Monday, May 31, 2010

A Fitting Memorial

Last summer, I was moved by the obituary of monument-maker Kurt Pechmann, who first came to Wisconsin as a German POW and later settled here with his family.  He was grateful to the United States and its soldiers for the humane treatment he received, and throughout his life, he contributed to American veterans' memorials.

Now his son, Gerhard, is working on a memorial for Cross Plains American Legion Post 245.  The story ran a few days ago in the Wisconsin State Journal.  There is also a video interview, which I unfortunately cannot embed.  Please watch it; it's quite moving.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Guatemala Hit By Double Whammy

A few days ago, Guatemala's capital was coated in ash from a volcanic eruption that disrupted flights and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.

That disaster was eclipsed by Tropical Storm Agatha, the first eastern Pacific tropical storm of the season, which struck over the weekend, killing at least a dozen Guatemalans and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate.

No doubt Pat Robertson will have an explanation for Guatemala's divine punishment.

A Primer on the Use of Who and Whom

I'm clearly becoming a curmudgeon in my middle age.  I'm finding it increasingly annoying that no one seems to use the word "whom" anymore.  I'm not just talking about bloggers; I'm talking about print journalists and even novelists.

It's really not that difficult to understand when to use "whom" instead of "who." 

"Who" is the subject of a verb (the one doing the action).  "Whom" is the object (the one to whom the action is being done).

Here's a simple test.  Can you substitute "he" in place of "who" in your sentence and have it sound correct?  Do you need to substitute "him" instead?  "He" is to "who" as "him" is to "whom." 

I'll give a shout-out to any blogger whom I see use the word "whom" correctly.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hollywood Names to Help With Oil Clean-up

BP can't manage to shut off its gushing undersea well.  The federal government seems impotent. Don't worry -- Hollywood is here to help.

James Cameron is offering his submersibles to assist with the clean-up effort.  Even more surprisingly, it seems that after completing Waterworld in 1995, star Kevin Costner invested in centrifugal oil separator technology that was used on the Exxon Valdez spill.  It has been fine-tuned over the past 15 years since he bought it and is about to be tried in the Gulf.

Stephen Baldwin is making a documentary about it.  It could turn-out to be very exciting film-making --  disasters have a way of finding Kevin Costner.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pennsylvania's Own Caucus Scandal Spawns Twitter Anonymity Concerns

The State of Pennsylvania has recently concluded its own version of the caucus scandal that rocked Wisconsin politics several years ago (and hit the news again recently with the ruling that Scooter Jensen can move his retrial to Waukesha County, where the DA seems to have no enthusiasm for taking it up).

Shortly after the Democrats took control of Pennsylvania's state house (in November of 2006), Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett began investigating the practice of taxpayer-compensated legislative aides working on political campaigns.  However, it was mainly Democrats who were prosecuted.  Three (one Rep. and two staffers) were convicted in March.  The first sentence, against legislative aide Brett Cott, was just handed down this week (21 to 60 months in prison).

If Cott's name sounds familiar to Wisconsin political junkies, it may be because he is the former executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party who then went on to work for Chuck Chvala during the time of Wisconsin's caucus scandal.

In September of 2008, an anonymous blog called CasablancaPA began posting criticisms of Corbett's investigation and prosecutory choices. Corbett asserted that he investigated both Democrats and Republicans.  The blog pointed out that, during the second half of 2007, Republican legislative offices (both in Harrisburg and in the District) replaced all of their computers.

Before Brett Cott's sentencing hearing, Attorney General Corbett subpoenaed Twitter, in an attempt to prove that CasablancaPA is authored by Cott (h/t Capper).  The subpoena raised a hue and cry around the country, with accusations that Corbett is trying to chill critical speech and also accusations that he is abusing the grand jury process to obtain evidence to use in a sentencing hearing rather than to investigate a crime.  After the sentencing hearing, Corbett dropped the Twitter subpoena.  However, the ACLU has not dropped the issue.

Cott plans to appeal the sentence.  His attorney, Bryan Walk, said his client already has suffered greatly by being convicted of three crimes and will find it difficult to get a job. Maybe he should move to Wisconsin after he completes his sentence and ask Chuck Chvala for another job, in one of Chvala's private-sector businesses.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Google Trumps Facebook with Latest Big Brother Move

For the last few years, Google has reigned supreme as the real-world's nearest thing to George Orwell's Big Brother character from 1984.

In the past month, it looked as though upstart Facebook might surpass the former master. First, FB rolled out some creepy new features that shared public profile information with third-party websites. Then, a couple weeks ago, a bug allowed FB users to view their friends' private chat sessions. Translating for the older generation, it was like having your private landline suddenly switched by the phone company to a party line without your knowledge, allowing all of your neighbors to listen in on your conversations.

But this week, Google demonstrated that Facebook is still an amateur when it comes to secretly mining personal data without permission. Google recently admitted that, due to a "programming error," the company "accidentally" gathered -- and stored -- snippets of data from any unsecured WiFi networks in the vicinity while Google operatives were taking "street view" pictures for Google Maps.

Just how much data did the Chinese government mine when it hacked into Google's servers?  Also, why did it take three years for Google to notice that it had all that data?

Congress is investigating, so we can look forward to hearings in which computer-illiterate Senators attempt to question the "Don't Be Evil" Empire.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Maybe I Should Start a Pool

Which downtown hotel will be the next to come to the City for TIF for a remodel or expansion?

Will Inn on the Park or the Madison Concourse cry about needing to update their space to compete with the Edgewater?

Or will the Hilton talk about the need to add rooms to support Monona Terrace?

Will the next request be for more than $16 million?

How will the City be able to refuse? After all, if they give new proposals less preferential treatment than they gave Bob Dunn's, it will look like they were playing favorites.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Man on the Silver Mountain

Rest in peace, Ronnie James Dio.  You will be missed here on Earth.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

No Bad Dogs...

...only bad owners.  That was the philosophy of the late, great Barbara Woodhouse, an elderly, British dog whisperer for a previous generation.  I see her proved right on a regular basis.

If you regularly spend time and energy (and decibels) trying to retrieve a dog that obviously holds you in contempt, you might want to consider keeping that dog tied up instead of just letting him run loose through the neighborhood.  It would save you a lot of effort. While most of the neighborhood is more amused than annoyed, there are still a few elderly lawn worshipers on the block who are not above calling animal control.  It would be sad to see your dog end up at the Humane Society just because he's smarter than his owner.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

You May Need Those Rights Someday

The recent failed car-bombing attempt in Times Square by a naturalized American citizen from Pakistan has inspired two new proposals to roll back due process rights for terrorism suspects. Attorney General Eric Holder is proposing a limit on Miranda rights for terror suspects.  Even more chilling is the U.S. Expatriation Act, a bill sponsored by Senators Scott Brown and Joe Lieberman.  The bill would strip citizenship from terror suspects. That's right, not just convicted terrorists, but terror suspects.

Anyone who thinks this will only affect bad guys who have trained in Pakistan is forgetting the stories of Steven Hatfill and Richard Jewell.  Hatfill, you may recall, was the scientist whom the FBI assumed was behind the anthrax-laced letters sent in 2001.  In a recent interview with Matt Lauer, Hatfill said:

“I love my country,” Hatfill, 56, told Lauer. But, he added, “I learned a couple things. The government can do to you whatever they want. They can break the laws, federal laws, as they see fit … You can’t turn laws on and off as you deem fit. And the Privacy Act laws were put in place specifically to stop what happened to me. Whether we’re at war or have been attacked, the foundation of society is that you hold to the laws in place. I used to be somebody that trusted the government. Now I really don't trust anything.”
Richard Jewell was also falsely accused by the FBI of a terrorist act, the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. He was just an ordinary guy doing his job, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If the Brown-Lieberman legislation had been in place, both Hatfill and Jewell may have been shipped to Guantanamo Bay and subjected to "enhanced interrogation" until they confessed (we know that waterboarding can elicit false confessions -- it's what it was originally developed to do).  And Bruce Ivins and Eric Rudolph might still be at large, killing people.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

On the Other Hand

I've been thinking recently about the way society has traditionally treated left-handedness.  For centuries, favoring the left hand has been considered by many cultures to be evil or unclean.  As a result, left-handed children were often forced by their parents and teachers to use their right hand. Britain's future King George VI was forced by his strict father to use his right hand. The younger George developed a severe stammer which plagued him all his life.  Baseball players Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth were also forced to use their right hands in childhood. Although they wrote right-handed, their natural southpaw tendencies came out when they hit or threw a baseball.

There are several Biblical passages that are unfavorable of the left hand, and these passages were influential in perpetuating the practice of forcing lefties to go right.  To this day, science does not understand what causes left-handedness.  It is not hereditary, although there may be a genetic component.  The hormonal environment in the womb is another possible cause (high prenatal testosterone levels seem to result in more left-handed children, and older mothers are more likely to have left-handed children). Ultrasound studies show that we seem to develop our lateral orientation in the womb (fetuses favor sucking one thumb or the other, which corresponds to their dominant hand after birth).

Lefties seem to have an advantage in combat sports, probably because they are accustomed to competing against righties, but righties find lefties to be novel and challenging.  Despite this, the percentage of true lefties in the population seems to be stable. Various studies estimate it at anywhere from 5% to 15%. 

Most Americans nowadays believe that left-handedness is an accident of birth, a minor inconvenience (considering all the modern tools that are designed for righties) that should be simply accepted, and not inherently evil or sinful.  Left-handed children can be trained to use their right hands, but they will not excel at it, and their self esteem is likely to suffer.  Therefore, most parents and teachers no longer force children to go against their nature, at least with regards to lateral orientation.

Our society is gradually coming around to the idea that sexual orientation is also an accident of birth. Gay youngsters can be forced to behave like straight people, but they do not excel at it. There are still plenty of Bible-thumpers who cite Leviticus as a reason to send their gay children to a deprogramming camp (while they themselves eat bacon-wrapped shrimp, enjoy interest-bearing bank accounts and argue about politics with their own parents), but the Haggard and Rekers scandals are undermining the belief that homosexuality is a choice that can be willed away by faith in God. 

If these men, who are in the public eye proclaiming against homosexual behavior and claiming that gay people can be "cured" by faith, are unable to suppress their nature, how can anyone be expected to do so?  These men had sex with prostitutes, risking their own health and that of their poor, unwitting wives.  It is within the segments of society that are most homophobic that gay men seem to engage in the most risky sex.  In the African-American community, the term "on the down-low" was coined for gay men who pretend to be straight but engage in discreet casual sex with other men.  I am reminded of the bumper sticker "If Guns Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Guns."

There are still many who persist in believing that sexual orientation is a choice (as if anyone would choose to be ostracized by society).  Younger Americans are more likely to believe that sexual orientation is inborn.  That is why there is such a wide gap in attitudes toward gay rights between older and younger conservatives. The politics of division that are practiced by some on the right are actually painting them into a corner.  In the short term, they will gain votes (since older people vote in much larger numbers), but in the long-term, their electorate will die off faster than it can be replaced.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Before Anyone Asks

No, The Sconz is not my son.  As far as I know, we're not related at all.  Although I did once have a relative (now deceased) who drank a lot of Blatz.

Monday, May 3, 2010

More About Taxpayer Subsidies

This started out as a comment in response to other comments, but it got ridiculously long.

The Monroe Commons TIF was not straightforward. It involved a lot of innovative math to avoid violating the 50 percent limit. There was a large subsidy placed on each condo to pay for the grocery store. The repayment formula was unrealistic to start with, but the Council seems not to have realized that. Yes, the market tanked. Anyone who believed the real estate boom was going to last forever had no business speculating in the market with taxpayer funds. I hope the developer manages to meet the commitment to make up the shortfall.

With regards to Capitol West, the city counted on a sufficient number of condos being sold and added to the property tax rolls. That hasn't yet happened, hence the State Journal reporting "Alexander has no issues with tax payments, but has struggled to sell enough condos to meet obligations for $4.27 million TIF loan."

Overture Center is a huge mess. Its draft budget for 2010-11 has a deficit almost twice as big as MCAD's reserves.  Who will make up the shortfall if not the City?  The City is also on the hook through 2011 for part of the remaining debt (part of the 2005 refinancing deal). It continues to subsidize the center's operations, much as it did for the Madison Civic Center.

Marc Eisen wrote a terrific story in Isthmus a few years ago on Overture's big mistakes which included this:
Mistake #4: Not programming enough free events. Paul Kosidowski, writing in these pages a few weeks ago, pointed out how crucial the old Crossroads was to the Civic Center for casually pulling the public into the building for children's shows. (It also, I would add, served as a short-cut to traverse the downtown.) The Crossroads functioned surprisingly well as a town square within the building.
Overture so far has no similar democratizing feature, and this only adds to complex's hoity-toity stand-offishness. This is not good. Not only because Frautschi dedicated the arts complex to the whole community, but because at some point the community may be asked to dig into its pockets to maintain Overture. 
While Overture's resident community arts groups have indeed increased their offerings (both in number and scale), a number of other community arts groups have struggled. 

Regarding the library, I did mis-state the facts. I should have said "17 million in TIF for a shiny new $37 million library."  $37 million was the total amount that the Council approved in the capital budget for the new library (not the total cost of the proposed Fiore mixed-use project though, which would have been $88 million). I apologize for not spotting the error before I published the post.  It will be corrected.  I have followed the saga of the proposed downtown library fairly closely.

And I never speculated about the age of Monroe Commons condo residents.  I was thinking of the patrons of Trader Joe's, the gourmet grocery store that was the reason for the Monroe Commons TIF.  Capitol West was the high-rise condo development I had in mind.  Regardless of who lives there, it adds a certain urban energy to the look of our downtown.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Madison Taxpayers Subsidize Yuppie Lifestyle

It has become more and more apparent that the City of Madison's taxpayer-funded assistance to private developers has not been the win-win it was claimed to be. The city is trying to collect almost $200,000 owed on the Monroe Commons TIF "loan" -- a deal that was so complex that I doubt most of the City Council even understood what they were approving.

Randy Alexander's Capitol West development has also struggled to make the payments on its $4.27 million TIF "loan" -- in 2009, the city had to re-write the deal, in order to prevent a default.

The city is also on the hook for the Overture Center's operating budget deficit. While the OC's cheerleaders claim that it has boosted property values and been an economic development engine for downtown, one wonders why, in that case, so many of the Capitol West condos remain unsold. The cheerleaders also talk about the public benefit of having a vibrant community arts facility. They conveniently forget that the OC's predecessor, the Madison Civic Center, hosted even more community arts groups, most of whom cannot afford the higher rents at the OC.

Now, after backing off his $37 million TIF request for a shiny new library $17 million TIF request for a shiny new $37 million library in favor of a scaled-down remodel, Madison's Mayor is still pushing for $16 million in TIF for the Edgewater project.  For this project, he has bullied committees, touted dubious jobs numbers and pushed through ordinance changes.  The property is not currently in a TIF district, and the request also violates other aspects of the city's TIF policy, so more rules will need to be re-written. On top of all that, much of the "loan" will be "repaid" by raiding property taxes from the successful University Square project, money that would otherwise go into the general fund.  Brenda Konkel and Kristin Czubkowski have more details on the most recent Edgewater TIF application.

I think the real reason for all of this is that Madison's west-side power brokers want to pretend they're living in Manhattan, with high-rise condos, Broadway shows, gourmet groceries and elegant, overpriced hotels.  I expect our new improved downtown library to have an entrance flanked by lion statues.  We already saw a return of the Statue of Liberty on the lake this past winter. Maybe we can drop a lighted disco ball from the top of the State Capitol on New Year's Eve, too.