Friday, March 29, 2013

Staff Recommendation #13: Fringe

When The X-Files went off the air in 2002, I was a bit sad. It had been on the air for nine years, and it was my favorite show through every one of those years. Admittedly, it lasted a few years longer than it probably should have, but it was still my show.

At that time, I thought that I would never care about a show as much as I did about The X-Files. Boy, was I wrong!

A little over a year ago, I discovered this show called Fringe. As followers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of science fiction, especially in movies and television. Before I started watching Fringe, I had heard a bit about the show and it intrigued me. So I decided to give it a try and I requested the first season from our catalog. I was hooked from the very beginning.

Here is the basic premise of the show -- FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) needs the help of Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), an eccentric scientist. Dunham needs Bishop to save the life of her partner, John Scott (Mark Valley), who has been exposed to some unknown chemical agent in an explosion.

The problem is that Dr. Bishop has been in a mental institution for the past 17 years, after the accidental death of his lab assistant, and can only be released by the authorization of a relative. That relative would be Walter's wayward son, Peter (Joshua Jackson).

Olivia finds Peter in Iraq, trying to complete a "deal" with some Iraqi businessmen. She convinces him that he has to return with her, even though he has no desire to reunite with a father he hasn't seen in 17 years. Peter, unfortunately, has no choice (Olivia uses a bit of blackmail to convince him).

Olivia informs Peter that his father has been involved in an area of science known as "fringe" science since the 1970s, mostly working on projects for the U.S. government. (Peter, for his part, had always believed that Walter did research for a toothpaste company.)

The trio eventually becomes part of a team working for the FBI, investigating unexplained events that may or may not be related to something called the Pattern. As the story continues, relationships will form and secrets will be revealed. We will learn more about the Pattern and how it relates to Olivia, Walter, and Peter.

As much as I love the sci-fi and supernatural element of this show, what sets it apart from so many other shows are the characters. I agree with how Jeff Pinkner, one of the showrunners for most of its 5-year run, described the show: it's "very much like a family drama masquerading as a science fiction [show]." It's really all about family. These three people form the center of this family unit and the show explores how that family unit functions through these bizarre events happening around them.

While the writers have created a group of complex and believable characters, the actors have made them so very real. All the actors have done a remarkable job, but unfortunately, none of them have been recognized for their work. (Science fiction and other genre shows tend to get overlooked by the major awards shows.)

Coming from the creative team of J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) and Bad Robot, Fringe debuted on Fox on September 9, 2008, to great fanfare. The pilot that aired that night was a big, expensive thriller -- reportedly made with a $10 million budget. Three months prior to the air date, the pilot was leaked on the internet (intentional or not, who knows). This, of course, created even more interest.

The original intent of the show was to be more episodic and less mythological than Abrams's big hit, Lost. And, while Fringe did introduce elements of a serialized storyline, it was definitely more episodic than Lost. Actually, it was rather like The X-Files, in the sense that most episodes were a freak-of-the-week type. The writers were slowly developing and revealing parts of the back stories of these characters, but "slowly" is the operative word. About halfway through that first season, they just decided to move away from episodic storytelling and have a more serialized storyline.

Unfortunately, the ratings did not remain high once the writers went in the new direction. But the fans they had stuck with them through it all. Through their first four seasons, Fringe was always on the brink of cancellation. But these fans (or "Fringies," as they like to call themselves) were a determined bunch, and were always coming up with new ways to show support for their show. Kevin Reilly, president of Fox Television, has admitted that he received 200 cases of Red Vines from fans in 2011. (Red Vines are the favorite snack of one of the characters on the show).

If you've noticed, I haven't said much more about what happens on the show after the pilot episode. That was intentional. If you want to see where the story goes over the five seasons it was on the air, you can check out many sites devoted to the show. But to truly appreciate the twists and turns and surprises that the wonderful group of writers came up with, you just need to watch it.

-- Request the first season of Fringe here

-- Request the second season of Fringe here

-- Request the third season of Fringe here

-- Request the fourth season of Fringe here

-- Post by Tracy

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Staff Recommendation #12: "Insane City" by Dave Barry

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Dave Barry, the author and humorist whose column for the Miami Herald appeared in more than 500 newspapers and won him a Pulitzer Prize. Since leaving his column-writing duties in 2005, Barry has still been writing -- concentrating on his bestselling YA series Peter and the Starcatchers with co-author Ridley Pearson.

He's written over thirty books throughout his career, the majority of which are non-fiction collections. But he's also penned three novels for adults: Big Trouble, Tricky Business, and Insane City (a fourth novel, Lunaticswas written with co-author Alan Zweibel).

When Big Trouble came out in 1999, it was an instant bestseller, popular enough to be made into a movie starring Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Janeane Garofalo, and Stanley Tucci. (The book's popularity did not transfer into a blockbuster film, alas.) Three years later came Tricky Business, which seemed less popular among fans than the first book, but which I, myself, found much more enjoyable and engaging than Barry's first offering.

I had to wait over a decade for Barry's third solo novel, which finally arrived in the shape of Insane City. I was, pun intended, insanely excited when my turn came up on the Library holds list, but as I started reading, it was with a slightly apprehensive question in mind: would the book turn out to be worth the 11-year wait?

I am so pleased to say that the answer is Yes.

Describing the comedy (and quirky action) of a Barry novel's plot is to always do the actual story a disservice. Centering -- at least at first -- around an upcoming wedding in Miami, the book takes unexpected twists and turns that alternate between hysterically funny and just seriously great action. There's simply no short description that could give justice to the fun of watching soon-to-be-groom Seth Weinstein and soon-to-be-bride Tina Clark get caught up in a series of whirlwind events -- events which include a orangutan, a Burmese python, an accidental robbery of a convenience store, and an only-in-Miami rehearsal dinner. Don't forget the gunfire, multiple car chases (including one with a stolen cop car), and the pirate ship.

As in his previous novels, however, there's more to Barry's tale than simply throwing wacky elements together for a good laugh. (Though, don't get me wrong: there's a lot of good laughs.) Introduced initially in alternating chapters to the pre-wedding hijinks, we meet a desperate family of Haitian refugees, whose plight ultimately forms the backbone of the novel. By the third act, the stakes are far more than whether or not Tina and Seth will ultimately make it down the aisle -- and it boosts the novel from being a collection of humor skits into a story that has something to say about relationships, ambition, and what it means to do the right thing.

The book is, at turns, funny, tense, engaging, suspenseful, always fun, and filled with rich characters (I particularly love Seth, LaDawne, Bobby -- and especially Meghan, who was probably my favorite character).

If there's any single downside to the book, it's that the audio version of the book is not as enjoyable. I really love audiobooks, and I was greatly looking forward to "rereading" the book by listening to the recorded version. I was doubly excited when I found out that Barry himself had read the audiobook; he'd done such a great job with his history-of-the-60s non-fiction collection Dave Barry Turns 50. Unfortunately, his performance was not quite as smooth with a novel. His reading of the narration is engaging enough -- but as he makes no attempt to change his voice for the dialogue portions, it becomes difficult not only to tell which character is talking, but also when a character is speaking at all. So in this case, I'd recommend sticking with the novel itself.

But that's alright: the novel version won't disappoint. I'm already looking forward to Barry's next book -- but, in the meantime, I'm excited simply to read this one again.

-- Request a copy of Insane City

-- Request the audiobook version of Insane City, read by the author

From that one time that somebody brought a live nurse shark onto a Miami subway train. 
Because when you live in Miami, you don't have to make up the weirdness.

QUESTION: What is it about Miami that makes it such an "insane" city?

DAVE BARRY: People come here from all over the world -- to work, to party, to commit felonies, to seek elective office, sometimes to do all of these things simultaneously. So you have a wide range of residents, coupled with humidity and many large non-native snakes. And drugs. It is not a recipe for normality.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, March 21, 2013


TRACY: One of the most popular shows on television is about a group of friends who like to hang out at their local comic book store, play Dungeons and Dragons, and discuss the merits of George Lucas’s changes to the Star Wars films. They sound like people we would know! Which is why The Big Bang Theory is one of our favorites shows. (Although, we wonder if Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj might have a hard time believing that there are any women who would enjoy a Star Trek convention as much as them.)

MS. B: The show stars Johnny Galecki (of Roseanne fame) as Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, an experimental physicist and nerd extraordinaire. He lives in Pasadena, California, with his insufferable roommate Sheldon (a theoretical physicist); the two of them spend much of their time with friends Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali (an astrophysicist) and Howard Wolowitz (an aerospace engineer and an astronaut, but not -- as Sheldon often reminds him -- a doctor). The final addition to their group is Penny (no last name), a waitress and aspiring actress who moved into the apartment across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon. Being a bit socially awkward, it's awhile before the four guys can make friends with Penny -- but she ends up being an important part of the group. (Not to mention the fact that Leonard has a huge crush on her.)

TRACY: One of the most popular characters on the show is Dr. Sheldon Cooper, played by Emmy Award winner Jim Parsons. He was a virtual unknown to most viewers when TBBT made its debut in 2007, but he had actually been working steadily in television, film, and stage after leaving his hometown of Houston, Texas in 1999.

After many off-Broadway performances early in his acting career, he has recently returned to the stage in 2011 and 2012 to perform in two well-respected plays, The Normal Heart and Harvey. 

So in honor of Jim Parsons’ 40th birthday, Ms. B will pick her favorite TBBT episodes.

Ms. B's Top Five: 

-- "The Nerdvana Annihilation" (Season One)

When Leonard inadvertently becomes the top bidder on a $800 replica prop from the 1960 classic The Time Machine, his pals are quick to jump on his offer of becoming joint owners (at $200 apiece). The guys are delighted by their piece of authentic sci-fi history -- except for Leonard, who becomes deeply embarrassed when Penny demands to know how these grown men could possibly waste their time with such silly toys. Leonard's subsequent lapse in self-confidence has him ready to give away his collection of collectables and comic books -- until Sheldon, of all people, calls Penny out on her criticism, in one of my favorite moments of the show.

-- "The Adhesive Duck Deficiency" (Season Three)

The show is often at its best when pairing together the "odd couple" of Penny and Sheldon. In this episode, Penny slips in the shower and dislocates her shoulder -- and is forced, much to her dismay, to turn to Sheldon for help. Sheldon, reluctantly helpful (and fairly hopelessly inept), manages, after much trial and error, to get Penny out to the hospital and safely back home -- if with the two of them sniping at each other the whole way. Upon their arrival back at Penny's apartment, Penny (feeling a bit better after a hefty dose of painkillers) asks Sheldon to sing to her -- ending the episode with a hilarious but sweet moment of friendship between these two polar opposites.

-- "The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification" (Season Four)

As Leonard points out, it's not really that big of a change. After Sheldon decides that the only way to stay safe is to stay inside, he constructs a "robot" Sheldon to take his place in the outside world. It seems like the perfect plan -- even if Robot-Sheldon irritates friends and co-workers alike. Still, despite Leonard's most persistent efforts, Sheldon has no intention of ever emerging in person into the world again ... that is, until a chance encounter with Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple Computer) forces him to reconsider.

-- "The Shiny Trinket Maneuver" (Season Five)

The addition of Amy Farrah-Fowler -- Sheldon's friend who is a girl but not his girlfriend (at least at first) -- gave the show a whole new dimension. Despite his genuine fondness for Amy, Sheldon often has difficulty figuring out how to express it ... sometimes with disastrous consequences. When Sheldon fails to congratulate Amy for writing the lead article of a prestigious science journal (and, in fact, belittles her accomplishment), it seems like it might be the last straw for Amy. That is, until Sheldon reveals that he knows enough about his girl to give her a gift with truly special meaning -- making for one of the most hilarious, and touching, scenes in the show's run.

-- "The Bakersfield Expedition" (Season Six)

I expected to enjoy this one thanks to its references to one of my other favorite shows -- Star Trek: The Next Generation -- but what I didn't expect was the episode's unexpected heart. The four guys dress up as Worf, Data, Captain Picard, and a Borg alien for the Bakersfield Comic Con costume competition. They're so pleased with the results that they stop at Vasquez Rocks Park (where the original Star Trek filmed) for a few "landing party" photos. It's while they're snapping pictures that their car is stolen -- forcing them to walk their way through the dirt and heat to the nearest roadside diner for help. Humiliated by passing motorists, the diner customers, and the police officer they call for help, even Sheldon is left discouraged. Struck by self-doubt, the guys return home -- only to receive reaffirmation from the most unlikely of sources, making this my all-time favorite episode of TBBT.

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

March Madness is About to Begin!

The teams have been picked and the brackets have been filled. The first round will start Tuesday night, followed by games every day through Sunday, and then every weekend after that, until the championship game on April 8. Millions of Americans will be following these games for the next several weeks, with many fans being involved in office pools. Even people who have no interest in the sport will be picking teams today!

This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the tournament. Things were a bit different back in 1939, when Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33. First of all, there were only 8 teams involved, compared to the 68 teams invited this year. But the biggest difference is that total attendance for the tournament in 1939 was 15,025. The total attendance in 2012 was 717,185, with millions more watching on televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones.

Until the 1950s, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was considered the more prestigious tournament of the two. For many years, the two tournaments were held at different times so that many teams could compete in both. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the number of teams participating in the tournament slowly increased from eight, until there were 32 teams in 1975.

After it expanded to 32 teams, the popularity of the tournament really took off. During the 70s and 80s, many of the future stars of the NBA would play during March -- Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, to name a few.

Another popular aspect to the Tournament is whether there will be a "Cinderella" team. One of the most famous of these teams was the 1983 champion North Carolina State Wolfpack. They defeated the heavily-favored Houston Cougars, who had such future NBA stars as Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. They won 54-52 at the buzzer on a shot by Lorenzo Charles.

Check out this video to see the thrilling final seconds and ensuing-on court pandemonium from 1983.

N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano celebrating with his team  in 1983

So as you fill out your picks for your office pool, take a look at the "fun" facts about lost worker productivity from a study by a outplacement firm -- and good luck!

  • Almost 1/3 of workers will spend at least 3 hours a day following the tournament during work hours.
  • These viewing habits will cost American companies at least $134 million in "lost wages" during the first two days of the tournament.
  • 7% of respondents to a survey said that they would take time off of work to watch games at home.

-- Post by Tracy

Friday, March 15, 2013

Livin' on a Prayer

Pope Francis I

When Pope Benedict XVI announced this February that he was resigning, it came as a shock to Catholics the world over. It is exceedingly rare for a pope to step down -- in fact, it's been six centuries since a pope has not held the office for life. And, interestingly enough, when the last pope resigned in the 15th century, it was for reasons a little more complicated than you might expect.

We all know that the papacy is located in Rome, Italy -- except for a century or so when it wasn't. In 1306, at the command of King Philip IV of France, French pope Clement V moved the seat of the papacy from Rome to the more defensively-strenghtened city of Avignon, France. And for almost a century, the papacy remained in Avignon.

When the papacy seat was finally returned to Rome in 1378, there was pressure on the mostly-French cardinals from the Roman citizens to pick an Italian man as pope. Wanting to make a show of good faith (no pun intended), the cardinals chose Bartolemeo Prignano for the office. They meant well.

Ol' Prignano looks like a friendly guy.

Unfortunately, Prignano, who would become Pope Urban VI, drank too much and may have been slightly insane. (One of his first actions as pope was to order the torture and execution of six cardinals who had had the nerve to defy him.) The French cardinals, hoping to reverse the problem, chose a new pope -- Clement VII -- and returned to Avignon with the new, "true" pope. One problem: Urban wasn't about to back down and acknowledge his successor. Urban just picked some new cardinals and keep on popin'.

So now there was two elected popes and two colleges of cardinals, with one set residing in Rome and the other in France. This ushered in the Great Western Schism, with every Christian in Europe having to, essentially, choose a side. It generally went by country: France and Scotland chose to follow Clement VII; while England, Germany, and the kingdoms of central Europe allied themselves to Urban VI.

It was a tough time to be a Christian.

When the Roman Urban VI died in 1389, his replacement was Boniface IX -- whose first act was to excommunicate (that is, threw out of the church) Clement VII. But the French cardinals were undaunted by their Roman-proclaimed blasphemy; when Clement died, a new French pope was chosen to replace him. The dualing popes continued until 1409, when both groups of cardinals decided the schism had to be repaired. Banding together, the united cardinals deposed Gregory XII (the current Roman pope) and Benedict XIII (the current Avignon pope), choosing a neutral newcomer for the job: Pope Alexander V. But -- surprise! -- Benedict and Gregory were happy where they were.

So now there were three popes, and three sides. All of Christendom was in a quandary: which pope was the true pope?  It was a more pressing question than we might realize today: with the belief that one must follow the true pope in order to secure a place in heaven, choosing correctly was a very real concern. And, as my former history professor so succinctly put it: "European Christians had reached a point where, no matter what they did, they were going to be excommunicated by a minimum of two popes."

Fortunately, this state of affairs didn't last long. At the 1417 Council of Constance, the trio of popes was deposed, with Martin V finally emerging as the one, and only, pope. Since then, those elected to the office of the papacy have held the position for life -- until now.

Let's be honest: this guy would have been a tough act for anyone to follow.

For more about Pope Francis, former popes, and the history of the papacy:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio: Fast Facts About Pope Francis -- A 14-fact "primer" on Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, from Time magazine.

Cardinals Once Took 3 Years to Name Pope -- Some little-known facts about the history of papal elections from Anderson Cooper.

How to Become Pope -- YouTube show Grey Explains takes you through the process of becoming a pope.

-- Books on the papacy

-- Books about the popes

-- Post by Ms. B

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Staff Recommendation #11: "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

For most of my life, I have been fascinated by the culture and history of Native American tribes. My knowledge is very limited, but I'm always curious about their lives. Non-fiction books are a good place to learn the history of a subject, but I prefer to learn about a culture through novels. To achieve this, I have been turning to one of the best contemporary Native American storytellers -- Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich has been a published author for close to 30 years, and during that time, she has found a way to explore her roots as a Native American and share those experiences with a broader audience without alienating or offending anyone. Her books are usually stories of American Indians, but told in a way that all readers can identify with. Along the way, non-Native Americans might even learn a little about contemporary reservation life.

Her latest book, The Round House, is a perfect example of this. The story takes place in the summer of 1988, when young Joe Coutts, the son of a tribal judge and a tribal enrollment specialist, is just looking forward to the endless days hanging out with his friends. Unfortunately, it will not be that idyllic. This summer will shape the rest of Joe's life after his mother is brutally beaten and raped by an unknown assailant. Their comfortable, quiet life is now shattered. Joe struggles with how to help his mother through her depression and why it seems so difficult to figure out who the attacker is.

When Joe is not trying to figure out who hurt his mother, he spends his summer like any 13-year-old boy -- hanging out with his friends, sneaking beers, and talking about girls. We also get to meet his wacky extended family, which includes an ex-stripper aunt.

By the end of the summer, the family will figure out who attacked Mrs. Coutts, but it will take a few very tragic turns that no one could have foreseen. Along the way, we learn about the difficulties of prosecuting crimes committed against Native Americans. It all depends on who the accused is (white or non-white), and whether it took place on tribal land or not. And for young Joe, this is a very had concept for him to accept.

If you are at all interested in understanding how contemporary Native Americans live in our country, I would highly recommend this or any of Louise Erdrich's novels.

Click here to see all of Louise Erdrich's books available from the library.

-- Post by Tracy

Friday, March 8, 2013

Word Games

This weekend, the 36th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is being held in Brooklyn, New York. It's the nation's largest crossword competition, and also the oldest, with players competing to solve eight puzzles that are created especially for the competition.

The tournament is directed by Will Shortz, the New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor. Scoring is based on speed and accuracy, and prizes are given out in over 20 categories. (The grand prize is $5,000.) Evening events include extra games, guest speakers, and a wine and cheese reception, where players can meet and get to know one another in a non-competative atmosphere.

Although they haven't been long in existence, crossword puzzles are thought to be the most widespread word game in the world -- and certainly the most popular. They appear to have derived from "word squares," which appeared in England during the 19th century, primarily in children's puzzle books. In America, however, the new puzzle quickly developed into a serious adult pastime.

A word square -- reading alike vertically and horizontally.

Arthur Wynne is credited as the inventor of the crossword as we know it today, with the first-ever puzzle appearing in a Sunday newspaper, the New York World, on December 21, 1913. (Try the world's first crossword puzzle here.) By the 1920s, other newspapers were beginning to carry crosswords -- and within a decade, they were commonplace in almost every American newspaper.

To this day, crossword puzzles remain a popular and much-loved game that is played the world over. So in honor of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, try your hand at a puzzle yourself!

Online Crossword Puzzles:

Boston Globe Puzzle -- bills itself as having "the web's most popular crossword."

Ink Well -- free printable crossword puzzles. Updated every Tuesday. (Download Across Lite software to play online.)

Jonesin' Crosswords -- free printable crossword puzzles. Updated every Monday. (Download Across Lite software to play online.)

USA Today Crossword -- play their featured puzzles.

Washington Post Puzzles -- daily and Sunday puzzle editions available.

WSJ Puzzles -- play online or download and print.

Brendan Emmett Quigley's Crosswords -- designed by, of course, Brendan Emmett Quigley (who designs custom-made puzzles for a living!), this site includes puzzles archived by difficulty (Easy, Medium, Hard), plus puzzle news, interviews, and announcements!

Crosswords from the Chronicle of Higher Education -- updated weekly. Download Across Lite software to play.

Mike Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest -- compete online!

Merl Reagle's Crossword -- play online or download and print. Updated weekly.

New York Times -- daily puzzle. Must be a subscriber to play.

From the Library Collection:

-- Crosstalk: Letters to America's Foremost Crossword Puzzle Authority by Eugene T. Maleska.

A crossword puzzle creator responds to dozens of letters he's received from players across the world, revealing the skill and fun it takes to create crosswords -- and the unique aspects of language that make crossword puzzles such a challenge.

-- The Crossword Obsession: The History and Lore of the World's Most Popular Pastime by Coral Amende.

Find out more about the history of the crossword puzzle!

-- Crossworld: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession by Marc Romano.

The adventures and memoirs of one crossword puzzle devotee.

-- From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, on Crosswords by Dean Olsher.

Explores the history, psychology, and a little of the metaphysics involved in crossword puzzles.

-- How to Solve Crossword Puzzles by Norman Hill.

Pick up some tips here!

-- Four-Letter Words: And Other Secrets of a Crossword Insider by Michelle Arnot.

A manual of facts, trivia, and tips.

-- The Crossword Mysteries by Nero Blanc.

A series of mystery novels ... starring a crossword editor!

-- Wordplay [DVD]

A look into the world of crossword aficionados -- which include in their ranks Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Jon Stewart.

-- Stanley Newman's Crossword Shortcuts: The 1,001 Most Common Crossword Answers by Stanley Newman.

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rolling Down the Track

March 3 marked the 182nd birthday of George Pullman, an inventor and industrialist who developed the railroad sleeping car in the 1860s. His invention was not only personally profitable -- it also revolutionized railway travel.

The first passenger-carrying vehicle powered by steam made its debut on December 24th, 1801, driven down a road in Cornwall, England -- the invention of Richard Trevithick. In 1804, Trevithick had his chance to try his latest steam engine on an actual railway. Pulling five wagons, filled with ten tons of iron and seventy people, the steam engine made it over nine miles, averaging a speed of somewhere around 5 mph. As the decades went on, trains transformed from innovative but impractical novelties to the primary mode of long-distance travel the world over.

Nowadays, of course, cars and planes have become the travel option of choice for those journeys that would have once been invariably made by railway. But it's important not to underestimate the impact railroads have had on the world. For the first time, land travel was achieved at a speed faster than that of a horse. It was a technological advancement that helped usher in the modern industrial age.

Traveling by train today is one of the rarer-chosen methods, but it can also be one of the most fun!  Read on for some recommendations about scenic railways you can visit -- or travel on -- today.

-- The Allegheny Portage Railroad

MS. B: In the early 1800s, travel and trade routes depended on Conestoga wagons. But with innovations like the Allegheny Portage Railroad and the Horseshoe Curve, Pennsylvania had a transportation innovation that would alter the state's history. Opened officially in 1834 to rail traffic, the Allegheny Portage Railroad was the missing puzzle piece that completed a direct-access train route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"The Portage" was the finishing touch on the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal. The canal was begun in 1826 to compete with New York's new Erie Canal system. But Pennsylvania had one hitch to contend with that New York did not: the Allegheny Mountains. Figuring out how to build a canal system across the state, with a mountain range in the middle, presented a baffling problem.

A stop on the Allegheny Portage Railroad -- the Lemon House.

In the end, a railway system of ten incline planes were built to form the Portage, allowing canal-traveling cargo and passengers a way through the Allegheny Mountains. The new transportation cut travel time from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh from 23 days (by wagon) to four (by train).

The Allegheny Portage Railroad is now a national historical site, cared for by the National Park Service. Growing up as I did in Central Pennsylvania, I spent a good chunk of my childhood enjoying the hiking trails around the park. You can visit the canal museum, check out the Lemon House (once a tavern stop for passengers), or simply hike the wooded paths surrounding the remains of the canal tracks.

The Lemon House today.

Read more about the history of the Allegheny Portage Railroad here.


Some of my favorite scenic railway trips are below:

-- Mt. Washington (NH) Cog Railway

This cog railway takes passengers to the top of Mount Washington to see the beautiful views of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Unfortunately, when my husband and I rode it a few years ago, we didn't get to see much. It was cloudy and foggy. We still enjoyed the ride!

-- Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad (WV)

Located in Elkins and nearby Durbin,  this railroad takes passengers through the Cheat Mountains of West Virginia. We rode the New Tygart Flyer, which was a four-hour trip along the Cheat River. Gorgeous! One of the most interesting rides they offer is what they call a Castaway Caboose. The train will take you along the Greenbrier River, where they will leave you and the caboose for the evening. Some day I would like to do this!

-- Zig Zag Railway (Australia)

When I was lucky enough to travel to Australia a few years ago, we found out about this railway. This trip took us through the Blue Mountains over sandstone viaducts. It was an amazing and beautiful ride. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be running anymore, due to finances.

-- Knox and Kane Railroad (PA)

This was one of the very first scenic railroads I ever went on. It took riders from Kane to Marienville (in north central Pennsylvania) and back, after going over the Kinzua Bridge. This was a lovely trip when I went in the fall many years ago. Sadly, after a tornado severely damaged the bridge in 2003, the state had to shut down the bridge. Eventually, the railroad had to stop as well.

Other scenic railways:


-- Cuyahoga Valley River Railroad


-- Cass Scenic Railroad Park


-- Strasburg Railroad

-- Gettysburg Rail

-- Steamtown National Historic Site

-- New Hope and Ivyland Railroad


-- Wilmington and Western Railroad


-- Adirondack Scenic Railroad


-- Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

The Allegheny Portage Railroad historical site

-- Post by Tracy and Ms. B

Friday, March 1, 2013

Movies Made Funny

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K) is one of my all-time favorite television shows, and yet I still struggle when trying to explain it to people. I can, I suppose, start with the premise: a man, trapped by an evil scientist on a space station (the Satellite of Love), is forced to watch an array of terrible movies, in an experiment to see how long it'll take him to crack. In an effort to stay sane, our hero -- with the help of his robot buddies -- makes jokes about the terrible plotting, wretched special effects, and horrible dialogue that fill the B-movie dreck he's forced to sit through.

That's the set-up, anyway. What's really going on is that MST3K came up with an excuse to make a TV show featuring three comedians making fun of (or "riffing") bad movies. The silhouettes of the main actor and two robot-puppets remain visible at the bottom of the screen while the movie they're riffing plays out across your television screen -- and their commentary turns bad movies into hilarious entertainment.

Crow, Gypsy, Mike Nelson, and Tom Servo

Created by Joel Hodgson, the show started life in 1988 on the Minnesota channel  KTMA, being picked up by Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. It ultimately ran for ten seasons, changing cast members and style but never losing its core principle of making movies funny. After the show went off air, many of the writers/cast members went on to find new ways to continue riffing movies, with the creation of Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. (RiffTrax, in particular, has started to make waves with their KickStarter campaign to do a live riffing of the movie Twilight: read more about that here.)

MST3K remains a cult classic to this day, beloved by fans even fifteen years after the final episode aired. (Many, like me, are people who didn't discover the show until after it had already ended.) Read on to discover my top MST3K recommendations:

"I want the soul of that stuffed bunny in the window." Despite being the opening episode of the final season, this was actually my very first episode of MST3K -- and, as such, it retains a very special place in my heart. This teen horror "thriller" (your thrills may vary) centers around five teens who find themselves on the Grim Reaper's daily to-do list. Our two ultimately-ghostly heroes, Natalie and Zack, must evade the relentless Soultaker (which shouldn't be hard; he moves at the speed of a sedately deliberate stroll) and find their way back to their bodies before midnight.

Vivian Schilling, who stars as Natalie, was also the scriptwriter for the film, with results about what you'd expect them to be. The movie also features two-time MST3K offender Joe Estevez -- the younger brother of Martin Sheen, and Charlie Sheen's uncle -- as the Soultaker himself. (You can also catch Joe Estevez in Werewolf, another MST3K classic.)

"I like it very much!"  This black-and-white Japanese sci-fi offering tells the story of three orphans (well, really two; the girl isn't given much to do) who have been adopted by the genial Wally. They don't think too much of Wally -- at least, not until the invasion of a group of rooster-nosed aliens from the planet Krankor arrive to take over the Earth. When a mysterious masked hero, calling himself Prince of Space, arrives to save the Earth -- and the boys -- from the invaders, it seems that there may be more to the kids' adoptive father than they first realized.

Dubbed over, not terribly well, by English-speaking actors, Prince of Space is a classic in the vein of all not-too-good 50s sci-fi B movies. But of even more delight is the skits between movie segments, which feature the Satellite of Love getting sucked into a wormhole, resulting in some hilarious confusion to the time/space-continuum.

"A crop-dusting genius!" Not since Jeff Goldblum saved the world with the power of his trustworthy MacBook has groundbreaking sci-fi technology appeared so simple. Here we have hero Nick Miller, a psychics teacher who not only invents time travel, but who can fit the computer program for such technological innovation on eight 5¼" floppy disks. 

But no matter. Nick's also a pilot, which comes in handy since his time machine turns out to be a three-seater plane. Hoping to revolutionize the world with his discovery, Nick entices a reporter and a big business executive to accompany him on a trip to the future. The executive's impressed, which leads to the company GenCorp striking a licensing deal with Nick. Unfortunately, when Nick travels again into the future, he discovers that, whatever GenCorp is planning, it leads to a catastrophic, worldwide apocalypse. Hey, it happens.

With reporter (and former flame) Lisa at his side, Nick must restore the future by changing the present -- and the past, because why not?  It goes without saying that a Civil War reenactment obviously gets involved.

"So, 'Rowsdower' -- is that a stupid name?"  If you want to find out quickly if someone's a fan of MST3K, just say the words, "Zap Rowsdower." If they start cracking up, you'll know you've found a MiSTie.

Filmed in Canada, The Final Sacrifice tells of the adventures of Troy MacGregor (and his infamous red sweater), a teen on a quest to discover what happened to his father. Along the way, he encounters a bloodthirsty cult ("bloodthirsty" here having the meaning of "confusing, and kind of lame"), a Yosemite Sam impersonator who has a connection to Troy's father, an evil guy with a goiter bent on revenge -- and a mysterious drifter by the name of ... Zap Rowsdower. 

With bicycle chase scenes, improbable coincidences to mask plot holes, an odd assortment of weatherbeaten pick-up trucks, and ancient artifacts of a powerful civilization masquerading as cheap props, this is not a MST3K to be missed.

"Put your seat belts on, we'll be reaching speeds of 3!"  No matter how many MST3K episodes I watch, Space Mutiny remains my steadfast favorite. Thousands of passengers and crew are traveling aboard the starship Southern Sun, on their way to a new planet to colonize. But a rebellion is being instigated by the evil Kalgan (not to be confused with Calgon, apparently). Kalgan is determined that he will not spend his remaining years living aboard a starship, and is gathering followers to mutiny against the captain.

Exactly how Kalgan plans on carrying out his ultimate plans are never really discussed. (If the starship is traveling to a new planet to be colonized, and the ship hasn't gotten there yet, where exactly are the mutineers supposed to go if they get off the ship right now?)  But this doesn't slow down the MiSTified action, as we watch our heroes -- a Santa-Claus-esque captain, his aerobics-instructor-styled daughter, and the dubiously heroic David Ryder -- crusade to save the day. We get golf-cart-styled chase sequences, the oldest prisoner-escape-routine in the books, and the biggest continuity error you've ever seen. An absolute classic.

-- Post by Ms. B