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Morning Blur

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Curtain Raiser



The Day After

Ops, Not Quite There Yet;
Please Come Back Later



X-Rated Fruit

When a Passion Fruit
Has a Suggestive Shape

These penis-shaped passion fruits are the current favorite conversation topic in São José de Ribamar, Brazil. No one can explain how come the fruits of a tree Maria Rodrigues de Aguiar Farias planted two years ago came out so suggestively formatted. But everyone seems eager to taste it.
Dona Maria, as she is locally known, wasn’t even sure whether this was indeed a passion fruit tree, a favorite in the tropics, eaten by cutting a little hole on its top and sucking its juices. But she’s been very busy fielding requests from neighbors who want the seeds to plant in their own land. “It really looks so much like THAT,” said her neighbor Maria Elizabeth da Cruz, who’s credited for having helped water the plant.
Even agronomists with the Maranhão’s agribusiness state agency (AGED) got involved and concluded in their analysis that the tree underwent some rare genetic mutation, that may or may not have been caused by its main pollinator, a type of beetle.
As for its popularity, it’s still growing, fueled by media attention and local artists who have written odes in verse and rhyme, inspired by the penis-shaped fruit. According to the state agronomists’ studies, its unusual shape may also determine it to taste differently from your run-of-the-mill passion fruit.
It’s entirely up to you, of course, to come up with any original or obvious jokes about the name and shape of this honest-to-god, dead-serious funny tree. As for us, our agenda of things to do in São José de Ribamar the next time we visit just got its first obligatory stop: “Get a taste of that fruit.” (Thanks, Jorge Keller)


No Kidding

Teddy Bear
Blood Bag



Before & After?

Chocolate, Roses
& Bleeding Hearts

From the Catholic Church saints that named it to the Hallmark cards that oversell it, the holiday dedicated to lovers is a bonanza for restaurants and pubs in big cities around the world. It’s one of the hardest dates to book a table in any restaurant worth its napkins, and it’s very likely the saddest in bars and watery holes across the land.
Many people propose to their sweet hearts on February 14 but no statistics confirm whether this is such a great idea. It’s a high pressure time for lovers trying to impress their loved ones, and disappointment is always a possibility when stakes are so high.
If the police has any data on the number of crimes of passion committed on this date, they are not telling. In the end, there’s just one historical fact associated with it, and sorry, it’s not pretty: on February 14, 1929, Al Capone and his minions gunned down seven members of a rival gang, in what became the most reviled event of the Prohibition Era.
It remains a fact, though, that regardless the commercialism linked to Valentine’s Day, it does mark a tribute to the affection and romantic ideals lovers share and expect from their partners. Which means that, if you’re not impressed with anything mentioned above, you do deserve to spend the most perfect day with your soul mate. Enjoy it.


Broken Hearts

Museum of What’s Left
When Romance Is Over

We don’t want to rain on anyone’s Valentine’s, but in Zagreb there’s a museum about an interesting theme: it’s called the Museum of Broken Relationships. It exhibits a variety of objects that once were beloved mementos of promising relationships, and that now tell the story of their breakup.
You may find a half-smashed gnome, said to have been thrown in fury at some ungrateful soul, for example, or a Teddy Bear that remained when everything else about that particular liaison went into oblivion. Even an ax (careful, now) is part of the collection but it was used to destroy furniture, not what you were thinking, you psycho.
In any case, seeing the objects and reading about their story it’s an entertaining way of visiting somebody else’s misery, with a bit of caution thrown in. After all, just look at the cell phone someone was given to call her lover “more often.” Unlike the relationship itself, it’s still intact.


Mushroom Car

Auto Industry’s Hunger for Viable
Future Threatens World Food Supply

This is a story that won’t get much mileage for a while, but it’s already covering a lot of road, nevertheless. As car designers try to find more sustainable and less costly ways to outfit their models, they’re looking into some forms of food to replace petroleum-based fuel and car parts.
The trend has already something of a track record. What started with the use of ethanol and cooking oils as fuel, has evolved to incorporate replacement materials in the manufacturing of soft foam seats and dashboards. As much as 10 percent of car parts typically made from petroleum plastics can now be made from soy-based polyurethane foams or “bioplastic.”
For some in the industry, that’s the future knocking on their door. But there’s still a long way to go. The “green” soy-based foam, for example, although takes less energy to make, is not yet biodegradable.
Scientists are also experimenting with mushroom roots and other plant matter, like wheat straw, to put it into a mold shaped like a car part. And with avian feathers, which cooked at just the right temperature, can turn into high-tech hydrogen storage devices.
It’s a promising field within an industry that has seen its ups and downs but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But, as with the increasing adoption of grains traditionally used for food diverted for fuel, the recent developments are not without its flaws and critics.
In the case of ethanol, for example, besides its brutal environmental impact, widespread adoption is starting to seriously compromise global supplies of food. Producers are switching vast portions of land for food to the more profitable fuel production.
So if the search for alternatives to the use of petroleum and petroleum-based products for consumer goods is commendable, it also represents risks to the stability of the global production of food commodities. At the end of the day, it does matter whether this soybean or that mushroom will be used to build another car or to feed another mouth.


A Horse With a Name

Mr. Basil Will Have His Pint
Now, Thank You Very Much

Every Sunday, a pub in Burton, Staffordshire, hosts a special regular: Basil the horse, who’s known to love a pint after a refreshing ride. The nine-year old steed has been coming in for years and never once made a fool of himself.
In fact, he became a hit among the locals, who enjoy his company and admire his restrain. Now, just look around the pub you’re at right now and think about how many of the presents you could say the same.
As for that old saying, you can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make him drink, it’s got it all wrong. Never mind the water; just make sure to invite Basil for an ale that he’ll drink it, no fuss about it.


Mass Overdose

Shrinking Budgets, Malpractices
May Be Behind Homeopathy Backlash

Hundred of thousands took the streets all over the world this past weekend. No, not just to support the Egyptian people’s right to self determination. Many were just demonstrating against the use of homeopathy, the alternative health system created by Samuel Hahnemann in the 1700s.
They ingested thousands of bottles of homeopathic medicines in front of stores that sell them in the U.S., England, Australia, and South American and Asian countries. Neither anyone died of overdose, nor we heard a word so far from the estimated 500 million worldwide users of homeopathy.
If you wonder whether you’re missing something about this issue, after two hundred years of relatively peaceful coexistence between homeopathy and conventional medicine, you’re excused; you were probably distracted by the events in the Middle East.
For the 10:23 campaigners though, there’s no turning back: homeopathy is a ripoff and a waste of everybody’s time. It’s as effective as a sugar pill or placebo and, they say, there’s no justification to include it any country’s medical program and budget.
In case you’re wondering, the 10:23 figure is a nod to Italian chemist Avogadro‘s number determining the amount of molecules in a given solution (ok, enough of your questions for now). The rallies were coordinated by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, who promises not to let this issue go away.
According to its defenders, homeopathy works on the principle of ‘similia similibus curentur’, or let ‘likes be cured by likes’ which means that what will cause, will cure. Which means, well you got the idea. Just like antidotes work, a detached party would say. We’re not repeating here what its detractors would say of it, though.
But somehow in these times of dwindling budgets for social programs, combined with a resurgence of religious objections to the theory of evolution, not seen since, well, the 1700s, maybe homeopathy is just being singled out as the scapegoat for its lack of affiliation with science.
The medical establishment, apparently absent of this debate, nevertheless has a lot to gain from it, of course. Medical research and drug development pipelines are in the front lines of any scientific research, and a successful drug can make billions to the laboratories that create them.
Since drug research is in the realm and interest of public health, enormous resources are routinely channeled to the big medical conglomerates, which often profit even before their products reach the market. Disease, as dying, will always be a booming business.
So, it’d be just natural that in one way or another, they’d protect their turf with all the determination (and the best lawyers) money can buy. For there are many factors that may threaten their bottom line. A successful, alternative line of healing products, the kind that don’t require costly approval from government agencies, would be definitely a contender. Specially if words such as “natural,” “organic” and “healing powers” grace their labels, regardless how loosely they’re using them.
Another one is the increase in medical malpractice suits. When that involves one of their brands, it can risk the ability of so-called big pharma to meet profitability targets shareholders demand. That explains the countless provisions in their financial reports related to potential lawsuits.
Ultimately, the backlash against homeopathy may be heavy handed in what chooses to attack one of the cheapest industries in the market today, compared to multimillion dollar concerns that commercialize “natural” products and effectively compete against the big laboratories.
But it may be marking a turning point of the public opinion, after the onslaught of faith-based healing and other “magical” recovering systems pitched by snake-oil salesforces with no qualms about milking the economies and trust of impoverished, god-fearing communities.


Only in Rio

Man Makes His Bed
On the Side of a Wall

Housing is not easy to find, no matter where you are on earth. Specially if you’re penniless. Some wind up living under a bridge. Some are forced to a park bench. All are subjected to daily harassment and the indignities typical of street life.
Yet there are those who come up with unusual solutions and, taking a page from the public performance art book, make their beds where no one else would.
Take this Carioca, for example (that is how a Rio de Janeiro dweller is called). He chose one of the city’s busiest arteries, Rua Luis de Camoes, to set up his bedroom. Not on the street itself, mind you, but on a vertical wall.
There’s his bed, his little set of drawers, an old fashioned record player, even a hammock for quiet afternoon readings. He obviously has no problem with heights. Or public exposure.
He seems to have everything he needs, this side of outdoor plumbing and private toilets. Street lights are doing just fine for him and other amenities can be easily arranged.
It’s all for show, of course, and it looks. But it’s pretty, nonetheless. Passers by are known to stop and stare, even if just for a minute, on their way to work or to their own not so special bedroom.
It may be the summer. After all, it’s Rio and Carnival is right around the corner, so one shouldn’t be too surprised. But it certainly beats the below freezing temperature we’ve been having in the North. (Thanks, Norton.)


Keep an Eye

Last Glass Eye Maker
Sees Waning Demand

For two hundred years, there was nothing more esthetically acceptable for those who’d lost an eye than to wear one made of glass. Although slightly disturbing to children and small animals, it was a superior alternative to the pirate patch and, depending on the lighting, almost undetectable. Except, of course, to prying eyes.
Jost Haas, a German native based in London, is considered one of the last glass eye makers still active in the market today. His technique manufacturing them goes back two centuries, with a lot of artistry and dedication only someone who’s devoted his whole life to the metier would master. This short, understated video shows it how.


Illegal Aliens

Florida Lizards Much Prefer
Californians (Roaches, That Is)

Smuggling is one of the oldest forms of illegal trading. Since immemorial times people have been risking their lives and fortunes to transport from one place to another, precious stones, valuable metals, exotic animals, even humans.
As with any other market, demand is what drives traffic and it’s virtually impossible to list all categories of goods that have ever been apprehended by the customs agencies and border patrols of the world.
One thing remains constant, though: the market thrives wherever there are shortages of such goods. It’s what makes them profitable. But tell that to one Derek Rader (his real name), who was busted trying to smuggle California cockroaches to… Florida.
Now do you know how many roaches scurry per square feet in Florida? Neither do we, but it’s certainly a lot, right? Not enough for discriminating tastes of those who consume them, apparently. Rader and the state’s reptile population know well that.
Dubia roaches – who knows why they call them by a similar name tabloids used to call George Bush? – are two inches in size, have more meat than crickets, and once bred properly, you’ll never buy another one again, if that’s your thing. That’s the upside.
But since they’re non native to Florida and have no natural predators, their breeding with the state’s own species would mean a population explosion. A perfect crawling storm, if you would.
So Florida’s pest control agencies are always on the lookout to prevent what happened, for example, with the giant boa constrictors that began appearing in the Everglades during the 1990s.
Not exactly smuggled, for wild life officials believe that many of them were pets discarded by their inconsiderate owners, they’re now a source of permanent concerns.
They have spread throughout the state and their encounters with native species have been disastrous. A few years ago, an infamous picture made the Internet rounds: a boa which literally exploded after swallowing a huge crocodile.
Who knows what kind of hybrid would be generated by the combination of native and non native species, in the hot and humid climate of Florida. But whatever it’d be, nobody wants it. Except for Rader, who’s only in it to make a (dishonest) buck.
But one does get tickled to come up with a tabloid-style headline to illustrate it all. “Rader Roach Motel?” “Roach Rader Loses License?” or “Illegal Roach Motel Raided.” We could never match those headline editors. But nobody wants another breed of cockroaches crawling in their backyard either.



When Bond & the Beatles
Shared Chords & the 60s

We’re not sure about you, but there was a time we thought we heard echoes of John Barry‘s famous soundtrack for the 007 film series in George Martin’s intro for “Help,” the song that named The Beatles’s second feature film. The thought arose again this past week with Barry’s passing, and it took us only a few strokes of the keyboard to find a link of sorts between the two themes.
The British soundtrack composer, who incidentally was married \to Jane Birkin at some point, created distinctive themes for some of the most successful movies of the past 40 years. But besides “Born Free,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Body Heat,” all released before most of those reading this note were even born, he’ll be forever remembered, of course, for the James Bond movies.
The signature chord progression that opens the credits for the popular series – whose authorship Barry had to defend in court – became a sonic icon for the era and in many cases, outclassed the films it illustrated.
Just like that other indelible British contribution to popular culture: The Beatles.
In 1965, Barry had already established his credentials with a string of highly visible soundtracks, and so had the boys from Liverpool. In fact, American-born Richard Lester directed both their second feature, which was released later that year, as well as their previous one.
At the same time, he also directed “The Knack – and How to Get It,” which is set to, but completely fails to capture, a certain Swinging London spirit going on at the time. Barry signed the half-forgotten soundtrack for that half-forgotten movie. But his collaboration with Lester somehow became the link that those who simply can not live without that sort of arcana have been longing to find for years.
We’re not members in good standing of that club, but even from the sidelines we can appreciate a good ol’ apocryphal sub-plot, an undiscovered bridge if you would, between two landmarks of a bygone era. And now that we completely sucked all the oxigen from the room, what about helping yourself with the music of John and John and Paul and all the others, and lighten up with a shaken, not stirred Martini?
By the way, does anyone even talk like that?


Village Keys

Eye Opening Facade Art Pays
Homage to Still Vital Business

The picture above depicts A) a still of the creature’s tail for the sequel to the movie franchise “Aliens”; B) a new species of marine worm, photographed for the first time at the bottom of the Hudson River; C) a New York artist’s show about the thousands of keys he and his friends and family have lost along the years; or D) a detail of the exquisite wall panel work recently uncovered at a long-ago abandoned subway station.
If you’ve chosen any of the above, you’re out in the cold. For this is part of the facade of the Greenwich Locksmith, designed and installed entirely by owner Phil Mortillaro. The place has been at the same location for 20 years, and its new design, since October, but you’d be hard pressed to catch its sights. It’s a low foot- traffic stretch of the Village and hadn’t been for scountingny.com, we also would have missed it.
The 40-year old business has seen brighter times but it’s still doing Ok, despite the recent dip in the city’s burglary rates. After all, this is still a place where a lot of people move to and move around, way more than they’d in other parts of the country. And unlike, say, typewriters and subway tokens, the good old fashioned metal key is still the way to lock yourself at home.
It also helps that Mortillaro still has it. His eye-opener, labor-intensive design is a statement of sorts, that reaffirms a certain faith in the business of providing people with a fresh set of keys. They still lose and forget them, you’d be surprised to know, at roughly the same rate they misplace their cellphones. No wonder the two items are considered the main reasons to go back home and retrieve them.
Of course we’re on our way to have them both combined into a single, handy device. Yet another card to fit in your wallet, if you still have one, is likely to be the next stop for your cellkey. But there’s a reason locksmiths give you a pair of keys and may store your data to make an extra one on demand: keys get lost. If hassle is not your thing, you definitely don’t want to lose your phone, specially if it has your keys in it.


A Pint Up There

So This Giant Puppet
Comes Out of the Pub…

It was a fine afternoon in Dromore West, Co. Sligo, Ireland. There were plenty of locals, lots of tourists, and a giant puppet dancing with a pint of something in his hand.
People call him Arthur and that’s pretty much all we know about the whole scene. But watching the video sure beats the weather outside. Sláinte!


Groundboring Hog

And Now for Something
Absolutely Irrelevant

Today marks the 125th Groundhog Day, a holiday so senseless that took a less than 20 years for a so-so movie of the same name to somehow become way better than it.
The only way it may be any different today is that if that unfriendly rodent that’s standing for Punxsutawney Phil this year actually predicts a shorter winter. Given the kind of snow-plagued season we’ve been currently having in the U.S., that would truly be a shocker.
Otherwise, we’d much rather watch once again Bill Murray’s morose performance and Andie MacDowell’s perfect facial features than another obnoxious parade of local politicians milking this shallow occasion for their electoral ambitions – and never even getting bitten by that hostile beast.
As one such local Pennsylvanian pundit has the gall to put it, “Groundhog Day is a lot like a rock concert…” No, it’s not. And don’t even start with the Staten Island Chuck either.


Hips & Limbs

Injured Animals Get Fresh
Start from Biotech Research

Zoops the goat, Molly the horse, Fuji the dolphin, and Tripod the llama, were all healthy animals going about their business until tragedy struck: they all lost some valuable part of their bodies and faced the prospect of never being able to walk or gallop or swim or graze ever again.
Instead, they’re all fine, thanks to advances in biotechnology and prosthetics research. In fact, none exhibits any signs of the harrowing experiences that almost ended their lives. Take that, you doomsayers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
Of course, these animals and countless of others are now success histories mainly because of the care they received from dedicated doctors, who nursed them all back to health.
Take Oscar the cat, for example. When a harvester severed both his back legs, it could have been the end for what pretty much defines what means to be a cat.
Enters a team of veterinarians who custom-made special implants to attach to his ankle bones, coated them with hydroxyapatite to encourage bone cells to grow onto the metal, and voilá, Oscar is back to his old hunting grounds with a brand new pair of feet.
And if science is doing it for farm animals and cats, there’s no reason not to do it for endangered species too. That’s the case of Girl, an eight-year old Malayan tigress, who’d been exhibiting the painful symptoms of arthritis since last summer.
Vets at the University of Leipzig booked her for a hip replacement surgery, a complex operation even for humans. The fact that she’s part of an endangered species, one estimated to have left only 500 animals in the wild, was just one of the reasons to perform the surgery, but not the main one.
Girl’s still recovering but with luck, she still has some 12 or more years left to grace us with her presence.
So go ahead and entertain any brand of nightmarish visions that suits your mistrust about the future. Mad doctors, unholy experiments with somebody’s flesh, wayward toasters chasing you around the house, there’s really no limit as to how you may scare the bejesus out of your fellow troopers. And yourself.
But as we speak, advances in the field of robotics, artificial intelligence and, yes, biotechnology, are pointing instead to the development of tools for improving the lives of humans and animals, not only defense contractors.
It’s been a long way since the days we sent Ham, the chimp, to do our bidding in space, and literally, rewarded him with not so much as an unlimited supply of bananas. For all we know, he could’ve died a tragic death, but even as a survivor, he saved countless of human lives.
And that’s really nice, but don’t get too comfortable. Just the other day, this mad doctor walked into a bar, with a few toasters in a leash, and…


Living in Macy’s

Comedian Wraps Week
Sleepwalking In a Window

Today is the last day to see comedian Mike Birbiglia “living” inside a window of Macy’s department store. The extended advertising display for a cleaning product-cum-performance piece lasted seven days, snowstorms and all, and attracted the usual flow of the curious and the nosy.
As with similar events involving couples, models, groups of people or any variation of those themes, everyone knows what drives crowds to rush to check the scene out.
But except for very risquée situations we haven’t heard of, no performer was ever caught in an embarrassing position without wanting to. And, frankly, even the titillation element to such display gets tiresome.
Birbiglia, whose previous play was called “Come Sleepwalk With Me,” may know something very interesting that we don’t about performing in pajamas or simply staying in bed, free as tickets may be in this case.
People were able to interact with him through a social network site, but apart from predictable Q&As, and lacking any thought-provoking art device, the whole week turned out to be a long, boring, slightly unwashed advertising piece.
Pardon if we couldn’t stop yawning.


Astro Chimp

First Astronaut Never Told
Anyone About His Experience

In 1961, the U.S. was hopelessly behind the Soviet Union in the space race. The Soviets had already sent the Sputnik and a dog named Laika into orbit and, few knew at the time, were readying Yuri Gagarin to be the first human to fly beyond earth’s atmosphere that same year.
Under pressure, the U.S. couldn’t even find an American born chimpanzee to be trained and flown to outer space. The solution was to use Ham, a French Camaroon-born chimp, who was purchased for $457 for the experiment. His 16 minutes of fame came and went fast, but gave the U.S. some precious time to get it together.
You wouldn’t want to know the gruesome regime Ham went through to be chosen among other primates, or the most likely terrifying crushing forces on take-off and re-entry, but you can imagine the disorientation he had to endure during periods of weightlessness. Alas, the poor thing couldn’t tell you either. But he survived.
Ham, who was born along with the Sputnik in 1957, flew in the Mercury-Redstone II 50 years ago January 31, and retired soon after to a zoo in Washington, DC. An over indulgent lifestyle of celebrity pampering and constant exposure to visiting crowds proved too much for him, though, and he died, as a fat Elvis, in 1983.
As we still use animals as our stand ins, sending them to step into the void that may kill them while keeping us alive, some wonder whether there will be ever a time when we’ll need their permission before disposing of their lives at our own will.
Maybe that’s what that GOP representative meant last week, when he went to national TV to claim that he “didn’t come from a monkey.” Given the hardship even the famous ones go through in our hands, who would?


Ketchup With That?

Who Ordered
The Chicken?

It’s been 35 years this month since the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in the U.S., but if you’re not involved in the country’s criminal system, you wouldn’t give the fact much though. Photographer James Reynolds did. He decided to create and photograph replicas of meals inmates ordered in their last day on earth.
Some death-row residents got actually hungry on their day of reckoning. Some had your typical off-the-highway diner meal. And yet, some were very particular about what they wanted to eat. Given the pressing engagement waiting for them next door, it’s really far out that most would want to eat at all.
But some did it and enjoy it, right to their last cigarette, despite the advice on the contrary from the prison physician. Abstracting any consideration on why they were sent to death in the first place, it’s almost poignant that someone thought about memorializing their last supper.
That’s what Reynolds did. He researched the prisoners and their crimes, and recreated their last meals. After photographing the trays, he went as far as to eat some of the food. He hasn’t made up his mind about the death penalty itself yet, but he surely found a way to contextualize it.
Bon appetit.


That Sinking Filling

Sea off Dubai Is About
to Reclaim “The World”

To say that a lot is going on in the Middle East is the understatement of the week. And please don’t feel patronized if we use the word sinking for what’s happening in Dubai. But the ambitious project, the building of a complex archipelago of 300 man-made islands called “The World,” is in deep trouble.
Still officially incomplete, the project was supposed to join the palm-shaped Atlantis, another offshore development that state-run Nakheel created in 2002, as the biggest tourist attractions of this once booming multimillionaire playground. Atlantis has faced problems of its own but they’re nothing compared to what’s happening with the World.
So far, only 70 islands have been occupied, and lawsuits, scandals, jail terms, corruption claims and even suicides have plagued and dragged the selling of the remainder of the luxury resort. By most accounts, construction has come to a screeching halt.
Worse, the islands shaped like the countries of the globe are sinking back into the sea, their sands are eroding and the navigational channels between them are silting up, according to deposition documents in one of the lawsuits. If nothing is done, soon the luxury yachts won’t be able to access them as they do now. Oh, the horror.
The fact that the islands, conceived as hotel complexes and luxury villas, may be soon no longer would have been enough of a nightmare to the Al Maktoum family, who has been ruling Dubai since 1833, but even them have bigger fish to fry at the moment: according to high-rolling investors, they’re trying desperately to raise cash.
Thus the builders, who couldn’t afford to even set foot in any of the islands as guests, don’t give a damn about it either. They were lured to Dubai in the early 1990s with the promise of high paying jobs, but faced instead their own personal brand of a nightmare: extremely risky labor conditions, low wages and, after being done with their task, an uncertain future.
Some managed to save enough to go back to their neighboring nations of origin. Those left are mostly illegal immigrants, can hardly speak the language and are penniless. They have few pleasures left. One of the them is to sit at the water’s edge and watch half-smiling the faux isles they’ve built slowly sink into the deep blue sea. Good for them.


The Longest Trip

Challengers Hit 25-Year Mark
Into Their Trip to Immortality

What looked in January 28, 1986, like a short, shocking, tragic 73-second trip to space, is now perceived as one of mankind’s longest trips, one that will last for as long as there will be humans on earth, looking up and dreaming about traveling to the stars.
When now iconic schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, and her Commander Dick Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis and mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair boarded the shuttle Challenger for what should’ve been a six-day stay in orbit, they instead embarked in the trip of our lifetime.
The worst space disaster in history was also a turning point in our understanding of the incredible odds staked against us not just a few miles above earth, but even by attempting to break free from the atmosphere. We know so much more now in great part due to their sacrifice.
But alas, 25 years after, though most of us remain optimist that we will succeed the next times we try, space exploration is officially in retreat. It’s a coincidence but still emblematic that this year, a quarter of a century from the shuttle’s disaster, NASA is set to retire the entire flee, and there’s no other program in the works to replace it.
Nevertheless, McAuliffe will still be teaching her children from above, and her six travel companions will forever be doing what they always love, fly through space. The Challenger was blown to pieces but the individual lives of her fearless crew just got bigger.
So even that we all realized then, as did Jack Moss, who shot the only known amateur video of the disaster, “They got troubles” – and their loved ones got the heartache of a lifetime – we know now that the agony lasted a few, long minutes, but their transcendence and place in the history of mankind’s best moments was already assured even before it all started.
We’ll never stop mourning those seven human beings. But they’ll never stop making us look better, 25 years and counting. Children of your children’s children will be telling stories about them at whatever time and planet they’ll be on then. So, today and ever, God Speed, Challenger.


Can of (Global) Warm

The Green Side of One
of World’s Worst Killers

It took over seven centuries but researchers are finally coming around to identify redeeming qualities in the “work” of feared Mongol General Genghis Khan. Up to now, everyone was convinced that when he got busy creating his vast empire in the 13th and 14th Centuries, invading and pillaging nations, and pretty much annihilating anyone standing on his way, he was doing that just for his thirst for blood.
Oh, how wrong we all were. For yes, he did kill about 40 million of his closest enemies, either because they opposed his plans of world domination or didn’t like his hairstyle, but all he had at heart was the best interests of future generations, we know now. You see, years after his horse-driven, bow-wielding hordes left on their wake carnage and smoldering villages, the paths they galloped on got covered by an explosion of lush vegetation, that helped remove nearly 700million tons of carbon from the atmosphere.
A new study by the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Energy concluded that he was a truly eco-warrior who deserves our respect, not just the fear of his blood-soaked sword. Good ol’ Gengis was, after all, as old fashioned as any garden variety conqueror, and would rather nip the bud, so to speak, of any potential disaffect than to see him grow into another inconvenient enemy. Just like any modern despot next door, wouldn’t you say?
Consider that the next time you spot someone holding a blood soaked sword coming your way. To give you some context, the study also found that many of history’s tragic events, such as the Black Plague, the fall of China’s Ming Dynasty and the conquest of the Americas don’t look so bad when you think they also ignited a widespread return of forests after a period of massive depopulation, i.e., mass murdering.
But no one perfected and accelerated this transformation from body to soil nutrients as Genghis Khan. And the Mongol invasion, which lasted a century and a half and led to an empire spanning 22 per cent of the Earth’s surface, immediately stood out for its longevity. As his troops repeatedly wiped out entire settlements, they were able to scrub more carbon from the atmosphere than any other conqueror ever since.
The findings of the study add yet another dimension to the biography of Temüjin of the Borjigin, his real name, along with the unification of the Mongolian tribes and the conquering of territories as far apart as Afghanistan and northern China, where he left mountains of skulls behind. In all, Genghis conquered almost four times more lands than Alexander the Great.
By the way, those 700million tons of carbon are roughly the amount generated in a year by global consumption of petroleum-based fuels. But before you start longing for another Gengis Khan to arise and solve our environmental woes, keep in mind that his reputation as one of the cruelest war leaders that ever singed his name on history books is far from hyperbolic and unlikely to change, the psychobabble about his sad childhood notwithstanding.
What the Carnegie study on the effects of, ahem, the carnage left by the Mongolian does point to is to new ways of making land-use decisions today that will diminish our impact on climate and the carbon cycle. Besides, since there are so many more people living on Earth now, it’d be at least anti-practical to apply his methods to optimize forest cultivation and carbon absorption systems. A much better way is, of course, to simply abandon carbon-based energy fuels. So if you are gingerly preparing the way for a new Gengis, please don’t.


Piano Bar

Would You Play a Song in
the Middle of a Miami Bay?

Miami’s Biscayne National Park is well known for its majestic bay, its coral reefs, plentiful marine life and sea birds, and a large number of small islands. In the 1980s, some of them were covered in pink fabric by the art couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude to a visually striking effect.
You may add a grand piano to the bay’s uncanny ability to periodically startle its surroundings. For over a week, there was a piano sitting on a narrow sandbar in the middle of the bay, and how it got there became a source of endless theories and even a photo caption game contest by a local newspaper.
(The mystery is now solved; sadly, it’s not nearly as exciting. And the piano is no longer there.)
It must have not been easy. Since it weights 650 pounds (dry), it wouldn’t fit in a rowboat, for example. But it was cleverly placed: it sat at the highest point of the sandbar so it wouldn’t go under during high tide. At first, neither the Coast Guard nor the various government agencies in charge of the bay had any plans to remove it from there. Too bad they’ve changed their minds.
A piano in the middle of a bay does have a romantic ring to it. But alas, since very few have ventured the 200 yards crossing from the shore, to try a few songs on it, it’s unclear whether it was in tune. And the seagulls, frequent visitors, were not telling it either.


It Sucks!

A 3,000 Year Old
Doc’s Little Helper

Let’s supposed you just got into a non-life threatening car accident. You’re fine but your hand was so badly injured that your thumb may need microsurgery to remain attached. It’s time to call the suckers.
Now, before you phone your press agent (yes, we forgot to mention you’re also famous and do have one. Just play along, will you?) to inform your fans that you’re Ok, it was just a scratch and all that, hang on.
What the good doctor needs most is some leeches, to drain the congested blood in the area and help the skin recover. The little suckers have natural anticoagulants, to keep fresh blood flowing until new vessels grow, and anesthetics for the pain. All to get your thumb up in no time.
After that, yes, by all means, call your agent.
The practice of using leeches in cuts and wounds has been around since at least 1500BCE, but even after the FDA approved it as a standard treatment for accident victims, in 2004, it’s still subjected to derision and contempt from the medical establishment.
By the 17th Century, various forms of bloodletting had all but skipped the use of leeches, to disastrous results; as it was hard to determine how much blood to let go, if any, and the process would often kill the patient. Leeches, on the other hand, suck blood for a limited amount of time, making it easier to control.
If you do have an agent, though, which means, you’re a movie star, for instance, chances are you do use the method for rejuvenating purposes. It’s the case of actress Demi Moore, an open advocate of beauty and anti-aging procedures, which, she’s not shy to disclose, she’s had quite a few, including laying down on a bed and let the leeches work their magic.
It’s a double yummy situation: you use some suckers for your health and others for the health of your career. Good for you but never mind that now.
Most people have a slight disgust about these segmented-body worms and their tiny leeches, a hermaphrodite species known for taking good care of their young. We’re not part of their natural diet, and though they do live in swamps, they don’t usually infect their hosts.
Schools and medical institutions regularly buy leeches by the bulk. A word of caution from that famous beauty researcher, Demi Moore, though: if you’re particularly hairy, it’s advisable to shave or waxing before treatment.
That’s when having an agent helps clearing up any potential misunderstandings, as we’re talking about procedures, here, not persons. With the authority of someone who underwent a few of them, she concludes: “They much prefer a Brazilian.”


Monolith, Isle & Star

Wood on Ice, Birth of an
Island & A New Sun Coming

Religion and scientific inquiry were bred out of our compulsion to explain the world. Whereas science challenges dogma and welcomes questioning, faith thrives when reason fails. Fortunately, neither is relevant at this moment. Or necessary when you’re having a laugh.
So when an Australian reporter came upon a piece of wood laying on top of an Antarctic iceberg, miles from nowhere, someone suggested it was a take on the black monolith Stanley Kubrick used in his “2001 – A Space Odissey” to illustrate mankind’s progress.
A coffin. A door to a magical world. Debris from a shipwreck. Or a rudimentary penguin surfboard were some of the theories offered by readers. All of the above and an elaborate hoax that it may also be, make for a lighthearted comment on our compulsion to explain, etc, etc.
Completely unlike what just happened in the Solomon Islands: the birth of a volcanic island captured on video. The stunning images show once again why the beauty and power of the natural world always beats the special effects films use to entice us to watch them.
The only thing is, as expensive as the price of a movie ticket may be nowadays, it’s still cheaper than if you’re too close to one of such wild shows: the front-row admission may cost your life.
And then there’s Betelgeuse, a red super-giant star in Orion’s nebula, that’s supposed to go Supernova between now and the year, you guessed, 2012, to the delight of Armageddon and Star Wars buffs alike. And you, of course, if you happen to be around when and if it really happens.
As you surely know, the collapse of a massive star that forms a Nova generates enough energy to be seen even during daytime, almost like a twin sun. It happens all the time but alas, the Universe is vast, and the last one visible from earth was not much bigger than Jupiter.
But once in a while, when they’re close enough (and Jupiter probably aligns with Mars, too, as the song goes), the explosion does light up the sky. The brightest ever recorded happened in 1006CE, was about twice the size of the moon and lasted a couple of months.
As it was customary at that time, it was documented by, you guessed again, astrologers. Betelgeuse by the way, means “hand of Al-Jauza” in Arabic, referring to a woman who controls the order of the universe. Do you have a problem with that? We didn’t think so.
Also, it’s good to keep in mind that she may not even show up. Who knows? Something may come up, Jupiter may be late for its rendezvous with Mars. In fact, it’s very likely that we’ll first find out what’s with that wood monolith, or that emerging island, before anyone takes a shot at our old sun.
Though a cabdriver we took the other day told us that Jesus is coming back this year, and the Mayan calendar, etc, etc, we wouldn’t start giving away our Star Wars memorabilia just yet. Instead, you may do better coming up with a mashup of it all for YouTube.
Who knows? Maybe that island will sink back. A penguin will join “Dance with the Stars.” And Betelgeuse will be a no show.



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