Monday, December 28, 2009

New Orleans Wrap-up

Click here to see more of the pictures I took.

I need to reiterate the insanity of cars being let into the French Quarter. On Saturday night the Quarter was predictably packed with people. And at every intersection there was a traffic jam. The police were out in numerous places trying to direct traffic. What were all these people doing driving around the FQ? There’s no place to park near the restaurants and bars. The FQ is small enough that you can park on the outside and walk anywhere in it.

Here’s a picture that captures the extreme narrow dimensions of the shotgun homes. I really would have liked to see the inside of one to see what the layout was like.

From peering down into the alleys and over some of the fences, it's clear that many people have impressively large yards.

Overall, it was a good trip. My only criticism of New Orleans as a tourist destination is that it lacks an anchor tourist attraction -- there's no major museum or cultural site. Even a relatively small city like Philadelphia has numerous attractions that you could spend hours in, such as: The Art Museum, Independence Hall area, UPenn Museum, The Philadelphia Orchestra, etc. The biggest thing is the French Quarter, which after 3 days, I'm ready for new scenery.

The next time I go I’m not going to stay in the FQ. The Garden District seems like the ideal place to stay: the area restaurants are better, prices are lower, you don’t get raped on the parking (all the FQ lots started at $20 for 24 hours with no in-out), and the trolley will get you downtown and into the FQ in 10 minutes (and it only costs $1.25).

Tacky Picasa slideshow:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New Orleans: Day 3

I focused on museums today.

The first stop was the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, which is a museum dedicated to the early history of pharmaceutical drugs in America. Among the many facts I learned, was that when heroin was first introduced, the majority of addicts were women because they did not have a vice -- respectable women did not get drunk. As the museum put it, men would go out to bars to get plastered, and women would stay home and get high.

After that I went to the Louisiana State Museum. Housed in the Cabildo, the site of the Louisiana Purchase Transfer, its permanent exhibition is dedicated to the history of Louisiana from pre-colonization up through Reconstruction.

In the afternoon I decided to do something touristy and went to Cafe Du Monde. It's famous for its coffee and beignets -- fried dough covered with a cup of powdered sugar . The line moved incredibly slowly -- I waited 20 minutes. I could not understand what was taking so long because there are really only two things that you can order: coffee and/or beignets. When I got to the head of the line I found up what the hold up was. The Cafe sold something called "black coffee," that apparently no one had heard of before. Person after person asked, "what's in the black coffee?" I blame this on Starbucks.

I didn't think the coffee was anything special -- it was really pretty bland -- but the beignets were delicious. Only if there was a way to combine bacon with them.

Friday, December 25, 2009

New Orleans: Day 2

Today I went to the Lower Ninth Ward to check out the "Brad Pitt Homes" -- homes built by his Make It Right Foundation. The New York Times recently ran an article on them.

I decided to skip paying for the bus tour of the Ward -- it's $35 and the reviews were highly iffy.

The houses are very cool; they all have an avant-garde look, but because different architects designed the homes, there is lots of variety.

The Times articles says the homes have been criticized for placing form over function -- had the destroyed homes been replaced with the same style of shotgun homes, many more homes could be built for the same money as the Pitt homes. The shotgun homes are hideous. When you build a neighborhood that looks like a ghetto, it's going to become a ghetto. People do not have any pride in where they live; they do not take care of the neighborhood. Pitt's homes are all clustered together; despite the barren landscape that surrounds them, the cluster looks like a warm and inviting place to live. It's a clever way to reinvent the neighborhood.

As for the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward, it was pretty desolate. It looks like most of the debris has been cleared. There are still some dilapidated homes that have yet to be torn down, but the landscape is mostly populated with empty lots where houses used to be.

There were some other white people driving around in cars doing the same thing as me, but none of them got out of their cars (even though I had my car, I took the bus there so I would have to walk -- I thought that was the best way to get the full experience).

After the Ninth Ward, I took the bus, then the trolly to the Garden District to see the homes of the rich.

The neighborhood lives up to its name -- there are trees and plants all over the place -- and the homes are very impressive. There were a lot of other people out looking at the homes -- with most things closed on Christmas, I guess this was one of the only activities to do today.

For lunch I found a sushi place -- Montgomery doesn't have much sushi (at least nothing I would eat), so I haven't had any since I left Philadelphia in October. I used the opportunity to stock up. I ordered a 18 piece sashimi tray. The sushi chef thought I was nuts. He kept telling me that the tray was meant for two people. Before he started making it he wanted to confirm that I really wanted all of that fish.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New Orleans: Day 1

I spent most of the day walking around the French Quarter, enjoying that I was in a city that was walkable with sidewalks. The City has done such a good job of keeping 20th century buildings out of the Quarter that the whole place has a foreign feel to it.

Bourbon Street is the PG-13 version of Amsterdam's Red Light District.

Bourbon Street: Strip Clubs.
Amsterdam: Live Sex Shows.

Bourbon Street: Women selling jello shots on the sidewalk.
Amsterdam: Drugs being sold all over the place and the air saturated with the smell of weed.

What's so American about the Quarter is that cars are allowed in it. Half the Quarter is essentially an outdoor mall with bars, restaurants and shops. Every European city that has something similar closes some or most of the streets off to traffic. It's crazy that they don't do this in the Quarter, and it's even crazier how reckless the drivers are in it.

Right outside of the Quarter is St. Louis Cemetery #1. I thought it is neat how vertical the cemetery was due to limited horizontal space (pictured below is a four person tomb tower). Apparently people would form societies so that they could pull there money to buy a large plot of land in the cemetery and then building a tall multi-tomb mausoleum.

The downtown area feels like a Northeast city with its many turn of the century brick and stone buildings.

I was surprised how much of a dump Canal St. is -- lots of cheap retail stores and fast food joints. For those familiar with Philadelphia, think Market Street between City Hall and 6th St.

One other complaint of the city: the streets are in horrible condition. It looks like the streets have not been repaved in at least 10 or 15 years. There are massive potholes and cracks everywhere. Where they have filled them in, often too much asphalt has been used leaving the road quite bumpy. Further, some of the streets are not asphalt but concrete slabs. These streets are totally deteriorating. Pedestrian street lights are also out all over the city.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New Orleans

I've been slow to post lately, but I'm in New Orleans for a few days, so I should have a lot of good material.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two observations

For whatever reason, paying by check is very popular down here. Every time I go to the supermarket I see at least one person pull out their check book to pay. It doesn't seem to be a race or socioeconomic thing -- a wide range of people do it. And it's a real pain in the ass because it holds the line up -- it takes a while for the cashier to process the check. Haven't these people heard of credit or debit cards? Maybe once every three years I would see someone pay for something at the register with a check in Philadelphia.

For a while now I've noticed that lots of people have water coolers on their porches. I finally found out that people keep bottles of beer in them -- I've observed people going out of their homes, removing a few bottles from the cooler, and going back inside.

This really doesn't make much sense since it's not cold outside. I guess I could understand doing it if you have a very small fridge, but it seems to be a common practice. I haven't asked anyone yet what the deal with this is in fear that there is a perfectly obvious logical explanation for why you should keep your beer outside in a cooler.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bacon + Chocolate

For an office potluck lunch I made bacon covered chocolate with sprinkles -- I figured that it was unusual and that people would get a kick out of it. About 90% of people were horrified and genuinely shocked when I told them what I made. One person gave me a look as if I told them that I had killed and skinned their child, then turned the skin into a human body suit, and fed the left overs to my dog Precious. The other 10% thought it was the greatest thing ever.

The shock from people was kinda ironic considering how everything down here is deep fried. My head is still spinning over deep fried Thanksgiving turkey.

The idea isn't exactly original, and the logic behind it is sound -- salt helps enhance the flavor of chocolate -- but I suppose it may be more of a recent Northern phenomenon to try and figure out a way to put bacon into everything.

Anyway, one suggest for people thinking of making this delicacy is don't put too much chocolate on the bacon. You can easily throw off the salt to chocolate ratio and smother the bacon flavor -- it ends up just tasting like regular chocolate. Sprinkles are key. Without them, the bacon looks like something that was fished out of the toilet.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fox News Southerners

I had my first run-in with a southern conservative.

On my flight from Philadelphia to Montgomery, the person next to me saw me reading a Newsweek article on health care reform, and he said, "I hope you agree that the health care bill shouldn't pass." I of course replied that I was hoping it would pass. He then responded: "I don't want to give someone a handout." So I asked him, if someone walks into a hospital bleeding to death and they don't have health insurance, should they be refused treatment." He said, "they do treat everyone." Me: "I'm asking you if the person should be treated if they cannot afford to pay for the treatment." He said yes, and I pointed out that he did in fact agreed that all people should be entitled to a basic level of medical care regardless if they can pay for it." From there he started going through everything Fox News hates about Democrats.

1. Socialism. I pointed out to him that the rest of the Western world has some form of universal health care -- are they all wrong? He said yes. We have the best healthcare in the world. My response: then why is it that the US ranks about 50th in life expectancy? He then rambled on about how we're not socialists in America, we're not **gasp** Canada!

2. Death Panels. He then started saying that having the government make decisions about your health, about when you die, was extremely dangerous, and that's not the government's job. So I said, "you prefer having a health insurance company, that only cares about profit margins, being the one making these types of decisions?"

3. Debt. He complained about the national debt, and went on this tirade about how we should never borrow money, and that in his personal life he never borrows money and only buys what he has cash on-hand to purchase. I asked him if he had a mortgage and he did.

4. Stimulus. He thought too much money was being spent on infrastructure and that there was no public good in paving roads, that people could get by with cracks in the street. I didn't bother to respond to this.

He finally went on about how America was founded by Christians who believed in limited government, that the Constitution says nothing about health insurance, the country should be run based on what the Constitution says, and that the Constitution is a Christian document. I don't know how the religion thing came in, and I thought it was a bit ironic. I didn't know Jesus, but from what I've heard, I think he'd be in favor of universal health care. I pointed out that many of the founders were deist who were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. He thought his trump card was that "liberty" comes from the bible. I pointed out that the context it was used in, in the Declaration of Independence came from John Locke and the Enlightenment. Thankfully at this point the airplane landed and I was able to make an exit.

Friday, December 4, 2009

More thoughts on food

I've decided that the quintessential Southern food is not a food, but a drink: sweet tea. It's ice tea with a few tablespoons of sugar. If you can still taste the tea, it aint sweet enough to be called sweet tea -- you should only be able to taste the sugar. People joke that you know that there's enough sugar in it when you can drop a spoon into the glass and it stands upright.

Sweat tea is served as if it were water here. At my company's holiday party every place setting had both water and tea. At restaurants the sweet tea options are featured prominently at the top of the menu -- fruit flavoring is added. This wiki article does a good job describing the Southern sweet tea obsession.

The other major regional difference is the total lack of bagels here. The truth is that it's an ethnic food -- you can only find them in cities with Jews. But in those cities, its popularity transcends the Jews. Apparently people have tried to open Manhattan Bagel type cafes/restaurants in Montgomery, but they always failed. The supermarkets sell Philadelphia Cream Cheese, but I'm not sure what exactly you're supposed to use it for without any bagels (ok, I realize that cream cheese is an ingredient in other foods, but it's still strange that the primary food it goes with is missing). That reminds me of when I was in Florence. The breakfast buffet at my hotel had Philadelphia Cream Cheese, but now bagels. Really, what were you supposed to do with the cream cheese? Put it on bread?

I've done some mail ordering from DiBruno Brothers; Zabars will follow soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Montgomery Symphony Orchestra

Last week I attend a concert of the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra. It was without a doubt the worst classical music performance I have ever heard. Half the instruments were out of tune, the string playing sounded like cats being thrown into a fire, mistakes galore, etc. I was wincing non-stop throughout the performance. I really tried not to, but I couldn't help myself -- every time the violins played it felt like I was getting kicked in the balls.

If the local newspaper were to have written a review of the concert, I don't know what they would have done. If you have any kind of integrity as a journalist you would have to point out just how mediocre the orchestra is, but doing so would probably make you pretty unpopular in a small town.

The only hope for the Orchestra is to fold and regroup as a chamber orchestra. Being a smaller sized ensemble will allow them to ditch most of the bad musicians, perform in a smaller hall that has better acoustics (the Orchestra plays in a 1930s movie palace that makes The Academy of Music sound like the Amsterdam Concertgebouw), and provide more rehearsal time.

A lot of what the Orchestra plays is "pops" music, and in some ways that does a bigger disservice to listeners than butchering Beethoven and Brahms. Gershwin requires the same virtuosity as Mahler (a real treat are the Cleveland Orchestra's three Gershwin recordings -- one, two and three -- the best being Maazel conducting the tone poems). I really wish these small town bands would stick with crapping on Mozart and Dvorak -- at least there are many excellent recordings that you can quickly cleanse your ears with.

The fact that people live in denial of the Montgomery Orchestra's mediocrity is a testament to how desirable having an orchestra is -- it's one of the marks that you're a major city. Philadelphians should be a little more appreciative and supportive of their orchestra, especially considering it is one of the best in the world.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Mobile, AL and Dauphin Island

I had the day off today, and I used it to check out Mobile, AL.
I was impressed with the number of trees in the city and how dense the tree canopy was. In the picture below, you can see how the trees have overtaken the street signs and lights.
My first stop in Mobile was to the Oakleigh House, a Greek Revival mansion built in 1833.
I learned a few interesting things about 19th century home design in the deep south. In the picture above you'll notice a staircase that goes up to the second floor deck. That deck was the main entrance to the house. The lower level was used for storage. The main part of the house was built up high to keep bugs out (there were no window screens at the time) and to improve airflow. Mansions of the era were also built in a t-shape to help improve airflow.

After taking a tour of the house and walking around the surrounding area, I headed down to Dauphin Street in the Dauphin Street Historic District.
It's kinda like South Street: lots of bars, cheep restaurants, and second hand shops. It's all very clean and it looks like many of the buildings had their facades torn down, and then rebuilt. Off the street there are many cool historic homes.
Also on Dauphin Street was the very impressive Cathedral of the Immaculate.
After doing a lot of walking, I checked out the docks.
Nothing to report there except memories from Season 2 of "The Wire."

After I had my fill of Mobile I drove down to Dauphin Island, approximately 37 miles south of the city.

The island is a barrier island, sitting more or less between the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay.

Getting to it you go over a bridge with a massive incline:
On the island I visited the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, which has a estuarium dedicated to the ecology of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the Mobile Bay, the Barrier Islands and the Gulf of Mexico.

As neat as that was, there was something much more impressive and interesting about seeing all of the oil rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico.
It was difficult to capture with a camera the sheer number of rigs that were out there, so I took this picture once it got pretty dark so that the rigs in the distance could be seen with their lights:
The island is also home to Fort Gaines.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Southern Food

I finally had my first encounter with real southern cuisine.

My company had a catered southern Thanksgiving Day lunch. All week leading up to it I keep hearing people talk about how amazing the caterer's "dressing" is. I had no clue what dressing was, and I had to ask someone. It's stuffing, but instead of being made with white bread, it's made with cornbread (and includes lots of other things, like: celery, butter, slightly beaten eggs, butter, bell peppers, butter, etc.).

As you can imagine, it has a pretty thick and gewy consistency. After all the build up to the dressing, I thought it tasted pretty bland -- there's nothing in it to give it any flavor. But everyone else raved about it, and it was the first thing that the caterer ran out of. Other items on the menu included cooked string beans that were covered in a sweet but bland sauce. And there was mac and cheese, which I detest. So I pretty much only ate the turkey, which was quite good.

Now you're all going to find this much more interesting:

Apparently down here in Alabama, most people deep fry their turkey instead of roast it.

At lunch today two of my co-workers walked me through how to deep fry a turkey; this website has good in-depth directions, but in short, this is how it's done:

1. Buy an outdoor turkey fryer, protective gloves, and a long sleeve shirt.

I stress "outdoor" because deep frying a turkey is quite messy. Many people do it on their driveway so that they can hose everything down afterwards.

2. Inject the marinade into the turkey.

3. Drop the turkey into the deep fryer for 30 minutes to an hour.

One of the main reasons this is so popular is that the cook time is typically under an hour, where as roasting a turkey is an all day affair.

I'm of course going to have to try deep fried turkey, and I'll spend the next few days hunting for a restaurant that makes it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Street Lighting

A major difference between a city like Philadelphia and Montgomery is street lighting.

The lighting level of most streets at night is low enough that I should really use my high beams, but there is too much traffic on the road to use them. Markings on the pavement are particularly difficult to see at night.

Tonight I had to go to the FedEx distribution center on the edge of town to pickup my new computer (sidebar: I hate FedEx. They deliver packages to my neighborhood at 2:00pm -- nothing really new or surprising there. Realizing that this was going to happen, I called FedEx in advance and asked that they hold my package at the distribution center and never put it on the truck. No dice. FedEx tells me they have to make at least one delivery attempt. Apparently they have a contract with the shipper... yaddi yaddi yadda... it doesn't matter that I am the customer and that I just want to pick it up. So they make the delivery attempt, I'm not home, and at that point FedEx will hold the package. On the phone they tell me I can pick it up anytime after 5:00. I show up at 6:30 and they tell me I have to wait 45 minutes because the package is still on the truck. 45 minutes comes and goes, and they give me the wrong package -- it turns out there is another Levi in Montgomery. So around 7:30 I finally get the computer).

As I drive to the distribution center, the amount of lighting quickly decreases until there is none. There are people on the road and buildings nearby, so it's not like I'm in the middle of no where, but there is zero lighting. And even with my high beams on, the road markings are so faded that I cannot see them. So part of my platform for Mayor in 2011 will be more street lighting and repainting all of the roads.

The computer:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Confederate Memorial Park

I went to the Confederate Memorial Park today (33 miles north of Montgomery).

This was the first place I've been to so far that was really in the middle of no where. Neither GPS nor Google Maps could get me all the way there, and I got lost on a dirt road trying to find it (for the record, this was the first time I've gotten lost on a dirt road since I moved down to Alabama).
In Apocalypse Now they say, "never get out of the boat." Here, it's "never get off the interstate."

After a quick u-turn I was able to find my way to the Confederate Memorial Park.
It was pretty disappointing. It was just two very small cemeteries for Confederate war veterans, a small museum that I wouldn't pay the $5 admission fee for, camp grounds, and a nice half mile nature walk.
I decided to check out some of the dirt roads, and walked a 2.5 mile loop. The weather was fantastic; mid 70s and sunny. I love wearing shorts in November.

On the drive back to the interstate I passed by a sheriffs car that was parked by the side of the road. I of course made sure that I was going under the speed limit. As soon as I passed the car it pulled onto the road. I nearly shit myself. I still have my PA license plate, so I figured that was a giant bull's-eye on my car. I wasn't pulled over or anything -- it was purely coincidental. It will be a while, though, until I forget the feeling of dread when I saw that car pull into the road in my rear view mirror.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Selma, AL

I used my day off today to go to Selma, AL.

The city is most noteworthy for "Blood Sunday" and the successful voting rights march to Montgomery. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is one of the most recognizable sites from the Civil Rights Movement, so it was pretty neat to get to see it in person and walk across the bridge.
Downtown Selma has a strip of interesting (and decaying) historic buildings. To give you an idea of how small the city is, finding an ATM was fairly difficult. I went to two gas stations; neither of them had one. I then went to a Wachovia; still no dice despite it being a bank! I asked someone at a drug store if they knew where an ATM was; they had never heard of an ATM. After 15 minutes of wandering I finally found one in some obscure southern bank.

Near the downtown area there is a fairly large neighborhood composed of historic southern homes (many date back the middle of the 19th century). Many of the homes have been fully restored, so I had a good time walking around looking at them. I have to say, I think ceiling fans on porches are very cool. According to Wiki, "Selma boasts the state's largest historic district, over 1,250 structures."

I stopped in the Sturdivant Hall House Museum, which is supposed to be the most impressive of all the historic Selma homes -- I believe it. The interior was huge and ornate. You cannot see it from the picture below, but the backside of the house is a network of stairways. This was done so that the slaves (the tour guide couldn't bring herself to use that word and called them "servants") could access any room in the house without having to walk through the house. So the bedrooms all have decks with staircases for this purpose. And the kitchen is in a small building next to the house -- again, this was a way to keep the slaves out of the house. I thought that was interesting.

I also went the National Voting Rights Museum. All it is, is an in-depth look at the events leading up to Blood Sunday. With a name like that I was expecting more, but it was still worthy of my time.

Overall, good trip.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Long weekend

For fun I took an evasive driving class. The lessons/driving course included: emergency turning, emergency braking, driving in a figure 8, j-turning, and the slalom.

The class took place on an abandon airport runway with several hundred cones.

Most of the exercises boiled down to the importance of holding the wheel at 10 and 2, ocular driving, and that you should accelerate, not brake, when making a tight turn at a high speed. What's ocular driving? The idea of looking where you want to go instead of focusing on an object(s). Driving in the figure 8 was used to demonstrate this. The course they laid out was very tight -- the angle of the curve looked too tight to fit the car. If you focused on the avoiding the cones, you'd end up hitting every one of them. If you focused on the space in front of the car, you could make it through. The first time I did it I was watching the cones, and sure enough, I took about half of them down. The next time out I just focused on where I wanted the car to go, and it worked.

The j-turning was thrown in for fun. Step 1: gun the engine in reverse. Step 2: as soon as you hit 35 mph, take your foot of the accelerator, grab the bottom of the wheel and swing it around. Step 3: once the car has rotated 180 degrees quickly shift into drive and slam the accelerator. At no time do you use the brake. After each turn you could smell rubber in the air. It was obviously the highlight of the day.

The slalom was by far the hardest thing to do. To make the turns you have to accelerate, which is counter intuitive.

Yesterday I went to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. I wasn't expecting the Louvre; my expectations were a notch above a collection of hotel art. The bulk of the collection was modern art. This must be where the MoMA left overs go to die. The Museum sits in a large park, which I found is a decent place to go running or biking -- I returned the next day with my bike. So it wasn't a total wasted opportunity.
I also took a tour of the Alabama State Capitol. The building itself is pretty unremarkable, but so are most state capitol buildings I suppose (apparently PA's building is one of the two or three nicest). The tour guide made this big deal about how tens of millions of dollars were recently spent to restore the building to how it looked in the 1850s; it must have looked really awful before the restoration. The building is just really bland -- it looks like the ran out of money when building it.

The building is much more noteworthy for all the important Civil War and Civil Rights events that took place in or around it, such as the founding of the Confederacy and the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Today, the General Assembly no longer uses the building, and the Governor only keeps his office there so that the building can legitimately be called the state capitol building.

Outside the building is a memorial to Civil War veterans with this offensive inscription:

Pictures of the State Capitol Building: