Friday, August 29, 2008
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Batman is the most down-to-earth of all the superheroes. He has no special powers from being born on a distant world or bitten by a radioactive spider. All that protects him from the Joker and other Gotham City villains are his wits and a physique shaped by years of training—combined with the vast fortune to reach his maximum potential and augment himself with Batmobiles, Batcables and other Bat-goodies, of course.
In the 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins, vengeful Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) hones his killer instincts in the streets for seven years before landing himself in a Bhutanese prison, where he falls in with the mysterious League of Shadows, who teach him the way of the ninja.
The Dark Knight, the next movie in the Batman franchise, opens in theaters Friday. To investigate whether someone like Bruce Wayne could physically transform himself into a one-man wrecking crew, ScientificAmerican.com turned to E. Paul Zehr, associate professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a 26-year practitioner of Chito-Ryu karate-do. Zehr's book, Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero (The Johns Hopkins University Press), due out in October, tackles our very question.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
What have comic books and movies told us about Batman's physical abilities?
There's a quote from Neal Adams, the great Batman illustrator, who said Batman would win, place or show in every event in the Olympics. Probably if I were Batman's handler, I'd put him in the decathlon. Although Batman is shown in the comics as being the fastest and the strongest and all these other things, in reality you can't actually be all of that at once. To be Batman properly, what you really need to do is be exceptionally good at many different things. It's when you take all the pieces and put them together that you get the Batman.
What's most plausible about portrayals of Batman's skills?
You could train somebody to be a tremendous athlete and to have a significant martial arts background, and also to use some of the gear that he has, which requires a lot of physical prowess. Most of what you see there is feasible to the extent that somebody could be trained to that extreme. We're seeing that kind of thing in less than a month in the Olympics.
What's less realistic?
A great example is in the movies where Batman is fighting multiple opponents and all of a sudden he's taking on 10 people. If you just estimate how fast somebody could punch and kick, and how many times you could hit one person in a second, you wind up with numbers like five or six. This doesn't mean you could fight four or five people. But it's also hard for four or five people to simultaneously attack somebody, because they get in each other's way. More realistic is a couple of attackers.
How long would Bruce Wayne have to train to become Batman?
In some of the timelines you see in the comics, the backstory is he goes away for five years—some it's three to five years, or eight years, or 12 years. In terms of the physical changes (strength and conditioning), that's happening fairly quickly. We're talking three to five years. In terms of the physical skills to be able to defend himself against all these opponents all the time, I would benchmark that at 10 to 12 years. Probably the most reality-based representation of Batman and his training was in Batman Begins.
Why such a long training time?
Batman can't really afford to lose. Losing means death—or at least not being able to be Batman anymore. But another benchmark is having enough skill and experience to defend himself without killing anyone. Because that's part of his credo. It would be much easier to fight somebody if you could incapacitate them with extreme force. Punching somebody in the throat could be a lethal blow. That's pretty easy to do.
But if you're thinking about something that doesn't result in lethal force, that's more tricky. It's really hard for people to get their heads around, I think. To be that good, to not actually lethally injure anyone, requires an extremely high level of skill that would take maybe 15 to 18 years to accumulate.
Where does that number of 15 to 18 years come from?
That comes from my own training in martial arts and seeing how long it takes people to respond to simple situations—let alone the complexities of smoke bombs going off and people having big Batsuits on. No matter how much training you have, when we're subjected to a lot of psychological stress, we make a bunch more mistakes. The police talk about this when they use things called reality-based training. It takes years and years and years and years to have the poise to be able to perform when somebody is attacking you for real.
What's a realistic training regimen?
I didn't give a training manual in my book, but he'd want to do specialized weight training to build up an ability to work at a really high rate for maybe 30 seconds to a minute (the maximum time period associated with his fights). One of the early comics shows him holding an enormous weight over his head. That's not the right kind of adaptation toward punching and kicking. He's got to make sure he's doing all the skill training at the same time so that he's actually using the (physical) adaptations he's slowly gaining. In conventional martial arts, when people take weapons training, you're doing a kind of power-strength training.
What effects would all that training have on Bruce Wayne's body?
I looked up what DC Comics and some other books said (about Batman's physique). I settled on the estimate that Bruce Wayne started off at about six-foot-two and 185 pounds. I gave him a body fat of 20 percent (slightly below average) and a body mass index of 26. Let's say after 10 or 15 years, after he's become the Batman, he's weighing about 210 pounds and has a body fat of 10 percent. He's probably gained 40 pounds of muscle. His bones will actually be more dense, kind of the opposite of osteoporosis.
Are we talking freakishly dense bones?
The percentage change is actually quite small—maybe 10 percent. In judo, where people do a lot of grappling and throwing, you're going to have more density in the long bones of the trunk. In karate and other martial arts where they're doing a lot of kicking, there's going to be a lot higher density in the legs. Muay Thai (kickboxing) is a great example. They're always doing these low shin kicks. They try to condition the body by kicking progressively harder objects and for longer.
What about his reaction speed?
There is evidence that experts in something like football or hockey have an improved ability to perceive movement in time. In the book I use the example of Steve Nash throwing the ball, even though he can't see where the receiver of the pass is going to be. Experts are able to extract more information faster than others. It's almost like their nervous systems become more efficient.
How would Batman get enough rest?
The difficulty for Batman is he's going to be trying to sleep during the day. He's going to be really tired, actually, unless he can shift himself over to just being up at night. If he were just a nocturnal guy, he would actually be a lot healthier and have a lot better sleep than if he were doing what he does now, which is getting some light here and there. That's going to mess up his sleep patterns and duration of sleep.
Wouldn't fighting Gotham's thugs every night take its toll?
The biggest unreal part of the way Batman's portrayed is the nature of his injuries. Most of the time, in the comics and in the movies, even when he wins, he usually winds up taking a pretty good beating. There's a real failure to show the cumulative effect of that. The next day he's shown out there doing the same thing again. He'd likely be quite tired and injured.
Is there any indication in the comics of how long Batman's career lasts?
The comics are really vague on this, of course. In Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, he deliberately shows an aging Batman coming back after he's retired, and he highlights him being tired and weaker. Somewhere around age 50 to 55, he should probably retire. His performance is going down. He's always facing younger adversaries. That is well at the end of when he's going to be able to defend himself and be able to not have to deal that lethal force. This was actually shown in an animated series called Batman Beyond.
Oh right. It's the future; Batman is old and he trains a kid to replace him.
You're familiar with that one? What we learn is that Batman, when he was older but before he retired, actually picked up a gun against a thug because he had to. His skills had let him down so that he wasn't able to defend himself without harming another person. So that's when he decided to retire.
How would all those beat-downs have affected his longevity?
Keeping in mind that being Batman means never losing: If you look at consecutive events where professional fighters have to defend their titles—Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Ultimate Fighters—the longest period you're going to find is about two to three years. That dovetails nicely with the average career for NFL running backs. It's about three years. (That's the statistic I got from the NFL Players Association Web site.) The point is, it's not very long. It's really hard to become Batman in the first place, and it's hard to maintain it when you get there.
There's research suggesting that concussions might cause depression in NFL players. Could that be one reason why the Dark Knight is so brooding?
I went through a lot of comics and graphic novels and I only found a couple of examples where some of those blows to Batman's head had the effect of something like a concussion. Whereas in reality, that would be a very likely outcome. He's able to offset some of the physical damage to his head because of the cowl—it works a bit like a helmet. But these things would definitely add up. Since they don't admit that he has concussions, you can't really ascribe repeated concussions as the reason why he's brooding.
Do you think Batman would take steroids to heal faster?
No. There is one comic where he did go on steroids. He went a little crazy and he went off them again.
How many of us do you think could become a Batman?
If you found the percentage of billionaires and multiply that by the percentage of people who become Olympic decathletes, you could probably get a close estimate. The really important thing is just how much a human being really can do. There's such a huge range of performance and ability you can tap into.
A University of Florida researcher has plans on the drawing board for a saucer-shaped aircraft that turns the surrounding air into fuel.If a professor at the University of Florida (U.F.) has his way, the first flying saucer to grace Planet Earth's skies isn't likely to come from outer space but rather from Gainesville, where the faculty member is drawing up plans to build a circular aircraft that can hover in the air like a helicopter without any moving parts or fuel.
In other words, it will look like a UFO, but will actually be more of an IFO—an identified flying object.
The saucer will hover and propel itself using electrodes that cover its surface to ionize the surrounding air into plasma. Gases (such as air, which has an equal number of positive and negative charges) become plasma when energy (such as heat or electricity) causes some of the gas's atoms to lose their negatively charged electrons, creating atoms with a positive charge, or positive ions, surrounded by the newly detached electrons. Using an onboard source of energy (such as a battery, ultracapacitor, solar panel or any combination thereof), the electrodes will send an electrical current into the plasma, causing the plasma to push against the neutral (noncharged) air surrounding the craft, theoretically generating enough force for liftoff and movement in different directions (depending on where on the craft's surface you direct the electrical current).
The concept sounds far-fetched, but U.F. mechanical and aerospace engineering associate professor Subrata Roy plans to have a mini model ready to demonstrate his theory within the next year.
At six inches (15.2 centimeters) in diameter, the device, which Roy calls a "wingless electromagnetic air vehicle" (WEAV), will truly be a flying saucer. Theoretically, Roy says, the flying saucer can be as large as anyone wants to build it, because the design gives the aircraft balance and stability. In other words, this type of aircraft could someday be built large enough to ferry around people. But, Roy says, "we need to walk before we can run, so we're starting small."
The biggest hurdle to building a WEAV large enough to carry passengers would be making the craft light, yet powerful enough to lift its cargo and energy source. Roy is not sure what kind of energy source he will use yet. He anticipates that the craft's body will be made from a material that is an insulator such as ceramic, which is light and a good conductor of electricity. "In theory you probably should be able to scale it up," says Anthony Colozza, a researcher with government contractor Analex Corporation who is stationed at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and helped Roy draw up the original plans for powering the saucer. The choice of a power source that is powerful, yet lightweight is "probably going to be the thing that makes or breaks it."
Roy began designing the WEAV in 2006. The following year, he and Colozza wrote a paper for the now-defunct NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) about the use of electrohydrodynamics, or ionized particles, as an alternative to liquid fuel for powering space vehicles. When NASA shut down NIAC in August 2007, Roy decided to continue his work at U.F.
If he's successful, Roy hopes to develop a more stable aircraft and a new form of fuel—air. Other craft that interact with the atmosphere have a problem: moving parts, whether jet engines, propellers or rotors. "My interest started when I saw inherent problems in helicopters and airplanes," Roy says. If these parts stop moving, the aircraft falls from the sky. The flying saucer, on the other hand, has no moving parts.
In theory, the WEAV would be more stable than an aircraft—airplanes and helicopters, for example—that rely on aerodynamics to provide lift. Using a plasma field, "you could produce lift in any direction, you could change direction quickly and that power could be turned on or off almost instantly," Colozza says. If the pilot wanted such an aircraft to move to the right, he or she would increase power to electrodes on the left side of the craft and vice versa for moving to the left. Electrodes on the bottom of the craft would power its lift, whereas those on top would bring the craft back down to Earth.
Assuming Roy's WEAV prototype gets off the ground next year—and that's a big if—it could prove useful in a number of ways. What makes the WEAV potentially appealing as a way to power spacecraft is that it relies on electricity (from a battery or some other power source) rather than combustion—a process that requires oxygen, which is in short supply outside Earth's atmosphere, Colozza says. Still, the WEAV's biggest fans are likely to be in the U.S. military, who would use the craft as a drone for gathering intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance information.
Roy has been working with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, since 2001 to study how plasma could be used to control the flow of air—pushing air in different directions—and thereby the vehicle's movements. "If plasma (flow) is turned on the right way, I can blow air any direction I want to blow air," says Doug Blake, deputy director of the Air Force Research Lab's Air Vehicles Directorate, of the craft's ability to push air away from itself. "If I have a jet coming out of the bottom of this, I can create a helicopter with no moving parts. Things that you would use a helicopter for, you could use this for."
But this does not mean the Air Force is ready to order a fleet of Roy's flying saucers. "We have worked with (Roy) on plasma studies but there are no concrete plans in place that I'm aware of to explicitly support the development of this device," Blake says.
At this early stage, and without a clear decision on how the craft will be powered, Roy says it is unclear how much a WEAV might cost to build and operate. Still, he is optimistic. "All of the materials needed to make this aircraft currently exist," he says, "and plasma is the most abundant form of matter in the universe. If we can somehow tap into that in the future we should be able to fly anywhere."
He landed in San Francisco on January 11, 1848, just 13 days before gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, precipitating the California gold rush. Lick had brought with him 600 pounds of his neighbor Ghirardelli's chocolate. He soon wrote to Ghirardelli that conditions were ripe in California. He had sold all the chocolate he had with him, and he advised the confectioner to come north. So Domingo Ghirardelli promptly followed Lick to San Francisco.
At first he sold chocolate, coffee, liqueurs, and other items to the gold miners, and by 1852 he had established a store in San Francisco. Ghirardelli's company had several locations in its early years, and apparently business was up and down. But by 1885 the company was importing 450,000 pounds of cocoa beans a year, as well as importing and grinding spices and selling coffee, wine, and liquor. Chocolate manufacturing was the mainstay of the business. The equipment needed to sort, blend, roast, and grind cocoa beans took up a lot of space, and the expanding business meant the company needed bigger quarters.
Domingo Ghirardelli retired in 1892, leaving the company to his sons, and in 1893 the company purchased a square block in San Francisco bounded by Beach, Polk, Larkin, and North Point Streets. This area luckily survived the earthquake and fire of 1906, and Ghirardelli continued to expand its facilities, erecting new buildings in what became known as Ghirardelli Square.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Be a body builder or an extremely thin person, energy drinks are becoming very popular for gaining weight and building muscles. They are basically beverages that contain legal stimulants that are approved by the drug authorities. Some of the main ingredients of healthy energy drinks are caffeine, sugar, ephedrine, taurine, guarana, ginseng, etc. Their content in a health drink differs from one brand to the other. In this article, we have provided information on the types and effects of energy drinks.
Types of Energy Drinks
Energy drinks can be classified on the basis of the ingredients on which they are based. Check out the main types of energy drinks found in the market today.
* Caffeine-based: Caffeine is the ingredient found in most of the energy drinks as it acts as a stimulant for people. Usually, the amount of caffeine in an energy drink is somewhere between 100-200 mg. Some of the caffeine-based drinks are Redbull, Monster, and Rockstar.
* Taurine-based: Taurine is the active ingredient in the product called OHM, which is majorly used in energy drinks. The best part of Taurine is that it not only maintains the energy level in the body, but also helps the body cope up with stress.
* Guarana-based: Guarana is an ingredient found in plants that grow in South America. It mainly helps in increasing the level of awareness as well as the energy levels of the body. It can be compared, to quite an extent, with caffeine.
* Vitamin B-based: Considered to be amongst the best energy drinks in the market, the ones based on Vitamin Bs are believed to help in kick-starting the body into action.
* Ginseng-based: Ginseng is the name of an herb that is now-a-days being used as a major ingredient in energy drinks. The potential benefits of Ginseng are increase in energy levels and alleviation of stress.
* Ginkgo Biloba-based: Ginkgo Biloba is another popular herb that is receiving interest from health drink makers. There are a number of benefits according from it, namely improvement of memory, concentration levels and blood circulation, along with regulation of stress levels.
* L-Carnitine-based: L-Carnitine is a nutrient produced naturally by the human body. It mainly helps in speeding up the metabolism, improving the energy levels and enhancing the endurance of the body. When used in energy drinks, it accords the same benefits.
* Sugar-based: A number of energy drinks in the market today have been made using sugar as the main ingredient. Such health drinks provide a lot of energy to the body.
* Antioxidants-based: Antioxidants are being used for making many energy drinks these days. They not only help the body in killing the free radicals, but also speed up the recovery process of the body after any damage through illness or otherwise.
Effects of Energy Drinks
‘There are always two sides of the same coins’. This adage holds very true for energy drinks. They accord a number of benefits to users, like increased energy levels, faster metabolism, alleviation of stress, improved blood circulation, better endurance levels, etc. However, they are not without any negative effects. If you do not take energy drinks in the right amount, at the right time and in the right manner, they can do more harm than good. Remember that energy drinks as such are not bad for the health; it is their wrong use that leads to the bad effects. So, while taking energy drinks, keep the following points in mind:
* Never ever substitute energy drinks for water. This is because the diuretic quality of the caffeine in the health drink can result in a dehydrating effect on the body.
* A single energy drink is not suitable for each and every activity. Depending on the activity that you are going to undertake, select the best possible drink.
* Never ever combine energy drinks with alcohol. This is because health drinks are stimulants, while alcohol is a depressant. The combination of the two can only result in disaster for your body.
Though Karva Chauth is essentially a North Indian festival for married women — who pray for the welfare and long life of their husbands on this day — it has become almost a ‘national’ festival for Indian women because of its attractive and extremely ornamental portrayal in popular films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain. Ever since Bollywood films became virtual ‘wedding videos’, the observance of karva chauth has been glamorised so much, that women of all communities and regions in India have taken a fancy to it and celebrate it in a ‘filmi’ manner, dressed in the typical Punjabi red and gold chunaris worn over bridal ghagra-cholis or sarees. In more recent times, popular TV serials like Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kasauti Zindagi Kay have also popularised Karva Chauth celebrations.
Women’s festivals are not new to India. Haldi Kumkums, Haritalika, Mangalagauri and Vat Savitri are celebrated in Maharashtra and other southern states by women to pray for the welfare of their husbands. South Indian women celebrate Haldi Kumkums and Nombus for the same purpose. Gujarati women play the dandia and wear bridal finery for Navaratri Rajasthani women fast on Teej and was their bridal finery to celebrate the festival of Gangaur. Bengali women wear shakha pola — white bangles made from conch shells and red ones made from acrylic — to symbolise suhaag and celebrate Durga Pooja with a bath of sindoor and bright coloured auspicious sarees with red borders.
However, the great leveller for Indian women from the North to the South have been films, fashion and television serials. Wedding planners and contractors, jewellers, bridal shows and costume designers have contributed to this all-India revolution, which has made women everywhere — including in foreign countries where large populations of Indians live — celebrate their festivals and weddings with common features.
The Maharashtrian woman’s black beaded mangalsutra has become a national symbol of a married woman all over India. Weddings in all films are shown to include a ceremony in which the bridegroom ties the black beaded necklace around his bride’s neck. All present-day brides, therefore, buy a mangalsutra and the ceremony is included in all weddings. So are bangles or chudas, which could be Punjabi, Uttar Pradeshi, Maharashtrian, Bengali or South Indian in origin!
Wedding games and events too, have been regimented. Hiding the bridegroom’s shoes, playing with a ring dropped in red or white-coloured water, imprinting vermillion footprints of the bride of the floor when she enters her new home, mooh dikhaya or ‘seeing the bride for the first time’, the bride and groom sharing a sweet, holding a mehndi or sangeet parties — all these are customs from various parts of India. But they have now been incorporated in weddings everywhere, thanks to films and television. The exchange of festive and fast ideas also is noteworthy. If southern women observe Karva Chauth, women from the North have discovered. Vat Savitri — during which women worship the banyan tree to pray for the safety and growth of their families. Ganpati and Gauri, earlier worshipped on a grand scale by Maharashtrians, are now worshipped all over India. Durga Pooja ia no longer restricted to Bengal. Baisakhi is celebrated all over India.
Women’s events have become so attractive that in the recent elections in Maharashtra, haldi Kumkums were used as a platform for voters’ gatherings. Family planning, wealth creation, social progress and health issues are often intertwined with ‘women’s festivals’ for better reach and effectiveness. Is it right for films and TV serials to create such a strong impact of tradition and custom? As long as modern celebrations do not segregate widows and single women and give them a second-class status, the tool of ‘celebrations’ is good for bringing women together as equal citizens of India who must join mainstream social, political and economic activities. Women in India know that decorating themselves is their birthright and the market they create for clothes, jewellery, bindis, mehndi, services, etc gives employment to thousands of craftspersons, weavers, designers and embroiderers, caterers, decorators and florists.
Monday, August 18, 2008
We were traveling from the interior mountains of this Spanish autonomous region to the Mediterranean. Again and again, rising up in the near distance, came fantastic, if dusty, terra-cotta-colored medieval hamlets and equally ancient churches and farmhouses. On the streets everywhere the lingua franca was Catalan, not Spanish, and amid all the tourists that descend from France and elsewhere, a local pride seemed to pervade the scene, against a backdrop that fell away suddenly, breathtakingly, into the sea.
In Llançà we stopped at Platja Grifeu, one of the village’s perfect beaches, with clear tropical-looking water to swim in. At the beachside restaurant, I ordered a tortilla española, the ubiquitous potato omelet of Spain. It was, improbably, the best tortilla I had ever tasted. I savored it, facing the sea and the local families sunning themselves, in this tiny village about 10 miles from the French-Spanish border on a road that looked like nothing more than a scribble on the map.
By some small miracle — and preservation efforts that have helped to control development in Catalonia — the Costa Brava has maintained an authenticity and a refreshing resistance to change that keeps this stretch of the Mediterranean radically different from the southern coasts of Spain. Fishing villages still feel like fishing villages, medieval mountain towns are still hushed at siesta, and artists still paint on the streets of Cadaqués. Tourists can mingle with residents, in the high season when a mini-United Nations cacophony of conversation fills the streets, and in the late spring and early fall, when visitors are fewer and more local.
Hoping to avoid the typical overcrowded, overdeveloped and sometimes hyper glitzy European beach scene, my partner, Ian, and I drove from village to village in Costa Brava last summer, searching for authentic spots, medieval towns and the water famous for its lustrous aquamarine hue. It was an opportunity for immersion in Catalan language, culture and art. (Catalonia is one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain, but the language is spoken by about 10 million people on the Mediterranean and dominates the Costa Brava.) I took along George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” and read it from luxurious beach to luxurious beach feeling, somewhat guiltily, quite the opposite of a Marxist.
Spanish got us everywhere, but the tourists we encountered spoke a language soup of Catalan, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch. This European mélange seemed buoyed by a collective joy in the picturesque — from the exquisite Mediterranean coves around the medieval village of Begur, to the ancient ruins in St. Martí d’Empúries, to the Greek-style white-washed houses of Cadaqués. Tourists and natives alike also wander the streets of inland and seaside villages with lyrical names (Pals, Peratallada, Peralada and Calella de Palafrugell) and sleep in tiny hotels run by proprietors who want to know your name.
About an hour and 40 minutes from the Barcelona airport, Begur, built on a hill, is a small maze of lanes dotted with excellent fish restaurants, ancient towers and cozy bars, all scattered beneath a dominating fortress where women and children once ran for safety from 17th-century pirates. Within a 10-minute drive, there are eight official beaches (and many more unmarked coves), almost all of which are linked by a mix of paved and unpaved walking routes, leading to shorelines of rock, pebbles, smooth brown sand, and even volcanic black, almost Hawaii-like, sand.
Each of our three mornings in Begur, we switched from cove to cove, leaving the beach at the height of the day to check out nearby villages.
In tiny, touristy Pals we met Dalwa Donofre, a Mozambique-born, Lisbon-raised artist selling massive collages with themes that connected back to the sea. Ms. Donofre’s work was a clear notch above that sold in most of the kitschy shops that lined the sun-dappled streets. In Peratallada, a well-preserved central square filled with cafes made the village feel more alive than some sleepier neighboring towns. But as lovely as the light was in the villages, the siren-call of the shoreline always made us anxious to get back to the sea.
“I like September best,” explained Oscar Górriz, the proprietor of Sa Rascassa, a five-room pension and restaurant on a minuscule cove called Aiguafreda — reachable by car, of course, but also by foot along a seaside path from the tiny white-washed village called Sa Tuna. “The hotel is booked solid all summer, and, come fall, the pace is slower, the tourists are more relaxed; we’re more relaxed.”
Outside, in Mr. Górriz’s courtyard, two French tourists lounged under broad white umbrellas, swishing their feet on the loose pebble floor of the terrace. We ordered the fresh local fish — dorade — simple, grilled and served with sautéed garlic and a slice of lemon. A second dish of fresh, home-made tagliatelle pasta was tossed with vine-ripened cherry tomatoes and homemade ricotta. Cracked olives arrived on the table first, large and juicy, hailing from somewhere farther down the Catalan coast, along with a glass of crisp, cold Catalan white wine, the glass sweating in my hand.
Mr. Górriz told us how happy he was that Catalonia had largely managed to prevent the gargantuan building schemes that have blighted the southern coasts of Spain — “Concrete from Valencia to Malaga,” he said, shaking his head at the sprawling hotels and housing blocks that have gone up on the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol.
Back in Begur we ran into Ophelie Rouira on the footpath between the coves that marked the black sand beach of Fonda and the larger harbor of Aiguablava where a clutch of fishing families still live year-round. Ophelie invited us to her tiny one-room fishing house. Flowers spilled over rooftops, in riotous shades of violet; a brilliant blue wall framed the outside of the fisherwoman’s house across the narrow cobbled lane. Her neighbor stepped outside to say hello before sitting down to lunch; the family has been fishing and selling its wares locally since as far back as anyone could remember.
Like Mr. Górriz, Ms. Rouira said that she would just as well skip the high season. “I love June, September, October — I swim until Nov. 1,” she said, pulling out an early 20th-century photograph of the beach coves where her house is nestled and pointing out just how little has been added to the landscape in the last 100 years.
It seemed like it would be impossible to top friendly Begur; but we knew there was more to explore. We drove up the coast, past the Greek ruins at St. Marti d’Empúries and on past Roses where El Bulli, the restaurant of Spain’s star chef Ferran Adrià, was sold out through the end of the year. Turning off the highway from Roses we drove into the Cap de Creus nature preserve, a moonscape of scrub brush and hardy mountain trees clinging to a mountain striped with hiking trails. The highway twists and turns, clinging to the hillside until, finally, gleaming Cadaqués comes into view.
Cadaqués is best known for art. Salvador Dalí, most famously, spent part of his childhood in the village, and in nearby Port Lligat (about 30 minutes by foot from downtown) tourists wait hours to peer inside the home he shared later in life with his wife, Gala. The list of artists’ ghosts haunting this small town is a who’s who of 20th-century painters: Pablo Picasso spent time here, as did Max Ernst, Matisse and Man Ray. The footprints of their work are literally everywhere (in 2004 the town put up small markers at locations that have appeared in a work of Dalí’s). But as interesting as it is to walk in their footsteps, it is all the more engaging to see the living artists still working, creating and exhibiting there.
One sunny afternoon, as half the world enjoyed the beach and the other half imbibed the red-wine spritzer known as tinto de verano on various terraces across town, 42-year-old Pere Bellès discussed his own joint exhibit “Dels Fragments al Conjunt” (Fragments Together) at the Galeria Marges-U, a space run by the artists Gustavo Carbó Berthold and his wife, Nobuko Kihira.
Mr. Bellès is wiry and bronzed, with curly brown hair streaked by the sun and paint from his studio. His hands and clothes were similarly dotted with white. On the walls were Mr. Bellès paintings and lithographs, one a set of cuneiform-like black squares imprinted on ivory paper — an alphabet, he explained, based on his impressions of ancient Mesopotamian art. Large canvases were perfectly sliced into 2-by-4 inch blocks of color. On the floor, sculptures from the artist Albert Udaeta, made of iron, could be pulled apart and put back together like a grownup’s version of children’s building blocks. “It’s like how the right wine marries with what you eat,” explained Mr. Carbó, on why he exhibited Mr. Bellès’s work with that of Mr. Udaeta.
Mr. Bellès, who is Catalan, lives in Cadaqués all year long. “It’s a magnificent space for creative people,” he said. “You have the mountains and the sea; you have tranquillity. But if you want to go out, you can. I like the march, the rhythm of the year. In summer there are many tourists and friends who come to town — we can eat, chat.” It’s also a means for an international community to see his work — exposure that small-town artists would otherwise not have. “But in autumn, when it is quieter, the light is best for working, and in the winter the roiling sea is fantastic.”
Just down the hill from Galeria Marges-U, 35-year-old Gemma Ridameya runs a very different type of gallery, filled with wearable creations hewn from silver and rock. Ms. Ridameya has lived in Cadaqués for nine years. In the summer she works a seven-day week in her store, and in the winter she dances (contact improvisation) and creates her next collection. Sea-smoothed beach pebbles are embedded in silver for rings and necklaces; ropes of silver are wound around and around in curlicues that become rings and earrings; volcanic rock is strung from silver wire. The shop is never empty. She too meanders between languages — Catalan, Spanish, English. Locals come in and ask her to create wedding bands or to set stones into wearable art; tourists purchase rings, earrings, necklaces. In Ms. Ridameya’s own ears, the earrings were tarnished from dips in the sea.
Ian and I spent days winding around the old city’s narrow corners, down the uneven cobblestone alleyways into one artist atelier after another. One afternoon we stumbled upon a shop run by the Peruvian born-Rocio Ruiz Mendizabal, who sells silks and wool shawls and other clothing, as well as the ceramics of other Barcelona-based artists. Ms. Ruiz, who lives in Germany during the winter, rents out a room above the store to tourists, all white-washed walls and 18th-century sloping ceilings. Two nights later we ran into her on our way to dinner. She invited us up to her rooftop.
The view was bewitching: Cadaqués glowed with lights below us, the stars meeting the sea; boats looked like bathtub toys bobbling far away, but sound traveling across the water collapsed the distance between us. We talked for a long time, sipping cava and nibbling on snacks that miraculously appeared from the Mediterranean restaurant downstairs.
“The landscape of Cadaqués has always been the same,” Elsa Gummà told us our first morning there. Ms. Gummà’s family is practically Cadaqués royalty — her grandfather invented Servetinal, a stomach-pain medication, in the early 20th century, and with its success bought the small hill on the far side of the bay that, in the 1960s, became Hotel Rocamar, the largest of Cadaqués’s hotels. Ms. Gummà was sitting behind us at breakfast, like any other hotel guest, gently nudging her small sons to finish their food. She was surfer-girl tan, small and athletic, with blond streaks in her brown curly hair. Trained as a journalist, she lives year-round outside Barcelona. She said she came to Cadaqués every summer as a child.
“Now I come back every year for the air,” she said. “It’s too bad you couldn’t meet my grandfather. When he was first here, there was nothing here. Just painters and the rocks.”
Sandy and salty from the sea, we reluctantly left Cadaqués and drove north on the narrow N-260, keeping bathing-suits at the ready, and jumping out of the car every chance we could to swim in ever-less-populated coves as we neared the French border. We marveled at the crazy, breathtaking zigzagging road that pulled us through the mountains and hugged the coast as we neared Port Bou, the last town in Spain.
There was no border control at all as we crossed into France. If it weren’t for the little E.U. sign and a forlorn, abandoned customs house, the only way to know we were no longer in Catalonia was the warning from my Spanish cell phone. We were roaming now.
HOW TO GET THERE
Many major carriers, including Iberia and American Airlines, fly from Kennedy Airport in New York to Barcelona. Round-trip fares for travel in September start at around $700, according to a recent Web search.
WHERE TO STAY
In Begur we stayed at the 10-room Bliss Begur Hotel (San Josep 3; 34-972-624-540; www.blissbegurhotel.com) run by a Milan transplant, Giorgio Di Palma. Our standard room cost 115 euros (about $184 at $1.60 to the euro) a night with breakfast. The in-house Italian restaurant, Primo Piatto, was fantastic.
Just outside the medieval town of Cantallops we stayed at Can Xiquet (Afores s/n; 34-972-554-455; www.canxiquet.com). The hotel, with an excellent staff and an amazing restaurant, is set in the mountains about 30 minutes from the coast. Bikes are available to borrow and hiking trails abound. Rooms start at about 96 euros, depending on the season, and dinner for two runs from 50 to 125 euros with wine.
In Cadaqués we stayed at the 73 room Hotel Rocamar (Calle Dr. Bartomeus, s/n; 34-972-258-150; www.rocamar.com) on a quiet side of the Cadaqués bay. There are outdoor and indoor pools, tennis courts, and a restaurant overlooking what might as well be a private beach away from the madding crowds. Rates start at 139 euros in the high season.
WHERE TO EAT
Five minutes drive from the center of Begur, Sa Rascassa (Cala D’Aiguafredda 3; 34-972-622-845) serves fresh fish and fresh pasta on a lovely cool terrace steps from the sea for about 50 euros for two, including wine. Back in the center of town, Restaurant Rostei (Cala Concepció Pi 8, 34-972-624-215; www.restaurantrostei.com) grills fresh fish — try to reserve seats in the garden (75 euros for two with wine).
Tucked into a corner of Cadaqués, La Sirena (Carrer d’Es Call s/n; 34-972-258-974) served excellent grilled fish “a la Basque” that was the best we had all week.
Beach shacks aren’t known for their cuisine, but a stop at Blau Grifeu (Platja Grifeu, 34-972-380-718 ) in Llançà might just be mandatory. The tortilla española there is thin and perfect and includes “five-hour marinated onions.”
WHERE TO MEANDER
Towns like Pals, Peratallada and Castelló d’Empúries are filled with medieval lanes, 13th-century cathedrals, and a heavy sense of history. The Costa Brava is sprinkled with such villages and most have good tourist information centers to direct wanderers. Begur’s tourist information center was the especially good, with a spirited multilingual staff.
Shopping is best in Cadaqués, where we found Gemma Ridameya jewelry (Cala Vigilant s/n; 34-972-159-441 ) and Nautilus, Rocio Ruiz Mendizabel’s shop (Carrer Curos 5; 34-972-258-640). In Cadaqués the galleries offer an opportunity to see those who have inherited the mantle of Dalí and Picasso. Try Galeria Marges-U (Cala Unió 12; 34-972-258-543; www.galeriamarges-u.com), and Taller Galeria Fort (34-972-258-549, Horta d’en Sanes 9), which hosts the annual “Mini Print International” exhibition every summer.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Sometimes he would preface it with the 1951 Hank Williams recitation “Men With Broken Hearts,” which may well have been South’s original inspiration. “You’ve never walked in that man’s shoes/Or saw things through his eyes/Or stood and watched with helpless hands/While the heart inside you dies.” For Elvis these two songs were as much about social justice as empathy and understanding: “Help your brother along the road,” the Hank Williams number concluded, “No matter where you start/For the God that made you made them, too/These men with broken hearts.”
In Elvis’s case, this simple lesson was not just a matter of paying lip service to an abstract principle.
It was what he believed, it was what his music had stood for from the start: the breakdown of barriers, both musical and racial. This is not, unfortunately, how it is always perceived 30 years after his death, the anniversary of which is on Thursday. When the singer Mary J. Blige expressed her reservations about performing one of his signature songs, she only gave voice to a view common in the African-American community. “I prayed about it,” she said, “because I know Elvis was a racist.”
And yet, as the legendary Billboard editor Paul Ackerman, a devotee of English Romantic poetry as well as rock ’n’ roll, never tired of pointing out, the music represented not just an amalgam of America’s folk traditions (blues, gospel, country) but a bold restatement of an egalitarian ideal. “In one aspect of America’s cultural life,” Ackerman wrote in 1958, “integration has already taken place.”
It was due to rock ’n’ roll, he emphasized, that groundbreaking artists like Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who would only recently have been confined to the “race” market, had acquired a broad-based pop following, while the music itself blossomed neither as a regional nor a racial phenomenon but as a joyful new synthesis “rich with Negro and hillbilly lore.”
No one could have embraced Paul Ackerman’s formulation more forcefully (or more fully) than Elvis Presley.
Asked to characterize his singing style when he first presented himself for an audition at the Sun recording studio in Memphis, Elvis said that he sang all kinds of music — “I don’t sound like nobody.” This, as it turned out, was far more than the bravado of an 18-year-old who had never sung in public before. It was in fact as succinct a definition as one might get of the democratic vision that fueled his music, a vision that denied distinctions of race, of class, of category, that embraced every kind of music equally, from the highest up to the lowest down.
It was, of course, in his embrace of black music that Elvis came in for his fiercest criticism. On one day alone, Ackerman wrote, he received calls from two Nashville music executives demanding in the strongest possible terms that Billboard stop listing Elvis’s records on the best-selling country chart because he played black music. He was simply seen as too low class, or perhaps just too no-class, in his refusal to deny recognition to a segment of society that had been rendered invisible by the cultural mainstream.
“Down in Tupelo, Mississippi,” Elvis told a white reporter for The Charlotte Observer in 1956, he used to listen to Arthur Crudup, the blues singer who originated “That’s All Right,” Elvis’s first record. Crudup, he said, used to “bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”
It was statements like these that caused Elvis to be seen as something of a hero in the black community in those early years. In Memphis the two African-American newspapers, The Memphis World and The Tri-State Defender, hailed him as a “race man” — not just for his music but also for his indifference to the usual social distinctions. In the summer of 1956, The World reported, “the rock ’n’ roll phenomenon cracked Memphis’s segregation laws” by attending the Memphis Fairgrounds amusement park “during what is designated as ‘colored night.’”
That same year, Elvis also attended the otherwise segregated WDIA Goodwill Revue, an annual charity show put on by the radio station that called itself the “Mother Station of the Negroes.” In the aftermath of the event, a number of Negro newspapers printed photographs of Elvis with both Rufus Thomas and B.B. King (“Thanks, man, for all the early lessons you gave me,” were the words The Tri-State Defender reported he said to Mr. King).
When he returned to the revue the following December, a stylish shot of him “talking shop” with Little Junior Parker and Bobby “Blue” Bland appeared in Memphis’s mainstream afternoon paper, The Press-Scimitar, accompanied by a short feature that made Elvis’s feelings abundantly clear. “It was the real thing,” he said, summing up both performance and audience response. “Right from the heart.”
Just how committed he was to a view that insisted not just on musical accomplishment but fundamental humanity can be deduced from his reaction to the earliest appearance of an ugly rumor that has persisted in one form or another to this day. Elvis Presley, it was said increasingly within the African-American community, had declared, either at a personal appearance in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” television program, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
That he had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow’s program did nothing to abate the rumor, and so in June 1957, long after he had stopped talking to the mainstream press, he addressed the issue — and an audience that scarcely figured in his sales demographic — in an interview for the black weekly Jet.
Anyone who knew him, he told reporter Louie Robinson, would immediately recognize that he could never have uttered those words. Amid testimonials from black people who did know him, he described his attendance as a teenager at the church of celebrated black gospel composer, the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster, whose songs had been recorded by Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward and whose stand on civil rights was well known in the community. (Elvis’s version of “Peace in the Valley,” said Dr. Brewster later, was “one of the best gospel recordings I’ve ever heard.”)
The interview’s underlying point was the same as the underlying point of his music: far from asserting any superiority, he was merely doing his best to find a place in a musical continuum that included breathtaking talents like Ray Charles, Roy Hamilton, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Howlin’ Wolf on the one hand, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and the Statesmen Quartet on the other. “Let’s face it,” he said of his rhythm and blues influences, “nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
And as for prejudice, the article concluded, quoting an unnamed source, “To Elvis people are people, regardless of race, color or creed.”
So why didn’t the rumor die? Why did it continue to find common acceptance up to, and past, the point that Chuck D of Public Enemy could declare in 1990, “Elvis was a hero to most... straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain”?
Chuck D has long since repudiated that view for a more nuanced one of cultural history, but the reason for the rumor’s durability, the unassailable logic behind its common acceptance within the black community rests quite simply on the social inequities that have persisted to this day, the fact that we live in a society that is no more perfectly democratic today than it was 50 years ago. As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context, for Elvis to be hailed as “king,” if Elvis’s enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration?
Elvis would have been the first to agree. When a reporter referred to him as the “king of rock ’n’ roll” at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, “one of my influences from way back.” The larger point, of course, was that no one should be called king; surely the music, the American musical tradition that Elvis so strongly embraced, could stand on its own by now, after crossing all borders of race, class and even nationality.
“The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley,” said Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder who discovered him, “had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened. It was almost subversive, sneaking around through the music, but we hit things a little bit, don’t you think?”
Or, as Jake Hess, the incomparable lead singer for the Statesmen Quartet and one of Elvis’s lifelong influences, pointed out: “Elvis was one of those artists, when he sang a song, he just seemed to live every word of it. There’s other people that have a voice that’s maybe as great or greater than Presley’s, but he had that certain something that everybody searches for all during their lifetime.”
To do justice to that gift, to do justice to the spirit of the music, we have to extend ourselves sometimes beyond the narrow confines of our own experience, we have to challenge ourselves to embrace the democratic principle of the music itself, which may in the end be its most precious gift.
Peter Guralnick is the author of “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.”
It was so surreal to be Michael Phelps here, to listen to people debate whether he is the greatest athlete in Olympic history after he passed a group that included the runners Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi to become the one with the most gold medals.
Times journalists and special contributors explore the Olympics in Beijing and on the Web from every angle — the politics, the culture and the competition.
Phelps is a self-described klutz, a real fish out of water on land, and he has a surgical scar on his right wrist to prove it. In October he took a nasty stumble that imperiled his pursuit of Mark Spitz’s single Games record of seven gold medals. Phelps, 23, slipped on a patch of ice and fell while climbing into a friend’s car in Michigan and broke his right wrist.
It made for a tough start to the training cycle that carried him through these Beijing Games, but the climax was perfect. On Sunday morning, Phelps swam the butterfly leg on the United States 4x100-meter medley relay that held off Australia in a world record-setting victory, giving Phelps his eighth gold medal of these Games and his 14th over all.
“I wanted to do something nobody ever did,” Phelps said. “This goes hand in hand with my goal of changing swimming.”
Spitz’s record lasted 36 years, and it figures to be even longer before the world sees Phelps’s successor. In 1972, Spitz swam two strokes, the freestyle and the butterfly, and none of his swims covered more than 200 meters. Phelps swam all four strokes, at distances ranging from 100 to 400 meters, and faced three rounds in each of his five individual events, one more round than Spitz had.
“I think it’s probably one of the greatest things sport in general has ever seen,” said Brendan Hansen, who swam the breaststroke leg in the winning relay Sunday. “The shame of it is other athletes aren’t going to realize how hard it is. The world is fast in swimming right now. The world was not fast when Mark Spitz did his seven.”
How fabulous was Phelps’s feat? At Sunday’s start, the Person’s Republic of Michael would have ranked fourth in gold medals and been ahead of all but 14 countries in the medal count.
Phelps’s longtime coach, Bob Bowman, has been preparing him for this since Phelps made his first Olympic team, in the 200 butterfly, as a 15-year-old in 2000. In the beginning it seemed foolhardy, sending Phelps out to swim 17 races over nine days.
As time went on, one could see Bowman’s vision crystallizing. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Phelps won six gold medals and two bronzes. Swimming the same program at the 2007 world championships, he won seven golds, missing a shot at an eighth when a relay he would have raced was disqualified in a preliminary heat.
Every time Phelps dived into the water for a final here, the ripples extended into every corner of the Water Cube. On Saturday, the Andrew Lauterstein of Australia won the bronze medal in the 100 butterfly. Standing on the medals podium alongside Phelps, Lauterstein said, he was thrilled to have had a cameo role in this recording of history. “I was saying to myself, ‘This is pretty special,’ ” he said. “ ‘Look around and try to remember this moment.’ ”
Lauterstein’s countrywoman, Liesl Jones, who won two golds and a silver here, said: “I just feel very privileged that I got to watch Michael Phelps win eight gold medals. That’s been the highlight of my Olympics.”
These Games produced many unforgettable swims. With Phelps contributing to seven, 25 world records fell, 10 more than were broken at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia. The pool was conducive to fast times. It was three meters, or 10 feet, deep, with two empty lanes on either side serving as buffers to keep waves from ricocheting. The new corset-like suits, which shoehorn the swimmers’ bodies into more streamlined positions, also had a role in the record assault.
Not to be overlooked is the psychological component. When one swimmer achieves what was once unthinkable, be it Phelps breaking 1 minute 43 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle or 4:04 in the 400-meter individual medley, it makes every barrier suddenly look vulnerable.
“When you come out and swim fast times, people realize that it can be done,” Grant Hackett, a three-time medalist in the 1,500-meter freestyle, said. “You set that bar a bit high and people are going to come with you.”
As the meet went on, the otherworldliness of Phelps’s performance found expression in other swimmers’ tales. In the men’s 50 freestyle final on Saturday, the goggles of Eamon Sullivan, the Australian world-record holder, filled with water on his dive and he never recovered, finishing sixth.
For most of the year, it is the duty of the press to scour the known universe looking for ways to ruin your day. The more fear, guilt or angst a news story induces, the better. But with August upon us, perhaps you’re in the mood for a break, so I’ve rounded up a list of 10 things not to worry about on your vacation.
Now, I can’t guarantee you that any of these worries is groundless, because I can’t guarantee you that anything is absolutely safe, including the act of reading a newspaper. With enough money, an enterprising researcher could surely identify a chemical in newsprint or keyboards that is dangerously carcinogenic for any rat that reads a trillion science columns every day.
What I can guarantee is that I wouldn’t spend a nanosecond of my vacation worrying about any of these 10 things. (You can make your own nominations in the TierneyLab blog.)
1. Killer hot dogs.
What is it about frankfurters? There was the nitrite scare. Then the grilling-creates-carcinogens alarm. And then, when those menaces ebbed, the weenie warriors fell back on that old reliable villain: saturated fat.
But now even saturated fat isn’t looking so bad, thanks to a rigorous experiment in Israel reported this month. The people on a low-carb, unrestricted-calorie diet consumed more saturated fat than another group forced to cut back on both fat and calories, but those fatophiles lost more weight and ended up with a better cholesterol profile. And this was just the latest in a series of studies contradicting the medical establishment’s predictions about saturated fat.
If you must worry, focus on the carbs in the bun. But when it comes to the fatty frank — or the fatty anything else on vacation — I’d relax.
2. Your car’s planet-destroying A/C.
No matter how guilty you feel about your carbon footprint, you don’t have to swelter on the highway to the beach. After doing tests at 65 miles per hour, the mileage experts at edmunds.com report that the aerodynamic drag from opening the windows cancels out any fuel savings from turning off the air-conditioner.
3. Forbidden fruits from afar.
Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.
4. Carcinogenic cellphones.
Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery — it’s more complicated.
As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted, there is no known biological mechanism for the phones’ non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones.
It’s always possible today’s worried doctors will be vindicated, but I’d bet they’ll be remembered more like the promoters of the old cancer-from-power-lines menace — or like James Thurber’s grandmother, who covered up her wall outlets to stop electricity from leaking.
Driving while talking on a phone is a definite risk, but you’re better off worrying about other cars rather than cancer.
5. Evil plastic bags.
Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.
6. Toxic plastic bottles.
For years panels of experts repeatedly approved the use of bisphenol-a, or BPA, which is used in polycarbonate bottles and many other plastic products. Yes, it could be harmful if given in huge doses to rodents, but so can the natural chemicals in countless foods we eat every day. Dose makes the poison.
But this year, after a campaign by a few researchers and activists, one federal panel expressed some concern about BPA in baby bottles. Panic ensued. Even though there was zero evidence of harm to humans, Wal-Mart pulled BPA-containing products from its shelves, and politicians began talking about BPA bans. Some experts fear product recalls that could make this the most expensive health scare in history.
Nalgene has already announced that it will take BPA out of its wonderfully sturdy water bottles. Given the publicity, the company probably had no choice. But my old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts, is still sitting right next to me, filled with drinking water. If they ever try recalling it, they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers.
7. Deadly sharks.
Throughout the world last year, there was a grand total of one fatal shark attack (in the South Pacific), according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.
8. The Arctic’s missing ice.
The meltdown in the Arctic last summer was bad enough, but this spring there was worse news. A majority of experts expected even more melting this year, and some scientists created a media sensation by predicting that even the North Pole would be ice-free by the end of summer.
So far, though, there’s more ice than at this time last summer, and most experts are no longer expecting a new record. You can still fret about long-term trends in the Arctic, but you can set aside one worry: This summer it looks as if Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.
9. The universe’s missing mass.
Even if the fate of the universe — steady expansion or cataclysmic collapse — depends on the amount of dark matter that is out there somewhere, you can rest assured that no one blames you for losing it. And most experts doubt this collapse will occur during your vacation.
10. Unmarked wormholes.
Could your vacation be interrupted by a sudden plunge into a wormhole? From my limited analysis of space-time theory and the movie “Jumper,” I would have to say that the possibility cannot be eliminated. I would also concede that if the wormhole led to an alternate universe, there’s a good chance your luggage would be lost in transit.
But I still wouldn’t worry about it, In an alternate universe, you might not have to spend the rest of the year fretting about either dark matter or sickly rodents. You might even be able to buy one of those Nalgene bottles.