Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 July, 2010

Getting Older

I work in a basement that requires a security card for access. One of the doors opens to a mezzanine area that has a telephone on one wall. Yesterday I walked out and noticed a young woman in her early 20s fiddling with the phone. I walked upstairs and went about my business. A few minutes later I returned to find that a middle-aged co-worker of mine was letting the young woman in the basement. My co-worker told me, "I just had to teach her how to use a rotary phone."

We walked through the door and my co-worker asked me if I was old enough to remember rotary phones. I looked at the young woman and she had a rather embarrassed look on her face. "Yes. We had a rotary phone when I was a kid and, since my old man worked at IBM, we had a stack of punch cards to take messages on."

The young lady turned to my co-worker and asks, "What's a punch card?"

I'm, like, getting old.

|| Palmer, 9:44 PM || link || (1) comments |

Lovecraft in 3D?!

Guillermo del Toro has wanted to film H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness for some time now and his vision is moving closer to reality. The movie has been given the green light. James Cameron is set to produce and the film is to be in 3D.

To the many, many people who bring up H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (the book that combines exploratory adventure, science fiction and Lovecraft’s tales of great, horrible old gods) every time Guillermo del Toro has a window of availability: this one’s for you. The director has talked about wanting to adapt Lovecraft’s story for many years, but it always seemed like a really tough sell. After all, what studio wants to finance an expensive, dark, R-rated film like this?

As it turns out, that studio appears to be Universal. Can’t hurt that James Cameron has come aboard to produce. Has the time finally come for a big-budget Lovecraft film?
|| Palmer, 12:48 PM || link || (0) comments |

Restrepo Opens Here Next Month

Restrepo is set to open here in Madison at Sundance Cinemas on 13 August. It "is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, “Restrepo,” named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 94-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you."

|| Palmer, 12:17 PM || link || (0) comments |

We Are An Oil-Based Economy

Yesterday the proprietor of the blog MAL Contend tried to take Wisconsin Senate candidate Ron Johnson to task by implying that he's agog with joy over a report that 1+ millions gallons of oil have spilled into a Michigan river. MAL quotes an AP article:

Federal officials now estimate that more than 1 million gallons of oil may have spilled into a major river in southern Michigan, and the governor is sharply criticizing clean-up efforts as "wholly inadequate".

So how does MAL know that Ron Johnson is beaming like a proud father over this? MAL offers this Johnson quote:

Is this what Ron Johnson had in mind when he said, "Yeah. You know, the bottom line is that we are an oil-based economy. There’s nothing we’re going to do to get off of that for many, many years, so I think we have to just be realistic and recognize that fact. And I think we have to get the oil where it is, but we need to do it responsibly."

I don't know this MAL person but I do know that he/she is being completely asinine. There's not a cat in hell's chance that I'd vote for Ron Johnson but his remarks above are spot on. And to suggest that anyone who recognizes that we have an oil-based economy that isn't going anywhere in the near future shouts with glee over an oil spill is absolutely stupid. Johnson may have said other things which make him a complete douchebag, but the quote above is simple pragmatism. How does Johnson saying that we need to extract oil responsibly equal happiness at the pollution caused by an oil spill? Only someone like MAL engaging in his/her own douchebaggery can explain that.

Johnson is right. We are an oil-based economy. Until either A) we move to renewable resources or B) Americans throw away their iDevices, get off the grid, and raise their own food, we're going to be an oil-based economy. It's not a matter of what we should do, it's what we are doing. And moving away from oil is not something we're doing. If you want to know why candidates and politicians talk about renewable energy but we never seem to move in that direction, then look in the mirror. No politician is going to try to make drastic changes until a majority of Americans are willing to make some sacrifices in their lifesytles and/or pocketbooks.

Watch this brief interview with Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline:

Here's the money quote which is her response to the question of whether she'd ban offshore drilling:

"No. Well, me personally, I would ban it but as a person who thinks about energy, no. I think it's silly. We've had one spill in 40 years. It appears that it was the result of fairly egregious mistakes and negligence and a lot of other things. A lot of risky decisions were made...Here's my problem with banning offshore drilling: I don't know that you have a right to drive a car and use oil if you're not willing to let someone drill it out of your front yard...Just because you're a rich country and you can afford to import the stuff that we should be imposing those costs on another people. Especially people around the world that don't have the same environmental regulations that we have..."

Emphasis mine.

The Gulf oil spill has brought out the hypocritical NIMBYism of many Americans. "We should reduce our oil consumption but as long as we're still going to be using millions of barrels a day, let's protect the Gulf and let other countries have those spills." I agree with Ms. Margonelli. If we Americans are going to use 20+ million barrels of oil per day, then we should be willing to deal with spills instead of outsourcing environmental disasters to places like Nigeria.

So, no MAL, that oil spill was not was Johnson had in mind when he said what you quoted. I think what he had in mind was the fact that we Americans are fossil fuel hogs. We are 5% of the world's population but use nearly 25% of the world's fossil fuels. Given that quote, Johnson is merely summarizing a state of affairs that no one has any reason to believe is going to change soon, not prescribing environmental holocaust. Perhaps MAL can personally take the lead by refusing to buy things made of or wrapped in plastic and buy only that made fossil fuel free within a few miles of his/her home. No more synthetic fabrics. Raise all of his/her own food organically. Use a horse and carriage for transportation. Get rid of any asphalt shingles on his/her house. &c and so on. I'm betting you don't want to start living like its 1899 again and neither do the vast majority of the other 307,006,549 Americans. Because until MAL and millions upon millions of others in this country do that, Johnson will be right. We are an oil-based economy. And simply acknowledging this fact does not make one happy to see environmental devastation wrought by the pursuit of oil which has given we Americans an incredibly high standard of living.
|| Palmer, 10:53 AM || link || (0) comments |

26 July, 2010

Fiasco by Thomas Ricks

Reading Thomas Ricks' Fiasco is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know it's a disaster and how it will end, but the camera catches everything in painstaking detail nonetheless.

Ricks is a journalist whose expertise is on military matters and he has a very low opinion of our invasion of Iraq. The book's subtitle is "The American Military Adventure in Iraq" and it is explained early on: "this book's subtitle terms the U.S. effort in Iraq an adventure in the critical sense of adventurism—that is, with the view that the U.S.-led invasion was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation."

The first 30 pages or so describe Iraq in the aftermath of Gulf War I and President Clinton's policy of containment which entailed blockades, no-fly zones, etc. One major issue was that, after Kuwait was liberated, the U.S. government encouraged Shiites and Kurds to rebel and finally rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein but, when they did, they found no support from Washington. Indeed, we allowed Hussein's forces to fly helicopters sent to suppress the rebellions. The result was thousands of people killed.

At the time, Paul Wolfowitz was the under secretary of defense for policy and he urged that more be done to support the uprisings. And so it was no surprise that he helped lead the charge after 9/11 for the invasion of Iraq as Deputy Secretary of Defense. Ricks documents the lead-up to the war showing how the Bush administration ignored or downplayed intelligence which undercut their assertions about Hussein's possessions of WMD, his ties to al-Qaeda, etc. Colin Powell's shameful case for war at the UN and the tensions between his State Department and Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense are also elaborated upon.

Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the other hawks promoted the invasion by saying that it would be short and inexpensive. They attacked Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki who gave estimates of required troops well above what they were saying. Also, Iraqi oil money would supposedly be used to pay for it. President Bush and others in his administration drummed up support with a constant refrain of the image of a mushroom cloud being the result of not invading.

When the war begins, allied forces score a quick victory. But they fail to plan for it and this takes up the bulk of Fiasco. Rumsfeld and the military did virtually no work on what is called "Phase IV", the post-war activities.

Retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner was selected to lead the Coalition Provisional Authority but he didn't last long. He ran afoul of the State vs. DoD hostilities and found that Rumsfeld was vetoing his choices for staff members and instead being told to take on kids in their 20s who had no relevant experience but were Republican supporters. In addition, his less than sanguine views of exiled Iraqi leader Ahmed Chalabi, a friend of the Pentagon's, further pushed Garner out of favor. He was replaced by Paul Bremer who would essentially do a 180 on all of Garner's plans. Ricks lays out the case that Bremer and his staff worked in isolation and had little contact with the military in trying to coordinate plans for post-war Iraq. And so little was done to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people who found themselves unemployed because of Bremer's policies, many of whom became insurgents.

But the problems weren't only with civilian operations. The book goes into great detail on how the military was fragmented with various commanders essentially dictating their own strategy. Ricks' main point was that the Army as an institution did not learn anything from the Vietnam War about fighting counterinsurgencies. Some commanders did take the time to learn and implement those lessons while others just had their troops going around kicking down doors. The upshot is that it took a long time for the Army to adjust to the circumstances and to realize that terrorizing the civilian population was creating more problems. In addition, it took equally as long for Rumsfeld and other civilian authorities to understand that occupying Iraq would require more troops – just as Shinseki had said. As Ricks said, the American adventure in Iraq had good tactics overall but no strategy, no overarching plan with a goal to which the tactics would advance the endeavor.

The book has goes into some detail about a handful of actual battles such as the battles for Fallujah but it is more concerned with the policy-making end of things. Ricks looked at the public record and interviewed scores of people to draw a picture from high above the battlefield. Generals and politicians often talk past one another here so, instead of a united front advancing a plan, the Iraq occupation comes off almost as a Keystone Cops episode. Some generals have their troops live amongst the Iraqi civilians in order to win them over while other generals have their troops instill fear into the population and have them quartered on nice air-conditioned bases. These commanders didn't understand that, as Ricks put it, the people are the prize in counterinsurgency.

Fiasco goes up through 2005 and Ricks brings the story up through 2008 in his follow-up The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. I've not read it but I have listened to some interviews with him and he thinks that Bush may well go down as the worst president we've ever had. It's sad that the people whose cheerleading and planning (or lack thereof) that created the fiasco seem to have suffered no repercussions. And to add Pelion upon Ossa, Ricks and many others in the defense establishment are of the opinion that we are going to be in Iraq for a very long time to come.
|| Palmer, 4:05 PM || link || (0) comments |

We Sow the Seeds 2010 Edition

It was a good year for raspberries. I found raspberry bushes that I didn't even know I had.

My tamaters are doing well. The kid likes to go out and pick and then eat them. There may not be any for canning.

And do I have peppers. My cayenne plants are going like gangbusters.

I've never grown squash before so have no idea if they're doing well or not.

I also have habenero plants which are doing very well. Lots of small green flame throwers. The plan is to make lots of jerk paste for the winter but I really don't need 5 gallons of the stuff. What else do you do with habeneros?
|| Palmer, 11:56 AM || link || (2) comments |

Cops Raid Co-op For Raw Milk With Pistols Drawn

A co-op in Venice, California was raided recently with authorities looking for raw milk.

With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts.

Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid's target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.

Emphasis mine.

You can go to the site linked above and watch video from the co-op's surveillance camera of the police officers wandering the aisles with pistols drawn from which the still above was taken.

Did the police really anticipate such resistance that they had to have lethal force at the ready? I was reminded of a post regarding Chicago's gun registration laws at a blog by a member of the CPD. It is about the city's concern for emergency responders entering homes where residents have firearms. The writer says:

Any officer who goes into a home not thinking there might be a gun inside is forgetting one basic tenet of policing - THERE IS ALWAYS A GUN THERE. AND YOU BROUGHT IT.

Exactly. This is no doubt a great reminder for police officers but it's also important for us citizens. Any time you have an interaction with a police officer, there is lethal weaponry present and it's the police that have brought it.
|| Palmer, 10:24 AM || link || (0) comments |

22 July, 2010

Get On the Bus Gus

The Wisconsin State Journal ran an article last week entitled "Who should vote on commuter rail sales tax" which gives a brief overview of the problem of setting up a referendum vote for the tax. What caught my eye was the first paragraph:

Some Dane County Board members are pushing to hold a countywide referendum this November asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for commuter rail.

To the best of my knowledge, any money raised for commuter rail would be put towards the plan envisioned by the Transport 2020 group. A map of the proposed route and more information on the plan can be found in this PDF document. The main rationale behind the county's application for federal funding for the project is that Madison and Dane County are growing and are expected to continue to do so. Madison is the site of many jobs and the percentage of people commuting into the city to work is also expected to grow. Thusly, with an isthmus already experiencing congestion, things are only going to get worse. While I am generally supportive of rail, if asked to raise taxes to support the Transport 2020 rail plan, I'm not sure I would do so.

The problem is that the plan puts the rail line on existing freight rail tracks. Now, I'm neither a transportation nor urban planner, but it seems to me that this scenario makes the freight tracks the center of gravity of the whole situation instead of commuter preference/convenience. Furthermore rail tends to bring with it development but are the freight corridors where we want it? In other words, the plan is to make do with what we have instead of trying to build a rail system around the needs of riders. Plus we're potentially dropping the ability to maximize development.

Plus the route map just doesn't make sense to me. Commuter rail is about getting people from outside the city into it yet the route includes a few stops in the industrial no-man's land on the isthmus. Plus the Shorewood Hills stop seems superfluous. To me, the route wants to have its commuter aspect plus being a form of intra-city travel. It features 17 stops in 16 miles. Looking at Metra routes (Chicagoland's commuter rail) I see that only one comes anywhere near have 1 stop per mile. Commuter rail is about moving people into and out of the city, not within it. Hence my view that the current plan is a hybrid. This may prove to be advantageous but it may also create a system that fails at being both.

In certain stretches, the freight tracks aren't very well suited for passenger train stops. The plan seems designed to get people to certain places very well but makes it more difficult for those who need to go elsewhere. Perhaps I'm old fashioned but, to me, stepping off a train (other than a streetcar/trolley) means that I should be at a place which also caters to other forms of public transportation. In Madison's case, train stops should have bus stops at them or be adjacent to them. But many of the train stops in the plan are not close to bus stops. Again, this is mainly because the tracks the route uses are for freight, not passenger rail.

This ignores one of the most important aspects of public transportation – convenience. If you want to simply drop off people on a certain street corner, fine. But commuter rail becomes more convenient when one is dropped off at a point where buses are also available. Convenience also means that generic passes should be available that work on both the train and the bus.

I'm just very reluctant to raise taxes or endorse a plan that doesn't know what it wants to be. (And I would assume that the plan would be altered to accommodate Amtrak service.) Part of me says, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right." But this would mean laying new track which is prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, going forward with the Transport 2020 plan gets our foot in the door and could lead to new and better passenger rail.

While I remain ambivalent on the whole thing, I am leaning towards an RTA which would emphasize improving bus service, in addition to bike paths, etc. Madison Metro is, overall, pretty good to my mind especially considering Madison's size. It runs after the sun goes down, has bike racks, they send out e-mail/text message rider alerts, have real time route info, etc. But there's surely more that can be done to improve it. Here are a few things I'd like to see:

1) Replace some of those Metro ads inside the buses and replace them with maps of the route that indicate each stop.

2) Improve routes that have a 60-minute service floor. Are buses so infrequent because few ride or do few ride because service is so infrequent? Perhaps ridership would increase if buses came every 30 minutes.

3) Investigate using articulated buses.

4) More Park'n'Ride lots. As the Transport 2020 plans notes, the future holds more people who live outside Madison coming into town to work. Accommodate them with more lots and routes serving them.

5) Investigate Bus Rapid Transit or at least the possibility of express routes which stop infrequently to get people from one side of town to the other relatively quickly.

6) Re-evaluate the transfer point system. It seems weird to me that an arterial street like Mineral Point Road cannot be traversed in its entirety and requires multiple buses to hit the stretches that are served by bus. Buses turn off of it east of the West Transfer Point leaving the block or two between Science Drive and Whitney Way without service. West of the Transfer Point route 67 only goes as far as Ganser Way while the 15 kicks in down the street at High Point. And this is on weekdays. From Ganser Way to Junction Road is completely unserved on weekends. To me as a commuter, making a main street full of shops and restaurants so difficult to traverse by bus is unacceptable. Perhaps the transfer points could be moved so that they don't act like artificial barriers when trying to get to the more outlying parts of the city. I get the impression that this works hand-in-hand with #5 to be the biggest obstacle to getting more riders. People need to be able to traverse long distances quicker.

7) Restore bus service to Monona Drive.

8) Keep a handful of routes operating later than they currently do on Fridays and Saturdays. Perhaps til 2AM. For me, it would be nice to be able to see a late film at the WI Film Festival and be able to take a bus home.

9) Seminole Highway and McKee Road in Fitchburg are virtual dead zones.

10) The RTA should work with the city to consider parking lots and ramps. Madison wants to build a 1,200 stall ramp across from the future Amtrak stop. How much of this is for train passengers and how much for the general public? City lots& ramps are dirt cheap and the more parking the city builds, the more it discourages bus ridership. When parking has the potential of being a pain and isn't cheap, the bus becomes a better option. It's easy to get to downtown Madison via bus but if parking is plentiful and cheap, people are going to drive.

11) More hybrid busses.

12) Eliminate redundancy. E.g. - Is route 10 really necessary when route 2 & 38 already cover the area?

Blah, blah, blah. Everyone has their own gripes. What are yours?

If someone could make a case to me that the Transport 2020 plan (or a variation thereof) is but a first step and provide a vision for future expansion, I'd like to hear it. I also want to hear someone tell me what conditions are good for rail vs. those best served by bus. Some members of the RTA want to immediately increase taxes because they're dead set on rail instead of making the case that Madison needs a light rail system and offering up a plan for inspection. My impression is that, for many, having rail here in Madison is a bid to be like Portland or is some attempt to pretend to be a big city, which Madison certainly is not. I want a rail system that works in Madison, not one simply for the sake of having one.

Madison Area Bus Advocates
|| Palmer, 3:04 PM || link || (0) comments |

19 July, 2010

Where Are the Cryspes?

I went to the Brisol Renaissance Faire yesterday with friends and family. While I had a nice time overall, I was disappointed that I couldn't get a funnel cake as I'd been looking forward to having one all of last week. I looked and looked but could not find one for the life of me. Querying a few of the food vendors proved futile. So I took it to the info booth lady who replied that they didn't have any because it wasn't really period and was more of a Dutch thing anyway.

OK. So let me get this straight. Funnel cakes are Dutch and not period while Italian beef, Polish sausage, bratwurst, and pizza all make the cut in this recreation of England in 1574. I get it. Makes total sense.

The thing is, funnel cakes are period in addition to being English. If you read The Forme of Cury, you'll find a recipe for "cryspes", which is what funnel cakes were referred to back then. (One of the terms, anyway.)

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

The Forme of Cury
is subtitled "A ROLL OF ANCIENT ENGLISH COOKERY" was dates to c. 1390. It's not some obscure book only discovered last week; it is one of the basic texts that anyone learning about medieval cookery will encounter.

So my dear Bristol Ren Faire operators, get some funnel cakes going and serve them forth!

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

16 July, 2010

Can Chicago Avoid Disaster?

It's been 15 years since the heatwave which saw the death of hundreds of Chicagoans and now meteorologists are predicting highs in the 90s for the rest of the month.

There may be little relief from the stifling heat the rest of July, according to the weather service. "It looks like we could see this hot weather for an extended period," said Andrew Krein, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Today's hot weather resulted in dozens of people needing treatment for heat-related illnesses at a Megabus intercity bus stop at 315 S. Canal St.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, a five-day scorcher that was blamed for more than 700 heat-related deaths.
|| Palmer, 3:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

Medieval Multitasking?

You're probably at least aware of the latest "the Internet is making us stupid" debate. On one side, you have people like Nicholas Carr who (roughly speaking) think that the Internet is reshaping our brains so that we have a hard time concentrating and that we're constantly distracted by the trivial. On the other there's Clay Shirky and others who think the changes wrought by the Internet are positive and that we're not losing something in as much as we're gaining something even better in abundance. And there are those who don't think we're losing any brain power.

Both sides look to the changes that the printing press brought about, but scholar Elizabeth Drescher goes back even further. In "Medieval Multitasking: Did We Ever Focus?" she looks at the role of medieval manuscripts in how people thought.

The medieval books we admire so much today are distinguished by the remarkable visual images, in the body of a text and in the margins, that scholars have frequently compared to hypertexted images on internet “pages.”

The function of these images in illuminated manuscripts has no small bearing on the hypertext analogy. These “miniatures” (so named not because they were small—often they were not—but because they used red ink, or vermillion, the Latin word for which is minium) did not generally function as illustrations of something in the written text, but in reference to something beyond it.

Books of commentary, known as “glosses,” included conversations among different commentators across time that surrounded a central text, such as a Bible passage…Over time, the original contexts for these comments were forgotten and their relevance to the central text became obscure, so they became part of the interpretive project of reading a book.

Add to these distractions the fact that medieval books were very often not the single-author volumes familiar to us today. A binding might include a bit of Chaucer—something from the life of St. Bridget, perhaps—and part of an almanac, or a treatise on herbal remedies. They were mash-ups, that is.

Medieval reading as a practice was deeply social. Indeed, long after the invention of the printing press, until rather late in the 18th century, reading was a communal affair, with a group of hearers gathering around a reader to engage a book, letter, or other textual production.

…as scholars have been reminding us for a very long time by now, private reading and the linear thinking that Carr so values as essential for deep, contemplative thought did not feature much in the lives of the people who pretty much brought us the contemplative tradition. Rather, sorting though the mix of images and ideas, arguing with friends over meanings and interpretations, and mullying it up again with a new bit of this or that seem to have been very much at the center of the thought world of ancient philosophers and medieval mystics.

I've read Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" but not his book on the subject The Shallows. Contra Carr, I have read a couple of Shirky's articles and a few others including Steven Pinker's "Mind Over Mass Media". As of now I remain ambivalent.

It would surely help if I were to read Carr's book as well as more about "brain plasticity", i.e. – that the more we browse and distract ourselves on the Internet, the more our brains wire themselves to think in that manner and not in a deep, linear way. And I think it's helpful to understand that there are (at least) two different issues here, one quantitative and the other qualitative. First there's the issue of whether or not using the Internet changes our brains rendering us unable to think deep, sustained thought patterns. The other is, given that our mode of thinking is changing as Carr argues, is this a bad thing? At the end of the day, I don't know the answers to either of these questions.

When I contemplate on my own brain, one that grew up with a computer (but not the Internet) & MTV but has since gone on to work in IT, I don't think that Google has made me stupid. There are, to be sure, times when I'll be reading something on the Web and quickly check my e-mail or distract myself online in some other way, but I eventually get back to whatever it was that I was reading and finish it. I am currently in the middle of my second book in a row that is 400+ pages. Last year I read all 1,500 or so pages in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle – all three books back-to-back. And I don't have a problem sitting through a 2 ½ - 3 hour movie. (Unless it's god-awful, of course.) I listen to 6-hour radio dramas. Not that this is an exhaustive list of things to determine whether you have a short attention span or not, but I just don't think the Internet has killed my concentration.

What about you?

|| Palmer, 1:52 PM || link || (2) comments |

14 July, 2010

Sonic Stormbringer?

Michael Moorcock has written a Doctor Who novel.

Blurb from the publisher:

‘There are dark tides runing through the universe...’

Miggea – a star on the very edge of reality. The cusp between this universe and the next. A point where space-time has worn thin, and is in danger of collapsing... And the venue for the grand finals of the competition to win the fabled Arrow of Law.

The Doctor and Amy have joined the Terraphiles – a group obsessed with all aspects of Earth’s history, and dedicated to re-enacting ancient sporting events. They are determined to win the Arrow. But just getting to Miggea proves tricky. Reality is collapsing, ships are disappearing, and Captain Cornelius and his pirates are looking for easy pickings.

Even when they arrive, the Doctor and Amy’s troubles won’t be over. They have to find out who is so desperate to get the Arrow of Law that they will kill for it. And uncover the traitor on their own team. And win the contest fair and square.

And, of course, they need to save the universe from total destruction.

Will the sonic screwdriver now suck souls? Shall Amy Pond suffer the same fate as Moonglum?
|| Palmer, 10:09 AM || link || (0) comments |

Let Loose the Dogs of La Fête

Last spring Andy Moore wrote a piece for Isthmus called "Move along, nothing to see here" in which he inveighed against the smugness of near-east side dog owners who don't take responsibility for their hounds and think that they have a right to bring them anywhere they may go, including all of the summer festivals in the Marquette neighborhood.

The "my dog doesn't do that" crowd turns on me every summer at near-east-side music festivals. This is where I have the fun job of making announcements from the stage between bands.

After the inevitable, annual incident of a child getting bitten or a dogfight breaking out, I have the profound pleasure of getting on the mike and telling people with dogs that they need to take them home. That a child has been hurt. That dogs are fighting. That it's against the law to have a dog in the park.

Cave canem! A woman from out of town was bitten last weekend at La Fête de Marquette and the hunt is on for the dog to determine if it has rabies. In addition, the victim "will require significant plastic surgery to repair the damage." A nice welcome for our guest from San Francisco.

While I'm at it, I would like to extend my heartiest thanks to those near-east side neighbors of mine who throw their dogs' shit in my garbage. I just can't thank you and your lazy, inconsiderate asses enough for the smell you bring to my driveway. Thanks to you, I dare not open one of my stepson's bedroom windows in summer lest the odor, which overpowers all others, waft inside.
|| Palmer, 9:39 AM || link || (3) comments |

13 July, 2010

The TSA Wants You (Stoners and Drunks)

What audience is the TSA aiming for by listing job openings on pizza boxes?
|| Palmer, 1:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

Dumb Blog Post Title

"Ron Johnson’s BP Stock Placed In Company Who Chased Profits".

Ron Johnson must be a horrible person for investing in BP, a company that chases profits. How could you BP? All the other companies out there have moved beyond chasing profits and now are purely charitable entities yet BP is stuck in the 19th century with the passe capitalism thing. For shame, BP. For shame.
|| Palmer, 9:55 AM || link || (1) comments |

12 July, 2010

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

Like millions of other Americans, I recall very well where I was on 11 September 2001. I also remember the major events which followed: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nine years later, those military reactions to the attacks on that day in September are ongoing. I've read a lot of articles and watched a plethora of documentaries, but I’ve always had various lacunae in my knowledge of terrorism and our responses. Ergo I thought I’d do some reading on the subject and began with Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. It has provided the best look I’ve seen at the events which led to 9/11 and gives a much fuller view of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda than I have previously witnessed.

The story begins in November 1948 with Sayyid Qutb, a middle-aged Egyptian writer, coming to America amidst a crisis of faith. When he returned to Egypt a couple years later, he did so having become radicalized. In America he saw only what he recognized as depravity and would go on to write screeds decrying the materialism of the West, individual freedoms, etc. He saw America as a "spiritual wasteland" which celebrated sexuality and relegated religion to the backwaters. Qutb serves as a suitable entry point because his views would form the basis of radical Islam as we know it today. One idea of his that became especially important was takfir or essentially the bit of thinking that certain Muslims aren't "true" Muslims and that they can be killed despite injunctions against this in the Quran. This would later be used to justify suicide bombings.

For the rest of the book, the dramatis personae are led by Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda right hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri, Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia, and John O'Neill of the FBI. The lives of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are traced from their childhoods. Osama bin Laden grew up in a wealthy Arabian family. His father, Mohammed, created a vast construction empire and was legendary in the country for building roads which helped fuel the modernization of Saudi Arabia. al-Zawahiri grew up in a middle-class suburb of Cairo where he witnessed the increasing secularization of his country and the heavy hand brought down on dissidents.

Al-Zawahiri became a follower of Qutb and dreamt of turning Egypt into an Islamic state early in his life. He eventually became part of al-Jihad which was dedicated to this cause. Bin Laden began his terrorist career fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda was formed in the twilight years of that conflict with the goal of being a mobile Islamic fighting force, going wherever it was needed. Wright portrays their relationship as having its tensions. Al-Zawahiri's focus was Egypt where he wanted to instigate a swift coup while bin Laden was generally anti-Communist. Al-Jihad eventually fell apart and al-Zawahiri was essentially forced to partner with bin Laden if his dreams of an Islamic Egypt were to be kept alive. Bin Laden had access to money while al-Zawahiri was an organizer and leader.

Following the lives of these two men was very interesting on a couple levels. Firstly is that al-Zawahiri's life also gives us a very brief summary of Egypt's recent history with a more in-depth look at some of the more violent highlights. Wright also does a good job of giving background on Saudi Arabian society and its ruling family. There wasn't much to the country until the 1950s when the oil started flowing. The Saud family became legendary for their extravagant lifestyles and adoption of various elements of Western culture. Prince Turki formerly headed Saudi intelligence and was responsible for trying to keep bin Laden contained and, eventually, attempted to secure his return to Saudi Arabia. What these tales do is give the reader a broader understanding of the Middle East generally which I greatly appreciated.

Secondly, the story of bin Laden's life reveals him to be less than an inhuman monster. I've spent so many years hearing comparisons to Hitler and hearing about his long reach that bin Laden is almost a caricature to me. The book follows him from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, to Sudan, and back to Afghanistan. Wright portrays him as being something of an opportunist. The efforts of Saudis who'd gone to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets were largely ineffective yet bin Laden loved to claim divine victory for his side and give his troops and himself more credit than they deserved. Indeed, most Afghan fighters saw them as a nuisance. Bin Laden took on multiple wives and we learn about his marital problems including those which were the result of his self-imposed ascetic lifestyle. I always thought of bin Laden as being an extremely rich financier but, as the books make clear, he wasn't that rich and, while in Sudan, he even lost his fortune.

John O'Neill was the chief of the FBI's counterterrorism section and one of the few who took the threat of al-Qaeda seriously. As bin Laden evolves from having an anti-Communist view to one that targets America, Wright shows how government bureaucracies were slow to recognize the true threat that al-Qaeda posed as our embassy in Kenya was destroyed in 1998 and the USS Cole was bombed in 2000. The CIA withheld crucial information from the FBI that would have alerted them to the presence of al Qaeda in the U.S. In-fighting, posturing, and defending bureaucratic territory took precedence over finding the bad guys.

One thing that was on my mind reading The Looming Tower was a debate that I most commonly see played out among atheists. (Mind you, Wright does not involve himself in this argument.) One the one hand, you have arguments from the likes of Richard Dawkins and "Imagine No Religion billboards that essentially portray religion as the sine non qua of terrorism. On the other side you have people like Scott Atran who is an atheist but sees religion's role in terrorism as a minor one. At one of the Beyond Belief conferences he said: "I think that religion is basically a neutral vessel. It has done everything you can imagine, and its contrary. And there is nothing intrinsic about religion, for the good or the bad." Atran has done a lot of research on terrorism and, while I haven't read his work in detail, he seems to come down on the side that people become terrorists because they become morally offended, not because they read the Quran and suddenly have a revelation that they need to become a suicide bomber. Today's terrorists are usually well-educated young men. They see people like themselves being killed on Al Jazeera and talk about it with a small group of friends, say, at a soccer club. The complaining is done in an echo chamber until the anger reaches a boiling point and some of them actually commit terrorist acts.

And so I readThe Looming Tower always keeping an eye on this debate. How much did religion have to do with the story? While Wright doesn't address this, he does quote the actors involved and looks at the ideological underpinnings of al-Qaeda.

On the one hand, I'm sympathetic to Atran's side. Sure, being religious doesn't mean you're going to become violent. And Wright points out examples of how many people didn't respond to bin Laden's fatwa to fight in Afghanistan. Indeed, many who did weren't specifically motivated by religion. On the other, religion surely plays a part in the story. Qutb was very specific in citing Islam as the answer to materialism/modernization/the West. For him it was a specific version of a specific religion that had all the answers and could provide the best way of life for people. al-Zawahiri thought that Egypt had become too modern and wanted it to "return" to Islam – his version of it, anyway. Bin Laden? Same thing. (And more, of course.)

While it is true that there are many factors involved here and that removing religion doesn't mean that peace and harmony would prevail in the world, religion is omnipresent in Wright's story. To simply say that religion is an empty, neutral vessel is to ignore the reality that it will be filled up quickly. I just don't see how one can say that religion has either no role or one so inconsequential that it can basically be ignored when discussing terrorism. At the very least, religion can act as a rallying point around which other more secular grievances can gather. Similarly, to say that there would be no terrorism if there was no religion seem equally reckless to me.

Getting back to The Looming Tower, I have to say that it was an engrossing read. It provides a lot of background material essential to understanding our times and really puts al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden into perspective. It also made me wonder if our government has corrected the institutional problems that prevented law enforcement and intelligence agencies from tackling al-Qaeda within our borders. Despite being four years old, Wright’s interviews and exhaustive investigations contribute to a book that still holds up and remains, as near as I can tell, the definitive book on the subject.
|| Palmer, 8:13 PM || link || (0) comments |

North American Discworld Con Comes to Madison in 2011

The annual convention celebrating Sir Terry Pratchett and all things Discworld comes to Madison next summer. Check out the con's website for more info. There's not a lot available right now but knowing that Terry Pratchett will be visiting our humble burg should tide you over.
|| Palmer, 7:23 PM || link || (0) comments |

09 July, 2010

Summer Cinema Continues

OK, so Micmacs à tire-larigot (Micmacs) didn't make it here today as I previously wrote. Hopefully it'll arrive soon.

On the other hand, I have learned that Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me is slated to open at Sundance on the 23rd of this month. It's an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jim Thompson published in 1952 and the film caused a stir at the Sundance Festival earlier this year with charges that it was misogynistic.

And next week Christopher Nolan's Inception opens. Early reviews have generally been good and, if they're to be believed, the film is akin to the work of two of my favorites: Stanley Kubrick and Philip K. Dick.
|| Palmer, 1:50 PM || link || (0) comments |

Carpe Diem by Harry Mount

When I was in the third grade the Chicago Public Schools determined that I was gifted and shipped me off to the gifted & talented program at Luther Burbank Elementary School. One of the classes I had in addition to Literature, Science, English, Social Studies, etc. was Latin. The gifted program was modeled after English schools with a serious nod towards the classics. (And we even learned the recorder in Music class. Jethro Tull's "Mother Goose" will always be a favorite.) I also took a year of it in high school where I was taught by an old Jewish woman who took some time out from nearly every class to inveigh against Vatican II. On the plus side, I had the wonderful experience of reading Caesar's Gallic Wars in the original. "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres."

For those who never had the experience of having taken Latin, then Harry Mount's Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life is probably closest to the real thing.

The book is part Latin course, part argument for the relevancy of the language today, and part memoir. Scattered throughout are brief lessons for those seeking to learn Latin. But Mount takes it easy on the reader, at least compared to the teachers you'd find in a school. He introduces all the concepts I had drilled into my head – verb tenses, noun declensions, cases, etc. – but he doesn't prod the reader to spend hours conjugating verbs and the like to really learn the language.

When not giving a grammar lesson, Mount spends a bit of time recalling his days as a Latin student turned Latin tutor. Much of this material makes more sense to English readers who endured the education system over there but some of the tales have a universal appeal to Latin students. One example that surely every one of us who has tried to learn the language can recognize is the famous scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian when Brian gets a Latin lesson from a centurion when trying to write graffiti saying "Romans go home". Mount gives a full transcript and I was laughing to myself the whole time. Those of us who've had Latin know that this is perhaps the funniest scene in the whole of cinema.

Those who aren't interested in learning the language or aren't simpatico with those of us who spent hours going "amo, amas, amat" will still appreciate the many pages dedicated to the influence of Latin on English. While not a Romance language, a large chunk of our vocabulary comes from Latin and many Latin phrases and expressions were imported intact. (E.g. – "e.g." and "carpe diem".) The book also notes the influence of Rome on such things as architecture with the various types of columns.

As an introduction to the Latin language and the influence of Rome, Carpe Diem succeeds. Mount writes plainly and with a good sense of humor. Neophytes will no doubt enjoy learning the Latin roots of many English words and marvel at how sloppy English is in contrast to the structure and order of the Roman tongue. While the book is not an academic treatise, Mount does make a pretty good case for Latin, as far as dead languages go. Simply put, while learning a living language like Spanish may have more practical value, learning Latin and about Rome can not only be rewarding in itself, but will also provide a solid foundation for understanding Western civilization.

|| Palmer, 1:17 PM || link || (0) comments |

07 July, 2010

You Can Never Go Home Again

A cousin of mine and a couple friends of his are in town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research. He is my mom's first cousin which I believe makes him my first cousin once removed and means that he is roughly my mother's age, i.e. – in his mid-60s.

The four of us were hanging out on the Terrace last night. My cousin and one of his friends were discussing a couple of Laurel & Hardy shorts as well as 1950s TV including Life With Elizabeth starring Betty White.

I bring this up because of an interview with Mike Stoklasa at The A.V. Club. Stoklasa created some lengthy YouTube critiques of the Star Wars prequels which garnered a lot of attention. In the interview he says:

I just think that the prequels will evaporate from history while the original films will remain relevant for a while to come. The new films failed to create any iconic, memorable imagery, and it’s all very forgettable.

I have to wonder if the guy has any kids. Heck, he may and he may have forbidden them from watching any of the prequels. But this statement sounds like total bullshit to me. The new films may have failed to create any iconic, memorable imagery for him, but that doesn't mean the movies failed to do so for others.

My stepsons are Star Wars geeks and when they quote a line or make reference to one of the films, it is almost always a prequel from which they draw. Sure, they use the old "No, I am your father" line but, most of the time, when they talk about a Skywalker it's Anakin. I've never heard them mention Chewbacca and for them Obi Wan is Ewan McGregor, not Sir Alec Guinness. The worst shots in the entire galaxy are droids not Stormtroopers. When it comes to whirling sticks around like lightsabers, they refer to General Grievous. They have no idea whether Han or Greedo shot first nor have any clue just how incredibly cool Admiral Piett was. I doubt they know that Wedge was in all three of the original films nor do I think they care.

Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s, episodes 4-6 gave me many iconic images. My cousin and his friend had a similar experience in the 1950s. They have iconic images of Jack Benny whereas I don't. (However, I think Benny was great.) I have iconic images of Star Wars and they don't. I would also say that the prequels had some incredibly memorable images for me. Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, for instance. Plus Ian McDiarmid deliciously chewed up so much scenery that George Lucas had to CGI everything. Then there's Darth Maul and his dual-bladed lightsaber as well as Yoda kicking ass.

Another quote:

The argument that we’re just people who “can’t let go of their childhood” is just an insult to defend the massive failure of the newer films.

I don’t care what he says, not being able to let go of his childhood is exactly his problem. There were lots of people in the 1970s and 80s that didn't like Star Wars. Many girls I went to school with didn't like them as well as many adults whom came along and said what Stoklasa is saying: "Things were better when I was kid." Every generation does this.

None of this is to say that the prequels were all perfect. (See Jar Jar Binks and midi-chlorians.) But when someone comes along spouting the same crap about how something from their childhood is superior to the latest incarnation, I call BS. There are young people today who have no idea who Bob Dylan is, which would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago. But 20 years is a vast amount of time when you are 10 years old. Every generation gets its own icons. Some of the old ones persevere, some fall to side. The original Star Wars films will still be iconic to many but time moves on and they too must make room for newer films and newer audiences.
|| Palmer, 2:53 PM || link || (0) comments |

06 July, 2010

Adiós El Pescador, Hello Bub's Burger Joint

For a few weeks the windows at the former El Pescador on E. Wash in the Eken Park neighborhood were covered in sheets of brown paper with lots of question marks drawn on them.

The mystery has been solved as signs now proclaim the place to be the new home of Bub's Burger Joint. Anyone know if this is a chain? I've never heard of it before.
|| Palmer, 1:53 PM || link || (4) comments |

Lee's Asian Bistro

Over by Dean Avenue and Monona Drive lies a little mall with the wonderful Asian grocery store Viet Hoa and the newly-opened Lee's Asian Bistro. The Dulcinea and I grabbed dinner there last week.

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures to show you but the décor has a rather clean look to it with accoutrement including paper lamps dotting the ceiling and some Oriental masks on the walls. Once you're seated, don't be fooled by the menu. It says that they serve dim sum on weekends from 7:00-2:30 but, when I asked a waitress to view the dim sum menu, I was told that there was a printing error and that our hearts won't be touched by it until the autumn. A disappointment but the prospect of dim sum later this year is still good news.

The menu is mostly Chinese and resembles pretty much any Chinese take out joint around. However, there are also small Thai and Vietnamese sections. The former includes the staple Pad Thai while the latter has five varieties of Phở.

I ordered some crab rangoon and Manderin Noodles, a house specialty involving "Tenderloin sliced beef, jumbo shrimp, white chicken, snow peas, napa, bak choy and bean sprouts with white sauce over top of noodles" while The Dulcinea indulged her addiction to Sesame Chicken.

The crab rangoon were good. Not the best around but certainly in the middle of pack. They were accompanied by mustard and sweet & sour sauce. I sampled the Sesame Chicken and found it to be much less sweet and more sour than most iterations I've had around town. The sauce was, as the menu said, tangy. This was served with white rice. My noodle dish came to the table piping hot and was good, if a bit on the bland side. The white sauce could have used a bit more garlic to my taste, but it was pretty much the simple dish that I expected. My real complaint was that there was a paucity of vegetables. I would have gladly traded some of the meat for more Napa cabbage and bok choy. Plus I'll also note an extreme paucity of bean sprouts.

Lee's Asian Bistro tries to be a lot. As I noted above, the menu consists mostly of standard Chinese fare with a bit of Thai and Vietnamese for good measure. I suppose there isn't a whole lot of Asian cuisine in Monona and Lee's tries to be a bit of everything at once for the area. From this one trip, the joint seems like your average Chinese restaurant but there's a large menu yet to explore. And, if they make good on their promise of dim sum, Lee's will be one of those rare birds in town to offer it. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly unique about their food and so there's no pressing reason for chowhounds to stop in. However, if you're in the area, you can stop there for a repast before shopping at Viet Hoa and the Mexican bakery in the mall next door, the name of which escapes me.
|| Palmer, 11:39 AM || link || (7) comments |