Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why I'm glad the mining bill failed

By the time I post this it will be almost a week since ­­­Gogebic announced they were dropping their plan to build a mine in northern Wisconsin because the State Senate had taken too long to pass the requested bill.  You could say I’m behind the times in writing this now, that I’ve missed out on the discussion.  Or you could say I’ve had enough time to maturely think and reflect on it all.

For those of you not fortunate enough to be living in the political dreamland that is Wisconsin, or for those who live here but don’t follow politics, I’ll break it down for you.  Deep beneath the surface of Wisconsin are large deposits of iron ore, mainly in the northwestern portions. For a long time it was mined and shipped through the Great Lakes.  It’s a huge part of Wisconsin and Minnesota culture: the creation of the Duluth-Superior area, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  Even Wisconsin’s beloved Badgers are not named after the animal but after miners who lived their lives underground.  A Florida- based company, Gogebic (whose name sounds like the name of a mining civilization in a fantasy story) recently expressed interest in creating a new mine in northern Wisconsin, bringing along with it a promise of 600 to 700 new jobs.  There was a major stipulation, however.  The state government would have to reform its laws to make the process of gaining mining permits easier and reduce the power of the DNR to regulate mining.  A bill was crafted that gave Gogebic basically exactly what they wanted.  Now, in Wisconsin both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office are controlled by Republicans, giving them a free pass to do just about anything.  But after a round of recall elections the Republicans only have a one-vote majority in the Senate, making Sen. Dale Schultz (the one Republican senator who is willing to vote based on his convictions instead of party lines) the most powerful person in Wisconsin.  Schultz felt that the new bill was too lenient so he refused to sign it.  This led to negotiations where the bill’s authors tried to make changes that could win one vote, either from Schultz or a lone Democrat.  After protracted negotiations, Gogebic pulled out, saying that Wisconsin clearly wasn’t serious about getting a new mine.  Some believe that this is just a power play by Gogebic to get more of what they want, but as of this posting the bill is dead and the mine is dead.

As suggested in the title, I am pleased with this outcome.  I can think of better outcomes, but I can also surely think of worse outcomes, namely having the bill passed as originally written and having Gogebic run their mine the way they want.  I want mining to be a reality in Wisconsin, and I know that most people who live in the area where the mine would be want it to be a reality.  But it must be done correctly.  There is a desperate need for jobs, especially in Wisconsin which has been the only state to continue losing jobs as the rest of the state bounces back.  But there is also a need to protect the state’s beauty and natural resources.

Have you been to northern Wisconsin?  Maybe you haven’t but I hope for your sake you have.  It’s God’s country.  It’s a coniferous paradise.  Its wild, unchecked beauty is one of the great assets of our state.  We destroyed it once in the lumberjacking days but it has come back strong.  I would hope that this time along we would protect it, not exploit it.

An open pit mine wouldn’t be the end of the world.  The actual area covered by a mine would be small; if you lived in the area and thought it was an eyesore you could just drive around it.  Or maybe you’d like it.  On the way to work in Waukesha every day I pass by a quarry that is actually quite beautiful.  The tools of industry have their own artistic quality.  But the unseen impact would be huge.  Consider the air pollution, though I guess at this point we’re all just used to that and have no intentions of preventing it.  But the damage to the water table would have a lasting, powerful impact.  Water pollution would damage the ecosystem and reduce the quality of life.  This could in turn decrease tourism revenue in the state, as the north woods will quickly become a less desirable location to visit.  Those supporting the mining bill seem to think state regulations exist just to feed an ever-growing bureaucracy and create more desk jobs for greedy government workers.  But these are legitimate channels for us to protect the natural beauty of our state and for people to file grievances.  They protect our right to not have the damages and excesses of industry intrude on our lives.

The prevailing voice in the debate seems to be “jobs now.”  Not good jobs now, not safe jobs now.  Any jobs now.  So badly that the government tries to meet every beck and call of any company promising 600 jobs.  Never mind that we could look at Appalachia and see how little the mining industry actually improves the quality of life for its workers.  Never mind any long term decreases in the quality of our state and its other industries.  These guys are promising jobs, why aren’t we doing everything in our power to give them everything they want?

When Gogebic pulled out they didn’t take anything with them.  The iron ore, the resource that would produce those 600-700 jobs, is still buried here in Wisconsin.  The fact that we failed at allowing a Florida company to take and sell it is not a loss.  We still have the iron and the right to do with it as we please.  What our legislators need to remember is that we are in the driver’s seat.  This is not a new factory that can be planted anywhere with sufficient population and infrastructure.  This is a resource we have that others are trying to commercialize.  We have something they need.  In order to increase their profits they need to seek our permission to dig up and ship off chunks of our state.  We should be seeking to ensure we get the most possible benefit from this.  We should find a mining company that is looking to benefit Wisconsin as much as it profits from Wisconsin.  And if we can’t find one, someone should make one.  Don’t we have entrepreneurs here in the state?  By taking our time and making intelligent decisions we can make a plan that improves the long-term viability of the state instead of just taking whatever terrible offer gets thrown at us.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Zoom and Enhance: A murder in Dallas

I've been fascinated as of late with the Kennedy Assassination.  You could even say healthily obsessed; anyone who knows me is aware that I go through phases where I take one topic and learn everything I can about it for two weeks.  This phase started innocently enough.  I was engaging in one of my personal favorite activities: browsing the documentary section of my local library.  I spotted the famous/infamous The Men Who Killed Kennedy and realized that as much as I enjoy history and politics I knew very little about this specific event.  Anyone familiar with TMWKK is  probably shaking his head right now, knowing it's not necessarily the best source to learn about the investigation. It's a show from 1988, originally produced for England's ITV network, which popularized the Grassy Knoll conspiracy.  Over the years History Channel added episodes as more research was done, including a very controversial addition in 2003 implicating Vice President Johnson in the conspiracy.  So my first slice at it was from the naysayers and contrarians.  But rest assured that in the coming weeks I did plenty of research into the official viewpoint and those in between.

I'm not going to lay out what I think happened.  I'm not sure what happened.  It was almost as long before my birth as my entire life has yet lasted.  And both sides are so passionately entrenched in their view that you can't trust either.  You're either a conspiracy nut-job or a naive follower of a corrupt government; there is no room for in between.  So forming an idea this late after the fact is difficult.  But I'd like to write out some of my more interesting reflections on the event so I feel like all my research produced something more than a bunch of question marks.

Eyewitness Testimonies
The first thing that stands out to me in the conspiracy arguments is the heavy reliance on unverified eyewitness testimony.  So many accounts from people who came around fifteen or twenty years after the fact to say they had either heard shots from or seen a shooter on the grassy knoll.  Some of them claim that they had tried to testify at the time but the Warren Commission was not interested, and that's possible, but beyond that I feel some of these conspiracy theorists believe anyone who will come forth and claim to have been there.  Surely there must be more of a filter, or attempts to corroborate and verify this.  If everyone who claims to have been in Dealey Plaza that day was actually present, there wouldn't have been room for Lee Harvey Oswald.

But let's go ahead and assume everyone who claims to have been there was.  There's still this pattern or taking everything that's said at face value.  No adjustment for the fact that people were in a terrified panic with no context for what they were experiencing.  Conspiracy theorists believe everyone who heard shots must have heard correctly, even though they occurred nearly simultaneously with the shots from the book depository and could have easily been an echo.

I think of the 9/11 Truth movement and people citing testimonies the day of which suggested the planes had no windows.  We take everything that is recorded as fact.  If someone says something incorrect in the heat of the moment and it's recorded on film it is automatically afforded credence.  If a network doesn't air that footage in the future it's not because it was incorrect, it's because they are covering up THE TRUTH GULDANGIT.  Hearing some of the eyewitness testimony in these documentaries I had a clear image of how disappointed I would be if one day people started taking a serious look at 9/11 conspiracies based on incorrect testimony that was supposedly suppressed over time.

Now that I've spent sufficient time trashing the conspiracy movement, let's talk about some very legitimate points they make.  Even if you don't see dire motives, even if you're simply a student of history it's easy to be very disturbed by the way evidence was mishandled and destroyed in the time immediately following the assassination.  Why wasn't the limo treated as a crime scene?  Why did the Secret Service clean out the limo seat instead of photographing and analyzing the blood spatter?  Why was the Dallas coroner not allowed to perform an autopsy on site?  Why did the body have to be flown back to DC for a classified autopsy?  This all seem like the worst possible ways to handle a crime like this.  You would think the Secret Service would know to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible, not wash it away.  And what exactly would be so wrong with allowing the local coroner, who is surely qualified if he works in a municipality like Dallas, to do a preliminary autopsy?  Secret Service could oversee the process and make sure everything was done by the book.  There is plenty that is suspicious about their actions.

And for that matter why was security decreased that day?  Why are there stories of Secret Service going out partying until 5am the night before?  Why the decision to remove the bubble-top from the limo (which, despite popular legend, was not decided by JFK)?  How did they so quickly implement and find Oswald?  And why would Jack Ruby, a seedy businessman with seemingly little moral compass and possible mob ties, feel it was his duty to take him out "for what he put Jacqueline Kennedy through"?

There is a lot to be questioned in the days surrounding the assassination.  A lot that was done poorly, on almost a shocking level.  The only reassuring aspect is that if it had indeed been an inside job the Secret Service surely would have done much better than the botch job they performed.

The Zapruder Film
Possibly one of the most important pieces of film ever recorded.  A defining image of the 20th century.  Deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and permanently preserved in the National Film Registry.  This is what people see in their heads when they think about the assassination.  People my age looking back might not realize that it wasn't seen by the public until over a decade after the event; it stayed safely locked in the Time-Life archives.  While conspiracy theorists could point at this as suspicious, the truth of the matter is that it was kept secret to protect the public.  No one wanted to see the president's head explode in a mist.  But now we have and our culture is forever changed.

I've read accounts that there is a marked change in what was deemed appropriate in American cinema before and after the Zapruder film's release in 1975.  After this aired on national TV the standards changed.  This was the film that desensitized America.  I'm fascinated by every aspect of this film.  It's the perfect length; just 30 seconds.  Starts out serene, ends horrific.  I'm amazed at the fact that Zapruder kept his camera relatively steady and fixed on the action as shots continued to ring out.  One man, just out to film a parade, who ends up creating one of history's most important documents.

Badge Man
Across the road from Abraham Zapruder was Mary Moorman.  Also just out to capture a memory of the President's visit, she happened to shoot a Polaroid almost immediately after the President's head blew out.
This image is historically significant in its own right.  The composition, the exact moment when it happened to be taken.  It's amazing.  Just like the Zapruder, it's a perfect example of being somewhere at the right place and the right time to capture a significant world event.  But the conspiracy theorists found something more.

If you zoom in on the area in the top center of the image, you find the following blur:
Realistically this image could be anything.  We are talking about taking a Polaroid picture (about 4" on each side) and then zeroing in on a very small portion of that already small photo.  This is a Rorschach test as much as it is conspiracy evidence.  But people look at it and see the head and torso of a man facing towards Kennedy with a bright white muzzle flash emanating from the area he would be holding a gun if he were shooting at the president.  He is known as Badge man.

I have a phobia.  It's not diagnosed or anything, I haven't even done any research into if it's a real phobia because it has such a small impact on my life.  I am disturbed by hidden images discovered in photographs, especially old ones.  It's a very time-specific phobia.  It's something that couldn't have existed 150 years ago and something that is disappearing now that more precise digital photography is replacing the grainy process of darkroom development.  But there is something oddly sinister and deeply unsettling about zooming on close on a picture and finding a nondescript blob onto which we can project any of our worst fears.

So you can imagine my discomfort as I was watching the conspiracy documentary and, with dramatic scary music playing in the background they revealed this colorized depiction of the badge man: 
"Nope, nope nope.  Do not like.  Take it away."  There is something so deeply unsettling to me about the idea that in this well-known image is an actual capture of the man shooting the president, hidden in plain sight all these years.  If there was actually a Grassy Knoll shooter and this was him, that makes this just a terrifying image.

Of course, the truth is usually simpler than the folks going over pictures with magnifying glasses would have you believe.  Most analysis and accounts say that the blob that some people identify as Badge man is too small to be an adult human.  Some suggest it is the light reflecting off of a Coke bottle left on the fence.  Like most things we will probably just never know, but I can tell you that I hate this picture.

Dale K Myers
You would expect as we move further away from the events the chance of learning anything new rapidly decreases.  Witnesses die, evidence deteriorates.  But technology improves.  Even though we are limited to the same film images taken back in 1963, our methods for gaining information from them improve.  As recently as 2003 new developments were being made in the investigation of what really happened.

There's a man named Dale K Myers.  He's a journalist, a radio and television man, who decided to pursue computer modeling to try and reconstruct the events and try to reach a conclusive decision as to what happened.  On his website he details the process; I can assure you it is some very dry and technical writing.  Basically he created a 3d model of Dealey Plaza and then used knowledge of objects involved (the limo, the people) and photographic evidence (mainly the Zapruder film) to try and recreate what happened.

Myers' analysis seems to confirm the original theory of a single shooter in the book depository.  He traces the trajectory to show how a single bullet (often referred to as the magic bullet) could have actually hit all the targets suggested by the Warren Commission.  He supports the claim that the "back and to the left" movement is misleading; Kennedy moves slightly forward when hit, then a muscle spasm from the damage to his brain causes him to lurch back.  

It's all very compelling stuff, and an interesting concept, but no more definitive than anything previously presented.  It's actually a little misleading.  It plays on our tendency to trust computers as a higher power, unfailingly objective in their analysis. But the computer construction made by Myers involved just as much speculation and opinion as seeking out gunmen in between the cracks of an old photograph.  Creating a 3d model from a 2d film is art, not science.  Myers doesn't prove anything to anyone who isn't already looking to approve the official story.

So what do I think happened?  Honestly I don't know.  At this point it doesn't matter; like many truths in our time it has become so fragmented that there is no longer truth.  There will never be evidence that convinces everyone.  And I feel too far removed from the events to be able to judge the trustworthiness of those speaking about it.  It doesn't really matter now.  America has moved on; time heals all wounds.

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one.  Yet here there is no simple explanation.  Even the easy explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from the book depository has so many problems.  I listed above all the questions raised by the mishandling of the evidence.  But perhaps there is a simple answer there; incompetence.  Secret Service agents are trained to protect the President, not be detectives.  Maybe they didn't consider the importance of collecting evidence.  Either way it really doesn't matter now.  Another mystery lost to the passage of time.  The creation of an American myth.

Jackie Kennedy
A lot of this conspiracy talk gets to be very inhuman.  We talk about trajectories and locations and organizations.  Everything is an organization.  Either the mafia or the CIA or the Cubans; even Kennedy becomes more of a figure than a man who lost his life tragically.  We get lost in all the shadowy dealings and forget the real and imperfect human drama taking place.

I think Jackie Kennedy's role in all of this had the most impact on me.  Her story is just absolutely tragic.  I don't mourn for Jack; he got out while the getting was good.  He was on top of the world, riding in a parade in his honor with his beautiful wife by his side when he was taken out of this world.  He didn't have to deal with the craziness that came next, the cultural wars and that nation losing its mind.  But Jackie was there among it all.

She is sitting next to him when the shots are fired.  He is hit in the neck and she is seen leaning forward, asking is he's okay, most likely not realizing he's been shot.  She is right up close by him when he is hit in the head and his head explodes.  Immediately she goes back to get the Secret Service man but then she sits back down to tend to him.  She has him in her lap and she is bent over him to protect him.

It is a four mile ride to the hospital.  We know from seeing the film just how horrific his wound is.   A portion of his head is blown off.  And she is riding for four miles with her dead or nearly-dead's destroyed head in her lap.  I can't imagine the horror of that moment.  There are some accounts that say she tried collecting a bit of skull that had been blown off, saying "We have to make him whole again."  That line to me is just absolutely tragic.  "We have to make him whole again."

She refused to change her closes until the next day.  While she waited at the hospital, while Johnson was sworn in as president, while she disembarked in Washington, she wore her husband's blood throughout that day and night.  Finally at 5 am the next morning she bathed and changed.  God knows what she did during that sleepless night.

So there are my reflections on the JFK assassination.  I hope they aren't interpreted as expressing too much bias or viewpoint at all; I think I made it clear I don't have too many firm conclusions on any of it.  I just had a lot going through my mind as I finally at age 25 in the year 2012 learned the details of one of the most significant moments in American history.

I may do more posts like this.  I go through these phases where I research a topic intensely for a short period of time, and it does feel good to do something like this where I produce at least something concrete from it, even if it's as inconsequential as a blog post.  I guess I'll see how this is received and go from there.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The art of shoveling

This evening I had the distinct pleasure of being able to shovel a driveway.  You read that right: pleasure.  There are two yard work activities I will always have a fondness for: shoveling snow and raking leaves.  Mowing the lawn and whatever you do in springtime can shove it.  This year we were robbed of winter.  I got to do very few of the things I planned: sled in my backyard, ice skate on the pond nearby, bury my dog in snow and watch her shake it off.  But one thing I did end up doing multiple times was a good old fashioned shoveling, even though in almost every case if I had waited a day or two all the snow would have disappeared.

One of the many things I love about winter is the joy that comes in shared suffering.  The bitter winds blowing in your face and the icy sidewalk threatening to knock you off your feet are a reminder that we are all in this together.  We all face the same perils.  And when you make it safely home to curl up under a blanket with a steaming cup of cocoa (or better yet brandy and apple cider) you are reminded that we all enjoy the same comforts (the brandy thing may not be universal).  Winter brings us together.  It gives us something to gripe about and bond over.

And when the snow falls thick we all know what to do.  As the flakes quietly lay themselves down, we quietly lace up our boots, don our hats and gloves and grab that shovel.  There may be some grumbling, but otherwise nothing breaks the silence but the scraping of shovel on sidewalk (or the roar of a snow blower if that’s your thing).  It’s a duty.  Some folks may neglect to upkeep their homes, or take out their trash or what have you, but nobody neglects moving that snow.  When the snow comes we get the job done.

To me it’s therapeutic.  Everything is blanketed in snow, and I can restore order.  Clear out the sidewalks, clear out the path.   It’s one little thing I can control.  And it’s peaceful.  Something about the snow as it falls just deadens the air and kills all sound.  It’s so easy to feel when you’re shoveling that there is no place else in the world but the little bubble of snow you exist in.

And tonight nothing existed but snow.  It was the thick heavy wet kind that sticks to everything like glue.  Every branch fully frosted.  Every surface with an inch of the white stuff on it.  You look around and the world is mono-chromatic.  But it’s not a black and white photograph.  The white isn’t white, it’s that slight yellow of a streetlight’s illumination.  A little human intrusion as we try to clear out from winter's grasp the little surfaces that we consider our own.  That which we hold onto to make it through the cold.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book Review: New Orleans AD by Josh Neufeld

Though I haven't yet reviewed any on this blog I spend a lot of time reading the form of literature I believe we have begrudgingly come to accept as being called graphic novels (I recently learned the term "comix" and though I can't wait to bust it out in a Scrabble game I don't plan to ever use it in polite conversation.)  The premise of my reviews in particular is the same as my blog in general: to challenge myself to write often and post it for public scrutiny.  This is why I have written reviews of books that came out before I was born.  I am not a reliable source of literature information, unless you want to know my thoughts on whichever book I last decided to read through my relatively aimless selection process.  Imagine how jumbled it would be if I included books that only take a few hours to read and that I read multiples of per week.  Chaos, surely.  But I've been reading some really quality work that deserves discussion and recognition, so I want to highlight one of them.

A week ago I read One Soul by Ray Fawkes, which wowed me more than anything in any format has in a long time.  I almost reviewed that but it's so particular and its narrative (if you can call it that) so unusual that it's difficult to review.  Really the only way to review it is to describe its premise and then write "READ IT!" like that, in all capital letters with an exclamation point.  I'll save you a step and cut out the synopsis.  Just go read this book as soon as you can.  If you don't want to drop $24, most libraries have a graphic novel section now.  If you read it and hate it call me and I will personally apologize for wasting your three hours but I really don't foresee that being a problem.

The next week I did finally discover a graphic novel that would be suitable for a written review: AD: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld.  Released in 2009, it's a published collection of Neufeld's webcomic which aimed to form a historical record of Hurricane Katrina.  It takes the lives of seven New Orleans residents (three individuals and two couplings) and follows their five storylines from hurricane prep to their living situations years after.  Neufeld mentions in the Acknowledgments section that he sought to represent all facets of the population, and he does so in a nuanced way.  He does not take the stereotypical groups you expect - one rich white protagonist, one poor black protagonist, etc.  This is not the movie "Crash."  You actually feel like you are getting a realistic cross-section of residents, and that is the first strength of this book.

The second and biggest strength of this book is in the visuals.  One important measure of the quality of a work of art is its use of the medium.  In comics this means telling a story that is best told as a comic or that can only be told as a comic.  This is so true of Neufeld's work.  Pages are fully saturated in one color, for example:
The only example I could conjure was a drawing of a radio.  Whoops.
You may say to me, "Well, Kevin that just seems like lazy illustration.  Like maybe he didn't want to hire a colorist."  Well you're wrong.  It's actually a very effective decision, in many ways.  It creates a feeling of unity or shared experience among all the characters, as they all seem to be drifting in the same colorless world.  It also helps emphasize certain moods with certain colors (no, it's not blue/green for the entire book).  Finally it comes in handy when Neufeld uses it to highlight important points or characters by putting them in white on a color background.

The first 20 pages of this book are fantastic and worth the price of admission alone.  You could click over to the webcomic version and read through to get a taste but it's not the same experience.  In the book version Neufeld really knows what he's doing with the power of page layouts, specifically in the massive 2 page spreads.  A series of wordless images sets up the story of the hurricane easier than any prose could.  I'll attempt to describe it, but it's something you can't really feel until you just read it.

Top half: A view of Earth from space
Bottom half: A closer view of Earth, emphasizing the Gulf of Mexico

A two page spread of the New Orleans skyline, with residential neighborhoods in the foreground.  All one color, the surest image of stillness and calm.  In the upper-right corner the sun beats hot on the world.

Page is divided into corners, showing aerial shots of various New Orleans neighborhoods.  Bourbon Street, a cathedral, a neighborhood, the levees.

Same as page 4 but set in Buloxi.

Top half: Gulf of Mexico.  Clouds swirl east of Florida.
Bottom half: Same frame, slightly zoomed in.  Storm has grown and moved west over the gulf

Top half left: Stream of cars lining the highways out of New Orleans
Top half right: Crowds of people filing into the Superdome
Bottom half: Same frame as page 7, the hurricane has grown to take up the entire frame.

PAGE 8-9
Two page spread of New Orleans, now with a massive swirling storm behind it.

The next pages or show the course of destruction, all wordless, all in one color, with very few humans afoot.  It is quiet and chilling and powerful and it could only be done in a comic.

So there you go.  Now I understand that this review is a bit bonkers.  It must be as difficult to visualize a comic by reading text descriptions of it as it is to write those text descriptions.  More reason to read it then, right?  If you want an accurate and human account of Hurricane Katrina, give a comic book a chance