Monster Pig

If for no other reason except that “biggest hog” is still one of the top search queries bringing visitors to this site, it’s worth linking to the story of Monster Pig, a 1,050 lbs. behemoth killed in Alabama. The beast is magnificent and, sadly, now dead.

When the first Hogzilla was exhumed, I jokingly said, “This could be the start of a bad redneck horror movie.” Turns out I was right!

Update 5/29/07: Eh, not so much. Photo manipulation at work.

This could be the start of a bad redneck horror movie
That’s the second biggest hog I’ve ever seen


A peek at daytime culture

I really enjoyed this article from the SF Gate about a reporter who wanders around town asking all the people hanging out in parks and coffee shops during the workday what they’re doing. Having spent the last three years working on and off in restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, I’m a part of that culture, but I still often wonder: who are these people?

The sentiment I most agree with among the interviewees is the wonder at how people with 9-5 jobs manage to get their errands done. If I ever go back to a typical work schedule, one of the perks I’ll miss most is the ability to get stuff done while everyone else is at work, stores are empty, and traffic is light.


New law bad for CD sales

DRM cripples downloaded tracks. Now ownership of CDs is being restricted too?

Independent merchants selling and buying used CDs across the United States say they are alarmed by stepped-up pawn-broker-related laws recently enacted in Florida and Utah and pending in Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

In Florida, the new legislation requires all stores buying second-hand merchandise for resale to apply for a permit and file security in the form of a $10,000 bond with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In addition, stores would be required to thumb-print customers selling used CDs, and acquire a copy of state-issued identity documents such as a driver’s license. Furthermore, stores could issue only store credit — not cash — in exchange for traded CDs, and would be required to hold discs for 30 days before reselling them.

At least one Florida town has enforced the law, resulting in the cited merchant pulling used CDs from its store.

The nominal purpose of the laws is to protect against the sale of fraudulent or stolen goods. But is this the real motive? Perhaps the true beneficiaries are music companies who don’t like used CDs competing with new ones. Ars Technica speculates:

Why this trend, and why now? It’s difficult to say, but to be sure, there is no love lost between retailers who sell used CDs and the music industry. The Federal Trade Commission has scrutinized the music industry for putting unfair pressures on retailers who sell used CDs, following a long battle between the music industry and retailers in the mid 90s. The music industry dislikes used CD sales because they don’t get a cut of subsequent sales after the first. Now, via the specter of piracy, new legislation is cropping up that will make it even less desirable to sell second-hand goods. Can laws targeting used DVDs be far behind?

If this kind of legislation is being pushed by the music industry, I’m not convinced it’s doing itself any favors. Sales of compact discs are plummeting. Potential sale of used product is good for cars and books, so it might be one of the few advantages remaining to CDs over downloads, too. The possibility of finding used CDs I want is also one of the only things that gets me into boutique music stores instead of going straight to the internet to buy music.


Miracle fruit in the WSJ

Today’s center column on the front page of the Wall Street Journal is all about this blog’s favorite berry, miracle fruit. I held a tasting of the fruit for friends a few weeks ago. In a weird sequence of events, what I expected to be a small group of foodies turned into a sizeable party, and one of the guests was none other than the reporter writing this article. The night’s festivities are covered in the opening of the story. The offbeat center column of the Journal has always been one of my favorite features in the paper, so it’s bit of a thrill being in it.

The article [update: temporary, ungated link], which is only available to subscribers, has lots of fascinating new info about the fruit. Of special interest is the inside scoop on the murky regulatory standing of miraculin:

Miracle fruit remains in a kind of regulatory limbo in the U.S. It’s perfectly fine to grow and sell it, because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require prior approval to sell fresh fruits, though it can intercede if it suspects problems. The trickier part comes when people try to use it as an additive in other foods. That’s when regulators start asking questions.

Two American entrepreneurs, Robert Harvey and Don Emery, tried this route back in the 1970s but the venture ended in heartbreak. Their initial focus was on products for diabetics, but some of their financial backers, which included Reynolds Metals Co. and Barclays Bank PLC, had a loftier goal. “They were interested in replacing half the sugar industry in the world,” Mr. Harvey says.

Mr. Harvey figured out how to turn miracle fruit into a dried powder and then a tablet. His company, Miralin Co., explored making everything from chewing gum to a miraculin-coated drinking straw. It developed recipes for diabetics which assumed people would pop a miracle-fruit tablet before eating the results.

Reynolds, now part of Alcoa, then owned the Eskimo Pie brand of frozen snacks and suggested trying miraculin-coated ice pops. In the summer of 1974, a group of Harvard Business School students conducted ice-pop taste tests on Boston playgrounds, giving children a choice between regular ice pops and miraculin-coated ones. The children preferred the latter by a wide margin, Mr. Harvey says.

That same year brought a big setback: The FDA sent a letter calling miraculin a “food additive” requiring years of testing. The letter effectively scuttled the venture, which was on the verge of selling products and wasn’t prepared to spend money on extensive testing. Miralin filed for bankruptcy and fired 280 employees. It’s only in the past five years that “I’m able about to laugh about this instead of crying,” says Mr. Harvey, now 75 years old, who went on to a lucrative career making blood pumps used in heart surgery.

The suspicions of libertarian foodies are confirmed: the government is to blame for our lack of delicious, miraculin laced food products.

For the how my tasting party ended up in the Journal and how a failed postal delivery almost ruined the evening, read on.

After David Barzelay’s wonderful miracle fruit party two months ago and our much-linked blog entries about it, several of my friends expressed an interest in trying the fruit for themselves. The fruit has a fixed shipping cost, so it’s much more cost effective to order for a group than to order individually. So, expecting just a few people to actually be interested in coming to a party where we eat a strange, semi-illicit fruit, suck on lemons, and screw up our taste for beer and wine, I sent out an email inviting some friends over to a party of my own. To my surprise, lots of people said yes.

The fruit wasn’t going to arrive in time for the original party date, so at the last minute I had to push it back a week. This happened to be extremely fortunate, because three days later I got an email from Wall Street Journal reporter Joanna Slater. She had found my blog entry and wanted to do a story on miracle fruit. In addition to answering her questions, I invited her along to the tasting. Amazingly, she accepted the offer and agreed to come all the way down from New York to attend this exceedingly strange party.

The party was scheduled for Friday, March 2. On Thursday at 4:00 pm I still didn’t know if the fruit was going to be ripe enough to mail. Finally, around 4:30, I got a call from the supplier confirming the shipping details. We double checked the address, made sure no signature would be required for delivery, and sealed the deal. The miracle fruit party was on! I emailed the guests and Joanna to tell them we’d be tasting the next day. Everything seemed to be lined up perfectly, but Friday wasn’t going to be that easy. It went something like this:

2:00 pm: I get off work at to make sure I have plenty of time to set up the party. As I walk to my doorstep, I eagerly await the site of the miracle fruit package. As I get closer, I see there is no package. And when I finally ascend the stairs, I see my worst fear: a failed delivery notice! I drop a major F-bomb.

2:45: I run to the local post office. They tell me there’s nothing they can do because my package is on the truck. I press further and they give me the phone number of the area headquarters.

2:48 The guy at headquarters tells me I’m screwed. I tell him that’s a very big problem, that it’s their fault, and that I really need to get this package. Eventually he hands me off to the supervisor. We’ll call her Mary. Mary assures me that I can come pick up the package at Arlington headquarters when the truck comes in. That should be around 5:30, and since she’s there till 8, I should have no problem at all. I feel much better now.

3:00 I pick up my friend Chad, who’s kindly hosting the party at his apartment, and we go grocery shopping for the party. We buy ungodly amounts of citrus fruits and dark beer. The cashier thinks we’re odd. She’s right.

5:10 Taking no chances, I drive to headquarters and park in the lot. I call Mary and ask about the package. She says my neighborhood truck has arrived and puts me on hold while she looks for it.

5:11 Um, why is this taking so long?

5:12 Mary can’t find the package.

5:13 Mary looks again. I try to figure out what I’m going to tell Joanna and the other 40 guests when they arrive at Chad’s house if Mary can’t find this thing.

5:14 Nope, still not there. She concludes the driver must have dropped it off at my local post office for some reason instead. The post office I visited earlier. The one that closed 14 minutes ago. This is not looking good.

5:21 I race back to the local post office and park, possibly illegally. It’s closed, but I hear workers lingering behind the metal screens. I bang on a screen until they talk to me. I tell them Mary sent me and they finally open a door.

5:23 They say Mary must be crazy. They don’t have the package and there’s no way the driver brought it here. It’s got to be back at headquarters. They call Mary again. She looks again. At this point I’ve pretty much given up hope. Yet, amazingly, she finds it. She says it’s in her hands. Apparently, the post office was experimenting with a new system for delivering overnight packages, so it ended up on a different truck than it normally would.

5:35 I drive back to headquarters, my gas light flicking on empty for the third time, and call Mary again. I walk into the wrong door, accidentally invading the loading dock. I find Mary, she hands me the precious package, and I sign it out. All is right with the world. I’m very grateful to Mary. I hope I make it to the gas station.

Obviously, everything worked out great in the end and the party was a complete success. People were shooting pure lemon juice and loving every second of it, beers sat half empty all around the apartment, and more citrus fruit was consumed in one night than I have ever seen.

[Cross-posted at EatFoo.]


Indictments in the Wells murder

In researching the January post about the hypocrisy of smoking ban proponents who order pizza delivery, I was reminded of the tragic and bizarre case of Brian Douglas Wells. You may remember the story. Wells was a pizza delivery driver in Erie, Pennsylvania. One afternoon in 2003 he left for a delivery and resurfaced soon after to rob a bank. When police arrived, Wells revealed that the delivery address had been for a deserted radio tower and that when he got there assailants tied a time bomb around his neck. Unless he obeyed their orders, he said, the bomb would go off. As he begged for help from the police, the bomb did go off, killing him. The strange case remained unsolved for years and some attest that the police could have saved Wells’ life if they had taken his story more seriously.

Officials now say the case is closed and indictments will be forthcoming. That’s all they’re saying at the moment, and even though I hate the media hype around high profile cases I have been drawn in by the mystery of this one. There’s more background on the murder here.


Barry’s decision put on hold

No news is no news in the Barry’s Magic Shop case. Barry’s, you’ll remember, is the last remaining magic shop in the DC area and the building it leases was recently coerced from its owner under threat of eminent domain by Montgomery County. If redevelopment officials get their way this unique business will be torn down to make way for a highly dubious sidewalk plan.

On the 9th the County Council held a hearing to discuss the fate of the shop. I wish I’d known about it in time to be there in person. Fortunately, at-large Democrat Steven Silverman continued to defend the shop:

Council members said they were concerned that the plan for the sidewalk has been in the works since 1995, while the county just bought the Barry’s Magic Shop building from Mr. Taylor and his wife in May.

“You could have a situation where they would be displaced and you could end up with a project that doesn’t get approved or built for years, and that’s what I’m having trouble getting my arms around,” said council member Steven A. Silverman, at-large Democrat.

“Why would you demolish a building until you knew exactly what the cost would be or what you want to put in there?”

Full story here. A final decision date has not yet been set.

I’m glad to see Barry’s continue to receive sympathetic press, but the focus is disappointing. The emphasis is on small business losing ground to corporations, which is a tangential point at best here. Contrary to the Home Depot analogy quoted in the article, there’s no Mega Corporate Magic Warehouse moving into the neighborhood and driving little old Barry’s out of business. It’s the government taking Barry’s shop through the abusive threat of eminent domain. That part of the story has been obscured in almost all of the media coverage.

For more background on the case, see my previous post.


Barry’s in the WaPo

Here’s some good news: this week the Washington Post featured a story about the plight of Barry’s Magic Shop, making this the best publicity the case has received so far. Notably, the article includes the fact that the building housing the store was seized using eminent domain, an important consideration other stories have ignored. It’s also good to hear that Councilman Steve Silverman has the right perspective on the matter and may be doing something about it:

Silverman called Barry’s shop an “icon in the community” and said the council committee that approved the walkway project did not realize it would be displacing the magic shop. The council will look at the situation, he said, and try to help the parties come to a resolution.

“We’re in the middle right now of trying to pass a zoning change to allow revitalization of downtown Wheaton while preserving small businesses,” Silverman said. “And here the other arm of the government is looking at evicting Barry’s from its longtime home.”

Read the whole thing here.

Coming soon… posts that aren’t about Barry’s.


Hope for Barry’s

I’ve received another email from a council member regarding Barry’s, this one with some good news:

Thank you for contacting me to express your strong support for Barry’s Magic Shop. I know how special this place has been to so many people for such a long time. Please be assured that we really want Barry’s to stay in Wheaton and will do everything we can to keep the shop there. The Wheaton office is working hard to find a compromise to this dilemma. One recommendation is to keep the building where it is but shorten one side of the building by a small amount to allow the walkway to go through the area as planned. Another is to find a site in downtown Wheaton for the Magic Shop with the County paying for most of the moving expenses.

Wheaton needs some pedestrian improvements to help it in its redevelopment, and this walkway is important to these efforts. I am keeping your e-mail in my file, and will continue to monitor this situation so that we can end with a win/win resolution.

Councilmember Nancy Floreen

This is the first time I’ve heard of the county considering the more sensible idea of improving the sidewalk while keeping the building mostly intact, so I’m happy about that and hope the plan goes through.

The person who gets left out of the story though is the original land owner. It will be a sad irony if the land that was taken from him for a supposedly essential improvement is left standing, a seizure without a purpose. Even if things work out for Barry’s — and I hope that they do — it should be remembered that this guy has been completely screwed by the county. He is consistently ignored in the communications from planners, who are careful to make no mention of their use of eminent domain now that his land is securely in their hands.


Barry’s a “trophy?”

Today I came across a thread about Barry’s Magic at the Genii Forum, a popular forum for magicians. It includes an interesting suggestion as to why Barry’s was targeted for demolition:

The project that will demolished Barry’s is from a plan sketched out in 1997. At that time it was just an idea of improvements that could be done along with other changes (i.e. add trees, etc.). It was also to include a special walkway across Georgia Avenue but that has not been funded.

The Redevelopment people are doing this now so as to create “trophy” piece that shows that they know how to: 1. buy a property 2. move some one out 3. get things torn down 4. get something built. What is a shame here is that this is such an insubstantial project—building a walkway, big deal. Most redevelopment people in this day and age, get things torn down for more dense development (i.e. condos, office buildings, etc.). This walkway project achieves none of that. Again, it is nothing but cosmetics and is the first project of the new director of the redevelopment authority. No one will benefit from this project except the “trophy” gained by the redevelopment agency director. It is some that he can point to to show what he has accomplished in his first 1.5 years in his job.

Impossible to verify, but plausible. More plausible than the need for a wider alley.


Letter from Wheaton

Recently on the sidebar I linked to a very funny article called “How to Cheat Good.” Written by university professor Alex Halavais, it offers tips for cheating on papers without making the mistakes his students so often do. My favorite tip is the blatantly obvious number eight:

8. Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text

This is my Number 1 piece of advice, even if it is numbered eight. When you copy things from the web into Word, ignoring #3 above, don’t just “Edit > Paste” it into your document. When I am reading a document in black, Times New Roman, 12pt, and it suddenly changes to blue, Helvetica, 10pt (yes, really), I’m going to guess that something odd may be going on. This seems to happen in about 1% of student work turned in, and periodically makes me feel like becoming a hermit.

Which brings me to the email I received this morning from Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan. He is the first of the government officials to respond to a lengthy email I sent them about Barry’s Magic Shop and the county’s use of eminent domain. It would not have taken me long after starting to read it that this was a form letter failing to address half the things I wrote about it. An even bigger giveaway, however, was that “Dear Mr. Grier:” was in bright blue type while the rest of the text was black.

I don’t mind getting a form letter. I understand that when you spend your time eminent domaining people, you probably have to deal with a lot of email. I’d just like to see a little effort, you know?

So anyway, that’s the unintentionally funny part of the correspondence. And I’m actually glad he’s got this form letter made up, because at least that means he’s getting enough emails about Barry’s to make it worth writing one.

I’ve copied the letter beneath the fold if you’d like to read it. There’s nothing really new here, just more of the county’s reasons for why a bigger alley would be nice and no mention of eminent domain.

Dear Mr. Grier:

Thank you for your recent correspondence concerning Barry’s Magic Shop located in downtown Wheaton. I assure you that Montgomery County is working diligently to keep Barry’s Magic Shop in the Wheaton community where it has been an important business for so many years. After years of planning and negotiation, Montgomery County recently purchased the freestanding building in which Barry’s Magic Shop is located at 11234 Georgia Avenue. The building is a converted wood frame residential structure that is sandwiched between two important retail centers that front Georgia Avenue, one of the main streets of the Wheaton Central Business District. This building is slated for demolition and will complete an important pedestrian connection between the west side of Georgia Avenue and the public parking lot located in the Wheaton Triangle.

The purchase of this property to accommodate the walkway has been planned by the County for more than 12 years, and has been included in plans since the early 1990s. The completion of the pathway is a key component for providing a safer and more accessible pedestrian circulation system in downtown Wheaton. We recognize that Barry’s Magic Shop is one of Wheaton’s most unique businesses and has a long-standing and loyal clientele. It is our fervent wish to retain this one-of-a-kind business in our downtown. The staff of the Wheaton Redevelopment Office is working very hard to relocate this important and well known Wheaton business within the Central Business District.

County staff has advised the owner of Barry’s Magic Shop that funds are available to assist the business in relocating, and staff will continue to work with the owner to provide available relocation assistance. The assistance offered includes help in finding a nearby and convenient location for the business; moving assistance; temporary storage of merchandise; rental assistance; and related financial help to ease the pain of relocating a business. We are hopeful that the owner will take advantage of this assistance and use this opportunity for a fresh start that will revitalize the business to serve the magic needs of this and future generations of Montgomery County residents. We hope that you will encourage the owner to keep the business in Wheaton and that you will continue to support Barry’s Magic Shop in a new location.

The community’s need for a safe and accessible pedestrian connection between the public parking lot and the shops on Georgia Avenue is an overriding public consideration. I believe that a pedestrian friendly downtown is very important to the overall success of the County’s program to revitalize downtown Wheaton. With proper lighting, the walkway will be much safer and functional for evening use by downtown patrons.

I appreciate your taking the time to share your support for keeping Barry’s Magic Shop in Wheaton.


Douglas M. Duncan

County Executive


Property rights magically disappear in Wheaton

In the past decade much of magic retail sales has shifted online, leaving it relatively harder for bricks and mortar magic stores to stay afloat. Unless a store is in a tourist area, has a large Web presence, or is attached to a larger costume or theatrical outlet, running a profitable store that caters primarily to magicians is a tough business.

This is an unfortunate decline, as magic shops have played an important role in the development of the art. They are the spots where magicians go to hang out, where young dabblers get to know seasoned professionals and learn from them. For me, the shop that provided this experience was Danny’s Trix and Kix in Spring, TX. After a few months of merely purchasing tricks there, I eventually met up with some of the local pros who frequented the place. Their guidance was instrumental in my progression as a performer. Thousands of magicians around the country could tell similar stories.

Barry’s Magic Shop in Wheaton, MD, is the last of its kind remaining in the DC area. It’s been in business for thirty-one years, surviving the rise of e-commerce and competition from a large competitor in Baltimore. That takes a magic of its own kind. But whatever magic Barry’s possesses, it’s no match for county officials wielding the power of eminent domain. Montgomery County forcibly acquired title the building where Barry’s is housed a few months ago and is planning to evict Barry Taylor and tear the place down.

I had not been to Barry’s before because magic has been a smaller part of my life since moving to DC. But after reading on a local magicians’ list serve that Barry’s was being evicted and finding the county’s reasons for the taking highly dubious, I decided pay a visit with my camera this weekend and check the place out. Sadly, this case appears to be another of the type we’ve seen so much of in recent years: abuse of eminent domain to drive out an existing small business to make way for developers.

Barry’s is located on Georgia Ave. in one of the many strip malls that line the street north of the Beltway. The area is eclectic if not always charming. Barry’s neighbor on one side is an adult video store; bars and check cashing places abound. In this environment, Barry’s is a unique, family-friendly treasure the county ought to care about.

Upon entering the store, once can’t help but be struck by the history that emanates from the place. Magic memorabilia hanging from the walls and displayed in glass cases, stacks and stacks of books and videos for sale, and of course the standard demonstration counter where the staff shows off old standards and the latest tricks to customers looking for something new. It’s a well-stocked shop, and right away I regret not coming there sooner.


Everyone in the store is friendly, but the first greeting comes from Frankie, the store border collie. Frankie’s a bit of a star. When the postman arrives, he (or she, I didn’t check) runs up excitedly as the man drops off a biscuit with the mail. He does tricks, too, showing off his impressive goal keeping skills with a couple of stuffed balls. Frankie doesn’t perform for the camera, though. Here’s a shot of him declining to play, but you could more poetically interpret this as the sadness he expresses at his place of work being taken away. Frankie could be the poster dog for the consequences of eminent domain abuse.


I spend the next hour or so hanging out in the store, learning about the case as one of the owners, Susie Kang, asks customers to sign a petition expressing support for the store while cheering everyone up with gallows humor. In the meantime, normal store operations continue. At the counter, an adolescent kid buys a trick from the salesman. Dad is respectfully asked to retreat to the corner while the dealer explains the workings to the son, who will want to fool Dad with it later. Nostalgia sweeps in… I remember trips to the magic store like that!

If county officials have their way, none of this will last and an alley will take the place of these human interactions. By now, I hope, I have painted a sympathetic picture of Barry’s Magic Shop and given a good idea of the feel of what will be lost. It is necessary to turn next to the county’s reasons for destroying it. I am going to elaborate on this in some detail, as no one in the press has covered it well. Yet in doing so there is some risk in losing sight of the true issue at hand, of conceding the propriety of the county’s actions just in having the argument. The real story is that simply because a few county planners have decided that the land could be better used to attract developers than as a magic store, the man who owns the building has had his property forcibly taken from him and a small business that has thrived for decades is being evicted years before its lease is up. The rest is just details.

With that in mind, let’s go into those details. Barry’s is located at 11234 Georgia Ave. in one of the many strip malls that line the street. This is a view from the median:


Behind the store is a large shopping area with significantly more parking. This is a view of Barry’s from the rear parking lot:


Barry’s is the store in the center offset from the others. It has exclusive access to the handful of parking spaces in front of it. Notice the small alley located between Barry’s and the store on the right. Expanding this alley is the stated reason for the county’s takeover and eviction:


Though there are multiple exits from the shopping center, pedestrians occasionally use this alley as a convenient shortcut onto Georgia Avenue. The county claims that this alley is inadequate to the purpose. When I visited the store, I was told that not many pedestrians use the alley. Though there’s obviously an incentive for the owners to understate its use, this is consistent with my own observations — with the exception of Barry’s customers, I didn’t notice a single person walk through it while I was outside taking pictures.

To the county’s credit, the alley does leave something to be desired as a walkway. The small stairway on the left (see above) partially blocks access and this rail and ledge require some slight maneuvering to get through:


It does not appear that turning this alley into a more functional walkway without tearing down Barry’s would be difficult. Barry’s would surely consent to removing the small rear stairway as an alternative to closing down entirely. And the exit could be made more navigable by removing the last section of the rail and installing stairs or a ramp. This might require removing a parking space, but this is surely preferable to knocking down a long-standing business.

Regrettably, Montgomery County is not interested in finding ways to improve the alley that would leave the building in place. Instead, officials threatened the building’s owner, George Chaconas, that they would sieze the property using eminent domain and eventually took him to court. Chaconas concluded that he had no choice but to give in and agreed to a sale. The Examiner reports Chaconas’ feeling that this was not at all a consensual transfer:

The county threatened to condemn the building and, its owner George Chaconas said, finally sued last year. Chaconas said he settled out of court with the county agreeing to pay $987,000 for the building. He told The Examiner that he felt strong-armed into the deal.

“I didn’t sell it to the county,” Chaconas said. “They took it.”

County officials did not return phone calls from The Examiner requesting a response. I also tried calling for information and, unsurprisingly, was not given a reply either.

With the building now in the county’s hands, there is nothing stopping officials from evicting Barry and tearing the place down. Barry sums up the senselessness of this situation well, noting that “It’s going to cost over $2 million, and it’s still going to be an alleyway.” The tab for that $2 million expenditure will be picked up by taxpayers.

If this whole exchange sounds a bit fishy, it’s because this fight is about a lot more than an alleyway. County officials and big developers have been planning for years to dramatically change the face of the area with what is known as the Wheaton Redevelopment Project. Originally, planners were considering putting a Mall of America scale shopping center in the area. Fortunately that monstrosity got nixed. Developers and residents are currently fighting over proposals to raise height limitations on buildings to bring in larger stores, office buildings, and residences. This would be good for developers, obviously, and may be a good idea, but many residents fear losing Wheaton’s mix of independent businesses and becoming more like the smoothly corporate Silver Spring, which is just a few miles away and whose own redevelopment is much further along.

A fluff piece recently published in the Maryland Gazette describes the Redevelopment Project in rosy terms, complete with a big smiling photo of project director Joseph Davis. It’s a PR-friendly article that makes the project look like a model collaboration among county officials, developers, and existing business owners:

But it’s taken a lot of more than dollars and cents and bricks and mortar to make all this redevelopment happen. It’s taken a lot of listening.

Bozzuto officials have listened to suggestions from residents, small-business owners and others when creating plans, keeping in mind Wheaton’s need for more residential and office space, said Artie Harris, a vice president of the development company. ‘‘You don’t want to be a cookie-cutter community,” he said.

Local business officials and residents must be involved in the process or the projects might not meet their needs, said Marian Fryer, a Wheaton small-business owner who serves on several advisory committees. Besides more office and residential space, Wheaton needs to ensure that existing small businesses are not forced to move — as some did from downtown Silver Spring — and there is proper access to key sites such as the Westfield mall, she said.

That’s a lovely thought, but it’s completely out of touch with reality. That article was published June 9, well after the county was in court to seize George Chaconas’ land.

Joseph Davis finally spoke to the press about the issue in a Washington Times article published yesterday. There he explained that the alley was indeed being expanded for the sake of redevelopment:

On May 4, Montgomery County acquired the property that is home to Barry’s Magic Shop on Georgia Avenue. The building will be demolished to create pedestrian and handicapped access between the shops and parking lots on Georgia Avenue and the shops and lots on Triangle Lane, west of Georgia Avenue, said Joseph R. Davis, director of the Wheaton Redevelopment Program, which aims to create new retail, residential and office development in downtown Wheaton…

Mr. Davis said the shop’s location is the best place for a well-designed, well-lit walkway because it is mid-block between the two plazas.

Also the store, unlike the two shopping plazas it is sandwiched between, is a free-standing building.

“There are over 40 businesses on this block that would directly benefit from the demolition of this building,” Mr. Davis said, citing the improved access to downtown businesses the walkway is meant to create.

Let’s take a closer look at this claim. Here’s a satellite map of the shopping center with Barry’s marked with the red spot. That’s Georgia Avenue running vertically on the right:


As Davis notes, the building is roughly in the middle of the block. He says that this is a compelling reason to knock it down. But while it might be nice to have a walkway there, it’s far from essential. For one thing, there is no intersection across the street from which pedestrians will be coming. I had to scramble across traffic to the median in order to take a picture of the front facade; most pedestrians would be coming from the intersections north and south of the shopping center, both of which already have entrances. Putting a big entrance where Barry’s sits just isn’t necessary.

Secondly, tearing down Barry’s to put in an alley is going to do nothing for redevelopment. The entrance will still just be an alley wedged between buildings in an old strip mall. Turning the area into the kind of place that the people with the Wheaton Redevelopment Project envision is going to require doing a lot of rebuilding. And with rebuilding comes flexibility. A similar entrance could be obtained by getting land from a willing buyer somewhere else on the strip with minimal impact on plans for the shopping center.

All of this makes the statement from the neighboring adult video store manager, quoted in the Times piece, not just appallingly indifferent but also extremely short-sighted:

A manager of the Cadmus II Video & Newsstand next door, said the store sells adult material and that he is not concerned with Mr. Taylor’s situation.

“I could care less about what’s happening to him; he ain’t got nothing to do with us,” said Earl, who declined to give his last name.

I’ve got news for Earl: when the area redevelopment begins in earnest, the friendly neighborhood planners aren’t going to be happy with a porn store flanking the shopping center entrance. If they’re willing to use eminent domain to replace a magic shop with an alley, I doubt they’ll think twice about knocking down an adult video store to put in some kind of upscale retail. I predict the eminent domain takings in Wheaton have just begun.

And this, really, is the major flaw in the Times article. Reading it one may easily be persuaded that putting in a walkway is the best use of the land, momentarily feel sad that the magic store is closing, and chalk it up to the costs of progress. It never mentions that the land was seized against the owner’s will through eminent domain. Sadness is inappropriate. This is a story that should make people angry. Angry that George Chaconas had his land taken from him. Angry that Barry Taylor and Suzie Kang are being evicted years before their lease is up. Angry that this is all being done with taxpayers’ money to subsidize the developers who will eventually move into the area, just because some guy named Joseph Davis thinks that’s the way things ought to be.

If creating a big walkway running perpendicular to a street with no corresponding intersection is truly the best use of the land where Barry’s sits, there is a simple way to make that happen: let the developers who will benefit buy up the land fairly and build it themselves. If there’s development potential here and property values go up, Barry’s might indeed have to move. That’s life. That’s the magic business. But at least that would be voluntary and the owners would have time to find a suitable new location.

With title to the land already transferred to Montgomery County, there may not be much left one can do for Barry’s. But the least one can do is write county officials and give this eminent domain abuse as much publicity as possible. If you have a weblog, especially if you’re in the DC area, please help spread the word.

Barry and Susie have also published a letter on their web site asking for support and listing contact information of the relevant government officials. I encourage you to read it. If you’re willing to voice your opinion on this matter, copy the email addresses there or click on this hyperlink to get them all at once. Let them know what you think, preferably without profanity, tempting as its use may be. Send a copy to Barry’s, too, so they can keep track of the responses.

Finally, if you have any additional information about this case or other eminent domain takings in connection with the Wheaton Redevelopment Project, please let me know by emailing me at jacobgrier – at – I suspect there is much more to this story that has yet to be reported.

[Update: Thanks to everyone who has helped publicize this situation so far:

The Pacific Legal Foundation
David Barzelay
DC Blogs
To The People
Mike Mott
Jeff Woodhead
Radley Balko
DC Transplant
Chad Wilcox

Your posts are appreciated. Thanks to those writing the government officials, too.]


Recently at STC

Some recent posts from Smelling the Coffee:

More evidence that smoking bans are unnecessary. The French are abandoning their famous cafés and staying home. Cigarettes and high prices are the reason.

Wal-Mart is getting into the Fair Trade coffee business. Good thing? Bad thing? Tacit admission of evil?

And… latte porn! With animals!


Lobster link fest

Why lobster blogging? Because it’s been too long a day for me to consider writing something serious, but I don’t want this site to become too idle. And lobsters seem to be turning up everywhere lately. Read on, you might learn something. You’re just wasting time at work anyway.
Pity the lobster

Let’s keep up the pretense of being a political blog and start with a post by Rogier van Bakel, who asks “Lobsters, dogs, what’s the difference?” An Italian restaurant (a real one, like, in Italy and stuff) was fined 688 Euros under an animal cruelty law designed to protect household pets. The crime? Displaying live lobsters on ice to attract customers:

A court in the northeastern city of Vicenza ruled the display was a form of abuse dooming the crustaceans to a slow death by suffocation. “We’re appealing,” said Giuseppe Scalesia, who runs La Conchiglia D’Oro, or “Golden Shell,” restaurant along with his brother Camillo. “They said that the lobsters, laying on the ice, suffer… They compared them in court to other animals, like cats and dogs.”

The case was brought by Gianpaolo Cecchetto, a former environmental activist, who took his two young children to the Vicenza restaurant in May 2002. “They were shocked by the display,” Cecchetto told Reuters, adding he immediately got in touch with the ENPA national animal protection entity.

“It might not hurt to keep in mind that most lobsters are boiled alive before they’re eaten,” Rogier notes. “Should that be declared illegal, too, in favor of — I dunno, what’s sufficiently humane?” I’m sure he meant that as a rhetorical question, but that’s no reason not to answer it. There’re lobsters’ lives at stake, after all.

Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, wrote a rather lengthy, yet fascinating, blog post on this very subject not too long ago. He says that the most humane way to kill a lobster is to chill it in the freezer for fifteen minutes and then split it quickly in half with a large knife. The accompanying photos make this appear not so fun for the lobster, but luckily it is cold blooded. The brief chill slows down its nervous system while the fast work of the knife cuts it in twain. The method is good for the lobster and doesn’t compromise on meat quality for the consumer. And, incidentally, it means that Mr. Scalesia was doing right by putting the lobster on ice — whether he knew it or not, it was a nice anaesthetic touch.

So all you need to kill a lobster a humanely is a freezer, a knife, and a bit of skill. Or maybe you need several thousand dollars, dedicated counter space, and a big jolt of electricity. When the knife method just won’t cut it, the CrustaStun comes to the rescue:

Lobsters could soon be “crusta-stunned” to death, if an invention by a British barrister takes off.

Simon Buckhaven says his electronic stun-gun would be a humane way of killing the creatures…

He said: “In a fraction of a second it knocks them unconscious and then, by the sustaining of the current, it destroys the entire nervous system, which kills them…”

“Until now there has been no electronic method of dealing with crabs, lobsters and crayfish. We have it now. We know it works,” he said at the time.”

CrustaStun is lots oI, for one, have long desired an electronic method method of dealing with crabs, lobsters, and crayfish. They never respond to my old-fashioned letters.

But seriously, this could be a decent idea. The CrustaStun requires less skill than knifing a live animal with claws and the company claims it results in meat that tastes better than other killing methods. All well and good. Unfortunately, the inventor isn’t just marketing his device to seafood processors and restaurants. He’s going straight to Parliament, where it appears he’s using proposed animal cruelty laws to drum up demand:

Last year Mr Buckhaven told a parliamentary select committee that workers in the fishing industry would be able to afford the stun-gun…

“When the question of cost has been raised, the shellfish producers in Cornwall think it is very viable in terms of the equipment they have to use.”

He said that the cost for restaurants would be between £1,000 and £2,000 for one machine.

The CrustaStun website prominently mentions legislative concerns as a reason for purchasing one of the machines. That’s good news for lobsters, but not for restauranteurs who may have to shell out for the device at regulators’ demand.

CrustaStun has the Shellfish Network on board, too. Who is the Shellfish Network, you ask?

The Shellfish Network was formed by Joe Solomon in 1994 to campaign peacefully against cruelty to these animals… While People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other Animal Rights groups include shellfish in their campaigns, we believe that we are the only organisation to give a consistently high profile to the suffering of shellfish. But they still remain at or near the bottom of the league-table of public sympathy!

A fringe group, to be sure, but that didn’t stop them from submitting a 2004 memo to the Parliament’s Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

We believe that traditional methods of cooking are cruel and that the methods outlined in our Guidelines should be mandatory, at the very least for lobsters, crabs, crayfish and langoustines. These include the freezing method; placing the crab or lobster in a plastic bag and placed in a deep-freeze cabinet set at -20°C and left for two hours, or alternatively cutting through the nerve centres, which must only be carried out by experienced staff. The anatomy of the crayfish is like that of the lobster on a small scale, and it therefore may well have a similarly complex nervous system, although piercing nerve centres would not be practicable as it is so small an animal. The freezing method would be necessary in this case. We have heard from a scientist that langoustines can take up to 30 seconds to die when boiled. Subjecting live, conscious animals to cutting up, boiling, steaming or other cooking processes should be banned and the killing only carried out by competent experts. The Crustastun, mentioned in our Guidelines, is an electrical stunning tank which has recently been developed in prototype by scientists at Bristol University and the Silsoe Research Institute near Bedford. This stuns crabs and lobsters in a fraction of a second, and ensures that they remain insensible to pain long enough to be cooked by boiling immediately. Once the device is available it ought to replace all other methods.

My favorite line is, “We have heard from a scientist…” No research citation, no name of the scientist. Just this guy they know who wears a white lab coat. And his business card says he’s a scientist, so he must know what he’s talking about.

The Shellfish Society doesn’t want people being cruel to lobsters in their own kitchens either:

Since the majority of the general public will have no idea on the most humane ways of killing shellfish, we suggest that such sales should no longer be legal. Only licensed experts should be allowed to kill the animals, using our Guidelines.

Not even in self-defense? CrustaStun, by the way, links to the memo.

We haven’t even gotten to the worst and most humorous aspects of lobster exploitation yet. If you think being boiled alive, stabbed in the chest, CrustaStunned, or displayed on ice to hungry Italians are unpleasant things to endure, I’ve got news for you: the worst is yet to come for our lobster friends. These, at least, are deaths with dignity. Not so our next atrocity.

Bobbing for lobstersThe Business Opportunities Weblog reports that a company in Maine is marketing the Maine Lobster Claw Game. It’s like the old arcade game where a player maneuvers a claw that unexpectedly drops down into the tank and grabs whatever prize waits below. Except in this game, the prizes are live lobsters. For $2 the player gets a shot at taking one home. What they do with the lobster when they win it isn’t explained. Do they carry it around in a plastic bag like a goldfish? I have no idea.

In any case, animal rights activists aren’t too happy about this innovation:

The Maine Animal Coalition (MAC) says the state’s lobster industry is only now beginning to follow the standards for humane treatment of lobsters set by European countries, New Zealand and Australia…

“This game is adding insult to injury,” says MAC President Christina Connors. “They can’t go anywhere or get away. Not only will they be boiled alive, but they are being taunted in the meanwhile.”

Budding entrepreneurs can buy the lobster games for just $14, 950. If they can sleep at night knowing the humiliation they will impose on the lobsters, they’re sure to make millions. The only question is what to use as the grand prize. Sure, a Maine lobster is nice, but there’s got to be one prize that’s so enticing that the rubes will keep on dropping cash to pursue it. Something like, say, an incredibly rare blue lobster from Canada.

Really, a blue freaking lobster!
Blue freaking lobster!

And on that note, our foray into lobster blogging comes to an end.


Stupid hackers

Sometime Saturday afternoon the server hosting my site was hacked and recruited for a DOS attack, taking down my site and my ability to receive emails. The site is mostly restored now and some old emails are getting delivered, but if you sent me something in the time since then and I haven’t responded you may want to resend.

Three reasons this was the worst possible time for my site to go down:

1) It happened right after a link from The Agitator, always a nice spike in traffic.

2) It happened right before a magic gig at which I handed out about fifty business cards, all of which sent people to a site that didn’t work. (Actually, given the crappy design and cheesy photo on my magic site, that may not be a bad thing.)

3) It prevented me from blogging about this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine going to Gregg Miller. For those who don’t remember, Miller is the inventor of Neuticles, the prosthetic dog testicles that led to one of my all time favorite blog entries; Miller himself even left a comment here. Congrats to Miller for his win and his new book Going… Going… NUTS! [And thanks to Nikki for sending me the link. I’m so proud that when she sees a story on prosthetic testicles, she thinks of me.]


Mama’s gonna be so proud

Friends from my more staid days at Vandy and Cato may have joked that getting me to play beer pong would be a newsworthy event. Apparently, they were right. From the Washington City Paper’s “Show and Tell” column about Dr. Dremo’s games being shut down by the evil Virginia ABC:

“It concerned the agents that [the game] would cause people to overconsume,” says [ABC spokesman Betty] Gettings, who thinks the operatives made a sound judgment call. “I happen to know from personal experience—not that I’ve played; I have a son that told me what it is—that it would induce drinking to excess.”

It’s a charge that some Dremo’s beer-pongers dispute. “Given how long it took my friends and I to make our tosses, playing the game probably moderated our alcohol intake,” says 23-year-old Arlington resident Jacob Grier, who confesses to having lost his “Beirut virginity” at Dremo’s on Sept. 10. “We had one pitcher of beer for the entire game, and we didn’t even finish it,” Grier says. “We would have definitely finished a pitcher rather quickly if it was just the five of us sitting around drinking.”

I wouldn’t necessarily extrapolate my own experience to all players, but it’s still a stupid ruling. It was completely discretionary and took away one of the things that made Dremo’s a unique part of the neighborhood. Which is exactly what Chad says, who is also quoted:

“We can sit anywhere and drink beer,” says Arlington brew hound Chad Wilcox, “but Dremo’s allows us to have a different experience by being active and doing something exciting.”

To Wilcox and others, that excitement is called beer pong.

I like that I’m a “resident” and Chad is a “brew hound.” That sounds about right.