Thursday, December 20, 2012

And We Feel Fine

"The end of the world. THE END OF THE WORLD!!! Will it bring total annihilation, glorious transcendence, or both? When will it happen? Can we do anything about it? Will we be able to get good jobs afterwards?"

-- Opening line from the class syllabus for the Apocalyptic Literature course at Juniata College

Don't worry, this isn't actually going to happen

You may have heard about how the world is ending this week. The Mayan calendar is coming to an end, and thus, many are saying, an apocalypse is nigh. December 21, 2012, to be precise. At 6:11 AM, to be completely exact.

Now, it's important to point out that the Mayans didn't actually predict the end of the world this December 21st. (The calendar's just getting reset.) This hasn't stopped many from forecasting certain doom, but chances are, we'll be Doomsday-free this month.

Still, on the off-chance that the "forecasters" are right, it can't hurt to be prepared. So we've complied a list of sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, dystopia, and post-apocalyptic books, films, and television to provide you with an end-of-the-world primer. And whether aliens invade, meteors hit the Earth, or zombies attack, you'll be prepared.

Just remember: Don't Panic.

This message brought to you by Marvin the Paranoid Android

For the Apocalypse:

-- 2012 (2009 film)

Start off with this appropriately-titled special-effects bonanza, featuring John Cusack as a science fiction writer racing for safety as the world literally tears itself apart. The, erm, "science" in this one is best left unexplored, but the CGI is top-notch.

-- Independence Day (1996 film)

Prefer aliens in your apocalypse?  Look no further than this summer blockbuster, which includes inspiration on how to defeat an invading alien race with your handy-dandy Macbook.

-- Good Omensby Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

Expecting a Biblically-based end times?  Check out this humorous novel by Gaiman and Pratchett for tips on dealing with motorcycle-riding Four Horsemen, a misplaced Antichrist, and angels and demons who have decided they sort of like the human race.

-- The Day After Tomorrow (2004 film)

If you're thinking climate change may be the culprit of the end times, check out this movie, which stars Dennis Quaid as a paleoclimatologist warning that a seismic shift in the world's climate is coming -- well, sooner than expected.

-- The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Plan on coming of age during the ensuing apocalypse? Then take a look at this book about Julia, who is trying to deal with the slow destruction of her world, along with her parents' failing marriage and her own issues with first love.

-- Knowing (2009 film)

If you're trying to predict the apocalypse, this is the film for you. Nicolas Cage stars as a physics professor who stumbles upon the contents of a fifty-year-old time capsule. Once he cracks the code of the contents, it gives him a shocking look into the future ... and the past.

As Monroeville residents, we should know all about zombie takeovers -- but if you need to brush up, this novel's for you. (This has a movie version and a full-cast audiobook in the works; in the meantime, also check out the AMC show The Walking Dead.)

-- Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Thinking asteroids?  This YA read (the first in a trilogy) sets the stage with an asteroid knocking the Moon closer to the Earth. The effects are gradual but catastrophic, leaving Miranda (our main character) facing increasingly different choices.

-- Cell by Stephen King

If you ask us, the most obvious potential cause for an apocalypse?  Cell phones. Apparently, Stephen King agrees.

Don't panic!  This book (and film, TV series, graphic novel, radio show, and towel) remind us that the story begins ... when the world ends.

(VIDEO: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" teaser trailer)

In the aftermath:

-- A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

If you're planning an Apocalypse more science-fictionally based, try this finely bizarre read. It's set in a post-nuclear world where a recently-excavated, 20th-century shopping list is the the most prized and sacred artifact in the world -- penned as it was by the blessed St. Leibowitz.

-- Mad Max (1979 film & sequels)

Good for tips on how to cope during an oil shortage crisis, not to mention how to start your own motorcycle gang.

--The Passage by Justin Cronin

If a post-apocalyptic world run by vampires who were created from the failed attempt at developing an immunity-boosting drug sounds like it might be something you see in your future, take a look at this book.

-- The Stand by Stephen King

Think the world will end because of a plague? In this dark and devastating world, the few people left alive struggle with dreams of good and evil. This is a classic horror novel from the master of horror.

-- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Great how-to guide if you find yourself the last survivor on a planet full of vampires. (Or zombies, in the most recent film remake.)

-- The Road by Cormac McCarthy

If the cause of the end times remains a mystery, try this post-apocalyptic story of a father and son trying to survive in a savage world. Their love for each other supports them on their journey to the coast.

-- Oryx and Crake/The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

These two related stories concern the after-effects of the destruction of the environment of North America. A good cautionary duo after or before an Apocalypse.

-- The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Let's hope no one finds themselves in this dystopia -- a post-apocalyptic world created by a monotheatic government that forces women to become "breeders." A chilling, thought-provoking read. (Are you an Atwood fan? Then check out our previous post.)

-- The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

A less horror-based epidemic than The Stand?  In this novel of a world crippled by a superflu, one man hangs on to his humanity the best he can with his dog and his 1957 Cessna plane.

-- The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

(If you suddenly find yourself in Panem?)  Here, we have another future world run by an authoritarian government. This time, teens are thrown into an arena to fight to the death to pay for an earlier uprising.

-- Blade Runner (1982 film)

Robot takeover!  Based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Phillip K. Dick, this film stars Harrison Ford as a blade runner (a robot hunter) in a bleak future where androids are banned from earth. It's Ford's job to find those that are hiding out (or blending in) and eliminate them.

 -- Soylent Green (1973 film)

... we'll just avoid this Apocalypse, okay?  (The film shows the devastating effects of overpopulation on New York City in 2022 -- but there is, as you may know, more to the story.)

-- Time Machine (1960 film)

Don't like the Apocalypse you wind up in?  Check out this classic ... and time travel your way back home.

-- Post by Ms. B and Tracy

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Immortal Beloved

December 16 marked Ludwig van Beethoven's 242nd birthday. And, being a massive Beethoven fan, I wanted to do something to mark the occasion. So let's celebrate the great composer by taking a look at some of the Best of Beethoven Trivia:

-- Beethoven was born in 1770. When little Ludwig was old enough to start showing a talent for music, his father (a musician himself) decided his son was going to be a child prodigy. Of course, Beethoven actually was a child prodigy -- but it still wasn't enough for dear Dad. Determined to make his son appear as brilliant as possible, Johann Beethoven routinely told people that Ludwig was two years younger than he actually was. It was years before Ludwig himself discovered that he actually hadn't been born in 1772.

-- When he was about 18, Beethoven was lucky enough to travel to Vienna (the European center of music at the time) and meet his hero: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart later commented on Beethoven's musical performance to friends, saying, "Keep your eyes on him; someday he will give the world something to talk about."

-- Beethoven's eccentric personality was one of his most defining characteristics. He could be moody, arrogant, and insulting; or warm, good-humored, and compassionate.

-- He liked jokes, bad puns, and even pranks, and was known to sometimes be a chair-puller.

-- One of his most famous patrons was Prince Karl Lichnowsky. He once told the prince (who provided Beethoven with financial support, mind), "There are and there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven."

-- Beethoven was not the most desirable of customers. He went through servants and landlords as an alarming rate. At restaurants, he'd forget to pay the bill, wrote musical notations on the tablecloths, and once dumped a dish of veal and gravy over a waiter.

-- He wrote, among other things, nine symphonies, five piano concertos, 16 string quartets, 10 violin sonatas (plus five for cello and 30 for piano), and two masses.

-- "Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours. ..." Although he never married, Beethoven loved several women in his life. The most famous, though her identity remains a mystery to this day, is the "Immortal Beloved" to whom he wrote a love letter.

-- The great tragedy of Beethoven's life as a musician was his increasing deafness. He was hard of hearing and suffered from increasingly severe tinnitus (ringing of the ears). He famously carried around "Conversation books" (many of which survived to this day), asking those around him to write down their responses to him instead of speaking aloud.

-- Beethoven's Ninth (and final) Symphony had its premiere performance on May 7, 1824. (That's the one featuring the famous "Ode to Joy" chorus in the final movement.) By this time, Beethoven's hearing was virtually gone -- but he still insisted on conducting the concert himself. A second conductor, Michael Umlauf, stood beside him, and instructed the performers to disregard Beethoven's signals and focus only on Umlauf. Beethoven, for his part, continued to conduct with his usual enthusiastic vigor (even though much of his gesturing did not match the orchestra's actual performance).

That opening concert of the Ninth Symphony was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. At the end of the performance, the audience leapt to their feet, cheering and applauding with wild enthusiasm, already calling for an encore. But Beethoven, his back to the audience, conducted onward, unable to hear the applause -- and lost in the world of music he heard inside. Finally, Karoline Unger, one of the sopranos, stepped forward and touched Beethoven's sleeve to turn him around ... so he could see the audience's joyous response.

Video: Ode to Joy flash mob

-- Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are space probes that were launched in 1977. (Stick with me; I promise this is related.) The probes were launched to explore the furthest reaches of our solar system, but they're also something of messages-in-bottles. Each probe contains a gold-plated copper "phonograph record" disk (along with instructions on how to play them), meant to be messages about humanity to any intelligent life that may run across them. The disks are etched with pictures of Earth, and contain samples of sound ... and music. Including a recording of the Fifth Symphony.

After a flash mob that awesome, it seems only fitting to find out that Beethoven's music has reached the stars.


Beethoven's Last Night (album): The rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra is mostly known for their rocked-out Christmas music releases. I much prefer this concept album for a "musical," featuring Beethoven, a deal with the devil, and the fate of his "lost" Tenth Symphony.

Music collection of Beethoven (county library collection)


- Immortal Beloved: Starring Gary Oldman as the famous composer, this 2000 movie tries to answer the question of the identity of Beethoven's famous and enigmatic "Immortal Beloved."

- Beethoven Lives Upstairs: This charming (and family-friendly) little movie tells the story of ten-year-old Christoph, whose family has a most unusual and eccentric second-floor tenant.

- Copying Beethoven: Taking place during the last three years of Beethoven's life, the film opens with the composing of the Ninth Symphony. Ed Harris stars as Beethoven, with Diane Kruger as the copyist hired to help him complete his manuscripts.

- Fantasia and Fantasia 2000: These Disney classics feature works of classical music set to animated sequences. The first Fantasia film features the gods of Greek Mythology in Beethoven's Pastoral Sixth Symphony, while the Fantasia 2000 sequence has an exert from the Fifty Symphony featuring a battle ... of butterflies!


- Beethoven's Hair: DNA testing on a lock of Beethoven's hair revealed some startling theories about the composer's death and life. (Was later made into a documentary.)

- Beethoven As I Knew Him: A biography written by one of Beethoven's own students.

- Beethoven's Letters: Does what it says on the tin. This collection of letters, written throughout the composer's lifetime, offers a fascinating look into, as they say, the man behind the myth. (You can hear dramatic readings of some of those letters in this documentary.)

-- Post by Ms. B

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Immaculate Reception at 40

Franco Harris's famous catch, immortalized at the Pittsburgh International Airport

Most sports fans, especially those here in Western Pennsylvania, can't remember a time when the Pittsburgh Steelers weren't one of the most successful teams in the National Football League. After six Super Bowl victories (the first four within six years), with many former players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Terrible Towels being twirled all over the world, it's hard to believe there was a time when the Steelers were anything but champions.

Art Rooney, Sr. founded the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, that was their name for their first seven seasons) in 1933, and this current season marks the Steelers' 80th. Through most of the first 40 years, the organization fielded a mostly forgettable group of teams. In 1969, the Steelers hired Chuck Knoll. While his first season was far from a success (1-13), it gave them the first draft pick in 1970, which they used to take Terry Bradshaw. After picking Joe Greene the previous year, they were finally on their way to respectability. But no one would know that for sure for a few more seasons. 

That season came in 1972, when the Steelers won their first division title and played their first playoff game on December 23rd. They defeated the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium 13-7. But it was not just any ordinary playoff game. This was the game of "The Immaculate Reception" by Franco Harris in the final minutes of the game, for them to win. It's a very hard play to describe, so if you haven't already seen it, just watch the video below. 

(Take a look at this little diagram if you are still confused by the play.)

That's Harris on the right, and Frenchy Fuqua, the intended receiver, on the left.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding the play. In 1972, only one offensive player was allowed to touch the ball after a pass. As can be seen in the above video, it's a little hard to tell how the ball got from one place to the other. If it bounced off of Steeler Frenchy Fuqua, then Harris catching the ball was an illegal play. However, if the ball bounced off of Oakland Raider Jack Tatum before Harris caught it, then the play was legal. It was ruled a touchdown on the field by at least one official, but there wasn't complete agreement by all of the officials. After discussing it on the field and consulting with the supervisor of officials, the play was ruled a touchdown. Back in those days, there wasn't any instant replay for officials to check, so they had to rely on each other to make their decision. Forty years later, there is still controversy -- but, of course, not by Steelers fans!

Around Pittsburgh, this catch is spoken of with reverence and respect. It was also a turbulent and restless city at the time of the play. The steel mills were still operating, but no one knew for how long. The war inVietnam was still going on, and many young men from Western Pennsylvania had fought (many not returning home). The Pittsburgh Steelers, and this playoff game, was a rock for the city to hold onto. It kept everyone going.

Also, from the way people used to talk, you would think that everyone from Western PA was either at the game or watching it on television. I spent many a year thinking that I had seen the game on TV. But I was only six at the time, so you could forgive me my memory slip. Those of us not there only saw highlights shown later, because the game was blacked out due to broadcasting restrictions at the time (games could not be broadcast within a 75 mile radius of the home team).

This catch is so revered that the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh is raising money for a statue to be built on the exact location of the Immaculate Reception. Three Rivers Stadium no longer stands, but by using global positioning, they say they have found the exact spot where Franco made history 40 years ago. They are even having a contest for fans to send in photos of them "Francoing" (duplicating the look from the photo at the top of this post).

The Steelers went on to play the Miami Dolphins the following week, but lost. But within a few short years, the Steelers, and the city of Pittsburgh, would be celebrating the team's first Super Bowl. If not for Franco Harris's "Immaculate Reception," who knows if that would have happened that quickly. But luckily, for those of us who are Steelers fans, we didn't have to find that out!


It All Started With the Immaculate Reception -- An article on the Pittsburgh Steelers' website about the event.

Immaculate Reception Monument to be Unveiled -- Another article from the Steelers' website, this time about the new monument.

Couple Who Coined Name for Immaculate Reception Never Sought Credit -- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article recalls how a young couple suggested the name to Myron Cope.

Immaculate Reception Football Means A Lot To Its Caretaker -- Another Post-Gazette article tells how Jim Baker ended up with this famous football.

Books and DVDs:

Football Physics : The Science of the Game by Timothy Gay (includes a section on The Immaculate Reception)

The Pittsburgh Steelers: Behind the Steel Curtain (DVD) - one of the special features is about the 1972 playoff game

-- Post by Tracy

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Behind the New Normal

"The reinventors of normal."

That's the slogan presented in's new television spot, which first starting appearing this fall. To quote their marketing agency: "Amazon hasn’t simply changed how we shop or read, but more importantly, they have revolutionized how we live."

That might be considered a somewhat lofty claim -- at least until we take a closer look. Ordering merchandise online has, indeed, become part of the normal shopping experience: during this year's Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving), Americans spent $1.5 billion on online purchases in twenty-four hours. It's hard to say how many of those purchases were made at Amazon, but for some perspective: on Cyber Monday 2011, Amazon sold 17 million individual items. 

They're impressive stats for a store that's only 17 years old (although it's true that 17 years in tech-time is a decidedly long stretch). started life on July 16, 1995, in a two-car garage in Bellevue, Washington. In the beginning, it was something of a seat-of-the-pants operation, with founder and CEO Jeff Bezos overseeing a handful of people packing and shipping boxes off of a table made out of an old door. (Nowadays, many of the desks in the Amazon offices are still made out of doors, in tribute to the company's modest beginnings.) 

It's a far cry from the company's fulfillment warehouses of today, one of which -- located in Phoenix, Arizona -- opened its doors to reporters to give them a glimpse into what goes on to make the Amazon shopping experience possible. 

A Phoenix, Arizona "fulfillment center"

Filled with miles of conveyor belt, this particular fulfillment center consists of a 1.2 million square foot warehouse. The items held inside -- from books and packs of coffee to board games and computer equipment -- are organized not by type or brand, but, instead, are placed in any spot that happens to be free. If an empty slot fits, it's used, no matter what else may be in that particular aisle.

The secret to what Amazon calls "chaotic storage" is in its barcoding system, which is how the warehouses' lack of order is still kept organized. Every single shelf space in the warehouse has a unique barcode; when an item is placed onto the shelf, it's tagged with the particular barcode that matches its new storage spot. Barcodes, in fact, are the backbone of Amazon's warehouses, where codes are used to find, ship, and track each and every purchase.

After an online order is placed by an Amazon customer, the order appears on an employee's handheld scanner. The employee follows the corresponding barcode number to the right shelf, then pulls the item from the shelf (yes, by hand) and places it into a barcode-marked yellow bin. The bin is then placed on a conveyor belt, and soon arrives in the hands of another employee for its contents to be boxed up and shipped. 

It's a massive operation that requires massive manpower, particularly during the holidays; Amazon hired 50,000 seasonal employees this year alone. It also requires complex computer programs to keep track of inventory, whether for items coming directly out of Amazon's warehouses or, instead, from sellers who are offering their merchandise through Amazon's website. (Business owners can sell their products through Amazon; their merchandise shows up on Amazon's website, and can even be purchased directly through Amazon, in return for Amazon receiving a share of the sales profits.)

Other computer programs have been developed to manage search terms and track buyers' habits. The company is striving not only to offer low prices, but also to customize users' shopping experience according to what each shopper wants. Complex algorithms have been developed by Amazon computer techs to track what you buy and develop personal recommendations based on what you purchase or even search for.

Amazon can be a great place to shop easily, for nearly anything, at great bargains. But remember: Amazon still can't guarantee the lowest prices. This holiday season, don't forget to shop around.

For Further Reading:

-- "Amazon's Warehouses Truly Boggle The Mind" - from the Huffington Post. Includes photos of Amazon warehouses.

-- "How Dead Is the Book Business?" - from the New York Times. Publishing giants Random House and Penguin have merged together to stay in the book-business game against Amazon's new printing imprint. But this isn't the first time industry has changed at the turn of the century. Includes theories on what the future of commerce may look like.

-- "Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption" - more from the Times about how publishers (and traditional booksellers) are keeping relevant against Amazon's competition.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Festival of Lights

A laser-beam menorah at the Ariel Sharon Park near Tel Aviv, Israel (2011)

The eight-day celebration of Hanukkah (or Chanukah) is a holiday of historical importance to Jewish believers. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred during the second century B.C.E. during the Maccabean Revolt. The Maccabees were led by Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, and they were fighting not for their lives, but rather for freedom from religious persecution.

In 164 B.C.E., the Jewish people rebelled against their Greek-Syrian oppressors, who had attempted to place statues of Greek gods in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Talmud, the pure oil that remained for the rededication ceremony was only enough to give light for a single night -- but, miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. Jewish celebrators of the holiday use the menorah (with its eight primary candles) to celebrate the eight days of the oil staying lit in the Jewish Temple.

This year, Hanukkah starts at sunset on Saturday, December 8, and continues until sunset on Sunday, December 16. Read on to see our suggestions for the best books -- for all ages! -- to help you celebrate (or simply learn more) about the Festival of Lights.

-- The Jewish Holiday Home Companion: A Parent’s Guide to Family Celebration by Nicolas D. Mandelkern and Vicki L. Weber

This small book is aimed at Jewish families and covers many Jewish holidays, but the brief information it contains would be good for anyone -- of any age -- who wants to learn more about this holiday.

-- Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays by Paul Steinberg

For a more in-depth look at Hanukkah, this book is ideal. Along with the history of the holiday, there are many essays regarding the significance of Hanukkah and interpretations of sacred texts. This book also takes a look at Tu B'shevat and Purim.

The National Menorah on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (2011)

-- Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration by Dr. Ron Wolfson

Primarily designed for Jewish families, this book is still chock-full of information for anyone wishing to learn more about Hanukkah. Along with the history of the holiday, there is information about celebrating (i.e. songs, prayers, and recipes). It also has a section called “The December Dilemmas,” which offers advice from real Jewish families on how to deal with celebrating Hanukkah during the (much-hyped) Christmas season.

-- The Hanukkah Book by Marilyn Burns

Discusses why and how Hanukkah is celebrated, and incudes recipes, songs, and instructions for playing with a dreidel.

-- We Celebrate Hanukkah by Bobbie Kalman

Explains the origins of Hannukkah, describes the customs and traditions associated with the holiday, and shares recipes, stories, poems, and games.

Trafalgar Square in London, England (2011)

-- Four Sides, Eight Nights: A New Spin on Hanukkah by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi

Provides young readers with an informative guide to the Jewish holiday through a review of its food, games, and many traditions.

-- Hanukkah Crafts by Karen E. Bledsoe

Perfect for families!  Includes guides to make such holiday crafts as Hanukkah symbol stamps, magnets, holiday cards, collage bookmarks, a Dreidel braided key chain, candle candy holders, a Star of David ornament, and more.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany (2011)

-- Candlelight for Rebecca by Jacqueline Dembar Greene

This American Girl book (perfect for young middle school readers) takes a look at the life of a young Jewish girl living in 1914 New York. Rebecca is pleased to help her building's ailing superintendent take care of his homing pigeons -- but is unsure of what to do with the Christmas decoration her teacher insisted she make and take back to own Jewish home.

-- Hanukkah Counts Too by Howard Shapiro

This fun picture book reminds readers that there's more than one holiday this holiday season!

-- Hanukkah at Valley Forge by Stephen Krensky 

Based on real events, author Stephen Krensky recounts a story of a Jewish soldier from Poland, who lights the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah -- during the Revolutionary War. The soldier goes on to share the story of Hanukkah, of the Maccabees and the miracle, with General George Washington himself.

In front of the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai (2011)

* Happy Hanukkah from Tracy and Ms. B!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

Where do writers get their ideas from?  Author Neil Gaiman has said, "You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it." Stephen King put it this way: "I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing things ... in a new and interesting way, and then adding the question 'What if?' 'What if' is always the key question."

Most writers will tell you that, while they may not base all their characters on people they know, real life is still the best source of inspiration one can ask for. You're heard me mention, for instance, that Arthur Conan Doyle based his famous detective character, Sherlock Holmes, on a real person: Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at Edinburgh University. But Conan Doyle is hardly the only author to find such real-life inspiration for his characters.

So in honor of Dr. Bell's 175th birthday (he was born on December 2), check out our list of seven famous fictional characters who were all inspired by real-life counterparts. A few entries may surprise you!

Lady Macbeth - Macbeth

Among William Shakespeare's most famous characters, Macbeth was based on a real historical figure -- a Scottish king who reigned in the mid-11th century. (The play was not written until the 17th century.) The real Macbeth did not have much in common with his literary counterpart, however -- right down to the fact that his wife, Gruoch of Scotland, was nothing like the treacherous villain of Shakespeare's play. (You can read more about the real Macbeth here.)

For the character of Lady Macbeth, Shakespere is thought to have found inspiration from another real-life historical figure. In the 10th century, King Duff of Scotland was murdered by the servants of one Captain Donwald. Donwald had tried to convince the king to issue pardons to certain rebellious friends and family members. The king had refused -- and Donwald's wife persuaded the captain to kill him.

* *

One of the trio of children in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Dill Harris is based on a real-life childhood friend of Lee's: Truman Capote. Capote spent time visiting his aunts in Monroeville, Alabama, and it was on such visits that Capote and Lee first became friends.

Lee and Capote remained friends into adulthood, and Capote was inspired to base two of his own characters on Lee: Idabel Thompkins and Ann "Jumbo" Finchburg. The literary pals would go on to collaborate together on research for a true crime book about a Kansas murder, but their friendship was shaken when Capote failed to give Lee credit for her part in their investigations. (Read more about that here.)

* *

Winnie the Pooh, When We Were Very Young

The famous inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood (or Ashdown Forest, for you purists) were the creation of children's author A. A. Milne, who was also an essayist, a playwright, a poet, and an adult novelist. You might already know that Milne based the character of Christopher Robin on Milne's own son (also named Christopher) -- but there was a real-life basis for Christopher Robin's ursine companion, too.

Lieutenant Harry Coleborn was a young veterinarian, who purchased an orphaned bear cub in the town of White River, Ontario. The bear -- named "Winnipeg" after the bear's birthplace -- initially served as something of a mascot to Coleborn's army regiment during the first World War. Winnie was eventually taken to the London Zoo, where Christopher Milne spotted her. Delighted with the bear, he promptly changed his own teddy bear's name from "Edward" to "Winnie-the-Pooh" in honor of Winnipeg. The rest is history.

(The original Edward/Winnie teddy bear can still be seen at the New York Public Library.) 

* *

Sally Bowles - Cabaret

The musical Cabaret started life as the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, was adapted into the play I Am a Camera in 1951, and was finally brought to Broadway in 1966. The story takes place in 1921 Berlin, where Sally Bowles is the star of the Kit Kat nightclub. The musical is loved for its blending of the bright decadence of the 30s with the air of political tension and growing upheaval as Europe stood on the brink of a world war. Sally herself is an unbreakably robust character, even with the darker tone that looms ahead.

When it came to the original novel, author Christopher Isherwood had factual inspiration for more than just his setting. The character of Sally Bowles herself is modeled after a young Englishwoman that Isherwood met while in Berlin. Her name was Jean Ross, and, in real life, she was a political radical, who was described as being much different from her fictional counterpart by those who knew her. (Read more about Jean Ross and Christopher Isherwood here.)

* *

Harry Callahan - Dirty Harry

The serial killer Scorpio is the first villain to appear in Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series. Part of Scorpio's modus operandi was to send ransom demands to the police, threatening to commit a murder a day until he was paid off. Most fans know that Scorpio was based on a real criminal: California's Zodiac serial killer. Like Scorpio, the Zodiac killer also sent mocking notes to the police force (and the press) with information about upcoming crimes. (One such note said Zodiac would hijack a school bus, which was re-enacted in the film.)

But less well-known is that Harry Callahan himself was inspired by a real person. Eastwood's Callahan was inspired by David Toschi, the detective in charge of the Zodiac investigation.

* *

The Soup Nazi - Seinfeld

"No soup for you!" might be one of the most famous quotes to come out of hit NBC sitcom Seinfeld's nine-season run. It's uttered by the "Soup Nazi," the owner of a new soup stand that Kramer has been raving about. But when Jerry, George, and Elaine decide to give the place a try, Jerry reminds them that they have to be sure to follow the strict rules of procedure the owner lays out to customers. The trio doesn't manage it -- which means, well, No Soup.

As ludicrous as it sounds, the Soup Nazi is based on a real person (if slightly exaggerated). Al Yeganeh is a soup vendor who first opened his New York City restaurant, the Soup Kitchen International, in 1984. People lined up down the block to taste Yeganeh's creations -- but, due to either his temperament or the crowded lines, rules at the Soup Kitchen International were strict. ("Pick the soup you want!" "Have your money ready!") 

The Soup Nazi wasn't the only Seinfeld character based on a real person. Kramer was inspired by a real-life neighbor of the show's co-creator, Larry David. And George Costanza was based on David himself.

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Professor Snape (and the Weasleys) - Harry Potter

It's semi-common knowledge among Harry Potter fans that the insufferable Professor Gilderoy Lockhart -- his defining characteristics are his enormous ego and his utter incompetence -- was based upon a real person. (Author J.K. Rowling won't say who.) But while Lockhart was the only real-life person Rowling fully based one of her characters on, there was another Hogwarts professor who was at least partially inspired by a real-life figure: Severus Snape.

When asked about the character in an interview, Rowling commented, "Snape is the ... very sadistic teacher, loosely based on a teacher I myself had, I have to say."

It turns out that Rowling was talking about John Nettleship, a chemistry teacher (quite appropriate, as Snape teaches Potions class). Nettleship was initially surprised to find out the connection; he found out when reporters came knocking on his door to ask him about it. But he eventually came to embrace the connection in good humor. (Read more about Nettleship here.)

-- Post by Ms. B