up residence here in the Land of Cheese and witnesses from our fair state. Previously one had to go the Historical Society to listen to the tapes or get by with Remembering the Holocaust, a book which excerpted a small percentage of these interviews.

Now, every word from the 22 survivors and 2 American witnesses is available online. Transcriptions are available as downloads as PDF documents and the audio can be downloaded as well or listened to via inline players.

While there are many websites collecting the oral histories of Holocaust survivors, Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust present interviews in full and they include information about the subjects' lives both before and after their experiences. I believe it is also the only one to have a narrow regional focus.

Hopefully more such comprehensive collections will make their way online soon.

EDIT: Corrected # of survivors interviewed.
|| Palmer, 2:29 PM || link || (0) comments |

Students? Eat Healthily?

The Fresh Market has opened up and it's the first grocery store on campus in generations. The Wisconsin State Journal has an article about the occasion. In it, the owner, Jeff Maurer is quoted as saying:

I'm amazed at how well-educated the younger generation is about what they are eating.

In addition, a UW Hospital nutritionist named Donna Weihofen says:

Students are very interested in healthy eating now and they want those kinds of foods.

Really? Really? The same students that make Ian's mac & cheese "pizza" its #1 selling pie?

Young adults may be well-versed in healthy eating and have a collective interest in it but I remain skeptical that they put their knowledge and interests into practice all that often. I'm betting ramen noodles will be a big seller for the Fresh Market.
|| Palmer, 11:20 AM || link || (0) comments |

Midwinter Gastronomy: Schnitzel and the Drink of Gods and Kings

Although we're expecting a little warm-up this week, I had a hankering for some good hearty food this past weekend. Schnitzel was the order of the day.

And so I made Hänchenschnitzel or chicken schnitzel. I bought a chicken breast at the Jennifer Street Market and asked the guy behind the counter if he had some device to flatten it to schnitzel thickness and was given a big negatory on that. I am unsure if this was the result of talking to someone whom I presume was a clerk and not a butcher but it makes me wonder what would happen if a little old lady comes in saying she wanted to make schnitzel and could you please make this chicken breast ¼" thick please. Would they say, "Sorry, ma'am, you're gonna have use your arthritic hands and do it yourself"? Butchers are a dying breed, I guess. Perhaps I need to go in there during the week or earlier in the day. Anyway, because I was left to pound it myself, I bought a brand-spanking new meat tenderizer.

I seasoned the flour and bread crumbs basically as my father taught me – salt, pepper, mustard powder, and garlic powder. The only real difference is that our pepper shaker always has Grains of Paradise in it along with standard black pepper.

In addition to the schnitzel I made Spätzle. It had been a while since I busted out the Spätzle maker which is simply a grater that has a funnel that slides across it. I added a fair amount of nutmeg to the batter and feared that I had given it an overdose but, in the end, my fears were unfounded as it had just the right dosage. Some sweet red cabbage, which proved not to be overly so, and broccoli filled up the rest of our plates.

To accompany our German feast, The Dulcinea and I shared a bottle of Mjød from the Viking Brewing Company which we had bought when we visited the brewery last summer. Mjød is a honey brackett or what you get when you mix mead and beer.

You can see from my less than perfect photo that it's a golden brown color. It has little carbonation and features an aroma that's a mix of honey and caramel. On the palate, Mjød is moderately dry and feels slightly syrupy, although the stuff isn't any more viscous than wine or beer. In addition to the taste of honey, there are fruity overtones in there which hints at a flavor similar to vermouth.

|| Palmer, 9:56 AM || link || (1) comments |

07 January, 2010

Marcus Theatres on the Attack

I have been looking forward to the release of Terry Gilliam's latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus since I heard that shooting had started. It opens tomorrow at Sundance and Eastgate. Well, Eastgate's website says it will, anyway - the new Isthmus doesn't list it. Also opening tomorrow out at Point is 3 Idiots, a Bollywood offering from last year. And when I say "opening", I mean it. The film is actually going to make a run of at least a week at Point instead of a lone Market Square screening. Marcus Theatres, the owner of Eastgate and Point, is doing a fair job at trying to capture the Sundance crowd and is also doing some counterprogramming.

For a week or two now, Sundance has not shown anything that hasn't also been playing at a Marcus megaplex. This trend looks to continue next week. In addition, Point has been showing the likes of concerts and (ugh!) Glenn Beck tirades. For example, on the 27th of this month, you can head down there to see The Metropolitan Opera perform Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. This kind of "alternative content" is a growing market for cinemas.

Nancy, if you're reading this, then know that I'm not trying to be critical of your employer. Instead I hope that Sundance tries to pull a little counter-programming move of its own. The prices of tickets and concessions are not going to come down so more theatres showing the same films doesn't benefit the viewer a whole heckuva lot. Instead they'll do good by us when more cinemas means a greater variety of films to watch. Hopefully that invisible hand will stir things up.

|| Palmer, 1:47 PM || link || (4) comments |

06 January, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I was a bit hesitant going into the theatre to see Sherlock Holmes. The trailer I'd seen made it look like the Arthur Conan Doyle's venerable detective had been transformed into an action hero replete with slow motion and hectic scenes with shots lasting no longer than a half a second, as is the current trend.

It begins with Holmes, played by Robert Downey, Jr., descending into an underground chamber to disrupt an occult ceremony. As he notices someone carrying a lantern up the stairs, we are privy to his plan of action. It unfolds with Holmes narrating exactly how he will inflict pain upon the man as we see how each blow is to be executed. The swings are shown in normal speed while the blows themselves are done in gut-wrenching slow motion. When the two meet, the fight goes exactly as Holmes had planned. Along with the aid of Dr. Watson (Jude Law), Holmes stops the occult sacrifice and it revealed that Lord Blackwood is behind it. He is imprisoned and then hanged.

The opening sequence lays out the template for the film. Late Victorian London is rendered as drab and grey while Holmes and Watson can now be counted on for plenty of fights. The film then slows down and we learn of Holmes' disappointment that Watson is to be married and take up residence with his wife elsewhere, thusly splitting up the team. One of the best scenes involves Watson and his fiancée, Mary, meeting Holmes for dinner. When she asks our sleuth to turn his powers of observation upon her, he obliges. He points out, amongst other things, the untanned part of her finger where a ring once held firm and pronounces her as having disposed of a husband. Mary throws her wine in his face and informs him that she is, in fact, a widow.

Other than this scene, Downey's Holmes comes across more as a class clown in need of attention than Doyle's misanthrope. The literary incarnation of Holmes sat at home alternately piercing his veins with cocaine and morphine to distract himself when there were no mysteries afoot. Here, director Guy Ritchie and his screenwriters have constructed a Holmes that seems to want others to pay him attention and drag him out to play. Instead of passing the time on narcotics, the new Holmes engages in fisticuffs for sport and money which allows the audience to once again follow Holmes' plan of attack and watch punches in glorious slow motion.

When it appears that Lord Blackwood has risen from the dead, London is thrown into a panic and Holmes and Watson are on the case. Also reappearing is Irene Adler, the only person to have beaten the new Holmes, but one of a handful to have slipped past the consulting detective's deductions in print. In the film, Adler is a love interest in contrast to how Doyle described Holmes' interest in her: "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler."

Downey and Law have great chemistry here but I came away disappointed that Holmes was so childish. If his possessiveness, his desire to constantly be the center of attention make a good Sherlock Holmes for you, then go for it. If you like a character who seems to just be looking for someone to pull him out of his shell, this film is for you. For my part, I enjoy Doyle's character because he doesn't like people, because he is cold, and because he revels in his rationality. For him, love is something other people feel and react to – something which he can only observe. It was very disappointing to see Downey attempt to hide a schoolboy crush.

One can surely run up a list of differences between Ritchie's Holmes and Doyle's. In the end, though, people take cultural artifacts and reshape them to their own purposes. While sadly disappointed in this new incarnation of the character, Sherlock Holmes was still fun, at times. I enjoyed watching Downey and Law do their sleuthing because they work well together but, as my Dulcinea opined, they don't do enough of it. Indeed, sleuthing is generally reduced here to prologues for fights. There were some funny throwaway lines and great overacting by Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood but all too often I felt like I was watching a setup for fisticuffs.

I loved Philippe Rousselot's cinematography. The lifeless colors created a Victorian London full of unease and a general sense that something is amiss. And I thought his camera movement and choice of angles added more excitement than the dozens of punches and quick cuts. I loved how the cameras followed the police carriages in the opening – something was truly afoot! And I'm a sucker for the shot in a chase where the camera is upside down and moves to be parallel with ground.

While I don't begrudge Guy Ritchie for reimagining Sherlock Holmes, I do wish he'd done more than simply adding every 21st century action movie cliché.
|| Palmer, 8:22 AM || link || (0) comments |

02 January, 2010

It's a Frap!

This is what happens when you hire geeks to be your baristas.

|| Palmer, 1:20 PM || link || (0) comments |

New Doctor Who Trailer

I watched David Tennant's last appearance in Doctor Who earlier this morning. It had its fun bits (Timothy Dalton chewing scenery) and its annoying bits (20 minute coda in which Rose returns again!). Perhaps I'll write more later. However, a trailer for the new season has been posted. I was a bit skeptical that such a young actor would work at The Doctor but I think I'm going to like him. Anyone with that hair and a bowtie just has to be good.

|| Palmer, 1:14 PM || link || (2) comments |

Ginkgo Biloba Doesn't Do Squat

A study investigated the use of ginkgo biloba to improve "cognitive health in aging" and it failed miserably. The results were published in JAMA.

The Willy Street Co-Op and Community Pharmacy should take all those bottles that claim it helps "improve mental function" off their shelves yesterday.
|| Palmer, 1:10 PM || link || (0) comments |