August 13th, 2012

Birdwatching at Jackson Park

Jackson Park is the large county park near us, that gives its name to our neighborhood. Besides picnic grounds and playing fields, it holds a small wooded area, and a sizable pond with two small islands. The pond attracts birds--mostly ducks, geese and gulls, but of late we've seen some rarer species.

We have at least one young Great Blue Heron in residence. There is a large heron nesting ground north of Milwaukee in Ozaukee County, and we've usually seen one or two at Jackson Park each year for the last several years, which is always thrilling.

Within the last week, we've also observed both Black-Crowned Night Herons--a male and what may have been a female--and American Bitterns, three together one evening.

My guess is that the extremely dry weather has caused these birds to migrate from nearby wetlands where they normally live, to the spring-fed pond, which is home to plenteous frogs and insects, but is also stocked with small fish each spring.

Whatever the reason, it's very exciting to see these unusual specimins in a city park.

Great Blue Heron:

Black-Crowned Night Heron:

American Bittern:

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Weekend, August 4-5

We had a very nice weekend the 4th and 5th of August. The fourth was the second Milwaukee-area Steampunk Picnic, hosted by "Commander" Chuck Tritt and "Lady" Juliann Hunter at their home in rural Mequon. Repeating the success of last year's gathering, it was a very pleasant occasion.

Attendance was (fortunately) down from the projected maximum of 100 plus, in part due to the high temperatures forecast, but the day was actually more comfortable than expected due to overcast that eventually yielded a light rain in the late afternoon, which did little to dampen festivities.

Georgie was again commissioned to provide a cake. When we heard the theme "A Midsummer Night's Steam," the phrase "rude mechanicals" came to mind, and inspired a cake depicting Shakespeare's "Bottom" in tool bedecked overalls, wearing a brazen, steam-spouting donkey's head. It was universally admired.

We took our leave in the late afternoon, but I understand the party went on well into the night. A rather nice video of the event can be found here:

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The Dark Knight Rises

Tuesday evening, August 7th, I went to out local movie house to see "The Dark Night Rises," the third installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, following "Batman Begins," and "The Dark Knight."

I went on my own since Georgie decided she had seen sufficient violence in "The Dark Night." I haven't gone to a movie by myself since before we were married, so that alone was an unusual experience.

The beginning of the film is three years after the events of "The Dark Knight," and the supposed heroic death of District Attorney Harvey ("Two-Face") Dent. With the Batman wanted for Dent's murder, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, mourning the death of Rachel Dawes, and nursing the injuries incurred in his battle with the Joker. He's lured out when his private safe is burgled by Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) (the name "Catwoman" is not used in this picture, but we all know who she is--). This incursion is merely the tip of the spear of a convoluted plot that starts with a struggle for control of Wayne Industries and culminates with Gotham City being forced to re-enact a sort of "Paris Commune" of anarchy and bloodshed under the direction of Bane (Tom Hardy), who takes a gleeful, almost professorial role, in leading the Gothamites into degradation.

This movie is marginally less dark than "The Dark Night," in part because Bane and company do have an agenda, and are not as reflexively vicious as Heath Ledger's Joker. Like "Batman Begins," the movie culminates in an over-long and drawn-out running battle which still manages to maintain interest due to the number of twists and turns it takes.

I am stuck by the "criminal genius" of director Nolan and his co-writers. They have come up with some artfully planned capers: however, they cheat a bit since all their major villains are all nihilists who don't really care what happens next. Bane, Joker, Ras Al Ghul, Scarecrow, and even Two-Face all fall into this category of hell-bent self-destructiveness. (Hathaway's self-interested Selina Kyle is an exception, although even she takes some insane risks--.) I suppose that once you have introduced these ultimate wreckers into your universe of discourse, mere thieves and thugs aren't exciting enough.

As expected, strong performances by the returning cast members, including Gary Oldman as Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and particularly Micheal Caine as Alfred Pennyworth. To hear Alfred's usually correct accents slip back to something more Cockney as he finally shows emotion to Wayne was to appreciate artistry in acting.

The new cast for the film were excellent as well. I would not have thought to cast Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, but she was excellent. Usually notable for her dazzling smile, she could be strikingly feral when growling into the ear of a thug. Tom Hardy as Bane was a striking character as well. He's clearly drawn on "Darth Vader", as shown by his casual killing of displeasing henchmen, but he has an almost jolly and expansive manner at times. There's no question Hardy was hindered by Bane's mask which almost entirely hid his expressions as well as distorting his voice (sometimes to unintelligibility), but he did well, regardless. Other notable new characters included Matthew Modine as Gordon's ambitious deputy; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young cop who believes in the Batman; and Marion Cotillard as a wealthy investor and player in the contest for control of Wayne's technologies.

If you saw and appreciated "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," you will probably have seen "The Dark Knight Rises" by now. If you haven't you should. If you haven't been following the series, it's a bit late to get on.

Harsh, brutal, and exciting as its predecessors were. Not as cruel and savage as "The Dark Knight," quite. A satisfying end to this arc of stories.

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Navy Week

August 5th-11th was Navy Week, and in Milwaukee, observance was marked by the visit of US Navy frigate USS De Wert, the coastal patrol ship Hurricane, the cutter USCGC Neah Bay and the Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Québec. 

The ships were in from the 8th through the 13th, and were open for tours most days. Georgie and I took time Friday afternoon, and went aboard both the Ville de Québec and the De Wert, which were docked adjacently at Jones Island. Both are classed as frigates and are grossly similar, although with some significant differences.

It was a nice day  to be down at the lake front. Even the stiff wind blowing in off the lake was not uncomfortable. A good thing, since, getting there just after the ships opened for the day, the line for admission was a quarter-mile long. However, it moved quickly, and we were able to watch aircraft practicing for the next day's airshow flying up and down the coast.

Both are armed with a combination of missles, guns, and torpedoes. Ville de Québec's heaviest weapons system is Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which were unshipped for the Great Lakes tour. She also carries Evolved Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missles, antisubmarine torpedoes, and has an automatic 57-MM cannon on the foredeck, and a Phalanx Close In Weapons System aft, a Gatling gun capable of shooting down incoming missiles.

The De Wert actually marginally smaller (by a few feet and a few tons displacment) than the Ville de Québec, but looms larger due to its boxier superstructure. The De Wert carries torpedoes and mounts a CIWS like the Ville de Québec, but carries its main gun, a 76mm autocannon, amidships. It had been fitted with a Harpoon launcher also, but Harpoon missles were removed from all frigates of the De Wert's class in 2004.

It was very pleasant strolling around the Ville de Québec's more open decks. The De Wert seemed more crowded, and by the time we got aboard, having visted the Canadian frigate first, there was a long line to filter into the bridge, which was a major bottleneck of the tour. The De Wert seemed somehow more warlike, although it's hard to say exactly how: partially it may have been the obvious presence of gun-totting fatigue clad Marines. I could not help but contrast our long-ago visit to the then-new USS Stark,  a sister ship to the De Wert, in the early 80's, prior to it's having been subject to an Iraqi missile attack in 1987.  In those halcyon days, there were no metal detectors to pass though, and, if armed guards were present, they were discreetly out of sight--.

Personnel aboard both ships were cheerful, friendly, and helpful. Chatting briefly with one of the sailors on the De Wert's bridge, we were interested to find that her immediately previous deployment had been to the "Somali basin" on anti-piracy patrol, and they had in fact captured a number of pirates while there.

Ville de Québec has also been deployed on missions throughout the Atlantic and to the Indian Ocean; specifically the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea on anti-terrorism operations and in 2008, supported World Food Program efforts in Somalia.

The Navy is putting out extra effort for "Navy Week" this year due to it being the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812. It occurred to us to wonder what the seamen of those days would make of these modern frigates; so big, so fast and so powerful compared with a frigate of 1812, yet among the smallest class of regular warships these days.
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