#trending

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(Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

When news broke that Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, it triggered an outpouring of heartfelt reactions online. It was news big enough to eclipse the Super Bowl and heartbreaking enough to elicit genuine sadness.

But not all reactions were sympathetic. That day, actor Jared Padalecki called Hoffman’s death “stupid” and “senseless,” and he’s not the only one who voiced this opinion.

According to the New York Times, police confirmed Hoffman died of a drug overdose, most likely due to heroin.

All over social media, peppered amid the deluge of mourning, were comments similar to Padlecki’s — people claiming Hoffman’s death was not tragic, that they had a hard time feeling sad because, after all, these were his bad choices. No one forced a needle into his arm.

And while that’s true, it also ignores so many important parts of his story and of addiction in general. Writing it off in such a way is unfairly callous.

Hoffman was reportedly sober for 23 years and only recently relapsed. Addiction is a disease an afflicted person will battle his entire life — one that requires treatment and compassion.

Steve Wildsmith is the weekend editor at the Daily Times in Maryville, and he’s also a recovering addict.

“It’s a fundamental disease that most people cannot comprehend,” Wildsmith said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’re clean, your disease is out there doing pushups, waiting for you to slip up.”

Wildsmith talks candidly about his recovery and wrote a blog post recently about the two years he spent at Knoxville’s E.M. Jellinek Center, a drug and alcohol rehab facility.

When you’re an addict, “you exist, but you don’t live,” he explained. “It’s a place of darkness, like you’re one of the extras in ‘The Walking Dead.’ ”

Hoffman’s death, while tragic, has had at least one positive effect: It’s sparked important conversations about addiction that many, especially those quick to judge, need to hear.

As celebrities and journalists open up about their own struggles with addiction (I found David Carr's and Jeff Deeney's accounts particularly insightful) and new drug legislation is discussed (Have you heard of naloxone, an opiate overdose reversal medicine that can help save people from overdoses?), these issues come into better focus.

“The takeaway is that it can happen to anybody,” Wildsmith said. “So we need to do what we can to help all these other Philip Seymour Hoffmans who don’t have his fame or money or recognition.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 38,000 drug overdose deaths per year in the United States — more than 100 per day. And help isn’t always readily available, even locally.

“It’s a terrible thing here in Knoxville. There are more (people) than there are places to go,” said Johnny Lewis, executive director of the E.M. Jellinek Center, where the waiting list is approximately four to five months. “The majority just stay in jail until they can get in over here.”

And at Knoxville’s Helen Ross McNabb Center’s drug rehab facility, it’s even longer. According to PR coordinator Emily Scheuneman, if someone were to come in wanting immediate inpatient care, the waiting list is one year. For someone seeking outpatient care, it would still be 10 weeks.

Whether it’s 10 weeks, five months or one year, that can feel like more than a lifetime to an addict needing help.

The answer to this epidemic is neither to judge nor to punish — it’s to provide treatment and empathy.

As Meghan Ralston of the Drug Policy Alliance said, “We need doctors, not jail cells.”

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(Photo by Adam Brimer/News Sentinel)

The countdown has begun — and it’s now less than a week until Bonnaroo 2013 commences.

Bonnaroo, of course, is a music festival that takes place in Manchester, Tenn., on a 700-acre farm. About 80,000 campers congregate to listen to more than 150 musical performances on more than 10 stages. There’s music, art, comedy — and lots more.

Social media is an essential part of the Bonnaroo experience, whether you’re on the farm or watching from afar.

One of the quintessential go-to places for keeping tabs on ’Roo is the Bonnaroo team. Aside from their official website, they have a strong presence on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram and Tumblr. They do it all, and they do it well.

Spotify is one of the newer tools the Bonnaroo staff has embraced, and it’s the perfect medium. It’s a digital music service that gives users on-demand access to millions of tracks. For those wanting to get in the Bonnaroo spirit, the team has compiled a playlist featuring the 2013 lineup.

The team will also be continuing its recent tradition of livestreaming some of the performances for those who can’t attend this year. The ‘Roo webcast will broadcast live on Ustream starting Friday, June 14.

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(Photo by Adam Brimer/News Sentinel)

But when it comes down to Bonnaroo and social media, there is a clear winner — and it’s Twitter. According to data released by the social network after last year’s festival wrapped up, there were a total of 32,000 mentions of Bonnaroo. And across all social sites, Twitter accounted for 91 percent of all mentions of ‘Roo.

This year, the official hashtag for the event is simple — #bonnaroo. There are bound to be other versions and sub-hashtags, but for a steady stream of ‘Roo-related posts, that’s the safest bet.

The reality is Bonnaroo serves as an annual check-up on the state of social media. New and old tools alike are put to the test, and we learn a lot in the process.

One of those new tools that will likely change the game this year is Vine, which some call a mix between YouTube and Instagram. It’s a new app that allows users to capture and share short, looping videos — almost like animated GIFs with audio.

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(LiL iFFy. Photo by Rachel Wise)

Vine also happens to be a favorite among the members of rap act LiL iFFy, the only Knoxville artist invited to this year’s Bonnaroo.

“I like how easy it is to use and the ability to crudely edit together tiny, six-second films,” said Thomas Thibus, producer for LiL iFFy. “It’s super simple and super effective.”

Hip-hop acts and Bonnaroo might not seem like a natural pair, but you’d be surprised.

A couple of years ago, VH1 analyzed data culled from social media and found that hip-hop and rap artists crushed the competition on social media.

It may seem surprising that hip-hop would dominate anything at Bonnaroo, the giant music festival (and party) that began in Tennessee a decade ago with hippie-ish jam bands and roots rock. But this is what we discovered when using Next Big Sound to gather social media stats on all 150 or so acts on the lineup.

At knoxville.com, we’ve found similar results. I compiled a list of the top 10 most-watched Bonnaroo performance videos that we’ve posted over the years, and the top 2? Eminem and Lil Wayne. In fact, hip-hop artists comprise 4 of the total top 10.

It’s fitting, then, that this year, we have chosen to team up with LiL iFFy. Members of the Harry Potter rap group will be sharing content and allowing our readers to see the festival from a unique point of view.

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(Photo by AP/Keystone, Martial Trezzini)

“We’ll share (posts) of various acts and behind-the-scenes stuff,” said Thibus, who performs under the name DJ Tom Ato. “It would be awesome to get some Vines of us with other artists.”

Keep an eye on knoxville.com and @bonnaroonews on Twitter in the days leading up to the festival. We’ll be sharing some of our archived content as well as helpful tips for this year’s festival.

It’s my turn for the #trending column this Sunday. In order to write a less impassioned but more informed piece, I did a TON of research earlier this week . I wanted to make everything I found available to readers who were interested as it wasn’t as easy as you might think to find information from both sides of the aisle on this hotbed issue. 

First, I’ll give you a little taste of my column: 

Monday, I learned via Twitter that state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, proposed a bill mandating ultrasounds for women seeking to have an abortion. Many clinics already perform ultrasounds to gauge the gestational age of the fetus, but Tracy’s bill proposes a detailed ultrasound that, if the patient refuses to view, will be described to her in detail.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of Feb. 1, eight states have laws requiring women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound, but what is the purpose? Proponents claim that women who can see and hear the fetus will refuse to go through with the procedure. This logic is often shrouded in the phrase “informed consent.” In that spirit, I sought to become as informed as possible.

It’s easy to find arguments that feed whichever rhetoric you choose to espouse. With automatic filters in major search engines, it is difficult to find balanced results from which one might truly become informed. Thankfully, I have DuckDuckGo to rely on — a search engine which doesn’t track or filter bubble.

— I started by reading the text of the bill itself and breaking down what each section of the bill meant. 

— This article from The American Independent was one of the first resources I found. It led me to several of the following articles, studies and data.  

— 1983 article in the “New England Journal of Medicine” by  that anti-abortionists like to quote to “prove” that ultrasounds deter women from having abortions. The study spoke with two women whose ultimate response was “I believe it is human.” 

— I was trying to find information on what year ultrasounds became a part of standard care in obstetrics and gynecology to see if there was any intrinsic value to the Fletcher and Evans paper of 1983. After a couple of hours searching, this was the closest I could find: NIH study from 1979 stating that they still don’t recommend routine use of ultrasounds.

— Jeanne Monahan wrote a (short) paper on ultrasound policy that looks staggeringly similar to many of the legislative movements over the last few years. Included in the footnotes of her report are studies, articles and other related links. 

— If you’ve read my ramblings on Tumblr before, you’re aware of my obsession with infographics. This article from Remapping Debate had some good information on the legislative movement in 2012 to circumvent Roe v. Wade with laws such as the pre-abortion ultrasound. Included, was a colorful state-by-state infographic showing the varying strictness of abortion laws in our nation.

Using that graphic and the “Requirements for Utlrasound” document below, I studied other states which have enacted similar laws.

— I found several good resources at the Guttmacher Institute:

— The Washington Post did an article in 2010 on the abortion rates in countries with universal healthcare. 

— Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health conducted a study that I very much wanted to read, but it was only offered for pay, so I had to settle for a summary and several slides in a PowerPoint presentation

I found this study very interesting — it changed my mind in a small part of this issue. 

— Finally, the Tennessean did a phenomenal project last year called Abortion in Tennessee.” Extraordinary reporting. 

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Ever since the 2010 documentary “Catfish" was released, I’ve been fascinated by this idea of elaborate Internet dating hoaxes. The notion that someone would dedicate so much time to building a fake life and extensive fake network of friends and family, and use it to deceive others — frankly, it blew my mind.

So when the Manti Te’o scandal came to light last week, I grew equally as fascinated. Not only was the story so bizarre and, at this point still somewhat mysterious, but it’s happened so publicly. The bottom line is questions must be answered.

Getting ‘catfished’

In case you’ve never heard of the term, here’s a little about its origin.

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(Filmmakers Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost and Nev Schulman, from left.)

The term “catfish” comes from a 2010 documentary film of the same name, in which a young New Yorker named Nev Schulman has an online relationship with a woman on Facebook that turns out to be much different than it appears. It’s hard to say much more without giving away the ending.

I saw this in theaters when it came out, and it made me think. I’d definitely recommend it. But it didn’t stop there — the film spawned a TV show that debuted recently on MTV. It has a similar premise: People who have developed online relationships seek to learn more about their purported lovers, often discovering unexpected realities.

The Manti Te’o tie-in

I’m pretty sure the world did a collective “HUH?!” when a Jan. 16 Deadspin article came out, saying that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend — the one who allegedly died of leukemia the same day his grandmother died, and who was at the center of many, many news stories — never existed in the first place.

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(Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o after the Nov. 12 game.)

The article revealed that it was all an elaborate hoax. It asserted that Lennay Kekua, the college girl whom Te’o had talked very publicly about and whom he told the world he loved, was a complete fabrication. The details in the story seemed to indicate there was a very complicated web of lies behind this hoax.

It was, and continues to be, largely a mystery. Details are still coming out; reports are still being investigated. But, to me, it indicates something even bigger: Te’o is insisting he’s been “catfished.”

Hitting close to home

Of course, whenever I take on a topic for a column, I try to find some kind of local, East Tennessee tie-in. I want to help make issues relatable for our readers. So it seemed a bit too good to be true when I saw this tweet by Cami Webb:

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Cami Webb, a Gatlinburg native and UT grad currently living in Orlando, had been contacted out of the blue by Christopher Waldron, a student at Syracuse. Waldron alerted her that someone was using her photos to do some “catfishing” of their own.

"So this Te’o thing got me thinking. There’s been this drop dead beautiful girl flirting with me on Facebook. Profile is pretty sketch and no one knows her. I did a reverse picture search and this person is using your pictures. It’s odd but I knew something was up. Name is Venessa Beckwith in Oswego, NY… Who does not exist," Waldron wrote to Webb.

Webb was startled by the random email.

"I initially was shocked, and then felt taken advantage of. This person was using my images to apparently flirt with random guys on the Internet. Even more discomforting was that the profile had been up since 2011. It makes me wonder if there are other imposters out there that I may very well never find," Webb told me.

She proceeded to message “Venessa” and report “her” to Facebook, in addition to enlisting the help of her friends to also report the profile. Although she never received a response from “Venessa,” she did hear back from Facebook days later.

"They (told me they) didn’t find anything wrong with the profile. Turns out she did end up deleting all my photos  — which is all I really wanted," Webb said.

How to spot a ‘catfish’

Just because some people have been duped by fake online profiles doesn’t mean it isn’t OK to engage with people you don’t know online. It does, however, mean you should be more cautious.

When I asked Waldron about his experience with “Venessa” and tracking down Webb, here’s what he told me:

“It was just common sense. There was not much info on the profile, vague answers, and let’s face it, models don’t send Facebook messages to strangers for dates. … Back in the summer, I knew it was a fake profile so I did not pay much attention to it. It was when the Te’o news broke when I said ‘hmm…’ “

Waldron did a reverse image search, which led him to Webb. His advice to others?

"I just think people should pay attention to red flags and bad excuses, like they can’t meet for coffee because their cat got run over for the fifth week in a row, etc."

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Tools to help

The unfortunate truth is that these kinds of Internet dating hoaxes are more common than you might think, which is why it’s important to understand the best ways to guard against it.

“As long as we continue to be lax with our online presence, impersonation will happen,” Webb cautions.

Here are some of the best tips and tools to combat both online identity theft and being duped by a fraud.

  • Understand privacy settings and how best to control them, across all digital platforms and social networking sites. Social networking is great, but too much personal information can make you an easy target. The more someone knows about you, the easier you’ll be to victimize.
  • Use reverse-image searches such as TinEye.com to see if your photos might appear anywhere else online, or if photos of someone you’re communicating with match someone else’s.
  • Set up a Google alert for your name. That way, whenever you’re mentioned on the Web, you’ll know. You can also set up alerts for other people’s names or specific phrases, if you’re suspicious. (It’s free, by the way.)
  • Be wary of people you’ve met online: If you’ve never met in real life or Skyped, why not? At the very least, insist on video chatting. It’s not that hard to find a way to make it work.
  • Be especially suspicious of “models.” As many have noted, models don’t typically look to strangers online for dating or companionship. (It’s possible, but unlikely.)
  • If you want an instant kind of “proof,” have someone hold up a piece of paper with something specific written on it — your name and date, perhaps.
  • Use your best judgment, always. Proceed with caution and understand that sometimes, if it seems too good to be true, it might just be.

The state of Tennessee has landed atop yet another list — this one compiled by D.C.-based reporter Tim Murphy of Mother Jones. In it, Murphy names Tennessee as No. 1 worst legislature in the U.S.

Murphy jokes that the results are scientific in nature, but in truth, it isn’t revealed how he came to the conclusions he did. Regardless, he does spell out examples for each state.

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(Sen. Stacey Campfield was cited numerous times in Mother Jones’ about the
worst legislatures nationwide. Photo by Saul Young/KNS)

As for Tennessee? Here are some of the reasons that Tennessee’s legislature is the worst — or craziest — in the nation, according to Murphy.

  • Gov. Bill Haslam’s signing of the “gateway body parts” bill that legislates an abstinence-only sexual education program, which would prohibit teachers from discussing almost any sexual activity during sex ed class.

  • Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay" bill, which sought to bar any discussion of homosexuality in elementary schools.

  • Campfield’s remarks about the origin of AIDS, in which he says this in a radio interview:

"It was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men It was an airline pilot, I believe, if I recall correctly. …

My understanding and correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Science, on this, but my understanding also is that it is virtually — not completely impossible — it’s virtually impossible to contract AIDS outside of blood transfusions through heterosexual sex. It’s virtually impossible. If you are having anal sex, yes, you are much more likely to contract AIDS.”

  • The “monkey bill,” a piece of legislation that aimed to “provide guidelines for teachers answering students’ questions about evolution, global warming and other scientific subjects” like global warming.

  • Legislation introduced by Republican state Sen. Bo Watson to “crack down on the scourge of transgender citizens, by introducing legislation that, per ThinkProgress, “would institute a $50 fine for anybody who does not use the public restroom or dressing room that matches the sex identification on his or her birth certificate.”

  • Fake rumor circulated through a state email account by Republican state Rep. Kelly Keisling that asserts Obama was planning a “fake assassination attempt as a pretext for imposing martial law in the United States.”

If you’re curious what other examples Murphy cited, or if you want to read about other states’ goofs, check out the story on Mother Jones. And it’s worth noting, for those who may not know, Mother Jones is considered a politically liberal website.

I had several ideas for column topics this week, but when midnight Wednesday rolled around, I knew I had to abandon those options and focus on the painfully obvious: the coaching search at UT.

That’s because at just past midnight Wednesday morning, yet another seemingly unbelievable rumor surfaced, this time being reported by a Memphis TV station.

Twitter exploded. Tweet after tweet echoed the outrageous claim:

This report alleged UT had offered Jon Gruden the head coaching job, and that part of the offer would give Gruden “a piece of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, who were recently bought by Jimmy Haslam III, one of UT’s biggest boosters.”

Later Wednesday, the report was denied by the Browns and by Gruden on the Mike and Mike in the Morning podcast.

But despite a denial, the rumors continued to swirl; in fact, they swelled.

We posted a story on knoxnews.com about that rumor and the denials, but regardless, that story became our most popular story. In fact, it became the most popular story on all of the Scripps newspaper sites around the country for a solid 6 hours.

It was a non-story, but it trumped actual newsworthy articles. It was more read than the story about the Powerball increase to $550 million — which online producer Dave Goddard found surprising.

"It’s like people care more about Tennessee football than $550 million," he said.


(Photo by Amy Smotherman-Burgess/KNS)

But why SO MUCH hype?

OK, listen. As I say in my column, which I realize is bound to offend at least some people, I wish I could stage an intervention. With Tennessee fans.

The continuous hype and never-ending rumors have gotten to me, and to many others, I’m sure. Frankly, I just don’t understand it.

As if the bogus Memphis report wasn’t bad enough, here are some of the other “Grumors” circulating:

  • Jon Gruden sightings: Name a place in Knoxville, and I’m certain someone has claimed to have spotted Gruden there in the last 2 weeks
  • High school tours: Tons of message board posts claim that Gruden and his sons have been touring local schools. There was even an undated, typo-ridden acceptance letter circulating on Twitter.
  • Building an all-Vol staff: Many people have claimed that “sources” have told them Gruden is building an all-Vol dream team comprising former assistant coaches from across the county.

Trying to understand the mania

My reasoning is that no matter what fans say or do, or know or don’t know, it’s not going to change the decision making. Dave Hart will decide what and when he wants — and then we’ll all know. So what’s the obsession really about?

Granted, I’m not a Knoxville native. I’ve lived here for just shy of 2 years, so I’ve got a lot to learn. So, in an effort to understand this mania, I reached out to a couple of colleagues and a good friend to help.

  • It’s the escapism of it. SEC football is such a huge part of Southern culture. And people here grew up either without a pro team or without a real attachment to pro team, so the Vols were it. The Vols were theirs. The obsession with all things Vols, and with the coaching search, comes down to pride. They want to be wanted, and they really don’t want to be rejected, especially by a guy like Gruden. The hype, though intense, is bonding and widespread, a kind of “regional glue.” - Dave Goddard, News Sentinel

  • A coaching change is seen as a fresh start, and Gruden is seen as the savior who can get Tennessee back to the golden days. He’s so hugely popular. And the Gruden possibility seems real this time; last time it was rumored but never really taken seriously. Now, it’s in sight — and fans think “the magical, golden boy Gruden” will come to save the day. - Mike Strange, News Sentinel

  • With no bowl game and no real recruiting happening until the regime change, the football team that these fans think about every minute of every day of the year is now ground to a halt. The radio silence is making everybody exceptionally crazy. And Gruden is really famous, and has a Super Bowl ring, and is heavily sought after every year. I think Tennessee fans are looking for a sign that we’re still “good enough.” We haven’t had a reason to feel worthy in a long time. - Wil Wright


(Jon Gruden in 2002. AP photo)

A very real downside

Well, some might ask, what’s wrong with a little hysteria? It may be annoying, but is it really hurting anyone?

The truth is, the hype really could come with some consequences.

Strange and Wright both made the same point: By continuing to make such a huge deal, especially surrounding Gruden, fans are setting themselves up for a monumental disappointment if he doesn’t come.

"The coaching announcement is going to come like a surprise hammer to the face if it isn’t Jon Gruden, because it reads like one more loss. Even if we get a Jimbo Fisher or Charlie Strong or some other totally capable and exciting coach,” Wright said.

My plea to Tennessee (fans)

Passion is great, but this obsession is a bit much. I wish we would all do a few things.

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Take a few steps back.
  3. Take a grain of salt with every single thing you hear, ESPECIALLY on social media.

Social media as a game changer

As my friend Wil Wright put it, “This is our second coaching change in the golden age of social media, and it changes the conversation entirely.”

Now, with Twitter and Facebook as ubiquitous as they are, the rumors spread father, wider and much faster. Instead of the rumor mill being mostly contained to message boards, which are frequented by the usual suspects, the ceaseless speculation is open for all to see. And see. And see.

But so often, the speculation is nothing but completely fabricated wishes. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve seen random people tweet about Coach So-and-So and UT a “done deal.” “It’s official.” “Will be announced today.”

No. It won’t. Because it’s not true.

And even if something might have a shred of truth to it, you would never know because it’s drowned out by myriad falsehoods.

It’s never been easier to perpetuate rumors. Because for every credible information leak there are 50 believable but totally fabricated rumors and they all look the same on a cell phone,” Wright said.

Want to weigh in? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at WiseR at knoxnews dot com or on Twitter @rkwise.

Here on #trending, we’re all about the lists. Well, I am, anyway. I love it when Knoxville lands placement on a list, whatever it might be, because it means we’re on the map.

In the past, at least on this blog, Knoxville (and sometimes East Tennessee) have been named as follows:

OK, so it’s not all good. But it certainly is interesting, and a pretty eclectic mix of things. The latest list, though? I’d say it’s a pretty good accolade for ol’ Knoxville.

Last week, The Atlantic wrote about a recent analysis by Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. that placed Knoxville on a list of “Cities That Can Show Us How to Create Jobs.”

The study “provides a detailed assessment of the metros that have generated the most robust job growth based on ‘unique regional factors rather than national trends,’ ” The Atlantic explains.

Knoxville didn’t land in the top 10, but it did secure a spot at No. 13.

Recently, News Sentinel reporter Gerald Witt and photographer Amy Smotherman Burgess got a little tour of Knoxville from a unique angle: the sky.

As part of the Greenbelt series — an investigation by the News Sentinel and The Commercial Appeal of Memphis that found numerous examples of people, companies, even churches enjoying huge tax breaks for property that qualifies marginally, if at all, for greenbelt savings — they took a ride in a Cessna over our city.

This was arranged so they could see some of the parcels of land discussed in the series, but that doesn’t mean something a little more light-hearted couldn’t come from it.

(15406 Outlet Drive runs along interstate 40 in west Knoxville. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess)

Much of the aerial video and photos I looked at (captured by Gerald and Amy, respectively) was pretty standard: roadways and greenery in our fair city. But then I saw pieces of the footage that really struck me, so I thought — why not produce a short video?

The video didn’t exactly have a specific purpose, but we had these beautiful shots. I raked through a few hundred selections of stock music to find something to accompany the visuals, and the end product is actually pretty cool.

It’s got a touch of whimsy, and I really like that. Knoxville is such a great city, and I hope this video can help convey that, if only in some small way.

Looks like our Great Smoky Mountains have been making a splash recently.

Today, we ran a story about tourism in our area. According to the Associated Press:

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is running more than 11 percent ahead of 2011 visits for the first half of this year.

EDIT: Here’s an updated link to our more in-depth story on the tourism boost.

Park officials claim that in the month of June alone, there were “a total of 1,202,056 visitors to the 500,000-acre park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.”

I mean, the Smokies are pretty spectacular, and it’s the perfect summertime destination. Imagining a vacation in the Smokies brings endless ideas for fun and relaxing ways to unwind.

And that’s exactly what a Huffington Post article reinforced. Specifically, it highlights Laurel Falls in the Smokies as one of the best waterfalls in U.S. national parks.

In a photo slideshow of 9 different waterfalls, Laurel Falls is featured in the No. 1 spot.

The caption goes on to say:

The park has perfect waterfall conditions, which are twofold — elevation gradient (rain travels over a mile in elevation from the tops of mountains to the foothills — all within the park boundaries) and ample rainfall. Laurel Falls is an iconic example of the falls in the Smokies and is one of the park’s most popular attractions.

Moral of the story? You might want to plan a little mountain getaway this summer. It’s in all our best interests not to take for granted this phenomenal place right in our back yards.

For more information on the Smokies, check out the knoxnews community site, GoSmokies.

Pink elephant with martini in Cross PlainsI love kitsch. Weird knick-knacks, gee-gaws and oddball attractions will get me every time.

When I saw the news that there would be a MoonPie Festival just up the road in Newport, TN I nearly cried with joy. Then I saw the date. The family was going out of town Memorial Day weekend and wouldn’t be able to swing it. I was the only one crushed by this news.

It got me thinking though. We live in an area that’s got to be just RIFE with kitschy festivals and attractions. I’m sure of it! So, I put my gray matter and my fingers to work and did a few searches.

Here, I have compiled for you a list of fun things for you and your family to check out this summer.

  • MoonPie Festival in Bell Buckle, TNIf you missed the MoonPie festival in Newport, worry not. There is another one coming up on June 16 in Bell Buckle, TN! This one boasts watermelon seed spitting contests, MoonPie toss, hog calling contests and the world’s largest MoonPie.
  • Give your stomach a couple of weeks to recover from the sugar high of the MoonPie festival and then head out to Cumberland Gap for the annual White Lightning Festival. You can learn about the distinguished history of moonshine, the people who made and ran it and how it became a sport!
  • Are you just nuts for gourds? Well, the Tojo Creek Gourd Gala on July 14 is just what you need. See gourd crafts, gourd demonstrations, get your gourd questions answered by gourd experts … you get the point.
  • You don’t have to travel far for the down-home fun of the Grainger County Tomato Festival. Held each year on the last full weekend in July (that makes it the 28th and 29th this year), this festival highlights local agriculture - namely the famed Grainger County tomato. One of the big draws is the Tomato War, where contestants pelt each other with tomatoes in a last-man-standing contest.
  • You can’t have a post about weird events in Tennessee and not mention Elvis. Heck! There’s a whole week dedicated to him in Memphis. Elvis Week 2012 will be Aug. 10-18 this year and will kick off with a 5k full of Elvises. A full event schedule can be found at www.elvis.com/elvisweek/.

If you’re not into planning ahead, there are some great roadside attractions that you can see at any time across this great state of ours.

I’m sure there’s plenty more, but this list ought to get you and yours through the long, hot summer vacation. Think of all the fun you and the fam can have motoring down the highway to see Elkton’s giant chicken or the world’s largest teapot collection in Trenton. Those are memories you just can’t get at a pool or amusement park.