Sunday, July 31, 2011

E-ZPass, Coming to a Store Near You

A recent trip to the East Coast reminded me of the E-ZPass vs. cash quandary. I'm a holdout against these in-car tags that let vehicles go through tolls more quickly and result in a monthly charge on a credit card instead of small, incremental cash payments. It's fairly easy for me to be an E-ZPass refuser, I admit, because toll roads aren't common in the Twin Cities.

Traveling through Chicago, Indiana, and Ohio without E-ZPass requires somewhat longer waits at the tolls, even at nonbusy times, and a bucket of change handy in the car. It also costs more because the system punishes E-ZPass refusers by giving discounts to the sheeple who use the pass. (The New York E-ZPass site lists cost differentials as large as 10 times for cash users!)

Why not use E-ZPass?

1. As with any charge to a credit card vs. using cash, it doesn't register with our brains as being real money out of our pockets. The monthly charge becomes a part of the background, and therefore a behavior that never gets reconsidered. If you have to pay tolls every time you travel on a road, you might think a bit more about taking transit or moving closer to your usual destinations. (See Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide for more on this truth about our brains.)

2. Part of the problem of obscuring the incessant payments in a monthly bill is that it stops reminding people about their distaste for toll roads in general.

3. E-ZPass allows the powers-that-be to track your whereabouts. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Law and Order-watching to know that the police use E-ZPass records to solve crimes. And even though I am completely law-abiding, I have a healthy distrust of government's history of suppressing honest dissent, as in the recent FBI raids on anti-war activists or the preemptive arrests of local anti-RNC agitators. I don't need to give any more information to the government than I have to. E-ZPass records have also been used in civil proceedings, including divorce cases.

E-ZPass works by placing an RFID (radio frequency identification device, usually pronounced ARFID) transponder in every car. If you want to check out some near-future science fiction stories that explore the possible downsides of RFIDs, check out Cory Doctorow's Little Brother or Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change series that starts with Forty Signs of Rain.

But a more immediate use is making its way to a store near you, according to Kara McGuire in today's Star Tribune business section. U.S. Bancorp is testing a system called VITABand -- an RFID embedded in a rubber wristband. If a store's point-of-sale system is set up to receive, you just wave your wrist and you're magically charged for your goods.

Presto, no more need for cashier jobs, just as E-ZPass eliminates jobs at tollbooths. Followed by the likelihood that RFID refusers will be charged more money for their purchases, since they require a cashier and therefore "cost more." (No mention is made of the cost of installing the systems or the ongoing infrastructure costs of maintaining them.)

If it costs more to pay for goods without an RFID device, fewer and fewer people will refuse them, out of economic necessity, and there will rapidly come a time when at least some stores will accept only RFID-based payments.

I realize an RFID system like this isn't a whole lot different than using a debit card at the drop of a hat as many of us do already, and that the same government that I distrust with my toll info is already using debit charges to figure out where people are and what they're up to. But right now, I have the option to stop using a debit card any time. If RFID becomes the standard, that option will disappear.

The Fourth Amendment sets out a clear standard for turning over personal information to the government: There has to be probably cause for the government to search or seize personal property (and by extension, information). Accumulating personal data so it can be warehoused until needed by the government for whatever purpose government deems necessary clearly contradicts that standard.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

iPhone, Meet iPike

There was something familiar about the product, an iPhone dock and clock, as shown on its packaging:

iPhone in an iHome dock with clock built in
What was it?

Hmm, let me see.

Star Trek's Captain Christopher Pike, in his body-covering wheelchair with electronics
Oh, that's it!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Little Log House on the Prairie

It turns out there's a multi-acre roadside attraction I had never heard of only a few dozen miles from the Twin Cities. Little Log House Pioneer Village is on the outskirts of Hastings, a Mississippi River town on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's owned by Steve and Sylvia Bauer, two people with a large-scale yen to collect.

Little Log House sign on an antique harvesting machine
This is the building that started it all:

1857 log cabin, the Grinstad House
Steve was helping a friend demolish a house back in 1987, when he realized it was actually an old log cabin. So instead of destroying it, he took it apart, moved it to his 160-acre farm, and rebuilt it.

Adjacent to the little log house is the somewhat larger Hall House:

Pink italianate mansard-roofed Victorian house
It's a funny little house, and I do mean little. It's about half the size you would think, based on its appearance. (The one-story log house is in the background, giving a sense of it -- the Hall House is only a story and a half, plus the cupola.)

Side view of the Hall House, showing the cupola
The Hall House was originally built in 1884 in Zumbrota, Minnesota, and was moved in five pieces to the Pioneer Village in 2000. I don't know why it was moved -- was it threatened with demolition? I assume so, since it was the only building in Zumbrota that was on the National Register of Historic Places. I would hope the only reason it was moved was that there was no other solution.

The Hall House is surrounded by a beautiful garden, designed by Sylvia Bauer. It extends to several other buildings nearby, including a shady hosta glade that was about 10 degrees cooler than anywhere else on the site.

Pure gas sign and other old gasoline signs on an old gas station
Pioneer Village has a nice collection of petroliana, but one of the coolest things is a miniature replica of the Hastings spiral bridge, which was torn down in 1951:

Wooden and iron bridge with a spiral ramp
Yes, there used to be a bridge in Hastings that required drivers to navigate a tight spiral before reaching the main span.

Spiral bridge ramp reaching to main span
I think the bridge is about half size, but I could be completely wrong about that.

The reason I heard about Pioneer Village is because it was in the local news recently, when Porky's, a St. Paul landmark drive-in, closed. Porky's was the epicenter of University Avenue's classic car culture; even recently, on Saturdays you would see street rods mixing with classic 1950s cars. The Bauers bought it and moved it down to the Pioneer Village; the incredible signs were sold to someone else, though.

Here's a photo of what it looked like not long before the move (from the City Pages blog):

Porky's drive in
And there it was -- with only miniature recreations of its classic signs, and repainted a bit more brightly, but it was the same Porky's.

Yellow and dark brown checkered drive in restaurant with Porky's light bulb sign on the side
The only problem with Little Log House Pioneer Village as a roadside attraction is that it isn't open to the public except on the last weekend in July, when they hold the Antique Power Show, with tractor pulls, a flea market, music and a lot more. I stopped in on the set-up day, and they let me wander around. The spiral bridge and the Hall House can be seen pretty well from the road, but it was really nice to be able to wander through the garden and see everything up close.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Metro Page Rant

Was it just my mood, or was there an unusual number of rant-worthy stories in the Metro section of today's Star Tribune?

1. It's not that I'm not glad police caught two people who broke into several cars in Minneapolis over the past few months. But why did it take breaking into a car that belongs to an FBI agent to get some action on the case?

Within six hours of the break-in to the agent's SUV, police had tracked down one of the thieves after she used a credit card taken in the theft. Now, if she was stupid enough to use a credit card from a car where she also stole a gun, FBI ID card and badge, she obviously would have used credit cards from earlier thefts. But no one went out of their way to track those cards down.

Any regular citizen who reports a car break-in is left with the feeling that there's almost no reason to report it, since no action will be taken. But if someone on the right side of the thin blue line is the victim, watch out thieves -- you'll be caught.

2. Reporter James Walsh's notebook column tells about ATM "skimmers" -- gizmos that can be attached to ATMs to intercept account numbers and PINs so crooks can raid your bank account. Readers are advised to "Inspect the ATM, gas pump or credit card reader before using it. Look for anything loose, crooked or damaged. Look for scratches or tape residue."

Well, I'm sorry, but that's just stupid. If the skimmers are so easy to spot, why don't the people who own or manage the machines spot them? ATMs are visited daily by armored car drivers, and gas pumps are managed by people who work only yards away. Many ATMs are also watched by cameras. If anyone in power cared about the problem, it would be solved instead of becoming yet another "scary world" cautionary tale.

3. The Strib's whistleblower, Jane Friedmann, presented a letter from a reader telling how he had submitted many résumés for IT jobs at a "certain large company" and gotten only rapid rejections, despite the fact that he was completely qualified for the jobs. So he did an experiment: The next résumé he sent omitted his 17 earliest years of employment, as well as the dates of his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Without those bits of information, it would be impossible to tell his age, which is 55. This time, the rejection was not immediate (though he still did not get an interview).

It's hard to believe this type of age discrimination doesn't happen all the time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Random Quotation Marks "Trifecta"

Not one but three different signs, all at the same business, just waiting for me to send them to the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks. Each one is a fine example of the quotation-marks-indicate-emphasis school of punctuation.

Sign in all caps reads NO PARTS SOLD with NO PARTS in quotes
This sign deserves a bonus for its unnecessarily large line spacing and extra space before the word NO.

ALL customers must sign in with ALL in quotes, but the open quote is actually a close quote
Look closely at the marks around the word ALL. Yes, the first one is backwards, as well as unnecessary.

The word PROHIBITED is surrounded by six shapes on each side, three sets of quote marks
Gee, I guess they really mean it when they say that guns are prohibited on these premises, since there are three sets of quotation marks.

The lack of logic in typesetting on this poster is worthy of a longer comment. Why is the word POSTED set in the largest size, when it doesn't have any meaning to the reader? If PROHIBIT is so dang important, why isn't that the largest? In fact, PROHIBIT GUNS seems like it should be the dominant bit of verbiage, but it's not. And what meaning does the creator assign to those ellipses of different lengths?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The "i"s Shave It

What does "i" mean when it comes to razors, let alone stubble?

Orange paperboard packaging for a razor with high tech font reading iStubble

(Seen at Kohl's Department Store, Roseville, Minnesota)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Brides on a Bridge

Illustrator Barry Blitt and The New Yorker mark an auspicious day in the Empire State:

New Yorker cover illustration of two brides with long trains crossing the Brooklyn Bridge

Previous thoughts on Barry Blitt

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rabbit-Proof Fence (St. Paul Remix)

As it has become common for city folks to plant vegetables and other edibles in their front yards, I've wondered what would happen when neighborhood aesthetics clashed with garden practicality. The amount of sun needed by vegetable plants is often not found in urban backyards, while the front yards and boulevards are more often sunny, especially after Dutch elm disease ran its course.

The Pioneer Press reports that just such a clash is brewing on historic Summit Avenue in St. Paul.

Church in the background of the garden and its fence
This season, the House of Hope Presbyterian church installed a large, front-yard community garden, whose purpose is to provide produce for the Neighborhood House food shelf.

I had to see the fence for myself, so I stopped by today. Not only do I like it, I think the presence of such a thoughtful garden will inspire the many passersby -- both in terms of the beauty possible in a vegetable garden and fact that such a garden is needed in this land of plenty.

Sign next to the garden telling how the produce will be given away at the Neighborhood House food shelf
The garden is thoughtfully designed by Paula Westmoreland, director of the Permaculture Research Institute - Cold Climate.

Landscape plan for the garden, showing how thoughtful it is
Part of the design is a rabbit-proof fence; a necessity in this haven for furry creatures.

According to the PiPress, Westmoreland researched both practical and aesthetic criteria in designing the fence, but it still doesn't meet the approval of some residents and members of the Historic Preservation Commission, even though the HPC approved the fence and garden.

Close up of the fence, showing the cedar posts and top rails and galvanized wire grid below
I can see both sides of the argument. There are 11 other churches along Summit Avenue, which is the longest stretch of Victorian homes in the country. What if every one of them put a garden out front with whatever type of fencing they wanted? And what if homeowners got in on the act?

That worry seems a bit overblown to me, though. The HPC saw this fence design, and while it's not made of wrought iron or stone, it's tidy and well-proportioned. The cedar material will weather well without paint. Churches and home owners on Summit build and maintain their yards within a set of restrictions maintained by the HPC, and that will continue to be the case. Any other fence that meets the standard of the House of Hope fence should be welcome.

(Those are potatoes growing inside the wire-mesh towers.)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Injustice in Georgia

Some examples of the American justice system in action can only leave you outraged. As in the local Koua Fong Lee case, the sentence of Raquel Nelson of Marietta, Georgia, begs to be overturned. And to lead to structural changes in how cities deal with pedestrians.

Nelson and her three young children had just arrived by bus across the street from their apartment building. (Excellent summary on Grist.) "Street" is a bit of a misnomer, though -- it's a suburban, four-lane, divided road built for cars, without a thought to pedestrians (Google map here).

Google satellite view of Austell Road intersection with Austell Circle
The bus stop is at the south end of Austell Circle -- there's an intersection on one side of the larger road, but no painted crosswalk. It's three-tenths of a mile to the nearest crosswalk (and three-tenths back).

Nelson, her kids, and several other adults who had been on the bus crossed the north side of the street to the median safely. When one of the other adults attempted to cross the south side of the street, Nelson's 4-year-old followed. She tried to retrieve him and both she and the child were hit by a man named Jerry Guy, who fled the scene. (Guy had two earlier hit-and-runs and had painkillers and a few drinks in him). The child later died.

Instead of apologizing and putting in a light and a crosswalk, the city responded by indicting Nelson for criminal vehicular homicide of her own child. Despite the fact that there was no underlying jaywalking involved. She was just found guilty (by an all-white, middle-class jury; Nelson is black) and could be sentenced to up to 36 months on July 26. The driver was tried earlier and has already been released after serving just 6 months.

I know it's not a lot, but you can sign a petition urging that her sentence be overturned.

According to the petition site, Marietta, Georgia, is the 11th most dangerous place for pedestrians in the U.S. Here's a map of all the pedestrian fatalities in the area.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Must Go Read Dragon Book Now

I am immersed in the new George R.R. Martin book (a thousand pages and more... not sure when I'll finish it), but here are some nonfantasy stories I've recently read, seen or heard that are worth checking out.

The Atlantic sums up how air conditioning affected what the U.S. became in the 2oth century. And hey, did you know the first residential air conditioner was in Minnesota?

Why Americans can't afford to eat healthy food (David Sirota in Salon).

Using the South Bronx as an example, a blogger explains how schools and teachers are not the cause of decline.

An update on the Stanford prison experiment, which ends with a quote from one of the "prisoners" who had been demeaned and, in effect, tortured. He's now a teacher in the Oakland public schools: "...if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role? [The kids I teach now] don't have to go through experiments to witness horrible things. But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows—they fall into the role their society has made for them."

A lovely rumination on the current state of typos (New York Times).

From Salon, a look at the rush to get probiotic foods onto our plates, despite a dearth of research showing they improve health.

Did you know that new mothers in China are supposed to spend the first 30 days of their child's life indoors, wearing pajamas? Sounds too good to be true, and it is, from what I could tell in this NPR story. They also can't drink water, bathe or shower, eat fruit and a host of other foods whose exclusion makes no sense at all, and have to wear heavy wool socks and slippers so they won't catch "a chill" no matter what time of year it is. Oogie! It's called "sitting the month" and wealthy women are paying as much as $500 a day to sit their month in specialized care centers where they are waited on every minute. Double oogie for that.

And finally, if you need an upper after all of that, this video might help. It shows how a simple invention is improving the lives of many people and saving energy at the same time:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Update on Superman 2050

The times and locations of some of the Superman 2050 performances I wrote about earlier have changed. They are now:

Twin Cities performances, all on Saturday, July 23:

2:00 p.m. (although I hear it may actually be 3:00 p.m.)
Minneapolis, Government Plaza LRT station, 352 South 5th Street (free)

8:00 p.m.
Minneapolis, Government Plaza LRT station, 352 South 5th Street (free)

12:00 midnight
Huge Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. South, Minneapolis (tickets needed, I think, box office opens after 7:00 p.m.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Back-to-Back Irony

On the front side of a Star Tribune page:

An opinion piece by former Strib business writer Mike Meyer, sarcastically congratulating Minnesota millionaires on avoiding a tax increase in the recent budget deal. Included as an example, Meyer wrote:

What about less state aid to schools? Not a problem for the uber-loaded. Crowded classrooms and overworked teachers won't intrude into the lives of their offspring or grandkids. Their education will be private, although state vouchers always would be welcome.
On the back side of the same page, this ad (click to enlarge):

Full page ad showing an elementary-age boy sitting at a library table surrounded by dark paneling and leather books, with Goldman Sachs logo in lower right
Which seems to be aimed squarely at an audience made up of the very people who avoided the now-dead tax increase.

Is that a public school in the photo? Heck no -- it clearly implies a private school with its ultra-high ceilings, dark paneling, and library ladder. (Or maybe the boy is supposed to be at home in his parents' personal library. After all, they've been writing on the walls.)

The overt message that kids can only reach their potential through private lessons and summer camps (let alone the implied private school) all but eliminates the idea that a child could reach her potential by use of a commonly shared resource like the schools. And given the way the schools have been gutted and teachers undermined, that message may be coming dangerously close to being true.

An additional irony can be found in the ad's copy: "For many years parents have relied on our mutual funds, backed by sound strategy and risk management experience, to help their children's dreams come true."

Sound strategy? Risk management? This ad is promoting Goldman Sachs, for God's sake, the company that made it through the bank crash by betting against its investors.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don Shelby on Waterless Urinals

Don Shelby, the long-time news anchor of the Twin Cities' CBS affiliate, is silver-haired and basketball-obsessed. While he was on the air, he seemed to me like a nice guy who was just part of the local media landscape. Since his recent retirement, though, he has taken to writing occasional pieces for MinnPost -- almost always on environmental topics.

Today's story tells of Shelby's quest to make it legal to install waterless urinals in Minnesota. We were the only state that didn't allow them; contrast that with states like Arizona that require them in government buildings. He writes,

The figures on water conservation supplied by the manufacturers were stunning. Independent university-based research confirmed it. One study by Industrial Economics Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., found that in a company with 1,000 males on staff, waterless urinals would save 1.56 million gallons of water annually, and save that company an estimated $21 thousand dollars in water and sewer costs. The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center has reported that such a company could see a payback on the cost of the new urinals in six months to three years.
I look forward to future stories from Shelby, who seems to have left his job and found his calling.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ella's Deli in Madison, Wisconsin

On the east end of Madison, not far from Interstate 90, is Ella's Deli. Since 1976, it's been serving kosher-style foods (and ice cream) in an atmosphere that's over-the-top enough to get it listed on Roadside America.

Ella's Deli exterior, circus-like lettering, with a carousel in the background
The outdoor carousel is nice, but the thing I wanted to see was the animatronic characters inside the building.

Papiere mache figure of Batman flying on wires near the ceiling
I was seated under Batman's flight path, with the Simpsons as spectators, rotating inside half a golf ball.

Papiere mache figure of Harry Potter on a broom, flying on wires near the ceiling
Harry Potter flies past the cashiering station.

Nicely made bright Yellow Submarine in papiere mache
The Yellow Submarine made its way past Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.

Table transparent top and human and animal cartoons beneath, with dark metal shavings clumped like hair
Every table had a different collection of toys or an interactive game. Our table was a a giant "wooly willy" toy. The white thing that looks like a tampon is the magnetic wand used to move the metal shavings around under the surface.

Many of the characters in the restaurant are familiar from popular culture, but the ones I liked best were just oddities that came out of the sculptor's head:

Papiere mache hot dog and Heinz ketchup bottle
Animatronic, anthropomorphized food...

Bandbox structure with dolls inside it with instruments
...big bands, with all their instruments...

Family of feet, each with a face on the sole
...and best of all, this family of feet with faces. (Shudder.)

Ella's is a bit like the overwhelming House on the Rock -- only on a scale that feels human and fun, instead of nauseating. Plus there's matzo ball soup.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mourn, but Don't Blame the Parents

I was managing to not hear about the story of the 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who was murdered this week, but after spying a mention on Orange Crate Art, I got it full in the face on Free Range Kids, where Lenore Skenazy put it in perspective:

...the next time someone tells me, “I would NEVER let my child walk outside, because it’s just too dangerous,” here is how I will reply:

“I hope you NEVER put your children in a car. How could you ever forgive yourself if, God forbid, something terrible were to happen? It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to keep your children safe! Personally, I would rather have my kids stuck at home, unable to go anywhere, than take the TERRIBLE RISK of putting them in the car. Maybe at 13 or 14 they can start riding in a car, but seven or eight? Too young! Parents should know better! It’s just not worth a lifetime of regret.”

That’s how wacky — and stifling — we can get when we dangerize everyday life, so let’s try not to. (And let’s keep the blame-the-parents impulse in check, too.)
Children are 25 times (better known as 2,500 percent) more likely to die because of a car accident than a stranger abduction: 1,300 vs. 50 deaths per year in the U.S. Yet no one even considers preventing children from riding in cars.

Banal dangers don't qualify as dangers at all, and therefore are not worth coverage on 24-hour news channels or regurgitation as "ripped from the headlines" plots.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Farmers Diner

If you drive just a bit up the road from White River Junction, you come across Queechee, Vermont, which is home to the Farmers Diner.

Like most non-Vermonters, I first heard of the Diner while reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Mineral. In it, Kingsolver and her family write about spending a year eating only local food, most of which they raised themselves.

During a road trip to New England, though, they had to eat out sometimes, and one place they went was the Farmer's Diner.

Local suppliers are listed up on what would usually be a menu board.

Part of the restaurant is a classic diner car. (The reason it looks so empty is that there's an addition off to one side that has air conditioning, so that had more people in it.)

The waitresses were wearing these shirts, though not in this picture!

The food was good -- classic diner stuff like breakfast and burgers, but I knew where the beef came from, and it wasn't a CAFO in the southwest!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lateral Smoking

A scene outside the door of a building in downtown Burlington, Vermont:

Sidewalk with yellow markings and stenciled lettering, making a box

Close up of the lettering, which reads No smoking in box
About which Daughter Number Three-Point-One quipped, "They have to learn to smoke outside the box."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

All Askew in White River Junction

White River Junction isn't a classically "Vermont" village. It has artists, but not the kind normally found nestled amidst white clapboard houses and overflowing flower gardens.

White River Junction sign over the train station door
Maybe that's because it was always a place of transportation -- first by river, then train, and now by highway. Two rivers meet there; 50 passenger trains a day used to go through via eight railroads; and now two interstates cross on the edge of town.

Graffiti words on a brown rail car reading HUGE BONUS
There are still more trains going through the Junction than I am used to seeing, or hearing. They toot their horns and stop wherever they want to, blocking several streets completely.

White River Junction is a place where artists can still afford to live and work -- rather than a place where artists used to live, but can't afford to any more. It's also home to the Center for Cartoon Studies, which gives the place an off-beat feeling, since everywhere you look, there's a funky cartoon drawing pasted to the wall.

It does have a handful of arty shops, but I didn't get the feeling they were flush with cash:

Sign in a store window
Other businesses are decidedly last century:

Twin State Typewriter repair sign
And the Polka Dot restaurant, near the train depot, has food from another century as well:

Menu with Fried Honeycomb Tripe highlighted in yellow
If tripe isn't what you have in mind, there are free raspberries to be had:

Handpainted sign in a raspberry patch reading Raspberry Revolution
All this and two food co-ops (Upper Valley Co-op selling natural foods and a satellite store of New Hampshire's venerable Hanover Consumer Cooperative, selling mainline groceries).

Poster telling people not to move fire wood across state lines
Finally, this poster, which I saw in the train station. A quick scan gives the wrong impression of the poster's intent ("Don't destroy the things you love: kill trees"). There's actually a bunch of text in there that says "Moving firewood can spread insects and diseases that KILL TREES," but it's set in a smaller size and therefore isn't easily read.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hitting the Tracks

Q. What's three feet by seven feet and has 28 limbs and seven heads?

A. Superman 2050, a new show by Chicago's Theater Un-Speak-Able, which will be visiting the Twin Cities on Saturday, July 23.

I haven't seen the play, but it sounds like a trip, if you'll pardon the pun. Seven actors share a small platform and somehow tell a story about Superman and high-speed rail.

Seven people in purple-blue leotards lined up against a black background
After spending time in London and appreciating rail access to other parts of the country, the show's creator, Mark Frost, returned to his native Chicago and wanted to do something to further the cause of high-speed rail in the U.S.

The show has played off and on over the past few months in Chicago, including a stint at Second City. Now they're hopping on Amtrak to visit Milwaukee and our fair cities. I hope the train is close to on time!

Twin Cities performances, all on Saturday, July 23:

2:00 p.m.
Government Plaza LRT station, 352 South 5th Street (free)

8:00 p.m.
Government Plaza LRT station, 352 South 5th Street (free)

12:00 midnight
Huge Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. South, Minneapolis (tickets needed, I think, box office opens after 7:00 p.m.)

Some links:

Superman 2050 website, with the whole schedule and other details

The Kickstarter page, with a video about the Midwest tour

Chicago Tribune review

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Brattleboro Scenes

It's time for a Vermont road trip, and the first stop was Brattleboro, in the southeast corner of the state. It's dense and city-like for a relatively small place, with lots of interesting buildings that go beyond the quaint New England style and several good bookstores.

Damaged art deco movie marquee with yellow caution tape below
Little did I know I was arriving on a day when some local news had just been made. A truck driver, impatient that he had to wait for a train to pass through a little way down the street, tried to go around the stopped cars ahead of him by using the sidewalk beneath the marquee of the historic Art Deco Latchis Theater. (Full story from the Brattleboro Reformer.)

Close up of the damaged marquee
Needless to say, there wasn't room for both objects to exist in the same space, and the marquee lost. The good news is the nonprofit Brattleboro Arts Initiative, which renovated the theater and hotel complex, had been raising money to restore the original marquee, and now they'll have insurance money to help with the cause.

Colorful terrazzo floors with inlays and a plaster statue of a woman, after a Green classical figure
The Latchis Theater was build in 1938 by a local family in honor of their patriarch, a Greek immigrant named Demetrius Latchis. It features beautiful terrazzo floors like these, decorated with scenes from Greek mythology and the zodiac, as well as a statue of Hebe in the lobby.

Large theater with painted murals on the far wall and a replica of a Greek temple with columns
They've managed to wall off two additional small theaters without affecting the hugeness of the main theater. The murals on the walls (visible above) are due for restoration, as well as the large, gold zodiac figures that decorate the ceiling. (More and better photos are available on the Latchis Theater site.)

Brattleboro is also home to very nice food co-op, and it's about to get nicer as well as greener. There's a new store under construction next door to the current store (PDF describing the project here). It looks as though the new store will be about 4,000 square feet larger, with the current store being turned over to parking and green space along the Whetstone Brook and waterfall once the new store opens. It's also the only co-op project I remember seeing that's intentionally dense: It's a multi-use building with housing above the store.

Green garden cart with a sign on the side that says FoodEx, mimicing the FederalEx logo
Above: Someone at the co-op has a sense of humor when it comes to labeling the wagons they provide for shoppers to roll their food away. (Although they weren't astute enough to nail the details, such as the little white arrow that should have been created by the negative space between the E and x.)

I visited two bookstores while in Brattleboro. Sad to say, I missed out on a third bookstore, The Book Cellar, which lost its entire inventory after a fire in April.

Everyone's Books (seller of new books) was just the place to pick up the fifth book (A Dance with Dragons) in George R.R. Martin's guilty pleasure series, which was released just today.

Postcard with pink headline reading Resistance Is Fertile
Everyone's Books also had an extensive collection of political bumper stickers, shirts and the like; kind of like the Vermont branch of Northern Sun Merchandising. I particularly liked the headline on the postcard above -- Resistance Is Fertile -- although I think it could have been applied more creatively to a broader topic.

Brattleboro Books is a classic used bookstore, packed to the ceiling with one delight after another. It had a better-than-average selection of juvenile/young adult books. I picked up several Robert Newton Peck first editions, plus a first edition library copy of Patricia Windsor's The Summer Before (a real find, as far as I'm concerned).

Light brown sign with hand lettered cursive Children's Library, with silhouettes of a girl and boy, probably from the 1940s
The children's section also had this lovely sign, from the Greenfield, Mass., library.

Brattleboro is largely an art and tourism town, with a decidedly lefty bent. So I wasn't surprised to see a store like this:

Storefront with awning labeled Save the Corporations from Themselves
Though just a block or so down the street was this bit of corporate America unloading outside a restaurant:

Silver Sysco truck unloading on the street with ramp down, blue and green logo with leaf and the tag line Good things come from Sysco
I vaguely knew the institutional food company Sysco had switched logos recently, although I guess it was longer ago than I would have though: back in 2008. I can hardly remember seeing this logo before now, though, since all of the trucks in the Midwest sport the red, white and blue version. Interesting that the company rolled out the leafy bits for a town like Brattleboro, while still parading the patriotic identity for the yokels in Flyoverland.

White wheat-pasted garden gnome on a green utility box with other graffiti nearby
One last image from Brattleboro: A gnomish graffito seen along the street.