Friday, May 30, 2008

No big deal until it's a big deal

This is becoming a tired pattern: newspaper runs a story mentioning a subject controversial to some, those some become enraged that the subject is mentioned, others tell them to settle down, they retaliate by claiming their anger has nothing to do with the subject itself, but rather with the newspaper's insistence on even mentioning it.

Case-and-point: The Cap Times runs a story about recently selected UW chancellor Biddy Martin that mentions her being the first openly gay chancellor at the university. This isn't the first or only story run on her selection, rather just one of many, and it happens to focus on this particular element and how it relates to the UW's current lack of domestic partnership benefits. Martin has expressed her intention to support efforts to change that. Simple enough.

But of course, certain folks take umbrage with the article and its focus, claiming that Martin's sexuality has no relevance and shouldn't be mentioned, ever, at all. Apparently it gets their undies in a bunch.

Dave Blaska, scourge of the Isthmus Daily Page, laments that:
But is that the essence of Biddy Martin, her sexual proclivities? Why would a major university hire someone for that reason? (Or, for that matter, not hire?) Would not a more enlightened policy — a John Patrick Hunter policy — be (cue "Anchors Away") "Don't ask, don't tell"?
Quality. Now that it's a generally accepted no-no to be a bigot, bigots have turned to round-about ways of expressing their disdain for all that is different: ignoring it. Plugging their ears and singing "la la la I can't heeeear yoooou" and claiming that it's "no big deal." That is, until someone has the gall to mention it, and then all bets are off as to civility and rationality.

Well, they're right on one count: a person's sexuality shouldn't be a big deal and it shouldn't have anything to do with how we judge their character, qualifications for a job, or anything else. They're as wrong as the military when it comes to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" though. Straight people mentioning their straightness doesn't seem to piss them off, so why should a gay person mentioning that they're gay?

We're also early enough in the game (sadly) that it remains noteworthy when the first of a traditionally marginalized and/or discriminated against group gains prominence or major achievement. The fact that, for instance, Barack Obama is the first major black candidate for the highest office in the land is noteworthy. We shouldn't elect him or not elect him based on that fact, but how on Earth are you going to ignore what is such a major milestone? Ignoring that fact, and the fact of the first openly gay UW chancellor, is akin to ignoring and/or denying the monumental hurdles they've had to overcome on their way to these positions. Hurdles that our society has, for far too long and even still to this day, placed merrily in their way.

And yet, and yet. The webmaster at TCT had to disable the comments section that accompanied the article about Martin and domestic partnership benefits because they became so vitriolic, so caustic that it did nothing to foster debate, only anger and hatred. That's a crying shame, but at least we're reminded that these types of attitudes still exist, and that there's still much to be done in the way of education and activism before we can call ourselves a truly enlightened and egalitarian society.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, next chancellor of UW-M

It's all but official at this point: now-former provost of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, Carolyn "Biddy" Martin has been selected as the new chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. From all accounts, she seems well-qualified for the role, and I am optimistic about her tenure.

Martin, 57, is familiar with UW-Madison. She was a lecturer at the university in the early 1980s and earned her doctorate in German literature from the school in 1985.


Martin has spent more than 20 years at Cornell and has been at her current post of provost -- the university's chief academic officer and chief operating officer -- since 2000. As provost, Martin helped raise $110 million for a life science building, developed a program to make financial aid available to students and put together a retention plan for faculty -- something which currently is an issue at UW-Madison due to its relatively low pay scale for professors, at least when compared to peer institutions.
In relation to that last point, Martin, too, will be dealing with that low pay scale. While she'll be making more than former chancellor Wiley--he made $327,000 a year and her pay range has been set at $370,000 to $452,000--this will actually be a pay cut from what she made at Cornell. Not to read too much into it, but this strikes me as a good sign that Martin took the job because she wanted it and thinks she can make a positive difference, rather than because of money.

I'm also encouraged by her history of fundraising and scholarship programs at Cornell. She has stated a desire to "build a strong relationship[s] with members of the legislature, and to sell to leaders how important UW-Madison is to the state's economic, political, social and cultural well being." With the current legislature, this will surely be an uphill battle, but one well forth the fight. Proper funding of the university system, and making sure it's accessible to all students who are interested and qualified, is crucial not just for saving face but too because it helps lead to better lives, a better workforce, and a better environment overall state-wide. Education is and should remain a top priority for any community or society.

In addition, Martin also plans to advocate for and support efforts to secure domestic partnership benefits for UW faculty. Sadly, the UW is the only Big Ten school that doesn't currently offer them, and that's both bad for retention and recruitment, and just poor policy for a school and city that prides itself on being forward-thinking and egalitarian.

Martin's hire won't be official until the Board of Regents meets in early June. After that, only time will tell what her tenure at the school will mean for students, faculty and alumni.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Let them eat eggs!

Madison alderman Marsha Rummel wants more people to be able to keep backyard chickens within city limits. Currently, the law states that only those people living in single-unit homes can raise them--and no more than 4 hens, no roosters, and no on-sight slaughtering. The other caveat? Enclosures where the chickens live may be no closer than 25 feet from the nearest residence.

It's that last bit that makes Rummel's expansion wishes seem strange. How would it be possible for a multi-unit building to keep enclosures at least 25 feet from the next closest residence?

Let me be clear: I support the ordinance as it currently stands. There are a lot of misperceptions circulating about what it means to have chickens kept within the city. People fear an overwhelming stench of bird poo in the summer, loud clucking noises, and disease outbreaks, among other things. While the latter has some justification (though chances are currently slim), the other two are pretty well unfounded.

As with any pet or animal kept by humans, the smell factor is almost entirely dependent on how well the owner takes care of them. Reasonable efforts at cleaning out the bedding and other general upkeep mean very little smell. A good friend of mine lives directly next door to a house where chickens are kept. We often sit in his backyard, just a fence between us and the bird enclosure, and never once have I noticed any sort of smell. The only sounds I've ever heard coming from over there are occasional contented clucks. It's actually quite nice.

Plus, keeping your own chickens means easy access to fresh eggs, a way to bypass the often unsanitary and cruel conditions found at most industrial production facilities.

You can read more about the keeping of backyard chickens here.

So in this case, I say leave those people currently raising chickens and the ordinance alone. I'm sure Alderman Rummel could find other good uses for her time, anyway.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A tragic end to a great life

I didn't really know Felicia Melton-Smyth, but a number of the people in my life did. I met her only a few times, mostly during the time I was training for and then riding in last year's Wisconsin AIDS Ride. She was extremely friendly, funny and encouraging, and all of that seemed to rub off on everyone around her.

I've been told and read a lot about her: dedicated AIDS activist, caretaker, wry wit, charity fundraiser, good friend. One of those people that any community would be blessed to call their own.

So it was with a great deal of shock that I read of her death in today's news. Stabbed while on vacation in Mexico, probably as the result of a robbery attempt, Felicia and her friends and loved ones can at least rest easy that her murderer is now in custody with local police and will hopefully face appropriate punishment for his terrible crime. Still, this kind of death never makes much in the way of sense. It's just awful. My heart goes out to her and everyone who was close to her.

Please visit the website and be sure to keep an eye out for the Felicia Foundation, a charity being set up in her honor. Help make sure that this bright life is not forgotten, and support the causes she held so dear.

Breske hits the rails

I have no idea whether or not this was a purely political move on Doyle's part, but apparently he's appointed good ol' Sen. Roger Breske, perpetual thorn in the pro-smoking ban movement's side, to be the new commissioner of railroads.

Which, frankly, sounds like too sweet a job for that guy. I could totally be the commissioner of railroads. I'd push for expanded commuter service to and from Milwaukee/Madison/Chicago, lobby for better state funding, and insist on riding in at least one caboose a week. I used to love waving to the caboose guys as a kid.

Anyway, Breske's move over to ye olde commissioner job means he's pretty much out of the way now in terms of getting a statewide smoking ban in place sometime before the next Ice Age. I'm not going to give him so much credit that I think this means smooth sailing from here on out, but it's certainly helpful.

Plus, while Breske was hardcore anti-ban, full of mis-information about smoking, and the former Wisconsin Tavern League president, the two candidates currently vying for his seat seem far more open to the idea of a ban.

Tom Tiffany, a Rhinelander businessman who lost to Breske in the 2004 election, says it's unfair to ban smoking in taverns while exempting casinos within close proximity.

Former state Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Holperin, the second candidate, said he would support a statewide ban, but emphasized the issue is not a priority among more pressing matters in the upcoming race. Still, he thinks a statewide smoking ban is inevitable.

So, we'll have to wait a see what all effects Breske's departure from the Senate has. More importantly, we'll have to continue our efforts at education and action to get a statewide ban in place. Small victories like this are always welcome, though.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Alive and well

I only shoot padded arrows, I swear.

Just in from a nice, week-long vacation to California, specifically the Bay area, and contrary to popular belief the state didn't force me to get gay married upon entry. Happily, however, it is true that gay couples now have that right, and I can only hope that the trend toward actual equal rights under the law continues nationwide.

Expect a short trip report tomorrow, including recommendations for awesome places to see and hike should you ever find yourself in that part of the country.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with this short and extremely San Francisco story: on the final night of our stay, we got together with some friends to see the recent Indiana Jones film (which thankfully did not suck) at a spectacular old movie palace called the Castro on, predictably, Castro St. When we got out, it was late at night, the air was cool, and many people were out and about. Strolling rather nonchalantly toward us down the sidewalk came three gentlemen, all naked as the day they were born, seemingly without a care (or a cop) in the world. I couldn't think of a more perfectly Castro/SF way to end our vacation, really, and we all went home with a bemused smile and a good tale to tell.

Hope you all had a lovely and relaxing Memorial Day. In addition to the always welcome three-day weekend, it's good to have a day now and then specifically set aside to remember and honor those people who've served their neighbors by serving, whether militarily or as a civilian, in the name of continually striving to make our country and our world a better place for all to live in.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Show me the money: tobacco suit funds and the mollycoddle myth

Gov. Doyle today announced several vetoes and re-workings of the recently passed state budget repair bill. In it, he changed how the bill would be financed (instead of issuing a veto) in order to scale back the amount of money that could be found by securitizing bonds from tobacco company payments. Specifically, Doyle and his aids said they would "seek to borrow $150 million instead of the $209 million outlined in the bill."

In case you hadn't heard much about it lately, Wisconsin, like every other state, received a large sum of money ($5.9 billion) from the major tobacco companies as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement, the "largest civil settlement in US history." The agreement freed the companies from tort liability with the state governments (several of which had pending lawsuits against them) in exchange for these payments and additional restrictions on advertising.

Currently, the state collects just over $600 million a year in revenue from what is leftover of this tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. It spends a paltry 2.5% of that on tobacco prevention programs It spends a paltry 2.5% of that on tobacco prevention programs. This is in stark contrast to the recommended amount as laid out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggests states spend between $31.2 and $82.4 million a year.

To add insult to injury, these funds have been raided for other purposes several times now. In 2002, the Legislature and Gov. Scott McCallum securitized (sold to investors, for a smaller, up-front payment) the $5.9 billion into a $1.6 billion lump sum - most of which was used to address the state's one-time budget deficit. In this new budget repair bill, the original language called for securitizing another $209 million of that.

Doyle cutting that back to just $150 is progress, but still not great. In the end, this money should be going toward funding tobacco prevention services, and probably health care costs associated with tobacco use, too. Instead, our state legislators (and governors) seem content to raid that cookie jar for other purposes, as opposed to responsible budget balancing, and transferring the costs over to the taxpayers. I call shenanigans.

And speaking of shenanigans! Our good friends over at Ban the Ban Wisconsin have decided to change course and attack the people of the state instead of the "pro-ban activists." In a little something they cleverly call Operation Mollycoddle, the authors are calling on anti-ban types to convince regular folks that groups like Smoke Free Wisconsin think they're all "idiots" and "can't think for themselves." Here are a few choice tidbits from the site:

The underlying goal of Smoke Free Wisconsin is to convince the people of this state that they are nothing more than helpless idiots who cannot think for themselves or make their own choices.


Sometimes the best way to weaken an enemy is to avoid their strong points and attack a seemingly benign target. To accomplish this goal, we need to filter away the politically correct garbage and public health crap and expose the insulting and offensive nature of Smoke Free WI; namely that the people can't take care of themselves. Operation Mollycoddle is to be a tactical strike directed at the people of Wisconsin; not Smoke Free Wisconsin. Our goal is to piss off the common citizens so badly that they will turn against the ban advocates.


Just remember, people are easy to offend and bring to anger. A few simple insults is usually all it takes, especially if you're insulting their intelligence or their ability to think for themselves. A precision strike at people's "anger buttons" is a much more effective method than chasing the anti-tobacco zealots around.

So in order to bolster their cause, Ban the Ban seems to be advocating the use of mollycoddling to tell the people they're being mollycoddled by Smoke Free Wisconsin. Interesting. Instead of speaking plainly and sticking to the facts, both methods that seem to have failed them totally (understandably), they're now going to "avoid [the opposite sides'] strong points" and "filter away the politically correct garbage and public health crap."

That "public health crap" they're talking about are the inconvenient facts about second-and-first-hand smoking:
  • EPA has concluded that exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in adults who do not smoke. EPA estimates that exposure to secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths per year in nonsmokers.
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke has also been shown in a number of studies to increase the risk of heart disease.
  • ETS is a human lung carcinogen, responsible for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually in U.S. nonsmokers. ETS has been classified as a Group A carcinogen under EPA's carcinogen assessment guidelines. This classification is reserved for those compounds or mixtures which have been shown to cause cancer in humans, based on studies in human populations.
  • There are conclusive published studies that indicate increased risk of lung cancer in nonsmoking women living with smoking husbands or working with smoking co-workers.
It goes on and on. But still, some anti-ban activists don't seem to give a shit about their own health, let alone that of the people around them. This isn't a matter of Smoke Free Wisconsin (or any other pro-ban group) accusing the people of not being able to think for themselves. It's a matter of keeping those who have thought for themselves and still decided that they don't care about public health from hurting others. Y'know, like laws against assault.

Regardless, Ban the Ban seem hell-bent on mollycoddling the state, apparently thinking so little of their fellow citizens as to believe they can be duped into believing the crap that BtB is putting out there, in the air, for all to breathe.

(cross-posted from

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Go California! and county accountability meetings

Two things:

First, I am extremely heartened by the California Supreme Court's decision that gay and lesbian couples have the constitutional right to marry in that state. This is great news, though it does make me somewhat sad when I remember that Wisconsin is, so far, not so forward-thinking. Well, I'll be in San Francisco next week, so I'll at least get to celebrate and spread the love for a little while. Then it's back to work at home.


Secondly, the Dane County Board of Supervisors has announced a community meeting to help address the publics' concerns over the 911 center and how it handled the Brittany Zimmermann call. The meeting is scheduled for Monday, May 19th at 6:00PM in the lower level of the Fitchburg Community Center at 5510 Lacy Road. As I mentioned above, I'll be in SF and unable to attend this (about which I am pretty bummed), but I'm hoping that lots of other folks turn out and demand some answers. And then let me know how it went, yeah?

"Dane County 911 Center director Joe Norwick, Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray have been invited to speak at the hearing. Board members said they want to give Dane County residents an opportunity to get direct answers to questions." That would be nice.

Easier every day to eat local

This is so cool.

Four geography students at the UW-Madison have created an interactive map of local food sources (within 100 miles of Madison), including farms, co-ops and markets. It's still in beta mode, which means it's not quite done, but what they've got so far is quite impressive and pretty slick.

Check out the "100 Mile Diet Map" here.

I love stuff like this. Easy to use and pretty thorough, it makes the task of getting more of what you eat from local sources so much simpler. And frankly, if we hope to get more people on board with the local food movement, the easier it's made the better.

A few other local food resources:
It is possible to get most of your food from more local producers, and with world food prices being what they are, we should be doing our best to encourage people and governments to get more of their food from nearby sources. It cuts the cost of transporting it, helps support local economies, lowers the demand for fuel, and helps with sustainability issues. Will it fix everything overnight? Probably not, but all signs point to it being the healthier, longer-term solution.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pro-Right to Control Everyone Else's Life in Wisconsin

What the heck is up with Pro-Life Wisconsin? As much as I disagree with them on it, I can understand their opposition to the actual practice of abortion. However, my main problem with anti-choice activists is just that: they want to take the choice out of the hands of the woman. I don't personally like abortion, but that's not what's at issue here. It's the right to have control over our own bodies, and to decide when we're ready to have children.

Now, however, PLW has partnered with various other virulently anti-choice groups to protest contraception. That's right: not only do these folks think abortion should be outlawed, but they're angling for regular ol' birth control now, too:

In recent years, some anti-abortion advocates have turned their attention to birth control -- not as a means to reduce unplanned pregnancies, but as another target of protest.

One of the most fervent anti-contraception crusaders is Pro-Life Wisconsin, which believes virtually all forms of birth control can cause a "chemical abortion" by preventing an already fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall.

The Brookfield-based group, along with the American Life League and Pharmacists for Life International associate groups, will take their protest to the streets June 7 with prayer vigils staged at family clinics around the country and state.

We've had this debate over emergency contraception before, but now, perhaps realizing they've lost that cause and feeling ever more desperate, the anti-choice movement is showing their true colors in attacking birth control. They don't want women (or men) to have any control over their bodies, their reproductive systems, or their lives. Period.

We're talking turning back the clock a hundred years, back to when women were slaves to baby-making, often at the detriment of their health and very lives.

The date of this anti-pill protest is purposefully significant, too, falling on the 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision ("Griswold vs. Connecticut") that established the right to birth control for married couples. Married couples. The decision is credited with opening the doors to later rulings granting single women the right to use birth control, and eventually, Roe v. Wade.

All of this is apparently terribly upsetting to the likes of PLW, who seem throughly unnerved by the increase of women in the workplace, women waiting until they're ready for marriage and/or kids, and women generally having any power over their own lives.

Because let's not mince words here: PLW and other such groups can holler up and down about how this isn't about women's rights, but rather about the rights of unborn children--but they lose all clarity on the issue when they set their sights on birth control. The pill, condoms, and other such devices prevent pregnancy from ever happening. No fertilization, no sacred sperm penetrating the egg, no so-called "chemical abortions", nada. We are not talking about "ending a life" here.

It's worth noting that I have no clue how they got it into their heads that even condoms might cause "chemical abortions." Clearly these folks have never read up on the subject, and I seriously doubt they've even seen a condom before.

In a way, crazy stuff like this "The Pill Kills Babies!" protest are helpful. They make it clear as day what the actual motives behind such groups are, instead of allowing them to cloud the issue. These folks are ignorant of the facts, but perhaps even more troubling, they're also opposed to women having much in the way of rights or power. Thankfully, the tide of public sentiment and scientific research has throughly turned against them in the last 50 years, and I don't see that changing much any time soon. Still, it's always a good idea to keep an eye on these people and their strange causes. You never think it could happen until you stop paying attention and it's too late. We owe it to the generations that brought us these hard-fought rights to stay vigilant.

Another good way to support the cause is to support the men and women who work everyday to provide women and men with choice and control:

The media actually follows up

Good on them:

WISC-TV, Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee filed the suit to ensure local officials comply with several open records requests regarding the Dane County 911 Center and the ongoing controversy after a dispatcher was accused of mishandling a call from the cell phone of 21-year-old Brittany Zimmermann, who was killed in early April.

The suit was filed against the Dane County Public Safety Communications Center and its director, Joe Norwick; Dane County and County Executive spokesman Joshua Wescott; the Madison Police Department and Capt. Carl Gloede of the department's Records and Technology section; and the city of Madison and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's spokesman George Twigg.

The suit urges a judge to compel local officials to comply with the requests for information regarding the 911 center as well as the ongoing investigation into Zimmermann's death.

Reporters for the outlets have requested to inspect and copy the audio files of any 911 calls from Zimmermann's home, an un-redacted report of the 911 center's investigation into the alleged Zimmermann call and all documents related to the Zimmermann call and the investigation into the incident produced from the Public Safety Communications Center, Madison police and the mayor's office.
I'll be curious to see the judge's ruling on this, especially since it would be easy for the city to claim that several of the requested items are critical to the investigation, and therefore cannot be fully released. In this case, though, I think it would be in the best interest of the city to release as much of this as possible, if for no other reason than to re-instill some sense of trust in them by the community.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Improvements in 911 equipment, but what about cell phones?

The Capital Times is reporting that County Board Supervisor Brett Hulsey claims that the Dane County 911 Center "has added one communicator and one communications supervisor, so the center is now fully staffed with 12 people. More equipment is planned as part of a $30 million investment the county is making in the public safety communications system."

That's good news.

What Hulsey doesn't indicate is whether or not these additions and improvements yet meet the guidelines set forth in the '04 report of the center by an outside consultant. Perhaps even more importantly, the public still hasn't gotten a straight, honest answer when it comes to the center's ability to track cell phone calls.

Apparently, the federal mandate is that they should be able to "find a caller's location within an area 200 feet by 100 feet from the actual location." What we've heard from various Dane County officials, however, varies wildly enough that anyone paying attention would be disinclined to ever again use a cell phone for emergency purposes.

This is all made even more interesting by the recent attention being paid to privacy issues with regards to cell phones. Service providers are required to provide real-time tracking data to any Public Safety Answering Point (or PSAP) within 6 months of the request being made. This same information has often been sought by federal authorities wishing to get the real-time location of alleged drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminals, sometimes without demonstrating probable cause. That's a whole other issue, and one worthy of much scrutiny and skepticism, but it also brings up some issues relevant to the Zimmermann case. If such pinpointing technology exists and its use is federally mandated in the case of emergency services, why isn't it being used to guarantee follow-up calls and police dispatching to the origin of the call (as is currently the case with calls made from landlines)?

An entity called "Dane County Public Safety Communications" is officially registered with the federal government as one such PSAP. That would suggest their compliance with federal E911 regulations, and the ability to pinpoint the location of a cell phone (as was done in the Kelly Nolan case, with a cell phone that wasn't even making a call, which also has not yet been explained).

So what's the truth? Do we have the ability to locate cell phones in a reasonably accurate fashion, but just fucked up in this case? Or are we lying about our emergency service's capabilities, something that might well put us in violation of federal regulations? Neither option is particularly appealing, and I'd love for both to be wrong. But until we're given a straight answer, there's only speculation and a creeping feeling that we're not being as well-taken care of as we ought to be.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Biking to work to beat the blues

I don't need to tell you that there seems to be a surplus of very bad news lately. Just today, I woke up to the newscasters on WPR telling me about a crashed Med Flight helicopter, a devastating earthquake in China, and only just some of the first aid flights allowed into Myanmar/Burma after the terrible cyclone hit there last week. This in addition to the usual but almost always unpleasant news out of Iraq, and deepening civil unrest in Lebanon.

I believe very strongly in keeping up with what's going on in the world, and always trying to find a way to help, even in small ways. But there are times when it can all be a little too hard on the ol' mental health, and a person, if they're so lucky as to be able to, needs to take some time to think happy thoughts and do something good for themselves.

It's Bike to Work Week, and I'm using this occasion to get back in the saddle and ride the 13 miles one-way to my job at least twice this week. Though it involves getting my lazy ass out of bed a bit earlier than normal, the task is otherwise really good for my psyche (and, of course, my body). By the time I get to work, I feel energized, awake and positive about the day ahead. I can't recommend it enough. And this week is the best possible time of the year to get into it, as various organizations all over town have put together a series of events to support bike commuters.

You can check out the full schedule of events here.

Plus, there's never been a better time to save on gas money. It's been nothing short of astounding to watch the prices climb ever higher on a day-to-day basis. Frankly, as much as I support people cutting down on how much they drive, improving fuel efficiency, and finding more sustainable sources of that fuel, I also recognize that for it to be a smooth transition, it needs to happen gradually. With prices skyrocketing like they are, it severely endangers the trucking industry that brings so many people their basic necessities (food, for instance), and we really need to find a way to stanch the bleeding there.

In addition to the many economical, political and rational reasons to bike or take mass transit to work, there's also the good-mental-health factor. Madison is full of bike paths and lanes (though it could certainly use more). Instead of zooming down the Beltline, I got to gaze out over the lake, smile at fellow travelers, smell the fresh morning air, hear lawn mowers buzzing and dogs barking, and see people going about their days. And for that hour-and-a-half of riding, I could temporarily clear my head of all the shit going on in the world. Sometimes, that's exactly what you need to do in order to deal with it all more effectively in the future, when you get off your bike and face the world again.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sunday Brunch: History Lessons with Kate Beaton

Happy Sunday! What a weekend. Yesterday I went to the Farmer's Market, where an Art Bike rally was making its way around the capitol square as part of the kick-off for Bike to Work Week. Classic Cars on State stretched from the capitol down until construction truncated the scene, and a small contingent of Anonymous were parading around in their V masks, telling people the truth about Scientology. Crazy, man, crazy. Then last night, the MAMAs celebrated Madison musicians down at the Barrymore, and I played a gig with the Shabelles over at the Great Dane afterwards.

Consider me pooped.

So as I'm sitting here, watching "Reds" (Jack Reed and Louise Bryant were fascinating characters), I'm naturally thinking about history. In an effort to educate you all further about some of the many and varied episodes and people from history, I want to direct your attention to Ms. Kate Beaton, who has done a great deal to edify and instruct us all with her historical illustrations. An example:

Take a look around her website, learn, and enjoy!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Good intentions don't always equal effectiveness

Every new day seems to bring further news of deeper problems and outrages regarding the Brittany Zimmermann case and the overall ability of emergency and police services to do their jobs well. With all of the conflicting stories, it's hard not to be confused about what you can believe. These are the people that are supposed to be watching our backs, and while I don't doubt their sincerity, all the good intentions in the world aren't always going to be enough to get the job done right. There needs to be appropriate experience, accountability and a certain degree of openness, too.

And yet, and yet....

Yesterday, Joel Marino's grandmother broke her police-requested silence in telling Isthmus that she had been on the phone with him at the time the break-in occurred.
[Marino's grandmother] says she told Detective Matt Misener about this.

“I said, I heard the killer you know. And he said, yes, I know. But he said you can’t tell anyone about this. So for all this time, I’ve not said anything.”

She says she’s talking now because, “I think we’ve given the police every opportunity to do some things that we felt were necessary.”

A witness who claims to have twice seen Marino's killer says that both times he reported it the police failed to act.

Another witness saw someone the night before Zimmermann's murder who closely resembled police sketches of the suspect in the Marino case. He snapped a few pictures of the man and hand delivered them to the police, only to have them pretty much ignored and brushed off. The witness also gave copies of the photos to Marino's parents, who were so struck by the resemblance that they called Misener and asked him about them. He "admitted that he hadn't seen the photos."

It took the recent publication of an Isthmus article breaking the news about the Zimmermann 911 call to prompt any action and/or follow-up by the center and officials, but not before several misleading (whether deliberate or not) and contradictory explanations were given.

And now, more stonewalling. Plus, word that Joe Norwick, director of the Dane County 911 Center, had no direct experience managing such a call center prior to being hired:

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk hired Joe Norwick as 911 center director last year at a $100,000 annual salary even though he did not have the experience in "public safety communications management" the job description specified.

"He did not have five years of management experience in a 911 center," acknowledged Topf Wells, Falk's chief of staff. But county officials said Wednesday they gave Norwick, a longtime sheriff's deputy and former chief deputy, credit for his five years as chairman of the 911 oversight board, which generally meets once a month.

The article goes on to note that one of Norwick's top references for the job, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, was "also a member of the hiring subcommittee that picked and ranked the four finalists — ranking Norwick No. 1." Mahoney, however, "didn't see a conflict of interest."

While Norwick's supporters tout his law enforcement experience as good enough reason for him to hold the position, Norwick continually seems to shoot himself in the foot with incidents like this:

Last week, in a news conference about the mishandling of the 911 call, Norwick wouldn't answer a technological question about whether the center had features that would remind dispatchers to call back when they are disconnected from a caller.

"Please excuse me," Norwick told reporters. "My background is not sitting in a communications chair. My background is with the Sheriff's Office and law enforcement. If there's some question that are technical questions about the operations, I'll have to get back to you on that."

Shouldn't the director of the 911 center have at least a passing familiarity with the technical aspects of their systems? While I can understand why questions about the exact content of the Zimmermann call may not be answerable, I see no reason why this question couldn't be answered other than lack of knowledge. That's just unacceptable.

There are technically 5 unsolved homicides from the last year in Madison. The Zimmermann and Marino cases are eerily similar, with both likely having been stabbings and both occurring in a similar location. Killed in late June of 2007, Kelly Nolan's case also remains unsolved, with few details about the case having ever been released. The August '07 murder of George Thomas at the Kings Inn (a motel on the Beltline) also remains unsolved, as does a homicide that took place on Cypress Way in November.

While part of me wants to rant and rage against the machine, I do also understand that certain sensitive information must remain undisclosed for the sake of the investigation. I know that such crimes are not always terribly easy to solve. I know that police have a lot on their plates.

I know all of this, and still what has happened recently looks more and more like stonewalling, incompetence and mismanagement with each passing day and each new breaking story.

It's one thing for a person or organization to want to prove that they have the wherewithal to successfully tackle these problems. It's an entirely different matter when those people or organizations get in over their heads and still refuse to ask for help or admit mistakes.

Politics and personal pride need to go right out the window when it comes to the safety and well-being of your fellow citizens. No more hiring unqualified people to important positions simply because you're good buddies (gee, this sounds familiar). No more stonewalling the community when it comes to crucial details that might help improve their personal safety (another recent case of this came up recently in Fennimore, and is pretty blatantly shitty).

Hire more dispatchers for the 911 center, implement more thorough and up-to-date training with clarified procedures, seriously consider bringing on a new director (sorry Norwick, but you've had your chance and pretty spectacularly failed), and maybe bring in outside units to help assist the MPD in solving these cases.

And for crying out loud, LISTEN to people when they tell you they've seen someone matching the description of the killer. I can't even begin to wrap my head around how that all worked out.

Serious changes need to be made, and they need to be made yesterday. The MPD and emergency services want us to place our trust in them? Then they need to continue to earn it.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Strange Case: the Zimmermann 911 call and the stories told afterwards

I'm cross-posting this from
No one seems to be able to get their stories straight. Just over a month after UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann was murdered in her Doty St. apartment and a week after the initial revelation about her 911 call was published in an Isthmus article by Jason Shepard, no one seems willing or able to set the record straight.
Read the entire article here.

Feel free to tell me if I got it all wrong, all right, or missed anything. I'm only interested in helping us all to better understand the situation.

UPDATE: Cripes, this just keeps getting worse: "Did Madison cops miss chance to catch Joel Marino killer?" In other news, my respect for Jason Shepard grows daily.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Zimmermann case debacle

I'm currently working on an article for about the Dane County 911 Dispatch Center's botched response to the Zimmermann call. One thing I've noticed since this story broke are the many comments from readers who've had pretty sketchy encounters with 911 operators. It started to seem like a pattern, and that, of course, has me concerned. So I'm seeking such accounts from various people, and so far the picture that's forming is not one of systemic failure on the part of the 911 Center, but certainly enough of a problem to warrant serious concern and reform. I hope to have the full report up by later this evening, so check back at dane101 for that later.

In the meantime, everyone and their uncle has been weighing in on the case, especially since the recent statements and apology issued from Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Like most everyone else, I too am of the opinion that a full accounting needs to happen: release the contents of the call (if not the actual recording, then a descriptive transcript), do a full investigation of what went wrong that day, hold responsible the person or persons that messed up, and do a thorough retraining of dispatchers to make sure procedure is always followed so that this sort of thing never happens again.

Michael Leon over at Uppity Wisconsin expressed his frustration with Falk for a perceived lack of full disclosure, wondering if the public good is being shoved aside in the interest of political maneuvering. While I disagree with Leon that Falk's assertion that even if the dispatcher had followed procedure, Zimmermann likely wouldn't have been saved "amounts to a Bushian I-can’t-tell-you-anything-but-trust-me assurance," his call for greater transparency is one I can get behind.

It's likely Ms. Zimmermann wouldn't have been saved, especially considering the limitations that still exist in tracking down calls placed from cell phones, but it would have been far more likely that police might have found or had better leads on the killer had procedure been followed. We all feel outrage and sadness over the murder itself, but if there's anything to be angry with the dispatch center about, it's the hampering of the investigation and bringing to justice of the perpetrator.

If the public is to regain full confidence in the 911 Center again, a full accounting needs to happen. Transparency, apology, stricter standards. And please, get everyone on the same page regarding cell phones and our ability to track them. These things are the very least we can do for the community and, most of all, for the sake of Brittany Zimmermann and her family.

EDIT: Nathan Comp put together an interesting interview with Madison Police Chief Noble Wray over at The Daily Page.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Early spring camping at Buckhorn State Park

At some point during a humdrum day of work about two weeks ago, my fella and I got to talking about camping. During the last year or so, we'd begun taking our first excursions to state parks for mountain biking and hiking, and had decided that we wanted to check out the various campsites offered there, too. So as we discussed the good turn the weather was finally taking, I looked at my calendar, saw that an upcoming weekend was free, and suggested we break in ourselves and the season with a camping trip.

My fella agreed, and, flipping through a very handy guidebook for tent camping in Wisconsin, fell upon the backpacking sites up at Buckhorn State Park. We made our reservations, gathered our gear, shopped for food, and then loaded up the van this past Friday evening to head north for the park.

We reserved site #7, recommended as a great place for "solitude lovers", which is one of several backpack sites where you park and then hike a good mile or so in to your spot. Buckhorn is a great place for a sort of beginners backpack camping experience, with large hand carts provided so that campers can haul in a bit more gear than just what could be carried on your back. We rolled into the park just after dark and the ranger station was already closed, but they'd left our reservation instructions taped to the window.

Anxious to get to the site and pitch our tent (there were some ominous looking clouds blowing in overhead), we went to get our hand cart, only to face a moment of deep dread when we discovered that it was locked up. After some consternation and searching, we discovered the combination to our cart written inside the reservation envelope and were on our way. The hike in through the woods seemed longer that first night, probably due to anxiousness and lack of light. Still, after a brief interlude where a tarp was lost to the trees, we made it in and managed to pitch our tent despite high winds. Even in the dark, I could see that our site was right on the shore of Castle Rock Lake, with a two-to-three foot drop down to the water.

On our second trip back to the car to get food, we bumped into another group of campers who were on their way in. It was a group of guys, probably college-aged, carrying a few packs of beer and their gear by hand. They asked us how we'd gotten our hand cart, and we explained the combination on the slip of reservation paper, which they'd apparently completely neglected to pick up. We set them on the right path, and they promised to "keep the noise down" - something we weren't exactly holding out hope for, judging by the number of guys and the copious amounts of liquor. Still, their campsite was separated from ours by woods and a marshy inlet, so perhaps it wouldn't be too bad.

A dinner of PB&J sandwiches in our bellies, we headed back to camp. Uninterested in the challenge of starting a fire that late at night and in such high winds, we decided to hit the hay. I only heard a few whoops from the neighbors that night, and was able to sleep without much trouble.

The next morning we awoke to very chilly air, clouds and drizzle. It took some doing to convince myself to leave the warm confines of the sleeping bag, but my bladder eventually compelled me to start the day. We set about rigging up some sort of covering for the picnic table (each campsite comes equipped with one such table, plus a nice wooden bench and a fire pit) so that we could cook over our little Coleman stove. The fella has recently taught himself the fine art of knot tying, and was able to secure a pretty decent (if not terribly asthetically pleasing) lean-to of tarp. We ate a breakfast of granola and yogurt, plus hot tea, before heading back out to the ranger station to acquire firewood.

There are all sorts of hiking trails, a place to rent canoes, and fishing ponds throughout the park, but we were too focused on keeping warm and feeding ourselves to find time to enjoy much of that. Something to go back and do, though, once the weather is a bit nicer. Instead, I set about keeping a fire going while my fella brewed more tea. Finally, in the early afternoon, the rain stopped and slowly but surely the sun came out. By late afternoon, it was blissfully sunny and mostly clear (if still cool), so we passed the time reading books around the fire. Sometimes not doing much of anything is the best vacation.

That evening we attempted a cooked meal, consisting of tortillas with rice, beans, cheese and lettuce. We realized too late that we'd forgotten any kind of strainer, so made due with somewhat watery rice. Even so, hungry as we were, it all tasted delicious. Or, at least, it felt delicious. Sometimes you're too hungry to care. Then s'mores for dessert (how could we not?) and bed.

It may be worth noting that, throughout the entire day, we were privy to the emphatic bellowing of boys in the neighboring camp, who sounded like they were engaged in some sort of epic beanbag throwing tournament. I'm pretty sure I saw a beer bong, too. Normally, I could give a rats ass about that sort of entertainment, but why trek all the way out there to do it?

Anyway, Sunday morning broke sunny and cool, lulling us into a false sense of complacency. After breakfast, the winds picked up again, making it deeply unpleasant to remain on the shore as we were. We set about striking camp and hauling everything back to the car, noting that once we were in the woods, the day was extremely pleasant. We lingered along the trail, photographing strange, curled and fuzzy fern stalks and examining the various "bait trees" set up by the park to test for the presence of the dreaded emerald ash borer (none yet, thankfully).

By just after noon, we were packed and ready to take our leave. And though I'm sad we didn't get the chance to really explore the park, I'm glad we took the time to take the trip. Buckhorn seems like a beautiful park, with lots of things to do and explore, and the campsites (at least ours) are top-notch. They have easier to access sites, too, as well as a handicap-accessible cabin for rent. I highly recommend checking it out, if you get the chance.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sunday Brunch: "Don't Wanna Come In"

Me and my fella went camping this weekend up at Buckhorn State Park. Write-up is forthcoming, natch, but in the meantime, I thought I'd offer up this video, which rather succinctly sums up how I felt about coming home today.

Normally, I wouldn't post a video of a woman talking to her cat (even if the cat is hilarious), but I'm making the exception this time because the woman in question has an English accent. English accents make just about everything better.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


UPDATE (1:59PM):

Isthmus is reporting on a press release received from the Madison Police Department with some very interesting information, namely that "there is evidence contained in the call which should have resulted in a Madison Police officer being dispatched."

(older updates at bottom of post)


There's a part of me that hopes this isn't true, that it's all just some weird misunderstanding or miscommunication, and not our city's 911 service fucking up so royally. From Isthmus:

Madison police believe Brittany Zimmermann called 911 before she was stabbed and beaten to death inside her Doty Street apartment, but the 911 Center failed to send help after erroneously concluding the call was a mistake.


The most significant is that the 911 Center received a call from Zimmermann before she was killed, did not dispatch police, and then did not immediately or accurately inform the Police Department about the call after cops found her body, law enforcement officials tell Isthmus.

Sources suggest the center may have made a call-back to a wrong number, where the person who answered assured that no crisis was occurring. One source says cops might have been better situated to make a quick arrest had mistakes not been made by the 911 Center.

Over the past two and a half weeks, the 911 Center has refused requests for basic information about the calls. This week, Joe Norwick, director of the Dane County 911 Center since July, declined further opportunities to comment after being provided with a written summary of parts of this story.

In an email, Norwick said he was basing his refusal on a request from the Madison Police Department to withhold all information "pertaining to this matter" because release would "seriously impair" the murder investigation.

Madison police officials vigorously dispute this. While declining to call the 911 Center's action a cover-up, they suggested that Norwick is improperly using the department as an excuse not to own up to his agency's mistakes.
There's been a lot of talk about who's to blame for the recent run of as-of-yet unsolved murders, with a lot of blame being placed on the area's homeless population. Frankly, a lot of it sounds like a lame excuse to bash the transient population as entirely made up of shiftless, violent crazy people, which we really ought to know better than. But beyond the debate about the homeless, and separate (if not more important) from the question of who committed these terrible crimes, there is also a debate about the effectiveness of our local police and emergency services.

I've bitched and moaned in private about why it might be taking so long for these cases to be investigated, why certain leads seem to have been nearly ignored, why the public has been privy to so little information about certain cases, etc. But in the end, it's mostly just speculation on my part. I don't know anything about the inner workings of these investigations, or indeed any kind of investigation.

What I do know is that, if true, the mishandling of a 911 call made by Zimmerman and the seeming dismissal of a good lead brought to the detective in charge of the Marino case should raise some serious alarm bells.

That the director of the Dane County 911 Center, Joe Norwick, has so far refused to comment at all about this incident, falsely blaming it on a request from the MPD, should cause the community to seriously question who we've placed in charge of such a vital service.

If you make a mistake, especially one pertaining to such sensitive issues, you owe it to yourself and to your community to own up and make amends, working to see that such mistakes don't happen again in the future. There's no hyperbole involved when I say that people's lives are at stake here. We can't afford to fuck around.

Thankfully, reporters with Isthmus have been dogged in their determination to follow up on these cases, actually following leads and doing some hard-hitting reporting. It's reassuring to know that there are still journalists out there willing to ask the hard questions and write about stories that matter. I can only hope that further public pressure will bring some accountability to people like Joe Norwick, and help spur more vigorous investigation into these unsolved murders. We owe it to ourselves, but most of all, we owe it to the victims and their families.

Further info.

UPDATE (12:25PM):

The Capital Times is reporting that, in a press conference today, Joe Norwick has confirmed that Zimmermann made a 911 call the day she was murdered. Further, he explains that "Brittany Zimmermann made a 911 call on April 2, but the dispatcher taking the call immediately received another call that was a non-emergency call and did not immediately return the 911 call made by Zimmermann." She "apparently didn't answer a few minutes later when the dispatcher finally did call back. If a dispatcher takes a 911 call and doesn't hear anything, the policy is to call back."

This all smells pretty bad to me. First, why on earth did the dispatcher give precedence to a non-emergency call over hers? Second, the final sentence makes it sound as though she wasn't saying anything when she first called. This needs to be more clear. Regardless, if a 911 dispatcher gets a call and no one's talking, shouldn't they ask for a squad car to check out the situation? I'm not up on my dispatcher procedure, so if anyone can explain how this works to me, that'd be great. All in all, though, this whole thing is pretty infuriating, and we should be pressing Norwick to release the recordings of said calls. Then maybe we could make some sense of it all.

UPDATE (1:38PM):

Just noticed that the Cap Times updated their news story on this, which notes a few new details in Norwick's story about the call:

The Dane County 911 dispatch center director said a UW-Madison student slain in her campus area apartment April 2 made a 911 phone call on her cell phone, but dispatchers failed to call her back.

Director Joe Norwick said today that when Brittany Zimmermann made the call, the dispatcher, who was unnamed, had no way of knowing the call wasn't one of many non-emergency or misdialed phone calls that the center receives every day.

Norwick declined to say how long Zimmermann's phone call lasted, or whether there was any communication from Zimmermann. He said the dispatcher, after a time, discontinued the call to answer another 911 call, which turned out to be a non-emergency call.

The dispatcher then called back on the second 911 call, discovered it wasn't an emergency, then took another 911 call regarding an unwanted person in a residence. The dispatcher failed to get back to Zimmermann's call and never made a call back, even though 911 center policy dictates that return calls be made.

I'm still very curious to know if anything was said or could be heard during the first call Zimmermann made. Also of interest is how long the initial call lasted, how accurate GPS information from cell phones really is, and why in the hell the dispatcher failed to follow-up properly?

It might help if Norwick would actually release this information. Being that it's a vital public service, I think we have a right to know about procedure and potential mistakes so that the right people can be held accountable and the problems can be fixed.
The Lost Albatross