Monday, October 22, 2012

Day Trip: Burt's Farm

When you drive up into the north Georgia mountains during leaf season, expect to be pissed off. The two-lane roads aren't built to handle the jillions of Atlantans making the short trek up there to see leaves die and change colors. It's the asphalt version of an arterial plaque, but you can't just shove a balloon down the double yellow line, inflate it, and blow all the cars off the road.

So there's one thing you need to know when you drive 90 minutes out of your way to buy pumpkins: leave as early as possible. That's what my family managed to somehow do by a miracle last weekend as we headed up to the far end of Dawson County to go to Burt's Farm.

What's so special about Burt's Farm? An enormous field of pumpkins of all shapes, colors, sizes, and deformities. Those little tiny pumpkins you find at the grocery store that are too small to even carve, but half the price. F'n huge pumpkins that you can't even fit in the back of a pickup truck. Pumpkins that look like they have herpes. Vampire pumpkins. Corn. Oh, and hayrides.

Where's the corn maze, you ask? Take your pick. Burt's doesn't carve a maddening and panic-inducing corn field you intentionally get lost in while wondering if you'll ever find a bathroom again because they don't have a corn field. But if you really want that kind of experience, there's at least 10 on the way there.

Like I said, my family, now involving a 1-year-old, miraculously left the house before 9 AM in order to beat the rush to Burt's, which set a record for efficiency that I'm sure we will never repeat. We took the long way up there, going all the way to Ellijay, then East Ellijay, before missing the turn onto Highway 52 and going way, way too far and turning around. Once we found Highway 52, it was all good because we followed it east until it ends, veered left, and saw the farm on the right. (There are more efficient directions detailed below, although more complicated and scenic.) When you get there, you won't miss it, and the reason is because you've been driving through rural Georgia for a seriously long time and you've suddenly come across the Dawson County version of Disneyworld. Shiny metal vehicles glisten in the sun, packing the parking lot directly in front of the entrance. Patrons from 5 to 90 push around wheelbarrows full of inedible fruits. Port-o-potties as far as the eye can see. A man waved us on while standing next to a sign that said "LOT FULL".

The place looked packed, and it was barely 10:30 on a Sunday. Why weren't all these people in church? The answer came to us later when church let out.

Fortunately, Burt's has two overflow lots: one paved, one grass. Seemed like there was plenty of parking even though the grass lot was full. We found a space, jammed our son into a stroller, and headed down the hill to the entrance.

There was no entrance fee. We strolled straight into pumpkin heaven (or hell, depending on how much you like white people with children). The smell of incredible food was everywhere. Pumpkin pies. Pumpkin popcorn. Pumpkin hot dogs. I'm not sure all those things existed but it sure smelled like it. If you already over-indulged in pumpkin-based foods this year, you'd want to puke, but you'd appreciate the aroma while yacking.

This was not necessarily a stroller-friendly place because of the rough terrain and foot-based traffic congestion, but I had an epiphany as I watched all the veteran white people with children. What do little kids like more than being pushed around in a wheelbarrow? So we obliged my small child and set him down in one with the stroller folded up next to him. Best idea ever.

A massive line of people waiting for the hayride bisected the farm. We didn't touch partake because we didn't want to be stuck there all day even though the prices were decent. At $4 per adult, $3 per child, and $0 per child under a year old, the whole family could ride for a single bill. I don't know what's so fun about sitting on hay and driving through the woods, but it looks like lots of people truly enjoy it, so if that's your thing, have at it. Just make sure you do that first before putting pumpkins in a wheelbarrow, because I imagine people get pissed if you abandon your 'barrow and leave it sitting around in valuable 'barrow-driving real estate while you sit on hay and ride through the woods.

The line for the hayride

By the time church exploded its patrons upon Burt's Farm, the line had backed up all the way to the entrance, making it difficult to 'barrow from one side of the farm to the other, so we grabbed up our pumpkins and headed for the checkout line. We bought:

  • One 5-pound blue pumpkin
  • One 5-pound yellow pumpkin
  • One 4-pound herpes pumpkin
  • One 3-pound exploding-alien-pumpkin
  • Four tiny UFO-shaped orange pumpkins
  • Four tiny UFO-shaped white pumpkins
  • Six ears of petrified corn

And all that only cost us $36 after tax. I know that sounds like a lot of money to spend on inedible fruit, but check out your local church-parking-lot pumpkin patch and you'll see that they're charging more. Plus, that's not a likely place to find a wide selection of herpes pumpkins.

By the time we left, Burt's was going parking bananacrazy. Cars were doing the creepy Christmastime mall parking lot crawl, stalking people to their parking spaces and waiting patiently for parents to pin their kids down into 20-point harness safety seats. And leaving was a disaster, too, as it took us five minutes to turn left onto the two-lane road that suffered under the stress of a million families headed to the pumpkin patch who couldn't get the kids together before noon.

DIRECTIONS TO BURT'S FARM FROM ATLANTA (from I-285):
  • Take I-75 north from I-285 and veer right onto I-575 north
  • When I-575 ends at the Pickens County line, continue north on Highway 5
  • Go past the roads that lead to Jasper (Industrial Blvd. and Highway 53)
  • Turn right on Antioch Church Rd. and immediately right onto Talking Rock Rd.
  • A few hundred feet later, turn left onto Highway 136, going through downtown Talking Rock
  • Veer right at a split not long afterward (do not veer left onto Whitestone Rd.)
  • At the T-intersection, turn right on Jones Mountain Rd. (this is still Highway 136)
  • At another T-intersection, turn left onto Burnt Mountain Rd. (still Highway 136)
  • Enjoy the mountain view and your ears popping as you drive a long, long time on this road
  • When it ends, turn left onto Elliot Family Pkwy (Highway 183)
  • Veer right at the split onto Highway 52
  • Go exactly 1 mile and Burt's is on the right

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Whatever Happened to Picture-in-Picture?

As I watched yet another house hunting show with my wife, despite having bought our house more than a year ago, something I used to say all the time came back to me. A couple was negotiating down on a house, feeling that they were getting a good deal at $435,000. This in itself is not totally outrageous, unless you live in Atlanta, but the fact that they were buying a one-bedroom condo nearly made me vomit. It wasn't in New York City. It wasn't in SanFran. It was somewhere like downtown Oklahoma City. They immediately gutted the brand new kitchen and trashed the marble counter tops because they were the wrong color. Didn't even attempt to recycle them at all!

I then turned to my wife and said "When they show stuff like this, there should be a picture-in-picture of an African kid with flies on his face, and a subtitle that says 'Meanwhile in Africa, this kid walks 6 miles a day for water that doesn't give him horrific diarrhea!'"

"You say that all the time," she responded, which may have previously been true, but no longer is. But I couldn't help thinking about it. As we watch our first-world problems on television, like the $3500 wedding dress that's not quite right, how much would it change our perspective to have that small child with fly apathy staring at us from the corner? He doesn't do much in heart-tugging commercials for opening our wallets, but giving us the stinkeye all day while we watch white people lament over the bottled water brand that the convenience store doesn't stock might make us appreciate what we have a bit more.

Watching two shows at once in the 90s
Then I got off my internal soap box as I became distracted by that archaic concept of the picture-in-picture. Suddenly, I realized that I haven't seen one in years. And why not?

First, let me refresh all the millenials on what PIP is. Back in the day, we were sufficiently obsessed with television to watch two television stations at once. This was extremely useful for watching Nascar, because you could leave the cars zooming left in a tiny box in the corner while you watched something funny. Yep, you could catch up on Friends while watch Dale Earnhardt take the lead.

Picture-in-picture was a feature of higher-end TVs that placed a tiny box in the corner of the screen displaying another channel. You could switch between the two with the PIP button on the remote, or display and remove the box. Most people used it for amusing themselves with something else while commercials played on the program you actually intended to watch. With the commercials silently droning away in the corner, you could be entertained while keeping an eye on your program and seeing when the commercials ended and the program came back. So what offed this genius idea?

  1. The Internet. Instead of watching another program, lots of us sit in our living rooms with our laptops and iPads, finding an alternate way to amuse ourselves until the program comes back.
  2. DVRs. With the main program recording on another channel, it doesn't matter if you miss the end of the commercial break, because when you switch back, you can just rewind it.
  3. Cheap, flat TVs. PIP was useful in sports bars for showing Nascar juxtaposed with baseball, but now we just put 50 TVs in one room because they weigh hardly anything and cost even less.

DVD bonus features
So it looks like picture-in-picture isn't making a big comeback anytime soon. In fact, the only new use for the technology appears to be DVD/Blu-ray special features that utilize it to show video in the corner of the screen while a movie or television show is playing, allowing a talking head to spew facts at you. Neato!

But with all those ads and watermarks television stations put at the bottom of the screen these days, surely they can spare some real estate for a fly-covered kid. It might make you appreciate your toothbrush a little more.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Daytrip: Babyland General

What began as a sunny Saturday with a 30% chance of rain turned into a raging 5-hour storm that downed trees and ruined our daytrip. I had planned to explore the legendary tourist traps of White County, Georgia, but was locked in at Babyland General, the faux maternity ward where Cabbage Patch Dolls are born.


The drive to White County from Atlanta is longer than you'd expect by looking at a map, but if you watch any 90 minute comedy on the way up, the drive will be over before you think to look at the road. You jump on highway 400 going straight north from the city and slam on your brakes as hard as possible when your 80 mile per hour drive on a limited access highway suddenly has a red traffic light in the middle of it. Meandering through Dawsonville, you decide not to stop at the outlet mall or get any fast food. Then 400 ends, and you continue straight up route 19 to highway 52, where you turn right for the first time, arriving in White County a few miles later.

It was at this point that my wife's iPod had randomly selected to play "East 1999" by Bone, a hilarious rap song I had ironically placed on it to remind her of middle school.

"Cleveland is the city where we come from so ruuuuun," it repeated, made even funnier by the "CLEVELAND CITY LIMITS" sign we passed on the way into our first intended destination of the trip.

Dark storm clouds loomed to the north. The plan was to hit up Cleveland first, visiting the incredibly cheesy doll factory, eat at the fabled Ma Gooch's home cooking restaurant, and then travel a few more miles up to the Bavarian city of Helen to browse chocolates and throw garbage into lederhosen-adorned trash cans. But the storm had other plans.

My son needed to eat, so we stopped in a drug store parking lot and fed him his lunch as I watched the storm overtake the sun and turn day into night. White County residents, all appropriately white, walked barefoot across the asphalt with dogs off the leash.

"Look! A mexican!" a small boy shouted. I looked, and saw a hispanic man riding a bike down the street.

"Look, a horrific storm," I said to my wife as I put the car in gear and proceeded toward Babyland General. The downpour began as we walked through the front door of the building and entered into a wonderland of marketing hell.

Wow! Quincy Jones!
In 1978, a 23-year-old art student named Xavier Roberts from Cleveland developed a line of baby dolls he called Little People, and began producing them in an old medical clinic in his home town which he named Babyland General. Despite being a relatively small operation, by 1982 the recently renamed Cabbage Patch Dolls were a nationwide fad in high demand. The utter popularity of the dolls brought visitors from across the country, including untold numbers of celebrities immortalized on the celebrity wall (now located next to the bathrooms). By the end of the millennium, almost 100 million dolls had been sold.

Of course, the fad slowly faded away, but Babyland General was always yet another thing for daytripping Atlanta tourists to see on their way to Helen. The centerpiece was its Magic Crystal Tree that a Licensed Patch Nurse would deliver a new baby from once an hour, pulling it from the cabbage patch and allowing the visitors to name it. I remember my trip there as a child, roughly six years old, with my friend Jared from Missouri.

"Who would like to name the baby?" the LPN asked. Jared raised his hand.

"Jared!" he shouted. The baby was then given a middle name by another audience member, and was eventually sold to someone who gave it its last name.

Babyland General also featured numerous other rooms, such as the nursery for newborn babies, the intensive care unit for premature births, the school house, a bridge over an indoor creek, glowing crystals everywhere, and many more things that are incredibly magical to a child and horribly cheesy to an adult.

Oops, the Earth disappeared
We were standing in the lobby, happy to have dodged the cold rain, inside of the new $2.5 million mansion that sits on 600 acres of land. If the old building was a tiny used medical facility near the Cleveland square, this massive compound just outside of the city limits would have to be spectacular, right? We moved through the entrance and into the nurseries.

Three small rooms contained rare Cabbage Patch Dolls, all for sale, generally in the range of $300. We passed through the nurseries, excited to see the Magic Crystal Tree and all the other fantastic treasures that awaited us.

Instead, we exited into the ultimate gift shop. If you've ever been to Disneyworld and ended up in a huge gift shop at the end of a ride, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It was a massive room filled with stuff to buy. Around the perimeter were glowing crystals with dolls in various states of birth from the cabbage patch, moving via electric motors. A school bus filled with dolls stood in the middle of the room. The birthing tree was visible from every corner of the room.

An announcement was made that a baby was dilated at eight leaves and that we should all head to the center of the room to witness the birth. An LPN gave the same speech that had been told for thirty years, birthed the baby, and then asked if anyone wanted to name the baby. An excited adolescent girl waved her hand vigorously in the air.

"BAAHHAN!" she shouted in excitement.

"Uh, I'm sorry, what was that?" the LPN asked.

"BAHHNK!" she again excitedly yelled.

"Hold on, I think I'm getting some feedback," he said, and turned his microphone down.
Banks and his unfortunate hair

"Banks," she quietly said.

"Okay, Banks? Banks, and a middle name? Simon. Everyone say hello to Banks Simon!" We all applauded, except for my son, who sat on my shoulders and had no idea what was happening.

We continued to peruse the gifts as the storm raged outside, held captive by its relentless downpour. Not everything was CPD-related; the store held Legos, Sesame Street characters, and a wide variety of third party merchants' products that had contracted to be held inside this gigantic gift shop. We went to the nursery to see young Banks Simon placed in the window, and then gave up, bought a $5 caterpillar that my son wouldn't let go of, and I pulled the car around to bravely rescue my family from the store and storm. It was a long drive home.

Both my wife and I had remembered a much better experience at the old Babyland General. There seemed to be more character, more things to be awed by, more of the spirit of the original shop that cranked out the fixed-gaze dolls with yarn-like hair. The new, $2.5 million mansion on 600 acres was a massive disappointment compared to the old medical-building-turned-doll-shop. But at least it was free.

Or maybe it's still magical to children.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Torq's Field Guide to Fonts

"What is this font I keep seeing everywhere?"

Ever notice that you see the same fonts everywhere you go? No? Well, I do. And I verbalize the experience often enough that my wife gets annoyed and violently twists my nipples every time I point at a font and shriek its name.

There's at least a few good reasons that these fonts have stood the test of time and become so wildly popular for marketing and design. Though being bundled with Microsoft Office is one of those reasons, they're also just well-made and highly applicable.

The bad part of this is overexposure. Sure, you may not notice Helvetica everywhere you go, but Curlz sticks out like a 12-year-old girl's flowery-painted thumb. It's a bit like using the same word over and over again. I mean, there's only so many times you can say "cabbage" out loud before it begins to sound weird, and then completely lose its meaning.

However, you might see a font while riding around on your dirt bike and realize that it's perfect for your PowerPoint presentation, wedding invitation, emancipation proclamation or whatever else you're currently working on. And the deadline is in 6 hours because you procrastinated so badly. And the guy at the bus stop is too concerned about you riding your dirt bike on the sidewalk to offer you any help identifying the font.

So here's my Field Guide to Fonts. It's like identifying leaves out in the woods or inverted insects on your windowsill, but in true word nerd fashion, it involves letters.

Copperplate Gothic


You'll see it anywhere that a classy all-capitals font needs to be used. Signs, t-shirts, websites, book titles, and everywhere in-between. Copperplate Gothic is clearly legible from a far distance because of its wide letters and uppercase-style lowercase letters (a typography style called "small caps.")

This classic typeface dates all the way back to 1901, when Frederic Goudy created it for the American Type Founders. The glyphs are intended to resemble carving or etching into metal or glass. Now that you've read this, you will actually see it carved or etched into metal or glass everywhere you go.

Crimefighter BB


You can make anything feel like a comic book by using this classic handwritten-style font. It gets its roots from the Marvel Comic classics of the mid- to late-20th century.

Lots of people think that Comic Sans would fill this role, but it doesn't, and most people hate it. While Comic Sans is seen as a trademark of poor design skills, Crimefighter BB is seen as a secret weapon.

Curlz


Omigosh it's so cute! You might think that these characters had been lifted straight from the pages of a middle school girl's math notebook if I didn't know for a fact that two grown men whipped it up in 1995 for Agfa Monotype.

These were the times when many typefaces that had been popular for centuries were still being converted to vector models for use in home word processing. Carl Crossgrove and Steve Matteson noticed a significant lack in the market for girly fonts for girls that girls everywhere would print entire book reports in, and so began a trend of wacky out-there typefaces.

It's one of the most popular fonts for signs because of its lighthearted nature and easy legibility from far away. And if you never noticed it before, you're going to now. Sorry.

Hill House


Due to its erratic and high x-height and popularity on signs visible from roads, I've dubbed Hill House the new Papyrus. (You'll know what I mean if you read the snarky Papyrus entry below.)

Jon Hicks didn't want to just use Papyrus for his wedding invitations. How could a graphic designer allow that to happen? And for a marriage to another graphic designer, too! Nope, he could handle it himself. It was time to try his hand at typography and create something brand new.

The result was Hill House, an uppercase-only typeface based on the handwriting of renowned architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, completed in 1997 — just in time for the Hicks wedding invitations to be mailed out at 29 cents a piece. Hicks went on to create all those sassy monsters you see gleefully chomping things on the Firefox website.

Hobo


This font doesn't generally live up to its name, because it's clean and doesn't carry a bindle. However, much like the nomads of the American railroads, it's been everywhere.

Hobo was cranked out of the American Type Founders factory thanks to typeface magician Morris Fuller Benton. In 1910. NINETEEN-FREAKING-TEN. You can imagine that this font looked like space robots to the people of that time. Yep, people wanted something that looked like a typewriter, which translated into very official-looking serif fonts. Hobo didn't catch on until relatively recently.

It's serifless like most fantasy fonts, which makes it ideal for large print. Couple this with its friendly, curvy lettering, and you have the perfect typeface to use for a sign or poster. Want more business, but can't afford a graphic designer? Print your store's sign in Hobo. And now you know why that happens so often.

Joystix


So you want the ultimate throwback font, eh? What screams 1980s nostalgia more than your standard, uppercase-only monospace video game font, pixels and all?

Joystix looks like it was screenshot straight off a Ms. Pac Man machine, which is almost exactly correct. Ray Larabie pieced together this font pixel-by-faux-pixel to recreate a typeface you'd see in just about every early video game — specifically those on the NES. Then he went on to be hired by an actual video game company. (See Pricedown.)

From the jagged A to the angled exclamation point, this font makes you want to go punch Donkey Kong in his stupid smug face.

Matisse


Also known as "Matisse ITC", this typeface was produced in 1995 by the International Typeface Corporation who have since eaten Letraset (owners of Papyrus) and Agfa Monotype (makers of Curlz).

Despite being an erratic and not particularly attractive font, it's got its share of fans who reportedly like its schizophrenic design. Unfortunately, it tends to look a lot like squiggles from far away.

Papyrus


A favorite of apartment complex signs worldwide, this is one of the oldest fonts in our field guide. Each glyph was hand-drawn by Chris Costello in 1982 using a calligraphy pen. He wanted to create a typeface that would embody the scribing methods from two millenia ago using English characters.

Any time a classy, yet somewhat whimsical atmosphere needs to be conveyed (think apartment complex signs), Papyrus is a viable option. It's such a ready-to-go artistic font that many high-profile individuals and corporations will simply type their name out using the font without changing much of anything. (See Edible Arrangements.)

Unfortunately, the font has become so ubiquitous that it's earned it place in the Graphic Designer Hall of Hatred. Even Costello himself has lamented its overuse.

Pricedown

Looking at Pricedown gives me this incredible urge to walk up to the nearest automobile, swing open the door, throw the driver on the ground, and run him over with his own car. It's not that I'm a bad person. It's just that this font is most well-known for being the main font of the ultra-popular Grand Theft Auto series.

Ray Larabie was the resident typographer at Rockstar Games during the early days of the series' heyday, and created this font to capture the feeling of legendary game show The Price is Right. I'm still not sure what that game show has to do with extreme criminal activity, but I'm sure the link is in there somewhere.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Using "%s" Bookmark Shortcuts in Firefox

I sit at a computer from 7:30 AM to 5 PM. Seems like I have an awful lot of time to get stuff done, right?

Despite this, I'm always looking for ways to make my job faster and more efficient so I can spend more time as an amateur cartogrophile with Google Earth. Sometimes I just can't stand to spend all that time spelling out the entire word "thesaurus" to go to Thesaurus.com.

As a writer, I need an endless supply of synonyms to keep me from losing my mind. But man, I hate that word! And I hate having to visit the home page first to do a synonym query! If only there was some way to skip directly to the results, straight from the browser's address bar, without having to type out "thesaurus" yet again!

As it turns out, there's a simple way to do this with Firefox. If you're not using Firefox, then good for you—unless you're using Internet Explorer, in which case, please use Firefox.

Whenever you do a search query on Thesaurus.com, or Google, or Amazon, Youtube, Wikipedia, or just about any other site, you're redirected to a URL that includes your search keywords. For example, if I search Thesaurus.com for "yay," I'll be redirected to this URL:

http://thesaurus.com/browse/yay?s=t

I can bookmark this resulting URL, using the variable "%s" in place of "yay", and apply the keyword "the" in the Bookmarks folder to spawn this bookmark. Now, I can go to the browser's address bar and simply type "the yay" to get the same result. Way faster!

Here's how it works:


In the Bookmarks library, you can supply a keyword for each bookmark. These keywords can be typed into the address bar to take you directly to that bookmark. Anything typed into the address bar after the keyword will be inserted into the bookmarked URL wherever %s is.

Here's how to do it:


Go to a website and do a search. Bookmark the resulting URL by going to Bookmarks > Bookmark This Page.

 Now go to Bookmarks > Show all Bookmarks and click "Recently Bookmarked" to see the page you just bookmarked at the top of the window. Select it, and click the down arrow in the bottom left corner to expand more options.


In Location, replace the part of the URL that refers to your search terms with "%s".

In Keyword, include whatever you want.

You're done! Now you can type your keyword and your search terms in the address bar to run a quick search on the webpage you bookmarked.

There are tons of ways this can be used:


  • Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%s
  • The Weather Channel: http://www.weather.com/weather/tenday/%s
  • YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%s
  • Songmeanings (Artists): http://www.songmeanings.net/query/?q=%s&type=artists
  • Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=%s
  • eBay: http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p5197.m570.l1313&_nkw=%s
  • Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/search/%s
  • Google Image Search: https://www.google.com/search?q=%s&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&authuser=0&ei=F6mZT6LZEoK69QTb0-D8BQ&biw=1348&bih=801&sei=G6mZT_jEOILo9ATr0rHvBQ
  • Craigslist (Atlanta): http://atlanta.craigslist.org/search/?areaID=14&subAreaID=&query=%s&catAbb=sss

Hey, don't ever say I haven't saved you 8 seconds of your life.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Does the Easter Bunny Exist?


Ever wondered how the Easter Bunny came to be? Seems kinda far removed from the whole "savior of the world being resurrected" thing, doesn't it?


On Good Friday (possibly the least accurately titled holiday ever), Jesus was brutally executed. On the Sunday after his execution, the tomb that held his body was discovered to be empty, and it was determined that he had risen from Earth to heaven to be with God. That's the reason Easter exists to begin with.

It's not called "Easter" because this all happened far east of the United States. The word is derived from the ancient German month Eostur-monath (what is now known as April) which was named for the pagan goddess Ēostre. 8th century pagan Anglo-Saxons held feasts in her honor during this time of year to celebrate the blooming of Spring.

It just so happens that Jesus was offed right around the same time that this traditional festival came to be celebrated. When Christianity made its way to the highly pagan realms of Europe, the festival was replaced by Paschal month (known to Jews as Passover) and celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. The original festival's name came along and evolved into the word Easter.

Christmas and Easter are two very similar holidays. They both celebrate the birth (or re-birth) of Jesus. They both have mascots that overshadow the whole Jesus thing. They both have traditions that seem wildly random.

Christmas has Santa, stockings, decorated trees, and seizure-inducing light shows. Easter has a bunny, eggs, candy, and baskets. Analyzing Christmas is for a different time, but why do we have such bizarre Easter traditions if it's all about Christ?

Remember that the resurrection celebration was rolled into an already-existing Springtime party celebrated by nature-happy pagans. Right around the month of April, stuff is growing. Flowers are blooming. Animals are coming out of hibernation to freely copulate with vigor. It just so happens that Jesus' re-birth is an excellent metaphor for fertility.

And what other symbol of fertility do we have? Eggs. Just about every animal comes from an egg of some sort, and chicken eggs are abundant and edible even after serving as holiday decorations. The tradition of adorning them most likely comes from ancient times in which eggs were boiled with fresh Spring flowers to create colorfully dyed hard-boiled eggs.

Rabbits, as well, have long been symbols of fertility. They're superfetative, which means that they can get pregnant with another set of babies before even giving birth to the first, and they hump like crazy when all the flowers are in bloom in the Spring. Maybe they find it romantic. (Also, they're cute. Frogs can lay 10,000 eggs at a time, but we don't have an Easter Frog.)

So, much like Christmas and Santa and the gift-giving frenzy that now defines it, Easter is marketed using a somewhat non-denominational symbol: The Easter Bunny. Businesses want to make money, and holidays are good times to catch people when they're willing to be less thrifty than usual because "it's a special occasion." Appealing to as wide a demographic as possible is generally more profitable, so rather than using Jesus to sell candy, the Easter Bunny became the official spokesperson of the season.

And that's how we got from this:


To this:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Diet Mission: No Whites

Fad diets don't always work, but they sure are popular. It seems like everyone's looking for an easy way to lose weight without sacrificing too much, so when a new one pops up claiming to be the easy weight loss solution, people jump on them.

I struggled to consider which one I should try first. Atkins? Guinness? And then a friend suggested one to me, championed by none other than Oprah Winfrey herself: No Whites.

No, this isn't a timewarping segregationist restaurant. It's a diet founded on the principle that things lacking in color aren't especially good for you and fill you up with empty calories, complex carbohydrates, and glue. Avoid white foods and you're probably eating pretty healthy.

The rules: Don't touch anything white. This means giving up:
  • Milk
  • Flour
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Happiness

But hey, it's only a week. The literature on the topic suggests that dieters could lose as much as 5–6 pounds in one month with this diet. And with endorsements from Oprah and Cameron Diaz, I couldn't go wrong, right?

No Whites Philosophy


To abstain from eating foods that are white in color in order to avoid unhealthy habits and focus more heavily on natural, unprocessed foods.

Day 1: Oh God, What Have I Done?


I woke up motivated to cook a non-white breakfast and was suddenly slapped in the face by reality. I couldn't make eggs. I couldn't make hash browns. I couldn't make toast, or eat cereal with milk, or have a bagel. I ended up just eating a bunch of bacon even though it's got those white stripes of fat in it.

Thinking about the rest of the day, I realized I was pretty screwed. This wasn't just going to be a restriction on what to eat, it was going to be a puzzle of figuring out what to eat. I began to panic, randomly exclaiming such inane things as "Butter's not white! Ha ha ha!" My wife gave up mid-morning when she realized she'd have to drink her coffee black.

I made it through the rest of the day without cracking, making a cheeseburger with no bun for lunch. I understood that I wasn't eating especially healthy, but I was clearly following the rules, so I didn't care. (Beer isn't white! I'll have 15 of them.)

Day 2: Solving the Puzzle


I wasn't about to cook bacon before work because I didn't have the time. With cereal and bagels out of the question, I decided to eat a handful of strawberries and a piece of cheese for breakfast.

For lunch, normally I'd just eat ramen noodles or get a sandwich and eat a bunch of potato chips, but every one of those things was off-limits. I began to think about what was left over. My stomach was accusing me of being a traitor for feeding it strawberries for breakfast. My brain was suffering endorphin withdrawal. I had to figure out something fast.

Then my boss brought in a huge plate of ribs for lunch, which would have been really bad timing if this was vegetarian week. All red meat and barbecue sauce was exactly what I needed, and I ate thirty pounds of baked beans to make up for any weight loss that might have happened in the preceding four hours. I ate a bag of almonds for dinner.

Day 3: A Moment of Clarity


I determined that lunch for the rest of the week would be non-breaded hot wings and a fruit cup from the grocery store. Strawberries for breakfast, strawberries for lunch.

While joking with someone that dinner would be "nuts and berries I found in the woods," I had a sudden realization: This diet is basically all fruits, vegetables, nuts, and meat. It is closely analogous to the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who'd look for edible berries if they couldn't find a woodland creature to spear with a sharpened tree branch, except with less accidental poisoning. Aside from the slices of cheese I'd been eating, it was a pretty natural, primitive diet.

Sure, the meat is cooked, but it's not breaded or prepared in any fancy way. It's just basic, stripped-down, and hopefully good for you. As good as hormone-drenched flesh can be.

I weighed myself. I had gained 3 pounds.

Day 4: Taking a Closer Look


Day four's mission was to find a soup I could eat, since so many of them contain cream, onions, potatoes, salty broths, and all that stuff that tastes really great that I was obligated to shun. I decided on a broccoli cheddar soup from Panera. After all, it's just steamed broccoli with melted cheddar cheese, right?

I researched the ingredients to make sure. There were 48 of them, including added cream, onions, potato, and tons of salty broth. Five of the ingredients contained sugar—in a soup that's not even sweet!

I looked closer at the black bean soup and determined that the small amount of potato flour in it would be negligible, but that had me thinking about what was in all those baked beans I ate for lunch on day two. As it turns out, baked beans are navy beans, which are entirely white. In fact, they're in a category of bean called "white beans." Oops!

I'd have to be more careful throughout the week. Yes, broccoli cheddar soup and baked beans are both non-white, but after my breakthrough on day three, I was motivated to cut the smart ass approach and really try to avoid those white foods.

Scouring the ingredients in the low-fat vegetarian black bean soup and deeming it legal, I checked the nutrition facts: 1270mg of sodium.

I never found my soup.

Day 5: Now Explain Yourself


As if free ribs wasn't enough on Monday, the office ordered pizza on Thursday. And while non-stop meat turned out to be the absolute perfect lunch for my diet, pizza was something that was completely out of the question. I had to politely decline to eat it.

"You're on a what diet?" someone asked me. I tried to explain how my color-biased diet would ultimately benefit me, but ended up sounded like an ass.

"Really, it just means that I can't eat anything made with flour," I lied. That would exclude pizza. I was off the hook—for now.

So continued my daily excursion to the grocery store to eat hot wings and fruit. As I passed a Taco Bell on the way into the parking lot, I suddenly had an idea. Tacos = corn tortillas, meat, lettuce, and cheese. I was quickly the owner of three of them.

Returning to the office, I passed by the open pizza boxes while toting my Taco Bell bag. Everyone laughed at me.

Day 6: Making it Work


My family was going to go to dinner at a mexican restaurant, which would have been perfect considering the abundance of tacos to be had. At the last minute, we switched to a sushi place where everything is made out of rice. Should I break my diet? I asked myself. No. I had come so far and had begun to embrace the diet as viable and effective. I made it work.

Instead, I fulfilled the "gatherer" part of my diet by eating edamame, steamed soybeans. Then the "hunter" in me ordered the tiger steak, eating rare beef in a lemongrass broth. Turns out you can find non-white food everywhere but Waffle House.

Day 7 & Beyond: Holy Crap, I Learned Something


On the last day of the diet, I was actually a little bit sad to give it up. I felt like I was eating better and actually making progress. If I really needed to lose weight, I probably would have continued with it. Instead, I woke up the next morning and ate every possible white item on planet Earth.

The rules were easy, yet not always simple to remember. At one point I ate a wintergreen mint out of habit and then realized it was white and filled with sugar. I nearly salted my food 100 times before catching myself. I had to give up garlic. Sweet, sweet garlic! That blasphemy alone was enough to slap me back into reality and welcome the end of the experiment.

I came to realize that potatoes are like a bad friend. You think they're cool and that they even help you out sometimes, but it turns out that they're pretty much just bringing you down and have an endless supply of bad advice. There's almost no nutritional value there. When I ate french fries the next Monday, my body reacted as if I hadn't eaten anything at all. I had to let the potatoes' phone calls go to voice mail and stop going to the bar where I might run into them.

Yet despite all this, I could keep it up for an entire month. I was promised 5–6 pounds of weight loss over that amount of time, so I had expected a fraction of that considering my regular workout routine. In the end, I lost 3 pounds—6 below the high point on Wednesday.

Verdict: Positive Results


I never felt sick despite actually losing weight, and I learned to hate some of the foods I previously loved that are bad for me. I'd say that you could sustain this diet indefinitely (if you can give up garlic).

Friday, March 30, 2012

Madonna's MDNA Marks the End of an Era


"Oh my god, I'm heartly sorry for having offending thee, and I detest all my sins," begins Madonna's 2012 album, MDNA. She may not sound like a 53 year old singing, but she most definitely doesn't sound like any spring chicken, either. In a succession of dance tunes, Madonna offers up cliché after cliché like an epilogue of the most recent synthpop explosion.

The recording quality is excellent, but the content isn't fresh. The album opens with second single "Girl Gone Wild," a phrase that began exiting the public lexicon about a half a decade ago, hinting that Madonna just got the memo that this might be a cute phrase to use. And it's all downhill from there.

The album immediately takes a turn for the cringe-inducing worse on "Gang Bang." (The double entendre is obvious, though the lyrics directly reference a gun violence interpretation.) Just when you think the song couldn't possibly continue, she wails, "I wanna see him die over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over—now die, bitch!"

Madonna has a habit of popping up right in the middle a dance revival. 1989's Like a Prayer was a cornerstone of the early 90s dance craze. Ray of Light came out of nowhere in 1998, hitting at exactly the right moment for a comeback. Unfortunately, MDNA feels more like the end of an era.

Aside from the tired clichés employed on the first two tracks and the TR-909 drum samples, the dated production and subject matter continue as Mrs. Ciccone tells us all about what she is. "I'm Addicted" sounds like a rejected KMFDM B-side. "I'm a Sinner" could easily have been released by Boss Hogg ten years ago.

But the album also serves as a summary of all the gimmicks of the scene from the past couple years. "Girl Gone Wild" features overcompressed bass hits that temporarily mute the treble à la Deadmau5. "Gang Bang" has a surprise and obligatory dubstep bridge. Tracks like "Love Spent" feature over-processed and distant autotuned vocals. She even jumps on the party rock bandwagon with a remix featuring LMFAO on the Deluxe edition's second disc.

And on the lead single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'," featured guest Nicki Minaj—no matter how irritating—is such an abrupt and fresh stylistic diversion that her verse leaves us wishing we weren't listening to a dinosaur singing like a teenager. MIA seals the deal, and we're sold.

"Every record sounds the same," she admits during the chorus. Synthpop just lapsed into a coma, ready to be awakened in nine or so years.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Color Reinvents Itself, Attempting to Stay Alive


It's been a year since mobile phone photo-sharing app Color made waves in the news with an astounding round of venture capital investment. The $41 million figure thrown at the company left many skeptical, including myself. After all, how could they expect to pay back all those investors?

The idea behind the app was simple and somewhat interesting, but would require widespread adoption by mobile phone users to be effective. The idea was that any photos snapped using the program would be immediately shared by anyone else within 150 feet running the app. A whole house full of partygoers would share photos with each other automatically. A crowd of people at the zoo would collect and share any photo they'd taken of silly orangutans. Sports fans would gather and broadcast shots of the game. But they'd all have to not only have the app, they'd need to be using it.

Why would this program cost $41 million to develop? My guess was that the money wasn't so much to feed the programmers as it was to advertise and bring public awareness to the system. If lots of people were convinced to use it and it took off, then the money could start to be made back, but a massive amount of people would need to get involved.

So what happened? Over the past year, I never once heard anyone speak about it out loud. It seems any buzz about the program remained on the Internet for critics to pan or praise. It never took off.

I decided to check in and see what ever came of the little photo app that sputtered out.

Visiting www.color.com, the expensive domain secured by the company as part of its marketing strategy, I initially thought I was looking at an entirely different program. Nothing looked the same. Was this even the same company? All I could see was a collection of silent 30 second films and copy encouraging me to broadcast live from my phone to Facebook.

Turns out Color jumped ship on the old buggy app and started over from scratch, no doubt turning the investors' hair grey in the process, and reinventing itself as a live video update for Facebook. Now the app is used to announce that a broadcast is about to happen, let your followers and friends prepare to tune in, and then watch 30 seconds of whatever is happening in front of your phone. The proximity aspect is gone, supposedly reducing the need for mass adoption.

But what good is it? Does anyone use it? The examples on the home page didn't change over the course of a month. The top video, posted by Jimmy Kuch (same last name as one of the company's founders), featured 30 seconds of a deer standing nearby and then an obligatory pan to the photographer's face. Jimmy's other videos were choppy, grainy, and featured mundane subject matter—wholly unwatchable and uninteresting.


Kuch's use is probably typical of most Color users. At first, he was posting as many as ten videos a day; by the end of the month, an average of one every 1–2 days. Less than two months after beginning to use the service, he had abandoned it altogether—about three months before this article was written.

Why Color's New App is Again Doomed to Fail

  1. Cell phone video quality is still terrible. The choppy, grainy, blurry videos can't keep up with our expectations for remotely decent content in a 1080p world. Unfortunately, Color probably relies on this low quality to be able to "live stream."
  2. Silence, in this case, is not golden. Color intentionally doesn't record audio because beta testing found it to be too "distracting." In reality, it may have had more to do with the extra data and processing involved.
  3. No one is going to line up for live broadcasts. After being conditioned to the first few disappointing live videos from Facebook friends, people are going to ignore them (especially knowing they can just watch them later, which translates into never).
  4. Superior systems for putting videos on the web for everyone to see already exist. YouTube, Vimeo, Twitvid, SmugMug, etc. have all done this for years, but without restricting the audio, allowing for a wide variety of resolutions, and displaying your content in a far better interface.
Color is a perfect example of what happens when an industry thinks way, way too hard. A bandwagon of investment gathered via what was no doubt an especially excellent PowerPoint presentation put unreasonable expectations on something that was expected to change the world. They bought an expensive domain for their pretentious company name. They spent several weeks around the launch of the product doing press everywhere they could.

And in the end, it was less useful than Foursquare. No doubt history will show that Color is the Segway of the mobile app world.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Diet Mission: Vegetarian


This month's diet mission is a fairly simple one. I just have to avoid eating meat for seven days, eating three meals per day.

I've done this diet before, but as a pescetarian which is slightly different, so it's not something I'm entirely unfamiliar with. A pescetarian eats fish, or more accurately, seafood, but not any other types of meat. In other words, no mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians. (Those last two are pretty easy to avoid!)

Because I'm giving up meat for experimental purposes, I fully expect to miss meat, which is why I ate a bunch of wings on Saturday night before beginning my new diet. However, that doesn't mean the week will be bland; I'll be able to have all the candy I want! Hooray!

Plus, I really like mushrooms, which are sort of like a vegetarian's meat. I know many people assume that's the role of tofu, but the notoriously tasty fungus is actually a more suitable meat alternative.

Vegetarian Philosophy

To live on a meatless diet, or rather one that does not directly lead to the death of any animal. (This includes any creature in the animal kingdom.)

Why the Vegetarian Diet?

There are three main reasons why someone would choose a meatless diet, and any vegetarian may be personally motivated by one or more of the following reasons:
  1. Health. To avoid red meat, or meats in general and their high propensity for food-borne illness and the potential threats to cholesterol and other health factors. Usually, someone who avoids meat purely for health reasons will follow a pescetarian diet, which includes high protein and omega-3 fatty acid levels.
  2. Personal taste. Some people just don't find meat appealing. This was the main cause of my previous meat avoidance. For some reason, I just couldn't look at meat without thinking about it being a dead body, leading me to imagining it analogous to eating roadkill, which made me want to throw up. I had nothing against others eating meat; it was just a matter of personal taste.
  3. Political beliefs. A vegetarian is often motivated to give up meat because of their intention to not create demand that leads to animal slaughter. There are many, many differing beliefs in this category that range from abstinence for a clear conscience to a pursuit of the universal banning of meat production.

Substitutions

By day two, like any good withdrawal, I was beginning to truly lament my new diet. After more than 24 hours of eating nothing but mushrooms and candy, I was craving bacon. Steak. A hamburger. It was time to get the next best thing: A veggie burger.

This also allowed me the chance to explore the vegetarian options at a typical fast food restaurant. One thing that's great about this diet is that it encourages you to avoid eating fast food, because you can pretty much only order the fries. (Although, now that I think about it, I wonder if the meat at a fast food restaurant is so far removed from nature that it could be considered meatless…)

Never mind that. I went to Burger King to order a veggie burger, which is not listed anywhere on their menu. After all, if anyone was going to do a vegetable-only variation on the classic burger, it would have to be the King, right?

I had ordered this item a few weeks ago—with bacon, as a joke—and it ended up being pretty good. As it turns out, it was without a doubt the bacon that lent it that flavor. This thing tasted like a bunch of beans, corn, and carrots smashed flat, which is exactly what it was. It sucked. And it wasn't Burger King's fault, either. Veggie burgers just have nothing on the real thing.

Veggie foods in denial
Vegetarians in transition, and some who like to amuse themselves, will buy products from the grocery store that emulate things like ground beef, turkey slices, and chicken wings. It could be denial. It could be nostalgia. It could be the irony. Whatever the motive, meat-emulating products are relatively popular, and they're all terrible.

There's good news, though. After a while, the memories of the sweet, savory taste of bacon and steak fade away. You begin to honestly believe that the occasional veggie burger tastes "just as good as the real thing." You're so used to eating handfuls of nuts all day that you no longer feel the need to eat soybean hot wings anymore. Yep, eventually the only meat substitutions you truly need are mushrooms and beans.

Benefits

Aside from the aforementioned avoidance of fast foods, the reduction in cholesterol and saturated fats supplied by red meat, and the clear conscience of knowing that you didn't throw money at presumed animal cruelty, there's one very obvious and immediate benefit.

I rediscovered this as I did a round of grocery shopping at the end of day three. An entire cart of groceries that would normally cost well over $100 came out to just under $80. I had reduced my grocery bill by more than 20% just by not buying meat. How was this possible?

Rather than buying chicken, ground beef, pork chops, and steak, I was buying mushrooms, potatoes, and tomatoes—all significantly cheaper. I didn't need to buy any candy because I still had a ton left over from Halloween when no kids came to see the elaborate haunted house on my porch.

Why People Hate Vegetarians

On day four of my veggie excursion, my office ordered pizza for everyone. I always appreciate free lunch, but I had to consider my diet and realized that if I didn't speak up, every pizza would have pepperoni on it. I'd need to put in my request before the order was made. A special request—just for me.

"Can we get one that's just cheese? I can't have—" I stopped myself. Saying "can't" was a big pet peeve of mine last time I went down this road. On a voluntary diet, it's not that you can't have meat; you choose not to. If your throat swelled up like someone with a shellfish or peanut allergy, then yes, you could say that you can't have those items. So how to phrase the fact that I was making free lunch difficult merely to accommodate myself?

"I—I'm not eating meat right now," I said. I had figured the plain cheese pizza would be a decent compromise, since not everyone likes a massive pile of vegetables. However, the bean dip was out of the bag. I now had to explain the motivation for changing my diet.

My experiment offered me a great excuse. But when a long-term vegetarian describes their motives, it comes off a bit holier-than-thou. No matter how it's explained, a meat-eater hears this:

Health-seeking vegetarian: I don't eat meat because it's bad for you, and that's why you feel tired all the time and you're going to die before me.

Meat-taste-hating vegetarian: Meat makes me gag for some reason. Yes, I know this makes me completely insane.

Politically motivated vegetarian: I don't eat meat because I don't support vicious murder, like YOU, you MURDERER.

In the past, I found it easier to just avoid this situation altogether by not mentioning my diet. I don't ask someone why they don't eat the crust of their pizza, and I expect them to not question why I'm shunning pepperoni.

Dining Out

On day six, I went out to eat with my wife, son, brother, and sister-in-law. I picked a Thai restaurant because they tend to make meat-free food taste really, really good. There are a handful of dedicated vegetarian restaurants around town that we could have gone to, but that would have forced everyone into my diet for the evening. Plus, many of those restaurants tend to do wacky things like serving only room temperature water.

It's surprisingly hard to find restaurants that feature flavorful vegetarian food. Many places will have an obligatory option like a "veggie wrap" (which is about 90% bean sprouts) while others just don't grasp the concept at all. However, it's not their burden to provide you an option, just as they don't have to put diaper stations in the bathrooms. It's entirely up to them to determine whose repeat business they want.

But again, Thai restaurants are especially good at meaty and meatless options, and asian food in general is a pescetarian's paradise. However, no matter where you dine, there's always the chance that something will go wrong.

The Polite Vegetarian

On day seven, the last day of my diet mission, I went out to dinner with my wife's family at an Italian restaurant. Italian is great for a vegetarian, because there are plenty of tasty options that are meatless, consisting of pasta, sauces, garlic, and tons of butter. I ordered the baked cheese ravioli and enjoyed an endless stream of garlic rolls and vinaigrette-covered salad until the food arrived.

It was utterly and completely drenched in ground beef in a way that would make it impossible to just eat around it. There must have been a whole pound of it. I was excited, because I really wanted to eat meat but wasn't supposed to, according to the rules of my mission. I ate it anyway.

What were my other options? I could have asked them to take it back and make it again with no meat, or I could have just not eaten it, wasting my in-laws' money. Should I have known this menu item would have meat in it? It wasn't listed anywhere. Ravioli isn't a meat-covered dish unless it's specifically ordered that way, and there was a ravioli with meat sauce just underneath it. Either the menu didn't list it correctly or the server brought me the wrong thing.

The polite vegetarian breaks their diet and eats it anyway so they don't aggravate anyone with the nuances of their adamant chosen diet, and this is the approach I'd take every Thanksgiving when I'd be around ham and turkey, any time I'd go to someone's house and they'd serve me a roast or salad covered in bacon bits. I would be eating something I didn't really like just to appease the people providing it for me.

Sustainability

This was a pretty simple diet to get used to, compared to some of the others that have been proposed to me. If you can get past the initial meat withdrawal and find accommodations for yourself without aggravating those around you, there's really no problem. You may have to cook two meals for your family, but it's not too much of a burden.

Over the week, my weight didn't change at all. Any saturated fats I was avoiding from meat were supplemented by the saturated fats I was gaining in cookies. I didn't feel weak or lacking in any way.

I would say that this diet is highly sustainable if you make sure you're getting the proper nutrients and not just eating candy. Just try not to be too smug about it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Want to Get Quaked

Did you feel the earthquake today? If you live in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, or Wisconsin, were awake at 4:58 AM EST (3:58AM Central), and were standing entirely still without any audible background noise, you probably did.

A magnitude 4.0 earthquake occurred at the New Madrid Fault between St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee at that moment. Yes, a 4 on the Richter scale isn't particularly impressive, but this earthquake was relatively shallow—3.1 miles deep, specifically. That's probably the only reason it was felt in 13 states.

By comparison, the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed 316,000 people had an epicenter 8.1 miles deep and was a 7.0 on the Richter scale. A mere 3 miles deep is shallow enough for even the weakest earthquake to be noticeable.

I didn't feel it because eastern U.S. earthquakes are apparently nocturnal by nature and I slept right through it. Of course, being 350 miles from the origin of the quake, it probably supplied less of a boom than the thunderstorms I regularly sleep through. And even if I had felt it, I probably would have assumed it was some early morning activity at the loading dock to the flooring warehouse in my backyard.

Location of this morning's earthquake on the New Madrid Fault

There's almost no way to tell when an earthquake is about to strike, so it's pretty much impossible to listen for it. For people like myself who have always lived far from an active fault, we'd probably never know it was happening. Seismologists can look for foreshocks, but the problem with foreshocks is that they're only classified as such after a more powerful quake happens shortly afterward. With that logic, a 7.0 quake that crumbled thousands of homes could just be a foreshock to an 8.3 that happens just days later.

Further complicating the matter is that earthquakes are happening constantly. In fact, in the 24 hours before today's New Madrid Fault quake happened, there were 25 earthquakes worldwide, 18 of which were more powerful than 4.0. Many of these numerous daily quakes happen in the Pacific Ocean or elsewhere on the Ring of Fire, and most of them at a depth of more than 10 miles. I guess if you lived in the Ring of Fire you could predict that an earthquake would happen any day with relative certainty, but it would still be impossible to pinpoint a small window of time to expect it.

I missed my last chance to feel an earthquake in Georgia when I slept through a shallow one on April 29, 2003. It was a significantly stronger 4.9, and a mere 72 miles away, but it also happened just before 5 AM.

A geologist friend of mine later told me about how incredibly excited he was, jumping out of bed and yelling, "I think that was an earthquake!" Many other Georgia residents were talking about it all day.

"I thought it was a bomb!"

"It knocked a picture off my wall!"

"My dog knew it was coming and pooped on the floor right before it happened!"

I don't know why all these people were up so early. I suspect some of them were trying to make me jealous. Well, it worked.

I want to feel that earthquake. I've been in several tornadoes, and while their power is nothing to scoff at, there's just something more exciting about the planet below you groaning and rearranging itself on a massive scale. Let me clarify something, though: I don't envy those in major disasters, nor do I want to be in their situation. It's just that an earthquake in Georgia is pretty much guaranteed to be nothing more dangerous than a firework being set off in the parking lot outside of your apartment window; a natural disaster worth experiencing. By comparison, a tornado can hit you in the face with a cow.

I've seen floods. I've been on the receiving end of the dying arms of a hurricane's spiral many times. I've driven through half a dozen tornadoes. I could take a vacation to see an erupting volcano as soon as I have the money. Once, just once, I want to feel an earthquake.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Physically Deleting Bad Memories

Sometimes the fourth dimension can be held still by the other three. Certain locations conjure memories almost as well as they convey the present. If you think about it while you're there, just standing in the same physical space where something notable happened at some point in the past will make you feel some sort of a connection to the event.

The bomb was placed near the rightmost small green building
I felt this way as I stood in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, across the street from the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola. I was looking for the exact location of the bombing that occurred during the Olympic games in 1996, and was standing in the spot that my research led me to conclude was the exact location where the explosive device detonated. Hours before this happened, I had been in the park with a friend's family; later that night I saw my dad glued to a television watching news footage of the terror attack play on a loop.

I looked at the park, very much different than half a lifetime ago when the attack happened, and envisioned a nighttime scene of nearly a hundred people injured by shrapnel. Though the only people in sight were tourists in winter coats, I felt I was more vividly able to experience the dramatic scene simply by standing where the explosion occurred.

Then I walked up Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard with the hope of finding the pay phone that Eric Rudolph called in the bomb threat with, just three blocks away. He hadn't wanted to hurt any children or individuals he deemed "innocent," so he picked up the pay phone to call an operator. Despite placing a deadly device nearby, his intention was to evacuate the park, leaving just police officers nearby to be injured. When the operator picked up, he had just enough time to read the words "We reject your—" before being hung up on. The telephone operators during the Olympics didn't have time to mess around.

I searched, but the pay phones were gone. The phones were gone due to being obsolete and not due to any negative publicity, but I couldn't help thinking about what it might have been like to pick up the handset he used and hold it. I certainly don't respect his actions, but there's something curious about that thought that can't quite be explained.

It's the same reason tourists in New York City gather outside of The Dakota building where John Lennon was shot. It's part of why Auschwitz still exists — as a museum. It's very much the reason that the hypocenter of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki has a monument.

The precise location of the last wartime nuclear explosion

Not all notable physical locations memorialize terrible events, of course. We can stand where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, visit Bethesda Fountain in Central Park and think of the dozens of movie scenes that have been shot there, or visit the Alamo or any other fort in the world and think about the brave soldiers who fought to the death there.

As I headed toward the Georgia Aquarium, I shuddered while thinking about the free Nickelback concert I had attended on that plot of land just a decade before. Not all physical locations are notable.

But while massive disasters — nuclear bombings, concentration camps, the World Trade Center attacks — are hideous on such a scale that they cannot, should not be forgotten, some horribly tragic events are just small enough that society chooses to delete them. If they can't get them out of their mind, at least they can wipe them off the face of the Earth.

Houses that serial killers committed their heinous deeds in can still be sold. There's no law against it, and no law requiring disclosure of the events at any point. There's always going to be tourists and entrepreneurs looking to experience or capitalize on the macabre so one might expect that these structures might stick around, but the people in the community generally decide to completely eliminate these locations altogether (whether by public agreement or anonymous vandalization). I'll admit that I'll drive past one of these locations just as I'll drive past the birthplace of MLK, but sometimes it really is better to forget.

Here, then, are a collection of 5 notorious mass murder locations deleted from the Earth.



H. H. Holmes' castle
W. 63rd Street and S. Wallace Street, Chicago, IL 60621

During the 1893 World's Fair, evil opportunist Herman Mudgett set up camp in Chicago by building a block-long three story hotel to house fairgoers. Known to the neighborhood's residents as Dr. H. H. Holmes, his "castle" was a landmark for many of the locals. On the inside, it was a confusing maze of more than a hundred rooms, mostly windowless, with trap doors, dead end staircases, soundproof rooms, and torture devices. He used gas lines to suffocate his victims and dumped their bodies into the cellar via chutes attached to many of the rooms.

Holmes was eventually captured and charged with a handful of murders, even though he confessed to more than 27. Very soon after his capture, the castle burned to the ground. It has been presumed that the residents could not stand the thought of such a devilish structure looming over their neighborhood any longer, especially with prospectors looking to turn it into a tourist attraction.


Today, the plot of land is occupied by a U.S. Post Office, possibly because no one else would build on the land.

Gein farm
Archer Avenue and 2nd Avenue, Plainfield, WI

Ed Gein is not remembered for the two murders he committed as much as he is notable for being an extensive body snatcher. His childhood and early adulthood were dominated by an overbearing and overprotective mother who convinced him that the world outside was dangerous and that everyone was evil. She'd beat him and his brother mercilessly. His older brother died of a heart attack during a brush fire, and when his mother subsequently passed away, he lost his last friend in the world.

Gein filled the void by digging up corpses in nearby graveyards and manipulating their bodies. He'd turn body parts into household items such as cookware and belts, but also made a suit out of female body parts to fulfill a wish to be transgendered. The bizarre practices occurring on his extremely rural farm were exposed in 1957 when a sales receipt linked him to a missing person whose body was later found on his property.


In early 1958, the property was scheduled to be turned into a tourist attraction but, just like the Holmes hotel, it mysteriously burned to the ground. Today, the site is overgrown with trees and there is no evidence of any structures, with the exception of one poorly maintained dirt road.

The Polanski-Tate residence
10050 Cielo Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90120

Film director Roman Polanski resided here with his very pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, in the 1960s. It was a large, classic estate built in the 40s and previously occupied by numerous Hollywood socialites before becoming the site of one of the most horrible murders in Los Angeles history. The followers of Charles Manson killed six people on the property in a senseless massacre intended to spark a race riot in the city on August 8, 1969.

Despite an enormous amount of publicity surrounding the home, the property changed owners for many years and continued to have occupants. Trent Reznor, the musician behind Nine Inch Nails, was the last to live in the house. After meeting Tate's sister, he decided that living in the house was actually insulting to the victims and allowed it to be demolished — but not before taking the famous front door to be installed in his New Orleans recording studio.


Hollywood producer Jeff Franklin purchased the property in 1994 and built a new mansion in its place. The new address is 10066.

John Wayne Gacy's Chicago home
8213 W. Summerdale Avenue, Chicago, IL 60656

Though sentenced to 10 years in prison for sodomizing two teenage boys, Gacy was released after just 18 months in June of 1970. Forbidden from seeing his wife and children, he moved to Chicago where he lured young men to his house, murdered them, and buried them in the crawlspace. He committed so many of these crimes that he ran out of room under the house and in the yard and began throwing bodies into a nearby river.

When a 15-year-old boy went missing after telling his mother that he was going to see about a job with Gacy, policed arrived at his house with a search warrant. A relatively lengthy investigation resulted in the discovery of more than thirty victims. Gacy actually assisted on-site during the exhumation of the bodies, providing highly accurate details about where they could be found.


The house and everything else on the property was demolished in 1979. The lot stood empty in the neighborhood for years until another house was built in its place — with a different street address.

Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment
924 N. 25th Street, Milwaukee, WI 53233

Dahmer moved into apartment 213 in May 1990 and began murdering there within two months. He had already killed five people, but did so while living with relatives. This was his own place, where he could do whatever he wanted with people. It wasn't really his intention to kill anyone, but that was the only way he could think of to make them submit to his will. He killed twelve people in the apartment, keeping body parts in various states of decay, including several human heads, severed hands, and a heart in the refrigerator.

Neighbors complained of the smell, but he wasn't caught until June 1991 when one of his victims escaped and brought the police back to find numerous photos of his deceased victims and a large barrel with a decaying body in it.


Dahmer's crimes were so horrifying that the entire apartment building was torn down. At one point, plans for a memorial in its place were made, but the idea never materialized. The lot remains empty.



Looking at these locations, I realized that two were in Chicago and two were in Wisconsin, and all four involved the individual's own residence while the L.A. incident happened in a victim's residence. Is there something about the cold weather of the Great Lakes that makes psychopaths act violently within their own homes? Who knows.

In the case of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing that I missed by only a few hours, the incident killed one person directly and lead to the heart attack of a camera man running to cover the chaos. But because 111 people were injured, a memorial was placed in the park called the Quilt of Remembrance. It's not the exact location of the bomb's detonation, but sometimes you don't really need to be quite that accurate.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Daytrip: A Triumvirate of Monadnocks

About 300 million years ago, Africa slammed into North America at the incredible rate of 1 inch per year, crumpling the Earth's surface and pushing mountains high into the air. Where mountains did not form, the extreme pressure melted rock, some of which exploded out of the surface as volcanoes. Some balls of liquid rock floated up toward the surface like massive underground bubbles, but cooled into rock instead. Millions of years later, rain washed away the softer crust, exposing the granite mounds.

The Gum Pole
It was one of those mounds of granite that I was stretching on next to an electrical pole covered in chewing gum that had been driven into its surface. My brother and I had resolved to climb Stone Mountain that morning, a particularly prominent rock outcropping known as a monadnock. Generally speaking, a monadnock is different than a traditional mountain in that it's basically the cooled contents of a volcano that never exploded, while a mountain consists of layers of rock pushed upward by tectonic forces. This is why mountains generally slope or are jagged while a monadnock looks like the exposed upper half of a ball (which is effectively what it is).

There are many monadnocks in the piedmont region of Georgia (everything above several hundred feet in altitude), and most of them are near Atlanta. This is because the city is the halfway point between the Appalachian mountains and the coastal plain. Stone Mountain is world-famous, but very little is known about its two monadnock neighbors, Arabia and Panola Mountains.

Because they are so close together and open to the public for hiking, we decided to conquer all three in one day. Each are easy-to-moderate hikes of less than a 3 mile round-trip, so there wouldn't be any question about whether it would be possible.

Stone Mountain


We began at Stone Mountain, the most famous of all southeastern U.S. granite domes. Arriving in the parking lot of the walk-up trail on a Sunday at 9:30 AM, I expected the place to be packed, but the 32 degree weather probably prevented that. We hiked upward, past the gum pole, past countless chunks of dislodged granite that made it feel like we were climbing a one-mile-long staircase. A covered gazebo 75% of the way up provided picnic tables for a quick break before completing the most difficult—and steep—portion of the trail. Metal railings driven into the granite ensured stability in this section.

Before we knew it, we were at the top—a large, mostly flat peak almost entirely devoid of plant life. The peak is surrounded by a chain link fence that prevents you from falling to your doom, and a nice, clean building at the top contains bathrooms and water fountains. It's all very unique and scenic, but there's nothing like the view.

In all directions, especially on a day with unlimited visibility like the one we were experiencing, one can view all of north Georgia. Looking east, the relatively impressive skyline of Atlanta, Buckhead, and Sandy Springs; further north, Kennesaw and Sweat Mountains are visible, followed by an extremely long line of the Blue Ridge Mountains that stretch into North Carolina. (Click here for a full resolution version of this panorama.)

The Blue Ridge Mountains


From here, I tried to locate Arabia Mountain by sight, but it was blocked by a slightly higher neighborhood in front of it. At nearly 1700 feet, I expected to be able to see anything, but I couldn't see through the hillside that was taller than the next mountain we were headed to.

We walked to the north face of our monadnock to look down at the artificial-snow-covered field 800 feet below. Children mounted inflatable tubes and were pushed downhill by employees underneath the looming shadow of the world's largest bas relief sculpture: A 3-D rendering of three Civil War generals on horseback more than several hundred feet in height. We stood beneath the first skylift transit of the day, my brother eagerly anticipating the screams of terrified passengers, but it was empty. On the far side of the mountain, opposite the walk-up trail, no one was present; just us, a waist-high chain-link fence, and signs that said "DO NOT CROSS". My brother begged me to take a photo of him standing on the other side, which I did, immediately calling the police because he was breaking the law. Criminal!

A 15 minute stroll back down the mountain lead us to a now very full parking lot, where we consulted the map to determine the best way to get to Arabia Mountain.

DIRECTIONS TO THE STONE MOUNTAIN WALK-UP TRAIL (from I-285):

  • Take I-285 to the east side of Atlanta
  • Take Highway 78 east to Stone Mountain
  • Veer right onto the Memorial Drive exit
  • Veer right onto the E. Ponce DeLeon Ave. exit
  • Turn left onto E. Ponce DeLeon Ave. and head into downtown Stone Mountain
  • Turn left onto James B. Rivers Memorial Dr.
  • Pay $10 to enter the park, then turn right
  • Turn immediately left into the parking lot of the walk-up trail

Arabia Mountain

Our next destination was the place that had sparked my interest in monadnocks to begin with. Sure, I took Stone Mountain for granted like everyone else, mostly because it had been turned into a major tourist attraction (and for good reason), but Arabia Mountain was something new. Something relatively untouched. A place where movement wouldn't be restricted to the confines of a chain link fence. Somewhere I could fall to my doom if I chose to. And it was free.

We drove south out of downtown Stone Mountain after stopping at a German bakery for a massive pretzel, passing through the highly industrial towns of Redan and Lithonia. Arabia was a well-kept secret because most Atlantans steer clear of this part of town. It's not dangerous, but it didn't seem like there would be a unique, high-quality hiking trail anywhere nearby. We didn't expect one either, until we arrived.

We parked on the west side of Klondike Rd. at a free parking lot with a welcome center for the park and made a quarter mile hike on a well-paved wide path to a boardwalk on the other side of the street. The mountain immediately loomed over us like a mini-Stone-Mountain. I didn't see a single person anywhere nearby, except those in their cars zooming past us. Unfortunately, we were stuck on the boardwalk, hovering ten or so feet over the granite.

"I'm pretty sure we can just jump this railing and walk up there," I said, motioning to the peak. We decided to keep walking the boardwalk and see where it took us, which turned out to be a pretty good idea.

At the end of the half mile walk, we ended up in the parking lot for the Arabia Mountain walk-up trail. Turns out we could have just parked there to begin with. A small and seemingly unoccupied nature preserve was located adjacent to this lot.

Stonecrop at the peak
The walk-up trail, dotted by piles of cemented rocks to mark the way, cut a sometimes narrow, sometimes impossibly wide path through the forest on its way to the peak, passing by an uncountable number of solution pools filled with tiny red plant called stonecrop (Diamorpha smallii). An old, abandoned, and hardly worked quarry was located close to the entrance, and judging by the massive piles of broken glass in the area, serves as a popular place for underage drinking. I imagined that later that night a group of high school kids would be sitting there in almost total darkness, sucking down watery beers and watching out for the flashlights of law enforcement. They probably had 100 escape routes planned.

Pushing on, we came to a clearing where nothing taller than my toes would grow: the peak. It was an easy climb, and we passed several other hikers with tiny dogs. I thought about my pathetic tiny dog and how much trouble he'd had hiking Amicalola Falls, considering this a much more suitable hike for him. I wished I had brought him.

Panola in the distance
At the peak, we looked to the southwest to see a very clear view of Panola Mountain, our next destination; to the west, the tops of downtown Atlanta skyscrapers peeked out over the trees; to the northwest, a very faint glimpse of an antenna sticking up over the tree line which we deduced to be the broadcast tower atop Stone Mountain.

Though we had a 360 degree view, it baffled me that I could not see Stone Mountain. As it turns out, though Arabia Mountain has a 180 foot prominence over the surrounding area, its 940 foot peak is actually lower than the average Atlanta altitude by about 60 feet. With nearby hills and trees reaching well over this height, our view of Stone Mountain was entirely blocked. That explained why I couldn't see it from the top of that other enormous monadnock.

To get back to the car, we decided to cut west and climb up onto the boardwalk. We clambered down precarious drops where stone had broken away thousands of years ago and appreciated that no one was telling us where we could or could not fall to our doom. Coming close to the boardwalk, the ground leveled off into the largest repository of broken glass I had ever seen in my life. If the quarry was a renowned drinking spot, this flat granite outcropping near the Arabia Mountain parking lot was an alcohol mecca. For hundreds of feet in all directions, chunks of broken glass smaller than two inches in diameter blanketed the ground.

And just as we were prepared to climb the railing up onto the boardwalk, we realized that we were at the entrance. We just had to cut to the right of it to make a quarter mile hike back to the car.

DIRECTIONS TO THE ARABIA MOUNTAIN MAIN PARKING LOT (from Stone Mountain):
  • Leave the park via James B. Memorial Dr.
  • Turn left onto Main St.
  • Miles later, cross the train tracks and turn left onto S. Stone Mountain Lithonia Rd.
  • In downtown Lithonia, veer right onto Max Cleland Blvd.
  • Turn right onto Main St.
  • Turn left onto Klondike Rd.
  • Go straight through the roundabout at Rockland Rd.
  • Turn right into the parking lot

Panola Mountain

The last monadnock in our journey was the most mysterious one. It was the only one of the three located outside of Dekalb County; it seemed significantly smaller than the other two, but taller than Arabia; it was mostly covered in trees, but from my view of it from Arabia, there would clearly be photo opportunities and skyline to be seen.

We turned right out of the Arabia Mountain parking lot and several miles later ended up in the parking lot for the Arabia Mountain Trail. Parking cost us $5 in an envelope in a big green box, so we were glad to have some cash on us. I walked up to a bathroom to see a sign that said, in no unclear terms, that the walk-up trail was not to be attempted without a guide. The guide would cost $7 per person, and was only available on Saturdays at 3 PM. We sat down and waited for 146 hours.

In reality, we decided to see if we could discreetly hike it anyway. A big, picturesque lake marked the entrance to the path, which was a continuation of that wide paved path we'd walked on at Arabia. We passed by a decaying barn, which urged us not to step off the path. Later, we passed a chimney in the woods, where signs yelled at us to not step off the path. A short while later, we passed by TWO chimneys in the woods, where a sign threatened us within an inch of our lives if we stepped off the path. Before reaching the fabled double chimney, we had seen a side path cut off to the south with a sign warning us that would be mercilessly beaten for stepping off the main path. We kept that in mind as we looked for somewhere we could clip off into the woods, but the very strict code of conduct in Rockbridge County was starting to get a bit unnerving.

The Forbidden Trail
Eventually we came to a large footbridge with a maximum weight limit of 999 pounds. Since the river underneath it was the border between Rockbridge and Dekalb counties, we realized we'd gone too far. The only side path we'd seen must have been the one leading up to the mountain's peak, but we were being threatened with execution for attempting it. After breaching the fence at Stone Mountain and uncovering two hotbeds of illegal activity at Arabia Mountain, we decided not to push our luck and walked back to the car.

The strict rules at Panola were disconcerting after the unbridled freedom we'd enjoyed at Arabia. Though Panola is apparently taller, Arabia wins for its openness.

DIRECTIONS TO THE PANOLA MOUNTAIN PARKING LOT (from Arabia Mountain):
  • Turn right out of the Arabia parking lot onto Klondike Rd.
  • Go straight ahead at the stop sign
  • Turn right into the parking lot approximately 20 inches later
So there you have it: The monadnocks of East Atlanta. It's easy to hike all three in one day, even if you're not terribly in shape. But if you want to reach the peak of each, make sure you're at Panola at 3 PM on a Saturday. Had I known this ahead of time I would have spent $12 on Skee-Ball at a local bowling alley.

The monadnocks are a bit of an oddity. They're giant bubbles of cooled lava that attempted to float upward and explode out of the earth. Whether walking on them, having a picnic on them, or chugging fermented barley on them, you should never forget that you are standing on a frozen moment in volcanic activity. It's as if someone hit the pause button and then let the ground wash away around it so you could enjoy its upper portion.

When you're sick of hiking in the woods, there's always the alien landscape of the monadnocks.