Monday, November 29, 2010

National Library's Secret Chamber

Sometimes an article is so awesome that I must quote it.

National Library [in the Indian city of Kolkata] has always been reputed to haunted. Now, here is a really eerie secret. A mysterious room has been discovered in the 250-year-old building a room that no one knew about and no one can enter because it seems to have no opening of kind, not even trapdoors.

The chamber has lain untouched for over two centuries. Wonder what secrets it holds. The archaeologists who discovered it have no clue either, their theories range from a torture chamber, or a sealed tomb for an unfortunate soul or the most favoured of all a treasure room. Some say they wouldn't be surprised if both skeletons and jewels tumble out of the secret room.

Read the rest here!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Can a Food Be So Gross That It's CRUEL to Serve It?

American readers should be familiar with the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments."

When I think of the Eighth Amendment, I usually imagine torture techniques like drawing and quartering or being burnt at the stake. But there are some folks who believe there's a certain food that's so disgusting that feeding it to imprisoned criminals constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. It's not a toxic or rotten food. It's healthy and wholesome. Just unbelievably disgusting.

It's called Nutraloaf. According to this fascinating article, it's often served to prisoners who misuse food or bodily waste.

Want the recipe? (I'm talking to you, Remy.) Well here it is! Bon Appetit!

(I'm pretty sure my mother used to make this.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

You Could Be Famous, Too!

Meet Remy Mumby, ten-year-old star of the web series Food Oddities. The kid will eat anything. Dung beetles. Pickled pig lips. Scorpions. Anything. (Except pets. Gotta draw the line somewhere, I guess.)

But I have a little challenge for Remy. It's coming up in the very next post. (UPDATE: The post AFTER the next post.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm Never Taking a Shower Again

Scientists at MIT have developed a camera that can shoot pictures around corners. (Shown above.) According to Professor Ramesh Raskar, "It's like having x-ray vision without the x-rays. But we're going around the problem rather than going through it."

In honor of this great scientific development, I shall remain fully clothed for the rest of my life.

More here.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Even Kiki Strike needs heroes. Meet Mamika. She's 91 years old. She survived WWII (and saved 10 people from the Nazis), communism, and the 1980s.

Now she fights the forces of evil with her grandson, French photographer Sacha Goldberger.

Find out more about Mamika (and see more photos) here!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Someday I'll Write About . . .

Fredericka "Marm" Mandelbaum
. One of the most notorious criminals in 19th century New York was a portly Prussian woman. She worked out of a store at 79 Clinton St. in Manhattan (the building still exists today). Marm made a living fencing stolen goods. She also planned and financed some of the most impressive capers in New York history. But Marm was no "common" criminal. She threw swanky dinner parties for the city's finest citizens. And she was said to be a stickler for good manners.

But what interests me most about good old Marm is the school she started. The Grand Street School was Manhattan's elite academy for young criminals. There were classes in pocket-picking, safe-cracking, blackmail, and confidence games. Children under the age of ten were welcome to apply and those who graduated at the top of their class were hired by Marm herself. Hmmm. Sounds like a Dickens novel, doesn't it?

Here's Marm's obituary from the New York Times. She led an interesting life.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Amp Up Your Test Scores

A while back, I came across an article that listed a few study habits that are guaranteed to help a student improve her grades. For instance . . .

Don't study in the same place all the time. Get up and move around. It will help you absorb more information.

Don't focus on a single subject each time you sit down to study. Try to switch between a few related subjects. (Like math and physics. Or vocabulary and literature.)

A few short study sessions scheduled over the course of a week will help you learn much more than a single super-long study session.

Zapping your brain with electric current will work wonders on your math skills.

(Oh right. I found that last fact here. Do I need to say don't try it at home?)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Check the Band for Inscriptions!

More here. (Why do all the pictures available of this ring have someone's eye in the background?)

Let the Debate Begin!

According to a recent study conducted in Britain, children without brothers or sisters tend to be happier children. In fact, the more siblings a kid has, the more miserable he/she is.

Does this sound right to you? There were plenty of times in my youth when I wished I was an only child. But I was still pretty darn happy. And these days, I couldn't be more thrilled that I have a brother and sister. But who knows? Maybe I would have been SUPER happy if I had been the only kid in the family.

So what do you think? Does having siblings make a kid HAPPIER or MISERABLE?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Guerilla Gardening

(Photos: Daniel Phillips)

Someday soon, you might just stumble upon one of the unusual vending machines shown above. But I wouldn't recommend chewing on the contents. Instead of gumballs, these machines dispense seed bombs. Pop in a quarter, and you'll receive a ball made of of clay, compost, and seeds. Toss it into any crack, crevice, or abandoned lot, and soon tiny plants will begin to sprout. Each seed bomb is guaranteed to make the world a little bit greener.

Interested? You can find vending machine sites here!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Claudia!

Remember: You're never too old to be dangerous!

My Interview with Author Ally Condie!

1. I’ve heard people argue that “dystopian fiction” is just a new, girl-friendly label for books that might have been called “science-fiction” in the past. Do you think this is true? Did you read much science-fiction in your youth?

I hadn’t heard that argument! That is an interesting point. I think it may have some merit—but do girls shy away from science fiction as a rule? I really liked sci-fi growing up, particularly Ray Bradbury. (This is probably obvious because there is a scene in Matched that is a tribute to Fahrenheit 451.) His Dandelion Wine is one of my favorite novels of all time.


2. If one were to browse the YA shelves at the local bookstore, one might reach the conclusion that the future of mankind is going to be pretty darn bleak. Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the days to come?

I’m optimistic. And here is why. I believe in kids. My kids, the kids I used to teach, the kids across the street. I think they are going to change the world in very good ways. I do worry about what we’ve done to the world and don’t think we have a free pass to just hand them our problems—but I believe that the teenagers and kids around today are capable of very, very wonderful things.


3. The love triangle at the center of Matched is both touching and believable. (And few are.) Here’s my question . . . What is it about dangerous boys (rebels, outcasts, “aberrations”) that makes them so incredibly attractive?

This is a great question. I actually don’t think of either of my boys as dangerous. They both play things fairly safe—unless Cassia is involved. I think of Cassia as dangerous, in a very quiet way. She takes risks herself and inspires others to do so too. But, to answer your question (sorry about that tangent!)—I think that boys who have an element of the unknown and the mysterious about them are attractive because of the sense of discovery one has when getting to know them.


4. The scenes with Grandfather made me cry like a baby. And I am NOT the kind of girl who gets teary-eyed over nothing. Were these scenes easy or painful to write?

Both. (And I’m sorry for making you cry.) They were easy to write because the feelings were real. They were painful to write because the feelings were real. I was and am lucky enough to have known my grandparents very well and they, particularly my paternal grandmother, have had a great impact on my life. I love them all very much. And I do not like to say goodbye.


5. Matched is set in a world in which young people’s “mates” are chosen by science. I imagine most people believe that such decisions should be left to the heart. Do you think our hearts are good at “matching” us for life?

If you think about it, we live in this very rare era in which love is seen as the key reason to marry. For most of history, that hasn’t been the case. It’s been about security, family, etc. Love in marriage is kind of a “newer” innovation. Personally, I think our hearts are good at matching us—and so are our minds. If we feel head over heels for someone but something in the back of our mind warns us about something or worries about something, we should give that equal attention. The best marriages always have both involved (mind and heart). I’m very much in love with my husband, but I also know that if we’re going to stay together for life—and beyond—it is going to take work to get there.


6. Matched sends the message that it’s sometimes necessary to break the rules. Have you ever broken the rules? (For the good of mankind, of course.)

Yes, I’ve broken the rules. But not usually in an overt kind of way. I think I feel like I break the rules sometimes not by doing things I “shouldn’t” do, but by feeling ways I “shouldn’t” feel. I think we all feel this way at different times, especially when we are trying to grow and it feels like there are rules holding us back.


7. I thought the language in Matched was incredibly beautiful. You seemed to choose your words with the care and precision of a poet. As it happens, a poem by Dylan Thomas plays an important role in the book. Do you write poetry? Read poetry? And why Dylan Thomas?

What a nice compliment, Kirsten. I don’t actually write much poetry because I am terrible at it. I do read poetry but I am by no means an expert. I tend to read poets I like—Frost, Thomas, Dickinson, Stevens, Norris, etc.—over and over. Probably because it takes me many readings to begin to feel that I am coming to know what the poet might be saying.

I chose the poem by Thomas for many reasons. He himself was a bit of a firebrand, the kind of person the Society in Matched would not have liked. And, of course, the language of the poem is beautiful and the subject fits perfectly with what is happening with Grandfather. But most of all I chose it because it is a poem that people respond to instantly—even people who don’t read poetry. The first line alone can change someone’s life. I know it did mine. The first time I read that poem I felt almost a shock of recognition. “This is how I feel too!” And Thomas is the one who put it into words in such a powerful way.

Thanks for the great interview questions, Kirsten! These were really thought-provoking and fun to answer.--Ally

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Visit a Secret Subway Stop!

The City Hall subway station has been closed for 65 years. And for 65 years, New Yorkers have broken every rule trying to get a glimpse of one of the city's lost treasures. Why? Because City Hall may be the most beautiful subway station in Manhattan, with arched ceilings, chandeliers, and fabulous skylights.

Until recently, one of the only ways to see the station (aside from infrequent tours) was to sneak onto a downtown #6 subway at the last stop on the line (Brooklyn Bridge). The #6 trains use the City Hall stop to turn back uptown, but passengers haven't been allowed to go along for the ride.

But now they've decided to stop kicking people off the trains! Just stay on the downtown #6 after the last official stop, and you can ride through City Hall station without getting in trouble. And no one wants to get in trouble. Right?

(Thanks Nathaniel and Paige!)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Post on Prom and Great Expectations


Hi Kirsten! And Kirsten’s readers! Thank you so much for letting me post on your blog.

One of my favorite parts about The Eternal Ones was how Haven had to adjust her view of Iain. How she had ideas about what she thought/hoped/remembered he would be like, but then she continually had to alter her those ideas to fit the actual person, the real situation. I loved that.

I think that having high expectations for a person or an event—and then having to react to the actual person or situation—is something that happens to us over and over again. I remember being a kid and finally getting to Disneyland after really wanting to go and assessing myself on all the rides, Am I having enough fun? Is this as amazing as I thought it would be?

And it seems like another one of those high-expectation events is Prom. I noticed this when I went to Prom myself and I noticed it again when I was teaching high school and chaperoning Prom.

Prom is supposed to be awesome and wonderful and amazing and even if we don’t personally care about our Prom, it seems like it’s still one of those hallmarks of teenage experience and so other people expect it to be amazing for us. So we do what we can to maximize the experience in our favor: try to find the perfect dress, hope for the perfect date, etc.

In Matched, the opening scene (the Match Banquet) is kind of like Prom taken to extremes (and without the dancing). Cassia, the main character, is wearing a beautiful dress and she’s nervous and excited because she’s been looking forward to this night for a very long time. And now she’s about to find out who her Match—the boy she’s chosen to marry—will be. She doesn’t know his name or anything about him, but after tonight that will all change.

So what happens after? How does Cassia have to adjust her view of what her Match would be to fit the actual person, the actual experience? That part, both in fiction (The Eternal Ones!) and in real life, is often the most challenging and exciting to explore.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Test Your Detective Skills

Can you spot a fake smile? Most people can't. There's a great test on the BBC website that will let you see if you've got what it takes. For the record, I scored 17 out of 20. Yeah, I'm bragging. See if you can beat me. Click here.

My Review of Matched

I’ve been looking forward to writing this review. Matched is a beautiful book—and I don’t say that lightly. I read Ally Condie’s new novel with a pencil in one hand. Eventually I had to stop marking all phrases and passages I wished I had written. The story was too thrilling to keep pausing to underline every third sentence.

Matched takes place in a land where everything and everyone is under the careful control of the Society. Officials dictate what food the citizens will consume, what clothing they’ll wear, what professions they’ll pursue, and when they’ll die. These decisions are made using state-of-the-art science and statistics. The people accept their lot because they’ve been told that order and stability are essential for their survival. Their forefathers weren’t always so careful, and a terrible disaster befell the whole human race.

When citizens turn seventeen, they must attend a Match Banquet. It’s at these ceremonies that every young man and woman learns the identity of the person that the Society has decided he or she should marry. Cassia Reyes has been eagerly awaiting the banquet her entire life, and she trusts that the Officials have chosen the right mate for her. This time, however, there’s been a kink in the system. Cassia has been assigned not one match, but two. The first is Xander, a boy she’s known and loved since she was a child. The other is Ky, an enigmatic young man who should never have been matched at all. Like most citizens, Cassia has always believed that the Society doesn’t make mistakes. Its methods are scientifically sound. Tried and true. Error-proof. So how could her match have gone so terribly wrong? For the first time in her seventeen years, Cassia begins to question everything.

The world of Matched is terrifyingly bland. But it’s believable because the characters who inhabit it are anything but bland. In fact, they’re just like us. Cassia has a little brother who’s both naughty and charming. Her mother and father may look like a perfect pair of citizens, but they don’t always toe the Society’s line. Cassia’s grandfather subtly encourages her to break the rules that need to be broken. They’re all ordinary people trapped in a plastic world. That’s what makes the story so frightening.

Two of the best, most believable characters are Cassia’s “matches,” Xander and Ky. If the Society had chosen poorly—if one of the boys had been a jerk—this would have been a less compelling story. Instead, the Society chose too well. Read the book and try to figure out which one you’d choose. As Cassia learns, the answer isn’t always so clear.

As you may have gathered from the previous paragraphs, I loved Matched. It’s the first book in ages to make me cry. (Don’t tell anyone.) And it’s one of the few that have left me green with envy. The language is lovely, the story is engrossing, and the questions it poses are profound. I was moved—and I’m not easily moved. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Public Service Announcement

Wondering how to improve your SAT scores? One New York high school student recently uncovered a few helpful tricks. So what does this say about SAT scores? Hmmmm.

The Strangest Beach in the World

See the beautiful little beach in the photo above? It's nowhere near the shore. Gulpiyuri Beach is completely inland. Yet it has sand, waves, even seaweed.

How is this possible? Read more here.

The Greatest Job in the World

(Above: A New York City street in 1893.)

Robin Nagle has my dream job. She's an anthropologist who works with the New York City Department of Sanitation. What does that mean? It means she gets to study the relationship between people and their trash.

I've long been fascinated by sewers, garbage collection, plumbing, and all of the things that make modern life relatively sanitary. It wasn't long ago that the world was a filthy, disgusting place. And New York City may have been one of the nastiest cities on earth.

Here's Ms. Nagle describing the average New York City neighborhood in the late 19th century:

Imagine, on your own block, that you can’t cross the street, even at the corner, without paying a street kid with a broom to clear a path for you, because the streets were layered in this sludge of manure, rotting vegetables, ash, broken up furniture, debris of all kind. It was called “corporation pudding” after the city government. And it was deep -- in some cases knee-deep.

Wow. The rest of Ms. Nagle's interview with onearth can be found here!