Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

31 August, 2010

Ringworld by Larry Niven

After work I wait for the bus with one of the organizers of Madison's sci-fi/fantasy conventions, Oddcon, and he never fails to be amazed at how ignorant I am of sci-fi literature. I've only read one Neil Gaiman book and have never read any Peter David or Gene Wolfe. However, he was pleased recently to see me reading Larry Niven's Ringworld, a classic of the genre. I think it won every sci-fi award there was back in 1971 including the Hugo and Nebula.

The novels main protagonist is Louis Wu who is celebrating his 200th birthday by teleporting from time zone to time zone in an attempt to A) prolong his birthday and B) not have to spend too much time with anyone. It is the 29th century and Wu is 200 years young owing to boosterspice, a drug which increases longevity. A hop to Seville turns out not to be and Wu is instead in a room with an alien named Nessus of the species called Pierson's Puppeteers. Nessus enlists Wu to accompany him on a secret mission as well as to recruit another two candidates. The only hint as to the nature of the mission is a blurry photograph of a sun with some kind of ring around it. The crew is filled out by Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin, and Teela Brown, a young woman who is 20. The Kzin are a vicious species who have as of late been engaged in wars with humanity. Teela, it turns out, is incredibly lucky and it is hoped that her presence with be propitious for the mission.

It is revealed that our heroes are to pilot a super-advanced Puppeteer ship and investigate the Ringworld. You see, many stars at galactic center have gone supernova and the radiation is due to wipe out this part of the galaxy in 20,000 years time. The Puppeteers are thinking ahead and looking for alternative homes with the Ringworld as a candidate. Of course, the Earthlings and Kzin will also be forced to flee. In exchange for helping the Puppeteers reconnoiter, they will receive the technology needed for them to flee the galaxy.

As it happens, their ship crash lands on Ringworld after a wing is sheared off somehow. The place is enormous. The ring has a radius of 93 million miles and a circumference of some 600 million miles. It is nearly a million miles wide and has walls at the rim which are 1,000 miles high. This place is really big. Mind-bogglingly big. It has oceans, mountains, etc. – a very Earth-like geography. A separate ring composed of plates improbably connected by a filament of extraordinary tensile strength. This one rotates at a different speed than the main ring and provides a day/night cycle.

All in all an engineering marvel.

As I said, their ship crash lands and they decide to make for the rim where there are docks for spacecraft. They travel on these ultra-speedy land cruiser bike thingies which are like mini-RVs with food supplies and semi-comfortable seats to accommodate the driver/pilot. Along the way it is discovered that there is a native population that had survived some catastrophe. There had been floating castles which were home to the Ringworldian aristocracy who lorded over the villeins below. Power had evidently been cut as most of these castles had crashed to the ground.

Ringworld is a lot of fun when our explorers are exploring. What is this world? Who are its inhabitants? How did disaster befall the place? I enjoyed reading it as the pieces to the puzzle were put into place. Unfortunately things get sidetracked when Niven takes on tangential issues. For instance, The Easy Rider-like trek comes to a halt when Nessus reveals that the Puppeteers had manipulated the Human and Kzinti gene pools for their own purposes which leads to a lot of enmity towards him. The ill-will is understandable but it only leads to Nessus becoming an outcast, as opposed to, say, lending much thematic heft to the story. Wu has to meet with Nessus surreptitiously instead of simply chatting him up on the intercom.

Another annoyance is Wu's love for and sexual relationship with Teela. While it's nice to see a 200 year-old guy getting a 20 year-old piece of ass, the whole thing just comes across as a leftover of 1960s hippie-dippie free love BS. For the most part, Teela's character is developed as simply the embodiment of naivety which the old and wizened Louis Wu can comment upon. And the comments aren't all that interesting.

Also not super-interesting is the Ringworld itself. Yeah, it's big and mysterious but it's mostly flyover country for our heroes speeding along on their craft. And it's inhabited by just some vaguely primitive people living in a rather Edenic post-lapsarian scenario. Contrasting them with Wu, Teela, Nessus, and Speaker doesn't really give the reader much to care about. They are essentially cardboard cut-outs which provide obstacles for our heroes and their pursuit to get off of Ringworld and return home.

As I said above, the parts of the book where Ringworld is being investigated are a lot of fun. For his part, Niven writes well with a good balance of character development/plot and explanation of the science. . I just didn't feel there was a payoff in the end.
|| Palmer, 2:51 PM || link || (0) comments |

Hipster Hitler

"It's called being ironic, Göring."

Good stuff.

|| Palmer, 1:03 PM || link || (0) comments |

Dirk Gently Heads to TV

BBC4 is commissioning a TV version of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently.

Although the channel’s press release doesn’t reveal much in the way of info (like actors, f’rinstance) it does name Misfits creator Howard Overman as the man doing the adaptation duties.

Director is Damon Thomas who also made First Men In The Moon for BBC4. The pilot will be 60 minutes long, and the project was originally being developed for BBC3, but quite why there’s been a shift of channels isn’t clear.

Philip Glenister should play Gordon Way.
|| Palmer, 12:54 PM || link || (0) comments |

30 August, 2010

Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer

I am six years late to the party. It would have been handy, I suppose, to have read Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris when it came out in 2004 but better late than never, I guess. Actually, it remains relevant here in 2010.

Scheuer's jeremiad gets its name from his idea that we Americans do not understand foreign affairs very well. It's as if we wear blinders which only allow us to view the rest of the world through a very narrow lens.

The way we see and interpret people and events outside North America is heavily clouded by arrogance and self-centeredness amounting to what I called ‘imperial arrogance’ in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes. This is not a genetic flaw in Americans that has been present since the Pilgrims splashed ashore at Plymouth Rock, but rather a way of thinking America’s elites have acquired since the end of World War II. It is a process of interpreting the world so it makes sense to us, a process yielding a world in which few events seem alien because we Americanize their components.

He sets out to correct our myopic view of the world by first noting that Islamist terrorists fly planes into our buildings not because they hate our way of life but rather because of what we do. George Bush told us that they "hate our freedoms" so go shopping. And we did. We had a hearty bout of dancing on a volcano until the recession. Ignored in all of that were Osama bin Laden's own words in which he explained why he hates America. For instance, our troops never left the Arabian peninsula after Gulf War I. We support other countries that oppress Muslims plus we also lend our support to apostate governments of Arab lands. And we are friends of Israel to boot.

Scheuer is very insistent that bin Laden wages a defensive jihad. The al-Qaeda leader feels that Islam is under attack around the globe and that the United States is the biggest bully. His is not an assault on America to take it over but rather to get it to stop interfering in Muslim lands.

Another mistake that he set out to correct was the misperception that bin Laden is simply an irrational lunatic who is lashing out at the West. Scheuer looks at bin Laden's statements as well as the testimony of those who know him and have met the man. What emerges is not a picture of someone who is criminally insane, but rather an ostensibly nice person whose religious convictions are under attack or, at least, that's his perception. The book gives bin Laden a lot of credit and paints him as a more than capable adversary.

No doubt many Lefties read this book and were quite happy to hear Scheuer be critical of Bush's views. However, he is no pacifist. Indeed, the book promotes the idea that the Bush administration prosecuted the war more like a police action when it should have been engaging in all-out slaughter and probably salting the earth for good measure. For Scheuer, America is fighting for its existence and should spare nothing in its struggle. He appeals to the memory of Abraham Lincoln and his disgust at General McClellan for not having fully destroyed Lee's armies at Antietam. We citizens should be willing to sacrifice more of our young men and women and also be prepared for more civilians in, say, Afghanistan to be killed as our soldiers pursue the enemy. But he doesn't think we have the stomach for more of our own coming home in body bags and he sees politicians in CYA mode not wanting to engage in conflicts which cause more than a modicum of casualties. He quotes Sherman in his attempt to persuade the reader that only a no-holds-barred conflict will defeat al-Qaeda: "Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster."

Reading some parts of the book made me think that I was reading a screenplay by John Milius. "General Petraeus, what is good in life?" On one hand, I'm sympathetic to this view. War is hell. We paid tribal leaders to do a job which our troops should have been doing and, moreover, they took our money and ran. Secondly, we didn't cut off escape routes so al Qaeda went to Pakistan. Our venture in Iraq was bungled. Scheuer makes some good points, in my view, about how our military interventions have been completely half-assed the past 20 years or so. We don’t finish the job, so to speak. But is a scorched earth policy what's needed?

There are a couple things in the book which confused me, which seemed contradictory. First is Scheuer's admonition that America's conflict with the Islamists (indeed, he says we are at war with Islam itself) should not be resolved with appeasement nor negotiation. Nothing less than total destruction is warranted. Yet he advocates for American energy independence and disengagement from Persian Gulf countries. Scheuer is very much a nationalist and he refers to our great experiment in self-rule, which Lincoln saved, as something very much worth fighting for. America first. Our support for tyrants is a stain on our belief in democracy. Fine, but isn't disengagement with the Middle East appeasement? That's exactly what bin Laden wants – for us to stop supporting the corrupt Saudi regime, to get our troops out of there, out of Iraq, etc. I suppose it's a grey area but leaving the Persian Gulf smacks of appeasement to me whereas staying there in pursuit of oil is very much an "America first" kind of thing. It just rings contradictory to my ears.

Another bit that I have a hard time reconciling is how Scheuer contends that our support for Russia (vs Chechens), India (vs. Kashmiris), and China (vs. Uighurs) in their wars against Muslim terrorists works against us. He says:

We are in a fight to the death with al Qaeda whether or not these states approve, and our support for them makes the fight harder because it again validates bin Laden's contention that the United States is attacking Islam and supports any country willing to kill or persecute Muslims.

In a section entitled "Get Used to and Good at Killing", he says:

Killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants, and crops in the field; fertilizer plants and grain mills – all these and more will need to be destroyed to deny the enemy its support base. Land mines, moreover will be massively reintroduced to seal borders and mountain passes too long, high, or numerous to close to with U.S. soldiers. As noted, such actions will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America's only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.

It just seems odd to me to say that we need to go out laying waste in Muslim lands like the Romans did in Carthage but let's not get bin Laden really mad at us by supporting China because it is going after the Uighurs. If we see an Afghan settlement of say, 50 people, wherein 5 al Qaeda members are hiding and nuke it from orbit because it's the only way to be sure, is our support of China, Russia, and India really going to mean anything? When we are going out and slaughtering women and children en masse, does Scheuer really think bin Laden is going to gain support by pointing out that America supports India in its war with Kashmir? It's like he's worrying about a leaky faucet when he should be worried about a collapsing roof.

So here we are six years on from when Imperial Hubris was published. What's changed? In terms of Scheuer's main points (he also talks about American institutional issues, e.g. – an old buddies club hampering the promotion of competent individuals), I can't really tell that much has. We certainly haven't adopted Sherman's attitude. We are withdrawing from Iraq and now we're launching cruise missiles into Yemen. As for Americans' perceptions of the enemy, I think it's sad – beyond sad – that we don't talk much about why we're in Afghanistan nor about al Qaeda. I really don't know if large numbers of people think "they hate us for our freedoms" or not. On a recent episode of Media Matters by Prof. Robert McChesney, he noted that many of his undergrads have no idea why we're there. New documentaries about our venture there include one about Pat Tillman's death and one that follows a single platoon. I've not seen them but, from what I've read, they focus in on a specific area or incident and largely avoid the big picture. This is not to say that either doc is to be faulted for this but rather that they're part of a larger scenario where our national dialogue on Afghanistan has shifted from the big picture to the narrow focus.

It just seems that seems that our national conversation on our war on terrorism doesn't include any sense that there is a master plan and that the war in Afghanistan is a part of it. Conversations seem fragmented. Or perhaps that's just me and my own narrow view of things.

Either way, Imperial Hubris remains an important read if for no other reason than to encourage discussion. We seem to be on auto-pilot. There are terrorists in Yemen? OK, go shoot a few missiles while I read my book on my iPad. It seems that there are many Americans who don't understand nor have any inclination to understand what our conflict with terrorism is or entails. That is a prescription for endless war.
|| Palmer, 2:28 PM || link || (0) comments |

Chilis Are in Season

While I still have no idea what I'm going to do with about a million serrano peppers, I did manage to strike a couple blows this past weekend against all the cayennes and habeneros which were threatening to overrun my kitchen like a capsaicin-laced Visigoth horde.

First, I made the Cajun equivalent of mustard gas.

If it wasn't bad enough cleaning about 2# of cayennes, the whole boiling in vinegar thing did the trick. No one was allowed in the kitchen for a couple hours. I'll note that I broke down this year and bought latex gloves so at least my hands were safe. I ended up with roughly quart of hot sauce which needs to be put into the basement for several months so that the marriage of the flavors can be consummated.

About half a dozen habenero plants litter my garden and I recently picked the first batch of fruit. (With tons more on the way.) And so I made some jerk paste to liven up our palates during the long winter months.

Does anyone know how to process jerk paste? I'm just keeping it in the refrigerator but would like to know how to can it. I presume one would need a pressure cooker as there's no added acid.

And methinks my food processor's blade needs to be a-sharpened.
|| Palmer, 12:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

26 August, 2010

Dear MATC: Why Do You Need My SS#?

I went about registering for a non-credit continuing education course at MATC today but found that I actually had to register, i.e. - have some kind of account created with them. The first thing they wanted was my Social Security number.


Why do you need my SS# to take a non-credit course? I'm not aiming for a degree and I couldn't apply for financial aid towards it even if I was too cheap to fork out $45. The UW doesn't ask for it - just take a look at their non-credit class registration form. How come an even bigger bureaucracy can get by with my name, address, and a check yet a technical college needs my SS#?

I asked the very friendly woman who was registering me why she needed such private information to take a single non-credit course. "We need it," came the reply. So why do you need it? "We can refer to it if you take future courses." And you can't look up my name the next time?
|| Palmer, 2:02 PM || link || (2) comments |

Free Parking Is Expensive

Chris Murphy of The Cap Times opened up a real can of worms by asking "Where's the outrage over $1 billion-plus for widening I-39-90?" Essentially he was asking why people find spending $810 million on rail a huge financial disaster whereas $1+ billion for widening the interstate from the Illinois border to Madison is a perfectly reasonable expenditure for these same people.

Regardless of your chosen method of transportation, it's expensive. But here's something most people don't think about: how we subsidize driving - to an estimated $127+ billion in 2002. To wit:

Car owners may not want to hear this, but we have way too much free parking.

Higher charges for parking spaces would limit our trips by car. That would cut emissions, alleviate congestion and, as a side effect, improve land use. Donald C. Shoup, professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, has made this idea a cause, as presented in his 733-page book, “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

Many suburbanites take free parking for granted, whether it’s in the lot of a big-box store or at home in the driveway. Yet the presence of so many parking spaces is an artifact of regulation and serves as a powerful subsidy to cars and car trips. Legally mandated parking lowers the market price of parking spaces, often to zero. Zoning and development restrictions often require a large number of parking spaces attached to a store or a smaller number of spaces attached to a house or apartment block.

If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement.

Does anyone know what Madison's zoning laws are concerning parking?
|| Palmer, 11:55 AM || link || (0) comments |

This Is Unconscionable!

Bacon prices are skyrocketing!

Last week, prices of pork bellies -- from which bacon is cut -- jumped to an all-time high of $1.42 a pound. Prices have soared more than 200% from a year ago.

Retail prices are up nearly 16% over the past few months -- from about $3.64 per pound in April to $4.21 in July -- according to the Department of Agriculture.

The bacon bra industry must be saved!

|| Palmer, 11:38 AM || link || (1) comments |

25 August, 2010

Quit Complaining About the Construction

I was having lunch in Library Mall with some folks a few weeks ago when one of my companions noted all the construction going on around campus. An area by the mall's fountain was torn up, East Campus Mall was being assembled along with the Chazen addition, Park Street, etc. Headaches for drivers and a blight on lovely pedestrian areas. He was not amused by it all. But what irritated me was his mocking tone. It was as if the construction crews were incompetent and it had all been done just to piss him off.

It's a catch-22 for the city and university, as I tried to explain to my interlocutor. Yes, it's a pain and unsightly but construction is necessary. Some of the areas were torn up for the East Campus Utility Project. Remember those? Utilities? There are things like fiber optic cables underneath the ground. Without those, you won't be able to get to your Facebook page quickly enough to bitch about all the construction to your friends.

I think about this as well when I read stupid comments about the Willy St Coop adding a rear driveway in the face of the Willy Street being torn up next spring. You have loony toons such as Ted Voth who say things like, "That Willy's gonna be torn up, and threaten all the small businesses on the street is an artifact of 'America's love affair with the automobile.'" Think about it. What else lurks under the street? That rain water has to go somewhere or the basements of all those $300,000 homes get flooded. And where do people like Voth think all that precious drinking water that flows from our taps comes from?

America's water infrastructure is as old as dirt and the E.P.A. estimates that it's going to take "$334.8 billion over the next two decades" to get it into shape. There's a Civil War-era water main running into the Capitol in Washington D.C. There are even a handful of water pipes made of wood still in use today.

Here in Madison, it's the same story regarding the work on Park Street: construction workers found a water pipe dating back to 1892:

Construction crews that have been working on the East Campus Utility Project since late May have encountered a setback due to numerous unforeseen conflicts with underground utility pipes that have been in that area for a very long time.

"They were not expected to be there," says Rob Kennedy of Facilities Planning and Management, referring to the older pipes. "Some of the university's pipes are so old that we don't have accurate plans or mapping to indicate where they are."

Kennedy also notes that the construction crews are digging near an 1892 water main that bursts easily if it is uncovered.

So, if you want to bitch about construction, find someone else. Perhaps instead of complaining about all the construction, you can be thankful that amenities of modern life like potable water coming from a faucet in your home are being maintained a little bit so that we're not getting water from the same pipes that Bob La Follette, Sr. did. Do you want sinkholes or a temporary inconvenience? Either way it's bitch, bitch, bitch.

|| Palmer, 3:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

Madison Beer Review Plays Cassandra

Jeff Glazer of Madison Beer Review has a couple posts up in which he complains that Wisconsin breweries are lax and resting on their laurels. The first one came Monday and included this shot across the bow:

The point is we, Wisconsin breweries, need to be competing with these breweries (i.e. – breweries from the Chicago area) that have, in the past, not really presented much of a threat. More brands, more creativity, better execution. Bigger regional and national presence. It is no longer feasible to ignore markets outside of Wisconsin.

Glazer's premise is that Chicago brewers will outpace Wisconsin brewers because a huge chunk of Wisconsin college grads move to Chicago, acquire a taste for craft brews from that area, and return here to raise children while they drink Goose Island or whatever brew they can find from ChiTown.

When these people come back to Wisconsin to raise families, (because no one wants their kids in the Chicago School District, right?) what will they drink? Goose Island? Pretty good bet.

It's only a "pretty good bet" because Glazer likes playing amateur sociologist. Yes, lots of grads move to bigger cities including Chicago and have been doing so for quite some time now. Do we have evidence that they all come back here and drink Goose Island? Surmising that they'll drink predominantly Chicago beers upon returning to Wisconsin is pure speculation. It's also speculation that those grads will drink Chicago beers when they are living there. In addition, this presupposes that the Chicago breweries he lists will all have distribution in Wisconsin.

For me, this is a really weak basis for playing Cassandra.

In his post today he chastises the breweries of our state for being "Blissfully ignorant of trends going on in the rest of the universe".

He takes on New Glarus Brewing and questions their latest limited edition "Unplugged" brew, Abt:

Yet even New Glarus, while worldly in its releases, seems ignorant of trends. In the last years it has released the sour Imperial Saison, Berliner Weiss, Old English Porter, and Cran-bic. Yet, in the year of sour, only the softly tartish Enigma approaches sour. Instead, New Glarus chooses to release its Cherry Stout and now, this, an Abt.

it's not exactly the trendiest beer in the world and I don't exactly foresee a coming onslaught of quads and abts in the near future.

Two things here. First, how can Glazer, express any surprise that New Glarus brewed an Abt? It's been over two years since Randy Thiel, the former brewmaster at Brewery Ommegang, arrived at New Glarus to take up the Laboratory Manager mantle there. Ommegang brews Belgian-style ales. To the best of my knowledge, that's all they brew. No IPAs, no lagers, no stouts – just Belgians. With Thiel as brewmaster Dan Carey's right-hand man, no one in their right mind should be at all surprised that New Glarus is brewing Belgian-style beers. Hell, Stone Soup, an Abbey ale is now a year-round beer.

Furthermore, New Glarus just released, albeit in limited R&D doses, two different sour Belgian-style beers - The Gueuze and Bourbon Barrel Kriek. Perhaps one or both of these beers will end up coming out of the R&D lab and become an Unplugged. Or perhaps not. Regardless, it is disingenuous for Glazer to intimate that New Glarus is completely oblivious to the sour beer trend.

New Glarus no longer has a lager as a year-round brew. It has, among others, Stone Soup and Moon Man, a pale ale. Sour beers may be a trend, but pale ales and Belgians are also trends and much bigger ones at that. And Carey's year-round line-up reflects these trends. Anecdotally, when I was at Woodman's this past weekend to get beer, I noticed that Tyranena's IPAs were almost gone. The shelf was totally devoid of Scurvy, in fact. (I went home with some Lakefront Klisch Pilsner.)

The second issue here is Glazer's insistence that Wisconsin breweries adhere to trends, however strictly. Why? I presume this relates to his first post with the idea being that Wisconsin breweries need to brew trendy beers or else breweries from Chicago are going to have a larger overall presence in the market and be, well, trendier.

Commenters at MBR brought up a few of the points that came to mind when I read these posts. For instance, the Chicago metro area is comprised of nearly 10 million people which dwarfs the population of our entire state by nearly twice as much. Chicagoland breweries have a huge hometown market and an attendant media to go along with it. Beer lovers may find themselves in Chicago for work, a convention, vacation, etc. because Chicago is a world-class city that attracts millions from all around the world. Wisconsin, however, is more of a niche. Yeah, we get a lot of people from Chicago vacationing here, but we don't get the numbers of people coming here from outside the Midwest and the United States that Chicago does. Simply put, Chicago area breweries have a huge market from the get-go as well as a lot more publicity engines to help them along.

This is not to say that a brewery from Podunk, Wisconsin (or Podunk anywhere else) can't make a name for itself on a regional and/or national level, but I think it must be more difficult today than in years passed. Glazer holds up New Glarus as a Wisconsin brewery that has made a name for themselves beyond Wisconsin. But NG was started in – what? - 1994? Look at the list of the top 50 craft breweries in 2009. First of all, New Glarus, only distributed here in Wisconsin is #22. That's amazing. Secondly, I'd say that half that list, if not more, is comprised of breweries that either started in the early years of craft brewing, say 1985-1995 or have been around since the 1800s and transitioned from being a large regional to large craft brewery.

The point is that making a name for oneself was a lot easier 15-20 years ago when there were considerably fewer craft brewers around and most were not well-established. Breweries in Chicago have an advantage by virtue of location in getting publicity. There are more media outlets there and they are larger than any we have here. Furthermore there are more opportunities in Chicago for things such as events where beer and foods are paired.

I don't put this forward saying that it's a direct counterargument to Glazer's propositions. But I do think that in a head-to-head match between Wisconsin and Chicago breweries, the latter have some inherent advantages simply by being in a metropolis. It is surely a large part of the success of Chicago breweries in addition to their innovation, creativity, and collaboration.

Plus, while I don't have numbers, I highly suspect that Goose Island benefited greatly after Anheuser-Busch bought a minority share in the company and opened up distribution networks for them.

There's an implication in Glazer's posts that Wisconsin breweries can only gain worldwide recognition and grow if they adhere to trends. The latest is sour beers and it begs the question if any American craft brewery is growing and making a reputation for themselves on the basis of sours. I honestly don't know but I'd bet that sour beers have an incredibly small market and any reputation a brewery gains from them is going to be among a relatively small cadre of beer drinkers and not the public at large. There's not going to be a sour equivalent of Spotted Cow or Fat Tire. Just as Glazer doesn't "foresee a coming onslaught of quads and abts in the near future", I don't foresee an onslaught of sours. Apparently he does because he holds the fact that Wisconsin breweries have more or less avoided this trend as evidence of their stagnation.

If anything, I think it can be argued that the creativity of Wisconsin breweries, on the whole, has suffered because of trends. The tyranny of the pale ale continues. Even Furthermore, a brewery which has made its name on innovation and creativity, is introducing one. Everyone has to have one. And then a double IPA and then an imperial IPA. Then there's Belgians. They're not ubiquitous like pale ales but they're getting there. Rob Larson at Tyranena even brewed La Femme Amère, a "Wisconsin/Belgique-Style India Pale Ale". One can certainly argue that this is an example of Larson's creativity and innovation and I'd agree. But the other side is that he's merely brewing a variation on a theme.

Capital which, if you read the description on the Dark and Pilsner labels, is a Wisconsin lager brewery. Yet Kirby Nelson brews US Pale Ale, Island Wheat, and Rustic Ale. Prairie Fire was an attempt at a Belgian-style brew a couple summers ago. While I can't say for certain, I interpret these beers as being, at least in large part, concessions to trends. I witness Bavarian Lager get put into hibernation while I'd gladly trade all three of the above ales to get it back.

At some point all trends become a confining trap. I'm not arguing that Wisconsin brewers should be unresponsive to trends but rather that, at some point, trends become ends in themselves instead of a means to an end. Beer lovers will suffer when brewers brew beers with trendiness as a goal in itself instead of brewing beers for which they have a passion. Kirby is a lover of lagers. He's the magus of bocks. It's great that wheat from Washington Island ends up in one of his beers, but, to my taste, his passion comes through in his lagers or, perhaps more broadly, in his German-style beers.

I want Kirby and all the other brewers in Wisconsin (and everywhere else, for that matter) to be brewing beers they want to be brewing instead of trying to please the vocal members of Beer Advocate or Jeff Glazer and his notions of trendiness. I want them to brew beers they enjoy, beers they find challenging, and beers that will challenge us drinkers - not to simply jump on a bandwagon.

Jeff Glazer brings up some good points and I agree with some of what he has to say. But I think he begins with a false premise and mindlessly adheres to a be-trendy-or-die attitude yet the whole craft beer phenomenon grew out of a desire not to keep up with trends. I think that he portrays the scene as being dire when it isn't. As one commenter noted, "Capital, Lakefront, Tyranena, Sand Creek, Point, Gray's, Sprecher, and Rush River are all available in Minnesota." South Shore also distributes to Minnesota and the UP as well. Last time I looked at a Chicago liquor store, Capital, Tyranena, Point, Sprecher, Sand Creek, and Lakefront were all there for the taking. Indeed, I found it easier to find Capital than Chicago's own Metropolitan in Lombard one time.

Chicago's Half Acre got their start by brewing their beer up in Black River Falls at Sand Creek's facility. Doug Hurst, Metropolitan's brewmaster, plies his trade in Chicago but hails from right here in Madison. I have to wonder if Chicago brewers view their counterparts in Wisconsin as competitors that need to be eliminated. Perhaps instead of viewing our neighbors to the south as the enemy, we should view them as fellow Midwestern comrades-in-arms fighting against, if I may grab a line from Gene Hunt, the soft, sissy, girlie, nancy, French, bender, Manchester United-supporting poofs out on the West Coast.
|| Palmer, 1:51 PM || link || (15) comments |

19 August, 2010

One-Man Downfall Reenactment

This guys does a great job.

|| Palmer, 1:13 PM || link || (0) comments |

Fall Cinema Shaping Up

This week Rob Thomas gave his recommendation to the South Korean film The Good, The Bad, The Weird. It played in Chicago earlier this year and was disappointed that it never screened here. (And while I'm at it, where were My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done and Good Hair?) But I'm glad I'll get the chance to see it on DVD.

Thomas brought the film up because the Orpheum is going to be showing a restored print of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly next week.

The UW's Cinematheque has a great fall semester lined up. Not only will there be an Errol Morris retrospective, but also a celebration in honor of the centennial of Akira Kurosawa's birth. There will be a series of eight of his films with Rashomon kicking things off on 3 September. And there will be lots of other films besides including Dario Argento's horror classic Suspiria which plays on All Hallows' Eve eve.

On 17 September the French gangster flick Mesrine: Killer Instinct is slated to open at Sundance. This is the first of the two-part story.

Speaking of Sundance, the Afghanistan war documentary Restrepo was to have opened there last week but has apparently been rescheduled for the 27th of this month. Micmacs was to have played here this summer at Sundance as well but that plan seems to have fallen into the void. Let us hope that this same fate does not befall Gasper Noé's Enter the Void as it looks interesting to say the least.

On the coming soon front, Werner Herzog has just about wrapped up his latest documentary, Caves of Forgotten Dreams, a look at the Chauvet Cave in France where the oldest known cave paintings are located. The kicker is that it's in 3D. I can just see it now. A tilting shot of a stalagmite with Werner's narration about how harsh the Earth was to our Paleolithic ancestors.

Lastly we have a trailer for Darren Aronofsky's latest, Black Swan. Looks like a cross between Robert Altman's The Company and Cronenberg's The Fly.

|| Palmer, 11:44 AM || link || (1) comments |

New Furthermore Brew & a Capital Tied House

An article in the Wisconsin State Journal about Gorst Valley Hops notes that Furthermore Beer is going to use their hops in a new brew this fall called Hopper Bolic, described an IPA. However, knowing how Furthermore operates, it likely won’t be just an IPA. It’ll be an IPA brewed with cubebs and finished off with virgin gold dust or something like that.

Dane101’s ALRC rundown this morning notes a forthcoming Capital tied house-like restaurant on State Street is in the works.

Fiancees Julie Stoleson and Jack Sosnowski have been running the Ivory Room for almost three years. When the Wisconsin House of Cheese left an empty space on State Street they decided the best way to ensure that another local business ended up there was to start one themselves.

Their new restaurant will focus on beers from the Capital Brewery -- Sosnowski was quick to point out that Capital's original location was on State Street. Their menu has a late night selection that will be available as long as the restaurant is open and includes sandwiches and burgers.

If this happens, it will join the Sprecher Pub & Restaurant and Gray’s Tied House in the list of bars/restaurants that focus on the beers of a particularly brewery. How long before lobbyists approach the politcos at the Capitol on behalf of beer distributors saying that this portends an apocalyptic act of pre-Prohibition recidivism?
|| Palmer, 10:47 AM || link || (2) comments |

18 August, 2010

Errol Morris Coming to Madison

One of my favorite directors (and UW grad), Errol Morris, will be here in town on 21 October to give a lecture for the Humanities Without Boundaries series. Plus we'll be getting a retrospective of his work:

In conjunction with an October 21-22, 2010 campus visit by Mr. Morris, the UW Cinematheque will mount an Errol Morris retrospective, including a complete survey of his documentary work in film, a program of exemplary television works, and a sampling of his finest recent commercials. 5 feature films, each preceded by 1 short and several commercials, will screen at the Cinematheque. The remaining films will screen at the Fredric March Playcircle and MMoCA.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control
on the big screen, baby!

UPDATE: Morris is going to be here for a 3-day symposium. Unknown is if his latest, Tabloid, will be screened here. It premieres next month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
|| Palmer, 3:43 PM || link || (0) comments |

16 August, 2010

Dispatches From the Great Taste 2010

The Dulcinea and I took a shuttle bus to the Great Taste of the Midwest on Saturday. While we were awaiting its arrival, this car pulled up at the stop sign.

Now, why anyone would think that 70s shag carpeting on a car was a good idea is beyond me. But I guess it takes all kinds.

When we got to Olin Park, we found ourselves much closer to the front of the line than we were the last time we were there a couple years back.

At 13:00 the throngs of beer dorks were loosed.

My approach this year was to go for German bier styles. Right now I am in that frame of mind. I want my lagers, pilsners, kolsches, etc. because I've had my fill of pale ales and Belgians for a spell. While I was successful in drinking many biers of a German persuasion, I also sampled a myriad of other styles and did the usual I'm-drunk-and-the-fest-is-about-to-end-so-I'd-better-start-drinking-mead-now routine.

My day began by stopping in at Das Bierhaus from Menomonie and getting a schwarzbier before I headed over to grab some lunch at the vending area. "Schwarzbier" means "black beer" auf Deutsch. Being lagers, they're crisp and smooth but have a nice chocolatey malt body with just enough hop bitterness to add to the crispness instead of overpowering the barley. I always have a Köstritzer Schwarzbier when I go to The Malt House. Das Bierhaus' version was OK. The malt flavor and mild hops were there but it wasn't crisp. It was very syrupy when it hit the tongue – the same mouthfeel as an imperial stout – then got watery as the brew slid farther down my palate.

After lunch, I headed to over to the Gordon Biersch Brewery & Restaurant to sample some of this:

This is their Gose. Gose is a German ale that is brewed with wheat, salted water, and get fermented with both yeast and lactic bacteria. It is flavored with coriander and hops. I'd never had a Gose previous to the festival, although I do have a bottle the stuff in my refrigerator, so I have no basis for comparison. As you can see, it's straw-colored and it has a sour-citrus aroma. It had a very smooth taste that had a hint of saline and a prominent grapefruit flavor. Not a session beer, but I can see myself having one of these on a hot day.

Above is another German style that's not oft seen on these shores (at least around these parts) is the Zoigl and the folks from Amalgamated Brewery in St. Louis brought their version to the festival. The guy who was pouring explained to me that the brewmaster went to the Vaterland to taste the style before brewing it him-/herself. According to the German Beer Institute, the Zoigl is a kellerbier made with a darker malt and less hops. Amalgamated's version was definitely malty and with only a hint of hops. True to the style, it was unfiltered. Also, it had a dry finish. Pretty good stuff.

And the name?

The name Zoiglbier stems from "Zoigl," the Franconian vernacular for "sign." In Franconian home brewing, a Zoigl was a six-pointed blue-white star, shaped from two triangles similar to a Star of David. The star was made from wooden slats. In the center was a cutout of a beer mug or a pine branch. In the feudal system of the 13th and 14th centuries, every Bavarian home- and landowner in the region north of the River Danube also automatically owned the right to brew beer, and these medieval burghers and farmers used to hang the Zoigl in front of their doors whenever they had homebrew ready to drink. The Zoigl was in invitation to their neighbors to come over and have a few. These early burgher-brewers often also made their Zoiglbier in communal brew houses...

Amalgamated brews only German styles and I think their rauch is deserving of mention here. Rauchs are beers where the malts are dried in a way that they pick up the smoke flavor, usually from beechwood. The brew I tried on Saturday was outstanding. It was a deep brown and had a moderate smoke aroma. On the palate, it wasn't as thick as Schlenkerla, the standard-bearer for rauchbiers in Germany, and it had less smoky taste which allowed just a hint of hops to come through. I liked this stuff because, while it wasn't as in your face with the smoke as Schlenkerla, it had more than many American rauchbiers I've taste which don't want to drive people off with a flavor that can easily be viewed as overbearing.

Schell's Brewing is celebrating their 150th anniversary and they had their old-timey bus on display.

I caught the folks from our local cable access channel were drinking on the job.

I drank several dunkels at the fest and was a bit disappointed. Barley Island's was one of the best as it had the requisite malty aroma and flavor. Blind Tiger's tasted a bit thin to me but was alright otherwise. The same goes for the one from Old Man River. I liked the chocolatey malt flavor but it was a bit watery. I'm hoping that it wasn't my tongue at fault here. I mean, I tried to be diligent in rinsing my glass and ate the bits of bread to get my palate cleansed.

While my drinking as of late has focused on German styles, it has not been an exclusive relationship. I love beer that has rye in the grain bill because it adds a nice sprightly flavor to the brew. At the Real Ale Tent they were pouring Surly's Surlyfest, a rye lager.(?!) It had a nice citrus aroma with grapefruit hoppiness. And there was the requisite crisp rye finish. Samuel Adams was also serving a rye – an American Rye Ale. It had a deep reddish-brown color with faint hops in the aroma. It had a good malt backbone to go with the hoppy flavor. This was really good stuff and is apparently competing against a Belgian-style IPA for inclusion in the company's line-up. I enthusiastically told the guy who was pouring that the rye ale was the way to go.

The folks at Flat Earth named their porter after the Rush song "Cygnus X-1" so how could this proghead not enjoy it? Indeed, it was very tasty with a coffee aroma and some nice chocolate overtones on the tongue. I went to the O'Fallon's table hoping to try their Hemp-Hop-Rye but was too late so I came away with their Wheach, a wheat beer with peach. This stuff was extremely refreshing. Nice'n'effervescent with peach fruitiness up front but not cloying. I tried the Sahti Finnish farmhouse ale from Vintage here in Madison despite brewmaster Scott Manning trying to get his minions to not serve me. I should say tried it for the first time since it was actually finished instead of sitting in a tank being infused with juniper goodness. I like this stuff. Served cold, it certainly tends more towards sessionability but I still think this would be best served with game. Scotty's sahti and a venison steak sounds optimal.

I stopped in at the Metropolitan table and got a Dynamo Copper Lager. I've had it before and it was great. The guy who poured my beer said he liked my Miskatonic University t-shirt and that he'd named his homebrewing tanks after Elder Gods.(Can a Cthulhu brew be far off?) I also chatted with co-owner Tracy Durst. She was a total sweetheart. Hopefully a trek to their brewery in Chicago is in my near future.

And I just had to try Walter's from the Northwoods Brewpub. Walter's was brewed in Eau Claire until the mid-1980s. I have friends who went to college up there at the time and Walter's was an official sponsor of their fraternity. The stuff is legendary up north. And I have to say that my friends are right – the stuff is awful. Perfect for poor college students or after you've mowed the lawn at the height of summer.

Jackie from The Malt House. I didn't think that The D and I were regular enough visitors there but she recognized us and said hi.

And what would a beer festival be without hop vines?

On the non-beer side, I sampled a trio of meads. I got the blueberry variety from White Winter – which I've had before - and sampled a couple different varieties from the B. Nektar Meadery in Michigan. Their Orange Blossom had a nice floral aroma. At first you taste the honey big time and then a more floral aftertaste kicks in. The vanilla cinnamon was good but the honey was very understated.

All in all it was a good time and I got to try lots of beers that I would never otherwise be able to drink, including a couple oddball styles. Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time the fest started and we had cloud cover for most of the day. I also appreciate the inclusion of FIB's as a food vendor. I love me an Italian beef wet and hot. And I should note that the tasting glass were huge this year. I got some nice pours as the event drew to a close.

I heard that they offered more tickets this year but don't know if that's true. Regardless, the park was packed. Those hearty souls at the front of the line got to stake out their territory with camping chairs leaving the bulk of us without a place to sit since the grass was wet. Perhaps they should consider selling fewer tickets so people have a bit more room. I went over to New Glarus at one point to see if I could sample their gueuze but the line was hellaciously long. It would have stretched into the lake had it not been for a fence.

And what happened to the dunk tank?

|| Palmer, 3:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

Katze in the Bag

Our Katze really likes bags. Must be a feline thing.

|| Palmer, 9:33 AM || link || (0) comments |

11 August, 2010

Lost Time in Cordoba

The proposed Cordoba House, a Muslim community center, a couple blocks from Ground Zero is sure kicking up a shitstorm. The Anti-Defamation League came out against the project with a statement saying, "We're all for religious tolerance, but this place has to go or go somewhere else." Joining the ADL are such luminaries as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. Gingrich wrote in his opposition:

The proposed "Cordoba House" overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks - is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites. For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. [...I]n fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.

This whole Cordoba-as-symbol-of-Muslim-victory thing was echoed by godless comic now Internet ranter Pat Condell. Condell posts his anti-Islam diatribes on YouTube and he used to be funny. Now he's transmogrified into a paranoid old man going around telling people to read Muslim Mafia, the work of two paranoid racists and published by World Nut Daily. He inveighed against the Cordoba House in "The enemy within". In the video he says:

...Cordoba is the city in southern Spain where Muslims built their first great mosque at the start of and as a symbol of their conquest of Spain. The Ground Zero mosque is intended to serve the same purpose in America.

Carl Pyrdum, a medieval scholar takes issue with this view of Cordoba and takes on Gingrich, specifically this part: 'the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex".

Notice how carefully he's phrased his claim to give the impression that during the medieval conquest of Spain the Muslims charged into Cordoba and declared it the capital of a new Muslim empire, and in order to add insult to injury seized control of a Christian church and built the biggest mosque they could, right there in front of the Christians they'd just conquered, a big Muslim middle finger in the heart of medieval Christendom. Essentially, they've done it before, they'll do it again, right there at Ground Zero, if all good Christians don't band together to stop them.

The problem is, in order to give that impression of immediacy, Newt elides three hundred years of Christian and Muslim history. Three hundred years. The Muslims conquered Cordoba in 712. The Christian church that was later transformed into the Great Mosque of Cordoba apparently continued hosting Christian worship for at least a generation after that. Work on the Mosque didn't actually begin until seventy-odd years later in 784, and the mosque only became "the world's third-largest" late in the tenth century, after a series of expansions by much later rulers, probably around 987 or so.


The mosque was indeed begun in the wake of a Muslim conquest--just not the conquest of the Christians. Rather, it was ordered built by the Umayyad emir Abd-ar-Ramman I, probably in part to commemorate his successful conquest of Cordoba in the 750's, fought against other Muslim chieftains loyal to the rival Abbasid Caliphate, and his successful repulsion of subsequent Abbasid attempts to dislodge him by force throughout the 760's.

Emphasis his.

Cordoba was quite egalitarian for its time with Christians, Jews, and Muslims all living together. When the Christians eventually took firm control, they banished Jews and Muslims alike.
|| Palmer, 4:02 PM || link || (7) comments |

Blackstar Warrior Trailer

|| Palmer, 12:14 PM || link || (0) comments |

Marquette Neighborhood Eats Its Own

A brouhaha is brewing over the Willy Street Co-op's decision to put in a driveway that allows ingress & egress from Jenifer Street. Willy Street is going to be reconstructed next year and businesses along the corridor are bracing for the worst. But the driveway is causing consternation among many Marquette Neighborhood residents who don’t want any more traffic on Jenifer Street. (And, generally speaking, don't want any traffic on the side streets at all.)

The Marquette Neighborhood Association Yahoo Group is seething with anger over what many members perceive as a betrayal by the Co-op and some of the comments are just classic.

There's this from Fae Dremock: "I suggest that when we buy at the coop we protest, whether by telling our cashiers our disagreement or simply wearing black." Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens clad in black can change the Co-op. I'm sure wearing black will go a long way towards getting the Co-op to change its mind. (Indeed, is the only thing that ever has.) While I don't pretend to speak for the cashiers at the Co-op, I just have this nagging feeling that the last thing they want when trying to do their job is be grilled by countless people eager to emulate their hero Michael Pollan by paying $8 for a dozen eggs or $4 for a single peach on a subject that should instead be directed at management. Perhaps instead of pouring your wrath onto the cashiers, you can take your gripe to Anya Firszt, the general manager where it belongs.

Woe betide the middle class who live on the traffic bottleneck of a growing mid-sized city!

Ted Voth, Jr. is always great to read because, to him, every neighborhood problem is the result of capitalists in some smoky room plotting away against us plebs. He writes: "The Coop is acting like a big business, expanding into an additional location. Gone corporate capitalist at heart." Yeah! Stupid capitalists! What have they ever done for us?

But this is the best part:

The access is about making it easier for people to drive…

No one should be driving anything anywhere.

That Willy's gonna be torn up, and threaten all the small businesses on the street is an artifact of 'America's love affair with the automobile.'

Remember, no one should be driving anything anywhere. That means you policemen and emergency responders. They'll be responding to 9-1-1 calls on horseback or horse drawn carriages. Yeah, let's go back to horses. Everyone in the neighborhood will waiting forever when their loved one is having a heart attack. That'll go over well. And so will the natural smell of the natural horse shit. Just how great were the pre-automobile days of yore?

The normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable. While cities made sporadic attempts to keep the streets clean, the manure was everywhere, along the roadway, heaped in piles or next to stables, or ground up by the traffic and blown about by the wind.

Nineteenth century urbanites considered the stench or miasmas produced by the manure piles a serious health hazard, but cleaning was sporadic at best. Manure piles also produced huge numbers of flies, in reality a much more serious vector for infectious diseases such as typhoid fever than odors.

Although not as serious a problem as the manure, the noise created by horses' iron shoes and the iron-tired wheels of cars and wagons on cobblestone streets was a constant annoyance.

Just imagine the bitching on the MNA group about manure and hooves. At that point, Voth will proclaim it all to be a plot by the capitalists of the horse cartel. Then we can switch to bicycles. Of course, Voth will bitch about all the oil used for lubrication and the bearings and decry the use of petroleum for Spandex.

Tim Wong accuses the Co-op of promoting auto use by its customer: "It is especially ironic that the coop launches its assault at a time when more and more people are aware of the twin threats of peak oil and climate change--both of which are exacerbated by the coop's promotion of driving."

Really? Apparently that the Co-op might be trying to accommodate its customers that arrive via car never occurred to him. Why hold the Co-op responsible for the decisions made by those who travel by car to get their fix of organic potato chips and herbal penis enlargement pills?

This whole driveway thing has proven that the Co-op is a horrible neighbor. This incident shows without a doubt that they promote capitalism, global warming, and more traffic. Can there be any doubt that Firszt is agog with excitement over being able to watch pedestrians and bicyclists get hit by cars from her desk in Capitalist HQ? Hell, they can't even accommodate the waste sensitive. I mean, what good are you if you can't accommodate the one waste sensitive person on the whole planet? (And just think of the hell this person would endure when we rid ourselves of cars and return to the horse.)

From now on, instead of "Willy Street Co-op", the preferred title is "Adam Smith Store". Everyone should boycott the co-op and instead drive over to Whole Foods.
|| Palmer, 12:00 PM || link || (1) comments |

10 August, 2010


When I first heard of Inception I had rather high hopes. Director Christopher Nolan was responsible for Memento and The Prestige and the descriptions of the film that I read gave it a Phildickian bent with the whole bit about entering dreams. Then the movie was actually released and I watched as it stood atop the weekend box office for a two or three weeks in a row. I then realized that it was more summer blockbuster than cerebral epic but I wanted to see it anyway. Nolan is a good director (even if his version of Insomnia pales in comparison to the original and, if another Batman movie never gets made, it would be too soon for me) who generally takes on interesting material. And so I resolved to see his latest.

My lady and I did so and on the IMAX. Man, let me tell you, Nolan has a good friend in cinematographer Wally Pfister because it looked mighty pretty and the effect of everything was magnified by being on such a large screen.

The story concerns Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who is able to utilize technology developed by the military to enter people's minds and extract information. Cobb is asked by Saito, a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer who is heir to a huge corporation. Saito wants Cobb's team not to extract information but rather to plant it. He wants Fischer to be convinced to break up the leviathan of a company that he stands to inherit from his dying father.

And so Cobb assembles a crack team for the job including Arthur, Cobb's right-hand man, Ariadne who helps sculpt the world created by the subject's mind, the shape-shifting Eames, and Yusef who creates sedatives that allow everyone to be unconscious long enough for the team to do their work. It being such an important enterprise, Saito goes along as well.

During training, Ariadne learns of something that could be a problem. Cobb is still reeling from the death of his wife and she appears, completely out of place, in the dream scenarios that Cobb creates. Her presence can cause the subject to realize that his or her mind has been infiltrated.

Cobb and his team devise a plan which would give them access to an unconscious Fischer for 10 hours. In order to implant the thought in a subtle enough manner, they decide to penetrate three levels deep into his mind.

On a 10-hour flight, the team takes over first class and enter Fischer's mind. The first dream level involves everyone in a large city. They kidnap Fischer only to find that he has mental defenses to repel extractors like Cobb which take the form of military-trained and highly armed guards. Since they weren't able to implant the suggestion, everyone except Yusef goes to the second level of the dream world which takes place at a hotel. The chemist stays in level one driving a van in evasive maneuver mode while the others are unconscious in the back seats.

Level two takes place at a posh hotel where Cobb and company attempt to convince Fischer that the first dream level was in fact reality and that they are now in his mind to help him. Their subject is fooled to give consent to go to level three which takes place at a James Bond-like concrete fortress in a snowy valley. It even features a ski chase right out of The Spy Who Loved Me. Even a fourth level of dreamland is achieved where Cobb is confronted by his past and is forced to overcome the guilt he has over his wife's death.

There is plenty of great Phildickian mindfuck material here but Inception manages to avoid addressing any interesting possibilities and instead sticks to heist/action flick formulae. What a letdown. The first three levels are nothing but excuses for chases and shootouts that occasionally take a turn towards the surreal. Ariadne's role as the architect is to create shells of worlds within the subject's mind that he/she in turn populates with places and people that they know or have experienced in real life. What a wonderful premise for investigating the psyches of a couple characters and/or trying to talk about how our dreams, our pasts, and perhaps our subconsciouses influence our waking lives. Nolan needn't have plunged headlong into Phildickian or Lynchian territory but it would have been nice had he even approached these ideas instead of discarding them completely in favor of (some admittedly great) action sequences.

We learn in the film that those who use the machine to enter the minds of others eventually lose their ability to dream on their own. It's like building tolerance to a drug. In the movie, this revelation is a simple ploy to gain sympathy for Cobb but it could have been the gateway to something else. What does this say about us? What is the significance of dreams for human beings? What is lost by not being able to dream and only enter the dreams of others?

Unfortunately Inception is uninterested in trying to answer these questions. There's just no time for the characters to do or say anything to address them as there are always bullets to dodge or places to evacuate because Fischer's mental mercenaries will be arriving anon. I wish that the movie were a bit more cerebral and that Nolan had utilized his intriguing premise as something more than a background for shootouts.
|| Palmer, 3:33 PM || link || (0) comments |

09 August, 2010

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

I've read more than once that Matt Taibbi is my generation's Hunter S. Thompson. While Taibbi can hurl insults and turn a simile with the best of them, he is a bit more down to earth than HST. Furthermore, I suspect that Taibbi doesn't sit around his backyard naked, drunk, and stoned while shooting whatever he cares to with one of weapon of a massive arsenal. I could be wrong, however.

So while he may not be warped like HST, Taibbi likes to take on The Powers That Be and call out stupidity and inanity in only the harshest terms. I recently finished his book The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire - the first book of his that I've read – and he gives us large helpings of both. Here he documents American madness as reflected by the "mess in Washington", i.e. – exposing how laws are really made, and how millions tune out of mainstream and into "escapist lunacy". The book alternates chapters that look at the sausage making process and describe an extended excursion into Evangelical madness wherein he attends a Christian retreat and the Cornerstone Church run by the controversial Pastor John Hagee. And there's descriptions of his encounters with 9/11 Truthers thrown in to demonstrate how many on the Left have succumbed to the madness.

Taibbi begins by describing how a lot of lawmaking goes on out of the public eye. Sure, the sessions where they name post offices are on C-SPAN but the important stuff goes on during late-night "emergency sessions". He writes:

No one ever asks why Congress needs to debate massive energy bills, or sweeping, pork-filled highway legislation, or fiendishly transparent corporate handouts like the prescription drug benefit bill late at night…

Later on he describes how Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee shepherds the Gasoline for America's Security Act through the Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill was cover for overturning parts of the Clean Air Act on behalf of the oil companies. Ostensibly it allowed more refineries to be built but, when it was pointed out that the oil companies have gone on record saying that they do not need nor want to build any more refineries Duncan could only give bland reassurances like, "I think it's a good thing we have environmental law."

In another section he shows that the Democratic "earmark reform" effort was a fraud. Taibbi gets some help from an independent budget analyst named Winslow Wheeler who picks apart a budget bill that was popularly thought to be earmark-free only to find them cloaked in budgety shadow.

With such chicanery in Washington, many of the electorate are turned off and tune out. On the right side of the aisle, many turn to religion, specifically Evangelical Christianity. Intrepid reporter that he is, Taibbi joins John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church and begins his excursion into Evangelical derangement by attending an encounter weekend.

The weekend turns out to be a mix of group chats and sermons. Taibbi meets a host of people who spill their guts in the group sessions telling everyone of their failures and the parts of their pasts that drag them down today. After stories of drug use, emotionally unavailable mothers, broken homes and broken marriages, Taibbi made up his own tale of woe involving a father who was an alcoholic circus clown that beat the young Matt with his oversized shoes.

The preachers gave their spiels about the wickedness of homosexuals and of Harry Potter novels, blaming them for a host of America’s troubles. Then came the Christian Zionist spiels about how great Israel is and that they must hasten the Apocalypse. However, these rants and those inveighing against enemies such as Iran don’t get the applause and the “Amens!” that the preaching about individual salvation does. By the end, the attendees were speaking in tongues and vomiting up…vomiting up…well, demonic bile. Or something like that. Taibbi concludes that the people who attend these churches and their encounter weekends surely do so for the camaraderie and the feelings of belonging. Even he began to feel some changes:

There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed ou fee, and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self.

Taibbi also encounters the derangement of the Left in the form of 9/11 Truthers, or those who think that the attacks of 1 September 2001 were anything but the work of terrorists. Some thing they were taken down by Bush and his cronies to give him a casus belli. You know the story - bombs were planted on load bearing members of the WTC, the planes did not have the passengers aboard, etc. And then there are those who simply believe the government stood by and watched it happen for the reason above.

At first he didn’t think that the 9/11 Truth movement was particularly large until he wrote about it and was bombarded with e-mails. He decides to take them head-on but his arguments get him nowhere. He meets some of them in person and finds that most are very nice people who happen to believe some batshit insane things.

The whole narrative of the movement is so completely and utterly retarded, it boggles the mind.

Every bit of evidence against a conspiracy by the U.S. Government only enlarges the numbers of conspirators until the Truthers’ brains’ waveforms collapse in an infinite regression of paranoia. Taibbi dedicates much of one of the Truther chapters to a fictional conversation among Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Irv Kristol, etc. in which they plan the attacks which is as absurd as the idea that the government carried out the attacks themselves.

It is the 9/11 Truthers of the Left that are the saddest here. Politicos trying to pass legislation that benefits their donors? No surprise there. That’s just greed. People turning towards religion? No revelation there. Sure, religion is a derangement but it is its own unique brand. Their Yahweh-driven narrative is utterly retarded as well but I tend to view it as being in its own category that is, while not entirely forgivable, is at least, to my mind, understandable as a mental phenomenon that differs from your ordinary conspiracy drivel.

The Truthers were saddest because, not only were their theories retarded and easily shown to be false without having to resort to metaphysics, but also for the way that their anger goes nowhere. Of one meeting Taibbi writes: “The group ended up split down the middle on the issue of whether or not to schedule an informal ‘hangout night’.” At least Evangelicals can organize encounter weeks and they also lash out at those they hate. They protest things like gay marriage and get elected to school boards where they actually modify curricula. Religious nuts get stuff done while the 9/11 Truthers here tend to sit around like the People's Front of Judea in Life of Brian and argue whether they should sit around arguing quite so much.

The Great Derangement is a fun, if sad, read. Taibbi is a good writer. His prose is littered with some namecalling here and wonderfully insulting similes there which may not be to your taste, however. He writes with a good eye for detail and has an Average Joe persona, with the most obvious example of this being his use of sports analogies. I suppose that looking at politicians in Washington, Evangelicals, and 9/11 Truthers may not be the soundest basis for concluding that the American Empire is almost over and that Americans are, generally speaking, gossip-mongering, reality TV show-watching doofi but it goes a long way in demonstrating just how much stupidity is out there.
|| Palmer, 7:33 PM || link || (0) comments |

03 August, 2010

R.I.P. Iris Carbomb

I heard yesterday that a former co-worker of mine, Sarah - a.k.a. Iris Carbomb of Madison rollerderby's Vaudeville Vixens - had died. I feel confused because I have no idea what happened. She was in a bad way after shattering an ankle but was recovering. I had heard rumors of various things but didn't know if they were true.

Well, I guess it's all moot now. May she rest in peace.

|| Palmer, 8:27 AM || link || (2) comments |

South American Soul Food on Willy Street

That god-awful ugly pink house on the 1100 block of Williamson will soon be home to a new restaurant. I gather from the sign outside that it's a new venture of the Mango Man as it says "Cafe Costa Rica" on it. Apparently the menu will offer "South American soul food". Should be good.

Now, has anyone heard what's going to be going into the new building on the 1200 block across from the Crystal Corner? I think we could use a Polish restaurant, a gaming store, and a progressive rock CD shop. That way I could get my bigos, Call of Cthulhu monographs, and a copy of the the 25th anniversary edition of IQ's The Wake all in one handy location within walking distance of my house. However, I suspect we'll get a Newage store selling crystals and a psychic.
|| Palmer, 7:48 AM || link || (2) comments |

02 August, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire is the sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a film I enjoyed very much.

Here journalist Mikael Blomkvist is still muck raking with his magazine Millennium but it has been a year since he has seen the intriguing, tattoo-laden Lisbeth Salander. The magazine takes on freelancer Dag Svensson who is putting the finishing touches on a blockbuster story about sex trafficking in Sweden that was inspired by his girlfriend's book on the same subject. Many big names are to be outed and Svensson is looking to contact those people for comment before the story runs.

For her part, Lisbeth is tidying up her finances and gets a new apartment. She keeps her old one as it serves as her legal address but rents it to her friend, Miriam Wu. Lisbeth also pays a visit to her sadistic former guardian, Bjurman. Brandishing Bjurman 's pistol, she warns him not to have the tattoo saying "I am a rapist and a sadistic pig" that she gave him removed. Bjurman later turns up dead as do Dag Svensson and his girlfriend. The guardian's pistol is left at Svensson's apartment with Lisbeth's fingerprints intact. The media kick up a frenzy as the police search for her.

Blomkvist refuses to believe that Lisbeth committed the murders and he sets out to prove her innocence. For her part, Lisbeth does not take things sitting down and she goes out into hiding and in search of the murderer as well. The former's investigation brings revelations of the past and of who exactly is behind the grisly murders. Lisbeth's adventures are just that. We witness the feisty heroine hack computers, take on her patricidal past, and, generally speaking, kick ass. But here are also lengthy scenes involving Lisbeth's friend, Paolo, a boxer and Miriam Wu. They confront a Nordic tank of a man – the Swedish equivalent of Jaws from the Bond films - who seems impervious to whatever they can throw at him.

While the mystery is intriguing and involves the familiar territory of Stieg Larsson who wrote the books upon which the films are based – misogyny, government corruption – the problem here is that Blomkvist and Lisbeth are separated for the vast majority of the movie. The chemistry between the two developed in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is absent here. I am left to presume that this situation is meant to prepare us for the following installment of the story in some way. But it leaves this, the second act, floundering a bit. It's still great fun to watch the badass Lisbeth take on the bad guys but Blomkvist withers. Towards the end there is a space in which it seemed like every other scene involved him receiving a phone call with new information. He is driving and his cell rings. Then we cut to Lisbeth closing in on the person behind it all. Then cut back to Blomkvist in his car answering his cell phone with an associate giving him yet more info. Rinse and repeat. It was a big disappointment to have him be spoon-fed all these revelations instead of watching as he and Lisbeth uncover them in a joint investigation as with the first story. It's the pairing of a straight-laced journalist and a tattooed, lesbian, misanthropic hacker that made The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so memorable.

Despite this letdown, the film does attempt to round out the lead characters a bit, especially Lisbeth. Blomkvist is noble insofar as he seeks to speak truth to power, but he doesn't seem to have a problem sleeping with married women. Lisbeth also sleeps around. In fact, we get a fairly graphic sex scene. But, in addition to satiating her animal urges, we also see her visit Holger Palmgren, her old guardian, recovering from a stroke in an old folks home. Plus her past is brought up and a relative of hers is involved in the mystery. We see her being crafty and exact vengeance but we also witness her kindness and some vulnerability. The Lisbeth Salander character really matured here.

While it didn't quite live up to its predecessor, The Girl Who Played With Fire was still a fun movie and has whetted my appetite for its successor, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest which I imagine will be out this fall.

|| Palmer, 2:10 PM || link || (0) comments |

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

After having read a high-level account of the first 2+ years of the Iraq War in the form of Thomas Ricks' Fiasco, I turned to Evan Wright's Generation Kill for a closer look at those boots on the ground.

Wright is a journalist who spent about two months with Bravo Second Platoon of the Marines' First Reconnaissance Battalion. First Recon are the elite Marines. They're trained to travel on foot in small groups to infiltrate enemy positions and, as the name implies, do recon. But in Iraq they would be traveling in Humvees and racing through cities taking fire and letting those behind them clean up the mess. Wright met up with them at Camp Mathilda in Kuwait and then rode with them through Iraq. He earned their trust by riding in the lead vehicle, which is the first to get shot at, and sticking with them until they setup base at Ad Diwaniyah.

Second Platoon was lead by Sgt. Brad Colbert whose nickname was "The Iceman" for his ability to stay cool under pressure. Wright rode in the back of Colbert's vehicle. We get to know a host of other Marines as the platoon traverses the Iraqi desert and goes through various cities and towns. In their civilian lives, they are probably just ordinary average guys. But here, they become real characters – almost archetypes. For instance, there's Colbert's driver, Corporal Josh Person, who liked to take any all manner of stimulants which causes him to ramble on. Captain Dave McGraw is nicknamed "Captain America" and his behavior alternates between the weird and sheer panic. At one point he charges an Iraqi with bayonet and at other times his voice trembles over the radio in terror. Needless to say, he does not inspire his troops. Sgt. Antonio Espera, a Hispanic, goes on constantly about how the “White man’s gotta rule the world".

Wright notes, "Culturally, these Marines would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in the 'Greatest Generation.'" Indeed, Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley says after surviving an ambush, "I was think one thing when we drove into that ambush – Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool."

At the beginning of the mission, most of the Marines are excited about killing. Hell, some even express disappointment when they miss out on the chance to kill. The glaring exception at this point is Sgt. Ken Sutherby. Ostensibly a family man, out in the desert he's a deadly sniper. He is 39 which makes him much older than most of his fellow Marines in then platoon. Unlike the "kids" whining about not being able to shoot at someone, Sutherby is stoic about his job. "Sutherby doesn’t think about much in the way of philosophical or spiritual matters when he’s killing people. The only things going through his mind are 'shot geometry, yardage, wind.'"

But as the mission wears on, many become less sanguine. One incident which sticks in my mind involves Charlie Company. They opened up on a car which finally comes to a halt. Two men run out with their arms in the air. The Marines approach the car.

Graves sees a little girl curled up in the backseat. She looks to be about three, the same age as his daughter at home in California. There’s a small amount of blood on the upholstery, but the girl’s eyes are open. She seems to be cowering. Graves reaches in to pick her up— thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her, he later says—when the top of her head slides off and her brains fall out. When Graves steps back, he nearly falls over when his boot slips in the girl’s brains.

Later on Cpl. Graves would say, “This is the event that is going to get to me when I go home."

In addition to getting to know the Marines, Wright does a great job of describing combat. I found the sections when the Humvees were under fire to be engrossing. His descriptions are absolutely harrowing and I couldn't stop reading them until the fire of guns abated. At times they drove through towns are breakneck pace with gunfire coming from buildings nearby while at others the Marines were holding a position and struggled to determine where the enemy was. The chaos was palpable.

For me, Generation Kill makes a nice complement to Michael Herr's Dispatches in that the reader gets a sense of war from the perspective of the boots on the ground. They are, to be sure, different books, but they both move beyond hagiography to give portraits of our fighting men that perhaps mirrors war itself. There's lots of confusion, rage, compassion, fear, joy – the full spectrum of emotions. Unlike Herr's book, Wright's is very focused and linear. He sticks with the same people for a couple months and we get some sense of how they change over time.

The book is truly a lot of things and I suppose you'll get out of it what you want. If you're looking for combat stories, they are here. But it's also a story about men from disparate backgrounds coming together and fighting for a common cause. And I think Generation Kill also says a lot about early manhood. You've got these guys who are in their late teens or early 20s who are brash, cocky, and use insults as terms of endearment. They learn first-hand that Sherman's maxim "War is hell" is true. It's like multiple coming of age stories happen at once. The macho posturing remains but bravado matures into bravery; indiscriminate actions I suppose I chose to look out for this theme because, as a stepfather, I am watching two boys inch their way towards manhood.

Generation Kill is alternately thrilling and funny and always engaging. It gives you a brief glimpse into the lives of several men but also into war. Considering we're fighting two wars at the moment, most of us Americans hear very little about them. Sure, there are always headlines when a bomb goes off but these conflicts are very much abstractions for most of us. It was great to read something which went deeper, which went beyond press conferences and numbers. Generation Kill is simply a fascinating glimpse into the lives of soldiers fighting our wars on terrorism.
|| Palmer, 12:41 PM || link || (0) comments |