August 2011 Archives

Panda poop from Memphis Zoo could help make better biofuels

mbya2.jpg Ya Ya and Le Le made a potentially key contribution to a biofuel future in a study reported this week at a meeting in Denver of the American Chemical Society.

Two giant pandas in the Memphis Zoo have dropped researchers a gift. Studies of the pandas' poop show that their gut microbes break down bamboo efficiently -- a trick that humans could co-opt to turn woody plant material into alternative energy sources.

Pandas are able to extract nutrients from woody bamboo despite having a one-chambered stomach, but what little plumbing there is happens to be packed with bacteria wielding powerful digestive enzymes. The next step is isolating these enzymes in reactors to break down the plant material cellulose into hydrogen or methane for energy.

Even in the service of science, working with animal poop seems like a thankless task. But to hear the researchers tell it, panda poop at least isn't so bad:

Because all the bamboo comes out looking like hay, panda poop "is probably the most pleasant fecal material to work with," (Mississippi State University biochemist and research leader Ashli) Brown says. "Candace and I have worked with other poo, and we can assure you it has a fairly pleasant smell associated with it."

PICTURED: Female panda Ya Ya munches on bamboo at the Memphis Zoo.

Rhodes professor John Copper: 'Why We Need Taiwan'

Via the History News Network: Rhodes College professor John Copper has a column for the conservative foreign-policy magazine The National Interest called "Why We Need Taiwan." Copper, the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes and author of dozens of books on China and Taiwan, argues that Taiwan is strategically important to the United States in its role of containing China's ambitions. He uses the analogy of the U.S. victory over the Native Americans at Wounded Knee: With its internal territory consolidated, the U.S. was able to focus outward and become a global power within decades. Likewise, he says:

China's reunification of Taiwan will be its Wounded Knee. It will no longer need to focus on territorial matters and will doubtless look to realize power ambitions further from its shores.
Kathleen-Blanco.jpg Former Louisiana Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco has been receiving treatment in Memphis for a rare form of eye cancer. posted today an excerpt from the treatment journal that Blanco is keeping at

 The odds of radiation reducing these tumors are very high, but a small percent of patients do not respond well and have to have the cancerous eye removed, afterall.  I was praying I not fall into that rare number, so with some last minute nervousness, Raymond, Karmen and Monique and I left for Memphis.  After ultrasound and other eye tests I was relieved to learn that the tumor in my eye which first measured at 6mm high is now 4.5mm.  Shrinking is a good thing and I pray this continues.  Hallelujah!  I still have swelling in the macula  and Dr. Wilson gave me a shot (yep, in the eyeball!--OUCH! ) to help the swelling go away.  Of course my next prayer mission is for the swelling to go down as this is what is affecting the clarity of my vision.

I will continue to see my local eye doctor for periodic exams and return to Memphis in December for comprehensive tests like CT scans, liver studies, etc.,  to detect the presence of matastasis if it exists (I PRAY NOT!) and to determine whether the tumor continues to shrink (I PRAY SO!) 

The Dr. Wilson to whom Blanco refers is Dr. Matthew Wilson at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center's Hamilton Eye Institute (last mentioned on this blog when the teenage boy who shed tears of blood was to be treated there). One of her journal entries says she chose Wilson from among several doctors because she could get fastest onto his schedule.

Gibson Guitar raid in Memphis getting attention

This week's raid by U.S. Fish & Wildlife agents at the Gibson Guitar factory in Downtown Memphis has been attracting a lot of attention from national media. What's not to like about a story featuring $5,000 guitars, exotic tropical woods, shady import-export trade, the enchanting and exceedingly rare silky sifaka lemur, and a chief executive taking to the ramparts against relentless Interior Department bureaucrats enforcing an obscure anti-poaching statute from 1900? The Atlantic has one of the better pieces out there for details and background, and its post supplied some of the links I have used here.

UPDATE: More from The Atlantic: "How to Turn Guitarists into Tea Partiers."

Memphis airport No. 8 for most expensive average fare

From The Wall Street Journal's blog The Middle Seat ...

A new analysis of average fares at U.S. airports by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics confirms what travelers have long known: Memphis International Airport is "extremely expensive." Memphis, the No. 65 airport, ranked No. 8 for an average fare of $453.73. Its peers in the top 10 of the BTS rankings fall into one of two categories:

Overall, the 10 most-expensive airports for air travel include six "fortress" hubs dominated by one airline and four small cities without much fare competition. Among the top 10, three are United-Continental hubs: Houston's Bush Intercontinental, Newark's Liberty and Washington's Dulles airports. Two Delta Air Lines hubs also make the top 10: Cincinnati and Memphis, Tenn.

Southwest Airlines' recent deal to purchase AirTran, giving Southwest a toehold at Memphis, could help matters:

"There's no getting around the fact that competition from a low-cost carrier continues to be a major factor in reducing fares," said Bob Hazel, an airport expert at consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

Of course, as the WSJ post points out, loyalty programs and other premium offerings allow the major carriers to resist price pressure from their low-cost rivals.
Thank the stars for the Freedom of Information Act: The Smoking Gun digs deep into the annals of law enforcement to present the salacious headline "Behold the Two Dirtiest FBI Reports Ever," reports which, of course, were taken in 1975 in Memphis.

Agents -- whose names were the only things redacted from the documents -- were dispatched to the Lamar Theatre on two separate occasions to view X-rated movies to apparently determine whether the films were obscene.

A pair of G-Men paid $3 apiece to watch a double feature of "Two into Two" and "The Magic Mirror." With seven other cinema fans in attendance, the agents took careful notes about what was unspooling. Their subsequent report includes a scene-by-scene recitation of the films, which seemed to be short on plot, but action-packed.

In the early 1970s, Memphis was ground zero of the FBI's vigorous and, from today's standpoint, seemingly inconceivable investigation of the adult film industry, particularly the 1972 X-rated classic "Deep Throat," namesake of FBI deputy W. Mark Felt in his role as the shadowy Watergate informant. Details of the investigation came out in 2009 in response to a FOIA request by AP after the death of "Deep Throat" director Gerard Damiano. As The Commercial Appeal reported at the time:

(In 1969), Memphis was becoming a distribution hub for films considered obscene at the time. Part of that was because of the city's central location in the country, and part was based on a city administration seen as friendly to First Amendment issues, (then-Asst. U.S. Atty. Larry) Parrish says.

A long federal investigation into the industry, including input from the vice squad of the Los Angeles Police Department, first looked at the film "School Girl." When a federal marshal went to a Memphis theater to seize the film, he saw a preview for the more explicit film "Deep Throat."

"Deep Throat" became the focal point of federal prosecution in Memphis with Parrish as lead prosecutor. After nine weeks of testimony in 1976, a jury convicted 16 defendants, including actor Harry Reems, for conspiring to nationally distribute the film. Shot for $20,000, the film had earned more than $25 million in the United States.

Reems' conviction later was overturned because of a change in pornography laws .

The case was retried in 1978. Three of the 16 defendants were acquitted in the retrial. Charges were dropped against one other defendant, but most were convicted again.

Ad Age names Memphis firm archer>malmo one of 'Best Places to Work'

Memphis ad agency archer>malmo was rated No. 9 on a list of "Best Places to Work in Media & Marketing," compiled by Advertising Age.

The Memphis-based diversified marketing-services agency has 100 employees and works in digital, PR, experiential and direct response with a 60/40 mix of consumer and business-to-business clients that include Palm Beach Tan salons, Grizzly smokeless tobacco, Hilton Hotels, Gold's Gym's Gold's Express unit, agricultural chemical marketer Valent U.S.A. and Norfolk Southern Railroad.

CEO Russ Williams pointed out specific aspects of archer>malmo's culture that make it a pleasant place to work:

Culturally, he said, the agency is a "low-ego environment" that tries not to take itself or its business too seriously.

All that is backed verbatim by employees in Advertising Age's survey, which also included a comment from one employee that the agency had "the most reasonable workload of any agency I've ever worked for."

Photo essay of Beale Street patrons' shoes from Third Coast Digest

Milwaukee arts-and-culture site Third Coast Digest has a photo essay by fashionista Val Moody of Beale Street revelers, or, more precisely, their shoes. The pictures look good, and they capture the Beale Street vibe pretty well. 

My husband and I are both avid music lovers and so last month, we took a short vacation to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The combination of live Blues music filling the air, great food, warm weather, and the best people watching on the planet was FAB-U-LOUS!

With the promise of purchasing a few drinks throughout the night, we were able to lay claim to a tiny sidewalk table right on Beale Street. Innocent observations of footwear fashion turned into a spur-of-the-moment photo essay. Not only is it fun to see what people are wearing but also to imagine what these people look like, where they came from, and where they're going.

Justin Timberlake preparing Memphis act FreeSol for fame game


As Memphis-based hip-hop-rock band FreeSol makes the industry rounds ahead of the long-awaited release of their debut album on Tennman/Interscope Records, they have been getting some advice on celebrity from label boss Justin Timberlake, according to an item in Footwear News' FN Spy column:

"We were at PF Chang's a couple days ago and a bunch of fans followed
him in and started watching us," said Free, frontman of the group. "He
just told us to make sure we were ready for that type of fame."
Freesol's debut album is set to release this fall, and the band gave
audience members a taste of the tracks at Steve Madden Music's final
summer concert of the year this week. "Our music is a little bit of
everything," he said. "You're either going to love it or hate it."

Timberlake directed and appears in FreeSol's new video for "Hoodies On, Hats Low":

A member of the Memphis Grizzlies dance team was among contestants eliminated this week from BET's "Born to Dance." Christina Webber, who hails from Birmingham and also works as an IT specialist, told what she has taken away from her experience on the TV dance contest:

(Judge LaurieAnn) Gibson told Webber that she needs to commit to dance moves and not over think them. "I feel that when you are ready to commit to the life God has designed for you, you will never be stopped," Gibson told her tonight.

The 26-year-old Webber, who is an IT specialist and a dancer for the Memphis Grizzlies, said she'd heed Gibson's advice. "LaurieAnn told me I need to feel the moves and not to over think it. Just dance,'' Webber said. "I'm going to take that because I want to go in the direction that God pushes me in and I want to live the purpose that He has for my life. And, I'm going to do it from here on out.'' 

The "Born to Dance" website quotes Webber on what she has been up to since she left the show.

Christina: "Since the show I've been taking lots of dance classes, working on several small businesses and making moves to get to Atlanta to pursue dance and acting full time."

Charles Watkins, O'Charley's founder, former Memphian, dies at 87

The Tennessean posted this morning a special obituary of O'Charley's restaurant chain founder Charles H. "Charlie" Watkins II, who died early Tuesday in Nashville at age 87. Watkins, a native of Paris, Tenn., had moved to Nashville from Memphis in 1966 to open a Shakey's Pizza, one of many restaurant ventures he pursued. While in Memphis, he had worked for another pretty well-known hospitality entrepreneur:

Before moving here, Mr. Watkins was an assistant to Kemmons Wilson, founder and chairman of the board of Holiday Inns of America.

He later started the Al Hirt Sandwich Saloon chain, and then in the early 1970s he opened the first O'Charley's on 21st Avenue, a place his son described as a "fern bar."

That step launched Mr. Watkins into the ranks of influential Nashville entrepreneurs who would help reshape the economy of Middle Tennessee over a period of years.

I got a chuckle out of the "fern bar" part, having just last night watched the WKNO documentary "Overton Square --  The Golden Age," in which TGI Friday's -- the quintessential fern bar with its faux Tiffany lamps, kitsch-bedecked wood panels and mudslide cocktails -- figured so prominently. Might the fern bar ever make a comeback?  Yumsugar kicked the question around last year.

'The Help' opens big in flyover country; top theater in Memphis

The new civil rights-era film "The Help" rang up more than $35 million over its five-day opening, good enough for second place in the box-office rankings behind "Planet of the Apes." Variety points out that "The Help" demonstrated unusually broad appeal in that all five of its top engagements were between the coasts. The market with the No. 1 theater? Memphis.

With more than 100 weeks on the bestseller list, Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" has been read by book clubs in every corner of the country.

Now Disney-DreamWorks' film adaptation looks to be repeating the book's widespread appeal. It's unusual for a film's top engagements to be outside New York or L.A. -- but on "The Help's" opening weekend, all top five playdates fell between the coasts.The top theater for the tale of the bond between a black maid and her white employer in the 1960s South was in Memphis, Tenn., followed by Jackson, Miss. (where the pic is set), then Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas.

The spread of top theaters is indicative of how broadly "The Help" played.

Perhaps even more significant, were the amount of "definite recommendations" the film received from auds in exit polls.

The average definite recommend for a film is in the 50%-55% range. "The Help" received 95% definite recommend from women over 35; men under 35 put the film in that category 70% of the time. The strong rating means word-of-mouth should continue to propel the pic.

"The Help" was filmed about 100 miles south of Memphis in Greenwood, Miss., and several Memphis actors and crew members worked on the film. Read John Beifuss' review here, and check his story on the film's local actors here. And click here for Jennifer Biggs' piece on the Memphians who worked as food stylists on the show.

A tractor-trailer driver from Memphis walked away this week from an accident in North Carolina in which a train struck his 18-wheeler and dragged it more than 200 feet. According to

Michael Blakely was just about to drop off a load of metal drums in
Asheboro on Wednesday, then it was on to Charlotte and back home to

"I pulled up, stopped, looked left and right, there wasn't anything coming," he said.

Blakely was at the train crossing at Spero Road.

"As I approached to go over the train track, I saw another car on the
other side start backing up and when I looked, a train smashed into my
truck," he said.

The train didn't stop.

"I'm trying to unbuckle my seatbelt. It's like a bad movie, where your seatbelt won't come undone," he said.

Blakely said he was beyond scared. His mind was racing.

"I thought this truck is getting ready to blow up, with me in it. And
I just bought my kids school clothes. I have four boys, four sons," he

Blakely was OK after the wreck, though he was cited for trying to cross the tracks while the lights were flashing.

Amid crummy market, AutoZone looks like a 'buy'

As the stock market continues to plummet, Memphis-based AutoZone has been holding its own. In fact, Moneywatch reports today that a Citi analyst upgraded her recommendation from "hold" to "buy" for the auto-parts retailer, which is looking ahead to strong sales trends and possible stock buybacks.

Kate McShane raised her price target for AutoZone by $26 to $326 and boosted her earnings predictions for the next three fiscal years. She said that the company is one of the strongest and best positioned in its sector and its current share price should make it attractive to investors.

AutoZone shares closed Tuesday at $280.10. Over the past 52 weeks, the Memphis, Tenn.-based company's shares have traded between $203.05 and $302. They're gained about 2.8 percent so far this year.

AutoZone was down about 1.7 percent as a rough Wednesday on Wall Street wound down. The Dow Jones Industrials were down 520 points, about 4.6 percent.
Writing on the right-wing-libertarian site, economist Gary North compares the current economic climate to the lead-up to the massive yellow fever epidemic in 1878 in Memphis. North's extended metaphor sees a population taking no action even as danger -- in this case, out-of-control government debt -- gathers steam and gets closer until it's too late to flee, all the while "boosters" assure the people there's no need to panic.

The city collapsed economically. It lost its charter in 1879. The state took over the city's finances. It took 20 years for the city to recover.

But this is not the heart of the Memphis story. The heart of the story is this: the population sat, nearly immobile, as word reached it, day by day, that the plague was on its way north.

We know the phrase, "a deer in the headlights." For a few seconds, a deer is immobilized. But then it runs. People don't. You have heard that a frog will not jump out of a pot of water if the water warms slowly to boiling temperature. It's not true. But people will stick with hopeless projects and dreams for years, only to lose everything. Few events confirm this better than Memphis in the summer of 1878.

Gorilla-Dies.jpg The Louisville Courier-Journal reported Thursday that Timmy, a male Silverback gorilla who had lived in the city's zoo since 2004, had been put down after years of declining health. It turns out that Timmy, who lived to 52, a ripe old age for a male Silverback, was a former Memphian of sorts. Born in 1959 in Cameroon, a young Timmy made his U.S. public debut in 1960 at the Memphis Zoo, where he would stay for a few years before moving on to Cleveland for about 25 years and then to the Bronx Zoo and the Louisville Zoo.

Timmy, who was the oldest male western lowland gorilla in North America, was a throwback to the days of animals captured in the wild and put on display in enclosures of concrete and metal. As Jordan Schaul of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center writes in National Geographic Newswatch:

Long after Timmy's departure for Cleveland in the 60′s, the Memphis Zoo built Primate Canyon which includes a gorilla habitat and exhibits for 9 other species of primates.  
Timmy was also a late bloomer, as well as a participant in as star-crossed a love affair as one could conceive of among the great apes:

For most of his tenure in Cleveland, Timmy showed little to no interest in female companions and failed to sire any offspring.

The silverback finally courted Kate-an infertile cage-mate. The relationship blossomed, but the romance with Kate was not to be long-lived.  Their "love affair" ended amid controversy when Timmy was loaned to the Bronx Zoo to breed with reproductively viable females.

Moving him to the Bronx Zoo to "pass" on his genes-deemed valuable to the captive population of lowland gorillas-was not met with unanimous approval. The sentiment of some members of the public was that a separation from Kate for the sake of gorilla conservation was more than unfair to the two gorillas who had developed an apparently strong bond and "loving" relationship.

The gentle giant went on to sire 13 offspring. Schaul writes:

Most of us thought of Timmy as a celebrity and ultimately an ambassador for lowland gorillas worldwide. He will be missed.

PICTURED: A pensive-looking Timmy is shown in a March 28, 2005, file photo taken at the Louisville Zoo.
Michael-Finney.jpg The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this week that Sun Studio president John Schorr has been in talks with the operators of the old Chess Records studio about helping to turn the Chicago building into a similar destination music landmark.  The Chess site is owned by an organization headed by the widow and daughter of legendary Chess producer, songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon.

The Sun Studio is a successful for-profit company, while the Dixons are adamant about maintaining the non-for-profit status of Blues Heaven.

"A partnership can be done in different ways," Schorr said from Memphis. "We never discussed a dissolution of Blues Heaven and what they've done. We would be an addition, bringing our expertise on site. We would open an enhanced attraction and recording studio in line with what we have built in Memphis. Making it a functional studio is a big part of the idea, if people know it is a place where magic still happens as opposed to a museum that is behind glass, dead and non-functioning."

The article is deep with background about the many connections between Sun and Chess, Memphis and Chicago, especially the great Howlin' Wolf, one of Sam Phillips' earliest artists who left Memphis for the Windy City in the year's between "Rocket 88" and "That's All Right Mama." (Here's another.) Here's yet another one (the Whites grew up in South Memphis):

Earth, Wind and Fire co-founder Verdine White Jr. grew up with the magic of Chess. His brother Maurice was a Chess session drummer, and White learned bass from the late Louis Satterfield, the iconic Chess session trombonist and bassist.

"It's not unusual that Chess would be struggling," White said before his band's recent stop in Chicago. "Maurice brought a lot of those Chess Records home. To the public it was just a blues label, Howlin' Wolf and those guys. But it was a very diversified label. You had Ramsey [Lewis] with jazz, the Rotary Connection [psychedelic rock and soul], Phil Upchurch, [jazz-soul singer] Terry Collier."

As Schorr, the Sun honcho, points out, it should be easier for Chicago to develop such a musical landmark site than it was for Memphis in the late '80s:

"Probably one-tenth of 1 percent of my business is people from Memphis. That's not the market. With blues, Chicago is a bit more developed with all of the blues clubs. People in the city enjoy that heritage. But the fact that there are only four or five visitors at Chess on the afternoon of the Chicago Blues Festival is a little obscene. Chicago has a pretty defined tourism market, which really was the impetus for me wanting to speak with the Dixons."

PICTURED: Guide Michael Finney is shown in front of the Blues Heaven Foundation, formerly the home of Chess Records in this April 17, 2001, file photo.

'Memphis Grooves': NPR tips harmonica player Brandon Bailey

bailey.jpg NPR Music features another rising Memphis artist today: This time, it's innovative harmonica player Brandon Bailey, promoting his debut album, Memphis Grooves. While firmly rooted in traditional blues, Bailey also pushes the envelope by using a percussive vocal technique he calls "harp-boxing," and by using a loop pedal to create multilayered harmonica arrangements. Bailey was the 2008 winner of the Orpheum Star Search, and the blues harp isn't his only field of study:

Bailey uses new technology as a window onto tradition in more ways than one. He says discovered his first harmonica mentor, Ole Miss University professor Adam Gussow, through a series of videos Gussow posted on YouTube. Bailey's new album features a duet with Gussow -- a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

As Bailey develops his innovative harmonica technique, the multi-talented young musician is also completing a pre-med program in pediatric neurology at the University of Memphis.

"I don't really know very many harmonica players-slash-doctors," Bailey says. "But I'm far too heavily invested in both fields to give either one up at this point."

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