From The Archives: September 2009

Barrel O’ Links: September 2009, Part Deux

Five hundred thousand board-feet of linky goodness:

  • A triumph in mass synchronization: the Human LCD (YouTube)
  • The Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator (Pixmaven)
  • Oh, bloody hell, I do believe I’ve been bitten by my biscuit! (Telegraph)
  • The World According To Americans (DemonBaby)
  • Forty-plus days and counting: A time lapse history of the sky (Make)
  • The metaphorical vagina in advertising (InventorSpot)
  • Variants in European sensibility: Arial & Helvetica (ragbag)
  • Is cropping a photo lying? (Kottke)
  • Everybody’s favorite secret Canadian Nazi Weather Station Kurt (ITOTD)
  • A Small Compendium Of Shiny Orbiting Balls (
  • Get your money for nothin’ and your clicks for free (37signals)

Where The Buffalo Roamed

How Far Can You Get From McDonald's?

This summer, cruising down the I-5 through California’s Central Valley to the Los Angeles Basin, I unwittingly stumbled upon a most exasperating development: the country strip mall.  First, let me state that I don’t hate.  I’ve got nothing against Petco, Starbucks, OfficeMax, et al.  When overcome by the desire for a cubic yard of kitty litter, a carafe of pre-Columbian frappasmoochino, or fifty gross of pink highlighter pens, I’m there in a jiffy!

But, Mr. Real Estate Tycoon, did you have to plop your shopping center smack dab in the middle of what was previously nowhere?  Okay, the land was cheap.  And yes, you did traffic studies and proved that the interstate and distant suburbs would drench whatever you built in a raging torrent of eager consumerism.  But your retail monstrosity drains the wildness from the countryside for twenty miles in every direction!  Sure, you can’t see it from everywhere – but once you know it’s there, you feel it.  In the rural drawl of a neighboring rancher, that flat-out sucks!

Which begs the question: just how far away can you get from our world of generic convenience?  And how would you figure that out?

As I hurtled down the highway, a pair of golden arches crept over the horizon, and the proverbial lightbulb smacked me in the forehead.  To gauge the creep of cookie-cutter commercialism, there’s no better barometer than McDonald’s – ubiquitous fast food chain and inaugural megacorporate colonizer of small towns nationwide.

So, I set out to determine the farthest point from a Micky Dee’s – in the lower 48 states, at least.  This endeavor required information, and the nice folks at AggData were kind enough to provide it to me: a complete list of all 13,000-or-so U.S. restaurants, in CSV format, geolocated for maximum convenience.  From there, a bit of software engineering gymnastics, and…

Behold, a visualization of the contiguous United States, colored by distance to the nearest domestic McDonald’s!

The contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald's.  Click on the image for a larger version!

The contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald's. Click on the image for a larger version!

You can download a bigger, wallpaper-ready version of the visualization, too!

As expected, McDonald’s cluster at the population centers and hug the highway grid.  East of the Mississippi, there’s wall-to-wall coverage, except for a handful of meager gaps centered on the Adirondacks, inland Maine, the Everglades, and outlying West Virginia.

For maximum McSparseness, we look westward, towards the deepest, darkest holes in our map: the barren deserts of central Nevada, the arid hills of southeastern Oregon, the rugged wilderness of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, and the conspicuous well of blackness on the high plains of northwestern South Dakota.  There, in a patch of rolling grassland, loosely hemmed in by Bismarck, Dickinson, Pierre, and the greater Rapid City-Spearfish-Sturgis metropolitan area, we find our answer.

Between the tiny Dakotan hamlets of Meadow and Glad Valley lies the McFarthest Spot: 107 miles distant from the nearest McDonald’s, as the crow flies, and 145 miles by car!

Suffer a Big Mac Attack out there, and you’re hurtin’ for certain!  For a coupla hours, at least, unless graced by the tender blessings of “manna from heaven” – that is, a fast food air drop from the Medi-Copter.

Update: See “The Hungry Midwest” for a regional zoom of this map.

Barrel O’ Links: September 2009

Linky goodness, from sea to shining sea:

  • Sophisticated arrangements of seared amino acids (Gizmodo)
  • Copyright Myths Debunked (artlaw)
  • The open-source Frankencamera, Version 2.0 (Stanford)
  • A Brief History of Combining Crap with Crap (ArtFagCity)
  • Precisely inaccurate: The International Prototype Kilogram (
  • The Death Of Handwriting (BBC)
  • Don’t miss the ArmadilloCam: the Museum Of Animal Perspectives (MAP)
  • Will that be regular or unleaded? (Liveleak)
  • Ooooh, er, duh, um, gahhh, yer purty (Telegraph)

Experiments In Time Lapse

Day and night for the past hundred years, propellerheads worldwide have worked to make technology better and cheaper.  By doing so, they’ve enabled us to engage in pursuits that our forefathers could barely dream of.  To toast our bread with a machine!  To fly cross-country on that wonderful airplane!  To watch moving pictures, plucked from the ether, as they dance on the screens of our new-fangled televisions! 

And with recent improvements to consumer-grade cameras, rejoice!  The night time lapse video is now within our reach!

Golden Gate Bridge, Towers In Fog

Ergo the above video: a time lapse of a low evening cloud deck blowing past San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.  Created earlier this summer, by shooting 300 or so still photographs, one per second, with Canon DSLR gear, and then assembling them back-to-back, using some inexpensive video production software.

Beyond its atmospheric nature, what I like best about this clip are the subtle details within.  The mist curling around the superstructure and lighting up as the brighter headlights traverse the bridge.  And, check out the floating duck, in the water slightly to the right of bottom center!

Apologies for the silent video - I’m currently in search of suitable audio accompaniment.  If you’ve got any ideas, please contact me.

Stay tuned for more of these, as I’ll be posting details of some of the juiciest ones in the future.

Earning Man

Deep in Nevada’s backcountry lies the Black Rock Desert, home to a particularly large alkali flat, known as a playa.  There, modern hubbub yields to geologic time.  Winter moisture melts the playa to brine.  Then, as spring days grow longer and warmer, the water returns skyward, leaving a vast, dusty surface, table-flat and pearly-white, until the next rainy season.  It sits, silent and unoccupied, save for the occasional band of coyotes, land sailers, and rocket enthusiasts.

Then comes the end of August.  And there goes the neighborhood!  Throngs of humans descend upon the vacant expanse - briefly transforming it, by numbers, into the state’s tenth largest settlement: Black Rock City.  Home of the week-long festival called Burning Man, for the 40-foot wooden effigy at the center of camp that is ritually torched come the last Saturday night.

As does any big counterculture event, Burning Man invokes the full spectrum of lovers and haters.  In caricature, out on the playa, we find Annie Agnostic, immersed in hedonism, having ditched her moral compass at the Nevada border.  Madden Max, donning his diving goggles and careening through the desert at full speed.  Billy Brodown, totally wasted and groping as many nekkid chix as he can.  Ashley Artiste, bobbing gleefully in a bubbling sea of creative collaboration and good karma.  And back in San Francisco, John Q. Conservative, enjoying a week of “freak-free” relaxation and uncrowded Mission-district dining.

To Arthur Adman, marketeer extraordinaire, Burning Man is a wet dream.  Fifty-thousand gregarious individuals at the intersection of the hipster and artist demographics.  Self-selected for financial motility by their $200-plus ticket purchase, and their ability to successfully swing an extended vacation from the real world.  Clustered in one place, for eight days straight!  Rub their extremities with your advertising pollen, and, as would a hive of overactive bees, they will zealously spread it to far-flung fields, rich with like-minded creatives, information workers, and DINKs.

But advertiser beware!  For within Black Rock City, as the stalking wildcat is to a small, furry animal, the marketing campaign is to a Burner.  One faint whiff of commercialism will prick their ears, and a twig’s snap of branding will send them hastily scurrying into the underbrush, never to be seen again.  Maximum success hinges upon stealth and subterfuge.  To that end, Mr. Adman has a plan…

Dust storm and the Belgian Waffle, 2006.
Photo by JasonUnbound

Dust storm and the Belgian Waffle, 2006.

Of any art installation at Burning Man 2006, Uchronia, aka the Belgian Waffle, generated the most buzz, by far.  Over several days, it grew from a single board to an arching structure of over 50,000 pine 2×4s, nailed together free-form, topping out at just under fifty feet.  All were welcome to stroll within its diffuse walls, dappled by thick, dust-laden shafts of sun, and colored lights after dusk.  By popular opinion, the spectacle of its flaming destruction surpassed that of the previous nights’ Man, and thousands of online photos and stories fondly recall Uchronia’s bright, if fleeting, existence.

Stop the presses!  Because shortly after Uchronia’s immolation, unseemly details emerged.  That the volunteers that built it for “free” were actually paid employees.  That its creator, one Arne Quinze, owned an ad agency.  That, a mere two weeks later, launched a showroom campaign for Lexus.  That featured a slew of 2×4s nailed together in several undeniably-Uchronian arrangements.  From this evidence, people drew some not so flattering conclusions.

In 2009, the spirit of Uchronia returned, at least stylistically, in the design of the wooden platform above which the Man stands.  Some critics harshly panned this intentional choice of imagery, but in general, amongst Burners, it seemed well received indeed.  By dint of simply freeing us from the shackles of the perpendicular, free-form construction has a lot of untapped potential, in the art world and beyond.  For example, need a cheap shelter, pronto?  Build a 2×4 mini-waffle-style frame, cover with plastic mesh, coat with construction-grade foam, brush on a few coats of paint, and Voila!  You’ve got the bitchin’-est cave-house on the block!  I’m only half joking here.

Now, please permit me to put on my engineering hard hat and comment on a more pressing matter.

That’s a hell of a lot of wood at the base of the Man this year - at least as much as went into the original Uchronia - an impressive 290,000 kg of pine, by my calculations.  And it’s gonna get torched all at once.  The energy contained within that wood, released evenly over the span of half-an-hour, will produce a scorching 2.5 gigawatts of uninterrupted power!

So, at peak combustion, isn’t the audience going to be hot?  Like, take “I’m a bit toasty let’s back up a little” and multiply by a thousand?  As in the vaporizing pachouli, molten glowsticks, wilting pubes, “oh-my-god-run-for-your-life-I’m-on-fire!!!” kind of hot?

In my performance art fantasy world, shortly after ignition, an army of the most courageous Burners will hop into shiny, flame-resistant suits, then navigate their way through the conflagration.  To do something interesting.  Like duel with spontaneously-igniting fireworks.  Forge a giant abstract sculpture from glowing hunks of wrought iron.  Or ferry various foodstuffs through the flames, cooking them for a Bacchanalian post-burn feast.  Flank steaks and legs of lamb strapped on their backs.  Marshmallows atop their helmets.  And, in hand, marinated kabobs of mushrooms, tomatoes, jicama, onions, and other delectable fruits and veggies.  Wouldn’t that be cool?!  And, oh, so tasty.  Mmmmm.