You don’t understand the humiliation of it — to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable — that somebody is watching … Don’t you see?! We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people!

The Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

Kottke — The World’s Most Beautiful Gas Stations

Del taco building

The World’s Most Beautiful Gas Stations:

May these buildings and their less attractive brethren soon fade into obsolescence, be converted to electric car/bike charging stations, or be repurposed for other things.

These are great. Perhaps not so spectacular, but as a local pick I’d add this one on Grand in St. Louis — I first knew it as a Del Taco restaurant, subsequently renovated into a Starbucks/Chipotle.

Birds Point breached a decade ago — read the stories

Photo: The Ohio River at Cairo, Ill. several days before the levee was breached. Photo by Brent Jones.

Ten years ago tonight, the Army Corps of Engineers breached the Birds Point levee, activating the Birds Point-New Madrid Spillway to relieve flooding at Cairo, Ill. and around the region.

The Ohio River at Cairo had its record crest May 2, 2011, at 61.72 feet. That’s more than 2 feet higher than the previous record of 59.50 in 1937. The Mississippi was also running high: the gauge at Thebes, Ill., a few dozen miles upstream of Cairo, registered its third-highest reading — slightly higher than it was during the summer of 1993.

Rob Koenig and Nancy Fowler reported for the St. Louis Beacon (now part of St. Louis Public Radio):

Deploying a flood-control tool it had not used in 74 years, the Army Corps of Engineers detonated explosives to breach part of the Birds Point levee in Missouri’s Bootheel late Monday to ease the flooding in Cairo, Ill., and elsewhere in the region.

The decision to “activate” the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway shortly after 10 p.m. was made by Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, who said in a statement that “we must use everything we have . . . to prevent a more catastrophic event.”

When the first segment of the two-mile-long “fuse plug” levee was breached, witnesses reported hearing a loud boom and seeing six orange flashes in the darkness, which prevented journalists from seeing how quickly the swollen Mississippi River rushed into the farmland of the floodway. Another segment of the frontline levee was to be breached by explosion later in the night, and a third segment on Tuesday morning.

In the following days and months, reporter Mary Leonard would travel to Sikeston, East Prairie, Dorena and other communities affected by the Corps’ decision. Here are the stories of some of those who lived there:

For farmers, the levee breach ‘is history now,’ but they struggle with how to ‘move on’

SIKESTON – Jack Feezor gazed at a white rooftop just visible in the distance — across the brackish flow of river water that now runs over Highway D in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

“It’s history now. We move on,” he said quietly as a handful of local residents took in the sights and sounds from this dry stretch of two-lane pavement at the edge of life as they’ve known it.

Annual Bootheel festival goes on amid worries that a way of life has changed forever

As a steamy Friday afternoon melted into a hot June weekend, residents of East Prairie — a town of 3,000 just outside the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway — gathered to welcome about 800 bicyclists who would ride through the surrounding countryside the next morning in an annual event dubbed the Tour de Corn.

Back to the spillway: In Dorena, the breach of the levee swept away what time had spared

The white steeple of the Dorena Baptist Church still stands tall against the blue Missouri sky, despite the flood-shattered condition of this beloved house of worship located in the southeastern section of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

There will be no Sunday services here ever again, said the Rev. LeRoy Davenport, who served as pastor of the little Southern Baptist church on Highway 77 in Dorena.

“It is through. It will never be rebuilt,” Davenport said.

Back to the spillway: Residents of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway must decide where to live

DORENA, Mo. — Ruben Bennett, 88, was just down the road from his flood-wrecked home on this hot afternoon checking out a new place to live.

Bennett — everyone calls him “Brother Bennett” — is a local icon. He sold groceries and gas for 45 years in the old farming community of Dorena, at the southeast edge of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. Although his little store has been closed for some time, Bennett still lived on the second floor of the modest white-shingled building trimmed in green — until it was claimed by the floodwaters of the Mississippi.

“You’d have to have a picture of it,” Brother Bennett said. “It tore it all to pieces. Can’t repair it.”

Back to the spillway: The drama of the flooding secures its place in local history

LaWanda Douglas, 84, is on a mission these days, determined to add today’s history to the exhibits at the Mississippi County Historical Museum in East Prairie: front pages of local newspapers chronicling the intentional breach of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway on May 2 by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The most dramatic, she believes, was the May 10 edition of Charleston’s Enterprise-Courier. Spread across the page is a picture of the nighttime explosion of the levee, imprinted with the time and date, and a three-word headline:

They Did It

Back to the spillway: The Wallaces rebuild

Milus and Wanda Wallace can’t move heaven, but they are moving tons of earth to live once again on their “slice of heaven” in the southern section of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

The Wallaces’ Mississippi County farm was among the 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland inundated by floodwater in May after the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the levee in three places to alleviate flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the Mississippi River.

While workers from the Corps work nearby to repair damage at the center crevasse in the levee, the Wallaces are still trying to put their farm — and their lives — back together.

Back to the spillway: Getting the harvest in

An autumn Welcome flag on the front porch sends a cheerful greeting to anyone who might drive past the little house that McIvan Jones has renovated on his farm in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

There are few signs of life along the roads that meander through the southern section of the spillway near Dorena, Mo., save for the farmers working on this November afternoon to bring in the last of their fall crops and a crew still repairing the Mississippi River levee nearby. Jones’ farm is part of the 130,000 acres of farmland that was inundated by river water last May after the Army Corps of Engineers breached the levee in three places to alleviate flooding along the Mississippi.

Six months later, only a handful of the 200 or so people who used to reside in the floodway have returned to live there.

Back to the spillway: Staying or moving, memories remain

DORENA, MO. — For 89-year-old Ruben “Brother” Bennett, home is now a trailer parked next to the flood-shattered ruins of his country store located in the southern part of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

This house on wheels provides Bennett with the basics — a compact kitchen and a place to live and sleep — just feet from his old life that is beyond repair. Bennett, who sold groceries and gas for 45 years in the old farming community of Dorena, is a well-known floodway old-timer. He used to live on the second floor of the modest frame structure that he said would cost too much to fix.

2020: Less gas

In 2020, I got less gas.

As a result of the global pandemic, I didn’t drive my car, a 2013 Mini Cooper Clubman, much. My last regular work-week was at the end of February. I then flew to a work conference during the first week of March, returned via train, and immediately began working from home. A college course I teach went to online learning. Even occasional short trips to the grocery store were usually made in my wife’s SUV, so we could stock up and therefore go less often.

Driving picked up toward the end of the year. After buying a new house about 12 miles from the old one, I made many trips between the two, doing work. I also made one 460 mile roundtrip to my hometown.


Fuel consumption and miles driven dropped about 40 percent between 2019 and 2020, and owing to lower gas prices, money spent dropped by more than half. Average miles-per-gallon in 2020 was higher than it’s been over the life of the car. I filled the tank 23 times in 2019, but only 13 in 2020.

Note: Some data was lost spanning the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. See Methodology section for details.

Detailed stats

My car’s fuel consumption dropped more than 40 percent — from nearly 300 gallons in 2019 to about 169 in 2020. In the six full years I’d owned my car prior to 2020, I’d never bought less than 200 gallons.

My total expenses for gas dropped by about half, from $773 in 2019 to $383 in 2020. The quantity I bought only went down 40%, but the average price dropped too — I paid an average of $2.58 / gallon in 2019, but only $2.27 / gallon in 2020. Between 2014 and 2019, I’d never paid less than $550 to fill the tank for the year.

I drove about 4,000 fewer miles. In 2019, I drove about 9,485 miles, but in 2020 I drove just 5,435. This again is a significant drop-off during the life of the car. Between 2014 and 2019, I’d never driven under 7,000 miles in a year.

My average miles-per-gallon went up as well. In 2020 I got about 32.33 miles per gallon. I’d never cracked 32 before, though 2019 hit 31.96 mpg. This can likely be attributed to a greater percentage of my miles being long-distance driving. In 2020, more than 40% of my total miles driven can be attributed to trips to the college I teach at and the one long trip to my hometown. In 2019 long trips accounted for less than 40% of the total miles driven.


I most often fill the tank when it’s nearly empty. In 128 out of 136 purchases, the average amount purchased was 13.28 gallons, with a standard deviation of .69.

I try to log all my gas purchases, and am mostly successful. Over the 7+ years I’ve owned my current car, I’ve logged information for 136 fuel purchases. Most of these include date, gallons purchased, price per gallon and current odometer reading.

However, due to a technology error1, information was lost for an assumed eight fill-ups between 2019–09–21 and 2020–02–05.

Reconstructing the missing data

I am assuming eight purchases were lost for two reasons:

  1. I’m able to identify eight gas station purchases during the missing time period in credit card records.
  2. The odometer readings before and after the gap, divided by the size of the gap, yields a reasonable average mileage.

I was able to recover the mileage only for three of these events, so the odometer gap is only five purchases. This gap is 2,336 miles — dividing by six (that’s five unknown fill-ups) gets 389.3 miles. This would be in the upper 20th percentile of all known distances driven on one tank of gas. Attempting to distribute the 2,336 miles over four fill-ups gets more than 467 miles per tank, which would be in the 90th percentile.

Estimating amount purchased

For the eight transactions, I simply assumed the amount of gas purchased each time was the average amount I’d purchased over the life of the car — 13.275 gallons. As mentioned, this number is fairly stable — a standard deviation of about .7 gallons.

Estimating price per gallon

From the credit card records, I had the total amount of the purchase. I divided this by the estimated amount purchased.

Estimating odometer reading

As I said, I was able to recover mileage for three of the eight fill-ups. Therefore the gap where the mileage is unknown is five. I evenly distributed the total miles driven among these five, resulting in an odometer increase of 389 miles for each fill-up.

Effect of data reconstruction

Five of the eight purchases missing data were in 2019, with the balance in 2020.

The 66.36 estimated gallons purchased is 22.2 percent of the total amount of gas in 2019 (including the estimated amount). For 2020, the 39.8 estimated gallons represent 23.6 percent of the total.

The mileage and gallons work out to 29.3 miles per gallon for the estimated data. This would be significantly lower than average — just under the 30th percentile for the known 2019 data and just under the 20th percentile for the known 2020 data.

  1. I created a Shortcut on my iPhone that would fill in the date and ask me for the gallons, price and mileage, then send this info to a CSV file in Dropbox. Somehow the connection was lost so that the shortcut appeared to work correctly but the data was not saved in the file.  ↩

2020 in review

Bought a new house. Worked from it (and the old house) a lot. Oldest kid started kindergarten (remotely). Went on a couple trips. That’s the highlights.

New house

Most prominently, my family bought a new house. It’s only about 8 miles as the crow flies from the old house. The process was a struggle, partly because two kids and a global pandemic makes it difficult to visit as many options as easily as we’d have liked. Partly because the market was extremely hot — we were outbid on the first house we made an offer on, and we’d offered asking price (or maybe even more, I forget). We also had at least one showing canceled because the buyer accepted an offer between the time we scheduled it and when it was scheduled for, and we visited a house for a showing that had — unbeknownst to us and our realtor — already been sold shortly before.

Still, we eventually found a great one that backs onto common ground woods and a creek, with more woods behind it. We’ve seen deer and turkey, and a wide variety of birds, among other animals. Collected some neat rocks along the creek. We’re pretty happy with it.

Which leaves the old house, which has been a bit of a pain to deal with. I haven’t had much luck in finding people to do some fairly light work that needs done before putting it on the market, so I’ve been getting done what I can myself in bits and pieces. Things like resealing the basement walls, patching and painting, etc. Probably the biggest bits are replacing light fixtures, replacing carpet upstairs, and removing sticky vinyl tile from the bathroom floor to reveal — as our realtor suspected — the original 1940s tile floor in great condition underneath. Great condition other than needing to remove all the adhesive, clean and probably regrout the whole thing. I hope I will not be writing about the old house in the 2021 in review other than to say we sold it.


Went on a couple trips this year.

In January we drove to Minnesota for a funeral in my wife’s family.

At the beginning of March, I went to New Orleans for the 2020 NICAR convention. There had been some question leading up to it whether or not it would happen, but the organizers were pretty consistent in saying it would. And it did.

The conference itself was fine. I’d never been to New Orleans. I flew down, wandered around the city a bit as usual, before the conference. I led sessions on GitHub and file organization, as well as helping out in a sort of “office hours”-type session. Played Wingspan with some folks one night at the hotel bar. The party was at the aquarium on the waterfront, which was quite nice.

Power line towers receding across a lake

After the conference, I took Amtrak back to St. Louis, via Chicago. I visited with Pete in Chicago and ate, if I recall correctly, my last meal in a restaurant in 2020 — March 9 at Breakfast House. I also managed to find Anderson Pens’ Chicago location (new to me). It would close (“temporarily” — but it’s still closed) a little more than a week later.

When I arrived home, I asked my boss whether he thought it might be best if I worked from home for a week, just as a precaution. Later that evening I got an email announcement that a conference attendee had tested positive (another would follow several days later, but that was the last we heard of spread related to the conference). And shortly after that, everyone was working from home.

Other than that, I haven’t been much of anywhere. I took the kids for a drive through Lone Elk Park but we stayed in the car. I also traveled back to Danville for an estate sale at my grandparents’ house, but I went by myself.


(Other than surviving a global pandemic). My singing group, the Greenleaf Singers put on a concert on January 5. And then that was it. We haven’t been able to sing together since. Though the St. Louis Renaissance Faire still went on, we didn’t perform. The Christmas concerts we normally sing were cancelled. I’ve made the least music this year in at least a decade, and I miss it so much. Our group has gotten together on Zoom a few times, just to hang out, but the singing doesn’t work so well.

Rock with fossils

Photography has been on the upswing, especially since buying the new house. The variety of things to see, plants and animals in the woods and along the creek is great for taking pictures.

The kids and I have been down to walk around the creek a few times to go rockhounding. There are some fossils and other interesting rocks to be found, and the creek floods quite a bit so I think the rocks should turn over a fair amount.

A male cardinal landing on a feeder

A very new hobby (like within the past few days) is birding. After noticing the large variety of birds at the new house, I anticipated getting a feeder at some point. Then I saw a sale on 20 lb. bags of mixed feed for $5 just after Christmas, and jumped on it. I hung a tube feeder, which was successful, and then built a crude platform feeder for larger birds, which has also been ok so far. This is in turn allowing for some fantastic photos (I set the feeders up not far from a convenient spot) and even live-streaming.

Geekway to the West was canceled this year, so we didn’t get to go to that. Consequently (and between moving, et al.) we haven’t played a lot of games this year. We did buy Wingspan for Tabletop Simulator and play through that a couple times.


I taught data journalism at SIU for the second time. It went well, despite meeting virtually for the second half. For the upcoming spring semester I’ll be teaching that again as well as a visual communication course.


It was, no surprise, largely focused on the pandemic. I built a dashboard and a bot for our Slack that helps broadcast the stats to our reporters daily. Also worked on the election, of course. Flew the drone a couple times, including at a drive-in open for business during the pandemic. Among many many other things.

I think I’ve been into the newsroom a total of three or four times since the end of February.


Some media I enjoyed this year, in no particular order:

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven’s 9th. Enough said.

Chris Thile and Andrew Bird played an incredibly joyful rendition of ‘Blue Skies’ on Live From Here. Also Live From Here got canceled, which is still disappointing to me.

I greatly enjoyed the streamed Sondheim 90th Birthday Concert.

Watched the filmed version of Hamilton on Disney+.

Speaking of streaming services, when we moved, we canceled DirecTV and got Hulu’s live TV service. So far, so good.

I watched the Cardinals play on opening day, which I’ve always enjoyed but was particularly significant this year amid the uncertainty.

I highly enjoyed AppleTV’s Central Park animated series, as well as Ted Lasso. My kids have also enjoyed Helpsters.

I didn’t read a whole lot. I borrowed the biography Weird Al: Seriously, and The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History from the library.

I watched a lot of YouTube:

  • Cracking the Cryptic’s sudoku, which I’ve been enjoying the challenge of attempting every so often. The Miracle Sudoku is what introduced me and many other people to the channel.
  • Late last year, we’d started watching the British comedy game show Taskmaster, and continued that as they posted new episodes.
  • Adam Savage, formerly of Mythbusters, has been doing a fantastic job during the pandemic on his channel Tested.

Siri and alarms

This is probably common enough knowledge if you use Siri often, but I don’t so here I am: If you ask Siri, at least on HomePod, “how long until my next alarm”, the answer will include alarms that are turned off.

This morning, my kid set an alarm for his next school meeting, but got the time wrong. I told Siri to “cancel the alarm”. Siri confirmed the alarm had been turned off. Then my kid correctly set an alarm.

A while later, my kid asked how long until his class. So we asked Siri “how long until my alarm”. Siri gave an incorrect time. Took me a minute to figure out the time was until the first, canceled alarm.

I asked Siri “what are my alarms”, and it listed both (but confirmed the incorrect one was turned off). I deleted the incorrect one.

Now asking “how long until my alarm” gives the right answer. It was confusing to me that asking “how long until my alarm” would include an alarm that’s turned off, but maybe there are situations where that would make sense.