Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

webquack-image

Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.

Trying to recollect memories of fabled Milk Farm Restaurant

davis-1-23-2017-015For more than 50 years I’ve passed the old Milk Farm Restaurant sign near Dixon, Calif. The visits are less frequent these days, occurring on trips West when I visit family, but each time as I head along Interstate 80 south of Sacramento I see the venerable marker, all that remains of the once-famous eatery.

Those not conversant with area history have no way of knowing that the site was once one of the busiest stops between the state capital and San Francisco, where thousands were served weekly.

The 100-foot sign, topped with a cow jumping over a moon, once lit up with neon so vivid that it pierced the thick winter fog of the Sacramento Valley.

In my memory, I couldn’t recall the restaurant ever being open, and supposed that it had closed sometime in the 1960s. My parents said they had taken me there when I was around 18 months old, which would have been around the start of 1966. Yet, I would pass the site dozens of times in later years and could not remember the restaurant in operation, or even what it looked like.

So it was somewhat startling to find out that the Milk Farm, which began serving customers in 1919, remained in business until 1986.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Just down the road was another famous restaurant, the Nut Tree, in Vacaville, which operated from 1921 through 1996. I clearly recall that location and stopping there on more than one occasion. But the Milk Farm remains a void, except for driving past its iconic sign each time I headed north to such places as Davis, Sacramento or Lake Tahoe.

Fortunately, the world does not base historical judgment on what this author does or does not remember.

The Milk Farm began in 1919 as Hess Station, named for local rancher Karl Hess, who rented cabins to travelers in the days before motels.

The site was beside the old Lincoln Highway – Highway 40 – which was later expanded and renamed I-80.

Hess was apparently quite a promoter: he held milk-drinking contests, sold inexpensive chicken dinners and offered “all-you-can-drink” milk for 10 cents. He also helped make a named for the town of Dixon, where my grandfather and other family members attended high school, as the heart of the California dairy industry.

In 1938, Homer Henderson and his wife bought Hess Station and renamed it the Milk Farm. They added the cow logo which can be seen on the sign today.

“Stables, gas stations, an orange juice stand and a new restaurant all contributed to the Milk Farm being labeled ‘America’s Most Unique Highway Restaurant’ and to features on the radio and in such national publications as the Saturday Evening Post,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Celebrity visitors including crooner Bing Crosby, boxer Jack Dempsey and California Gov. and future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The sign still visible today was erected in 1963 at a cost of $78,000, no mean sum more than 50 years ago.

The restaurant was eventually done in by rising food prices and increased competition, particularly from fast-food chains.

It closed in 1986 following damage from a violent windstorm and never reopened. In time, vagrants began inhabiting the structure, and in 2000 what remained of the building was razed.

Only the sign remains, a witness to the pre-chain-restaurant era, when part of the fun of vacationing involved the journey itself, and eateries put more emphasis on the quality of their food than on gimmicks used to lure travelers inside.

Georgia town tries to keep one foot in past, one in present

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Hundreds of US towns, cites, counties, lakes, etc. bear the name Washington – most, one would think, in honor of George Washington, although it’s possible baseball vagabond Claudell Washington may have been recognized by a locale or two in recent years.

The first town to name itself for America’s Founding Father was Washington, Ga., which definitely took a leap of faith when it opted to identify itself with the then-commander in chief of patriot forces in January 1780. At that point, the colonies’ hopes for defeating the British in the American Revolution were very much touch and go, and would be for another 18 months.

One imagines that if the war had gone the other way, British and loyalist forces would not have looked kindly on those who opted to name their town for the defeated rebel leader.

Today, Washington is a bucolic community of about 4,000, with a surprising number of antebellum mansions – more than 100 – including that of Confederate Secretary of State and later General Robert Toombs; the residence of planter John Talbot – now called the Griggs Home – where Eli Whitney spent time perfecting his cotton gin; and the Slaton Home, where Sarah Porter Hillhouse, Georgia’s first female newspaper editor, lived more than 200 years ago.

At the heart of the town is the Washington’s court square, which, more accurately, is shaped like a rectangle and is surrounded by one- and two-story brick buildings.
Many date from the late 1890s, having been built after a particularly devastating fire in June 1895 that claimed five stores, an office building, a wagon-and-machine shop and a residence. In addition, the town’s Episcopal church and two other dwellings were seriously damaged.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Obviously, the conflagration wasn’t on par with the great Chicago Fire of 1871, but in a town that then claimed 2,000 residents, such a blaze could have proved debilitating to business and citizenry alike.

The town’s residents didn’t take long to rebound; several of the structures in the court square bear the date 1895.

Propelled by agriculture and its position on a key rail line, Washington continued to thrive despite the occasional setback.

A short distance from courthouse square sits the old Barrows House Hotel (above), built by Edward F. Barrows, an architect who assisted with construction of the Atlanta Penitentiary.

The Barrows Hotel opened in 1899, and was a two-story, Romanesque Revival-style, brick building that featured a square, two-and-a-half story corner tower, a parapet roof with elaborate cornice, round-arched windows and an arcaded first floor on the front facade.

The hotel sat across from the old Georgia Railroad depot and was built to accommodate “drummers,” or traveling salesmen.

But, like the town, and rural communities across the region, the hotel has fallen on hard times in recent decades.

The train depot was demolished in the 1970s and the hotel itself has been in disrepair for at least that long. Still, despite creeping foliage, scattered debris and the occasional broken window, the structure retains at least a sliver of its past grandeur.

In recent years Washington has embraced efforts to renovate many of its many older structures. Taking on a project the magnitude of the Barrows House Hotel would be no mean feat, but it would be a worthy compliment to the other stunningly restored edifices around the attractive Southern town.

(Top: Barrows House Hotel, located on Depot Street, Washington, Ga.)

Zzyzx, Calif.: Where a charlatan created an empire

zzyzx-road

Just off Interstate-15 in a lonely section of San Bernardino County, Calif., sits the implausibly named locale of Zzyzx.

To get there, you take 4.5-mile-long Zzyzx Road.

The name was the creation of a quack preacher/televangelist/medicine man named Curtis Howe Springer, who arrived in the Southern California area in 1944.

Looking to set up a health spa, Springer came up with the name Zzyzx. By naming his spa the Zzyzx Mineral Springs resort, he was able to claim that it would be known as “the last word in health,” according to the website Roadtrippers.com.

Springer, born in 1896 in Alabama, had already enjoyed a lively career traveling the nation preaching, promoting various endeavors, selling fraudulent cures and working to stay a step ahead of authorities by the time he arrived in California.

Among his many enterprises was founding health spas. During the 1930s and 1940s, he opened a spa in Fort Hill, Pa., and tried to open others in Maryland and Iowa. But because Springer wasn’t fond of paying taxes, he lost his Pennsylvania spa to government seizure.

By the mid-1940s Springer had headed west and, working in conjunction with an associate, filed a claim to 12,800 acres in California’s Mojave Desert.

Springer, ever the resourceful sort, hired homeless men from Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row to build the Zzyzx resort.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Springer’s resort, which ultimately included a 60-room hotel, spa, mineral baths, a radio studio, and a church, was built on a fraud. He used a boiler to heat pools around the resort.

He promoted the resort through his radio program, which was carried on more than 320 stations, according to Roadtrippers.com. It also included advertisements for his special remedies.

“Listeners would send in donations for his ‘cures,’ which he claimed could relieve constipation, hemorrhoids, hair loss and, oh yeah, cancer,” according to the website. ”However, what people were getting was, well, actually a bit better than snake oil. It was mostly celery, carrot and parsley juices.”

In the late 1960s, he was “swapping” lots in Zzyzx for large sums of money. If the Feds didn’t take notice of his quack cures, they did eventually catch on to the fact that Springer was making a lot of money and not paying much in taxes.

He was accused of squatting on the land and his claim to Zzyzx was invalidated. Springer and the other inhabitants of the community were evicted, and Springer was convicted for selling junk “cures,” although he served less than two months in jail.

He died in 1985 in Las Vegas.

For the past 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed schools in the California State University system to manage the land in and around Zzyzx.

While the remains of Springer’s charlatan empire is still evident around Zzyzx, the area is now home to a highly regarded Desert Studies Center, the handiwork of a consortium of CSU campuses.

Zimbabwe could be retracing road to hyperinflation

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Zimbabwe introduced a new currency Monday, but citizens of the foundering African nation aren’t exactly embracing the so-called “bond note” money.

Zimbabwe has been operating to a large degree on US dollars since 2009, after the Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned following some of the worst inflation in world history – peaking at something akin to 500 billion percent – that left residents barely able to buy such items as a single egg with a 1 billion dollar banknote.

The government introduced the new currency in the form of 1 dollar bond coins and 2 dollar bond notes to address the shortage of US dollars and to boost exports. But many say they aren’t buying into the government’s plan.

“They are only giving us bond notes because they don’t have real dollars,” Lovemore Chitongo, 40, a shoe salesman in Harare, told Agence France-Presse. “There is no way the bond note will be equal to the US dollar. The market will determine the exchange rate.”

Proof that government dictates and reality often don’t match up could be seen in the fact that Chitongo was charging $20 in US dollars per pair of shoes but 25 dollars in bond notes.

He would use the difference to buy US dollars on the black market, he told AFP.

What will shortly begin happening in Zimbabwe if citizens lose confidence in the new currency is that bond notes will be refused, or, if citizens are legally required to accept them, they will keep the US dollars and pass the bond notes on to someone else as quickly as possible.

Following the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009 the country switched to a multi-currency system, according to Newsweek. At least nine currencies are now legal tender in Zimbabwe: the US dollar, the South African rand, the euro, the British pound, the Australian dollar, the Botswana pula, the Japanese yen, the Indian rupee and the Chinese yuan.

Not all are accepted by Zimbabwean traders, however. The US dollar is the most widely-used currency.

Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed under President Robert Mugabe’s chronic mismanagement. The nation’s leader since 1980, Mugabe sped redistribution of Zimbabwe’s farms from white landowners to blacks through forced confiscation beginning early last decade. Coupled with corruption and misconduct, droughts and an AIDS crisis, the nation of 13 million collapsed economically in 2009.

In fact, inflation was so bad it’s not certain whether anyone knows the exact rate at its peak.

While Zimbabwe officials cited an official inflation rate of 11.2 million percent in August 2008, the International Monetary Fund stated the country was suffering from 500 billion annual inflation rate and Newsweek asserted that Zimbabwe’s inflation rate reportedly peaked at “around 90 sextillion percent – or nine followed by 22 zeros.”

In an effort to win citizens to the new currency, the central bank recently launched an advertising campaign trying to allay people’s fears, saying retailers and businesses had agreed to accept the new currency.

However, opposition to bond notes has sparked fierce anti-government protests which have resulted in brutal police crackdowns.

Police on Monday broke up a protest planned by the pressure group Tajamuka in Harare and arrested the group’s spokesman, according to Agence France-Presse.

“The government is only treating the symptoms without attending to the problems,” Antony Hawkins, an economist at the University of Zimbabwe’s Business School, told the wire service. “We are not earning enough foreign currency and bond notes are not going to solve that. It will make the situation worse.”

In past few weeks, many Zimbabweans slept in lines outside banks so that they would have a better chance to withdraw US dollars from their accounts. Many are concerned that their US dollars were going to be converted into bond notes.

Banks, however, put severe limits on daily withdrawals, just $50 a day, up to $150 a week.

“I will take payments in bond notes but the big question is what do I do with them since some shops are refusing to accept them?” Lewis Mapira, a taxi driver in Harare, told AFP.

(Top: A Zimbabwean holds up 2 dollar bond notes, which began circulating Monday.)

Recalling a Canadian writer’s memory of distressed Wales

rhondda-mawr

If one travels for any length of time, one is bound to experience an unhappy adventure or two. What turns a miserable traveling experience into one that can be looked back on with, if not fondness, than at least a smile is the ability to take something away from the experience, be it a lesson, a memory or the ability to count one’s blessings.

George Woodcock (1912-1995) was a noted Canadian writer of political biography and history, an anarchist thinker and a literary critic. He also published several volumes of travel writing. As such, he experienced his share of “bad trips.” Among those that stood out was one he took in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, while in his early 20s.

Woodcock was born in Canada but grew up in England. While he would later move back to Canada after World War II, he had an aunt who lived in the Glamorgan region in South Wales, which gave him the chance for free holidays. Apparently, he got what he paid for:

One day, when I was visiting her, I decided to take a bus and visit the Rhondda area, the heart of the South Wales mining district. Rhondda has a special place in the thoughts of those with Welsh connections, for one of the finest of all Welsh songs – stunning when the daios from the valley sing it at a rugby match – is called ‘Cwm Rhondda’  the hill of Rhondda. There are actually two valleys – Rhondda Mawr, Great Rhondda, or the main valley, and Rhondda Fach, the lesser valley of little Rhondda that branches off from it. I intended to go up Rhondda Mawr, cross over the intervening hills, and come down in Rhondda Fach, which I would descend and then make my way back to Bridgend, where I was staying.

It was the worst of times in Rhondda, though it probably looked just a little better than the best of times, since most of the mines were not working, and the smoke that would normally have given a dark, satanic aspect to the landscape was less evident that in more prosperous days. Still, it was dismal enough: a long ribbon of a main road with no real gap in the houses, so that it seemed like a single serpentine town, thickening out at each village centre like knots on a string. The houses were mostly built of gray stone long turned black from soot. In the middle distance reared up the gaunt towers and immense wheels of the pitheads and the truncated pyramids of the slag heaps. There were a few sickly trees among the houses, but the hills on each side were bare and greenish brown; spring had hardly begun.

It had the feeling of occupied territory. Many of the shops had gone out of business, the mines had slowed down years ago, and the General Strike of 1926 – disastrous for the workers – had delivered the coup de grace to the local economy. The people were shabby and resentful. Groups of ragged men squatted on their haunches, as miners do, and played pitch-and-toss with buttons; they had no halfpennies to venture. A man came strolling down the street, dejectedly whistling ‘The Red Flag’ in slow time as if it were a dirge.

Later, after being caught on the hills in a drenching downpour, Woodcock soddenly came across a slag heap where approximately 50 men and women were industriously picking over the ground.

I caught up with a man walking along the overgrown road from the mine into the village, whose damp slate roofs I could see glistening about half a mile away. He was pushing a rusty old bicycle that had no saddle and no tires, but it served to transport the dirty gunnysack he had tied onto the handle bars. He had been picking coat from the lagheap. ‘No bigger nor walnuts, man,’ he explained. The big coal had been taken years ago, so long ago it was since work had been seen in the village. I asked him how long he had been unemployed. ‘Ach y fi, man, it’s nine years I’ve been wasting and wasted.’ Yet he was friendly, perhaps because I looked such a wretched object that he saw me as an equal in misery.

(Top: View of Rhondda Valley today.)

More proof that life is even harder when you’re stupid

penny-ante

One occasionally hears of criminals who pull off deeds so brilliant that it leaves one wondering why they simply didn’t pursue a more honest line of work. These sorts obviously possess the vision, ingenuity and resourcefulness always in demand in the business world.

Then you have individuals such as Robert Napolitan of Scott Township, Pa.

Police in nearby Taylor, just outside Scranton, have accused the 34-year-old with taking a steel drum filled with 300,000 pennies from a trucking company.

A criminal complaint says he loaded the drum, which weighed 1,600 pounds, onto a hand truck at the company last week and rolled it to his Jeep.

Robert Napolitan of Scott Township, Pa. Not exactly Ronnie Biggs.

Robert Napolitan of Scott Township, Pa. Not exactly Ronnie Biggs.

“Mr. Napolitan had a key to the building’s back door and informed a company dispatcher he would be there late at night during the Labor Day holiday weekend to remove parts from a disabled Dodge Durango,” according to the Scranton Times-Tribune. “Security camera footage captured his white Jeep Cherokee pulling in at 2:30 a.m. Monday but did not show he worked on the Dodge.”

Tracks through the dust and a trail of pennies marked Napolitan’s path, according to a police affidavit.

Police searched his Jeep and found 89 pennies underneath the seats and floor mats.

Police say Napolitan admitted to taking the drum and its $3,000 in contents.

One supposes that rather than spend the next 225 years rolling the pennies into paper sleeves, Napolitan would likely have taken the coins to a smelter and tried to cash them in for their metallic value. However, when it comes to “less-gifted” lawbreakers, one never knows.

For his trouble, Napolitan was jailed in Lackawanna County in lieu of $50,000 bail.