Tag: University

Day 995: Little Rivalry On The Prairie

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Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.

Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.

Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.

But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.

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The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading. Read more…

Day 935: Ah Yes, But Is There Any Evidence Of Semen?

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You can have your John McClanes, your Alex Murphys, your Jimmy McNultys. When it comes to picking out the Hollywood super-cops, we shouldn’t look any further than network television’s procedural potentate: the CSI family of formulaic programming. On the CSI shows, the stars are scientific swamis, investigative prodigies, precocious and apt interrogators, and almost inevitably the gun-bearing heroes who take down the guilty party, usually within 44 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, in the 14 years since Gil Grissom first suited up and embedded CBS’s flag atop the summit of Mount Nielsen Demographic Age 34-55, enrollment in college forensic courses has exploded, while the public’s perceived understanding of crime scene minutiae has ballooned. That’s perceived understanding – if one bases one’s knowledge on what Horatio Caine says or does right before he takes off his sunglasses and elicits Roger Daltrey’s unrestrained shriek, then one is most assuredly not a forensic specialist.

Experts in the fields of law, law enforcement and science call this the CSI Effect, and the reverberations of its repercussions can tingle the spines of professionals all across the justice spectrum. We know more, we expect more, and we understand more, but all stemming from the basis of fiction. If that doesn’t scare you just a little, then you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

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CSI was not the first dramatization of the justice system to throttle public perception into a bewildered shimmy. Jurors who regularly feasted upon the antics of Perry Mason between 1957 and 1966 often awaited the dramatic confession on the stand; one juror actually admitted to a defense attorney that his jury had voted ‘guilty’ because the prosecution’s key witness hadn’t erupted in a tearful admission of wrong-doing. Read more…

Day 876: Big Ben – The Boisterous Bell In The Belfry

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If your first instinct when you looked at the above photo was that you were looking at London’s famous Big Ben, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Bemused Brits would scoff and toss old scones at you. Chances are you’ve never seen Big Ben. Until 2012 that structure was known simply as “the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster”. That year it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of our present queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But ‘Big Ben’ is not the tower, and it’s not even the clock mechanism within it. Big Ben is just the bell.

The structure that Big Ben calls home is probably the best-known building in the entirety of England – the one structure you can safely use as an establishing shot if the next scene of your movie takes place in London. But the bell in its innards is the real star of the show; “Big Ben” represents London and London alone. Well, and Pittsburgh, but that’s a different Big Ben.

My wife asked me a question the other day, knowing full well I’d be using Google and not my musty, decaying storeroom of a memory to produce an answer: how the hell did they get Big Ben to the top of that tower using 19th century technology? I did my due diligence and found the solution, and along the way I learned all sorts of strange things about this brilliantly cliché piece of architecture.

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Augustus Pugin was not the first architect called when the Palace of Westminster burned almost to the ground in 1834; Charles Barry did the majority of the work. But Pugin was the Judd Apatow of Gothic Revival mastery, in that everything he touched seemed to please and delight his target audience. Charles Barry (who was probably known by his friends as ‘Chuck Barry’) handled the big picture, but the guts of the palace – the wallpaper, the furnishings, the snuggly little details – that was all Pugin. In 1852, Barry asked Pugin for one more touch: the clock tower. Read more…

Day 857: How Ignaz Semmelweis Changed The Medical World And Never Lived To Know It

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Does the name Ignaz Semmelweis mean anything to you?

My readers whose boot-prints lay along the medical mud-path (or in the frightening swamp of germophobia) will shout an esteemed “YES!”, probably with the reverence my musician friends would reserve for a Les Paul or a Robert Moog. Dr. Semmelweis’s work has probably saved millions upon millions of lives, which is particularly impressive considering he was virtually laughed out of the medical profession.

Many of history’s great geniuses have toiled in anonymity, but it’s a thing of spectacular bamboozlement when someone with the foresight to establish something that is accepted as a subconscious standard decades later was actually lambasted by his peers for thinking outside the box. Louis Pasteur is revered and regarded, with his name showing up on the sides of milk cartons, juice boxes, butter bars and syrup jars for his work in germ theory. But Dr. Semmelweis?

The poor guy doesn’t even pass the spell-check feature of Microsoft Word. And without him, Pasteur might never have uncovered all those secrets of the micro-universe between the filthy ridges of our fingertips.

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Dr. Semmelweis (who, according to the photos I could find, may never have had a full head of hair) was born in the Buda part of Budapest, in what was then a part of the Austrian Empire. He earned his doctorate degree in 1844 and decided to specialize in obstetrics. He was assigned to the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, serving under Professor Johann Klein, a man whose contributions to the field of medicine appear to have been little more than squat. I mention this only because his dickishness plays into this story a little later. Read more…

Day 852: The Greatest Toy On Four Wheels

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I may have had a slightly distorted sense of value when I was a child. If I’d been on a sinking boat with the ability to save only a family of four or my Star Wars toys… well, I’m just glad it never came to that. And while I’d have leapt between a bullet and my cherished Kenner Greedo, my collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox die-cast cars were a close second. It was hard concocting narratives more complex and engaging than a Fast & Furious movie, but dammit I tried.

My Hot Wheels cars convinced me that a giant staircase was navigable terrain, provided I stick to slow-motion jump moves. They taught that treadless tires could propel a Datsun 280Z through thick shag carpeting. And while I knew back then that I’d never become the kind of guy who would stand and nod knowingly at a 455 crate engine with Edelbrock aluminum heads, I would certainly be the kind of guy who likes to roll stuff down ramps and watch them crash.

There are other brands, of course. Corgi, Husky and Lledo made passable mini-vehicles (though I always felt uncomfortable grabbing hold of a Dinky), but Hot Wheels and Matchbox made the superior products. Just as I wasn’t going to accept a Star Striker Spaceship in place of a Millennium Falcon, I had no use for a lime-green Husky-brand Studebaker station wagon. I wanted the good stuff.

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The original Matchbox cars debuted in 1953 and were sold in – surprise! – matchboxes, or tiny replicas of matchboxes. Like Corgi and Dinky, their main competitors, Matchbox was a British company. The early models didn’t feature windows or interiors; they were looking to keep costs down, and assumed that British kids had enough imagination that they could formulate their own mental bucket seats if necessary. They were well-made and outrageously popular. Matchbox dwarfed the competition by 1968. Read more…

Day 850: When Society Slaps Back At The Intelligentsia

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The dumbing-down mentality within our popular culture is so pervasive, even those at the bottom of the intellectual food chain are aware it’s happening. Lest you worry that this will turn into a kvetch-laden rant about the Grand Media Conspiracy, let me assure you that we are doing this to ourselves. We are collectively opting to pour more of our time into formulaic singing competitions like The Voice and American Idol than into listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the mysteries of the universe on Cosmos.

And that’s fine – I’m not here to place myself on a pedestal of intellectual lucidity and preach to the unwashed masses who while away their hours watching the lowbrow hijinks on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Hell, I’m one of those people; that show is deviously hilarious. And while I don’t believe it’s an obligation to devote one’s recreational boob-tubery solely to educational pursuits and high art, I think overall we can do a little better.

To be honest, I’m more concerned about dumbing-down as it applies to the greater threat of anti-intellectualism – a form of outright discrimination against those who over-emphasize their think-muscles. It’s frustrating to consider that Avril Lavigne’s insipid Kitty song is going to earn her more money than Sharon Jones will make off her brilliant new album, but when anti-intellectualism is allowed to become policy, we are in serious trouble.

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So why the hate for intellectuals? Is it jealousy? Hypocrisy? A deep-seeded loathing for free-form jazz and prog-rock? The most sensible answer I could find was a disdain for the abject disconnect between the intellectual’s calculated ideal and the world of realistic application. To put it bluntly, unless the intellectual has gotten their hands dirty at some point, they don’t really know the whole story. It’s one thing to design an elaborate factory, tweaked to the last dusty micron to produce at maximum efficiency for an unheralded profit, but quite another to actually toil in that factory, and to experience how soul-sucking and physically exhausting that “brilliant design” can be. Read more…

Day 793: Curious Bond-ities

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After three years of film studies classes, I have yet to find any university prof who will bestow more than a grunt upon the phenomenon of James Bond. I understand that – if ever there was a formula film genre, Bond takes the golden crown of convention. But they are fun conventions, and despite the volumes upon volumes of cinematic history and analysis I have devoured in search of my degree, none of it really matters when a movie aspires to nothing more than fun.

The more recent run of Bond-age has explored love and loss in James’ life, dipped into his childhood origins for a sprinkling of character depth, and of course the guy has had his balls whipped. But the consistent thrills within the 23 films are the babes, the beverages and the bevy of bodacious techy-trinkets. Twenty-three films is an impressive feat, despite the lack of temporal congruity or a unifying sense of narrative continuity. But so what?

We don’t need to know how the psychological damage of the laser beam scene in Goldfinger is going to impact Bond’s battle technique atop the Golden Gate Bridge in A View To A Kill. Sure, the Daniel Craig trilogy (destined to be a quadrilogy in 2015) has given us a few consistent arcs within the characters, but we all know that they’ll get tossed aside when Craig moves on and the next Bond takes over.

I’m voting for Idris Elba in that role, by the way. If Remington Steele can be a Bond, why not Stringer Bell?

Look, he's already practicing!

Look, he’s already practicing!

As I mentioned, there are 23 Bond films in the official canon. If you want to be a completist, you’ll have to grab three additional films for your library. These ones won’t be found in the box set.

There’s the first James Bond film, released eight years prior to Dr. No. CBS paid Ian Fleming a whopping $1000 to adapt his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, into a one-hour television broadcast as part of their Climax! anthology series. The show aired on October 21, 1954. Remember two years ago when people were talking about the 50th anniversary of James Bond on film? Well, if we want to get really accurate, we’re actually at 60 years now. Read more…

Day 759: The Scar Tissue Of The Elite

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They tell me that chicks dig scars.

I’ve got one permanent battle etching upon my exterior, and when I was single it did nothing to improve my social life. Sure, it’s just a 1½-inch tic across two of my left knuckles from when I was dissecting a large clam in the seventh grade, but a scar is a scar, right? Perhaps if I’d tweaked the story a bit, maybe told the ladies I got the scar punching out a robotic dinosaur Nazi along the rim of a volcano.

The hard part was luring him to the volcano.

The hard part was luring him to the volcano.

From what I can tell, my problem may not have rested in the relatively tame (and stupid) nature of my wound, but in its arbitrary nature. Scarring these days is often a matter of intent, perhaps as a personal statement or as a form of social acceptance. I’m not one to get judgy about one’s epidermal ornamentation – tattoo art has come a long way from the requisite bicep anchor, and even the most absurdly inked typos on the face or neck can provide a hearty laugh.

Voluntary scarring? It seems a bit over-the-top for my tastes. But as much as the concept appears separated between its modern trendy incarnation and its use among tribal rites and customs in civilizations far removed from our own, there is a bridge: the high-society scar.

That’s right – someone’s wound-shadow upon their skin might have nothing to do with a meat cleaver juggling accident, a Nanumban initiation ceremony nor the desire to express “YOLO” to one’s peers. A facial cicatrix might denote one’s aristocratic roots. It could serve as a cheek-slung banner, boasting of the blue blood that had once oozed through those pores.

They’re called dueling scars. Read more…

Day 750: The Celebrity Strangeness Quiz

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While in the next room my wife is no doubt running the trumpeters through a quick rehearsal of the jazzed-up fanfare that will herald the massive party she is throwing in my honor, I’m going to flex my consonants and stretch my vowels for the final 250-day sprint to the finish line. I’m right on course with this project, having achieved my goals of graduating from University and acquiring a paid gig spewing words onto a screen. All that’s left is an upgrade to my day job, perhaps the shedding of a few pounds and having Scarlett Johansson sing me an acoustic cover of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album while I feast on bacon and hummus.

But then I don’t know the details of the party next door. Maybe that’ll come off my list today.

For an insatiable snarfer of inconsequential trivia, this project has been a god-send of forgettable (though momentarily nod-worthy) factoids and tiddly-bits. It’s been a treat finding so many wonky folds of space-time that have overlapped with my daily topics and rewarded me for having scooped up all this pop-cultural flotsam. Today I’m going to treat my readers to some of the great weirdness upon the Hollywood petri dish. Today’s quiz is a glob of some of the weirdest facts I could find about A-list stars. The answers are, as always, linked at the end of each question.

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  1. One year after serving as an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, this actor took the Morehouse College board of trustees hostage (including Martin Luther King Sr.), refusing to release them until the school agreed to reform its curriculum and policies. He won, but was then convicted of unlawful confinement and kicked out of school for two years. Answer.
  2. At the age of 22, this star became a New York City Firefighter, a job he held for five years before quitting to pursue acting. During the hazy aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when headlines were breezing by in a blur of carnage and horror, this guy re-enlisted with his old firehouse and spent several 12-hour shifts sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center, looking for survivors. Answer. Read more…

Day 512: Calculators… Made From Human Flesh!!!

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In my household, my memory skills are legendary. I can pull an entire scene of dialog from Star Wars and perform it between our salt and pepper shakers, while my wife watches in awe, questioning her choice of mate. A couple months ago, my fingers successfully air-guitared the entire solo of Phillip Bailey and Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover”, despite my not having heard the song in probably twenty years. Yet at the same time, I forget my phone in the other room, forget we need to buy dog food until five minutes after the store has closed, and forget what day it is on an hourly basis.

My brain may be defective – albeit in a charming way – but for the most part, it gets me by. I know I’ll never match up to the titans who participate in the Mental Calculation World Cup. This is the Super Bowl for memory athletes, and there’s no doubting that the rigorous training and conditioning these people go through is right on par with the workout regimen of a Joe Flacco or an Ed Reed.

It hurts my brain a little just thinking about it. Fortunately – and I blame this on my becoming a 3-hour expert on a new topic every day – I’ll probably forget all about this by tomorrow.

Naofumi Ogasawara, winner of the 2012 Mental Calculation World Cup

That’s Naofumi Ogasawara, the star of the 2012 World Cup. The competition has taken place every two years since 2004, and has featured some of the most mathletic brains on the planet. The challenges posed in these games are not for the faint of mind. Ogasawara was handed ten ten-digit number additions, which he computed in 191 seconds. He won the race to calculate the square roots of ten six-digit numbers. And he also beat the rest of the pack when handed five ‘surprise’ calculation tasks. Read more…