Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

31 May, 2011

End the Drug War

Like Bob Marley used to sing: legalize it.

This is Neil Franklin, the director of Law Enforcement Against Drug Prohibition reflecting on his years as a police officer prosecuting The Drug War and its effect on black communities.

"I think about all those things I did throughout the years that I'm not proud of today."

|| Palmer, 12:27 PM || link || (2) comments |

Say It Ain't So, PBS

PBS is looking to run commercials in the middle of programs instead of at the end or beginning of them.

PBS officials told member stations at its recent annual meeting in Orlando that beginning this fall, the Wednesday science series “Nature” and “Nova” would contain corporate and foundation sponsor spots, promotional messages and branding within four breaks inside the shows, instead of at the very beginning and end.

The longest period of uninterrupted programming, according to a plan shown to the programmers, would be just under 15 minutes, compared with the current 50 minutes or more. Based on what PBS learns in the fall, the new format would continue to be introduced night by night through the year, officials said.
|| Palmer, 12:19 PM || link || (0) comments |

26 May, 2011

1934 Chicago World's Fair in Technicolor

This is pretty hoopy. It's footage of the Chicago World's Fair in 1934.

The Fair has a personal connection for me. One of my grandmothers came to Chicago while the fair was ongoing and she was so impressed, she decided to leave the farm in southern Illinois where she grew up and relocate to the big city. So it's neat to see what she saw that inspired her to make the move.

Here's Part 2.
|| Palmer, 10:47 AM || link || (0) comments |

Open Meetings Law: Violated

I guess the good ol' boys in the state legislature did violate open meetings laws. Judge Sumi's decision is here.

Let the layoffs begin!
|| Palmer, 10:01 AM || link || (0) comments |

Hey Herb Kohl, Don't Let the Door Hit You in the Ass on the Way Out

Herb Kohl is retiring but not before doing his level best to get the Patriot Act renewed. He voted Yea on a cloture vote in the Senate to end debate on whether to continue to allow the government to run roughshod over the Fourth Amendment. Gee, thanks Mr. Kohl.

I'll save the Surveillance State some time and let it know that the last book I checked out from the library was Oil on the Brain.

Did you read T. Herman Zweibel's recent op-ed about Kohl? I don't know whether it's an encomium or a bit of asteism. Normally when paying tribute to a departing politico, one revisits the accomplishments of the person. They fought hard on the Senate floor for this or they introduced a bill to do that. Not here. The best that Zweibel can come up with is that Kohl was direct.

And where are the Teabagger protests? Their buddy Ron Johnson also voted Yea. Where are the tricorned hordes insisting that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized" should be the law of the land?

I thought these guys took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not hand out exemptions.
|| Palmer, 6:34 AM || link || (0) comments |

25 May, 2011

Oil on the Brain by Lisa Margonelli

Every day millions of us buy gasoline. The price at the pump has attained unofficial status as the marker of the health of the economy. But knowing the price of a gallon of gas is about all many, if not most, of us know about the stuff. I was more or less in that category so I decided to read Lisa Margonelli's Oil on the Brain: Adventures From the Pump to the Pipeline.

Margonelli is a journalist out of Oakland who became interested in all things oil back in 2002 when she was up in Alaska at Prudhoe Bay and observed an experiment in oil spills clean up. This test involved dropping some bags of napalm onto an oil slick. She was mesmerized by the flames and it occurred to her that she was pretty ignorant about oil. And so her investigation began.

She writes from the perspective of the American consumer and starts by hanging out at a gas station. (The chapter headings include the price of oil when the events described take place and it was $1.62/gallon when she did her investigation for chapter 1.) This very first chapter sets the pattern for the rest of the book. First the reader gets a look at a particular link in the oil chain, in this case, Twin Peaks Petroleum in San Francisco. Then a bit of history behind it followed by some in-depth probing of the link which always includes the human faces behind it. (And there are some real characters.)

At TPP, the clerks have to deal with some difficult customers. No news there. But there are other problems such as "merchandise shrink", i.e. –employee theft. The stations' owner, Michael Gharib, says, "I make more money selling water than gas. And the gas gets shipped around the world and goes through a refinery and still my customers want it cheap." Hence gas stations became convenience stores. Margins are thin and being an independent station requires even more work since you don't have a Mobil or Shell sign on your lot.

Gas stations boomed in the 1920 with over 100,000 going up that decade. Gas was the same so the oil companies had to differentiate their product via other means. There were wars over who had the cleanest restrooms, trading stamps, and a whole host of other gimmicks. Then, like many things relating to oil, it all changed with the energy crises of the 1970s. I am just old enough to remember full service stations and the days before oil companies issued their own credit cards. Many stations closed and they went from being a place to have a "home away from home" experience to the junk food emporiums we know today.

Margonelli likes to highlight an important aspect of the big picture at the end of her chapters. Here in the first chapter it is the rather simple observation that Americans love their cars and that economic rationality doesn't seem to apply to our consumption of gasoline. As she notes, "But studies show that people love being in their cars even more than, say, being at work or at home. People prefer a half-hour commute to a shorter drive."

From the gas station we head to the distribution end and meet Roger, who drives a truck that delivers the gas to stations like Twin Peak petroleum. He spends a lot of his time breathing in gas fumes and stuck in California traffic. His dispatcher, Chris, is also profiled. For her too, the gas business is often about a thin profit margin. With the price of gas so volatile, she must make quick decisions about the prices Roger pays to fill his tanker truck. Oh, and wholesalers are known as jobbers in the trade.

The chapters on the refinery and drilling rig in Texas are very informative in that they explain how these operations work. Ever wonder how that sticky good becomes the gasoline you put in your car? Margonelli is happy to give a For Dummies explanation of what a refinery does. But what these chapters really emphasize is just how dangerous the work of getting that gasoline to your local station is. Refineries can leak and there are fires. They have a special klaxon and, when it sounds, workers know to run for their lives. Rigs are also very dangerous. The drilling system heading 10,000+ feet into the earth has a lot of parts that must be handled in a certain way. One slip up can mean the loss of a limb or worse. Until now, I never filled my car and thought that some guy somewhere had a big section of pipe flailing about near him. Moving a couple inches the wrong way could mean he loses his arm and gets one upside the head. Margonelli says that gas station pumps are modeled on ATMs because apparently American consumers find ATMs to wholesome or unimposing. In such a cozy atmosphere, who would think about the dangers encountered by the people who made sure there was gas for me to pump?

Chapters on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the NYMEX oil market round out the section taking place on our shores. Then it's off on a trip around the world to visit various oil producing countries. These chapters delve into the realpolitik behind oil and our foreign policy. This being the case, they are slightly more difficult reads if you're unfamiliar with the countries that Margonelli visits. But she does a good job of summarizing and simplifying for the layreader. In addition to the history lectures she gets on the ground and talks to people. You've got a warlord siphoning oil and reselling it? Margonelli visits him. Are there slums where those who don't enjoy the riches that oil brings live? We visit those places as well.

Venezuela is our first destination. The vagaries of Hugo Chávez are on display here along with his country's complicated relationship with mine. Oil was first discovered there in 1921 and immediately the U.S. government and U.S. oil companies were on the scene. Today Venezuela sells most of its oil to America despite having some harsh words for us. Known as "the devil's excrement" to some there, Venezuela seems to have a love/hate relationship with oil. It is at once Satan's shit but also seen as savior, a way to lift the people there up.

China's story is very different. It is one of a large, oil hungry country trying to deal with a steeply rising demand for cars and inefficient industry that gobbles up energy like Pac Man. This chapter is all about planning and development of electric cars. Much more depressing were those on Chad and Nigeria. These countries find themselves in situations similar to Venezuela but with even more dictatorial regimes in charge, rampant corruption, and plenty of violence.

It was very depressing to read how oil money in poor/developing countries rarely makes its way to the vast majority of citizens. An elite few almost always seem to benefit the most. Similarly dispiriting is reading about the Niger Delta and all the oil spilled there.

In these chapters about foreign countries the United States is always lurking in the background somewhere. The Chinese are looking to satisfy their oil needs under U.S. hegemony; Iran and the U.S. consider one another enemies; African countries have suffered under the decrees of the IMF and World Bank. Our oil consumption has consequences that we don't think about when we're at the pump that are environmental, economic, political, and moral in nature. Even George Bush declared we were addicted to the stuff.

Margonelli notes that our dependency on foreign oil will only increase. Rather than letting our oil diplomacy be carried out by the oil companies in various countries, she says our government will have to become increasingly involved directly in new ways. She also pleads for more conservation on our part.

Oil on the Brain is a fascinating book. I found it a good primer on the web of oil. The explanations of the mechanical side of things, e.g. – how oil rigs and refineries work, were interesting in their own right but they also illuminated just how deeply oil permeates our society. The chapters on foreign countries explained a lot but they also raised moral questions. We are something like 4% of the world's population yet we use in the neighborhood of 25% of the oil. With millions and millions of people in other countries mired in poverty while an elite few wallow in the wealth crude brings, do I then have any moral obligations, perforce? If I'm happy and willing to use oil from Nigeria, should I be more concerned about Shell screwing over the people there and letting those same folks shoulder the environmental burden of the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez sized spill every year? Purely here in the States, we have something similar where we are happy to let oil be drilled off the Gulf coast and shake our heads at the tragedy of a spill like we did last summer, but we're unwilling to drill in ANWR, the Great Lakes, or on the West and East coasts. One of Margonelli's best points is that most Americans see the business of oil as simply a series of economic transactions when, in fact, it is much more.

As I said above, this book is a primer. When I was done I thought about how it didn't go into depth about our relationship with Canada, from which we get a helluva lot of oil, if not the majority of the amount we import. It also didn't focus any time on Saudi Arabia, a country with which we have a relationship that has tremendous consequences worldwide. Margonelli left quite a bit out of her account but it's understandable. Oil on the Brain should be considered an introduction and springboard to further exploration of the topic of oil. And quite an interesting and thought-provoking intro it is.
|| Palmer, 4:34 PM || link || (0) comments |

24 May, 2011

"So the Story Gose"

Imbibe magazine has an article in their current issue called "So the Story Gose" about the titular German bier style. The American variations mentioned, such as one with cranberry, hibiscus flower and orange peel, sound very tasty. Hopefully a Wisconsin brewery will brew some up one of these days as it is a great summer thirst quencher.

My review of Leipziger Gose is here.

|| Palmer, 8:57 AM || link || (0) comments |

Toy Shining

From Kyle Lambert comes Toy Shining.

"Some places are like people: some shine and some don't."

|| Palmer, 8:49 AM || link || (0) comments |

23 May, 2011

Now Here's Something You Don't See Everyday

Not only do you get the Doctor Who theme played by Tesla coils, but you also get Adam Savage of Mythbusters doing a cage dance.

|| Palmer, 2:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

20 May, 2011

If We Only Had a Voter ID Law

Then we could have prevented this:

A Republican legislative aide is under investigation for possible vote fraud after she cast her ballot in the November election in Onalaska although she lives in Madison.

According to the Onalaska police report, Malszycki voted after her mother signed an affidavit saying she had lived at her home for two months.

So if this Marcie Malszycki is found guilty of voter fraud, would her mother also be guilty of aiding and abetting?

Punish them to the full extent of the law!
|| Palmer, 1:16 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

The first installment of Charles Stross' Laundry series, The Atrocity Archives, was a hoot so I went out and got the second book in the series, The Jennifer Morgue.

With the first outing being a tribute of sorts to Len Deighton, Stross turned to Ian Fleming for the second go-round of Bob Howard, a network admin for The Laundry, Britain's secret agency devoted to keeping chthonian and extradimensional threats at bay. Bob is now living with Mo, whom we met in The Atrocity Files, and is still doing his level best at saving the world while putting up with The Laundry's obdurate beauracracy.

The book begins in 1975 as a team of Americans and Brits work aboard a giant salvage ship aiming to reclaim the K-129, a Soviet sub that sank keep in the waters of the Pacific. Based on the real-life Project Azorian, Stross adds his own little touch with the wreck slowly being lifted to surface only to have it grabbed and pulled back down into the murky depths by tentacles.

Of course this wouldn't be a Bob Howard story if the submarine were really and truly a submarine.

The Laundry sends Bob to Germany where meets his new partner, Ramona. Curiously enough, Bob's wards indicate that she is not all that she seems. Ramona may be the most beautiful supermodel on the outside, but behind all that is someone or something else. It turns out she is a changeling, a creature that uses a spell to give itself a human appearance and she works for The Black Chamber, which is essentially the American version of The Laundry. Furthermore, she feeds on men, boasting that every man she's slept with has been dead within 24 hours. Bob and Ramona team up for their next mission and begin by becoming psychically linked to one another so that the thoughts and sensations experienced by one can be heard and felt by the other.

Ellis Billington is the Dr. No character here. He made his billions in software development and now he's gone and bought the ship used back in 1975 to attempt to recover the K-129/chthonian artifact. And so Bob and Ramona are sent to the Caribbean island of St. Martin to find out exactly what Billington is up to. In addition to zombified seagulls acting as sentries for the arch-villain, a little bout of skinny dipping ends up being a funny homage to Thunderball. There are no doubt many James Bond references which were lost on me never having read any of the books nor having seen any of the movies in some time. But, as in all of them, the bad guy reveals his plans just before leaving Bob and Ramona to die allowing them to apply their secret agent occult craftiness to an escape and thwart Billington's plans.

The Jennifer Morgue was a blast. Being an IT person myself, I feel Bob's pain at having to deal with lusers and he makes a nice contrast to Bond. Instead of drinking the finest cocktails, he ends up with a martini made with the cheapest gin on offer. Like Bond does in several stories, Bob plays baccarat except he is coerced into doing so by one of Billington's minions and loses his shirt. Stross goes perhaps a bit too meta when he has Bob fuss over the whole shaken vs. stirred thing, mentioning Bond by name, but, for the most part, the tributes and parodies are left for the reader to decipher.

Stross took many pages in the first book to explain his world where mathematical algorithms are magical and Lovecraftian beasties lurk at the thresholds of our world just waiting for a crazed cult member to let them in. Here he tones down his Irving the Explainer routine a bit as he hedges his bet. For readers not familiar with The Atrocity Files, Stross rehashes the rules of his world and gives some background on the characters. However, he gives the Cliff's Notes versions, essentially, instead of the lengthier indulgences of the first book. There's enough explanation to get newbies up and running without forcing veteran readers to overdose.

As with The Atrocity Files a short story is included and in this case it's "Pimpf". I think that all the technobabble that Stross left out of the novel ended up here. It's a fairly simple tale wherein Bob gets an intern named Pete who gets sucked into a video game. While it gets bogged down in Linux a bit too often, it's still a fun, light-hearted affair.
|| Palmer, 12:56 PM || link || (0) comments |

For the Eschatologically Inclined

|| Palmer, 12:38 PM || link || (0) comments |

19 May, 2011

One of Dan Carey's Best: New Glarus Smoked Rye Ale

If the Damen und Herren aus Schlenkerla were to ever brew a rauchbier roggenbier, then I'd bet it would taste a lot like Dan Carey's Smoked Rye Ale.

This was the first of Carey's limted edition Unplugged beers this year and it's one of his best. Rauchbiers are certainly not pleasing to everyone's palate and this was obvious last weekend when I saw this brew aplenty on liquor store shelves while the latest, the double IPA, was quite scarce. That this was the case should lay to rest any notions of craft beer drinkers around here, on the whole, being adventurous types. For most it seems to be all IPA all the time.

The Smoked Rye Ale, as you can see from the photo above, poured a nice copper color and was slightly hazy. My mini-mug held a small head which dissipated rather quickly. Dipping my proboscis into the glass, I got a whiff of the smoked malt but also sweet plum aromas. This stuff just smelled like heaven.

Putting this stuff into my mouth, I noticed immediately how it wasn't as viscous as Schlenkerla's Märzen or Urbock. It had a nice limber mouthfeel to it. At first my tongue was treated to a little bit of hop bitterness paired with the crisp rye but this was soon replaced by a rich smokiness. Once the beer was down my maw, I found that it left my tongue with a nice dry hoppy finish.

I recall drinking a rauchbier at J.T. Whitney's, a brewpub no longer around, here in Madison and finding it very clean and refreshing with the smoke flavor lingering in the background. I've also seen beers recently with some smoked malt added to the grain bill for a little sumpin' sumpin'. But NG's Smoked Rye Ale is the real deal. The smoke flavor is at the fore and Carey doesn't skimp on it. Yet he too managed to make a very quaffable brew. I find that rauchbiers mellow with each passing sip so, by the time I'm halfway home, the flavors are more balanced. But be warned: this is a big beer. 8.5% big. I didn't taste the alcohol which makes it deceiving.

Junk Food Pairing: I like to eat beef summer sausage with rauchbiers so I'd recommend you snap into a Slim Jim with this beer.
|| Palmer, 6:40 PM || link || (0) comments |

Chicago Reader Shows Madison Some Love

Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader was in Madison recently and now he's written a couple pieces about our fair burg's culinary scene.

First there is a review of Nostrano owned by Tim and Elizabeth Dahl. Tim originally hails from Madison though he and Elizabeth lived in Chicago until a couple years ago where they proved their mettle as pastry chefs.

Tim is executing a menu that wouldn't look at all out of place back here in Chicago in the context of our own recent superabundance of affordable regional Italian. In Madison it's more sui generis, and well placed to adapt itself to the incredible diversity of meat, cheese, and vegetable producers in southern Wisconsin.

The second is a profile of the Underground Food Collective and a savory look at the fine things they do to animal flesh.

The CSA has allowed the group to experiment with preparations as varied as lardo, headcheese, fresh sausages, and porchetta di testa, and to narrow down a 14-item product line that they've just begun to offer wholesale to restaurants and retailers.
|| Palmer, 7:20 AM || link || (0) comments |

18 May, 2011

It's In Black and White

The Capital Times recently gave its webpage a makeover. It threw into sharp relief something that I think readers knew: this outpost of the Fourth Estate is lilywhite. T. Herman ZweibelDave Zweifel, Shawn Doherty, John Nichols - a bunch of pale faces all. It's sort of ironic since Nichols enjoys teaming up with his friend Robert McChesney and laying down some vituperative criticism on the corporate media for being homogenous yet he comes home to a stable of bloggers that is uniformly white. (But they have both kinds – men and women!)

Madison is about 80% white so by no means is this city a model of diversity. Yet, while 1 in 5 people here is non-white, 0 of 13 Cap Times bloggers are people of color. Over at the Wisconsin State Journal, things seem much the same. Mary Spicuzza, Clay Barbour, Doug Moe, Chris Rickert – they all look Caucasian to me. Ditto with the gang at 77 Square – Rob Thomas, Lindsay Chrisitans, etc. Isthmus doesn't strike me as a bastion of racial diversity either.

It's not that any of these reporters/bloggers/columnists are, to my mind, unqualified* to do the work they do, it's that I appreciate a little diversity of views. It reflects my own world better. Every morning I go to bed and wake up next to a woman of color. When my father-in-law comes over and holds court, I am hearing not only from a man who simply has a lot more melanin in his skin than I do, but someone who's had drastically different experiences in life, partly because of the color of his skin. The ideas and points of view that these people of color bring into my life are interesting and enriching.

Yeah, there's an occasional column from a national figure like Eugene Robinson and Madison's poet laureate Fabu gets to chime in periodically but the Madison's mainstream print media doesn't feature the work of local people of color on a regular basis despite Madison becoming less white every day.

Contrast TCT to the newest arts and entertainment magazine in town, M.A.D. (Music. Arts. Dialogue.) found by Ray Allen, publisher of The Madison Times, a newspaper which is like the equivalent of the Chicago Defender here.

Unfortunately the publication's "focus is to stay connected to a demographic that is young…" Well, I guess I'm not the target audience. Still, I look forward to seeing the first issue.

*Except Rickert whose columns quickly devolved into pablum generated by a simple Mad Libs-like formula: take a contentious issue, divide people's viewpoints into two simple, extreme groups carefully making sure there is no grey area, show how each has a point, and then emerge victorious by demonstrating how he's smarter than everyone else via taking the middle path.
|| Palmer, 3:20 PM || link || (0) comments |

Stalzy's Deli: Second Impression, Part 1

(Sorry about the Emerson, Lake and Palmer reference but it had to be done.)

The Dulcinea and I had dinner yesterday at Stalzy's Deli. (Our first impressions are here.) It was our first opportunity to have sandwiches instead of samples and hot ones at that. Walking in I saw a familiar face. It was the wife of a certain homebrewer, who shall remain nameless, sent on an errand for Russian dressing. This anonymous zymurgist has apparently become addicted to Stalzy's food and can now be found at home making his own sandwiches with the deli's ingredients.

We stepped up to the counter and were greeted with a winsome smile by the young woman behind the counter. She took our orders and we found a table. The D availed herself of the special which was a beef sandwich while I went with a corned beef Reuben.

The beef sandwich was tasty. The meat was sliced more thickly than was the stuff we sampled a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately it had been overcooked a bit and was a bit on the chewy side. Atop it was fried onion. I neglected to bring anything to write on as well as my camera so I'm going from memory here but I seem to recall the seasoning being pretty basic – salt & pepper – with the flavor of the meat being left at the fore. The bun had been grilled and was charred a little around the edge. I personally don't mind this but The D was slightly disappointed. We were both less than excited about the horseradish mayo that came on the side. More horseradish, please. She also ordered the sweet and sour slaw which I blathered on about previously.

My Reuben was very good. Starting at the top, it was grilled to perfection. The rye bread was very good stuff with that sharp, earthy flavor that so many local ryes lack. My sandwich had just the right amount of cheese. There was enough to add flavor but it wasn't competing with the corned beef. On my previous visit, I found the kraut to be very mild. Here it seemed a bit more tart but not lip-puckering as I'd have liked. But that's just me. I'll leave a detailed critique of the Russian dressing to the likes of the anonymous brewer who is an expert on such matters but I thought it was good and not especially sweet. As for the corned beef, it was as mouth meltingly tender as I remembered it to be. Warmed up, I could taste nutmeg tones. My only gripe is that there wasn't enough of it. To compound the problem, the slices were folded over on one side of the sandwich leaving the other half with a paucity of the cured manna. A Reuben expert I ain't but, aside from being skinflints when it comes to portion size, Stalzy's did a really good job here.

Both sandwiches came with a pickle spear. For some reason no one else in my family eats pickles. Dill pickles, at any rate. So I ended up with The D's. They were pretty crisp and were certainly delicious. Lastly, I had the potato salad. This was the same stuff I had at the preview except there wasn't any what I thought was mustard seed to be had. It wasn't bad but nothing to email home about either.

I recommend looking at the paper copies of the menu on the counter as there were more items on it than the board hanging from the wall. I saw German potato salad for sale in the deli case but didn't see it available as a side and I didn't ask because I didn't notice its availability until after my order had been placed. Also in the case were fresh and smoked kielbasa from Bavaria Sausage on the southwest side but neither is available on the menu. To finish my Dutch uncle routine, it'd be nice to have a short stack of potato pancakes on the side instead of a full stack of four as an entrée in itself.

It was a bit strange to be in a deli that didn't have bagels, knish, or matzo ball soup. I don't offer this as a complaint so much as an observation. From what I've read, the Stalzy's folks aren't pushing themselves as a Jewish deli but rather as a Midwestern variation on that theme. I suspect the menu will evolve over time as they find out what plays well in the depth of winter and the height of summer as well as what their customers want.

As for our first proper visit, it was hit or miss but it was mostly hits. There's still more to try and the place has only been open for about a week and a half so you can count on things being tweaked.
|| Palmer, 12:13 PM || link || (3) comments |

16 May, 2011

Sons of Norway, I Feel Your Pain

Last week the Wisconsin State Journal published an article called "Stoughton struggles to keep Norwegian heritage alive" which chronicled the struggles of some people in the town who are trying to, well, keep Norwegian heritage alive there.

It's easy to claim some Norwegian pride this weekend when up to 30,000 people flood Stoughton streets to sample lutefisk and admire rosemaling during the annual Syttende Mai celebration.

But maintaining that heritage the other 51 weeks of the year has been difficult as fewer people in this city south of Madison identify with Norwegian ancestry and local Norwegian groups face declining and aging membership.

As a member of the Polish Heritage Club here in Madison, I can feel their pain.

The PHC and the Norwegian heritage groups in Stoughton start from different positions. There a once majority group is on the outs, so to speak, while Poles and Polish-Americans have never been the predominant ethnic group in these parts and are instead working to carve out their own niche in the greater Madison culture. Still, we are in pretty much the same boat – attempting to promote a minority ethnicity. And we too have an aging membership, although ours is not in decline.

I don't know about Stoughton but I think there are a couple things that make Madison a tough nut to crack. First is the UW which ensures a steady flow of young transients. Young people, generally speaking, don't care much about the traditions of yesterday and transients, by definition, don't stay and don't weave themselves into the community. The second element is that there are few new immigrants. While many Poles and Norwegians emigrated to Wisconsin back in the 19th/early 20th centuries, there are very few now. (Although there are more people from Poland in the Madison area than you'd think.) For the most part, their cultures became absorbed into the mainstream decades ago. In Madison this has led to familiarity breeding contempt to some extent. To state things in an overly simplistic and crude way, Polish and Norwegian (and perhaps German and Scandinavian more broadly too) cultures aren't exotic enough. This is despite, from my experience, anyway, that most people don't seem to know very much about them. They tend to be lumped together into this nebulous blob that doesn't warrant much attention except when you're telling Ole and Lena jokes or making fun of polka. The idea that there's this thing that is Polish culture or Norwegian culture and that it is distinct from American culture and, furthermore, is interesting in its own right is either generally thought of as a joke or a subject fit only for a thesis paper instead of being something worthy of playing out in the larger cultural milieu – out on the streets and in the lives of people generally.

I also assume, from reading the article, that the Norwegian groups in Stoughton have similar internal problems to those of the PHC, namely, trying to answer the question "What traditions should we promote?" in such a way as to overcome external obstacles. As the piece notes, Stoughton was inundated with Norwegians in the 1870s and was 75% Norwegian within 30 years. I get the impression that Norwegian heritage groups there consider the traditions of those people as the ones that need preservation and promotion.

The PHC's mission statement is to not only preserve and pass down traditions, but to also promote Polish culture generally. Unfortunately we get bogged down in the past a lot of the time. As seems to be the case in Stoughton, we often tend to view the traditions and practices from the time when Polish immigrants arrived here in Wisconsin as being "Polish culture". They are overly romanticized and conceptions of Polish culture become static. In my opinion, for a small ethnic cultural organization to lapse almost entirely into atavism means it won't be around much longer.

Going back to the article, it mentions rosemaling (decorative floral painting) and has pictures of people dressed in 19th century costume preparing to party like it was 1899. There's nothing wrong with these things but it is reasonable to assume you can attract large numbers of people away from all the other things in their lives purely on the basis of wallowing in traditions from which they are generations removed? There was Norwegian culture before any Norwegians set foot in Wisconsin and the culture continued to change after Norwegian immigrants became assimilated. Focusing on a small period of time and its attendant traditions is to ignore the fact that culture is not static but dynamic. For a similar (but much more excoriating) take on the Polish side of things, read this post by Nina Camic.

As far as the PHC goes, we still tend to organize events around the Big 4: 19th century folk traditions, Chopin, Poland during World War II, and the Solidarity movement. However, things are changing albeit slowly. We sponsor various events that are firmly rooted in the present like the Polish Film Festival and some concerts, the most recent of which was Klezmafour at the High Noon Saloon. There is momentum in the club to do other things but there's a few decades of inertia to overcome.

While I don't know how to expand our membership or even get more people to attend events, I am convinced that ethnic heritage organizations like the PHC need to:

1) Broaden its horizons so that it is not the equivalent of a hyper-specialized chapter of the SCA.
2) Leverage online resources. Get a webpage if you don't already have one and do some social networking as well. E.g. – get a Facebook page.
3) Throw social events so members can simply get together instead of having to raise funds or explicitly promote the club.

I'm a Polish-American, not a Pole. Personally, I think the PHC works best when it engages Polish culture on a variety of levels. This allows me to establish my own identity as a Polish-American instead of being told what that identity is. For instance, while most Poles and no doubt a huge percentage of Polish-Americans are Catholic, I'm not. I'm not even a Christian. And so traditions relating to Easter, Christmas, and anything else to do with religion hold minimal interest for me. I'm much more keen on watching Polish films, listening to Polish music, eating Polish food, and socializing with my fellow members.

If you're not a member of some kind of ethnic cultural organization, then riddle me this: what can a group like the Polish Heritage Club do to grab your interest? I don't necessarily mean for you to become a dues paying member, but what kind of event could we organize to get you to dedicate some time and perhaps money to get a taste of Polish culture? Polish films? Polish music groups? Polish food? Lectures? Dancing? Plays? Books?
|| Palmer, 4:48 PM || link || (0) comments |

13 May, 2011

Doctor Who Copying Doctor Who (and LOST)?

I watched last week's episode of Doctor Who, The Curse of the Black Spot, just after having finished listening to the DW audio drama The Whispering Forest. Has anyone listened to it? Did you notice the similarity between the two stories?

In The Curse of the Black Spot The Doctor, Amy, and Rory land on a pirate ship whose crew is being disappeared by a spectral siren whenever they get hurt. Even the teensiest cut will lead to an encounter with the luminous maiden who makes them disappear without a trace. The Doctor figures out that her victims aren't really dead. Instead they are teleported to a spaceship by the siren which is in fact its holographic medic who is simply doing her Hippocratic duty.

On the audio end of things, The Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, and Nyssa land on a planet and encounter the inhabitants of Purity who are obsessed with cleanliness to the point of using carbolic soap until their skin is red and raw. The people of Purity fear the TARDIS denizens because many of their kind have been absconded by The Takers. As it turns out, these Takers are medical droids who are merely following their programming.

Writer Stephen Cole appears to be a fan of LOST with The Takers being analogous to The Others and the titular whispers being heard when The Takers are nearby.

|| Palmer, 3:26 PM || link || (0) comments |

Potosi Does a Shandy

Potosi Brewing is joining Leinenkugels by introducing a shandy.

Hopefully Steamboat won't be as syrupy sweet as Leine's Summer Shandy.
|| Palmer, 2:22 PM || link || (0) comments |

Where's the Geek Love?

My interest was piqued when I read that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy was returning to theatres, albeit briefly, this summer. Then I stupidly looked at the list of cinemas that will be showing the films. The only ones in Wisconsin at this point that are willing to give me the precious Galadriel on the big screen are in Lake Delton and Kenosha. What's up wit dat?! Don't theatre managers here think that people from Wisconsin want to see these films too? Instead they'll be showing at a tourist trap for Flatlanders and a city that is essentially part of Chicagoland.

Here we are a month away from the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring going onscreen and Wisconsin has the same number of theatres committed as does Alaska despite having nearly eight times the population. Even the fucking Mormons are on top of this with Utah's eight theatres ready and willing.

Hey Madison cinemas - how about showing a little love to the geeks in your city?
|| Palmer, 12:33 PM || link || (0) comments |

11 May, 2011

My Heart Hurts Now

|| Palmer, 11:13 AM || link || (0) comments |

Human Transit Coming to Madison

Next month is the 19th annual conference of the Congress for New Urbanism and public transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker will be here. He blogs at Human Transit.

When I blather on about Madison Metro (e.g. - here), it's usually because I've read something at his blog and think "Madison needs that!"

Walker will be speaking at the conference on Tuesday or Wednesday. It will mostly be populated with planners, politicos, and business people but I'd love to hear Walker speak. Unfortunately it looks like it'll cost a bundle. If nothing else, I'm sure he'll blog about his talk and perhaps give some observations about Madison.

Mayor Soglin is set to attend the conference and I'll be interested to see if he lays out any proposals for Metro in the months afterward. I was heartened to read during the mayoral race that he had made comments about improving bus service here with things such as express routes whereas Mayor Dave did not seem interested in innovating.
|| Palmer, 11:04 AM || link || (0) comments |

The Revenant Hot Dog Joint

According to a thread at Isthmus' forums, Dog Eat Dog is being resurrected. The eatery used to be on King Street but closed at some point in the dim and distant past.

Upon reading the news that I might be able to get a better Italian beef here in Madison, I was elated. (Right now, I'd say that JJ's has the best beef in town which, for someone from Chicago, is sad news.) However, my joy turned to mild disappointment when I read further and discovered that DED is opening within the confines of Pooley's.

Not my first choice of venue for good eats but Pooley's is what it is: a sports bar nestled amongst car dealerships on the outskirts of a business park. I'm sure I'll give it a try but I'm still tempted to get my Italian beef fix by going to Chicago. The beef will likely be cheaper and I can visit friends and family. Plus there's some nice shopping opportunities to be had for Polish food that aren't available here. This is especially so now that Andy's Deli has reopened after the fire they had in February.

DED looks to be open in June sometime and you'll no doubt be able to read me being critical of their Italian beef shortly thereafter at this very blog.
|| Palmer, 10:36 AM || link || (1) comments |

10 May, 2011

There's Good Beer to Be Had Even in the Flatlands: Metropolitan's Dynamo

Chicago's Metropolitan Brewing is kind of like Capital here in Madison in that they concentrate on German styles of beer. No pale ales emerge from the tanks down in the city's Ravenswood neighborhood. Brewmaster Doug Hurst studied in Munich and the styles in that part of the world stuck with him. To top things off, the Metropolitan folks I've met were really great people. I've chatted a bit with Doug's wife Tracy, who was very friendly, and had a brief exchange with one of their minions who, I discovered, is, like me, a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. These are good people.

Today I turn my attention toward their Dynamo Copper Lager.

Dynamo is a Vienna lager and I think even my poor picture shows that it adheres to the style as far as color goes with its copper hue. And just as it should, my glass ended up with a nice big head after being poured and there were plenty of bubbles floating up my pilsner glass. My nose caught a mild hop spiciness along with some caramel sweetness from the malts and this is not a bad description of the beer's taste. It has a medium body that is fairly sweet in addition to being grainy but it's not in your face. The hops join in nicely with their earthy spiciness but practice temperance, complementing the malt and now overpowering it. They build towards the end with a nice dry finish.

If you're a Cheesehead who's familiar with Capital Amber and/or Sprecher Special Amber, then think of Dynamo as a milder version of these beers with less of a malt profile.

I neglected to pair Dynamo with junk food but my speculation says that it would go well with Bugles.

Dynamo is not available in Wisconsin so you'll have to head to Chicagoland to get your hands on some. Check out Metropolitan's website for establishments carrying their brew.
|| Palmer, 6:53 PM || link || (0) comments |

Grabby in Repose

I got home from work this evening and let Grabby out onto the porch. When I went out there a short while later, I found that she'd taken my seat.

|| Palmer, 6:12 PM || link || (0) comments |

My Madison Craft Beer Week Experience (And a New Pilsner to Boot)

To be honest, I attended only one Madison Craft Beer Week event. Fish fries featuring batter made from a craft brew and special dinners for $40/head just didn't interest me or were out of my price range. But that still left some fine opportunities to quaff.

My lone event was meeting Mark Buttera from O'so at the Baldwin Street Grill last Friday evening to sample his wares. The BSG is a long way from Jan's (Un)Friendly. The joint is pretty respectable these days and family-friendly. Too bad.

We arrived before 6 and so we contented ourselves with a couple drinks until Buttera was in full meet'n'greet mode. My Leine's Original was mighty refreshing. Eventually our brewmaster set up shop at the end of the bar with a complement of bottles and growlers. Buttera was certainly congenial enough and happy to chat with whomever approached him. Depending on who was doing the asking, he'd modify his answers. If the interrogator was a homebrewer, he'd get into the nitty gritty with all the terminology. But if you were just someone who liked good beer, you'd get an answer at your level of beer understanding. My companion that evening is a huge Picnic Ants fan and so, as we were getting samples, I asked Buttera about it. He said that the beer is nearly ready but not quite. They switched yeasts this year from a Saison Dupont to the French saison variety - or vice-versa – and I guess the change has thrown their schedule off a bit.

In addition to pouring a couple of their annuals – Hopdinger and The Big O – there were growlers of their Night Train porter which had been aged in bourbon barrels and some coffee-infused Night Train. I give O'so points for using Ethiopian coffee for the latter because I prefer African coffees over all others. The stuff was pretty good but not great. It needed a bit more body and the porter and coffee flavors seemed a little too distinct instead of doing a nice pas de deux. When we took our first sips of the bourbon barrel Night Train we concluded that it had been aged in a barrel that still had bourbon in it. This stuff was potent! Luckily I like bourbon and so it was not a disaster but I'd have liked a bit more balance.

Hopefully I'll catch more events next year. Also, I'm angling to host a craft beer and junk food demo in 2012. Robyn is now aware of my idea so let's hope she and the rest of the organizers are game.

In other beer news, Sprecher has a new summer seasonal.

It's due out this month though I didn't see it over the weekend. I'm looking forward to it as it'll no doubt be a good thirst quencher for the summer.
|| Palmer, 12:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

Cutting Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face

What the hell is wrong with people?

Yesterday the news came down that the federal government rejected Wisconsin's bid for $150 million "for train sets, locomotives and a maintenance base for the Hiawatha line". Immediately this decision became the result of a referendum on Scott Walker.

Mike Ivey of The Cap Times trumpeted "Feds turn Walker down on passenger rail funding request". Commenters said things like "Bravo Scott Walker - you will be RECALLED SOON." and "Nice job, Scotty - we're officially on the $hit list for rail funding. Way to prepare for $5.00+ gas."

This decision likely had something to do with Walker's rejection of an $810 million grant to extend the Hiawatha line to Madison but whether it was partisan backlash or a change of priorities for the feds, I don't know. Regardless, the decision was made by the feds yet few are blaming them for turning down WISCONSIN's funding request, Mr. Ivey.

The worst type of reaction was the glee on parade in blog posts like this one. "Governor Walker Shut Down By Feds Over Train Money. Good." Way to cut off your nose to spite your face, Mr. Humphrey.

The train money wasn't all about Scott Walker. There are the little matters of new train sets, locomotives, a maintenance shed, and the more general goal of improving Hiawatha's already great service. Building new train sets and locomotives = jobs. Some of that work would probably have been done by Talgo. In Milwaukee. Building maintenance shed = jobs. Staffing the facility = jobs.

The ridership of the Hiawatha line keeps growing. As the article linked to above notes:

Hiawatha ridership has more than doubled in the past eight years, to a record 792,848 in 2010, and is on track for another jump this year. During the first four months of 2011, the trains provided 252,035 rides, up 7.8% from the same period last year.

It's had an 87.3% on-time rating over the past year with March 2011's at a nice 94.1%. Furthermore it ties Wisconsin generally and the southeastern part of our state specifically to a global city. It helps keep some cars off the road which means less wear and tear on the highways and less auto exhaust in the air.

Humphrey's reaction is puerile and short-sighted. Improving the Hiawatha service and expanding the benefits of intercity rail in Wisconsin will have a much more profound and longer lasting effect than an ephemeral bout of schadenfreude.
|| Palmer, 5:40 AM || link || (2) comments |

09 May, 2011

Seeking a Better American Kölsch-Style Brew: Wavehopper from Big Bay

This weekend I tried a new brew: Big Bay's Wavehopper. Big Bay is out of Milwaukee and is a pretty new entrant into the Wisconsin craft beer scene. It is contract brewed but I'm not sure where. However, I've read that it's done by the Milwaukee Brewing Company.

Wavehopper is a Kölsch-style ale. In a technical and copyrighty sense, just as a Champagne isn't a Champagne unless it's made in Champagne, France, a Kölsch isn't a Kölsch unless it's brewed in Koln, Germany. Hence "Kölsch-style". That it's labeled an ale is an Americanism/Britishism. For we Americans, it's an ale because it is top fermented. For Germans, though, it's an Obergäriges Lagerbier or "top fermenting lager beer". This is primarily just an example of different nomenclatures from different cultures. I started looking into this after a friend became addicted to Sand Creek's Groovy Brew, another American take on the German style. While a nice, refreshing summer beer, Groovy Brew just didn't taste like it was in the same category as Reissdorf, a true Kölsch, and the only one I'd had until that point.

On a side note, I was very disappointed to hear 2 or 3 months ago that The Coopers Tavern stopped serving Reissdorf. They even served it in a Kölsch glass – something that not even The Malt House does. (Hey Bill Rogers – I get my Belgian beers in the correct glass at your establishment so why can't the same be done for my Kölsch?) My friend who told me about this tragedy said that the server recommended a Belgian Witbier instead saying that they were very similar. Except for the lagering, cloudiness due to yeast in suspension, and the coriander & orange peel.

After noticing that Groovy Brew didn't have the crispness of Reissdorf, I think I tried Goose Island's Summertime and felt the same way. Americans just never seem to capture the lagery part of the Kölsch and I grew a bit weary of American versions. Most seemed to be made by breweries that don't brew lagers (in the American bottom fermenting sense) and so I have to wonder if these breweries lager their Kölsches for as long a period as do German brewers like Reissdorf, Sunner, und Gaffel. I ran this by my buddy Scott Manning at Vintage Brewing here in Madison. I got a War and Peace-length reply full of talk about Saccharomyces cervisiae yeast strains and horizontal lagering tanks. Good stuff. More relevant here is the bit about cooling the beer after fermentation to get those yeasties to go dormant. I'll let Scott pick it up from here:

As their rate of metabolism slows toward the end of fermentation, yeast begins to reabsorb some of the compounds it has produced during the course of fermentation. Performance of this task varies greatly from yeast strain to strain, and the true lagers take a long time "cleaning up" the byproducts of their feeding frenzy.

It's this last bit that feeds into my hypothesis. Perhaps American Kölsches aren't lagered as long as their counterparts in Koln, hence the difference in flavor.

Now on to Wavehopper.

As you can see, it has a nice golden color and is completely clear. It foams up to a nice white head. The aroma was biscuity with a bit more than a hint of the hops. Once on my tongue, I found it had a nice mellow effervescence. Wavehopper is light-bodied with just a bit more hops than needed to strike a balance between the malt sweetness and hop bitterness but no one will mistake it for a mega-I.B.U. pale ale.

Perhaps most importantly it was crisp and clean. It tasted much more like a Reissdorf than does Groovy Brew and other American versions of the style. I e-mailed Big Bay and my suspicions were confirmed when they told me that they have their brew undergo an extended period of aging to smooth things out.

Big Bay says that Wavehopper weighs in at 4.8% A.B.V. which makes it a nice session beer. Not too much alcohol for those hot summer days when the sweat pours off your brow. I've read that Kölsches go well with fish, mussels, and mild cheeses. Personally, I find they go very well with Smoked Cheddar Cheez-Its. I like how the crackers add a graininess to the proceedings which bolsters the light body of the beer while the hoppy bitterness and rich smoke flavors duel it out on my palate. If anyone associated with Madison Craft Beer Week is game, I'd be happy to do a beer and junk food pairing demonstration next year. (Joe, please tell Robyn of my proposition.)
|| Palmer, 4:51 PM || link || (4) comments |

05 May, 2011

Stalzy's Deli: First Impressions

The new deli on Atwood Avenue, Stalzy's, had a soft opening tonight. Facebook friends were invited to check out the new digs, sample their food, and drink free beer.

The interior looked nice with plenty of wood and some stools at the counter. One side of the place had coolers of soda, wine, and beer (including German Weiss beers) as well as some shelves holding more wine bottles, candy, and German pickles along with Polish cucumber salad.

The deli case is on that same side and slices of their meats were atop it for the sampling along with white bread and onion bialy. The bialy were not as I'm used to but were tasty nonetheless. The ones I get from Chicago were more chewy and became less so when heated. These, which are made fresh onsite, were thinner with a crispy outside and fluffy inside.

All of the meats that I had were sliced thinly as they should. The roast beef was plenty rare and flavorful. My corned beef sample was very good. The piece I had was really tender and it melted like butter in my mouth. My tongue was treated to a nice, rich flavor but it could have used just a touch of salt. Pastrami lovers have nothing to fear at Stalzy's. This meat was likewise very tasty with the paper thin shaving being very rich with a healthy smoke flavor.

We were also treated to Stalzy's sides. The sweet and sour slaw was good with roughly equal parts of each permeating the shredded cabbage. Next to it were samples of their potato salad which was described as being German. While there are no doubt many variations of Kartoffelsalat, this was not the variation made with vinegar and laced with bacon. Instead it was made with mayonnaise and what I think was mustard seed. I liked the stuff but it was your basic potato salad. So far so good. Then I tried the kraut and was disappointed to find that it was pretty weak tit stuff. It wasn't very crunchy, which I can live with, but worst of all, it wasn't very sour. The kraut clearly needs more lip-puckering sourness. The relative mildness of the stuff might explain why hell froze over tonight when our 11-year old actually ate some and, following in Mikey's footsteps, he liked it. Up to this point in his life he has been completely repulsed by both the smell and sight of fermented cabbage. Even a tiny shred of it on a piece of kielbasa was enough for him to engage in a thorough regimen of dekrautification. He gave no quarter. So, when he put a forkful in his mouth, I fully expected to see a look of revulsion on his face and for him to spit the stuff out. Lo and behold he liked it. He really liked it. Thank you Stalzy's.

Still, I think it needs more sour. Your gustatory mileage may vary.

I did not taste their borscht but The Dulcinea did. Her first impression was that it was merely OK. But as she ate more her opinion improved and I believe she finished having given it a rating of pretty good. I am also told that the macaroni salad rates similarly. To the best of my knowledge, there was no mushroom & barley soup to be had although it will be available once the place opens properly on Sunday.

As you can see from the menu above, they smoke and roast their own meats, make the salads from scratch, and bake the bread. I asked and found out that the bialy are also made in-house. The sausages are from Bavaria Sausage so there are no surprises to be had in that department and the ability to add bacon to any sandwich earns good marks from me.

From my impressions tonight I'd say that Stalzy's is off to a fine start. What I tasted was good overall and the staff was very friendly. While I'm not expecting a $17 corned beef sandwich like I'd get at a deli in Chicago piled high with a full pound of meat, I do hope Stalzy's will load their sandwiches more than Ella's and put the skimpy Ruebens at Cooper's Tavern to shame. I'm also hoping that they'll have good rye bread. Madison seems to be Kryptonite to good light rye bread - the stuff with the chewy crust and light, fluffy interior. And the more I think about the prospect of their latkes, the hungrier I get.

|| Palmer, 9:47 PM || link || (0) comments |

Cutest. Cat. Ever.

Our katze, Grabby.

A nice profile shot. Look at dem pointy ears and whiskers!

Nothing but a big ball of fur.

Grabby likes boxes.

|| Palmer, 8:12 PM || link || (0) comments |

What's Your Sign?

Last Saturday I brought my car over to a garage at Buckeye and Stoughton Road to have some brake work done. The guy behind the counter informed me that, since I hadn't called ahead and made a reservation, he thought that the earliest they'd be able to look at my car was around noon. I'd planned on them being able to get to it a bit sooner (I was there when they opened at 7:30) but decided that sitting around there for 4+ hours until they could look at the car and then another couple hours while they worked on it was not my cup of tea. I had work around the house to do so I decided to head home. While not exactly a nice day out and rain ever threatening, I started to hoof it and ended up walking to the East Transfer Point. Not being thoroughly familiar with the streets over there, I followed bus signs. And so I walked down Buckeye to Davies and then to Dempsey. Walking the bike path behind Woodman's, I ended up at Milwaukee Street across from the ETP.

While I was perambulating, it occurred to me just how unhelpful Madison Metro signs can be. Here's (an admittedly very full) Madison Metro bus stop sign.

The signs I encountered along the way on my walk were nowhere near as full. Buckeye Road has signs that just have "16" on them while Davies Street and Dempsey Road are served by one route alone – 38. Madison Metro signs simply have numbers on them and nothing else. Now contrast that with the information you can get on a corresponding sign in Chicago.

Madison Metro signs require that you either have a copy of the Ride Guide at your disposal or Internet access to check it out online. (Unless, of course, you are at a bus shelter that has maps.) A sign with a number or numbers on it isn't very helpful for navigating public transportation. Let's say you're on a street and in need of a bus. You see a sign that says merely gives a route number. Where does the bus go? Does that route operate on weekends or weekdays or both? Does it operate only during rush hour?

Madison and Chicago are laid out very differently (grid pattern, having to go around lakes) so buses in Madison have more circuitous routes than those in Chicago, most of which go in a straight line. It's no doubt difficult to avoid signs such as the one above with all those numbers here but even a small amount of info could be handy because, that sign is blatantly unfriendly and confusing. Can there be any wonder why many people avoid Metro? They walk up to a bus stop and see a sign with numbers and have no idea what bus goes where and when. Many new riders, visitors, and even riders looking for a bus in a part of town where they've never ridden before will be confused and turned off by a near meaningless sign. Public transportation should be welcoming and accommodating not cold and perplexing.

When I arrived at the East Transfer Point I checked out the system map to find out when my bus would be leaving and I was left with a short wait. Looking around I noticed that the place was underutilized. The ETP is a terminus or stop for over a dozen Metro routes. Make the place a bit more friendly by posting some break-out maps instead of just leaving everyone to parse through those with every route in the whole city on it. Put up a map showing a single route with a major destination. Route 30, for instance, goes to East Towne Mall. Advertise just how one can get there. And how would someone get to the airport from the ETP? To Camp Randall? To the Dean Clinic on Stoughton Road? To a Badger Bus stop? Metro should be advertising itself more. You've got riders standing around waiting for a bus so work on them. Show people who commute during the week how easy it is to get to that Badger game or a shopping destination on the weekend instead of driving.

Madison is not a very large city yet its public transportation system has a steep learning curve considering its size.
|| Palmer, 2:23 PM || link || (0) comments |

04 May, 2011

The Market Has Spoken On That Beloved Franchise, Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's novel, did really well at the box office its opening weekend pulling in almost $1.7 million on only 299 screens. It's second weekend saw a dramatic decline – 47.8% - in gross take but on 166 more screens. A week later 94 theatres had dropped the film which took another big hit. This time a 46.8% decrease. According to Box Office Mojo, the movie has taken in just shy of $4 million as of 1 May.

After the terrible second weekend the film's producer, businessman John Aglialoro, threw his hands up in despair crying "Critics, you won." and backing away from grand ideas about a wider opening and making the other two parts of the story. (I've since heard that he has reversed his admissions of defeat.)

Apparently most of the Teabaggers and libertarians got their fix on opening weekend. Luckily for those folks, there's now a trailer for Part 2 to tide them over while Agliaoro wallows in indecision.

|| Palmer, 3:43 PM || link || (0) comments |

The High Cost of Health Care

This article up at The Cap Times reminded me that I need to cancel a doctor's appointment.

Entitled "Needed health care put off because of high cost, UW study shows", it reviews the results of a study which shows that people often avoid going to a doctor because it costs too much.

The high cost of health care is hurting everyone, with parents forgoing taking their sick kids to the doctor even if they have health insurance and make enough money to cover the cost, according to a new study from researchers at UW-Madison.

A research team from the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health said the cost of health care relative to a family's income, plus having a child with a limitation such as asthma, autism or obesity, can make families put off needed medical care.

Regular readers may recall that I was diagnosed with kidney stones earlier this year. I ended up going to the UW Clinics to see a urologist. First I checked in with a receptionist who reminded me that privacy is for all intents and purposes dead today. You see, they took biometric data on me in the form of a palm print. So now they have my name, address, phone #, social security #(at least I think they do), insurance info, scan of my palm, pictures of my insides, samples of my bodily fluids, and who knows what else. They don't need me to show up anymore because they've got it all. The hospital need only pull up my records and then send me a bill.

I finally make my way to the urology department and it's a zoo. The waiting area is quite full and people are constantly going in and out, back and forth. I oblige the new receptionist's request to piss in a cup and afterwards find a seat to do some reading. A short wait ensued before my name was called and I was led to a room. On the wall were posters showing the male and female urinary tracts and there was even a section of one that had a blurb on kidney stones with a picture to go along with it giving examples of the various types of stones. It looked something like this:

I recoiled in horror at gazing upon the hideous, jack-like stone. Surely only Cthulhu and his minions would get such eldritch-looking growths in their bodies. I could only imagine how passing something looking like that would feel. It'd shred my urethra to pieces. I hastily averted my gaze.

After an x-ray and more waiting I was with a nurse practitioner named Daniella. Although friendly she seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. Considering the full waiting area outside, I wouldn't be surprised if she felt a bit like Noah trying to get that ark loaded before that flood. She compared the hodiernal x-rays with the ones taken several days ago and admitted that one of my two stones was nowhere to be found. Presumably it was just in position that rendered it invisible to the x-rays whereas a lateral view would have been better. Although the size of the stones kept growing with each visit to a doctor, Daniella basically concluded that I need to keep drinking lots of fluids and pass the bastards. Harrumph.

She was fairly young and very pretty but I didn't let her escape until I had broached the subject of how kidney stones can effect ejaculation. This made her seem uncomfortable which was odd considering that she was a urologist in-training. My vas deferens is supposed to be her specialty. She launched into her doctor routine and pointed at the diagram of men's naughty bits on the wall poster next to her. There was something humorous to me (in the most puerile sense) about her saying the word "ejaculate" over and over. It was like being a kid and tricking an adult into saying a bad word.

"Vas deferens…blah, blah blah….ejaculate…semen…blah, blah, blah…ejaculate…"

In the end I passed my stones without evening knowing it. All was good and well until the bills started pouring in. That initial visit to Meriter's emergency room that snowy morning in February was a $4,000 affair. Whoever it was that devised today's medical billing practices ought to be drawn and quartered. Every fucking hospital employee that comes within a few feet of you bills you for the privilege and they all bill separately. After my stepmother died I helped my father plow through her hospital bills and we found a couple billing errors. And so I logged onto my insurance provider's webpage and started comparing numbers. Lo and behold one of my bills contained two charges that had not yet been submitted to my insurer. I thought we had computers for this kind of thing and firmly believe that such "errors" are simply fishing expeditions to see if they can get people to pay more. Had I paid that bill right away and without checking on it, I highly doubt that the error would have been brought to my attention and a refund issued.

Getting back to the article in the paper from which I got sidetracked…A notice from UW Clinics arrived a couple weeks after my last visit there saying that they had scheduled a 6-month follow-up visit for me. Now, considering that it cost me over $200 just to walk into the door there (less than $10 of which was covered by insurance) and I am no longer in pain, that appointment needs to be canceled. The UW study mentioned above concerned families with children instead of guys like me financing their own health care alone but I can understand if only slightly why some families forego treatment. I can afford to pay $200 for what I highly suspect would be a one-minute consultation and am grateful not to be in a situation where it's either pay doctor bills or go hungry. However, $200 to have someone ask me if I'm in pain and how my pee has been just doesn't seem worth it.
|| Palmer, 3:02 PM || link || (0) comments |

03 May, 2011

Moles, SPAM, and Authenticity: Jonathan Gold in Madison

L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold was in Madison last week and he gave a lecture at the Chazen on Thursday called "Authenticity, Culture, and the Korean Taco". I suppose it wasn't really a lecture in as much as it was Gold proffering toothsome tales of Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles but address the topic he did.

Before he took to the podium I was chatting with some folks and one of them asked, "Did you read Samara Kalk Derby's review of Ichiban?" Indeed I had. It felt good to not be the only person in Madison who is incredulous of the fact that she gets paid to write restaurant reviews.

Soon enough a woman with the Center for the Humanities – I think it was Sara Guyer – approached the podium and gave an introduction. As part of it she said that Los Angeles was America's most global city. Now, the Global Cities Index from 2010 lists L.A. below Chicago and New York so I guess it depends on how you define "global". I point this out merely to say that her comment was a bit of hyperbole that I found unnecessary.

I'd never heard of Gold prior to finding out last fall that he was making a trek here to flyover country. If the admonition to never trust a thin cook were ported to the realm of the food writer, Gold would be very trustworthy indeed. This along with his avuncular countenance and congeniality made me feel comfortable. Perhaps "comfortable" isn't the right word but the atmosphere was very different than that of Anthony Bourdain's appearance here last autumn. With Bourdain there was a sense of celebrity worship in the air with everyone waiting with bated breath to hear him insult Rachel Ray and tell stories of life in front of a TV camera. On the other hand, there was nothing sacerdotal about Gold. He was rather unassuming and humble with a Midwestern demeanor instead of a big city attitude.

Gold began by rummaging through the detritus in his coat pockets until he found what he was looking for – a menu from Graze. (Graze is an offshoot of L'Etoile which was started by Gold's friend Odessa Piper.) He mentioned cheese curds which are apparently unavailable in California "for love or for money" and then told his famous story about them. I quote from 77 Square:

“The first time I was in Madison, I was hanging out in the kitchen at L’Etoile,” Gold said. “I’d gone to the farmers’ market, and they had cheese curds, which I’d never had before.

“And I was like, ‘Wow, these are great!’ And I went back to the kitchen and was sharing with people, and I said, ‘I wonder if anyone’s ever thought of deep-frying these?’

“Everybody looks at me with this weird expression. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that’s like walking into a kitchen in Napa Valley and saying, ‘You know, they grow a lot of grapes around here. You think anybody’s decided to make wine with these?’”

Graze, he said, was authentic - but of what? To his mind, it was expressive of a time and place. It draws on various traditions but also incorporates local/indigenous foods. He then talked about a particular kind of ravioli native to Genoa which has cow udder and offal as ingredients. So, if you as an American go through the hassle of obtaining udder and lung and make the ravioli, would it be authentic? Gold said that, while the taste would be so, the intent of the dish wouldn't. This type of ravioli is poor people's food assembled with perhaps the least appetizing parts of the cow but parts that the originators of the dish used so that they wouldn't go to waste. Gold asked, "Do you want to reflect the standards of where the dish came from or where you are?"

He described authenticity as a nebulous concept that's always moving. In L.A.'s Koreatown you can get food identical to that served in Seoul. Is that authentic? Or would true L.A. authenticity be some kind of corn mash that Native Americans ate before Europeans arrived? Perhaps it would be the cuisine of the Spanish settlers?

Starting at about this point in the talk, I began to salivate. When I moved to Madison over 20 years ago, I think Pedro's and Chi-Chi's were the height of Mexican dining. Today things are much better with Mexicans creating menus instead of former Green Bay Packer players. While it's been a sea change here in Madison with respect to Mexican food, L.A. is in a class of its own. Gold described how his city has restaurants that serve regional cuisine from 23 Mexican states. Then he bragged about the moles out west and then I moved from puckish to famished. There was also the story of one cook who dried beef on the laundry line in his backyard as well as the warning that Oaxacan(?) cooks tend to be pretty grumpy.

This feeling was tempered by the final part of his talk which described a multi-course all-SPAM dinner. The idea of SPAM Wellington just didn't do it for me.

The Q&A had some good discussion. Someone asked him about the term "foodie" to which he replied that it has become derogatory, though it's still a useful bit of shorthand. He prefers "foodist". His self-described worst meal was "Northern Special Beef" in L.A.'s Little Saigon. It was a brown-black gruel that he theorized was made of pureed spleens. Oh, and there was a piece of cowhide in it that had not been depilated.

Gold was cautious in his use of "authentic". In fact, he seemed ambivalent about it. On the one hand it is a mercurial concept but on the other I think he felt it had at least a modicum of utility. While I agree with him that the concept is always in a state of flux, I tend to lean more towards the latter. It can be a helpful idea but one must use care and be specific. If you're going to describe a dish as being authentic, you should say of where and/or when. If I were to make the ravioli Gold described, I would certainly be experiencing its authenticity on a diminished or incomplete level with respect to intent but I don't think that is an excuse to downplay or discard the authenticity on the level of taste. My ravioli would be authentic to at least a certain extent.

Another idea that was implicit in Gold's talk was that we Americans tend to homogenize the cuisines of other cultures. (And no doubt people around the world do this.) We can think of regions of the United States as having their own foods – e.g. – gumbo in Louisiana, BBQ in the South, tacos in the Southwest, bratwurst in Wisconsin, and so on – but we tend not to recognize that the cultures of other countries operate in the same way. My guess is that most people here think of Mexican food in broad outline. You've got tacos, burritos, etc. But, for someone like Gold, it's a much finer situation where restaurants in L.A. represent almost two dozen Mexican states with their own differences and variations. To make the point closer to home, think of German cuisine. Here in Madison we have The Essen Haus and, I'd argue, the idea that German cuisine consists of wurst, sauerbraten, schnitzel, and the other foods served there. While true in one sense, it also obscures a closer, more nuanced look at things. If we were to apply the magnifying lens that we use on American cuisine, then we'd probably say it's more accurate to label The Essen Haus' menu as being Bavarian. You don't find much there that is traditionally thought of as being Northern German cuisine. Unsurprisingly, northern parts of Germany eat a lot of fish – have you ever seen pike or eel at The Essen Haus? Then there's regional dishes like Labskaus, and wurst cooked with kale which, again, I don't think have ever been served at The Essen Haus.

My notes indicate that Gold didn't talk about why anyone should care about authenticity yet many people do. For me personally I value authenticity in its various guises. There's nothing wrong with eating foods that are "inauthentic" if you enjoy them but I think that food can be a tiny window into a culture that is not my own but of which I'd like to gain some understanding. Nothing profound here, just simple personal edification. If I go to what is ostensibly a Chinese restaurant and get a dish with enough sweet in the sweet and sour sauce to instantly give me diabetes, then I feel like I'm getting less of a glimpse of anything Chinese than I am American and our propensity to fill everything up with corn syrup because it's cheap.

Having said all this, macaroni & cheese "pizza" still ain't pizza.

Let me end with a bit of gossip. Afterwards I was outside with my companions and the topic of smelt came up. One of them, who is normally as mild-mannered and polite as can be, laid into the smelt at Sardine with all the zeal of a junkie with a fresh needle. I was genuinely surprised. Not ever having tasted their smelt, I cannot comment but, Madison area smelt fans, you have been warned.
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