July 7th, 2011
10:16 PM ET

Harry Potter and the Decade-long Obsession

Before I have even written a word, there it is, laid out for all to see, in that picture: I am a huge Harry Potter geek.

I am one of those fans who pre-ordered the books and stayed up all night to finish them so no-one could spoil the ending for me. I have seen all of the films on their opening weekends, even taken days off work to see them on opening night, and I have seen most of the movies more than once in the cinema. But there is more. I have hung out in the crowd of not one, but two of the London premieres, snapping pictures of the stars. I own all the DVDs (including double copies of some) and yes, this weekend I am hosting a Potter viewing party.

So, as you may well imagine, this month's release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" is both a source of great excitement and gloom for me.

Why? Well, because to quote the tagline of that film for all you Muggles out there, "It all ends here." The final instalment of a film franchise that has clocked up more than a thousand minutes of screen time and over $6.3 billion at the box-office to date premieres on July 7th, and is released worldwide on July 15th. Four years have already passed since the last in JK Rowling's best-selling series of books was published, and with the author swearing she has no more books in the pipeline, this is the end of an era for fans of Harry, Ron, Hermione and Hogwarts.

But before regaling you with how the wizarding world has become nothing short of an obsession, I have a confession to make.


Post by: ,
Filed under: General • Personal musings
June 23rd, 2011
02:41 PM ET

Accio Pottermore!

Pottermore.com preview

Hold onto your wizard's hats Harry Potter fans, Hogwarts creator JK Rowling has unveiled a new project: Pottermore.

The author kept geeks like me guessing for a week what the website could hold, all the while taunting us with a countdown clock on YouTube populated by an increasing number of animated owls. Rumors were rampant across the web: could it be a new book? An encyclopedia of the wizarding world? A video game? The Pottermore teaser webpage – bearing nothing but a title, JK Rowling's signature and the words "Coming Soon" – racked up a million hits within 36 hours of its launch.

Then the countdown clock stopped, the website was revealed, and a video message from Rowling herself appeared. FULL POST

June 21st, 2011
02:29 PM ET

Wimbledon's Marathon Men

There is nothing quite like Wimbledon. The world's most famous tennis tournament is quintessentially British, aside from the sporting action, it is an excellent excuse for eating strawberries and cream, drinking Pimm's and having a picnic on Henman Hill/Murray Mount.

Last year, it also provided an unprecedented and unforgettable spectacle: an 11-hour, 5-minute marathon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. The match stretched over three days before John Isner finally won 70-68 in a fifth set that lasted for 138 games and was longer in duration than any other complete match in the history of tennis. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

If you have as much difficulty as I do in processing a match that long, let me help you out. The match lasted longer than:

  • A flight from London to Los Angeles (10 hours, 10 minutes)
  • The entire first season of Mad Men (10 hours, 19 minutes)
  • The time football World Cup Champions Spain spent playing in the entire 2010 tournament, minus injury time (11 hours)

Sadly, Isner and Mahut did not quite make it to our next milestone: the length of time it takes to watch the entire extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (11 hours, 48 minutes).

No wonder then, that the gruelling combat between two previously unheralded players had become a global phenomenon long before it had come to a close, making front-page news and trending on Twitter around the world.

Then came the re-match on the longest day of 2011. How appropriate...


Post by: ,
Filed under: General • Personal musings • Sport
May 18th, 2011
12:14 PM ET

Residing on Rikers Island

IMF director general Dominique Strauss-Kahn stands before judge Melissa Jackson in Manhattan Criminal Court.

If the name of the IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's current home rings a bell with you, chances are you've heard it on the TV or radio.

Rikers Island is best known as the home of suspects pending trial or convicts serving short sentences and as such it features regularly in New York-based police dramas such as NBC's "Law and Order." It even has its own page on the show's wiki. In many ways Strauss-Kahn's arrest could be straight out of an episode of "Law and Order: SVU," the strand of the show that portrays detectives investigating "sexually based offenses". Sadly, this is real life.

It was real too for rapper Lil' Wayne when he did time on Rikers Island in 2010 on a gun charge. His album "I Am Not A Human Being" was released while he was in solitary confinement, and he even recorded a verse over the phone for the Drake/Jay-Z single "Light Up." The "Rikers Remix" did the rounds online.

Rikers Island, where IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn is being held.

Lil' Wayne is just one of many artists to have referenced Rikers Island in their lyrics. Recent Eminem/D12 collaboration "Going Crazy" describes a "tour bus look like Rikers Island." Meanwhile, if Kool G. Rap's lyrics are anything to go by, Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have a rough time in store at the jail:

"...you might have been robbin', you might have been whylin'/ But you won't be smilin' on Rikers island. / Just to hear the name it makes your spine tingle/ This is a jungle where the murderers mingle/ This ain't a place that's crowded but there's room for you/ Whether you're white or you're black, you'll be black and blue..."

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is accused of sexual abuse and rape, and is currently residing in one of Rikers Island's 3.35 x 4 meter cells. On Tuesday we heard that the man whom many refer to as DSK was placed on suicide watch at Rikers Island, but that is a common procedure in high-profile cases. Strauss-Kahn is expected to be left largely alone between now and his next appearance in court on Friday.

CNN Legal Analyst Sunny Hostin says a second application for bail will be the top priority. "There is no question that this Friday the defense will reapply for bail," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. "They're going to try to come up with a situation that is palatable for the prosecution and the court so that he is no longer being held at Rikers Island. That may include $1 million to $2 million bail, or an ankle monitoring bracelet."

As the Grand Jury convenes, the world will be watching.

Post by: ,
Filed under: General
May 17th, 2011
05:21 PM ET

Big Mac Milestone

If you are the sort of person who counts calories, and watches what you eat, this might not be the blog for you. This is the story of one man, three decades, and tens of thousands of Big Macs.

Don Gorske has eaten 25,000 Big Macs

Today (May 17 2011), Don Gorske, a middle-aged American from Wisconsin, will bite into his 25,000th McDonald's Big Mac. Yes, that's 25,000 of the 540 calorie, double pattie, triple bun burgers. And what's more, he has a receipt for every single one of them.

Don eats a couple of Big Macs per day, every day of the week. He even has spares stashed in the freezer for emergencies. Yet recently, he's been on a diet (of sorts). He's slashed his Big Mac intake to one per day. Why? So that he can hit his Big Mac milestone today, exactly 39 years (to the hour) that he first locked lips around a McDonald's patty.

News Stream ordered 25 Big Macs, just 1,000th of Don Gorske's lifetime intake.

Just one Big Mac is more than a meal for me, and even the more meat-loving members of the News Stream team could only stomach a couple, so as well as chowing down on the 25 burgers we ordered this afternoon we helped ourselves to a side-order of number-crunching to make Don's achievement a little more palatable.

  • Don Gorske has eaten around five-and-a-half thousand kilograms of Big Macs.
  • That's a whopping 13-and-half million calories.
  • He's also consumed 725 kilos of fat just from Big Macs, yet remarkably his cholesterol levels are fine! (156mg/dL in case you were wondering).

In 2008, Guinness verified that Don had eaten the most Big Macs ever, at the time just 23,000. Imagine, at his current rate of consumption if he lives until the age of 86 he'll have eaten 40,000. Now that's something for him to chew over.

January 6th, 2011
03:20 PM ET

Vanity Hair

Getty Images

I want to start by clearing one thing up. On Thursday's News Stream Kristie may have uttered the words "News Stream favorite" in conjunction with pint-sized pop star Justin Bieber. The clarification goes something like this: by "favorite" we meant someone whose Twitter antics cause us to raise our eyebrows, roll our eyes, and who we like to poke a little fun at (all in a good-natured way of course).

The thing is, Bieber - the boy, the micro-blogging phenomenon, the floppy hair - seems to be cropping up with alarming regularity on our program. Take Wednesday's "Over and Out There" segment for example. We were discussing the Twitter phenomenon #lessambitiousmovies, but how did we do it? By saying it was trending higher than Justin Bieber!

So today, there I was, prepping for our daily editorial meeting and guess which CNN blog caught my eye: Justin Bieber's New Year's resolutions. What could the boy-who-has-everything possibly wish for in 2011, I thought. Well apparently he has big plans. "This year, I mean, I hope that I win a Grammy, 'cause I'm up for two", the teen idol told MTV News.

So to the end of Thursday's News Stream. Our "Over and Out There" focused on a magazine that hits news-stands in New York today. The February edition of "Vanity Fair" contains an explosive portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, complete with allegations of backroom bickering and legal wrangles.

But of course nobody is talking about that...because look who's on the front cover:

From Vanity Fair

Yes, you guessed it, Justin Bieber.

He's now sweet sixteen, but from this image he would be lying if he said he has never been kissed (well that, and the rumors circulating about the time he's spending with Disney favorite Selena Gomez).

It will shock few of you I'm sure to discover that the Canadian singer considers himself to be extraordinary; he told Vanity Fair that he is not a normal teenager. Just one of the quotes we pulled out of the interview may give you something of that impression: "I'm crazy, I'm nuts". It seems Justin's also got quite a high opinion of his personal appearance, telling readers that it is not his music, but his looks that make him irresistible to girls. "I'm not trying to be arrogant...but maybe I'm good-looking, right?" he asks. Well, I leave that up to you to decide...

And so we return to another of the pop star's New Year's resolutions, and one that could have Bieber fans in floods of tears. Justin has threatened to chop his mop-top!

Is the world ready for a balder Bieber? Will he, like Samson, lose his strength when his luscious locks are cut? Only time will tell.

Moreover, could this mean the end of News Stream's love-hate relationship with Justin Bieber? In the words of the teen star himself, "never say never". With six million followers on Twitter, his online presence is sometimes difficult to ignore (even if I wish I had never laid eyes on his bare-chested profile picture).

For the record, my New Year's resolution is simply this: henceforth to leave the all mention of Justin to the "Beliebers" or even "True Beliebers". Or maybe just News Stream writer Nicol.

December 21st, 2010
11:09 AM ET

TRON: Legacy - How to Look 28 Years Younger

From Disney Motion Pictures

When I first saw the graphic theme for News Stream, it took about 10 seconds for me to think 'TRON', so it's hardly surprising that the team have been eagerly awaiting the neon-lit cyber-sequel to the 1982 classic. It seems other people shared our sense of anticipation too - 'TRON: Legacy' powered up for a number one box-office opening weekend, pulling in $43.6 million at theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

I'm yet to see the movie myself - it hasn't hit cinema screens in Hong Kong yet - but even from the trailers and the clips I've seen there are plenty of water-cooler moments to talk about: the light-bikes, the killer frisbees...

But the thing that got our geek senses tingling the most: a Hollywood lesson in how to look 28 years younger. The idea of pitting a movie star against their younger self is nothing new, but 'TRON: Legacy' is the first to take the plunge. Thus Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges v.2010, is at war with Clu, played by Jeff Bridges v.1982, a digitally youthful chip off the old block.

Effects like that take a lot of work. According to 'TRON: Legacy' Animation Director Steve Preeg, Jeff Bridges started work with the animation team in mid-2008. They created a cast of his head, and digitally compared his face now with that in the original 1982 'TRON'. On set, Bridges had to shoot his scenes whilst wearing a helmet with four cameras mounted on it, and with hundreds of motion-capture dots attached to his face. As for the Clu you'll see on the silver screen, yes it's Jeff Bridges with a digital face-lift, but from the neck down, it's a younger body double.

Steve Preeg admits that following in the footsteps of 'TRON' was "very frightening".

"The entire industry that I work in owes its creation to 'TRON'", he told News Stream. "They were so cutting edge that they were disqualified from being nominated for Best Special Effects at the Oscars because using as computer was seen as cheating".

Check out more of our interview with Steve Preeg here:

As you might imagine, for some fans 'TRON: Legacy' is a must-see movie, and fans of the original film don't come much more devoted than Jay Maynard, otherwise known as internet sensation 'TRON guy'.

In a review for Wired.com, Maynard calls 'TRON: Legacy' "visually stunning, intellectually engaging, and emotionally exhausting". Apparently, it brought him to tears.

There's already talk of a third 'TRON' movie in the Disney pipeline. Who knows, maybe this one will feature Maynard.


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Filed under: General
November 22nd, 2010
01:39 PM ET

Heaven's Above: that is one big statue!

Polish town consecrates giant statue of Jesus

If I asked you to think of a giant statue of Jesus, I bet your mind would jump to Rio de Janeiro and the towering "Christ the Redeemer" that stands high on a mountain over the city.

But the town of Swiebodzin in western Poland is hoping to change all that.

This Sunday, thousands of pilgrims flocked there for the consecration of a statue they hope will be Brazil's famous religious icon.

The Polish creation stands 33 meters tall; that's one meter for every year of Jesus' life. Then you can add on an extra two meters for its golden crown and the mound it sits on. That brings its total height to a potentially record-breaking 52.5 meters.

Now, as you know, here at News Stream, we're all about visualisation. So we wanted to know how the Swiebodzin statue measures up to other effigies of religious figures:

  • As I mentioned, Rio's "Christ the Redeemer" is one to beat. It stands 39 meters tall and was voted one of the "new wonders of the world" in an online poll.
  • The "Cristo de la Concordia" in Bolivia is even bigger at 40.4 meters.
  • The "Giant Buddha of Leshan" in China's Sichuan province may not be free-standing (it's carved into a cliff-face) but it still comes out as the tallest stone buddha in the world, at 71 meters.
  • The world's largest statue of Lord Shiva measures up at nearly 20 meters, and you can find it in Bangalore, India.

There's no doubt that all of them cut an impressive sight.

But at least in Poland, such a large-scale religious icon has caused controversy; underlining the deep divide between a deeply Catholic population and an increasingly confident secular society - with many people mocking the project as "tacky".

All I can say is "Heaven's Above, that's one big statue".

I'm sure I'm not the only one amazed by the ingenuity and innovation required to build a statue that big.

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Filed under: General
November 19th, 2010
01:19 PM ET

From a Galaxy Far, Far Away...

Artist's impression of exo-planet HIP 13044 B: a planet from another galaxy. From European Southern Observatory.

It's not often I get to write a story that involves "cosmic cannibalism" - in fact before today, I had never written a story like that. But times change, and intergalactic discoveries are made.

Okay, so in these days of hyper-science the discovery of yet another planet orbiting yet another star may not be anything out of the ordinary. Unless, of course, the planet and the star come from a galaxy far, far away.

The rather unromantically named HIP 13044 B is the first planet to be discovered in the milky way...that was born outside of our galaxy. The extra-galactic exo-planet (I love all this space speak!) was spotted by scientists at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. It's 20% bigger than Jupiter and orbits a dying star that first got devoured by our galaxy six to nine-billion years ago. Yes, that' s where the "cosmic cannibalism" comes in.

What makes the newly discovered planetary pairing so fascinating to scientists - and to space geeks like me - is that the star is burning up, meaning exo-planet HIP 13044 B may soon become an ex-planet, engulfed by its host star.  That gives us all tantalising clues about the future of our own solar system.

Given that the planet is some 2,000 light-years away from Earth, it gives the phrase "distance-learning" a whole new meaning.

Post by: ,
Filed under: General • Personal musings
November 18th, 2010
07:29 AM ET

Narco Guerra: Finding the Footage

We've all heard tales of terror from Mexico's drug wars and seen the pictures of the blood spilled on the streets. So it goes without saying that reporting on the "Narco Guerra" is dangerous. It can also be difficult to get to the facts.

Take the recent killing of drug cartel leader Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, also known as "Tony Tormenta" or "Tony the Storm". His death – in an operation that reportedly included 150 marines, and was the result of more than six months intelligence work – saw frightened residents holed up in their homes. So how to find out how the sting actually happened?

Well, surprisingly you don't need an embed with the Mexican military, or a contact inside one of the cartels. The key to unlocking the clues: smart use of the internet.

On YouTube, CNN's Karl Penhaul found footage of the aftermath of the gun battle that killed Cardenas Guillen.

"This video offers us clues to the kind of weaponry that was involved. We can see that a huge hole has been blown up in a wall and the rest of the wall is heavily pockmarked. Now a private security source that works in that area that I have been talking to tells me almost certainly that 50 caliber heavy machine guns have been used here, and almost certainly two rocket-propelled grenades. We can certainly see from the images that this was not a surgical strike against the cartel but it was an absolutely slugfest, an out-and-out battle on the street of a city of half a million people just steps away from Brownsville, Texas".

According to Karl, Cardenas Guillen's death is "the equivalent of an earthquake in the narcosphere, and right now what is happening is that the tectonic plates of the drug underworld are shifting". A source tells him that a period of in-fighting between the gangs is expected, after which a new supreme leader will emerge.

As the drug turf wars continue, it's thought Reynosa could be the next target. In investigating that, information from blogs proves enlightening. There, frightened residents are using Twitter as a kind of early warning system, with neighbours letting each other know what's going on near them and offering support.

That's a crucial lifeline when traditional media are staying away from the area because of safety concerns.

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Filed under: General
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