Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Escape from Central Park Zoo

In the photo above, a zoo in Tokyo practices for an escaped animal emergency by dressing one of its workers in an orangutan suit and shooting him with a tranquilizer dart.

Very, very odd. (See a real orangutan escape here.)

On the subject of zoo escapes, here's a short article about one of the most famous hoaxes in New York history. In 1874, the New York Herald reported that lions, rhinoceroses, and other dangerous beasts had escaped from the Central Park Zoo and were on the loose in Manhattan. Citizens fled for their lives or took up arms to protect their homes. Of course, few people bothered to finish the article, which stated quite clearly at the bottom that the entire story had been a fabrication.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dangerous Toast

If Kiki Strike could eat toast, this would be her toaster. The very best of German engineering.

Beavers Return to the City

For the first time in 200 years, beavers have been spotted in New York City. This may not sound like big news to those of you who live in more pristine environments, but it's caused a great deal of excitement here. The waters around New York were once a wildlife paradise--home to seals, dolphins, and foot-long oysters. But by modern times, pollution and hunting had put an end to all that.

The sight of a young, male beaver setting up house in the Bronx River is a sign that New York's waters are healthier--but also a sign that the beavers' wooded upstate habitat is shrinking. Seems most of these creatures would prefer to stay out of the city, but they may no longer have a choice.

The New York Times has a great video of the beaver, which biologists named Jose. (In may not last long, so take a look while you have the chance.)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Secret of the Empire State Building

There are many things in life that seem ordinary—even dull—until you bother to take a closer look. Most people would agree that a freeway is nothing more than a featureless stretch of asphalt designed to put drivers to sleep. It might surprise them to learn that many of America’s highways were built with a secret function in mind. In times of war, these straight, broad, boring roads are meant to double as landing strips for airplanes.

Likewise, thousands of people visit the observation deck of the Empire State Building and marvel at the city below, without ever realizing that the tower on top of the building was built to be a dock for enormous blimps known as zeppelins.

Before the jet age began, zeppelins were thought to be a viable means of transporting passengers across the Atlantic. (That dream died one day in 1937 when a German zeppelin named the Hindenburg burst into flames over New Jersey.) The Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world when it was finished in 1931, seemed an ideal landing port. However, strong winds made it far too dangerous for the skyscraper to serve its original function. Only one landing was ever successfully made--and it lasted a mere three minutes.

Still, I can't help but imagine how fantastic it would it be to fly from Europe and arrive in America at the top of the Empire State Building.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

How to Cope with City Living

Yesterday, Manhattan's Union Square Park was the site of a massive pillow fight. Hundreds of New Yorkers took out their aggression on their fellow citizens--using feathers and foam rather than the traditional elbows and fists. As much as I would have liked to whop a stranger or two, I had to skip the fight. But given the success of the event, there's sure to be another one next year.

For pictures, as well as a video of the 2006 NYC pillow fight, click here.

One Hungry Girl

I love Japan. What other country would raise competitive eating to an art form? For the past ten years, the Japanese have kicked butt in the annual July 4th Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Since 2000, the same man has claimed the prize. Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi ate 56 hot dogs in 12 minutes last year. Just thinking about it makes me nauseous.

I'm not a proponent of gluttony, and competitive eating is not without its (very serious) risks. However, I'm pleased to hear that a woman has now emerged as a serious contender. As you might imagine, men have long dominated the "sport." (For obvious reasons: bigger stomachs and fewer inhibitions.) But in recent years, one very small woman has become the darling of the Japanese competitive eating world.

Natsuko Sone, known as "Gal" (a reference to her style of dress which would require a whole new post to explain properly), is 5'4 and weighs 95 pounds. Yet she regularly goes head-to-head with some of the most successful men in the business. Sone has been known to eat 183 pieces of sushi in thirty minutes and 20 pounds of food in an hour. Remarkably, medical tests performed on the prodigy have shown that her stomach is of normal size.

To see her in action, click here and here. Boy do I love Japanese variety shows.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Rats Invade Greenwich Village

This morning, the New York City Department of Health shut down a Greenwich Village Taco Bell after concerned citizens videotaped dozens of rats frolicking in the restaurant after it had closed for the night. In Manhattan, it's pretty hard to avoid rats. Anyone with a sharp eye could easily spot a few every day--scampering along the city's gutters and subway tracks. But I must admit that the video is truly shocking, even to a jaded New Yorker like myself.

And since we're on the subject of rats, I highly recommend the book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of New York's Most Unwanted Residents by Robert Sullivan. It's highly entertaining and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand one of mankind's greatest enemies.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Amazing Squid News!

A COLOSSAL squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) was recently captured off the coast of New Zealand! (Pictured below.) As squid lovers know, this species is even bigger than the giant squid. In fact, one expert was quoted as saying that if calamari rings were made from the recently captured animal, they'd be as big as tractor tires. Very few colossal squid specimens have ever been discovered since the species was discovered in 1925.

More here.

Kiki Strike Around the World

The first international editions of Kiki Strike are coming out around the world, and I thought you might enjoy seeing the covers. There are many more to come!

Kiki in Japan

Kiki in Germany

Kiki in the Netherlands

Kiki in Italy

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Eavesdropper's Best Friend

In my opinion, you don't need to spend tons (or any) money to be a good detective/spy. However, from time to time, I run across a gadget that seems particularly useful. Then I ask a certain friend to replicate it for me. (I'm feeling very thrifty these days.)

I recently found the "M-7 Secret Agent Spy Ear." Who knows if it works, but the manufacturer of this tiny device says it will allow you to hear other people's conversations across "great distances." They also claim you can "hone in" on specific conversations in crowded environments. Cool? Absolutely. Too good to be true? Possibly.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The History of London in Maps

New York will always be my favorite place on earth, but there are other cities around the world that I find equally intriguing. (Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Rome, and Vienna to name just a few.) Among the most fascinating is London, once home to toxic fogs, Jack the Ripper, and the incomparable Queen Elizabeth I. Almost two thousand years older than New York, London has survived floods, fires, and the blitz. Today, it has more history per block than almost anywhere else on the planet.

Recently someone sent me a remarkable London-related link. (Thanks, Chris.) The British Library's website has an interactive feature that allows visitors to explore London's history through old maps of the city. Take a look when you have an hour to spare.

The Year of the Pig Has Arrived!

Yesterday was the Chinese New Year and the first day of the Year of the Pig. (It also happened to be Kirsten Miller's birthday, but that's another post.)

The Chinese Zodiac is represented by twelve animals. As with western astrology, a person's personality is thought to be influenced by the sign they're born under. People born in the Year of the Pig are supposedly loyal, honest, and friendly--although at times they can be pushy, lazy, and selfish. You can find your sign here.

New Year festivities have begun all over the world and will last until March 4th. However if you're in New York on February 25th, I highly recommend taking a trip to Chinatown for the annual parade and festival. The dragon dances are truly unbelievable.

An Apology and an Update

I am so sorry that your comments haven't been making it onto the blog for the past two months! There was an unforeseen technical problem. I hope you're not offended. The more comments the better, as far as I'm concerned! And thanks for all of the tips and links you've sent since December--I'm checking them all out now.

A couple of updates. The paperback Kiki Strike will be out in May, and there will be some great new stuff on the website around that time, so definitely check it out. Also, the next book should be available later this year!

As for my adventures in France, I'm going to start telling the story next month! (It took me this long to recover.)

PS: I know the photo doesn't have anything to do with this post, but I thought it was amazing. It's a huge, 450 pound jellyfish. No joke. Apparently, tons of these creatures invade the waters around China and Japan from time to time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

You Asked For It

I’ve been asked about the person to whom Kiki Strike is dedicated. This story is far too long for one post, but I’ll try to give you the basic facts.

Caroline McDonald was an Australian citizen, a world-class athlete, and a good friend to the Irregulars. Kiki and I first met her two years ago when she was shoved in front of a speeding subway train.

You don’t tend to forget such events, and I can still recall the evening in question in remarkable detail. It was shortly after 10 PM, and we were at the Union Square Station in downtown Manhattan, waiting for the number 5 train. A small, athletic-looking girl stood to our left, eating from a jumbo package of pork rinds. I remember marveling at her appetite. The girl could really pack it away.

Just as the train rounded the bend, a massive man in a hooded sweatshirt rose from a nearby bench and hurried in the direction of the tracks. I didn’t think much of it—the only people in New York who aren’t in a rush are the tourists. So I was shocked to see Kiki bolt toward the man with her fists clenched. She didn’t reach him in time. With one quick shove, he pushed the hungry girl onto the train tracks.

Witnesses screamed and ran for the exits (a response I can neither explain nor condone). The train’s conductor slammed on the emergency brake, and ten subway cars screeched to a halt. When I pushed through the fleeing crowds, I found Kiki sitting on top of the unconscious attacker, waiting for the police to arrive. She’d pulled his hood back, I could see he was young—no more than eighteen or nineteen-years-old. I heard the faint wail of sirens in the distance and a transit worker crying softly to himself. Then a muffled Aussie voice called out from below. “Would somebody get this *@%&*@ train off me?” (I won’t repeat her actual phrase, but you’ll probably curse, too, if you’re ever run over by a subway.)

If you read the papers, you may have heard the rest of the story. Thanks to her remarkable presence of mind and athletic training, Caroline had managed to roll in-between the tracks. The train missed her by inches. Her assailant was a college student named Eric Littleton. He and Caroline were both stars of the school’s renowned track team—a team Caroline was about to expose for its abuse of an illegal (yet undetectable) synthetic steroid.

Even with Eric Littleton (and two of his track coaches) in jail, Caroline’s life was still in danger. The Irregulars were happy to serve as her bodyguards—largely because she was so entertaining to have around. She regaled us with stories of Australia’s deadly wildlife and introduced us to a culinary wonder known as a meat pie. I coached her to fourth prize in the Coney Island hot dog eating contest, and she was the first person to read Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. Without her help, I don’t know if Kirsten Miller and I could have convinced the Irregulars to let the book be published.

Six months after the subway incident, Caroline decided it was time to go home to her beloved Australia. The last time we saw her was when she stepped into an airport-bound taxi. Two weeks later, she disappeared on a camping trip near Uluru (otherwise known as Ayres Rock). The official story is that dingos were to blame, but the Irregulars suspect foul play and are still investigating.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Hidden Treasures of New York

Most people think that the greatest archaeological discoveries take place in far-away deserts or rainforests. But even in the biggest, most populous cities on earth, there are still hidden treasures waiting to be found. Case in point: Weeksville, Brooklyn.

In 1838, a free African-American named James Weeks started a small but thriving community in the part of Brooklyn that is now known as Bedford-Stuyvesant. Over the following decades, Weeksville served as a refuge for African-Americans fleeing persecution in other parts of the country. But as time passed, Weeksville’s residents died or moved away. Though it was located in the heart of Brooklyn, by the middle of the twentieth century, the little town had been swallowed by overgrown weeds and was utterly forgotten.

Then, in 1968, a pilot flying over Brooklyn noticed several tiny wooden houses in the middle of a large vacant lot surrounded by housing projects. An entire town had been discovered in New York City. Since then, the four farmhouses that were spotted from the air have been renovated and are now open to the public. Not only are they an important part of American history--they should serve as a reminder to never take the familiar for granted. Who knows what might be found in the vacant lots near your house?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Future is Here!

A couple of items for your birthday list. The first is a Levitating Hover Scooter, which glides inches above the ground on a cushion of air and can reach a top speed of fifteen miles per hour. The second (and far more affordable option) is Gelli Baff, a fascinating chemical mixture that turns bath water into a foul, jewel-colored slime. (From what I can tell, it's only available in the UK at the moment. This time, the Brits are one step ahead.)

Bizarre and Inexplicable

Three hundred and fifty years ago, a three-foot tall, flightless bird lived on the islands of Mauritius off the eastern coast of Africa. Then it vanished. The last reported sighting of the infamous dodo took place in 1662. The famished sailor who saw the last known dodo . . . ate it. In the previous century, the creature had been hunted to the brink of extinction (despite the fact that most agreed that its meat tasted terrible), and animals introduced by European colonists had destroy its nests. Yet the bizarre bird was never forgotten, although until the 19th century, most believed it had been little more than a myth.

Now for the bizarre part. Artist Harri Kallio has created a series of photographs that are meant to show the dodo in its native habitat. To do so, he built life-size models of the bird and recreated its natural surroundings. The results are interesting--and extremely strange. When I first saw the photos, which were published in The New Yorker magazine, I wasn't sure what to make of them. Rather than offer my opinion, I'll let you be the judge. Enjoy. (When you link to the New Yorker website, follow the instructions for starting the slide show.)