Monday, August 27, 2007

A Visit to Coney Island

This weekend, Stephanie and I joined a handful of my school friends for a trip to Coney Island. This is the last summer that large portions of the historic area will be open — developers plan on razing large sections of it to make way for commercial development.

Coney Island has been a resort since the Civil War. Horse racing, amusement parks, and less reputable entertainments such as gambling and prostitution flourished. When the steam railroads were electrified and connected to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge at the beginning of the 20th century, Coney Island turned more rapidly from a resort to an accessible location for day-trippers seeking to escape the summer heat in New York City's tenements.

Between about 1880 and World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement area in the United States, attracting several million visitors per year. It was not eclipsed until the 50s with the birth of Disneyland. After World War II, Coney Island began a steep decline. Air conditioning in movie theaters and then in homes, along with the advent of automobile access to less crowded state parks, lessened the attractions of Coney's beaches. Fires and gang problems exacerbated problems. All of the amusement parks closed. While things stabilized over the past couple decades and several, smaller amusement parks returned, things have never been the same.

Despite its decline, Coney Island is still a New York City must-do. There were several rides we had to experience:

Built in 1920, The Wonder Wheel has only stopped once, on July 13, 1977 during the Great NYC Blackout - when the entire northeast lost electrical power. The wheel stands 150 feet high, has a diameter of 140 feet and holds 144 people at once. Half of the cars are stationary and the other half are on tracks which allow them to slide back and forth as the wheel turns! Each year, the entire 400,000 lb. ride is overhauled and painted to protect it from the elements of weather, wear and tear. It was made a city landmark in 1989.

The 80-year-old Cyclone has consistently ranked at or near the top of every roller coaster top ten list published, often proclaimed the world’s greatest. It has the distinction of being the most copied roller coaster ever built with seven “clones” currently operating throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. Time Magazine quoted Charles Lindbergh as saying that a ride on the Cyclone was more thrilling than his historic first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Emilio Franco, a mute since birth, regained his voice on the Cyclone, uttering his first words ever: “I feel sick!” It is 85 feet high and 500 feet long with 2,640 feet of track. The length of the first of 12 drops is 85 feet at a 60 degree angle, with a maximum speed of 60 mph. The Cyclone has been made an official city, state and national landmark.

In addition to the rides, we strolled along the two-and-a-half mile boardwalk, the subject of the famous song "Under the Boardwalk", before dipping our feet in the cool Atlantic Ocean.

Lunch at Nathan’s was a foregone conclusion. Nathan's Famous' original hot dog stand opened on Coney Island in 1916 and quickly became a landmark. An annual hot dog eating contest has been held there on July 4th since its opening, but has only attracted broad attention and international television coverage during the last decade.

Not a half bad way to bid the summer goodbye before getting ready for the start of a new school semester next week, if I do say so myself!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Barack in Brooklyn

I left a crush of bodies so dense that it almost knocked me down on several occasions and tapped out a short text message to a few friends:


One of the playful replies came back: WOW! WERE ANY AILMENTS MYSTERIOUSLY HEALED?


Perhaps that’s stretching it and perhaps my response was just as mischievous as his. But on some level, I typed what I did in complete candor.

I came to hear Obama speak to a packed, enthusiastic banquet hall in Brooklyn because he represents something utterly unique in my lifetime. I’ve experienced statesman I’ve liked, admired and perhaps even loved. But I’ve never encountered one who has inspired me. Not like this.

“Thank you,” a friend of mine said when meeting Obama shortly after his now-famous Democratic Convention address, “for proving the world of Jeb Bartlett can be real.” Indeed.

Barack Obama is the first politician to ever give me hope. “I’m a hope-monger,” he admitted. “Guilty as charged.”

Half preacher, half presidential contender, Obama energized the explosive throng not by shredding Republicans (though there was a little of that) but by appealing to the common unity within us all to throw our shoulders to the wheel and move history.

“We rise and fall as one,” Obama said. “We all matter to each other. If one of us hurts, we all hurt. If one of us succeeds, we all succeed."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Walk in the Park

Summertime in New York is wonderful (if you don’t count the nearly hundred degree temperatures and humidity thick enough to drown birds in flight). One thing about New Yorkers—they love their parks. And it’s not just Central Park. New Yorkers flock to any piece of green on their free time, splaying out on the grass with copies of The New York Times, The New Yorker or that great, new novel.

Lately, we’ve been enjoying some wonderful summer activities in the park ourselves.

Last week we took in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" as part of this year’s Shakespeare in the Park festival. Since 1962, The Public Theater has staged 80 productions free of charge to more than four million people! Many of today’s most acclaimed actors have begun their careers or returned to perform in Shakespeare in the Park, including Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Patrick Stewart, and Jeff Goldblum.

Some of the popular film and television actors in this production included Crash’s Keith David, Syriana’s Tim Blake Nelson, Martha Plimpton, Big Love's Mireille Enos, The Class’ Jesse Tyler Ferguson, George Morfogen and The Day After Tomorrow's Jay O. Sanders.

And last night, despite the sprinkles, hundreds of us crowded into beautiful Bryant Park after work for a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s magnificent Psycho, the final film in a summer film festival that included Annie Hall and Casablanca!

Man, I love this city!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Why America Needs to Explore Space

Just hours ago, the space shuttle Endeavor lifted off from the Cape and blasted its way into outer space in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics. Anyone who reads this blog knows I am a huge proponent of space exploration and the work done by NASA. But I am constantly confronted by those who feel that space is one gigantic waste of time, effort and money. To them, I simply say, watch one of the finest defenses of the space industry you'll ever see and when you have finished with the short video, read the piece below:

Why America Needs to Explore Space
By Neil deGrasse Tyson
Published: August 5, 2007
Parade Magazine

While China has announced an initiative to land humans on the moon by 2020, experts say that the limited funding of NASA will make it difficult for the U.S. to return to the moon by then. We asked the nationally renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson what this might mean for our nation.

For millennia, people have looked up to the night sky and wondered about our place in the universe. But not until the 17th century was any serious thought given to the prospect of traveling there. One English science buff, John Wilkins, speculated in 1638 that the moon would be habitable one day and imagined “a flying chariot in which a man may sit.”

Three hundred thirty-one years later, humans did indeed land on the moon, aboard a chariot called Apollo 11, as part of an ambitious investment in science and technology conducted by a relatively young country called the United States of America. That enterprise drove a half-century of unprecedented wealth and prosperity that today we take for granted. Now, as our interest in science wanes, America is poised to fall behind the rest of the industrialized world in every measure of technological proficiency.

For the last 30 years, more and more students in America’s science and engineering graduate schools have been foreign-born. They would come to the U.S., earn their degrees and stay, directly entering the high-tech workforce. Today, with emerging economic opportunities back in India, China and Eastern Europe, many graduates simply return home.

Science and technology are the greatest engines of economic growth the world has ever seen. Without regenerating homegrown interest in these fields, the comfortable lifestyle to which Americans have become accustomed will draw to a rapid close.

Though recent stories about China have focused on concerns such as tainted drugs and food, China’s growth as a major world player demands our attention. During a recent trip to Beijing, I expected to see wide boulevards dense with bicycles as a primary means of transportation. Instead, I was surprised to see those boulevards filled with top-end luxury cars, while cranes knit a new skyline of high-rise buildings. The controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the largest engineering project in the world, is six times the size of the Hoover Dam. And China also is building the world’s largest airport.

In October 2003, China became the third space-faring nation (after the U.S. and Russia) as it launched its first “Taikonaut” into orbit. Next step, the moon. Meanwhile, Europe and India are redoubling their efforts to conduct robotic science on spaceborne platforms. There’s also a growing interest in space exploration from a dozen other countries around the world, including Kenya, whose equatorial location on the east coast of Africa makes it geographically ideal for space launches—even better than Cape Canaveral is for the U.S. This emerging community of nations is hungry for their slice of the aerospace universe. In America, contrary to our self-image, we are no longer leaders but simply players. We’ve moved backward just by standing still.

But there remains hope for us. You can learn something deep about a nation when you look at what it accomplishes as a culture. Do you know the most popular museum in the world over the past decade? It’s not the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi in Florence or the Louvre in Paris. At a running average of nearly 9 million visitors per year, it’s the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which contains everything from the Wright Brothers’ original 1903 airplane to the Apollo 11 command module. Visitors value the air and space artifacts this museum contains. Why? It’s an American legacy to the world. But, more important, it represents the urge to dream and the will to enable it. These traits are fundamental to being human and have coincided with what it is to be American.

When you go to countries without such ambitions working within their culture, you feel the absence of hope. Due to all manner of politics, economics and geography, people are reduced to worrying only about that day’s shelter or the next day’s meal. It’s a shame, even a tragedy, how many people don’t get to think about the future. Technology coupled with wise leadership not only solves these problems but also enables dreams of tomorrow.

You know you’re in America when every generation believes it’s going to live differently from the previous one. Americans have come to expect something new in their lives with every passing moment—something to look forward to that will make life a little more fun to live and a little more enlightening to behold. Exploration accomplishes this naturally.

The greatest explorer today is not even human. It’s the Hubble Space Telescope, which for nearly two decades has offered us all a mind-expanding window to the cosmos. But when the Hubble was launched in 1990, a blunder in the design of its optics generated hopelessly blurred images. Corrective optics were installed during the telescope’s first servicing mission in 1993, which enabled the sharp images that we now take for granted. But for three years the images were simply fuzzy. What to do? We kept taking data, hoping some useful science would nonetheless come of it. Eager astrophysicists at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute, the research headquarters for the Hubble, wrote suites of advanced image-processing software to help identify and isolate stars in otherwise crowded, unfocused fields. These novel techniques allowed some science to get done while the repair mission was planned.

Meanwhile, medical researchers at the Lombardi Cancer Research Center at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., recognized that the challenge faced by astrophysicists was similar to that faced by doctors in their visual search for tumors in mammograms. Using funds granted by the National Science Foundation, the medical community adopted the new techniques being used for the Hubble to assist their early detection of breast cancer. Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope.

You cannot script these kinds of outcomes, yet they occur daily. The cross-pollination of disciplines almost always creates innovation and discovery. And nothing accomplishes this like space exploration, which draws from the ranks of astrophysicists, biologists, physiologists, chemists, engineers and planetary geologists. Their collective efforts have the capacity to improve and enhance all that we have come to value as a modern society.

How many times have we heard the mantra: “Why are we spending billions of dollars up there in space when we have pressing problems down here on Earth?” Let’s re-ask the question in an illuminating way: “What is the total cost in taxes of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the space station and shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit and missions yet to fly?” Answer: less than 1% on the tax dollar—7/10ths of a penny, to be exact. I’d prefer that it were more, perhaps 2 cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to no more than 4 cents on the tax dollar. At that level, NASA’s current space-exploration program would reclaim our pre-eminence in a field we pioneered. Right now, the program paddles along slowly, with barely enough support to ever lead the journey.

So, with 99 out of 100 cents going to fund the rest of our nation’s priorities, the space program is not now (nor has it ever really been) in anybody’s way. Instead, America’s former investments in aerospace have shaped our discovery-infused culture in ways that are obvious to the rest of the world. But we are a sufficiently wealthy nation to embrace this investment for tomorrow—to drive our economy, our ambitions and, above all, our dreams.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus