Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shepherd Bending

by M. David Hornbuckle

On November 30, Dr. Willy Rice, a prominent UA alumnus and big donor to the school, wrote a letter to the University of Alabama National Alumni Association saying he would donate only $40 this year because he is concerned about the fate of the Black Warrior River, especially with regard to coal mining in its watershed area. In the letter, Rice waxed poetic about his boyhood along the banks of the Black Warrior River, and he promised that, “under the right circumstances,” if the UA system showed it would “be a good steward” of the money, he was prepared to leave the bulk of his seven-figure estate to the University of Alabama.

“But what exactly does the University of Alabama have to do with the coal mining along the river?” you might ask. In October 2010, a permit was issued to allow a new coal mine, known as the Shepherd Bend mine, on the banks of the Black Warrior River. However, it won’t be practical to build the mine unless the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System decides to allow it. That’s because the UA System owns significant land and mineral rights in the area designated for the mine.

It’s been noted in this newspaper and elsewhere that the proposed mine will release waste a mere 800 feet from one of the major water intakes for the city of Birmingham. What has not been discussed as often is the fact that this proposed mine is also near popular recreational areas.

Charles Scribner from the conservational group Black Warrior Riverkeeper says, “The mine’s multiple discharge points would be a problem for the river itself and the many people who recreate there. The Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork is a hotspot for public recreation, particularly boating, fishing, and swimming. Countless citizens actually eat the fish they catch in that area. The public usage of this stretch of the river is enhanced by the fact that Reed’s Ferry is a popular boat launch location right by Shepherd Bend.”

Dr. Robert Angus, a professor in the Biology Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, testified, “ADEM’s exemption of iron, manganese, and TSS from almost all precipitation events, and failure to include limits on TDS, sulfate, chlorides, aluminum and other heavy metals at all, will cause a violation of Alabama’s water quality standards because of its harm to fish and wildlife in the Mulberry Fork and its tributaries.”

Environmental engineer Warner Golden reported that the sediment discharged from the site is “is the equivalent of 160 dump trucks of sediment resulting from one storm event.”

Scribner adds, “Dozens of private property owners in the immediate Shepherd Bend area have echoed these concerns. Many of them fish, boat, and swim in the area. They are also concerned about the reduction of their property values and quality of life as a result of a strip mine starting a Shepherd Bend.”

The Board of Trustees has been implored by student groups, environmental groups, concerned citizens, the media, and even the Birmingham City Commission to refrain from leasing this land for coal mining, but the Board has thus far been eerily silent about its intentions. Last month, 1000 students from UAB, Sanford, and UA signed a petition asking the Board to take a stand. Students from Montevallo sent another 300 signatures a few days ago. And, now there is Dr. Rice’s letter to the Alumni Association.

So far, there has been no response. Scribner says, “While we expect to hear the same boilerplate response from UA, we hope that each signature, letter, call, or news report further convinces UA that stopping the Shepherd Bend Mine is the right decision.”

Bring Us Your Healthy White Babies

by Eden Anesidora

Domestic adoption is a multi-billion dollar industry where money talks and the laws benefit those with deep pockets. Adoption facilitators, including agencies and private attorneys, profit from arranging a successful adoption for paying clients. This has significant implications for women who find themselves faced with an unplanned pregnancy. The demand for white, healthy infants is high, and the adoption industry strives to supply white, adoptable babies for prospective couples. In this widely unregulated system, efforts are made to encourage women to relinquish their child to adoption. Furthermore, adoption laws don’t provide safeguards that allow a birth mother to make a fully-informed decision. If they did, there would simply be fewer infants available for adoption.

State laws that govern a mother’s consent to adoption provide for a hastily made decision and serve the best interest of the adoptive couple. These laws vary from state to state. Kansas allows consent 12 hours after birth, while the mother is still reeling from anesthesia. In California a mother’s consent is irrevocable. Alabama allows the birth mother five days after birth or after signing consent, whichever comes last, to make up her mind. After those five days, she has nine days to revoke her consent, but must prove she is in best interest of her child. Her “right to revoke” doesn’t include a “right to parent.” In 14 days, she’s stripped of her natural ability to parent and must fight in court, battling a system where the scales weigh in favor of the more affluent adoptive couple. She will also need to come up with over $100,000 to fund this expedition.

Possibly one of the most corrupt tactics in the Alabama Adoption Code is the pre-birth agreement. Yes, mothers may commit to an adoption before seeing her child; unaware of the legal red tape and resources it takes to withdraw her consent. This agreement assures the prospective adoptive couple of a successful adoption. It also makes it more difficult for the birth mother to change her mind and “disappoint” the couple who depended on her for nine months.

Stigma surrounding unwed mothers helps perpetuate a system that breeds infants for respectable white folks. The media usually presents adoption the way most perceive the process. A poor, unwed and unfit mother surrenders her child to an affluent and fit couple—everyone goes on their merry way. Sadly, the adoption process is not this simple. Unwed and pregnant does not make a woman unfit to parent. Furthermore, all adoptive couples are not fit to be parents just because they are in leadership positions at a big Presbyterian church or offer the right sum of money.

The truth is the birth mother is often desperate. She may seek help from an adoption agency or close friend. A permanent solution to a temporary problem is presented to her—adoption. This solution may be presented as the only or best one. She may hear, “Do you really want to farm your child out while you try to finish college?” or “God meant for a child to have two parents.” Gifts of little monetary value, “Dear Birth Mother” letters, religious guilt, and promises of future communication with her child are all tactics used to keep her on the right “path.” The couple may even offer to pay her medical and living expenses (this is legal in Alabama if approved by a judge). A lack of knowledge concerning legal matters in adoption, as well as a lack of resources, put the birth mother at a disadvantage. Because of their resources, the adoptive couple has an attorney to guide the process.

One successful attorney, Drew Whitmire, helped draft the Alabama Adoption Code under which he conducts adoptions for prospective adoptive couples. He is also president of Villa Hope Adoption Agency that offers domestic and international adoptions. Would a prominent adoption attorney draft a law that would make his job harder? Absolutely not. I’m sure Whitmire feels confident his adoptions will go smoothly, as the law includes safeguards for the prospective adoptive couple. According to Villa Hope’s website, 75% of Whitmire’s practice is in adoptions.

The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute wrote that Whitmire had been “considered by many in Alabama as its premier adoption attorney.” Furthermore, his “dedication to adoptive parents and their children makes him an outstanding choice” for Alabama’s Angel of Adoption Awards, a signature public awareness program for the CCAI.

Unknown to the birth mother, the visits with her child that were promised in a letter will not occur, as these letters are not legally binding. The letters with updates on her child will not arrive. Those gifts (flowers at the hospital, candles and baked goods, etc.) do not have “monetary value;” therefore they are not considered coercive. How subtle. The language used by the adoption facilitators was not undue influence, just encouragement. In addition, the poignant interviews with the social worker, in which the birth mother discloses every detail of her life because “it’s important to be truthful,” will come back to haunt her if she contests the adoption in court. Medical records, dating back to the birth mother’s adolescence and teenage years, may be used to prove her “unfit.” Her decision, because it is based on emotional appeals and granfalloons, is one she regrets.

These stories fail to garner media attention, widening the gap between truth and fiction. The stigma surrounding birthparents will continue, as facts are not able to surface. Adoption practitioners and private attorneys will continue to depend on vulnerable, young women to supply healthy infants for those who can pay big bucks.

Until legislation enacts laws that ensure best practice and provide safeguards, birth mothers will continue to be exploited.

Pepper Spraying Our Teens

By M. David Hornbuckle

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been about a hundred cases, since 2006, of students in Birmingham city high schools being pepper sprayed and arrested by police officers stationed in the schools. These officers are titled “School Resource Officers (SROs),” but they are employed by the police department, not the school system. The SPLC has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of six current or former students in these cases. Named in the lawsuit are four SROs, the Birmingham Board of Education, and the Chief of Police. The group claims it can find no other school district in the country where pepper spray has been used as frequently or in the same way it is used in Birmingham.

Now, that sounds bad, right? It gets worse. The Birmingham school system argues that it has no federal constitutional duty to protect students’ safety from the actions of third parties—in this case, the police. Because, you see: the police don’t work for the school system. So the police are there because these teens are out of control gangsters, right? They are breaking up knife fights and such, right?

No. Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney on this case, says that many of these incidents involve nothing more than normal adolescent misbehavior, such as cursing or being too loud. In one instance last year, a pregnant teenager at Woodlawn High School was crying hysterically in the hallway because some boys had been calling her names. When the officer asked her to calm down, and she didn’t, he put her in handcuffs (I know that always calms ME down). When that didn’t work, out came the pepper spray.

So then what happens, you might ask. Well, the kid is arrested. But first, the officer is required to allow the student to seek medical attention, so they go to the hospital. At the hospital, the teenager is told there is nothing that can be done about pepper spray, and they’ll just have to wait it out (which isn’t actually true—they could remove the clothes that are still reeking of pepper fumes and help the kid wash off with soap and water, but they usually don’t do that). They tell the teenager to sign a piece of paper, and they usually do without knowing that it is a waiver saying they refused medical treatment. After that, the teen is taken to the juvenile detention center, where they call the parents and schedule a hearing. At the hearing, they usually decide not to prosecute the student any further. For crying. Because she was pregnant and boys were calling her a slut.

One problem here is that the officers are not given sufficient training to deal with youth, particularly special needs youth. And that can lead to them becoming a little too trigger happy when a situation becomes a little frustrating. There is also a huge problem with kids being exposed to pepper spray because they happen to be standing nearby when the incident happens.

These problems are concentrated in certain high schools; Jackson Olin, Woodlawn, Carver, and Winona. These schools all serve a mostly African-American community. So can you say these problems are racially motivated? Howard says, “It’s not so simple. The staff and SROs at these schools are also mostly black.”

But you can bet that if these problems were occurring in a different part of town, there would be a lot more outrage.

Heavy Machinery: The University of Alabama's Sinister Secret Society

by Stephen Smith

The photo of the founding crew from the 1905 Theta Nu Epsilon fraternity at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa is creepy as hell. It looks like something from a horror movie. The skull really adds to it. These were the original Alabama “skulls.”  The fraternity is associated with Yale’s Skull and Bones and has been controlling the politics at the university, and to a large degree the state, for the past century. The group has often been accused of rigging school elections through bribery and intimidation. It almost always wins.

Here is an excerpt from the campus newspaper, the Crimson White, from 1913 describing an early initiation into the group when it was mostly known for its colorful promenade:

Eight men were taken into ‘Skulls’ last Friday night. The initiation of the ‘Skulls’ is somewhat public in its nature, and the parade yesterday afternoon was one of the most original and [ludicrous] that the people of Tuscaloosa and the students at the University had ever witnessed. This “Pee-Rade” was led by Richard Foster, who, in the guise of a negro, wore a scarlet blazer over a dress shirt, pink pajamas for trousers, and carrying an old broom for a baton. He was followed by Pete Jarman, another blackface who was garbed in dress attire also…After Pete came “Judge” Glenn, wearing a lavender dress, pink stockings, a black, jaunty cap covered with a grey veil, and with his cheeks painted, and his eyes blacked until he looked like a militant suffragette or a chorus girl…Sidney Smith, another pajama man, followed Pratt, and after Smith came Lister Hill, who was jauntily attired in a part dress suit, part pajama effect that was most stunning.

That’s Lister Hill, as in Lister Hill Library at UAB, Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications in Bethesda, Maryland, and Lister Hill six-term Democratic senator of the great state of Alabama. Lister Hill, freemason and “Skull” of the Theta Nu Epsilon fraternity. There are many prominent members of Theta Nu Epsilon: Don Siegelman, Richard Shelby (though he will deny it), Bill Blount, your boss, everyone who is anyone in the state, etc.

Dubbed the “Machine” in 1928 by the Crimson White, the fraternity (now a group of fraternities and sororities) has welded substantial influence over the university’s politics and various positions of power by managing to control student elections through various means, some legitimate, many questionable.

Here is what the Crimson White had to say about the organization in 1949:

Today, you hear very little about Theta Nu Epsilon on the campus. But the so-called ‘machine’ is still with us—operating in after-hours secret meetings, getting together its slate of sure-to-win candidates for the coming student elections.

Thus a potential 2500 votes are organized for every name on the ‘machine’ slate each year. A winning proposition? It can’t lose. It can’t as long as no party of equal strength exists on the campus—and we’ve yet to see one that proved effective.


Unknown to the vast majority of students at the University of Alabama but nonetheless true is the fact that political life, membership in many ‘honoraries,’ and, indeed, even to some extent social life on this campus is dominated and controlled by a well-organized political machine. Ask any of the bigwigs of the campus and of the machine about its existence, and they will respond with the innocent expression of a newborn babe, and ask, ‘What machine?’ They believe that the students of this campus are so naïve as to swallow so incredible a line.


The Machine is bad for this campus. Obviously, it steers control of student activities into the hands of its members, leaving those outside its ranks to do as best they can against serious handicaps. The Machine is a source of much-talked-about student apathy, as Joe College sees positions of leadership going to the same clique year after year. It is a clear breach of the democratic ethic, secreting much of the working of student government.

In the 1960s a group was formed in opposition to the Machine. The Mallet Assembly managed to get one of its members, Jim Zeigler, elected to student body president in 1970. Soon afterward, Zeigler’s room in old Mallet Hall was burned.

In 1991, the Crimson White accused the Machine of stealing 4,000 of its papers the day before campus elections to prevent the students from reading an exposé on the fraternal order. But as powerful as the Machine is, it was incapable of preventing Esquire magazine from running a cover story introducing the “skulls” to the nation that same year. This was soon followed by a series of incidents that started the group spiraling out of control.

In 1992, a female non-Machine candidate for student body president was beaten, cut with a knife, and had a cross burned on her lawn. A note left on her door read, “Machine rules bitch.” Following this, the Student Government Association was shut down for three years. In 1999, a student from the Republic of Congo, Fabien Zing, was threatened and subjected to numerous racial slurs when he decided to run as a non-Machine candidate. It is impossible to say if the secretive group was behind these or the many similar incidents.

The Machine’s iron grip over UA politics influences the attitudes and power structure of the entire state. It is the old guard that is too entrenched to effectively oppose. These sorts of secret organizations are so much a part of American culture it is foolish to try to fight them. If you want to get ahead in Alabama you would be doing yourself a favor by trying to get into the Machine. If you are black, you are probably out of luck. Gay? Forget about it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lip Service

by Leon Couch

What is it about those lips?

Are the eyes really the gateway to the soul? Or should you close your eyes and instead, kiss those lips? Chances are, if there’s someone whose eyes you feel you could stare into forever, someone you find that enchanting, you’ll wind up kissing them if you can. And I bet we can all agree that kissing tells you a lot more about someone than eyeballs.

Look at the different shapes and sizes, the slight color variations. They come in large, small, smooth, rough, light, dark, puffy, thin, sexy, scary—all kinds. Just look for a while at all those lips. Find a place where you can sit, maybe a diner, maybe a bar. But you should definitely be sitting alone, so you won’t be distracted. Don’t worry that you’re creeping people out. You are creeping them out. But worrying just doesn’t solve problems.

For the next week or so, just look at the different lips around you. Yes, that’s a crazy thing to do. Go ahead though, you should do it. I highly recommend it. Trust me. It’ll be fun. I prahhh-misss.

Now this part is crucial, when someone gets just too creeped out by you and calls the police, be ready. When you see the policeman coming toward you, led by a group of angry people, and they’re all shaking their fists and pointing at you, RUN! Go! Now! Run as fast as you can! And scream! (It’s always best to scream at the top of your lungs while running, either toward or away from trouble. It’s probably good for recreational runners too. But that’s another story.) Scream as high-pitched a scream as you can! And wave your arms in the air above your head! “AAAAAAHHHH!” (Unfortunately, and I should have told you this a minute ago, this actually hurts your chances of escape. But it really, really, really adds style.)

Once they catch you, which they will, and the policeman and the crowd are done beating you, you can throw a few facts at them just for spite. That’ll show ‘em. At least you know some things they don’t. Rest assured, they won’t listen to what you say. They’ll just see a crazy pervert who by that point is bleeding, drooling and crying some nonsense at them. And know this…it will lead to another round of beating. But once again—style man, style!

Here are a few things to yell out through your own swelling lips:

  • You feel 100 times more with your lips than with the tips of your fingers. (So when your blind friends start rubbing their lips all over your face, don’t be a jerk. They’re just getting to know you.) 
  • A man who kisses his wife on the way out the door every morning will live an average of 5 years longer than other men. (He will live longer than everyone except the UPS driver that is, who rolls up 15 minutes later with, ahem…a package. According to logic UPS drivers will live an extra 10 to 15 years longer than the husband…more kisses from your wife. Women can’t help it. We’ve all seen those uniforms. It’s the shorts, right ladies?)
  •  A small kiss burns around 3 calories. A passionate kiss burns up to 6.4 calories per minute and 600 calories per hour. (So pucker up. To hell with Zumba.)
  • The French call a French kiss baiser amoureux or “love kiss.” But they also call French fries “fried potatoes.” Go figure.
  • The Eskimo nose kiss is actually just a form of greeting. I’ve never been invited into an igloo, so it’s none of my business what goes on inside. (I’m sure they’re keeping warm somehow.)
  • Injecting fat into the lips is one form of augmentation plastic surgeons use. (That one is too easy. You fill in the joke for yourself.)
  • The brain has special neurons that help you find your lover’s lips in the dark. (There’s nothing funny there. That one is just really sexy.)
  • There is no evidence at all, in fact much to the contrary, that lip balm is addictive. Of course this means addiction in the literal sense. It coats the lips and prevents them from drying out. It keeps them soft and smooth. You surely derive some sort of pleasure from the application, since your lips are so sensitive. We all know someone who’s a balm junkie. They might keep it well hidden. But someone you know needs to kick.

When you’re done telling the angry mob of your lip knowledge, when you find yourself in lockup for lip staring, drop us a line. Better yet, write us a letter. You’ll have plenty of time to jot down your experiences. You’re getting a free meal and some drugs. It’ll make a great story for us. And I’ll be happy to give you some more advice. I can tell you how to handle your situation.

Good advice: It starts with kicking people in the knee. When the guys in the scrubs come around to give you your medicine, kick them in the knee. This move, by the way, will get you better drugs, making it easier to perform your next move. You guessed it . . . also kicking. When the psychiatrist comes to see you, kick him in the knee too. This will help continue your little vacation. Then when the men in scrubs return . . . and so on, you’ll get the hang of it. Also, cross your eyes and laugh a lot. Use certain words over and over, like “them, cats, Elvis, detectors, transmitters and kill.” Don’t forget either, all of this, the kicking, the gibberish, this is all best delivered with a high pitched scream.

P.S. You’re welcome.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alabama Immigrants on Strike

Opponents of Alabama's new anti-immigration law are encouraging Hispanic immigrants across the state to boycott work, school, and shopping. The strike may last between one and five days. Its purpose is to demonstrate the impact Hispanic immigrants have on the state's economy. Word about the strike has been spread on Spanish-language radio and television, through the internet, and by word of mouth.

Several area businesses that depend on immigrant labor are closed today in support of, or as a result of, the strike. Rojo management placed a sign in front of the restaurant saying that they were closed in opposition to the immigration law. Rojo's Facebook page indicated they would be closed today only and would re-open as usual on Thursday.

Alabama for Obama

by M. David Hornbuckle

Politically speaking, Alabama is one of the reddest of the red states, but Jefferson County runs a little more to the blue side than the average. In 2008, President Obama won 52.2% of the vote in this county (against 47.1% for McCain)—not a huge margin, but enough to color us more purple than pink. Since then, a sluggish economy and continuing wars have contributed to a decline in the president's popularity across the board. From January 2009 to September 2011, his approval rating (according to Gallup) has shrunk from 67% to 43%. In the South, it has gone from 64% to 37%.

What do President Obama's supporters in our area think about his progress and policies since his election? And what do they think needs to happen in the next year if he's to be re-elected. We spoke to some leaders of local Democratic organizations about both of these topics.

Craig Niedenthal is chair of Over the Mountain Democrats, the largest Democratic grass roots organization in the state of Alabama. He says, "Obviously, we support the president. He came into office under terrible conditions, the worst I've ever seen. Some people had unreasonably high expectations. But there’s only so much he can do with a Republican congress who’s number one goal is to see him fail, even if it at the cost of destroying our country. . . As far as what needs to happen in the next year, I personally think he needs to take some tough stands, even if he ends up losing on those issues. It will expose his opponents in Congress as the obstructionists that they are."

Richard Mauk, the chair of the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee, seems to agree. "The loyal opposition is trying to paint him into a corner, and they're doing a damn good job of it," Mauk says. "They want to create an impression that this economy is an 'Obama economy' rather than a 'Republican economy.' [Obama] needs to roll his sleeves up and start getting specific. He's starting to do that. People don't like to rally around vanilla. They like to rally around salsa. Just ask anyone at your tailgate party."

Mauk, who has a degree in Economics and worked as a bankruptcy lawyer for many years, now runs a credit counseling firm. He explains that the Republican's metaphor about the national debt has been "a family of four that makes $30,000 a year can't spend more than $30,000 a year. If they do, they go into debt, and that's bad." But he says that Democrats should counter that with a metaphor of a small business. You can't start making money unless you have some money to start the business with. So you have to borrow it. That helps you build the infrastructure you need to start gradually paying the debt down. Mauk says that the only time you should cut spending is when you have full employment, because that situation can lead to inflation. Otherwise, spending cuts increase unemployment. "The Republicans didn't want to cut spending eight years ago," Mauk says. "They want to drive up unemployment so they can pin the blame on Obama."

The opinions of Niedenthal and Mauk jibe with what we take to be the general opinion of most progressives. The president's biggest weakness has been in giving up too much to compromise, starting with propositions that are perhaps too reasonable and leaving himself too little room to bargain with a decidedly conservative Congress. Of course, progressives are not jumping ship on the president. There's nobody else they can reasonably vote for next year anyway. Among registered Democrats, President Obama's approval rating has dropped only a few points.

Whatever Obama does in the next year to help his chances of re-election, Niedenthal says, there is something progressives groups at home can do to help. They can educate the public about how progressive policies will benefit people in their own communities. Therefore, the goal of local grassroots progressive organizations in the next year is going to be to convince moderate to conservative white working class people to stop voting against their own interests.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Occupy Birmingham Holds Meeting, Spontaneously Marches Afterward

by M. David Hornbuckle

Occupy Birmimgham, the local group that has formed in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, held a public meeting today in Brother Bryan Park. Approximately 100 people gathered at the park for a combined potluck picnic and split committee meeting.

During the meeting, individual committees planned strategies for the group moving forward, and then a general assembly discussed the march planned for October 15, which will coordinate with an international day of protest.

After the meeting ended, the group spontaneously marched from the park to the Five Points fountain and back, sporting signs and chanting.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Cleaning Power of Storms

by Lee Waites

Air pollution has become a major problem for the people of Birmingham. Weather events directly affect the atmosphere’s ability to process and clean the air we breathe. Knowing and understanding the effects of weather on manmade contaminants and pollution will help us better react to the needs of our environment. Knowing and understanding the needs of our environment can help us make better choices about what we do and do not allow to happen.

What is happening in the world around us is not always obvious, unless we know what to look for.
Inversion, one common weather event, which occurs often in the cooler months, is when the cold air in the upper atmosphere pushes down on the warmer air below. According to Matt Lacke, Meteorologist for the Jefferson County Department of Health, “Calm conditions overnight, not a lot of wind, cause an accumulation of particulates, especially the valley areas.” This is basically what it sounds like, a blanket of cooler air trapping in the warmer, stagnant air, which is full of pollution. “So topography plays a role as well in Birmingham, not just weather. Especially across Downtown and Northside which are kind of in the valley. The cooler air traps the particulate matter closer to the ground, mostly in the morning hours. So when the air begins to heat up a little later in the day, the particulate matter is allowed to disperse more into the atmosphere.”

These days we don’t think of calm weather as a possible emergency. We’ve had years of federally mandated environmental policies that have somewhat protected us from particulate pollution. But with the growing population beginning to overwhelm our outdated regulations, as evidenced by our constant poor ozone quality throughout the summer, we could easily see these inversion events leading to more severe situations for public health, especially if we allow the EPA to be hamstrung as many are attempting now. It’s too easy to forget why the EPA was created.

Kirsten Bryant, with the local environmental advocacy group GASP, recounts one historical weather event that heavily impacted Birmingham, “In fact it was 40 years ago in 1971. It was a weather inversion that Birmingham was experiencing that held particle pollution in place . . . And this was when Alabama was not enforcing the clean air act, and it actually created a public health emergency. Thankfully our air is a lot cleaner than it was back then. But we still have weather inversions. And we still have a pollution problem.” GASP is a rebirth of a group that started years ago, whose original members tell stories of smog so bad you could not see across the city. GASP focuses on educating the public and advocating for clean air. “One good thing is when we have a weather event it can cool down the air, which helps reduce the ozone problem. And the rain can help clear out our particle pollution problem,” says Bryant.

Rain events and thunderstorms have a very beneficial effect on the air we breathe. The falling rain actually pushes the particle pollution to the ground where it can be washed away, wind brings in fresher, cleaner air. Unfortunately there are other consequences for the environment. Heavy rains and storms, with rapid rainfall, do not give the ground time to absorb the falling water. It flows rapidly across the ground, catching debris, spilled oil, litter and other pollutants. In an urban setting this means the water is carried directly into the storm drains, bypassing the regular filtration channels where eventually it winds up depositing its contaminated load into creeks, rivers, lakes and streams.

Industry and mining are also issues in storm events. Nelson Brooke, of Black Warrior Riverkeeper points out many issues of concern. “Harder rain and more volume of rain is definitely going to cause runoff patterns to change significantly . . . since our landscape has changed significantly. These bigger storms are going to be able to push off lots more water than we’ve seen. Riverbank erosion is going to be a bigger issue. That’s going to pull sediment, rocks and shrubs and wash them downriver. “According to Brooke, there are many problems created by the increased volume of rain, and intensity of storms. River banks become overwhelmed, allowing flooding of surrounding areas. As the water washes back out, the pollutants picked up are carried into the rivers as the floodwaters recede.

Brooke is mainly concerned with the impacts of industrial waste, which he says gets carried into the watershed in different ways during severe weather. “Industries are permitted to discharge pollution in certain amounts. There are certain basic controls that are put into place through these permits …most of those designs are put into place for certain types of rain events. They’re not really set up to handle your 50, 75 or 100 year storms. I don’t even know how they calculated those things back in the day. But things are changing. Storms are happening more often, more violently. The landscape has changed alot. Clear cutting, strip mining, development, it’s all getting rid of the forest and land-cover that would slow down runoff during a big storm. There’s a definite connection there for a construction site or a coal mine that has a sediment pond that’s designed to handle your typical 24 hour rain event. When you get a much larger storm they’re not going to be able to handle that. These larger rain events are just going to overload their pollution control systems.”

Finding ways to convince or force industries to respect and further advances in clean environment technology is impossible at times. According to Nelson Brooke reducing profit margins is the argument he hears most for avoiding change. One has to wonder if that is even a successful business move given the example of the auto industry. Ford, the now dominant US auto maker owes its current success, in large part to its new, smaller, more fuel efficient cars. The Chinese are rapidly moving forward with government aided green industries, as their economy moves to overtake ours as the strongest in the world. Everywhere are examples of the profitability of going green with few exceptions. Even if it could be argued as slightly less profitable to do the right thing, isn’t doing the right thing just, well…the right thing to do?

Occupy Birmingham's First General Assembly

by M. David Hornbuckle

A local group called Occupy Birmingham has come together to express solidarity with the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. The group held a General Assembly last night in Railroad Park to discuss issues, plan protest actions, and further organize. About 200 people attended the assembly. At times, the "human microphone" technique popularized at the New York General Assembly so that speakers could be heard without amplification. In this technique, speakers use short bursts of words, which are then repeated by the crowd.

Speakers discussed various issues related to corporate greed and financial inequities. One speaker read aloud the Declaration that was issued by the New York General Assembly last week. Several committees were formed, included an education committee that will train members of the group in nonviolent protest techniques. There was discussion of a planned protest to coincide with a national day of protest on October 15.

photo by April Scroggins
In addition, the group decided to hold a potluck this coming Sunday, one p.m., at Brother Bryan Park and Magnolia (alongside the FoodNotBombs potluck, which is held at the Five Points Fountain every Sunday to feed the homeless). At that event, the committees that were formed last night will break into groups to discuss their own agendas.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Are You Kids On?

by M. David Hornbuckle

Youth culture is the life force of the culture at large; it's what keeps us moving ever forward. And so those of us over thirty, who increasingly can't trust ourselves and who want to remain connected to that force, must occasionally take stock of "what the kids are into these days." We can look at what music they like or how they use their cell phones and computers, but another factor that can tell us a lot about today's generation is what drugs they use recreationally.

For all of human history, people have found ways to alter their consciousness, to get high. In ancient times, various roots and herbs were found to have these mysterious medicinal qualities if they were chewed, brewed, or smoked. By the 19th century, morphine, laudanum, and cocaine were discovered—concentrated extracts that could be used in more measured doses. In the past hundred years, as with other technologies, drug innovations have been rapid and frequent. In the early 1900-1950s, barbiturates and amphetamines began finding their way from the laboratory to the recreational user. The 1960s saw hallucinogens, especially LSD, rise in popularity. Then there was heroin, PCP, Dexadrine, and Quaaludes in the 1970s, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the "club drugs" of the 1990s and 2000s. Of course, a few less intense drugs like alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and marijuana have remained fashionable throughout the decades.

Young adults in particular have a deep hunger for experimentation in this area, the danger and adventure of feeling and experiencing something new. And the drugs of their parents' generation just won't cut it. Every generation has access to new ways of getting high, newly discovered pharmaceuticals with alluring side effects. Often one drug is made illegal and then is immediately replaced by something new and legal. Meanwhile, the illegal substances of course still find their way to the black market where determined users have little trouble obtaining them.

We did an informal survey and asked a few young folks around UAB about what they've experimented with and what they’ve observed among their peers.

These interviews yielded few surprises. The generation of humans that is now college age grew up during a time of unprecedented ADHD diagnoses. Many of them have been taking Ritalin since they were little kids. Some of them abused it, crushed it up and snorted it. When that stopped working for them, they started taking Adderall. If they don’t have a prescription, it’s easy enough to buy it on the street. Other prescription pills readily available for recreational use include Hydrocodone, Valium, and Xanax. One person told us about a friend abusing Lithium.

"Rolling" drugs are still popular in clubs. These include Ecstasy, Molly (pure MDMA), and GHB. Due to its price, pure cocaine remains a drug for rich kids, but cheaper (and more dangerous) derivatives are easier to get. People still like all the old hippie drugs: weed, LSD, and mushrooms. Some youngsters we talked to had experimented with pot laced with various things, including cocaine.

Something relatively new on the scene is the ubiquity of “synth” drugs. These are herbal products that are more or less legal and sold in head shops. Most of them are essentially fake pot—various plant products mixed together and sprayed with a chemical that’s similar to THC. The packaging claims that it’s incense and “not for human consumption,” but you are supposed to smoke it. It comes in little baggies so it even looks like marijuana. The effects are unpredictable and vary by brand. The problem is that you don’t really know what you are smoking or how your body is going to react to it. You can also buy herbal products that claim to be various types of uppers, downers, and aphrodisiacs.

What does this tell us about the young counterculture? This is a generation with a lot of varied interests, even contradictory interests. Expanding of consciousness doesn’t seem as important to them as expanding of experience. They are drug dilettantes, dabbling in things that make them move fast as much as things that make them mellow. Mystical visions are okay, but tracers and lasers are just as cool. They refuse to be pigeonholed, but in doing so, they have little identity. They exist in a hollow, digitally enhanced echo chamber made of fruit-flavored nihilism.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rednecks & Aliens

by Francis Brodeur

Once again Alabama has put herself into the limelight of the world's stage, and once again, it's not for anything good. All over the national and international news, you will find discussions about the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act aka HB 56 aka "That Immigration Law." If there's one thing people on both sides agree on, it's that this is the strictest such law of any state in the nation. Among people with a grasp of the subject, there is also little debate that the law is unconstitutional and will eventually be found to be so in federal court.

So why did the freshly elected, first time in a century Republican majority legislature, act so quickly to jump on the trendy states' rights racial-scapegoating bandwagon of shame? Because it's what the people want! Not so long ago, people of the same ilk wanted racial segregation to be the law of the land; not too much further back, they wanted the right to own certain shades of people as property. Thank God we have a national constitution to make sure that the people don't always get what they want.

Strangely, these same folks who fight tooth and nail against the Constitutional separation of (their) Church and State claim that immigration isn't a moral issue at all; it's purely a matter of economics. How convenient to have that to fall back on when your fear-driven desires are in direct opposition to your religious dogma. That whole bit about loving your neighbors and forgiving trespassers is so old fashioned anyway. So if they want to talk numbers, let's talk numbers.

They took our jerbs!

Although Alabama has experienced a dramatic increase in undocumented immigrants over the past decade, it still has one of the lowest populations of them in the South—about 120,000 according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Of those people, about 95,000 are working, making up approximately 4.2% of the state's workforce. So if we can kick them out, that's 95,000 jobs for Alabama's legal residents, right? Not exactly. The presence of these 120,000 people is directly responsible for the creation of 18,000 jobs in Alabama according to a study by the Perryman Group. Those jobs simply disappear when the immigrants go.

And there's no questioning that these immigrants are willing to do the jobs that we are unwilling to do. Our neighbor Georgia's government determined that 11,000 agricultural jobs went unfilled this year due to similar laws going into effect there. They couldn't even get more than a handful of the thousands of unemployed convicts who were required to work as a condition of parole to take the jobs. Crops rotted, and are still rotting in the fields. Similar labor shortages are already being reported in Alabama in agriculture and construction. In response, proponents of HB 56 assure us that things will eventually balance out and return to normal. Tell that to the small farmers to whom one or two lost harvests means the end of their business. They already can't compete with industrial agriculture from out of state and overseas, this blow could mean the end for many small farms. And all this is coming at a time when Alabama's farmers were enjoying a rebirth of interest and support by the local market with new farmer's markets springing up all over the state.

They're leeching our prosperity!

Not according to a 2009 trade policy analysis by Peter B. Dixon and Maureen T. Rimmer of the very libertarian CATO Institute. It's en vogue for conservatives today to style themselves free-market libertarians, bur that's only when it doesn't offend their xenophobic sensibilities. The study found that tightening up the borders to restrict the immigration of undocumented low-skilled laborers and increasing enforcement within the borders would lead to a loss of $80 billion in US household wealth. In contrast, allowing even more low-skilled workers and legalizing all of them would increase American household wealth by $180 billion. Both of these figures were arrived at after subtracting all of the public expenditures they incur.

If you want to talk about leeching off of the prosperity of others, let's talk about the citizens of Alabama, who receive far more Federal funds than they pay into the system. Alabama is undeniably a welfare state, taking wealth out of prosperous states and giving very little in return (we suppose American Idol finalists have to count for something). According to a study by the non-partisan Tax Foundation, Alabama received $1.66 for every dollar of Federal tax paid in 2005. In contrast, New York received 79 cents back.

Speaking of taxes—these illegals aren't paying any! Or are they? The Immigration Policy Center estimates that at least 50% of undocumented workers work on the books under false identities, paying into Social Security and other programs that they will never be able to collect on. In 2007 alone, undocumented workers contributed an estimated $12 billion to Social Security. At current levels, at least $407 billion will be contributed over the next 50 years according to the National Foundation for American Policy. Here in Alabama, undocumented workers contribute $130 million a year in income, property, and sales taxes. Remember, even those working under the table pay rent and buy almost all of their goods and services right here in this state. If they pack up and leave, the economy shrinks.

Jim Crow rears his ugly head?

If it's not about ethics, and it's not about the numbers, then what is really going on here? Mickey Hammon came right out and said that he intended for the bill to make unlawfully present aliens' lives so difficult that they will "deport themselves." What about the 65,000 Alabama Latinos that are citizens or otherwise legal residents, and the 5,000 a year who become eligible to apply for citizenship? Should they just put up with the authorized racial profiling, discrimination, and government sanctioned racism for the greater good? This is purely and simply pinning the blame for society's ills on a small (3%) and disempowered minority. It sure is easier than working on real solutions to problems caused by one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation, a rotten and racist state constitution, and a largely failed educational system.

Why not put some of those free market principles that conservatives are so enamored with to the test and open up Alabama's labor market to whomever is willing to work here? Welcoming new residents and filling up low-skill labor positions with low-skilled workers will only expand the economy, create more and better jobs, and allow skilled and educated Alabamians to fill positions at their level of qualification for a change.

Artist Creates Drawings with HIV Positive Blood

by Stephen Smith

Alabama-born Robert Sherer is an internationally renowned artist who has represented the US in the Triennale de Paris, the Florence Biennale, and numerous other exhibitions throughout the country and the world. Sherer spent much of his career painting beautiful and haunting figures in a masterful style and later moved on to producing purposely-kitsch pyrography (wood burnings) and then began drawings with blood.

Some of the blood the artist uses is from himself and some comes from an HIV positive friend. Much of Sherer’s work focuses on the male figure. This, along with the blood drawings, has generated considerable controversy. His work has been censored on several occasions, including once in 1994 by a (now-defunct) commercial art gallery in Birmingham. In that case, the gallery had issues with Sherer’s nude male paintings, which any reasonable person would consider sober and conservative. The artist placed the male figures in traditional female poses, which makes the controversy even more absurd and highlights the message that Sherer was obviously trying to get across.

In an interview with Sherer, the artist shared his thoughts on art, philosophy, and the Birmingham art scene

BFP: Did you feel you needed to leave Alabama in order to pursue your artistic career?
RS: Yes, but not just for my art career. At the time I was a burgeoning leftist, homosexual, and punk rock atheist artist. From 1974-79, I spent a lot of time in Birmingham searching for my tribe before realizing that they were not to be found. The counter culture scene, the visual arts scene, and the academic art scene were all really complacent at that time. The gay scene was the worst; it was like some Joe McCarthy wet dream where paranoia reigned supreme. The brute force unleashed by the city upon the black community for their resistance was still very fresh in the minds of the gay community.

Somehow in the blur that was the late 1970s, I did find some of my tribe one evening at a Patti Smith concert at Brothers Music Hall in Homewood, but they turned out to be cool kids from Atlanta who made the drive to see Patti. Upon meeting them I began plotting my course toward the capitol of GA.

BFP: Why do you imagine there is still a stigma associated with the male nude?
RS: The stigma exists because most men can’t handle the fact that the sight of the male nude sexually excites them. The feelings they experience contradict their heterosexual programming and thus threaten their sense of well-being. There are several studies indicating that homophobic reactions and homosexual desires are inversely proportional.
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

BFP: Do you believe that your experience at Walker College in Jasper was substantially different from your later studies in more traditional art schools like Rhode Island School of Design?
RS: Comparatively, my experience at Walker College in Jasper proved itself to be superior to most of education at larger universities. I was very fortunate to be embraced by two remarkable mentors at that small school: Hank West and London Bridges (yes, that is her real name). These two took me under wing and provided me with many intellectual pursuits and cultural experiences. Hank taught me how to survive as a gay man in the South, and London taught me how to be an artist. She gave me my first ever art show in Birmingham, and it put stars in my eyes. These two gay mentors created a magical curriculum for me.

BFP: As craftsmanship plays such a vital role in your work, did you find that places like RISD aided this aspect of your development or did you basically have to teach yourself to draw and paint?
RS: My father instilled a sense of craft in me at any early age. Most of what I know about the technical aspects of art making I learned via observation and mimicry. The only thing of value that RISD gave me was social connections into the New York art scene.

BFP: How is the Birmingham art scene perceived from the Atlanta area, if at all?
RS: To be perfectly honest, during my thirty-two years in the Atlanta art scene, few people have ever mentioned Birmingham in any context other than the famous black church bombing and its revisitation by Eric Robert Rudolph. Last year, however, the RACE*SEX*POLITICS*RELIGION* (what not to talk about) exhibition at Space One Eleven caused some talk around Atlanta due to the fact that several well-known artists were in the show. Yes, I was among them but I had great reservations due to my history of having been censored in Birmingham.

BFP: Do you feel growing up in a small town in Alabama has influenced your art?
RS: Yes, my upbringing in the rural South gave me a deeply-felt appreciation for the land and for history. It also provided me with beautiful settings for my awakening as a gay man. I dare say that my American Pyrography series of art works wouldn’t even exist were it not for the memories of my youth in Jasper, Alabama.

Information about Robert Sherer can be found at

BLOOD WORKS: the Sanguine Art of Robert Sherer
Art Book Publication

In the fall of 2012, the Kennesaw State University Press will publish an art book on the subject of Sherer’s Blood Works series. The book, tentatively titled Blood Works: the Sanguine Art of Robert Sherer, will be approximately 150 pages in length with 50 color plates of artworks.

Several notables from the art world are contributing to the book: contemporary art historian Dr. Dinah McClintock has written the primary essay for the book, noted author and feminist historian Helena Reckitt has interviewed the artist, Sherer has written a chapter of Artist’s Commentary and artist Matt Haffner photographed the original artworks for the book plates.

There is a chapter of the book called Artist's Commentary. Here is the text about the piece shown to the right.

Trojan Bouquet, Blood Solution (Gay Male HIV- and HIV+) on Paper, 27" x 20"

A safe sex bouquet about personal protection for circuit party boys. Initially, I was playing with the simple association of the brand name of Trojan condoms with the ancient Trojans. I am intrigued by the idea that the Trojans were destroyed because they let down their guard and allowed themselves to be penetrated by a magnificent animal with hidden dangers. The scene of reclining party boys with their phallic-shaped pillows I copied verbatim from an actual Greek vase.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Birmingham Characters: Bob Tedrow of Homewood Musical Instruments

by M. David Hornbuckle

Bob Tedrow feigns horror that a 2001 Birmingham News article once called him an "eccentric," but it's clear that he gets delight from the moniker. Every day, he drives a 1928 Model A Ford to work, and passersby are likely to notice the car before they notice the quaint music shop it adorns. "It's like a museum," Tedrow says of his car. "It has its own voice—the sound of the gears, the smell of the gas. I have to carry a tool kit of course. And you don't really drive it. You operate it. Everything has to be done manually. Nothing is automated."

Tedrow says he hopes to continue operating that Model A until it's at least a hundred years old. He says, "The car will make it. I don't know if I will." He jokes that the car and his trusty old workbench are like the Oscar Wilde's picture of Dorian Gray. "They grow old while I remain ever youthful."

He has an unabashed love for anything related to the 1920s and '30s because he associates the period with his grandparents, who were also musicians. Tedrow plays multiple instruments, including banjo, ukulele, guitar, clarinet, flute, saxophone, accordion, and concertina. He's particularly interested in depression era ukuleles and Victorian concertinas. In fact, he's one of only six people in the United States who build concertinas. Each concertina takes about 40-50 hours of labor, he says. His website includes a tutorial video for those brave and crafty enough to try and build one themselves.

As a teenager in Colorado, Tedrow built his first banjo. He immediately started playing with a bluegrass band. He met his wife, Klari, in college when she inquired about taking banjo lessons. The couple moved to Birmingham in 1986 when she enrolled in law school. He opened an instrument repair workshop behind Fretted Instruments in Homewood, and in 1989 he opened his own shop, at the Central Avenue location where it remains to this day.

Tedrow has taught himself to repair many different types of instruments over the years. He now shares his work bench with a promising young luthier named Jason Burns. "Fortunately, most people smart enough to do this kind of work are usually smart enough to go ahead and get a real job," he says about Burns. "That narrows the field down to a dedicated few who like to do this." (Note: in our research, we found that he said exactly same thing about himself in a 1988 interview. "Seriously," he adds, "Jason is a genius. His craftsmanship now surpasses my own."

Lately, Tedrow has become obsessed with mandolins and period guitar styles (from the 1920s and 1930s, naturally). He doesn't perform in public much anymore, but he does do occasional shows at elementary schools, usually at the request of his children or grandchildren. He says, "I'm good in the living room for about an hour. You can't tell me from a real great musician. But I'm not a great musician. I just have tenacity." He's made that comment to a few other interviewers too. Fittingly for Bob Tedrow, some nuggets are just so good, you always find yourself coming back to them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Queen of Birmingham Burlesque

by M. David Hornbuckle

When Jezabelle von Jane moved to Birmingham five years ago, something was missing. In the Northeast, the burlesque revival had been growing for at least a decade, but nobody was doing it in Birmingham. So she took matters into her own hands and created the Magick City Sirens. Later, she also founded a male burlesque group, the Billy Club.

Burlesque shouldn't be confused with the type of exotic dancing or stripping you would see at the Furnace or Sammy's. Burlesque is, in fact, a very old tradition in the entertainment industry, having first become popular in the 1860s. Typically, it features broad comedy, music, and dancing, as well as artful striptease. In its modern interpretation, it may include performance art in many forms.

The strip tease is certainly still a part of it though. Von Jane was actually introduced to burlesque when she was working as an exotic dancer in Boston as a college student. "Someone came up to me and said, 'You dance really well, and you're really funny. The [Local burlesque troupe] Boston Baby Dolls may be interested in you.' So I went and auditioned. They took me under their wing. And that's how it started. I got the bug, and once you get the burlesque bug, there's no getting rid of it. It's like herpes. It's there forever."

Von Jane's Magick City Sirens do a good bit of travelling to other cities in the Southeast, and they have performed alongside local troupes in Atlanta, Huntsville, and Nashville, among others. According to von Jane, each troupe approaches burlesque in a unique way. For example, she loves the Pink Box Burlesque troupe based in Tuscaloosa, but, she says, Pink Box does more 1940s style burlesque while her Sirens are more influenced by Vaudeville and do more gender-bending types of performances.

The Sirens also change their theme and focus frequently. This year, they have been focused on appealing to the gay community in Birmingham, performing with drag queens at Al's on Seventh in the Lakeview district. Their theme this year, von Jane says, is "Glamour and Broadway."

"I haven't quite decided what I want to do for next year," von Jane says, "but I want to shake things up. We don't replicate shows. Once we do a show, it goes into a vault."

At a recent performance, the mother of one of the Sirens was in the audience. Von Jane says this is not unusual. "I'm very close to the parents of my girls when the girls are very young," she says. "I encourage them to come down and see what we do because I'm very proud of what we do. They see it, and they love it." Two of the troupe members' mothers even help the group with costumes. Von Jane's father has even performed with her in one of her routines.

Von Jane herself has kids. She does say that it's important to keep work and family separate. "When your husband is the lead singer of [local hard rock band] Selling Mary, and you are the burlesque queen of Birmingham, it's very important to keep these things separated."

If women (or men) are interested in learning more about the art of burlesque, von Jane encourages them to contact her about classes. She says, "If someone wants lessons, all they have to do is contact me on Facebook and ask me. I do private lessons as well as formal lessons. I like to do private lessons for those who are a little shy because it doesn't make any sense for you to come in a pay me if you are going to be insecure about yourself. I've found it's easier for a lot of women if it's just me and them. I can learn about them and what they are looking to do for themselves."

To find out about upcoming shows, go to:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hail the Snail

by Lee Waites

Recently the tulotoma snail, native to the Alabama and Coosa Rivers, was promoted from the "endangered" list all the way up to merely "threatened." The tulotoma snail was formerly known as the Alabama live-bearing snail because it bears live young as opposed to laying an egg sack. It is found only in Alabama.

Dredging of the Alabama River, beginning in the 1880s, started the change in the snails' habitat. Then the addition of locks and dams used for hydropower and navigation further impounded the snail population, cutting groups of snails off from one another and changing the structure of their environment. The dams and locks also reduced the flow of water affecting oxygenation, silt content, and other factors that are required by the snail to thrive.

Over-silting and increased water temperature, both affected by damming, are a problem for the snails, who like a fast moving, cool environment. That's why we at the Birmingham Free Press can identify with them . . . So do we.

On the historic day of January 8, 1991, at 8:45 AM, at once celebrated and mourned by all tulotoma snail lovers, and all tulotoma snails, the report was filed. Bruce Blanchard of the US Fish and Wildlife Service filed the report in the Federal Register, placing the snails into the endangered category.

Who cares, right? It's snails. We need our motor boats and hydro-electric power. Archeological finds suggest that Native Americans valued the ornate shells of the tulotoma for trade. Where’s the use in that? Of course we now understand that true value lies in shiny metals, green paper, and plastic cards.

So why value a snail? Many an educated, caring, and knowledgeable person might smirk at this question. I'm not talking to you!

If, in your mind, there is any question that the actions of humans affect wildlife then you need look no further than these tiny snails. "Why this tone?" one might ask. Well, people have been trying to explain to other people how the world works for as long as we have been talking, and probably before that. We have heretofore failed with many. So I'm keeping it simple. Everything on this planet has a purpose. Don't be stupid.
Snails eat little floating things in the water, by sifting. Then things eat snails. Then them things get et’ by other things, and so on and so forth. It's lots of things—snails, frogs, fish, bees. It's called nature. And it's called eatin'. That's a big part of livin'. We all need to eat. Each one of these things is getting killed by some different human activity. Humans are locked up in the chain too. If you require a selfish answer, it will eventually affect you . . . but for now, let’s keep it simple; it's snails.

To illustrate how sensitive the environment can be, the small thing that helped the tulotoma snail inch back into the "threatened" category was a slight adjustment to the flow rates at several Alabama Power dams. This returned the water to a more hospitable environment for the snails. Thus they began to repopulate the areas where these adjustments were made.

Effective July 5, 2011 the USFWS has determined that the tulotoma snail can once again be classified as merely "threatened."

Congratulations to Alabama Power, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alabama Clean Water Partnership, the Man who turns the Knob in the Dam, and most of all, the many tulotoma snails who snuggle on the bottom of their rocks in the fast moving water, smiling with hope for a better future. Everything is OK now.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Friday on My Mind

by M. David Hornbuckle

Once a month, several local DJs get together at Woodrow Hall to spin their favorite old school R&B and Soul records. People of all ages come out to the party, many dressed in stylish retro garb, to dance the night away.

Friday on My Mind was started last year by former roommates Jason Grover and J. David Black. Grover says, "We were both into collecting old records, and we used to have dance parties at our place with our friends, and we loved it. We thought it would be a great idea if we could throw a dance party somewhere else and invite the whole city." And so they began the search for venue. Eventually, Grover moved into another apartment, which happened to be owned by Andrew Morrow. He went to Woodrow Hall to sign his lease. After taking a look around, he knew he'd found exactly the place he was looking for.

Typically, the party starts at 8pm and runs until about 1am. They usually feature 4-5 DJs who each do an hour-long set. The Magnolia Room of Woodrow Hall provides an elegant but unpretentious dancehall setting. The spacious dance floor allows ample boogying room. Tables draped in white line the perimeter, providing comfortable seating while you rest between dances or work up the courage to partner up with a stranger. The venue includes a cash bar, which also helps with that "work up the courage" thing.

The next Friday on My Mind will be on Friday, September 30. For more information go to

Woodrow Hall Brings New Life to Woodlawn

by M. David Hornbuckle

A few years ago, if you drove up First Avenue North from downtown up to 55th Street, you would have seen garbage on the street, depressed buildings, and few people. What was once a vibrant neighborhood in Birmingham had lost much of its luminescence. Once-beautiful historic buildings had fallen into disrepair.

The old Masonic Temple at 5504 First Avenue North was one of those buildings, at least until 2004 when the building was purchased by Community Property Development. During renovations, they began to uncover the layers that had hidden this great piece of Birmingham history for decades.

In 2008, business partners Tazmine Morton-Stephens and Andrew Morrow bought it and began additional renovations. Morton-Stephens and Morrow have transformed the building into Woodrow Hall, featuring two large multi-purpose reception halls on the second and third floors. The owners rent out additional space in the building to a doctor’s office, a lawyer’s office, and the Desert Island Supply Company—an organization that arranges writing workshops and tutoring for area youth.

The building was erected in 1914 and used by the Masons off and on until about 2005. “There were a lot of secrets here,” Morton-Stephens says, “and ghosts too. During a consultation with a bride, the client's florist said he could sense a spirit by the name of Joshua. He assured me that he was a friendly spirit who used to work on the floor below years ago. He mentioned that he was carrying a case with a cross on it. I was totally freaked, but, with a building this old, there must be dozens of stories . . . We’re thinking about doing an event here for Halloween.”

The partners bought the building because they are very interested in revitalization of the Woodlawn neighborhood. Morton-Stephens says, "It’s actually our main goal. We’re hoping that with us being here, the neighborhood will be more attractive to other business owners. And we’re hoping that people who left this area years ago will want to return." They named the building Woodrow Hall after a prominent philanthropic family that had lived in the Woodlawn neighborhood during its halcyon days. "The Woodrows live in Crestview now. They’ve been very supportive of what we’ve been doing," she says.

Although the bread-and-butter business of Woodrow Hall is weddings and receptions, Morton-Stephens says she is very interested in hosting all types of events. Already, a monthly retro dance party called "Friday on My Mind" has found its home at Woodrow Hall. Local band the Delicate Cutters held a CD-release party at the hall this past summer. “People really enjoy going to see live music at a venue that isn’t a loud, smoky bar,” Morton-Stephens says.

More music and alternative events are scheduled in the coming months.

See for more information about the venue.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Circumcision Debate Finally Comes to America

by Stephen Smith

When the city of San Francisco tried to outlaw circumcision this summer, a Superior Court ruling struck it down, declaring that regulating medical procedures was a state and not a local matter. Much of Europe has moved towards outlawing or severely restricting circumcision. As California is often the first place progressive trends fester in the US, one can expect the controversy to escalate over the next few years. Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics nor the American Medical Association recommends routine circumcision, and there is a growing opposition to the procedure.

In the past few decades a slew of data has raised questions about the medical benefits of the practice. However, a large percentage of the population has a vested interest in justifying what is basically a religious ritual.

There is some evidence that circumcision can help prevent penile cancer, but according to the Harvard Medical School it is little more effective than soap and water. Furthermore, penile cancer is rare, occurring in fewer than .0001% of men, and hardly justifies a procedure that comes with a much higher complication rate. Around 117 infants die a year in the US from problems related to circumcision.

New reports have come out of South Africa from the Bophelo Pele Medical Male Circumcision Centre claiming that circumcision can reduce HIV transmission from female to male partners by 76%. The idea is that Langerhans cells concentrated in the foreskin help incubate the virus. This could also be used as an argument for female circumcision because Langerhans cells are also present in the clitoris and labia.

Circumcision in American is a twentieth century phenomenon and gained popularity as an anti-masturbation measure. At the end of the nineteenth century the majority of male babies weren’t circumcised, but by the 1970s the rate had risen to 94% in the US. By 2007, a relatively small backlash movement brought the rate down to 79%, which is still high and an anomaly in the industrialized world. Canada for instance has a circumcision rate of 9% according to a 2005 report from the Institute of Health Information. In Spain it is 2%, Denmark is 1.7%, and Mexico is 10%-30% varying by region.

Some Muslim countries like Pakistan and Iran come close to a 100% circumcision rate. It is considered a part of the Fitrah, which includes trimming the mustache, snuffing water up the nose, plucking the hair under the armpit and shaving the pubic hairs. In Judaism circumcision is YHWH’s covenant with Abraham and the number of procedures performed in Israel is over 90%. The Christian church doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. The practice predates any modern religions. It was certainly practiced in ancient Egypt and probably long before.

Other popular forms of male genital modification include infibulation, sewing or piercing the foreskin shut, and penile subincision, which is basically slicing the penis down the middle like a sausage on the grill. Infibulation was popular during Greco-Roman times and even in Western Europe until the 19th century and subincision is still common in many cultures, particularly in Australia. Be sure to do a Google image search on subincision—you will not be disappointed.

Female circumcision is universally deplored outside of the few areas, mostly in central Africa, that practice it. Few realize that what we now commonly refer to as female genital mutilation was routinely practiced in the US until the 1970s as a cure for lesbianism, hysteria, and erotomania. Congress only outlawed female circumcision in 1996 for girls under the age of 18.

It seems inevitable that rates of infant circumcision in the US will continue to decline. There is no scientific justification for it. Infants are not engaging in dangerous sexual behavior that would result in HIV. If an 18-year-old wants to get circumcised that is his choice. The operation is known to reduce sexual pleasure and the psychological effects of taking the knife to a newborn’s John Thomas are immeasurable. As always, the religious justifications for ancient traditions will have to be put aside in light of modern, secular ethics.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Just Google It

by Ian Hoppe

“Just Google it.” This imperative has become the expected response when the common unknown query is posed. And not just when you want to find out Barrack Obama’s favorite brand of chewing gum or the best method of giving your pet gerbil a Mohawk. Closely tied to Google maps is a reviews service. In case you weren’t aware, when you search Google Maps for a company on your smart phone or home computer a page appears with their address, phone number, as well as an option to look at customer reviews.

Of course, this service is not specific to Google. There are several other sites that have business reviews available: Yelp, citysearch, and Epinions being among them. The problem I am about to describe is not specific to Google reviews, nor am I making the argument that Google reviews is superior, because it isn’t. However, a site of this kind where the amount of content is important to accuracy, it is best if everyone agree on an option. I am going to argue that we should use Google for three reasons: 1) We already use Google for everything else 2) They have a good history of keeping up with businesses, maps, and are constantly implementing new features in all of their platforms and 3) They are going to rule the world one day. Deal with it.

In its genesis, I used to frequent this option in helping me make decisions on where to eat, where to take my dog, etc. But in the last couple of years it has become less of a resource for honest evaluations from past patrons, and more of a battle field for public perception.

Like almost every other positive outlet on the internet, it has become a forum in which people attempt to out-crazy one another in the form of wildly exaggerated and abusive reviews. With the ALMIGHTY CAPS LOCK at their disposal, the customers from hell attempt to singlehandedly dismantle the reputation of a company by systematically posting one horror story after another.

We have all seen these folks before. They are the person who feigns an epileptic fit when a rogue hair finds its way onto their plate. You know the type. Previously, (i.e. the entire history of commerce up until the advent of the internet) these people were considered outliers and had little influence on our opinion of an establishment. But now, through this pseudo-anonymous forum, people like this have a significant impact, given the vacuum of other opinions.

Business owners, having their reputations slandered by this very loud minority of customers, developed a need for positive reviews. Enter online reputation managers. You may have heard about these groups on the television or radio, they are hired by a company to not only monitor public data on the internet, but also to go to war with the crazies I described above, with vague, innocuous positive reviews as their weapon of choice.

You see, since none of these review sites allow for the deletion of bad reviews by the company and most people only read the first few reviews, the company keeps the negative reviews ‘bumped’ back in the queue by posting formless and obviously fake reviews like, “This company is great!” This kind of review is even less helpful than the others. The combination of these renders review sites utterly unusable.

Here is my two part solution:

  1. All of the crazies (you know who you are) should take a breather and a valium before they criticize a business for a single lapse in service or product.
  2. Everyone who operates in the marketplace should write reviews. Especially in the event of a good experience. Maybe then we can get rid of these awful manufactured reviews made by the accounts of non-existent people. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the Beginning was Beorma

by Lee Waites

In the beginning, was Beorma.

Beorma, surely a magnificent man, was a chieftain in sixth century England, the leader of a tribe, or as they were known then, the leader of an “Ing.”

This tribe of Beorma's lived in a settlement northwest of modern London in the area now known as the Midlands. This was their home, or as it was pronounced at the time, their “ham.” 

Just try it once. Imagine you're wearing a funny hat, like those worn in, say, a play you've seen by William Shakespeare, or an old Robin Hood movie. Hold your finger up waving in a funny gesture, and say home in your best British accent. Tell me it isn't “ham.” 

So there you have it, quick and simple, the home of the people of Beorma, the ham of the ing of Beorma =  Birmingham. 

Birmingham, England came to prominence as a center of trade, mostly dealing metal armaments. It was conveniently located near existing trade routes and surrounded by the minerals needed to make their wares: iron, coal, timber and an ample supply of water. Sound familiar?

Birmingham, England was also fairly liberal with their trade regulations, allowing for the rapid growth of business. Utilizing its centralized location, Birmingham became the dominant economic force in the Midlands, producing many smithies and metalworking shops which went on to trade throughout England. You can begin to understand what the founders of our city were thinking. 

Birmingham, England is also home to the now defunct Birmingham Free Press, not to be confused with our beloved and thriving paper, but one which came long after we began, founded by a wealthy British news mogul who, by the way, contacted us only after he had begun production of his Birmingham Free Press to mention how funny it was that he was publishing under the same name we had long been using. We at the original, the real, and the still active Birmingham Free Press enjoy all sorts of humor. We especially enjoy jokes about the lack of staying power of wealthy, British news moguls. Ha!

Birmingham, England has a long, vibrant and proud history which you should check out at the same place where I got most of this information, And I can’t fail to mention that Birmingham, England also produced music legends Black Sabbath and Judas Priest! In fact, it's often called the birthplace of heavy metal music. Rock on! Oh yeah…and also Duran Duran. 

Here are some other interesting facts about our fair city's name:
  • Birmingham, England has the nickname "Brum." People from Birmingham, England are hence known as "Brummies."
  • There are actually 22 other cities named Birmingham in the United States.
  • There are even more Birminghams in Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • There is also a crater on the moon named Birmingham Crater #357. It is named after a famous astronomer, John Birmingham, who discovered a star, which he also named after himself. Birmingham crater, incidentally, lies in a larger crater, named Hell.
  • There are 154 legal Scrabble words that can be spelled using the letters in Birmingham.
  • I just always thought it was a mispronunciation of “burning ham.”

Friday, August 5, 2011

Birmingham Characters: Bhamwiki Founder, John Morse

by M. David Hornbuckle

The bio page for John Morse, aka Dystopos on, links to an article in The Onion titled, "Area Man Way Too into Local County History." Indeed it is uncanny how much the subject of this satirical article actual resembles Morse, who founded the local wiki website in 2006.
After five years, Bhamwiki currently contains more than 8,300 articles, and though there are 332 registered users, Morse writes and updates many of the articles himself. "There is one other guy who writes almost as much as me, and another guy who mostly fixes my typos," Morse says. A handful of other contributors have come and gone over time, but Morse is by far the primary contributor. According to Wikipedia, Bhamwiki is the seventh largest local wiki in the world and is only behind Davis,California in U.S. local wikis. The other big ones are in Germany, Austria, and Spain.
"I have to credit my mom," Morse says about how he first became interested in local history. During Spring break when he was growing up in Vestavia, instead of going to the beach, Morse's mother took him to local sites such as Ave Maria Grotto, the Southern Museum of Flight, and Rickwood Caverns. He also got some of his documentarian tendencies from her. Whenever she heard that a building was being torn down, she would take the camera out of the closet and go photograph it.
Later, while studying architecture at Tulane, Morse came across a history of Birmingham, written in 1887 when the city was only seventeen years old. "All the principles were interviewed," he said. And though the book mostly consisted of boosterism and racist propaganda, he was fascinated. "I think I kept checking it out for six months or so." He then wrote a thesis entitled "Recasting the Model Village" and was situated in the former mining town of Docena, which furthered his interest in all local history.
Along the line, Morse became interested in Wikipedia and contributed to a few articles about the subjects that were of interest to him. He liked the wiki concept because it is a living document. "I'm not good at finishing things," he says. "And a wiki is never really finished. It's always growing." He soon discovered, however, that he couldn't reasonably go into the level of detail he wanted to on Wikipedia, so he had the idea to start a local version. At this point, the two sites have a symbiotic relationship. A lot of Bhamwiki articles started as Wikipedia articles, he says, and vice versa.
It keeps him busy. He notes that the more things he documents, the more things he starts to notice that also should be documented. He would like at some point for a person to be able to walk down Highland Avenue and be able to read about everything he sees on Bhamwiki. "That would make a good iPhone app," he says.
Some of the articles require frequent attention to stay up to date. One article that Morse keeps up on a weekly basis is on Birmingham homicide statistics. He tracks of all the cases that are documented in the newspaper, and he lists pertinent facts for each incident on the wiki. He also does his best to keep a running tab of which ones have had arrests, which have had convictions, and which remain unsolved. "I met a retired homicide detective, and he told me this was better than anything they had at the department," he says.
   is a remarkable resource for anyone interested in local history.