Monday, May 25, 2009

Greetings from Moab!

It's indescribably gorgeous here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Vacation all I ever wanted

[Relax by paulmcdee, on Flickr]

And not a moment too soon. I'll be driving into the wild blue yonder of the American Southwest for some serious vacation and recreation tomorrow, and not returning until the 31st. So the blog will likely be mostly idle until then. But! You can, if you'd like, look forward to a full trip report, complete with pictures, videos, and possibly humorous anecdotes about me making a fool of myself on my bike. Hopefully no major injuries will be involved.

(Or keep up with me via Twitter, if that's your bag)

In the meantime, I wish you all a good week, as well as a relaxing and thoughtful Memorial Day.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Let's call it what it is, then do something about it

Domestic violence. It's not called that in the initial article describing the recent murder of Fitchburg resident Francesca M. Weber by her estranged husband, Steve J. Weber - but that's exactly what it is/was.

A second article detailing the events that lead up to the tragic shooting death does a better job of describing exactly what was going on in that relationship (and kudos to G. Hesselberg and E. Treleven for putting it together), but I can't help but think that more could be done to add information about local domestic abuse prevention and assistance programs. Because that's what's being dealt with here, and there are certainly--and sadly--more such cases that exist in the shadows.

It's becoming more and more clear that this incident was not at all isolated. Weber appears to have had a long history of violent behavior and abuse toward his family. And Francie, for her own reasons, appears to have gone back and forth between getting a restraining order against her husband, to attempting reconciliation (predictably, it never ended well).

The pattern is all-too familiar. Though we've made great strides in educating and changing societal attitudes about domestic abuse, the frustrating fact remains that we're not as far along as we ought to be. That anyone would still think physical or mental abuse was a viable solution to their problems is unconscionable. And that anyone would still find it difficult to remove themselves from such a situation is tragic.

The numbers are staggering. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), in Wisconsin, "one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime." In addition, "one in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape."

There are an estimated 1.3 million women who are victims of physical assault "by an intimate partner" every year. And this terrible trend has a cyclical effect on the children raised in such environments, as "boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults."

I strongly suspect that most people would find these statistics and realities to be horrifying, but the infuriating fact remains that, as a society, we aren't doing nearly enough to change things for the better. We should all take a long, hard look at how we handle these kinds of circumstances--from our own home lives, to those occasions when we see it happening to someone we know (or don't!), to what our culture feeds us through news, television, and movies.

I'm not talking about censorship, but rather expecting--and demanding--better.

A small step in that direction would be expecting our news media to appropriately label awful situations like the Weber case as being domestic violence, and then doing even a little bit to provide information on related services like Dane County's own Domestic Abuse Intervention Services.

We should also be putting appropriate pressure on law enforcement and the courts to better recognize dangerous people like Steve Weber--who police had been aware of since at least 2006, and then arrested in 2008 after he attacked both his wife and daughter:
A daughter told police she saw her cement construction worker father straddle her mother, hands around her neck, choking her. When he found out police had been called, he choked his wife again, the daughter said, and then he hit Francie Weber with a closed fist, eight times, and said “I’m going to kill you.”

In the court complaint, the daughter said when she tried to intervene by grabbing a fireplace poker Weber grabbed the poker from her and hit her with it, then slugged her and, when she fell to the ground, kicked her in the stomach, causing her to vomit.
His court appearance for this incident was scheduled for this week, for which he was apparently out on a measly $500 cash bail, on the condition that he not have contact with either his daughter or Francie (who had filed for divorce). He was also banned from being in the area of their home.

But that wasn't enough, not by a long shot. How is it that the acts of sheer brutality described above were met with such an obscenely low bail amount? Why was a man like that allowed to walk free? These are important--and urgent--questions that need swift and firm solutions.

Because Francie's murder should have never happened in the first place, and should never be repeated for anyone else.

From Shannon Barry, Executive Director at DAIS:

"This unfortunate incident highlights what so many of us in the domestic violence movement already know -- that victims can be more at risk when attempting to separate from their abusers than at any other time. In fact, they are six times more likely to be killed when attempting to leave the relationship.

"As a community we need to stop asking 'Why doesn't she leave?' and start asking 'Why does he do that?' and truly hold abusers accountable for their actions.

"We also want to make sure that current domestic victims know that there is help available. So often we hear from clients how their abusers use media coverage of cases like this to intimidate them further. It is critical that when media are reporting on these crimes that they are including the crisis line number for their local domestic violence agency. The Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) Crisis Line for victims in Dane County is 251-4445."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Music Monday: Zach Vinson

I was recently contacted by Sheboygan native Zach Vinson, who, as it turns out, is a really great musician. He's just released the music video for his song, "So Much to Blame," and wants to share it with the world. And for some off reason, he thought my blog would be one good place to get the word out. So between that bit of flattery and the fact that the song is, I think, quite good, I thought I'd lend a hand:

So Much to Blame (Zach Vinson) from Zach Vinson on Vimeo.

You can also download an mp3 of the song right here.

Thanks to Zach for thinking of the little ol' Lost Albatross, and much success to him in the future!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Working out the kinks in digital rights and expectations

All politics is local. All politics is global.

The former has always been true, while the latter has only really come into its own truth with the advent of the internet and our ever-evolving digital age. For instance, in the past week, comments made by former Madison alder Brenda Konkel on her blog were used, out of context and without attribution, by an online newspaper. Said alder then commented on the article via her Facebook and Twitter accounts, and those words were picked up by a blog/online magazine and posted as a screen shot (still following me?).

Charges of impropriety were leveled at pretty much everyone involved for a whole variety of issues, but as I said in my piece on Dane101 yesterday, I think the really interesting issue at hand here is that of our increasingly online lives. How much online exposure is too much? What rights do we maintain in the binary world? What's the reasonable expectation of privacy for individuals using the web? For public officials?

Happily, a fairly in-depth and civil discussion of these issues was the main result of the posts, and many valid critiques and theories have been posited.

I maintain that, while it was improper that the first version of the screen shot included a comment from an unrelated person (it has since been removed), the use of the quote was fair. Konkel made the comment both on Facebook--which admittedly has a few more privacy filters--and on Twitter, which is quite public. Konkel herself has offered some thoughtful responses to this storm in a bottle:
What was cross-posted on Facebook - the same content - was also not that big of a deal to be used publicly, especially because it was political content. I think what surprised me was seeing my subsequent comment posted. Again, probably splitting hairs, but I guess I'll be more judicious in my comments in the future. If I wanted my comments to be more public, I could have just twittered it. Like I said, my twitter has more public comments, on my facebook, you'll see that I painted my toenails purple. I use them differently. Perhaps it was a distinction in my own head, but I thought it was more widely understood. Otherwise, I'm surprised by what some public figures (members of the media included) post on facebook and I'd hate to see all of that fair game for the press.
As you can see, it's a multi-layered debate, but an important one for everyone to be having as more and more news is gotten and purveyed online, and more of us are making our lives open to total strangers through the internet. Because we all need to realize that, if we put it online, someone is going to see it. We need to decide what that means, and how it can or can't be legally used.

I don't pretend to have definitive answers to all of these questions, but I'm glad we're at least really starting to discuss them. I wish the major news organizations would do more of the same, frankly. It behooves us all to figure these things out before bigger, potentially more damaging instances of personal data mining occur in the press.

Meanwhile, there's still that pesky issue of racism brought up by the original posts and articles. Over on the far more inconsistent side of things, Dave Blaska accuses Konkel of resorting to McCarthy-like tactics in her comments about Alder Pham-Remmele that helped kick off this whole thing:
...Brenda Konkel has turned the racism card face up, as the Left is wont to do so promiscuously.
Yes, because "The Right" is so free from prejudice of any kind. The unfortunate thing is that, in the middle of Blaska's name calling, self-aggrandizing screed, there are actually a few decent points to be had--namely, that we all need to do a better job of figuring out when we're just asking people to be more responsible for themselves and their children, and when we're taking that to a classist, racist level by including stereotypes and derogatory sentiments.

Take the comments Pham-Remmele made that are at the center of this debate. Back in October of '07, the Common Council was discussing redevelopment in the Allied Drive neighborhood when, as the Capital Times then reported,
Jaws dropped...As a number of residents of the neighborhood looked on and city cable Channel 12's cameras rolled, Pham-Remmele said that, based on her 30 years' experience as a teacher in the Madison school district, some Allied Drive families made expensive hair braiding a higher priority than their children's lunches.
It's one of those cringe-worthy statements that may have a kernel of truth at its core, but is expressed in such a crass manner that any chance for reasoned, constructive dialogue thereafter goes understandably out the window.

I suspect that the issue with Pham-Remmele has more to do with her inability to express herself properly rather than serious racism. She is often accused of making rambling, incoherent statements at council meetings, and that, combined with her no-nonsense approach to public service, is a recipe for discord.

We owe it to ourselves to have serious discussions about neighborhood safety and quality of life, as well as finding a balance between personal responsibility and community assistance. And yes, racism still exists in this Obama era, whether the Dave Blaska's of the world would like to admit it or not. We've all got our little prejudices, our ignorance of certain people or cultures, our preconceived notions that need straightening out. And so it's good that there are forceful voices out there, like Konkel and like Pham-Remmele, to keep us on our toes. It's up to the rest of us, then, to make sure those forceful voices are countered, when necessary, by equally honest but perhaps more thoughtful and nuanced discussion.

Name calling or coddling aren't going to get any of us anywhere good.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A boozy slap on the wrist

Let me get this straight: The Alcohol License Review Committee (ALRC) and City Council have been making a lot of hay in past years over cracking down on over-consumption and rowdy bars. They even passed an Alcohol License Density Plan to limit the number of liquor licenses available for establishments in the downtown area--and recently proposed extending it to include a ban on the sale of individual bottles of beer and "fortified wine."

But enter the Kollege Klub, a bar with a years-long record of rowdiness and missteps:
A 13-page complaint filed in Dane County Circuit Court on May 6 lists multiple license violations from March 2008 through February for allowing underage people in the bar, selling liquor to intoxicated patrons, fights and other problems that make it a "disorderly house."

The incidents include what one Kollege Klub employee described as "the biggest fight he had ever seen" on Aug. 6, 2008, which was not reported to police, and a battery on the dance floor on Feb. 8, 2009, that was not reported to police and its video evidence recorded over.

...and the ALRC rolls right over for them.

Police had intended to hold a non-renewal hearing with the ALRC to bring evidence and see if it might be necessary to revoke the club's liquor license. This would have been the first such meeting in ALRC's history, something that came about as part of an effort to streamline and simplify the body's efforts at regulation and review.

Instead, Katherine Plominski (Madison's Alcohol Policy Coordinator, aka "bar czar") went ahead and cut a deal with the Kollege Klub wherein they accept "lesser sanctions" and go about their merry way, license intact. Those conditions "would require the bar to report all acts of violence to police within 48 hours and to maintain existing video cameras and save discs for 30 days." Which is good, but shouldn't they have been doing that all along? And shouldn't there be actual repurcussions for what, I suspect, is a violation of the law?

I can't help but think that, considering the bar's long history, something more than this slap on the wrist from Plominski is warranted. It also strikes me as a little bizarre that she essentially circumvented the intentions of the police, and the new type of separate nonrenewal hearing that had been set up to make the process more effective and efficient.

In general, I think the density plan was and is bogus. I don't think putting an arbitrary limit on the number of liquor licenses in a given area does much, if anything, to solve the underlying problems of binge and underage drinking or violence. If anything, it simply pushes the drinking culture into more dangerous and unregulated house party situations.

But I do believe something needs to be done about our over-drinking culture. It just seems to me that even those presumably well-meaning people in charge of policy are acting rashly and without much consideration for the complexities of the issue, as in this case.

Police have also asked that nonrenewal hearings be scheduled for three other downtown establishments: Johnny O’s Restaurant and Bar, Madison Avenue and Ram Head Rathskeller. Will Plominski or the ALRC in general cut deals with them before that can happen, though? I hope not, as it certainly seems to send the absolute wrong message to problem bars.

Here's an idea: Instead of limiting the overall number of liquor licenses, why not actually enforce existing statutes so that responsible businesses get to have their booze, and the troublemakers are actually held to account? It's hard to ask for new regulations before you actually attempt to use the ones you already have.

(photo by defekto on Flickr)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Flawed smoking ban better than nothing

The Wisconsin Legislature's passage of a state-wide smoking ban seems like all but a done deal at this point, and generally, I couldn't be happier. I'm about as ardent a smoking ban proponent as you're likely to find. I've enjoyed the hell out of the ban in Madison, going out to bars and clubs far more often, not worrying about whether or not my voice will stop working in the middle of a show, and being able to wear a shirt the day after going out and not smell like a chimney.

I firmly believe in the freedom and liberty of people--which stops once it begins to infringe upon the freedom and liberty of others, like my right not to inhale your smoke when I'm trying to enjoy some live music or have a meal.

But I have to admit, there are aspects of this ban bill that irk me. The fact that the workplace smoke ban applies even to hotel rooms seems, well, a bit far-reaching. Hotels generally maintain both smoking and non-smoking rooms. So when you book your stay, you can indicate which you'd prefer. Smoking and non-smoking rooms are generally well and thoroughly separated from one another in the layout of the building, and everyone is happy. Being that this situation is not at all analogous to being in a restaurant or bar where it's nigh unto impossible to keep all of the smoke away from a non-smoking section or non-smoker, I think it merits its own exception. Or at least a re-thinking.

And while I was glad to see an exemption in the bill for cigar bars, it occurred to me: Why not create a special designation and licensing process for, say, cigarette bars? Or just tobacco clubs in general? The idea came up in a lively discussion over at Dane101, and I have to admit, it seems like a perfectly reasonable compromise. Licensing for such establishments wouldn't be easy, but it would at least give a business owner the option of running an indoor bar/club specifically for smokers (or those who didn't mind being in a smokey room*). But that should be the niche, the exception, not the rule. Non-smoking establishments should be that rule.

Which is why, overall, I'm pleased as punch that the bill is being passed--even though I have the aforementioned reservations about its overall fairness. It's a start. We're shifting the playing field so that smoke-free, as it should be, is the norm. The next step, I believe, should be in carving out fair, equitable spaces for those who still choose smoke.

*Let it be noted that I also think there needs to be 1) better prevention and treatment programs for smokers, 2) stiffer penalties and taxes levied against tobacco companies, and 2) health care penalty fees for those who willfully choose not to quit. Being that I'm a fan of government-paid health care, I recognize the burden that would be placed on such a system by those who refused to take care of themselves. That's their choice, certainly, but the resulting, avoidable illnesses ought not place undo burden on everyone else.

(photo by Whiskeygonebad on Flickr)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Where do we draw the line?

We live in an increasingly public world. Many of us choose to put large chunks of our personal lives online (I am quite guilty of this), and are faced with daily decisions about just how far to go, how much to share. But anyone who puts anything onto the internet should know that whatever goes there has the potential to be seen. By anyone looking.

Still, it's our decision what and whether or not to put anything out there. And traditionally, it has been our right to remain private citizens off-line, in our own homes, cars, etc. More and more, however, our day-to-day preambulations are recorded by a variety of surveillance devices--whether we like it or not. And more than ever, we're faced with a serious dilema: How far do we let it go? How much surveillance do we allow in the name of security?

I'm torn. I just read about the Wisconsin appeals court upholding the right of police to attach GPS devices to cars without warrant, and I admit to being more than a little concerned. Heck, the court itself apparently felt the same way, as they were apparently "'more than a little troubled' by that conclusion and asked Wisconsin lawmakers to regulate GPS use to protect against abuse by police and private individuals."

If the court itself that issued the ruling in favor of the practice has doubts about that very practice, you know it's a tricky subject.

The circumstances that brought the case before the court make things even more gray: A man suspected of stalking is investigated by police, who affix a GPS tracking device to his car and discover that he is, indeed, following the woman who lodged the complaint against him. Man is tried, sentenced, and thrown in jail.

Believe you me, I'm all for stalkers and other criminals getting their just desserts. But that doesn't stop me from feeling incredibly ill-at-east about this ruling. The defendant claimed that the GPS tracking violated his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, but the court came to the conclusion that since this was just tracking, it didn't constitute actual, physical search and/or seizure. And I can see the reasoning behind that. It makes sense.

But maybe there ought to be a reasonable expectation of privacy, of not being secretly tracked without warrant. And honestly, if the law allowed for GPS tracking of suspects but required a warrant to do so, I don't know that I'd be complaining. The fact of the matter, however, is that we've now given carte blanche to law enforcement agencies to essentially spy on anyone they so choose. Do I think all police are going to abuse this power? Certainly not, but I'm also not naive enough to think that no cop anywhere will ever take advantage of this ability.

So where do we draw the line?

In 2008, UW police began a "bait bike" program wherein the put GPS tracking devices on bicycles around campus, then used the information to hunt down the people who made off with the bikes. Is this an appropriate use of the technology and law? I would say yes, simply because the people being tracked have actually committed a crime at that point. That's very different than mere suspicion that they might break the law (I can't help but think of the Philip K. Dick short story "The Minority Report" when this sort of thing comes up).

I don't know about you, but I don't particularly relish the idea of being treated like I'm guilty until proven innocent. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the framers of the Constitution would feel the same way.

So we must ask ourselves, do we allow for broader surveillance powers and to be treated liked we're all potential criminal suspects, or do we place boundaries on what is and is not acceptable in the pursuit of improved safety and justice? Frankly, I'm leaning strongly toward the latter decision.

(photo by Steffen M. Boelaars on Flickr)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rock, writing, and curfews

Well, I've been a bad blogger so far this week, but for good reason. Oh yes. See, my brand new band, Little Red Wolf, has our first public show ever tomorrow night, so I've been spending some quality time getting both mentally and physically prepared for said endeavor. I also did something interesting to my hair.

I've been doing a lot of non-blog writing, too, which is good, really, so no apologies necessary. For the curious, you can check out some of that aforementioned writing by picking up the newest edition of Our Lives Magazine (available for free at many outlets around the city), or cheating and reading my article online. I'll also have a feature piece printed in Isthmus a week from tomorrow. Hooray!

And hey, if you're curious about my new band and our very lovely music, consider yourself cordially invited to come out to our gig: Dane101's 4th Anniversary Party on Thursday, May 7th @ 9:00p.m. at the High Noon Saloon right here in Madison. We're up first, so if you need to get your beauty rest you'll still be able to--but if you're in the mood for more rock, stick around for The New Kites, Butt Funnel, and The National Beekeepers Society. It's just $5 at the door, and there may even be cake!

In far less self-serving news, I just wanted to note that the city of Madison is currently considering moving the curfew for minors under the age of 16 from 11p.m. to 10p.m.--and I personally think it's a terrible idea. I'll refer you to two other bloggers who've already addressed why this is a bad idea, Brenda Konkel and Deke Rivers. Suffice to say that there is no data to back up this move, and everything to indicate that a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to solve the problem of kids being out late in more "at-risk" neighborhoods. Also, I well remember what it was to be that age and hounded by bored cops for being out after curfew, regardless of what you were up to (I grew up in a smaller town where there was apparently nothing better for them to be doing). It sucks, and does nothing to instill a sense of respect for the police. It does, in fact, quite the opposite.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Progressively wearing myself out

My weekend started last night, when I took my handy dandy press pass and headed out for the big Progressive Magazine 100th anniversary concert at the Orpheum Theatre. Getting to see a fantastic line-up of some of your favorite folk artists for free is definitely a huge perk of being a member of the unwashed press masses.

It was, unsurprisingly, a fantastic show, and you can check out my write-up of the event over at and/or my set of photos at my Flickr site. Basically, it was Catie Curtis, Melissa Ferrick, Peter Mulvey, Dar Williams, the Indigo Girls, and Ani DiFranco--all in one place, and often sharing the stage to sing together. Imagine me getting the vapors and fanning myself, because I totally am.

I also had the distinct honor of writing an opinion piece that was printed in this weeks' edition of Isthmus, and you should absolutely pick up a copy and give it a read. And not just for my amazing, cutting, super intelligent discussion of the torture memos, but because it's a fine publication in general (or you can cheat and read my article online).

Today and some of tomorrow, I'll be/have been covering the actual Progressive Magazine conference. So far I've seen more heavy-hitting progressive speakers than you could shake a stick at, if you cared to do such a thing, including Wisconsin's dreamiest Senator, Russ Feingold. Look for more photos and articles about the conference, from both myself and fellow correspondent Steve Furay, over at Dane101 throughout the next few days.

In the meantime, I'm taking a nap.
The Lost Albatross