Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trashing New York: Hollywood vs. Nature

Not so entertaining when it’s for-real
Just like you, I’ve been staring incredulously at the news reports ever since Sandy became a superstorm and slammed into our eastern seaboard. Living on the Texas Gulf Coast, I’ve been through my share of hurricanes. There was Alicia in 1983, a terrifying ordeal; and most recently Ike in 2008 that leveled at least as much real estate as Sandy. And we all know what a complete job Katrina did on New Orleans.

Movie - "The Avengers"

But this is New York. New Yorkers aren’t used to hurricanes. It’s been decades since they’ve had to deal with anything worse than the garbage collectors’ strike. And even though Hollywood utterly destroys The Big Apple at least twice a year, it’s never been by hurricane.
Real - Lower Manhattan
Which brings me to my topic. It’s a question that’s been nagging at me ever since I saw The Avengers: just how many times has New York been hit by Hollywood?

Wikipedia responded with a list of movies set in NYC, beginning in 1908. I quickly lost count of those involving total annihilation.
Movie - "Day After Tomorrow"
Business Insider was a little more compact in its offering: “Check Out 15 Movies in Which New York City Gets Destroyed” by Kirsten Acuna.  Interestingly, very few are based on weather. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) scenario is spectacular flooding due to global warming. 2012 (2009) features end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it tsunamis inspired by global warming and solar activity.  Deep Impact (1998) is yet another flood story worthy of Noah, this time caused by a meteor strike.  And I suppose one must consider Knowing (2009) which is incineration by solar flares, therefore counting as a natural disaster.

Crane collapse on 57th St.
All the rest, as you can see, entail monsters, space aliens, and war. Oh my.

Even the very real horror of 9/11 doesn’t match the extensive destruction of Sandy - except in loss of life, of course. Terrorists will always win that one. But Sandy was a superstorm, a merging of three storm systems, the like of which has never been seen before.

So Hollywood may score oftener, but in the cosmic quiddich match, Sandy catches the golden snitch.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why does a deer cross the road?

Because the sign told it to!
A radio station in Fargo, ND received this call which has since gone viral. I saw it first on AOL News, who’d copped the story from the Huffington Post’s Weird News section. Now people are sending it to me right and left.

It seems a woman identified only as Donna called in, concerned that deer crossing signs encouraged the animals to cross in high traffic areas. (What?) “It seems so irresponsible,” she said. “I’ve even seen these signs along the interstate!”

All of which leads us to the subject of wildlife literacy. Had Donna been active in such a cause, she may have realized the shockingly low percentage of deer able to recognize this symbolic silhouette. And realize that it means DON’T cross.
But take heart, Concerned Citizens. A solution to deer and driver safety has been found and implemented: 

 Yes, the highway department of Alberta, Canada has provided migrating herds their very own bridge. Rather than teach the deer signage, however, the Canadians rely on a clever system of fences for guidance.  See? Where there’s a will and an adequate tax base, there’s a way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Romance Novel

No, I’ve never read one. I tried one once, but it got bogged down in quivering flesh, rippling muscles, ad nauseam and never turned into an actual story. An article by Lizzie Jacobs, “Before 50 Shades,” however, made me curious enough to look into it a little more. Jacobs was reviewing Julie Moggan’s documentary, Guilty Pleasures, a film about romance novels and the people who love them.

An illustration from Pamela

I was surprised to learn that the genre was identified before the Victorian era. One of the earliest was Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson. Published in 1740, it was the first novel based on a courtship, and told from the heroine’s point of view.

Jane Austen was truly one of the masters. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is widely considered to be the best romance novel ever written.

Then we have the Brontë sisters. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, included elements of both gothic and Elizabethan drama. How respectable is that?

Now things are more complicated. I counted no less than 16 categories on Harlequin’s site, each one rigidly defined. Want a happy ending? Pick up an American Romance. Like it hot? Select from the Blaze section. In the mood for a classy historical? Go for a Regency. It’s said that the discerning fan can name the category merely by the stance of the man on the cover. Really?

Categories aside, the industry has strict overall rules. Jacobs says of Guilty Pleasures, “We learn that redheaded heroes and men sporting back hair are a no-no.” She also invites us to “ditch your literary prejudices to understand why a romance novel is sold every 4 seconds – more often than the average person blinks.”

 Jacobs credits romance readers with being “far more concerned with understanding love than simply finding it.”

 So…still not a fan of bodice-rippers, but as a marketplace phenom it’s won my respect.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Good grief, Charlie Brown – it’s The Great Pumpkin Race!

I’ve seen lots of pumpkin stories lately, but this one from NPR News takes the cake. Pie, rather. Checking the story online, I found that several communities hold Pumpkin Regattas. I’m featuring this one even though I can’t begin to pronounce the name of the town.
Every year in Damariscotta, Maine, people hollow out giant pumpkins (anywhere from 500-700 lbs.), a tractor places them into the water, and competitors gingerly climb inside.  There are two divisions — paddleboat and powerboat — and thousands gather to cheer them on.
Geiger ready in his decorated pumpkin
Peter Geiger is a two-time champion in the paddle division. He has his pumpkins professionally decorated by a former airbrush artist. This year, it's a bat with foam wings extending out from the sides. He even has a two-person pit crew. In a last-minute adjustment, they scoop out extra pumpkin meat to correct a forward list.
The starter announces: "Paddlers! Ready! Set! Get wet!"

Geiger and the rest paddle feverishly to a pumpkin buoy a few hundred feet away and create a bottleneck as they paddle around and race back to the dock. Geiger comes in third, behind a competing pumpkin that wallows from side to side.
Mallory building his pumpkin boat
In the powerboat division, returning champion Topher Mallory bolts a wooden frame onto the flesh of his 550-pound pumpkin. The stern is large enough to mount a 10 horsepower engine — double that of most competitors. Mallory says he needs speed to win and to keep from sinking. "Because the minute you start moving, water inevitably comes into the pumpkin and it's just a law of diminishing returns," he says. "Before you know it, you're sinking. So to win, you’ve got to get your move on."
Topher Mallory & pumpkin of choice
But this year, even though he didn’t win, he adds, "There are not so many things in life that are as simple, as fun and as awe-inspiring as giant pumpkins."


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Spying on a spy

The fan who taught Ian Fleming about guns
Browsing through various literary blogs, I chanced upon this irresistible article: “The Fan Who Put a (Real) Gun in James Bond’s Hands.” It was spy novelist Paul Collins dishing on Ian Fleming. Aha!
Ian Fleming
“Everything I write has a precedent in truth,” Ian Fleming claims. No reason to doubt it. He was a Naval Intelligence officer for six years, after all. But at some point during his training in covert ops, Fleming must’ve missed the class on guns.

One fan noticed. Engineering analyst and amateur firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd finally broke down and wrote Fleming the following: “I dislike a man who (faces) all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady’s gun, and not a really nice lady at that.”
Fleming responded a week later. Now, in every novel since the 1956 Diamonds are Forever, James Bond packs his now-iconic Walther PPK.

Boothroyd remained Fleming’s advisor for years, refusing any compensation for his invaluable services.  So the novelist repaid him with something even better.  Starting with Dr. No, he became immortalized as Bond’s brilliant gadget man Major Boothroyd, a.k.a. “Q.”

Thursday, October 11, 2012

More about science in movies

When I wrote that “Physics vs. Fantasy” a few days ago, I found too much neat stuff on the subject to let it go. Dr. David Carroll and Dr. David Kirby are far from the only scientists fact-checking Hollywood. And how about the movies that defy lab tests? Here’s a short Myth Busters style list for you:

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Director Stanley Kubric did some serious homework on this one. He spent 3 years consulting NASA and over 65 other research facilities to produce space scenes so accurate that conspiracy theorists suspected him of creating Neil Armstrong’s moon landing two years later. Verdict: PASS

Star Wars (1977-2005) This beloved series, alas, committed 8 out of 11 “science violations”, the most of any sci-fi rated by author Charlie Jane Anders.  “There is no sound (of explosions or otherwise) in space. You can’t dodge laser weapons. And it wouldn’t be that easy communicating with  wookies, even if you were Han Solo.” Verdict: FAIL

Deep Impact (1998) With no clue how a spaceship would land on a moving comet, filmmakers spent a day with scientists and astronauts. They learned that due to a comet’s low gravitational force, the craft would have to match its speed to affect a landing. They would also be ducking debris the size of house trailers that make up the surface. This film is widely regarded as a masterpiece of accuracy. Verdict: PASS

Jurassic Park (1993) With all the science available for this one, true fiction abounds. The filmmaker studied the factual data and decided the teeth of the T-Rex weren’t sharp enough. Hence, the razor-sharp dental work. And those terrifying 8-foot velocirapters?  About the size of chickens. Verdict: FAIL

Contact (1997) In homage to highly respected author and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who finished the book on his deathbed, the science in the film adaptation is airtight. Even nonscientists like film critic Roger Ebert appreciated the effort put forth by the writing staff. It’s kinda sad it never equaled the box office cred of Star Wars. Verdict: PASS

2012 (2009) Okay, that looks weird at the outset. From the premise of planetary alignment triggering a string of natural disasters to the sun’s neutrinos to tsunami behavior, this has got to be the least scientifically accurate film ever. NASA has received so many questions about this movie it created a website to deal with it. Verdict: FAIL

This isn’t to say I didn’t like the FAIL movies. I loved them. If I want to learn something, I check The History Channel, Discovery, NatGeo, Snopes, PBS (if it survives the election), or Google. Movies are for entertainment!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Why Columbus Day?

Chris never set foot in North America. Seems like Leif Eriksson Day or even Amerigo Vespucci Day would be more to the point
One should also consider that Columbus died in denial, maintaining to the end that he’d landed in Asia. And forget the myth perpetuated by everyone from Washington Irving to Bugs Bunny: Columbus already knew the earth was round. Pythagoras proved that back in 500 BC, collaborated two centuries later by Aristotle. By 1492 most educated people knew they weren’t living on a pancake.

So what was his motivation? Money. What else? Spices were the hot commodity of the day. Figuring a faster way to get them would amount to winning a multi-mil lotto.
But where he actually landed was Hispaniola. Crashed, rather. That’s where the flagship Santa Maria ran aground and sank. His treatment of the natives was barbaric enough to make even his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella, cringe. On CBS “Sunday Morning” with Charles Osgood, I learned that the aboriginals, realizing the Europeans intended a permanent colony, despaired of their future and committed mass suicides.
Leif Eriksson seeing New World land
Nor was Christopher Columbus the first to find the new world. For openers, the natives they encountered obviously got there considerably sooner. Maybe they displaced even earlier inhabitants. This planet has been around awhile, you know.
Leif Eriksson statue in MN
But the fact is, Norse Viking Leif Eriksson probably landed in present-day Newfoundland around 1000 A.D., almost five centuries before Columbus set sail. Some historians claim that Ireland’s Saint Brendan or other Celtic people crossed the Atlantic even ahead of Eriksson.
So…why is the New World called the Americas instead of, say, the Columbias? Did no one consider it a New Leif? Listen, my dears. Grandma will tell you.

Meet Amerigo Vespucci. Mr. V was born in 1454 to a prominent family in Florence, Italy. As a young man working for local bankers, he was sent to Spain in 1492 to look after his employer's business interests. Being a voracious reader who collected books and maps, he was at the right place at the right time. Thus inspired, Amerigo began working on ships, going on his first expedition as a navigator in 1499. This voyage found the mouth of the Amazon and continued exploring the coast of South America – or whatever they called it at the time.

Vespucci wrote detailed letters describing the culture of the indigenous people; their diet, religion, and sexual, marriage, and childbirth practices. The popular letters were published in many languages and proved a much better seller than Columbus' own diaries.

So writing a best-seller was enough to get two continents named after him? Not quite. There’s one more character in the mix: a German clergyman/scholar Martin Waldseemuller, who liked to make up names (including his own).
In honor of Vespucci's discovery of the new forth portion of the world, Waldseemuller printed a wood block map (called "Carta Mariana") with the name "America" spread across the southern continent of the New World. Thousands of copies of the map were sold across Europe. Within a few years, Waldseemuller changed his mind about the name for the New World but it was too late. The name America had stuck.

Still wondering why we celebrate Columbus Day? Politics. It was declared a federal holiday in 1937 when Franklin D. Roosevelt was courting Italian American votes. Nowadays quite a list of states have knocked it off their official calendars, though it’s still an occasion to save up to 40% at retail stores.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pumpkin Daze

It’s no secret that I like all things pumpkin.  Pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin scones, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin everything. The produce manager at Kroger’s has warned me to stop hugging pumpkins. My daughter even has a notarized document forbidding me from calling her Pumpkin. But this year I’ve been inundated by recipes and website links from assorted Facebook friends.
Jennie Cunningham, my folks’ former caregiver, posted this link and pic for pumpkin scones: .  Soooo good!

 Then my New Zealand friend, Glenis Thomas, who’s more famous for her blueberry cookbook, came up with  25 Outstanding Pumpkin Recipes that’s propelled me to the heights of pumpkin ecstasy. Obviously I can’t and won’t try them all, but what a treasure trove! Should hold me for years.

This brings me to my other most favorite passion: coffee. It’s infuriating that Maxwell House discontinued their fabulous Pumpkin Spice International Coffee two years ago. Millstone and Dunkin Donuts puts theirs “in stores only,” only they’re not in any stores around here! I’ll look around at some higher end grocers, then probably break down and pay a hefty price to order it online from Gevalia. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to route my errands past a Starbucks.
This blog was interrupted by a trip to H.E.B., a local Texas grocer with an extensive coffee aisle. As I browsed, a guy stocking the shelves offered assistance. Pumpkin Spice? Hmmm. He rummaged through several boxes and triumphantly emerged with a bag of Lola Savannah ( Pumpkin Spice coffee beans. Never heard of the brand, but who cares. I’m desperate. I used the store’s grinder, and the aroma accompanying the resulting granules back into the bag was immensely satisfying.

As I type, my coffee maker is going into its concluding asthma attack and the house is filled with fragrant promise. I plan to enjoy a cup with the last two slices of pumpkin roll; recipe courtesy of my daughter-in-law’s grandma. My friends, I’m in pumpkin heaven!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Physics vs. Fantasy

Physics professor Sean Carroll is Hollywood’s reality check
Dr. Sean Carroll
Sitting in the studio conference room, Cal Tech’s Prof. Carroll winced at the staff of Thor. No way could the Norse warriors drive a bunch of Frost Giants off the edge of a planet. C’mon. There’s this thing called hydrostatic equilibrium, see. It means that gravity tends to pull large masses – a.k.a. planets – into a spherical shape. But even if it was flat, gravity would keep the inhabitants securely upon it. “The Frost Giants wouldn’t fall off the planet,” Carroll explained. “They’d just be standing on the other side.” There was considerable grumbling, but science won. In the movie, the planet is round.

Sean Carroll was first called out of his classroom in 2007. Invited to lunch by Ron Howard and others working on the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, he was asked about an antimatter bomb that threatens to level the Vatican. Say what?
Well, let’s see.  Antimatter explodes in contact with air. A single gram of the stuff equals 40 kilotons of TNT. Think 3x the Hiroshima bomb. But in 30 years, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has only produced ten billionths of a gram. So what would an antimatter bomb look like? Basically, a brief and harmless fizzle. But, okay, say you DID have an entire gram. It would have to be suspended in a magnetic field until set loose. And it wouldn’t be a single boom, but a series of blasts as air was pushed out by each explosion. Two years later when the film came out, Carroll was gratified to see he’d been heard and heeded.

Now that Prof. Carroll is on the studio’s radar, he’s been called in for a host of movies and TV shows, like: Tron: Legacy, Dr. Strange, and The Big Bang Theory.  For an episode of Bones, he had to devise a murder method – a form of radioactivity with a half-life too short to leave traces.
But let’s be perfectly clear. Sean Carroll’s job isn’t to make the science in movies real, but plausible. As David Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood, explains, “Audiences are willing to release their grip on reality for a few hours – but only to a point. Defy the laws of planetary physics and your blockbuster could go the way of Battlefield Earth, Superman IV, and other Hollywood punch lines.”

Monday, October 1, 2012

Courageous George

How a cartoon monkey saved his creators from the Nazis

With the coverage of the upcoming Curious George movie in the news, I was attracted to some background articles found on Book Patrol and Mental_Floss magazine about the monkey’s unlikely saga.

German-born Jewish couple Hans and Margaret Rey had moved to Paris to work on children’s books. But in the fall of 1939, with the Nazis moving ever closer, authorities turned up to investigate the German-accented strangers. As proof that they were simply writing children’s stories, Hans showed them sketches of The Adventures of Fifi, a story about an inquisitive little monkey. Thus convinced the Reys weren’t sleeper agents, the officers left.

Seeing how hot the political climate was getting, the Reys began the mountain of paperwork required to leave wartime France. By now refugees were flooding into the city, jeopardizing their chances of receiving the documents before it was too late.
Margaret and Hans Reys circa 1940
Then somehow the little monkey bailed them out again. Despite the turmoil in Paris, the Reys sold the Fifi manuscript, giving them money for their escape. Hans bought a jumble of bicycle parts from which he cobbled together two bikes. They left Paris in the early morning rain of June 12, 1940, two days ahead of the Nazis. The first day they pedaled 35 miles to Étampes, and 17 more the on the next to Acquebouille. After resting in a barn, they made it to Orléans where they finally found a running train that would get them close to the border of Spain. It was an incredible piece of timing. That very night, bombs fell on Étampes and Orléans.
Then, on the train to Spain, officials again suspected the German couple and demanded Hans reveal the contents of his briefcase. And, once again, all they found were Fifi manuscripts. The little monkey had saved them again.

The Reys’ odyssey took them from Spain to Portugal to Brazil and finally to New York City. Only a few weeks later a publisher offered them a four-book contract with one caveat: change the monkey’s name to something more masculine.
Hence, Curious George.