Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

27 November, 2013

Hoary-Haired Warriors and Clean Venus Chambers: Medieval Culture and Society - David Herlihy, ed.

I have to admit to being a bit leery when I bought this book. Having been published in 1968 I was concerned that new evidence had been uncovered in the past 45 years which would contradict or at least cast new light on some of the themes presented in it. Plus the field itself has no doubt changed over the years. From my experience, older texts on medieval history tend to ignore women and pretty much anyone who wasn't clergy, royalty, or aristocracy while newer ones often fill in these gaps. Books laying out who ruled and went to war when are easy to come by but ones that give me a sense of a medieval mindset and vivid descriptions of quotidian life are harder to find. But this book was cheap so I wasn't going to lose much if it turned out not to hold anything new for me. As a bonus, I discovered halfway through that the editor, David Herlihy, was a professor here at the UW-Madison when this book was published.

The book is divided into three parts that each cover the generally accepted eras of what we call the Middle Ages. You've got the Early Middle Ages which spans roughly from 500C.E. to 1000.; then there's the Middle Middle Ages which lasts until 1350; and finally the Late Middle Ages which goes until 1500. Each of these sections includes primary sources, texts in whole or excerpted, from the respective periods with each having a short introduction by Herlihy. There is a good mix of texts here. You've got histories, papal writings, poems, saintly hagiographies, etc. But you also get various government documents spawned by medieval bureaucracies.

The book begins with Tacitus giving us an overview of Germanic culture in the first century C.E. I was pleased to find out that my ancestors were a fun-loving bunch: "No other race indulges more freely in entertainments and hospitality." It came as absolutely no surprise to me to read that they drank beer. "A liquor for drinking bearing a certain resemblance to wine is made by the process of fermentation from barley or other grain." Speaking of beer, we also have De Villis, a manual for running royal estates thought to be issued by Charlemagne himself, in which we find "During the time the steward performs his service, he should have his malt delivered to the palace. Similarly, let masters come who know how to make good beer there."

Having read a fair amount about St. Benedict and Benedictine monasteries, I was happy to actually find something from the man himself here, namely, the Rules of St. Benedict, from c. 540 in which he lays out monastic virtues. Unlike the monks featured in Into Great Silence who enjoy sledding from time to time, it would seem that Benedictine monks would have been a very dour, humorless group. What are the "instruments of good works"? Not to embrace pleasure. To be terrified of hell. To hate one's own will. Not to pronounce idle or frivolous words. Just imagine Jorge de Burgos as your boss. Uff da!

Also included is a description of the Synod of Whitby by Bede the Venerable. The Synod took place in 663ish and featured the English and the Irish churches arguing over when to place Easter. The English want to adopt the practices of the Church in Rome whereas the Celts were keen on their own dating tradition. A bishop named Wilfrid argued for following Rome's example and did so in only the most confusing way possible. To wit: "But if the Sunday were not to come the next morrow after the 14th day of the change of the moon, but the 16th or 17th or any other day of the moon until the one-and-twentieth, he tarried for that Sunday, and the Sabbath before, upon the evening, he began the most holy solemnity of Easter." Whew! No doubt early Church fathers would be appalled at how Christmas has taken the top spot in the ranks of Christian holidays.

When we get to the Middle Middle Ages, historians have a much larger written record to draw from and, consequently, this section of the book is much lengthier than the first.

Much is made of the feudal system but cities and towns were often granted special rights and privileges in the name of promoting commerce. An example is given here in form of the statutes of the "free village" of Lorris in France. In the early 12th century land was cleared and, in order to get people to settle in the new village, liberal regulations were adopted by Louis VI. We're not talking a libertarian paradise here but various fines, tolls, and taxes were waived. And men didn't have to leave town in order to take a case to court.

Even an unschooled layreader like myself can't avoid the great love story of Abelard and Heloise. As with St. Benedict above, it is nice to read about their legendary love story first-hand instead of third. Abelard was a renowned philosopher who became smitten with Heloise. She lived with her uncle so the crafty scholar installed himself in the uncle's house and began a relationship with Heloise. In short, she gets pregnant and, when the matter becomes public, he is castrated. Here's how he describes the terrible act: "For they cut off those parts of my body, by which I had committed the deed which sorrowed them." That's putting it lightly.

This period is one in which literature flowered. Instead of fiction devoted entirely to the derring do of warriors on the battlefield or the hunt for Grendel, we have Dante's epic Divine Comedy, the humorous tales of sly and cunning Reynard the Fox, and lyric poetry devoted to love. Of the last we have an excerpt from Romance of the Rose. Today we complain about George Lucas tweaking his own movies with CGI, but imagine being a fan of this poem which was hastily completed after the author died and then expanded four fold a few decades later. The original tale by Guillaume de Lorris was written around 1237 but he did not complete it. To de Lorris' 4000 lines were added 78 new ones by an anonymous author so that the story concluded. Cut to 1277 when Jean de Meun re-wrote the ending. This seems heretical enough to us but, to make matters worse, he took his sweet time and added 16,000+ lines to the original. De Lorris wrote about a man seeking love, "aided in his quest by mirth, courtesy, gladness, wealth, largesse, and other qualities". The special extended addition is more vulgar as we find here with excerpts from passages by both authors.

De Lorris describes how a man may be courteous and attract women with his good manners. "Be courteous and accommodating/With soft and reasonable words," he writes. Also "When you are passing through the streets/Be sure you act politely." This is the stuff parents teach their children. However, de Meun takes another route and describes the advice from an old nurse given to women who wish to succeed in love. One handy bit of advice: "She should keep her Venus' chamber clean/If she is refined and well brought up/Let her leave no spiderwebs about". De Meun is like a proto-editor of Cosmopolitan magazine here.

The section dealing with the Late Middle Ages is the shortest of the three. You've got Boccaccio describing the Black Death in Florence and some Chaucer as well. "The Ordinance of Laborers" by Edward III interested me. In the wake of The Plague, workers were in short supply and so could demand higher wages and have more choice in where they plied their trades. Edward, apparently not a fan of the law of supply and demand, took matters into his own hands and dictated terms for workers in his lands. It became forbidden for reapers and mowers to "depart from the said service without reasonable cause or license". "Artificers and workmen" saw their pay limited to pre-Plague rates. Perhaps in a blow for consumer rights, Edward also commanded that "sellers of all manner of victuals" sell their food "for a reasonable price".

Judging from the preface, Medieval Culture and Society is a text for the layreader like myself. (One also learns in the preface that Herlihy was a professor here at the UW-Madison when he compiled the book.) And the introductory material is also clearly written for someone, also like me, who is not fully steeped in medieval history. One problem is that these elements are very concise and people just learning the subject are probably going to be left with many questions. This book is not largely an historian explaining history and then giving examples from primary sources to illustrate his text. Instead the reader is given brief outlines as introductions and then thrown in the water to sink or swim. While by no means a scholarly book, this is also not meant for readers who are just starting with the subject.

Along these same lines, there are times when footnotes would have been handy. Take "So Filled With Happiness" from the section about troubadour lyric poetry. It has the line "Richer than gold in Frisian mart". How many modern average Joe's are going to A) know where Frisia is and B) understand why the author would have referred to it?

At least this is better than the Great Books of the Western World series for which editor Mortimer Adler decided against introductory notes completely. One thing Great Books and Medieval Culture and Society have in common is a love for translations that aren't much newer than the texts they transcribe.

Take, for example, Song of Hildebrand. It is littered with thee's and thy's. Plus you've got "Canst win the harness from so hoary a man". It's better than the Old High German of the original but had no one translated it after 1650? I'm no scholar so I don't know exactly who has translated what and when, but you'd think that the core texts, texts that form the foundation of our understanding of the time, would have at least semi-modern translations.

The Internet mitigated some of these problems and it also helped that I was not starting from scratch when it came to medieval history. Overall, Medieval Culture and Society was good reading. I especially enjoyed being able to read the words of figures I've only read about. But a lot was left out. For instance, there was nothing written by women here – not even a token entry from Hildegard of Bingen. Maps are always welcome too. Help me place the events described, where they are on the globe but also where they are located politically. What are the boundaries of the kingdom? The more context the merrier, I say.

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25 November, 2013

The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot

Here's a trailer for The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot which is one of the funniest things I've seen in a while. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Colin Baker rules.

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24 November, 2013

It Was 50 Years Ago Yesterday

Happy 50th to Doctor Who! It's strange to think that 50 years ago it all started with this:

With the help of the incredibly handy BroaDWcast site, I have determined that my decent into DW fandom began in the spring or summer of 1980 when Chicago's PBS affiliate was broadcasting the show in the evening and I'd cozy up to the 1970 Sony color TV that we had. It had maybe a 15" screen which seems so paltry these days. But it was still working just fine when it was finally gotten rid of in 2002. Back then the show came in 25 minute episodes with 4-6 of them per story with each episode ending in a cliffhanger. Ergo I'd catch part 1 on Monday and would usually have to wait until Thursday for the resolution. My earliest memory of watching the show is being thoroughly intrigued and terrified by "The Ark in Space".

How could you not like Tom Baker as The Doctor? He was fearless, funny, irreverent, and clever. Plus he had the world's longest scarf. DW was just like nothing else that I was watching at the time. Looking back, I think that my television diet at that time consisted mostly of comedy. There was M*A*S*H* and Good Times, for instance. I distinct remember being completely flummoxed by Soap yet kept watching it hoping that I'd figure it out. Oh, and I cannot forget The Carol Burnett Show. Of course there were also the children's programs like Gigglesnort Hotel and The Muppet Show. Considering this, it doesn't seem like a stretch that I should adore DW. The Doctor and Hawkeye, my favorite character from M*A*S*H*, were both iconoclasts and very funny. Gigglesnort Hotel and The Muppet Show were both 99% puppets so the low budget plastic Wirrn of "The Ark in Space" were, in a sense, a continuation of what I'd already been watching, simply having moved from the realm of comedy to sci-fi/horror. In addition, The Doctor was incredibly smart and he used his intelligence for the good. He was improvising technical solutions long before MacGyver. The Doctor was all about brains over braun which, as a proto-nerd, I found tremendously exciting.

The show's time slot eventually got moved to late Sunday nights and it took a while before I could A) stay awake that long and B) get permission from my parents to do so. Several of my classmates were also DW fans so, once these goals were achieved, Monday mornings at school were all about discussing last night's story. We were all saddened when the show was put on hiatus in 1985 but happy to hear of its return the following autumn and the eventual announcement of Sylvester McCoy as having been cast as the Seventh Doctor.

And then everything changed.

Earlier this year I watched all of the 5th through 7th Doctor episodes. It was quite an experience as I hadn't seen some of those stories in ages. A lot of memories also came flooding back; some good and some bad. You see, after my freshman year of high school, my family moved from the big city to rural Wisconsin. My parents' marriage proceeded to end and everyone in my family was just miserable. Loneliness engulfed me and I had never felt so lost in my life. The dislocation from friends, family, and the culture of Chicago was unbearable.

Then that autumn, I discovered that the PBS station out of the Twin Cities showed DW and I was absolutely thrilled to find myself watching "The Trial of a Time Lord" one night. This was an important story in that it brought the show out of its hiatus but, even more importantly for me, it was like a light in the darkness and little bit of home for a very homesick kid. Watching it again this year, I was taken back to those dark days of my youth but also recalled just how enthralled I was by it. The opening shot showed that the BBC had spent some significant money and it had a unified look as the program was shot entirely on videotape with 16mm film having been discarded for exterior shots. "The Trial of a Time Lord" is not perfect by any means, but I still love the Agatha Christie-in-space of "Terror of the Vervoids", the mystery of the identity of the planet in "The Mysterious Planet", the return of Sil, and the surreal adventure in The Matrix. Plus how can you go wrong with Brian Blessed? And let's not forget there's the Master and the big reveal of The Valeyard's true identity. However imperfect "The Trial of a Time Lord" may be, I still adore it and can remember getting sucked in when I watched it for the first time.

I have very similar feelings towards watching the Seventh Doctor stories for the first time. I'd gone to see Sylvester McCoy in Green Bay in the summer of 1987 when he was on a promotional tour to drum up interest in the show again but it took a while for his episodes to actually make it to air. Again, I just ate them up. I loved them. I remember watching a Dalek ascend stairs for the first time in "Remembrance of the Daleks" and being very perplexed by "Ghost Light" but loving every minute of it. There were many highlights in the show's final few seasons but perhaps the most interesting elements were that the stories hinted at The Doctor's past and Ace. Unlike most previous companions, Ace was very proactive and did much more than ask The Doctor questions. She even destroyed a Dalek with a baseball bat!

The show was taking on a new life and it felt like it was truly mine in a way that it hadn't previously. I was no longer watching episodes from the past; instead I was watching current ones (more or less). And then it was gone again.

And it stayed gone. I was incredibly disappointed when I heard that the show would not be coming back. It was the end of an era. But I couldn't dwell too much on it as a new era was beginning for me - college.

I found new friends in college who were also fans of DW but the show was off the air and all we could do was revel in the past. Then, not long after I graduated, news broke that the show was going to return on Fox with a new Doctor. The excitement returned. Although the resulting movie was very mediocre, I liked Paul McGann and looked forward to seeing how the show would develop from there. But it was not to be as the TV gods decided against continuing the series.

For the next several years my involvement with the show went on hiatus as I focused on other things including truly becoming an adult and finding a career. However I would "rediscover" my love for DW at the beginning of the new millennium. In the wake of a failed relationship I found myself single and feeling that I'd become someone I didn't like. It was as if I wasn't me anymore. And so I undertook a rigorous regimen of getting back to the nerdy basics and doing what truly made me happy instead of what I perceived as making someone else happy.

DW was a part of this. I bought my first Past Doctor Adventures, which featured Sixie. Soon after I discovered that someone was making

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21 November, 2013

Batch Bakehouse to Make Stollen

The folks at Batch Bakehouse are making stollen next month. Stollen is a German cake made with candied fruits and nuts and is usually consumed around Christmas. Being an eastsider, it'll be nice to not have to run out to Middleton to get some this year. I am told it will be available on 14-15 and 21-24 of December. My order has been placed.

When I went to the BB website to look for contact info, I noticed that their bread schedule includes two rye variations as well as pretzels. I was pleased to see this as it seemed that whenever I was at their old location, all I ever saw was focaccia, ciabatta, and baguette. As tasty as these breads are, I am mostly of Central and Eastern Europe stock ergo I need rye coursing through my veins at all times. To my taste, the best rye bread in town is the stuff imported from Chicago that Inter Market carries but I'd love to find a local loaf.

Now, if I could only get Batch to make pączki, makowiec, and kolache. Then I'd be set.

While I'm on the subject, does anyone know where to get rye brat buns in Madison? And while I'm asking "does anyone know where to get" questions, does anyone know where to get woodruff in Madison?

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18 November, 2013

Playing With Fire: Lessons of Darkness by Werner Herzog

Earlier this month Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness from 1992 screened as part of the Tales from Planet Earth film festival which aims to highlight environmental issues and promote awareness.

Clocking in a bit under an hour, Lessons of Darkness begins with an apocryphal quote credited to Blaise Pascal and is divided into 13 sections delineated by intertitles which show the aftermath of the first Gulf War. The first section is called "A Capital City" which is a long aerial shot of what I presume to be Kuwait City. Today we are used to Herzog's iconic voice describing his subject (and how pitifully small and unimportant humanity is) but voiceover narration is very sparse here and he gives us no context for what we see – no when, where, or how. It's an "abandon all hope ye who enter here" kind of moment as the city looks to be fine but, as the film continues, it's not unlike a decent into hell.

Set to a backdrop of Mahler, Wagner, and others, Herzog shows us what a war zone looks like after the war. With his camera in a vehicle, we see the desertscape go by littered with the burned out shells of tanks and trucks. Another tracking shot shows us the inside of a torture chamber. We can see the implements of torture scattered about but the victims and torturers are gone. Next up are aerial shots of the remains of Kuwaiti oil infrastructure. Pipes and storage tanks are twisted and collapsed almost beyond recognition – presumably they burned for days on end.

More aerial shots give us vast miles of desert sand soaked in oil, pot marked with lakes of crude, and cut by freshly plowed roads to reveal the white underneath. And in the background there are fires belching thick, black smoke that obscures the sky. These are the oil fields lit afire by the Iraqis as they retreated. These images truly look like a planet other than Earth. With feet planted on the ground Herzog and his crew use long lenses to capture the drama of men attempting to put out the oil well fires and affix new caps on the wellheads. No Wagner is needed here as the roaring flames, water hoses, and machinery create a din which, when combined with the hellish imagery, gives rise to an infernal gesamtkunstwerk.

I would imagine that the festival organizers were hoping that the audience responded to all that smoke and oil-soaked sand as an environmental disaster and perhaps take action to reduce the use of fossil fuels. While I don't feel that Herzog is indifferent to the disaster, I couldn't help but feel that he was also up to his old tricks in pointing out human folly. By not giving his audience much in the way of context, it feels like he's saying that this is just one in a long line of catastrophes that will continue into the future, that we will never learn. Also note that life seemed to be going on as normal in the capital city while the hell is off somewhere else as if it were someone else's problem. Like it's just a bump in the road for civilization that marches on to the next disaster never having learned it lesson.

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Life in Space Is Impossible: Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón proved himself to be a fan of the long take in Children of Men but the opening sequence in Gravity would surely make Orson Welles envious. (Although Aleksandr Sokurov might not be quite so impressed.) The opening shot lasts somewhere on the order of 15 minutes as the camera glides in and around two astronauts who are working on the Hubble Telescope outside their space shuttle which is parked in orbit around our blue globe. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a NASA veteran on his last mission. He is outfitted with a propulsion pack thingy that allows him to remain untethered to the shuttle or its robotic arm. As Dr. Stone, played by Sandra Bullock works on a faulty circuit board, Kowalski zips around like a kid with a new toy lamenting all the while that he won't be the record for longest spacewalk.

Soon enough the fun ends as mission control in Houston interrupts the proceedings by announcing that the Russians have destroyed one of their own satellites and that the debris will be making its way to their position. They are to abandon their mission and return ASAP. Ryan is sure she can finish her repairs quickly and ignores Kowalski's order to return to the shuttle. Regardless, the debris is upon them and rips through the robotic arm keeping the Hubble in check. Our astronauts are flung off into space.

In 3D and on the IMAX screen, Cuarón's visual representation of angular momentum makes for one of the most visceral cinema experiences ever to be had. The camera follows Ryan as she is flung from the wreckage ass over tea kettle out into space. It was truly harrowing to watch her summersault her way towards the void in a panic, unable to stop spinning or figure out where she is in relation to the shuttle. Kowalski, however, has the propulsion suit and comes to rescue.

Tethered together, the pair make their way to the shuttle only to find that it too was ripped apart by the debris and that the other astronauts did not survive. Kowalski then points to their next destination, the International Space Station where a Soyuz module should be available for a return to Earth. Ryan's suit is running out of oxygen and she remains panicked. Kowalski is the definition of calm here and he tries to take Ryan's mind off of their desperate situation by engaging her in some chit-chat. He asks her what awaits her when she finally returns to Earth and we learn that her daughter had been killed.

We also learn that, in the film, when it rains, it pours. Approaching the ISS, our heroes see that one of the Soyuz modules is gone and that the parachute of the remaining one has already been deployed. They crash land onto the structure but, due to momentum once again, it proves difficult to get a hold of anything. Ryan's legs get wound up in the parachute's cords but manages to grab Kowalski's suit. Realizing that both oxygen and time is running out, Kowalski detaches himself from Ryan so that she may go on.

And she does. Ryan makes it inside the ISS where tragedy once again strikes and she gets into the remaining Soyuz capsule to escape the debris which is coming round again. Trapped in an unmaneuverable craft, Ryan despairs before she gives up. She shuts down all of the systems and prepares to fall asleep never to wake up again when a face appears in the window. Kowalski opens the hatch and lets himself in. As cheerful as ever, he immediately sniffs out the obligatory vodka bottle before encouraging Ryan to carry on using the knowledge she has from her flight training. Kowalski is gone in one oneiric poof but Ryan has gained a new lust for life and is determined to make her way to a Chinese space station where she will find a functional escape pod and finally get home.

Gravity is a resounding success as the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster. The CGI, flowing camerawork, and 3D all combined to make me feel as if I too were stuck in orbit and gave me case of vertigo. Cuarón also deserves credit for refusing to cut to scenes of mission control in Houston and instead keep the viewer immersed in the peril that the astronauts find themselves in. He also pulled one out of the 2001: A Space Odyssey playbook and made sure that there was no sound in space. Instead we heard what Ryan "heard" when her space suit came into contact with objects. Plus there was the spectral music of the soundtrack and Ryan panting for breath.

While the movie's style and verisimilitude all contribute to a visceral experience, the thematic material presented here by Cuarón is thin gruel. Ryan's adventure in space – the disasters, the capitulation, the rekindled desire to live, and rebirth are all supposed to reflect upon her inner life. (At the end, her capsule crash lands in a lake and she removes her space suit so she can swim back to shore where she emerges from the water in her underwear a la Ripley in Alien.) The tether to the shuttle's arm is akin to an umbilical cord and emerging from the water onto terra firma is an allegory for birth. But we learn so very little about Ryan that the allegorical elements are reduced to the barest of footnotes next to the vast 3D spectacle of her survival in space. Religion pops up but only in the form of a Russian Orthodox icon on the Soyuz dashboard and a Buddha on the dash of the Chinese capsule. This is a joke and not some commentary on religion.

You have a character lost and facing death in the most remote, secluded spot that we humans can currently and realistically get to yet all Cuarón can give us is an action/survival tale with some ham-fisted allegory. Just imagine what Werner Herzog would have done with this scenario. Mankind as a mere mote in relation to the vastness of the universe, fate, people driven to extremes – this is fertile thematic ground.

I appreciated that Cuarón utilized stylistic elements generally associated with art film like very long takes and his refusal to cut away from the action in orbit to create such an immersive thrill ride but, in the end, it would have been nice had he taken the opportunity to also inject some food for thought into the movie as well.

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14 November, 2013

Fear of a Black Tenement

Yesterday Isthmus published a piece on a proposal for a new high rise on East Wilson. It would be sandwiched between the Union Transfer Condominiums and Marina Condominiums. It has drawn the ire of condo owners some of whom would see their view of the lake disappear and be replaced by the windows of their next door neighbors.

While I think we should be packing people into the isthmus, I don't really have a horse in this race. What draws my ire is a comment by local architect and, by the sound of it, all-purpose asshole, Kenton Peters:

Local architect Kenton Peters, who designed both the Marina and Union Transfer buildings and lives in the Union Transfer penthouse, criticized the proposal for ignoring the needs and character of downtown Madison.

"Good architecture doesn't take a 20-minute discussion," Peters said.

Peters also said that offering rental studios and one-bedroom apartments would create the kind of problems seen in the Allied Drive neighborhood, one of the city’s more troubled neighborhoods.

"As I look at the building proposed ... I can say to you that I think what you're proposing will be the Allied Drive of downtown in 10 years," Peters said.

First, I laughed reading his nano-exegesis on good architecture because he designed the Marina Condominiums which is one of the ugliest buildings in the city. While his sardine can may be a crime against good architecture, in my opinion, it's his racially-charged comment that deserves attention. "Allied Drive" is a code phrase for poor black people and his insinuation that the availability of studios and one-bedroom apartments will turn the building into Cabrini Green is laughable at best, and racist at worst. He can't simply say that current residents of the condos on either side of the project don't want a view of someone else's living room and instead has to engage in race-baiting? What a douche nozzle.

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Domino, Madison's Camgirl

I came across this article at Gizmodo the other day about "The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls". Little did I know that Madison is home to one whom I take to be fairly well-known - Domino.

"There's a lot of burnout in this industry," Domino tells me over the phone from one of the three houses she owns in Wisconsin—one of them a lakefront property outside of Madison. She says it with a serious voice that sounds a little tired. I don't know her real name, and I don't get the feeling she's willing to tell. We just talk about stripping and streaming sex, her chosen field for the past couple years.

Before she started stripping—both online and off—Domino was a suit: working at a Fortune 500 company as a graphic designer. She quit the firm out of boredom in 2010, and now mainly flexes her aesthetic skills to push her online sex shows. Unlike most cam girls, Domino isn't affiliated with a network like LiveJasmin. She's completely independent, streaming strip and fetish sex shows from her home studio, straight from a website she built herself.

I don't know if she comes from a wealthy family or has a lot of good days at work where she earns $300, but she obviously does well enough to own three houses.

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Trailer for An Adventure in Time and Space

We now have a trailer for An Adventure in Time and Space, a fictional account of the genesis of Doctor Who. If these 30 seconds are any indicator, David Bradley looks to be a great William Hartnell. It airs on the 21st.

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Paul McGann Returns As The Doctor (For a Few Minutes, Anyway)

Wowzers! Paul McGann returns as The Doctor in this webisode. It's from the BBC so it's canon. Man, lots of arguing ahead at Chicago TARDIS this year.

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12 November, 2013

Soglin Looks To Get Tough on Poverty

Finally! It was good to read this morning that Mayor Soglin has started advocating for a new economic plan for Madison to address the growing poverty and racial disparities here in Madison (and Dane County at large). This is why I voted for him. Mayor Cieslewicz really turned me off with the vast amount of political capital he spent on pushing the Edgewater Hotel remodeling plus the fact that he drank the Richard Florida Kool-Aid on a near daily basis. Urban analyst Aaron Renn once noted that "the creative class doesn’t have much in the way of coattails" yet it seemed that the only things in Cieslewicz's arsenal to combat rising poverty in Madison were tech startups and amenities for the vaunted "creative class".

Recently a group called Race for Equity released a report detailing vast economic and educational disparities between whites and blacks in Dane County. Amongst the findings:

-- In 2011, the unemployment rate was 25.2 percent for Blacks compared to just 4.8 percent for whites. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 18 percent for Blacks and 8 percent for whites.

-- In the same year, "over 54 percent of African American Dane County residents lived below the federal poverty line, compared to 8.7 percent of whites, meaning Dane County Blacks were over six times more likely to be poor than whites."

-- More than 74 percent of Black children live under the poverty level as opposed to just 5.5 percent of white children. The report suggested "that this 13 to 1 disparity ratio may constitute one of the widest Black/white child poverty gaps that the Census Surveys reported for any jurisdiction in the nation."

-- "In 2011, African American youth in the Madison Public School District had about a 50 percent on-time high school graduation rate, compared to 85 percent for white students."

-- "African American adolescents, while constituting less than 9 percent of the county's youth population, made up almost 80 percent of all the local kids sentenced to the state's juvenile correctional facility in 2011."

To address these issues

Soglin released a 15-page Madison Employment Plan that will focus on five areas over the next year: housing, quality child care, transportation, health and education/employment.

He said a team of government, community and business leaders needs to work together quickly in three areas:

Youth internships

Building trades apprenticeships

The creation of more full-time — not just part-time — jobs for adults


Increasing the number of full-time jobs overall is “as big as the universe itself,” Soglin said. “It is simply creating more jobs in locally based companies.”

There's much to like here although I am skeptical of the notion that existing companies can provide all the work that is needed. A recent blog post by Pete Saunders remarked upon a report from last year on the Chicago mega-region, i.e. - the area from Milwaukee south along the Lake Michigan shore to northwest Indiana. This region has the same racial disparities as Madison and what caught my attention was this part of the report: "Skills mismatch lies at the heart of these challenges. Low-skilled workers are not finding jobs, while manufacturers can’t fill medium-skilled job vacancies." If creating full-time jobs that pay well enough to support families is the goal, Madison needs to look for new blood, in my humble opinion. One would think that existing companies would already be creating more jobs if the demand was there.

A few things that come to mind in light of all this:

1) Money is tight. Every drop of utility will have to be wrung from the money available.

2) Governor Walker has declared Wisconsin to be open for business. Can Madison/Dane County have him put his money where his mouth is? Can the WEDC be of help in increasing/diversifying the range of employment opportunities here?

3) Partnerships. Can Madison/Dane County partner with neighboring municipalities?

4) Can we better leverage our existing strengths? Take, for instance, Dane County's agricultural sector. Can we leverage it into something more than a public market?

5) We've got Jennifer Cheatham, Nancy Hanks and a whole cabal of former Chicago Public School system administrators running the Madison public schools right now. They bring a wealth of experience from a system struggling with large numbers of poor minority students. Let's listen to them. We should also be open-minded about revisiting Kaleem Caire's Madison Prep Academy. I was certainly ambivalent about it and thought tweaking was necessary but, as my political science professor Charles Anderson described his philosophy of pragmatic liberalism, if something isn't working, try something else.

In the years 2000-2005, the top two counties that people moved to Madison from were Cook and Milwaukee - Chicago and Milwaukee. It seems likely that a fairly significant number of these people were poor minorities. If Lisa Bullock's story is any indication, that trend hasn't stopped.

Bringing together "government, community and business leaders" is a good idea. Prof. Anderson would call this a community of inquiry. But Soglin needs to keep this issue front and center. He cannot keep quiet about it for a Friedman unit or two. Instead, he must keep talking about it, keep explaining how investing in children mired in poverty and their unemployed parents will benefit Madison and Dane county as a whole. Soglin, et al need to make a case to the business community that his plan will benefit them; they need to make a case to the "creative class" explaining how his plan will benefit them; they need to explain to the very people they seek to help what the plan is and how it will help them. Make sure these people have some control over their lives instead of it just being Big Daddy Soglin dictating everything.

It's going to be a long row to hoe which is why the mayor needs to advocate for his plan loudly, publicly, and often.

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07 November, 2013

Western Black Rhino Joins Choir Invisible

Sad. The Western black rhino has been declared extinct.

Africa's western black rhino is now officially extinct according the latest review of animals and plants by the world's largest conservation network.

The subspecies of the black rhino -- which is classified as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species -- was last seen in western Africa in 2006.

The IUCN warns that other rhinos could follow saying Africa's northern white rhino is "teetering on the brink of extinction" while Asia's Javan rhino is "making its last stand" due to continued poaching and lack of conservation.

What will the practitioners of the hokum that is "Traditional Chinese Medicine" do once there are no more rhinos left anywhere on the planet?

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Officer, I've Shat Myself

Former FBI agent and law enforcement officer Dale Hanson has a book called Arrest-Proof Yourself and Atlantic Cities has a nice piece about it. The first step is to be invisible to police so they don't get in your face. But if they do and seem bound and determined to arrest you...

It's debasement time. Start with crying. Bawl hard while begging for a notice (the option here is a notice or jail, not notice/jail or getting off scot free). "Don't waste time worrying about what your friends will think," Carson says. "If they're with you, they're getting arrested too." If they're not with you, they won't know.

If crying fails, and you're willing to do whatever it takes to not go to jail, Carson advises you to "foul yourself so that the police will consider setting you free in order not to get their cruiser nasty." Vomit on your clothes. Defecate and urinate in your pants. Then let the officers know what you've done. If they arrest you anyway, you'll get cleaned and reclothed at the jail.

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

There is a petition up at Change.org encouraging people to contact their Wisconsin state representatives and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to show support for Assembly Bill 409 which would establish an independent review board to investigate incidents civilian deaths at the hands of the police.


1.) Requires a three-member team of investigators (two from agencies that do not employ an officer involved in the death) to prepare a report and provide it to the district attorney of the county in which the death occurred.

2.) Then, a Review Board, which the bill creates and attaches to the Department of Justice, must review the report to ensure it addresses all aspects of the death and may request further information from the investigative team.

3.) The five-member Review Board (appointed by the Attorney General) would consist of:

•A retired or reserve judge.
•A former sheriff, chief of police, chief deputy sheriff or asst. chief of police.
•An assistant attorney general.
•A professor or researcher affiliated with a Wisconsin university or college, who has expertise in the field of criminal law or criminal justice.
•A former district attorney or assistant DA, who served in that capacity for at least 10 years.

4.) Any officer involved in a death would be required to submit a blood sample subject to testing with either the officer's permission or a search warrant.

I think this is a good idea but I would imagine that police unions are going to fight this tooth and nail. But I have some reservations. That review board is stacked with former officials of the legal/law enforcement professions and I'd like to see more people from outside of those areas. Aside from the blue code of silence, when I read articles such as this one about a Chicago police officer who drank "multiple" beers before reporting to duty, ends up standing over a bleeding suspect and putting three rounds in his back killing him, and then gets off basically scot-free, I just have very little faith that attorneys general, former AGs, and current/former district attorneys are particularly impartial.

There is something at the site that is particularly striking:

Cops can be heroes, but since 1890 every Wisconsin officer who took a life was cleared of any wrongdoing. Every single one.

I can't find a citation so I don't know that it's true but, if so, it's outrageous. This shows that the people who are ostensibly "on the same side" as the police should not be charged with overseeing the men and women in blue.

As an aside, I recognize Paul Heenan on the right in the photos above. Does anyone know who the other two gentlemen are?

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06 November, 2013

This Beer Will Bring Both Glory and Plunder When Skillfully Wielded: Ulfberht by Vintage Brewing

Back in June I "suggested" to the brewmaster at Vintage that he brew a Baltic porter. A few months, some leftover smoked wheat, and one episode of NOVA later, Ulfberht was on tap.

To the best of my knowledge, the Baltic porter as it is generally known today began life in the 18th century in England where breweries made a high octane version of their normal porters for export east across the Baltic Sea. Eventually the Baltic countries began to brew their own porters instead of importing them from the UK. As the 19th century wore on, the lager brewing trend spread and was adopted in the Baltic region and applied to the porter.

I've always thought of the Baltic porter as being heavy on malt flavors. You've got some sweetness as well as roasted goodness leaving the hops in the dust. And they are big beers too – think 8% ABV or so. We're talking a hearty brew to take the chill off a Siberian winter day or to get a bunch of blue-faced Finns ready to hunt reindeer.

After receiving my suggestion, Scotty found himself with some leftover smoked wheat after having brewed his Grodziskie and fascinated by the Viking sword Ulfberht as seen in the NOVA episode "Secrets of the Viking Sword". A brew was born.

Ulfberht is a nice deep brown that appears black when not held directly to the light. It looked clear at the bottom of my glass. My pour didn't get much of a head but the foam I did get was tan and you could see bubbles forming on the side of the glass. The aroma was marvelous. The first thing my proboscis detected was the fine smoky, ham-like smell from the wheat. Next I discerned toast emanating from the roasted dark malt. I also caught a bit of stone fruit sweetness.

The taste was equally delightful. That smoke flavor wasn't as strong as you'd find in a Schlenkerla rauchbier but it was fairly prominent. There was also some coffee flavor in there from the dark malts plus some sweetness which was like caramel. Mouthfeel was pretty smooth and, for all the malt action here, it was chewy but not syrupy. I could feel a bit of the effervescence and taste a hint of the alcohol. It is 7.6% ABV, after all. The hops didn't make themselves known until the end of the sip when the Saaz's grassy/spicy flavor came through and carried into the finish making for a dry ending. I, decidedly not a hophead, consider Ulfberht to be moderately bitter meaning that it's about as hoppy as a Czech pilsner.

Curiously enough, Ulfberht isn't a proper Baltic porter. Instead it's some hybrid Baltic wheat porter-like elixir as 50% of the grain bill is comprised of the smoked wheat. I suppose this makes it an imperial rauch dunkel-nicht-hefe-weizen or some such thing. Whatever style it may or may not be, it combines two of my favorite beer flavors - smoke and dark malts and it keeps them in harmony. Ulfberht has proven to be a great warmer for the chilly, rainy autumn nights we've been having.

Junk food pairing: Considering the smokiness of Ulfberht, I'd go with a hearty BBQ potato chip. But don't get those dainty, thin, delicate ones. Get a thicker cut that a hungry Viking who's been out slaughtering innocents all day could appreciate. Then submerge it in some warm cheddar cheese-flavored dip. And make sure it has a sharp taste like a nice aged cheddar. Give those sturdy malt flavors a run for their money.

Bonus content: NOVA interviewed Scott after they found out he named a beer in honor of their program. You can read the interview they did with him here.

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05 November, 2013

Just in Time for Halloween: The Woman in Black at the Bartell

It's not often I attend a live theatrical performance, especially in Madison. And so the folks at Strollers and OUT!Cast should take it as a great compliment that they lured me in with their take on The Woman in Black.

I've not read the book by Susan Hill which is the basis of this play but have seen the film by James Watkins which was released last year. (It was a Hammer film!) With the movie in mind, I was struck at just how different the play was. Adapted for the stage in the late 80s by Stephen Malatratt, The Woman in Black has been a fixture on London stages ever since.

It takes place in London "somewhere in the past century..." (note the foreboding ellipsis) and begins in a theatre where an aging Arthur Kipps (played by Sam White) has come to present his eldritch and woeful tale to the proprietor, a younger man referred to only as "The Actor" (Pete Ammel), so that it may admonish audiences and, presumably, serve to assuage some of his guilt. Kipps' story goes back decades when he was a young solicitor (i.e. - lawyer) who was tasked with going to a small town called Crythin Gifford where he would attend the funeral of one Alice Drablow and get the deceased woman's estate in order.

The conceit here is that Kipps' tale is told as a play with the play. Lighting cues switch us back and forth between the time when the older Kipps is relating his story and the harrowing events from his younger days. Since the performance features only two main actors, Ammel becomes the younger Kipps while White takes on everyone else. This is remarkably effective and abetted by only costume changes, a minimal set, and judicious use of a fog machine.

Kipps first sees the titular character at Mrs. Drablow's funeral but she becomes a more frequent sight as Kipps investigates Drablow's house which, funnily enough, becomes inaccessible when the tides roll in. The secret of why the woman in black haunts Crythin Gifford is slowly unveiled as Kipps reads through letters and teases details from the locals who suffer her presence. Like Kipps at the beginning of the play, this restless spirit is haunted by guilt.

Most of the set consists of a large trunk and a couple of chairs but off to one side is a door. The last of these sits unused until Kipps begins investigating the house and, thanks to some skillful lighting and a well-timed scream, eventually it becomes the most ominous door I've ever witnessed on a stage.

Both Ammel and White put in wonderful performances but White deserves to be singled out as he was required to take on several roles changing accents as he goes. The acting, lighting, set, and sound all combined perfectly for a great bit of gothic horror.

Hopefully Madison theatre troupes will come to their senses and realize that they are welcome to put on tales of horror during months other than October.

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Goodbye Coney Island, Hello Off Color, and WBC Hits Shelves

Sad news, for me anyway. I discovered this morning that a subsidiary of the Boston Beer Company, Alchemy & Science, has purchased the Coney Island brand from Schmaltz Brewing. That in itself isn't bad but news that the new owners will "probably pull back distribution of the Coney Island beers to just focus on the New York metro and New Jersey markets" is.

I like to grab a bomber or two of their brews when I'm in Chicagoland and I guess that's not going to be possible anymore. Too bad. I reviewed Albino Python here and Sword Swallower here.

Speaking of Chicago, not only will I have a couple new flavors from Metropolitan within my grasp when I'm down there later this month, but also some brews from Off Color. As per Binny's blog, Off Color's first two bottled brews will be available – Troublesome, a "blended" wheat beer and Scurry, a dark honey ale. Troublesome is a blended gose concoction which involves a "somewhat uninteresting" wheat beer commingled with "an overly acidic & funky beer fermented solely with lactobacillus". Scurry continues the rare German bier style trend by being a Kotbusser, an ale made with honey and molasses – not unlike Berghoff's Germaniac.

Why the odd styles? Co-founder John Laffler said, "If you go into Binny’s, there are 50 well-made (India pale ales). Why the hell would you throw your hat in that ring? Plus this is what we’re more interested in."

I look forward to trying their brews.

Has anyone tried Wisconsin Brewing Company yet? Their beers hit store shelves yesterday when I was unable to consume. A friend said he thought the porter was awful but that the amber lager was good. He also remarked that the lager tasted slightly differently than Capital's but that the difference was not worth paying $.50 more per six-pack. (Capital is $6.99 at Woodman's while WBC is $7.49.Unless prices have been raised recently.)

It's quite a stark contrast between Off Color and WBC. OC is reluctant to jump on the bandwagon and play the IPA game. On the other hand, WBC has a brewmaster with a professed fondness for German lagers and who had never commercially brewed an IPA before yet half his portfolio now is IPAs.

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More Polish Films

I noted earlier that the Madison Polish Film Festival has announced dates and films. It was my hope that Aftermath and/or 1939: The Secret of Westerplatte would be brought north but, alas, it was not to be.

But all is not lost. The fest here in Madison piggybacks off of the Polish Film Festival in America, a much larger event held annually in Chicago. That fest begins in three days and lasts until the 24th of this month. And both of the above films are to screen.

I recently found out about Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

Scorsese is apparently curating this exhibition of 21 classic Polish films all of which have been restored. Screenings start in New York come February and then move on to various cities around the country with Chicago likely being the closest stop to Madison. It looks to be quite a treat and would really love the chance to see The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydra) and The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie) on the big screen.

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23rd Annual Madison Polish Film Festival

The dates and films for the 23rd Annual Madison Polish Film Festival have been announced. There will be four films in total with two screened on Saturday, 23 November and the remaining on Saturday, 7 December. All films are to be screened at the Marquee Theatre at Union South and are in Polish with English subtitles. Here's the line-up:

23 November

Loving (Miłość) dir. Sławomir Fabicki, 2012
Maria and Tomek are in their 30's, have been happily married for 10 years, and are expecting a baby soon. All of the sudden, their peaceful relationship is put to the test by an unexpected event. This drama explores the complex nature of love and how jealousy, fear, responsibility, empathy, and forgiveness affect loving relationships.

In The Name Of (W imię) dir. Małgorzata Szumowska, 2013
Adam is a Catholic priest who directs a reintigration center for orphans with behavioral problems in rural Poland. His loneliness in the village is matched with his personal life, as he desires men - a sexual inclination deemed by his own religious beliefs as both amoral and intrinsically evil. When Adam meets Łukasz he finds himself caught between his profession and his crippling need to be loved. His infatuation remains well-hidden, yet when a young boy in his care commits suicide, he finds himself under the harsh judicial glare of the church.

7 December

The Closed Circuit (Układ Zamknięty) dir. Ryszard Bugajski, 2013
Inspired by real events that took place in 2003, this film relates the misfortunes of three businessmen who fall victim to a conspiracy of sorts, led by a corrupt group of jurists and tax department employees. One day, at 6 a.m., anti-terrorist intervention teams, guns in hand, enter the homes of these three businessmen, who have no idea of the origin of the accusations brought against them by the district attorney: they are accused of being criminals laundering money. Put in jail and kept from having any contact with their families who are being harassed by government employees, they can only count on the help of a young journalist who will risk his career on television to do everything he can to unveil the truth.

Dzień Kobiet (Women's Day) dir. Maria Sadowska, 2012
Halina, a cashier in a chain-store is hoping for a better life for herself and her 13 year old daughter, Misia. As soon as she can, Halina becomes the store manager; as manager she discovers that dishonesty, manipulation, and deceit are part of the price for a higher salary and standard of living. Halina soon loses track of past friendships, as well as her relationship with her daughter; will she take the opportunity to set things right? The absurdity of consumerism and its subsequent re-evaluation of values are called into question by this film that depicts an evolving Polish reality.

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01 November, 2013

Meet Nancy Hanks

Earlier this month The Cap Times profiled the new Madison Schools Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham who left the Chicago Public Schools. In her new position, Cheatham surrounded herself with a contingent of other former Chicagoans, among them was Nancy Hanks.

The article doesn't say much about her but yesterday the Chicago Reader posted an article giving us a glimpse at Madison's new deputy assistant superintendent for elementary schools. Considering the changing complexion of Madison's schools and the racial tensions that came to surface because of the aborted Madison Preparatory Academy, Ms. Hanks seems like an inspired choice.

In June I wrote about Melody elementary, one of Chicago's countless hypersegregated public schools. The enrollment at Melody, in West Garfield Park, is 98 percent black and 99 percent low-income. The school was on probation because of its test scores, which have been dismal for years. Melody was being consolidated with Delano, another poor, African-American school with dismal test scores.

But Melody had something going for it: a young, energetic, highly regarded principal—Nancy Hanks. She'd gotten a master's at Harvard in 2009, in a training program designed specifically to produce principals for CPS, and she'd been at Melody for three years, during which time she'd worked hard to set a new tone at the school.

In August, Hanks, 31, let administrators know she was leaving for Madison, where she'd been offered a district-level job as deputy assistant superintendent for elementary schools.

Hanks grew up on the west side and attended public schools—Lewis elementary, Thorp Scholastic Academy, and Whitney Young Magnet High School. "I was born and raised here, so I knew what I was signing up for," she told me in May, in her small office at Melody.

She talked about the extra tasks for schools in poor neighborhoods. She arranged for visits to Melody by a dentist, and trips for students to a vision clinic. Academically, there was "catch-up work" that had to be done, because children reached school age having been read to and conversed with less than kids from affluent homes. She lamented increases in class size during her three years at Melody because of budget cuts. The job was more difficult for teachers and administrators at schools like Melody, she said, but she enjoyed the challenge. "If that doesn’t motivate you, or if it's a chore for you, then this isn’t the place or the community for you to be in."

She felt that her own background—coming from the west side, and becoming a principal at such an early age—made her an inspiration for Melody children. "They say, 'Oh my God, you grew up where? You went to school where?' They think, 'I do know a person from this community that was able to make it.'"

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