Farewell Mantis, We Hardly Knew Ye

My apologies for the late arrival of this post, but earlier tonight a friend of mine injured himself in a manly fashion and needed to be taken to the hospital. The tardiness of this blog submission is dedicated to him in the hopes that he gets better.

Truly, I have lived in the shadow of giants. Not in the valley of any grand mountains, whether they be rocky, smoky, or Appalachian-y. Nor is the sun blocked out for me by skyscrapers of brick, mortar, and glass. Nay, I am beneath the towering behemoths of steel and screams known as roller coasters. And nowhere is there a better selection of roller coasters in one place than America’s Roller Coast, Cedar Point. Located in Sandusky, Ohio on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie, Cedar Point is a coaster-lover’s heaven. Featuring 16-17 roller coasters (depending on what you define Pipe Scream as), it is rightly called the Coaster Capital of the World. Nevermind that Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California has 18 coasters, more than any other amusement park; Cedar Point’s are better. While I’m biased, I am not the only one who feels this way. Many of Cedar Point’s roller coasters are award-winners that introduced the world to new styles of thrill rides and especially heights. Cedar Point has constructed the tallest, fastest coaster in the world four times, including the first coasters to be built taller than 200, 300, and 400 feet. All four of those rides – Gemini (125 ft), Magnum XL-200 (205 ft), Millennium Force (310 ft), and Top Thrill Dragster (420 ft) – are all still serving up screams today, alongside of other record-breaking pioneers like Corkscrew (first coaster with three inversions); Mean Streak (tallest, fastest wooden coaster in 1991); Raptor (tallest, fastest, longest inverted coaster in 1994; first inverted with a cobra roll loop); Wicked Twister (tallest, fastest inverted roller coaster today); and Gatekeeper (tallest, fastest Wing-style coaster; has the tallest inversion of any coaster). As a coaster enthusiast and frequent visitor to Cedar Point over the years, I have ridden all of these and the other coasters there, often waiting in long lines, sometimes for hours to ride for a few minutes, and feeling afterward that it was totally worth it.

As I’ve hinted at in previous posts, I’ve been lucky enough to visit some pretty cool places in the northern and western hemispheres of the world, so it’s nothing to sneeze at when I say that my favorite place I’ve yet been to in my travels is Cedar Point. Granted, there is a significant amount of sentiment factoring in here; I live an hour away and have made at least one trip to the park every summer since I was much too small (and cowardly) to ride any of the coasters I now love so dearly. Nevertheless, I’m not the only person who enjoys spending time riding CP’s awesome coasters and eating fried food that is terrible for me, yet oh so delicious.

So Cedar Point is super awesome and has award-winning rides, but who exactly hands out these awards I keep talking about? The American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) group and others like it made up of coaster junkies who traverse the globe to ride the best roller coasters factor in on the discussion, but mainly it is the foremost media authority of rides and roller coasters: Amusement Today. Amusement Today is a magazine that highlights amusement and theme parks throughout the world. Since 1998, they have given awards to parks for having the best of everything like food, Christmas show, and Park itself. Cedar Point has won the top spot of Amusement Today’s Best Amusement Park in the World rankings every year since they started, so Cedar Point’s executives could justifiably jump up and down joyfully and sing “I’ve got a golden ticket!” because well, they – they did. That’s what the name of the award Amusement Today gives out to the top Amusement Park is called. But while Cedar Point still lays claim to Blue and Mean Streaks, the streak atop the Golden Ticket rankings has just ended at 16 years. Europa-Park in Rust, Germany was recently awarded the new numero uno position. Hopefully their town’s name is not an indication of the state of their rides. Now Cedar Point is doing just fine; they are firmly in the second place slot and the highest rated American park, and their Giga coaster Millennium Force was once again voted the best steel coaster in the world. Many believe that Cedar Point lost its top park status because there hasn’t been a major ride or theme area development for a few years, partly due to a lack of space since they have a world-record 72 total rides, many of them large, on a, dare I say mere 364 acre plot of land. However, they are making space for new development, probably a new coaster, so we should all be excited and expect that someday in the near future Cedar Point will be a major contender for the Golden Ticket top spot once more. But at what cost, Cedar Point, at what cost?

Learning that my favorite place to visit is no longer the King of the Amusement Park Monsters is a damper on my day and pride, but it is not the most disturbing story about Cedar Point to come out in the last week. Shortly before the new rankings were released, Cedar Point revealed that they would shut down and demolish their record-setting stand-up steel coaster Mantis. Go ahead and check out that POV video because it’s pretty awesome. Plus, you’ll never see that parking lot in the distance so empty ever again – unless of course you start working/living there or run down the causeway and hop the fence in the winter.

Mantis was originally supposed to be called Banshee until some overly sensitive Cedar Point executive realized that in Irish folklore a banshee is a female spirit that often signifies the forthcoming of death and deemed that maybe this wasn’t the best thing to name an aggressive thrill ride after. They renamed it Mantis and gave it a ferocious looking insect logo and the rest is history. So you can rest assured that whatever they build in place of Mantis they probably won’t name it Skullfucker. Cedar Fair, the company that owns Cedar Point, actually reused the name “Banshee” for the newest coaster at Kings Island, their park in Cincinnati (they’ve got a lot going on in Ohio).

Now Mantis is no one’s favorite. Okay, probably somebody somewhere prefers it, but they must be a masochist because standing in line for hours to stand on a coaster and get rollicked around is not exactly the greatest experience I can think of. Of course, that was more the case during Mantis’ early years from when it first broke onto the scene in 1996 as the tallest, fastest, and steepest stand-up coaster in the world. For the past few years, Mantis’ attendance has been so noticeably down that you can literally walk up to the platform with no wait. This is obviously the biggest reason why Cedar Point is opting to squish Mantis, I mean, what’s the point of paying the cost to operate a coaster nobody’s riding? And I’ve provided a glimpse at why exactly Mantis gets so few riders, but allow me to explain in detail exactly what it’s like to enjoy, or rather endure the wrath of the tricolored metal bug.

Mantis begins, as most coasters do, in the loading station. The train that just battered its previous tenants rolls in and stops a few times too quickly and too early because some kid who’s younger than you is spending his summer working to pay his way through college and while he’s a hopeful prospect in Professor Wolfram’s Chemistry 201 he hasn’t quite mastered stopping the coaster train at the right spot so that it lines up nicely with the gates. Once it does come to a stop, the woozy, wounded riders eagerly push up on their shoulder harnesses and scurry for the exit as fast as they can (and they can’t move very fast) so that they don’t accidentally get stuck for another go. This is what you hope not to look like after riding Mantis, but deep down you know you will. Then your gates open and you work your way across an aisle of four not seats, because you’ll be standing when riding, so I’ll say “spaces”. Too vague? Let’s mix it up and call them cubicles, which they certainly are not, but what the hell? So you find your cubicle and this is when the true nightmare of Mantis is revealed, especially if you’re a young developing boy just tall enough to ride, like me when I first went onboard. The first time I rode Mantis the guy tasked with sitting at the front of the line with the measuring stick that determines if one is tall enough to ride the ride actually told me to stand still as he took a closer look at the top of my head in comparison with his green candy-striped stick. After a more thorough eyeballing , he gave an, “Uh, yeah okay,” and waved me through. Accompanying me was my older, taller cousin who had ridden the Mantis many times before and as I stepped into my cubicle he advised me to “clench”. I didn’t understand until I realized that in lieu of a seat (which would of course nix the distinction as a “stand-up” coaster) Mantis has an apparatus in place that is like a very lightly padded peg that sits between your legs with the intent to keep them as stationary as possible so that you don’t knock your knees together (it still happens) and also so you can’t just panic and run away (that has yet to happen to my knowledge). But since not everyone is the same height, the peg can be adjusted up or down accordingly. As I was barely 54” I was straddling the peg with little room as was, but then the attendants came by to fasten everyone in and I had the misfortune of getting the surly looking girl who had probably worked there without a break since that morning. She had no time to worry about the well-being of the rookie rider and only focused on doing her job as quickly as possible so that she could go home sooner. The peg went up, and my chances of ever having children went down. I was practically riding on my, ahem, sensitive sweet spot for the duration of the ride. And since the g-forces really kick in on that first big loop the peg has a tendency to click up one more inch. My feet were dangling by the time the train stopped and worked its way back into the station so that I could bowleg out down the ramp to see my wide-eyed expression of pain that the camera near the end caught on my face. I wish I’d bought it now, if only to remember Mantis by it. My next ride on the coaster came the next summer after I had had a growth spurt, but that first loop click up to the next latch got me again. Ensuing rides on Mantis were more enjoyable, but lately it has become a coaster I always look at but pass by with a, “Oh no! I enjoy not having back pain and leg cramps right now.”

Perhaps I have taken Mantis for granted. I know I didn’t fully appreciate Disaster Transport, the indoor roller coaster Cedar Point took down two years ago to build Gatekeeper, until it was too late. Fortunately I got to ride it one last time a week before its demolition. Mantis will be open until October 19th of this year, so I’ll have to make a trip over to take a final ride on it. It’s bittersweet because it is a cool looking coaster with a cool name that has been a part of the Cedar Point skyline and identity since its inception. With it dies a part of the 90s Cedar Point I first started going to and loving as a child. Yet the future will most likely bring a surely smoother, faster, and possibly taller roller coaster or similar thrill ride to where Mantis now stands, and where I once stood 145 ft in the air while riding it. Life, like a roller coaster, has its ups and downs, and usually at the end we feel banged up and move a little slower. But if we dare to get on the crazier ride that offers a different experience we can at least say we had an interesting time while it lasted. Mantis and I didn’t start on the best note, and I’m not sure we’ll leave on it either, but I wish it could last just a little bit longer anyway.

Thanks to Cedar Point for the lovely picture and the memories.

If you want to ride Mantis one last time then head to Cedar Point any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday from now until October 19th. Cedar Point is currently only open for their Halloween-themed HalloWeekends, an enjoyable experience in itself, until season’s end on November 2nd.

Got a suggestion for a future topic or an urge to shower me with praise? Leave a comment or contact me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Ride back again this way next Monday (I promise this time) for a stirring discussion of America’s favorite family and all of their friends.

Ride on,

Alex

Baseball, Buckets, and Black Holes

Happy Labor Day everybody! Today we, and by “we” I mean mostly banks, take a Monday off in honor of the American working man. Many of you will be commemorating the day by grilling, swimming, and cursing bank employees as you work your non-bank job. One of my favorite American pastimes for today and any day in summer is the American pastime: watching baseball. I’d say playing baseball, but let’s face it, most of us just don’t measure up talent-wise to Venezuelans. Every once in a while though there is a baseball great from these United States whose name becomes synonymous with the game. Whether you’re a fan or not you’ve undoubtedly heard of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and especially lately, Lou Gehrig. Lou Gehrig’s statistics make sabermetrics nuts drool. Everything from his batting average to his seven All-Star selections is incredible. Especially impressive is his consecutive game streak that compiled 2130 straight games and earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse”. Only Cal Ripken Jr., “The Iron Man of Baseball”, played more consecutive games and his career was four years longer. Gehrig would have definitely played more than the seventeen years he spent in the big leagues were it not for one major setback – a neurodegenerative disorder that is now as identifiable with his name as the sport he most loved: Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly shortened to ALS, also become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease after his diagnosis and death from it. Like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s, ALS is a disease that damages and sometimes destroys neurons, nerve cells that transmit signals throughout the nervous system. If you speak Greek you might already have inferred that ALS degrades muscle (amyotrophia translates to “no muscle nourishment”). One can understand how this might be a problem to a professional baseball player, or anyone else who enjoys having painless motor control. This occurs because ALS affects the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. As these neurons degrade, the muscles of the body are not able to be sent information from the brain to listen to commands like “Move!” so they begin to atrophy, that is to say waste away. You gotta use or you lose it and unfortunately ALS doesn’t let you use it no matter how much you want to. This is why one of the greatest ballplayers of all time had to call it quits (and he did it in the classiest way anyone could).

ALS is a rough disease, making life difficult while living with it because of lack of muscle movement that can lead to paralysis. Not to mention only about 4% of people suffering from it survive beyond 10 years, and most die in about 39 months. Yet while there is no cure for ALS currently, some treatments and therapies have advanced over the years to help people to live with it. A drug called Riluzole is especially helpful in aiding ALS patients and extends their lifespan significantly in many cases. And there is promising research on the workings of neurons and the brain that will hopefully lead to a cure for not only ALS but also for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. However, such research requires funding, and funding for scientific ventures, however noble, is not easy to come by. That is where charity plays a huge part in the big picture and we are in the midst of a seemingly wacky fad that is being a regular Tom Cruise (because it’s crazy but also kind of fun, and it’s playing a big part, huh? Huh?).

Unless you recently descended from your lonely perch of enlightenment in the hills you have seen, heard of, and perhaps even participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Having nothing to do with a Japanese game show, the Ice Bucket Challenge possibly originated as just another dumb thing to trick your friends into doing (“No dawg, you gotta stick the whole spoonful of cinnamon in your mouth!”) until pro-golfer Chris Kennedy decided to challenge his cousin to do it to raise money and awareness for ALS, which her husband has. Later, Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player with ALS, began to make the challenge a viral sensation via Twitter. In this beautiful fast-paced Internet Age that immediately brings naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence to my computer screen the sensation caught like wildfire-like fire and became a huge hit almost overnight. Now people of all colors, creeds, and celebrity levels are dousing themselves with buckets o’ ice to spread a chilly word of awareness and a little bit of dough the way of ALS research. If you’re unaware of how it works the challenge is passed along by those who are themselves challenged. The challengee then films him/herself no more than 24 hours later and acknowledges the challenge issued by the challenger before he/she dump ice water or are dumped upon by others with ice water, often followed by an utterance of “Oh that’s cold” and then he/she nominates three people to share in the icy enjoyment. Those who douse with ice water also send in $10 to ALS Association (USA) or Motor Neurone Disease Association (UK), while anyone who doesn’t wish to get wet (haha) can simply write a check for one hundred buckaroos.

Now that I’ve laid out the details of the challenge let me share some of the more hysterical celebrity acceptances of the challenge. First allow me to commend Captain America for laying down the law of what ice water really is, and then props to Star-Lord for the funnies. Some are more civilized, like Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s. But all pale in comparison to Foo Fighter captain and Nirvana alum Dave Grohl’s inspired take. It may be silly fun, but it also serves a good purpose in encouraging awareness of the plight of ALS, as well as sending some much needed donation dollars towards the study of the disease that sees over 5600 new cases each year in America alone. Hopefully what we learn about ALS and how to treat and ideally cure it will also be able to be put forth to likewise manage other motor neurone diseases like those I mentioned earlier as they all affect a growing number of the world population, including one of the most intelligent men to ever live who still lives today.

No matter what faith you choose to follow, if any, almost all major religions have accepted that the universe began as a super-dense, super small ball of everything that suddenly expanded in a tremendous explosion known as the Big Bang. A man named Albert Einstein was a major player in putting forth a scientific theory that supported this called the theory of general relativity. However, even Einstein had trouble figuring out a theory to unite all known aspects of physics. Not all fields of study are lucky enough to have a unifying theory (Biology represent!) and this is a very active area of debate for theoretical physicists trying to figure out how the universe works and how it began. One man at the forefront of past and present research (often dealing with past, present, and future moments of spacetime) is Stephen Hawking. Hawking has conducted pioneering research on black holes, and he still seeks to unlock the secrets of creation by bringing together Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. It may be wild way-above-your-head physics that’s super hard to get a tenuous grasp of for most of us, but if it’s spoken in Hawking’s cool robot voice then it must be important. But higher physics aside, did you ever wonder why Hawking is in the wheelchair and needs to talk through a specialized voice generator? It’s because he has a neurodegenerative disorder much akin to ALS, and it has rendered him almost completely paralyzed. Nevertheless, the man has been a force in science both from contributing academically and successfully teaching and encouraging interests in science to the masses who do not have doctorates in quantum mechanics. This is all the more inspiring considering Hawking is stricken with a muscle-sapping disease and he just keeps on trucking using his remarkable mind to unearth the fantastic wonders of the cosmos. Someday he or someone following in his wheelchair grooves will figure out how it all works, and someday those ice water donations may lead to the discover of how degenerative neurological disorders work.

Thanks for reading this far if you have! Feel free to comment and request future topics on my comment board here or at my email at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Come back next week for more interesting stuff!

For more information on ALS check out the ALS Association webpage.

Go Tigers!

Alex

I’m an Eighties Man

Hold your hats, folks; this one’s gonna be a long one. Not to mention this is setting a record for the number of links I’ve ever included on a post. My third blog and I’ve already killed the data on your smartphone. All apologies, but all in all is all we are. Today the discussion takes a turn down for what as I share some – haha, did I say some? – of my favorite music videos.

A few weeks ago I was dining with friends when my dear pal Dan asked if anyone had seen the video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s party jam “Turn Down for What”. Only I had, but our combined enthusiasm was enough to ensnare our fellows’ interest and we were soon disturbing the peace the poor patrons around us. It should have ended there, but it didn’t. I saw his Lil Jon and raised him Duck Sauce’s “Big Bad Wolf”. You decide which is wilder.

This funfest with my friends got me pondering about the appeal of music videos. Which are the best ever? Why do relish watching the weird ones? So I did what I always do when I don’t have anything better to do: I looked up videos on YouTube for hours on end. This time though with a purpose, for the world must know about what I have to tell it!

Now there have been video accompaniments to people singing and playing music for about as long as the technology to record picture and sound have been around, and many musicians took advantage of these capabilities to promote their art long before you and I existed. Elvis made movies, The Beatles made movies, some third example also occurred, but the true birth of what we now call the music video happened at 12:01am on August 1, 1981. That was the day MTV, which apparently stands for My Teenage Vagina based upon what they now air, first aired and they opened up broadcasting with this little ditty.

Are they really playing all those keyboards? Who cares!?! Apparently this was kind of a big deal back in ’81 and helped to prompt an enormous creative revolution. Obviously music videos existed before this moment, but MTV provided an outlet for aspiring artists, musical and cinematic, to show off their stuff to the adoring adolescent public. With The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” masses of Americans were introduced to not only the music video in an easily accessible format, but they got to see a prime example of an 80s music video (never mind that this one was first released in 1979): crazy hair and costumes, goofy glasses, not quite worked out computer graphics and effects, and the previously pointed out wealth of keyboard. Fun fact: the keyboardist in the back in the full black outfit is Hans Zimmer, the film composer who has scored movies like The Lion King, The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and of course Inception, which means he’s the guy responsible for every new movie trailer going “BRAHHHHMMM!”

Now when you say “80s band” one of the first names I think of is Duran Duran. And when you say “Duran Duran” the first thing I think of is bubble-popping keyboard music and Simon Le Bon likening his hunger to that of the wolf. The video for this most 80s of 80s songs is pretty 80s itself, featuring a loose narrative that one band member summarized as “Indiana Jones is horny and wants to get laid”.

What’s that? You want more 80s? Well since you asked so nicely, have it you shall! Crack that whip; it’s the only way to live; you might get what you’re after; and this dance really isn’t safe. That’s right, that’s four videos in one sentence! The 80s video revolution seemed to have an anything goes feel to it which is how such a variety of styles blossomed (that and drugs). One of the most memorable was A-ha’s pencil-doodled video for “Take On Me”. This song remained the most played song on American radio from Norwegian artists since it first hit the airwaves in the mid-80s until September of last year when a video made by a couple of Norwegian late-night talk-show hosts aiming to make an instant failure for the sake of a joke created the song of the year.

I would be bereft of my duties to the 80s if I did not mention the greatest (music video) performer of the decade, Michael Jackson. “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “Bad”, etc. did more than just give Weird Al ammo and Grammys for brilliant parody (we’ll talk more in a future post), they established the King of Pop as the King of Dancing in Front of a Camera While Squealing Mid-Crotch Grab. And no music video talk is complete without the grandest of them all, “Thriller”. Directed by John Landis, the comedy director who did Animal House and The Blues Brothers, “Thriller” made music videos into music movies and set the bar super duper high for all that followed. Plus your probably singing it right now.

But hey, the 80s may have most of my favorites, but there have been a plenty music videos that are even more freaky-fresh in terms of having been released closer to the present day.

Did you see Guardians of the Galaxy? Are you at least a fan of its trailer? If so, then you’ve probably found yourself whistling “Hooked on a Feeling” at some point this summer. What you may not be aware of is that there is a music video too! Not by B.J. Thomas who originally sang the song, or by Blue Swede whose cover is the famous version heard in the trailer. No, this video is by the enigmatic David Hasselhoff, and it might be the most laughably bad music video I’ve ever seen…. Then again, this does exist too. Ugh, facepalm. The latter is more disappointing than it is funny (though it’s still hilarious!) because it features two of my favorite rock and roll singers of all time; the former however is just everyday Hasselhoff, and I expect nothing less from him.

Definitely the best music video makers of the 90s were ones that knew their stuff in the 80s too. If other acts of the 90s are bustin’ in and sayin’ what’s that noise? then tell ‘em they’re just jealous I picked The Beastie Boys. Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock churned out some of the greatest crazy videos through the 1990s from “Intergalactic” to “Hey Ladies” and beyond, they worked wonders with always entertaining production. I mean, “Body Movin’” only has like six words uttered through the entire song but the video is a wild five and a half minutes. But the king of their crop has got to be “Sabotage”, a send up of 60s/70s cop thrillers that is absolutely bonkers. This will forever stand as one of my favorite music videos. RIP MCA.

You want more 90s too? Cool! I mean, uh, yeah [moppy hair swish], that’s cool I guess. The best band of the 90s most well known song; their best song; don’t try to read into it; oui oui!

Fortunately there are even more current musicians with video brilliance. In 2001 we got this gem from Fatboy Slim and Spike Jonze (who directed) that showed what we all already knew: Christopher Walken can fucking fly.

During the 2000s, The White Stripes had a pretty palate of tasty videos that displayed their signature kookiness such as “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, “Blue Orchid”, “The Denial Twist”, and of course the tunneling effect of their megahit “Seven Nation Army”. I love them all, but there are two that stand out as my favorites, and both utilize stop-motion in different ways. The first is “The Hardest Button to Button” which takes us on a journey through Central Park, some New York City streets, and a subway car as Jack and Meg jam their way along. Apparently drumming is a great way to travel, just be sure not to literally run into the duo that wrote the song. Second is the best in this case though, and if there is only one video from this list that you actually watch, let it be this one. This song’s actually really easy to play on guitar too, so if you want to sound like a badass grab a guitar and some LEGOs and crank up the amp full blast.

Keeping with the colors, my favorite currently performing band is easily The Black Keys, and they’ve got a hell of a sense of music video humor too! Hey, the guy dancing in “Lonely Boy” is awesome, and “Tighten Up” is hilarious, but there is no Black Keys video like “Howlin’ For You”. It plays like a preview to an over-the-top, south-of-the-border, action-packed, big guns, bigger boobs grind house movie the likes of which Robert Rodriguez wishes he could make.

Fear not, it’s almost over, and I’ve saved the best for last. Once again, the 1980s was the prime time for music vids and I’ve already discussed a bunch of ‘em, but what’s my favorite music video of all time? Only the best one ever! Utilizing claymation, stop-motion animation, and Peter Gabriel’s quirky madness, “Sledgehammer” is more than just a catchy tune; it is an epic musical journey in which rotisserie chickens take center stage, literally.

Thanks for reading! My sincerest apologies for not getting this bad boy out earlier in the day, but that Simpsons marathon isn’t going to watch itself. Be sure to have a moment of silence for the recently departed Richard Attenborough as he certainly spared no expense in life. Come back again for an explanation as to why people are dousing themselves with buckets of ice water and how it pertains to the creation of the universe. Same bat time, same bat channel.

I wanna be your Sledgehammer,

Alex

The Old Great White She Ain’t What She Used To Be

You’ve changed Shark Week, and now we’re drifting apart – I never thought that could happen. Once you were the highlight of my summer, nay, my year. There was a time when I genuinely declared Shark Week to be better than Christmas. It helps that Shark Week was seven times longer and I didn’t have to spend it with my relatives, but it was still the best week of my year anyway you bite it. So why is it that the annual event I used to go all Beatles-first-time-in-America over has become something that I roll my eyes at now? The answer goes deeper than the ocean. Well, not quite that deep; deeper than a shallow tidal basin, but not Marianas Trench deep. It’s deep- it’s deeper than just Shark Week is what I’m trying to say.

For those of you who weren’t aware, last week was the 27th Shark Week. That’s four more Shark Weeks than official James Bond movies (we’re not counting bullsharkshit like Sean Connery’s remake of Thunderball). Airing annually on the Discovery Channel since 1987, the “King of Summer” for cable broadcasting has helped to raise awareness of the apex predators of the ocean so that the once fearful public has become the now adoring public. The good news is that the overall fears of the public have given way to greater interest, but the quality of the shows on Shark Week have shifted into a less scientific, more spectacular set of specials that are hosted by people who can hardly be called shark authorities and probably belong on Duck Dynasty, i.e. they don’t belong on TV. There is also the issue of filling the bottom of the screen with live broadcasting of social media comments about how awesome Shark Week is.

I thought last year’s Megalodon special was as low as they would go. Surely someone somewhere at Discovery Channel HQ would realize that the supposed camera evidence of a living Megalodon was crappy CGI that would be rejected from a Sy-Fy channel movie (but not its sequel where the shark gets mutated with a Dinobat!). Of course, it was the Discovery crew that pixilated the false behemoth in there. It also doesn’t help that the people in the special are almost all actors, from the scientists to the deckhands. The main marine biologist, a Dr. Colin Drake was played by a South African actor with a glamour shot on his IMDB page, which lists the Megalodon show as something he’s acted in. No shit, you can actually see all that on IMDB. He even played a doctor in the Free Willy that starred Steve Irwin’s daughter!

Let’s get one thing straight right now, Megalodon, a large shark that fed on whales and could have grown to over 60 feet, is extinct. The last ones died out 1.5 million years ago and any marine biologist will tell you that’s the case. The biggest debate scientists have about Megalodon nowadays is not about whether it still lives or not (because that’s not a debate; it’s fucking dead and we’d damn well know if it wasn’t!), but whether to place it into genus Carcharodon with great whites, or in Carcharocles an extinct genus that Megalodon would be a little lonelier in.

This year we got to see a follow-up to the Megalodon show and another “documentary” that utilized “real found footage” to show the world a first-hand look at the fabled Submarine. Submarine is the name of a massive great white shark that supposedly lingers along the coast of South Africa. It has many unsubstantiated accounts and no hard evidence to support its existence beyond a few scientist speculating that a white shark could grow to over 20 feet. Yet none of that stopped Discovery from putting together an hour-long special with “real camera footage” that accounts the harrowing events after the sinking of a charter fishing boat that much like the shark that attacks it, never actually existed. The “victims” involved have their characters all too well developed in the moments we see on the boat (which is damn good camera quality), and every time the Submarine attacks the camera always seems to just miss the action and only gets snippets of a dorsal or tail fin when it does see something (which is shitty camera quality, you know, all the better to hide the bad CGI with).

Science blogger Christie Wilcox recently published for Discover Magazine (not the same thing as The Discovery Channel) an angry article where she compares Discovery Channel to P.T. Barnum because they are showcasing false freakish curiosities to draw people in for a closer look. Worse yet, they aren’t just tricking us viewers. For the past two years, The Discovery Channel has misled scientists in interviews they have recorded, interviews that they have only used the bits they like most for the special they are filming it for. Some scientists have since complained that parts of the interviews they gave for Discovery have been spliced together to make it seem like they are saying something different from what they actually said. Tsk tsk Discovery, you’re making things up again, Arnold (and yes, Olaf the Snowman is voiced by the fat kid from the original Broadway production of The Book of Mormon).

C’mon Discovery! This might help ratings now, but it’s gonna fuck thing’s up for you in the future when nobody of actual intelligence comes to help make your shows anymore! And to add insult to injury, you’re selling out! There are official sponsors for Shark Week and none of them are the slightest bit reminiscent of sharks. Somehow I don’t picture anything from a dogfish to a great white driving a Volkswagen or drinking a Redd’s apple ale, yet they’re the official car company and beer of Shark Week! And hey Gillette, if you want a really good shave just rub a shark’s skin from tail to head. Sharks are covered with specialized teeth called denticles that when touched from head to tail feel very smooth and allow them to swim as hydrodynamically as possible, but going the other way will cut into your skin. So if you really want those pesky mustache hairs gone grab a shark!

But the problems with Shark Week stem from the problems with the channel it’s broadcasted on. I’m not the first person to notice that the Discovery Channel has had a change in overall programming over recent years. Where once was “Wild Discovery” is now “Crabfishing Truckers Chopping Down Trees in Swamps While Goldmining in Souped Up Cars That Were Salvaged from Some Old Lady’s Farm in America”, a title more befitting one of Rick Sanchez’s inter-dimensional TV channels. Discovery Communications, a cable network that contains such household names as Animal Planet, TLC, OWN, The Science Channel, and of course The Discovery Channel, as well as many more, seems to have become more concerned with viewership in the coveted 18-34 year old range of boobtubers than it has with keeping shows that have a standard for higher education and sound scientific background on the air. This has led to less of the programming that the people who initially became interested in those channels watched and more of the “reality TV”-based shows that flood their airways now. Not exactly keeping up with the motto of being “The World’s #1Nonfiction Media Company” there Discovery Communications. (To anyone younger than I, that’s not read as “The World’s Hashtag One Nonfiction Media Company”.)

Now I’m not saying that every show on previous Shark Weeks was gold, but the overall quality of shows throughout the week was better before. The fantastical focus on great whites – undeniably the most popular shark – jumping out of the water without hardly a mention of other species (that still live at least) clouds the water a bit. What variety has been thrown in often is over-sensationalized too, like the hammerhead show from this year. It should be noted that there have still been some good shows in recent years, including this year, but instead of being the highlight specials that receive the most advertising they are pushed behind the “Hey Look, We Found Megalodon!” kind of shows because those are flashier and attract more attention than the “We’ve Gathered Further Data on the Habits of Dogfish” kind of shows.

For the most part I like the talk show Shark After Dark that concludes each night after the shark specials. It has been airing since last summer and it is especially good when they have actual shark experts on set to discuss more than what’s trending. Usually it is a typical late night talk show with celebrity guests and bad jokes connected to Shark Week merely by a common theme, but it has its moments of education when the shark layman host, Josh Wolf, and other non-shark versed guests ask the shark scientists sitting next to them about the amazing animals they study. I love that child-like wonder and interest in the simple questions that often get overlooked because the shark experts already know it so well they hardly think about why it is like it is anymore. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, or how much you do or do not know about sharks, all questions are welcome because we’re going to laugh at the question and answer no matter what and we just might learn something along the way. And if we can keep the silliness and the “Oh bro! Sharks are so tight!” approach to shark science on Shark After Dark (just please, no more Tara Reid; she poisons intellect with airheaded stupidity), and then have the rest of the week’s programming be based in fact and what’s actually captured on camera that would be great.

The best thing that Shark Week still does though is what it’s always done well: brings awareness to the awesome predators of the deep. It still inspires young and old across the world to take an interest in sharks and respect them rather than fear them, as well as advertise their plight at the hands of humans. The problem is that continuing to show fake shark shows can lead to questions about the validity of everything they say throughout the week. What happens if people don’t believe that millions of sharks are killed each year just to have their fins hacked off to be made into soup while the rest of the still living shark is thrown back in to sink to the bottom and die? That sadly does really happen, and Shark Week is great about spreading this message and other conservation concerns to the masses, but if Shark Week becomes synonymous with leaping Megalodons people will begin to doubt it all. Hopefully future installments of this once great last hurrah of summer will become even better than its best years. It’s alright if you don’t get to see the big great white you searched for, just show us what you found without any alterations to the camerawork and we’ll still gobble it up like a tuna tailfin. No more living Megalodon crap, no more sensationalism. All I’m asking for is honesty and variety and maybe a hot girl in a bikini every once in a while. You supply me with that, Shark Week, and I’ll keep watching.

Thanks for reading my Shark Week complaints! If you’d like to learn more about sharks from reputable sources check out any number of books or journal articles that were published after being peer-reviewed by people who actually study sharks; they’re not hard to come by. You can also visit an aquarium if there is one nearby you and learn more about sharks and their fellows under the sea. Some really nice aquariums I’ve been to are Newport Aquarium in Newport, KY just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, and South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, SC. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL is pretty nice, but you have to pay extra to go into many exhibits (including the sharks). I was outside of but did not get to go into the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, and Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, WA, both of which I hear are quite nice. I would love to go to the Georgia Aquarium in, you guessed it, Georgia, Atlanta specifically. They have whale sharks (the biggest fish alive today) there which is super cool. Also on my must see list is the Monterey Bay Aquarium (take a guess where it is). They are one of the few places to have (briefly) kept a great white shark in captivity. Check out their Seafood Watch list to help eat healthier and more ocean consciously.

If you want me to write about something in a future blog leave me a comment below or email me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Monterey Bay, feel free to contact me if you’re hiring. (That goes for you other aquariums too.) Tune in next week for a musical menagerie!

Stay Sharky,

Alex

P.S. A little dessert after eating all that.

Everybody do the Ebola Slide! It’s infectious! (woogie woogie woogie)

Per the request of at least two of my friends, I have decided to write a weekly topical essay in the hopes it will educate and entertain you, or at the very least make your Mondays a little less sucky. Of course, after reading this installment you’ll undoubtedly appreciate that even your worst Monday is nowhere near as bad as the past months have been for residents of western Africa. (If you want the tl;dr version you can check out this brief clip to learn a little about what’s going on over there that has given me so much to talk about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGyFhwdtCMk. This guy discusses today’s subject matter much more succinctly and with more hand motions than I.)

Unfortunately, many countries in Africa don’t have the same comforts as us as they’re often plagued with the problem of not being America. Specifically I’m referring to the many issues that arise in a less developed country that is just beginning to become more global by adopting a somewhat more Western feel through new technologies and transportation without having the same, uh, shall we say funds? Basically, the people are fucking poor and desperate enough to literally break their back for a day’s wages in many places like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, i.e. they don’t do sick days or else they might not have enough to eat. Still, residents scrape by and endure health hardships constantly. So why was it such a big deal when a little boy got sick in December? The answer is one the scariest five-letter words: Ebola – which is somewhere between “shart” and “bingo”, both of which are scariest to hear in a church basement filled with old ladies.

In countries affected by the current Ebola outbreak, easily the worst in history, problems stem from less developed and understaffed hospitals, as well as the greater access to roads which make traveling longer distances quicker much easier. Nevertheless, in the fight against Ebola ignorance is the biggest enemy. The countries stricken by the current outbreak have never encountered Ebola until now, so those who contract the disease don’t realize what they have and inadvertently spread it around their communities. Furthermore, the doctors and nurses who treated the first patients who came to the hospital were just as unaware of what was on their hands – sometimes literally; we’re not yet to the gruesome details.

Named after the river near where the first identified cases occurred in the mid-70s, Ebola is a virus (specifically a filovirus) that is classified as a Level 4 pathogen, which is the highest level a pathogen can be classified as. It’s the World Health Organization’s (WHO) way of saying, “Seriously, don’t fuck with this!” It has an incredibly short incubation period and can start working its black magic in just a couple of days after infection. Those who work around Ebola have to put on spacesuits, and yes, that’s actually what they’re called because they are airtight so that the person inside the suit is within their own personal sterile environment. I don’t know that you’d actually want to wear one in the cold vacuum of outer space, but hey, if Star-Lord can go fly around the universe with his hands exposed maybe the Ebola suit is better than nothing, but I digress.

There are five known species of the virus, four of which affect humans (we’ll talk about the other one later). The one that really worries people is Zaire ebolavirus aka Zebov which is the baddest mamajama in the Ebola fam and the one that’s wreaking havoc right now in the aforementioned countries. If you get infected with the virus you’ll develop Ebola Virus Disease which they used to call Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever as patients will develop a fever that can be followed by hemorrhaging. Unfortunately the only prescription for this fever is not more cowbell as there’s not really a prescription at all. There is no cure for Ebola (yet – fingers crossed on recent research) and that’s a major reason why it’s on Level 4. (Side note: people who study Level 4 pathogens don’t have to get any vaccinations prior to going into the labs, called hot zones, because there’s no cures yet for Level 4 pathogens, so if you get infected you’re simply screwed!) So if you get infected today you’re going to want to pray to whatever god you have stock in and maybe a few others, and take some reading material for the isolation chamber they’ll throw you in (they call it the submarine!) cause you’re gonna be there a while as the fever runs it’s brutal course of pains all over usually accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting (which is black btw). Of course, things go quicker once you start hemorrhaging, in which case you’ll bleed out of holes you didn’t know you had much faster than you thought your heart could pump blood. Oh, and you die when that happens. Not bad work for a collection of proteins that aren’t even technically alive.

Zaire ebolavirus kills 83% of its victims on average, and in one outbreak killed over 90%. Currently it’s claimed a little more than over half the infected people in west Africa, so while it has infected more people the death rate has gone down. Small victories are still victories, I guess; always look on the bright side.

Despite it’s extremely infectious capabilities, Ebola operates so quickly that it usually kills it’s unlucky host before it can move on to the next unlucky guy or gal. Sometimes it only takes a few agonizing days. But since this outbreak began near the border of a few countries that all have easier means to travel than they did a few years ago, and since people don’t always come down with symptoms right away, Ebola has managed to hitch a ride for a lot farther than it normally would get to. One guy actually got on a plane and flew into Nigeria where he died and infected a now isolated group of people there. Fortunately, Ebola is not airborne (except on Nigerian Flight 271, hey! Too soon?) and can only be transferred by direct contact with bodily fluids. But since so many of the “health wards” where people are being cared for are sealed up shacks there is a high risk that any doctors or nurses can accidentally come in contact – as happened with the two American health workers who were infected.

Those Americans are now back home in secure hospital wings being treated with experimental drugs. They are the first people to be infected with Ebola to be treated for it on American soil, but this isn’t the first time Ebola’s been to America, or even the first time that it’s found its way into a human’s body in the Land of the Free.

In November 1989, when I was but a wee lad, a laboratory monkey house in Reston, Virginia saw a sudden sweep of violent death in a third of their resident crab-eating macaques. When a government medical team was brought in to investigate they were horrified to discover that the virus affecting the monkeys was a relative of Zaire ebolavirus. The lab was locked down and everyone who worked there was thoroughly checked out. A few workers tested positive for the new virus and panic was had on the dance floor. And why not? A new Ebola virus within humans in an American city that lies about 20 miles away from Washington D.C., holy fucking monkeybutts! So why didn’t we all die before we were toddlers? Turns out the new virus, called Reston ebolavirus, was asymptomatic in humans, meaning it didn’t affect us. Phew!

As you may have gathered from the Reston monkey scare, Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is transferred to humans via animals that are infected with it. Scientists believe the original carriers for Ebola are fruit bats in Africa, but it has since also spread to primates like chimpanzees. The moral of the story is stay away from bats, especially their poop and don’t eat bushmeat.

For as deadly as Ebola is and has been this year, it doesn’t come close to killing as many people as AIDS and malaria which are two of the three most prevalent infectious diseases in the world (the other is tuberculosis). However, these other diseases have much better treatment options – at least in developed nations – and do not degenerate their host nearly as rapidly as Ebola making it one of the most frightening things humanity has ever known. I don’t want HIV/AIDS or malaria either, but there’s something about a virus that kills you too quickly to spread that is more dramatically unsettling. This is also why it’s become a favorite story for the media lately, as it can easily be sensationalized for a quick headline that scares you into absorbing as much CNN, ABC, etc. coverage as possible. Ebola wouldn’t be fun for us to have in America, and the current epidemic is the worst ever and seems to be growing, but Ebola is not going to destroy all human life on Earth, so don’t cough up all your blood just yet.

I know I’ve written a veritable encyclopedia here, but if you want to learn more check out the WHO page: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/. And if that’s not enough pick up The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. It tells the real-life story of Ebola’s spread through early outbreaks in Africa and the Reston incident, as well as some of its nasty cousins like Marburg virus. The opening chapter is terrifying and the story of Col. Nancy Jaax will make you very attentive when preparing dinner.

Thanks for reading my super long informational essay. Future installments won’t be as long-winded, but this topic seemed to be an important current event worthy of a more lengthy discussion. Let me know if you have any questions! Researching for you guys is more fun and less formal than past homework I’ve had for school. And remember to explore for yourselves too! I also welcome requests for future topics, because I’ll lose direction over time and just start ranting.

Tune in next week to hear about why Shark Week has sucked major balls for the past few years and only seems to be getting worse!

Happy Shark Week anyway,
Alex

Making Mondays a little less Mondayish for all with words to educate, inspire, and try out my stand-up routine with.