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.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Church Leaders Call Alabama's Tough Anti-Immigration Law Anti-Christian

Alabama's Draconian anti-immigration law, considered by experts to be the toughest in the country, goes into effect September 1. It already faces numerous court challenges from the U.S. Justice Department, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the ACLU. A few days ago, Birmingham's police chief criticized the law, saying it put an unfair burden on the police force. And now several religious leaders in the state have come together with yet another lawsuit. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi, of Mobile, Alabama, in a letter to area Catholics, said that the new law would make “the exercise of our Christian religion” illegal.

Many religious leaders feel that stringent requirements of the new law will put serious limits on their charitable activities toward area undocumented workers, which they see as an essential aspect of practicing Christianity.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jumping at the Carver: A Local Landmark Lives On

By Burgin Mathews

Everybody who lives in Birmingham should try to spend some time at the Carver Theater. Though it is one of our city’s greatest gems, it’s a space regrettably unknown to many locals. Situated on the corner of Fourth Avenue North and Seventeenth Street, the Carver represents the best of Birmingham, expressed through a rich mix of music, theater, history, and heritage. It's not only a link to our past; it is a living testament to who we are and to who we can be.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Fourth Avenue was the heart of Birmingham’s flourishing black business district. Responding to the era’s Jim Crow restrictions, black Birminghamians created a thriving stretch of independent businesses: hotels, fraternal organizations, barber and beauty shops, retail stores, and—most memorably—a jumping, vibrant nightlife. The Masonic Temple leant its stage to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and others; across the street, Bob’s Savoy offered drinks, dining, and music to a wide mix of steelworkers, coalminers, civic leaders, and Black Baron baseball players. Then, too, there were the theaters—the 1920s saw the birth of the Frolic, the Famous, and the Champion—where patrons could watch the latest movies or take in the region’s most popular vaudeville acts.

Opening its own doors in 1935, the Carver became the preeminent venue for black audiences in Birmingham to catch first-run movies. The space underwent major renovations in 1945, and, while other theaters in the district began shutting their doors, the Carver stayed strong. But in the years after integration—as the black business community dispersed, as hard times hit Fourth Avenue, and as small downtown theaters suffered all over the country—the theater faltered. After long years of struggle and decline, the Carver finally called it quits in the 1980s.

In the fall of 1993 the Carver was reinvented in its current form: as the Carver Performing Arts Center, home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. The city’s rich jazz heritage, beautifully documented in the two-story museum, runs deep: for decades, Birmingham produced an army of musicians who fed the ranks of the nation’s biggest bands. Musician and educator J.L. Lowe, teaming with city leaders Richard Vann and Richard Arrington, re-imagined the abandoned Carver as a means of honoring the legacy of those musicians; as the city pursued plans for its Civil Rights Institute, the idea of the Hall of Fame developed as a kind of “little brother” to that museum, its counterpart and musical complement. Registered today as a non-profit institution, the center continues and builds upon its original vision.

The Carver offers a range of programs and events, including live concerts, plays, and poetry slams, film screenings, and workshops. The annual Student Jazz Band Festival brings to the Carver stage elementary, high school, and college students from across the state and beyond. Most significantly, perhaps, the Carver pursues its mission of education and community services through its free Saturday jazz lessons, while its instrument recycling program puts instruments in the hands of young players.

For most visitors, the first, best way to get to know the Carver is to take a tour, guided by local legend “Doc” Frank Adams. A consummate performer more than active in his eighties, Adams has shared the stage with Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and many others; a tireless and passionate educator, he has left a profound impact on decades’ worth of Birmingham musicians. His tour—for five dollars, one of the absolute best deals this city has to offer—is peppered with his own lively anecdotes of music in the Magic City.

Though the Hall of Fame remains open and active with its tours and lessons, the theater space is currently undergoing another round of extensive renovations as it gears up for its upcoming season, to be kicked off with a grand reopening in October. To learn more, to schedule a tour, or to rent the facility for your own event, visit, or contact Executive Director Leah Tucker: (205) 254-2731;

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sipsey Tavern Closes

Last Friday night, a local watering hole opened its doors for the last time. Sipsey Tavern, in the old Bailey's Pub space behind Dave's, on the corner of Highland Avenue and 12th Avenue South, had become a haven for local musicians and service industry professionals. Many patrons considered it to be the only authentic Irish pub in Birmingham, as well as one of the best places to see up-and-coming bands who were not yet popular enough to play larger venues such as the Nick and the Bottletree.

Earlier this year, Red Mountain Development informed Matt Mauldlin, the owner of Sipsey Tavern, that his lease in the historic Terrace Court building would not be renewed. The lease is now expired as of July 31. Red Mountain Development did not return our messages about their plans for the space.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Mauldin has not yet settled on a location or a time frame for re-opening the bar.

Southside Rapist Still on the Loose

A man who is suspected of breaking into several Southside apartment buildings before sexually assaulting a woman in her apartment on 13th Avenue South has still not been captured by police. However, police have released a sketch of the suspect. He is described as a black male in his twenties, five foot nine, and about 180 pounds.

Anyone with information about the identity of this suspect is asked to call the Birmingham police at 205-328-9311 or Crimestoppers at 205-254-7777.