Discovered Ming vase will make retired factory worker wealthy

It's the dream of any antique collector: You impulsively spend a few bucks on a trinket at an estate sale or an antiques store, and later discover that it's worth more than what you paid for it. Much more.

And that's pretty much the dream that came true for a 79-year-old British retired worker from the Cadbury chocolate factory, who recently walked into an auction house with a near-perfect Ming vase in a cardboard box.

It's unknown how the man, who wanted the press to refrain from publishing his name, came into possession of the rare vase, but staffers at Duke's—the Dorchester auction house that took it in—were astounded by the "spectacular find."

"When my colleague initially showed me what had arrived in a cardboard box I could not believe my eyes," Guy Schwinge of Duke's  told the Guardian. "The vase is in perfect condition, and it is amazing to think that it has survived unscathed for almost six hundred years."

The BBC reported that the vase, which stands 11.5 inches tall, is the largest ever found of a rare group of early Ming "moonflasks" whose production dates somewhere between the years 1403 and 1424. That means it was manufactured during the reign of an emperor named Yongle; its distinctive features—such as the small loop handles—appear to be influenced by Islamic design. 

Because the vase originates from China but shows the influence of Middle Eastern craftsmanship, auctioneers at Duke's expect the vase to draw the bids of wealthy collectors from both Asian and the Arab worlds. The auction is scheduled for May, and the item is expected to fetch at least a million pounds, or roughly $1.6 million U.S. dollars.    

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Cow that escaped slaughterhouse has new adventure


BILLINGS, Mont. – Five years after a cow dubbed the "Unsinkable Molly B" leapt a slaughterhouse gate and swam across the Missouri River in an escape that drew international attention, the heifer has again eluded fate, surviving the collapse of the animal sanctuary where she was meant to retire. 

Molly B was among an estimated 1,200 animals removed from the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary and Rescue in recent weeks as part of a massive effort to bail out its overwhelmed owners. 

Animal welfare groups said they were forced to euthanize dozens of starving and ill cattle, horses and llamas found on the 400-acre sanctuary in rural Sanders County.

The bovine celebrity herself - an overweight black Angus breed said to be sore in the hoof but otherwise relatively healthy - was removed to a nearby ranch and is headed this week to a smaller farm sanctuary. 

"Molly B made it OK. She's a tough old broad," said Jerry Finch with Habitat for Horses of Hitchcock, Texas, who participated in the rescue effort. "She had bad feet, but she was not anywhere near as bad as some of the others." 

Molly B's relocation to a 20-acre ranchette known as the New Dawn MT Sanctuary has proven an adventure in its own right. Local media stories had trumpeted her arrival at the Stevensville facility last week, including photos said to be of Molly B and new friend "Misty." 

Yet when New Dawn owner Susan Eakins watched one of the reports on the nightly news, video of the cow climbing a hill revealed the sanctuary had gotten the wrong animal - a male steer named "Big Mike." A mix-up left Molly B behind on another ranch. 

Her home since 2006, near the small town of Hot Springs, in recent years had grown into a sort of Noah's Ark-gone-wild - more than 600 llamas; at least 100 horses, donkeys and cattle; and a motley assortment of bison, camels, exotic rodents and other furry and feathered beasts. 

Many of the animals were breeding. Rescuers said that allowed the sanctuary population to multiply unchecked, setting the stage for conditions to deteriorate rapidly after one of the facility's two full-time employees fell ill last year. As the situation worsened, word circulated among animal rescue groups across the country. 

Patty Finch with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries said by the time she called the Montana facility in late November to offer help, many of its animals were sick, dying or struggling to survive in increasingly cramped quarters. 

"Molly is a good representative of what a betrayal it was to each of these animals. The sanctuary should be a line in the sand that means never again should you suffer," said Patty Finch, who said she has no relation to Jerry Finch. 

Molly B's second retirement will start another chapter in an unlikely story that began January 2006, when a yet-to-be-named 1,200 pound heifer skipped her date with doom by leaping a 5-foot-5-inch fence at Mickey's Packing Plant in Great Falls. 

The cow raced through town with police and animal control on her heels, reportedly running into a conflict with a German Shepherd, dodging an SUV and negotiating through a rail yard. She swam across the Missouri River and later took three tranquilizer darts before eventually getting corralled. 

Mickey's Packing Plant employees christened the spirited cow Molly B and voted 10-1 to spare her from slaughter. 

A less formal vote on Molly B's fate came out in her favor this weekend. New Dawn owner Eakins said after a heart-to-heart with her husband over whether they could afford to take another cow into their 50-animal operation, the couple decided to make it work. "We made a commitment to her," Eakins said.



New Dawn MT Sanctuary: The Ballad of Molly B:    


The Dark-Sky Movement


Stargazers now have their Graceland. The Channel Island of Sark, located 80 miles south of England, has been designated as the world's first dark-sky island.

Dark-sky communities are places with very little to no light pollution. As a result, the stars are far easier to see and more fun to look at. According to a buzzy article from, Sark is just 4.5 square miles and has "no public street lighting, no paved roads, and no cars." In other words, save for the occasional flashlight or matchstick, there aren't a lot of things to interfere with the nighttime display, which includes "meteors streaking overhead and countless stars on display."

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) makes the call on whether or not a community deserves to join their movement. And plenty would like to. The Burlington Free Press explains that dark-sky legislation "has been embraced by about 300 countries, cities, and towns." At first this might sound like something only nature enthusiasts would really care about, that's not so. The United States military is also getting behind the legislation. Too much light can interfere with drills at military bases.

And while they don't exactly get a say in the matter, it's worth noting that creatures big and small would likely also be in favor of more dark-sky rules. Again, according to the Burlington Free Press, there is evidence that "nighttime lights disturb animals and ecosystems."

You can learn more about the dark-sky movement at the IDA's official site. The organization is about a lot more than looking at stars. Members are also active in educating the public about the hazards of unnecessary artificial light. The site includes information on how to become a member and steps that can be taken to reduce light pollution, lower your CO2 emissions, and save a fair bit of money on your electric bill in the process.    


Volcanic lightning is seen above Shinmoedake ...

Volcanic lightning or a dirty thunderstorm is seen above Shinmoedake peak as it erupts, between Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures, in this photo taken from Kirishima city and released by Minami-Nippon Shimbun January 28, 2011. Ash and rocks fell across a wide swathe of southern Japan straddling the prefectures of Miyazaki and Kagoshima on Thursday, as one of Mount Kirishima's many calderas erupted, prompting authorities to raise alert levels and call on for an evacuation of all residents within a 2 km (1.2 miles) radius of the volcano    

For Fully Mature Black Holes, Time Stands Still


The end of a black hole’s evolution may be a mind-bending kind of space-time independent of time. A new study proposes a method to tell how far any black hole is from reaching this end state. 

Black holes are some of the weirdest things in the universe. They occur when mass is packed into a tiny volume, squished to its ultimate density.

Though observations suggest black holes are prevalent in the universe, scientists still don't really understand what goes on inside them. The equations of general relativity usually used to understand the physics of the universe break down in these cases. 

"It is really beyond the physics we know," said Juan Antonio Valiente Kroon, a mathematician at Queen Mary, University of London. "To understand what happens inside a black hole, we need to invent new physics."

Mercifully, the physics for the end state of a black hole is somewhat simpler. A solution to the equations of general relativity was found that produced a situation called "Kerr spacetime." Scientists now think Kerr spacetime is what happens when a black hole has reached its final evolutionary state.

"Mainly the equations of relativity are so complex that for relativistic systems, the only way you can probe these equations is by means of computer," Valiente Kroon told "Solutions like this Kerr solution are really exceptional. The Kerr solution is one of the few explicitly known solutions to general relativity that have a direct physical meaning."

Kerr spacetime is time-independent, meaning that nothing in Kerr spacetime changes over time. In effect, time stands still. A black hole in such a state is essentially stationary.

"One could say once it has reached this stage, there are no further processes taking place," Valiente Kroon said.

In their new study, Valiente Kroon and Thomas Backdahl, his colleague at Queen Mary, have calculated a formula to determine how close a black hole is to reaching the Kerr state.

This can happen very quickly – even in seconds – depending on the object's mass.

To apply the formula, scientists would examine the region around a black hole called its event horizon. Once mass, or even light, passes within the event horizon of a black hole, it cannot escape the black hole's gravitational clutches.

The researchers think their development could aid scientists who are building computer simulations of black holes and aiming to align them with observations of actual black holes.

Astronomers think most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, host supermassive black holes in their centers. Some researchers suspect that these are actually Kerr black holes.

Valiente Kroon and Backdahl detail their work in the Jan. 19 issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.    


Things Game Shows Won't Tell You

1. Could you be less boring?

Prior to his audition for "Million Dollar Money Drop," Joel Sturdivant thought he and his friend had a pretty compelling story -- high school sweethearts, now best friends. Then he heard one of the other would-be contestants was a lion tamer, another pair had spent the last year as missionaries in a developing country. "I knew we were screwed," he says.


To a game show's producers, fitting a type or having a unique background is as important as playing the game well, says computer programmer Warren Usui, who has been a contestant on "Jeopardy!," "Merv Griffin's Crosswords" and "20Q." They want interesting people who will keep viewers watching. For those who aren't missionaries or circus folk, Usui suggests weaving interesting tidbits into the answers to the shows' producers' personal questions. "I once lost a boa constrictor in my car," Usui recalls telling producers, who later asked him to share the details on-air with Alex Trebek during what ended up as a four-game stint on Jeopardy. (For the curious, the 6-foot-long red-tailed boa slithered behind the back seat when his owner and Usui left him unattended during a restaurant stop; despite attempts to remove him, the snake then lingered there for a month.)


2. You'll pay taxes on those winnings. Lots of taxes.

If you win, you'll owe federal and state income taxes on your total winnings -- and maybe more, says Melissa Labant, a tax manager at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. A big enough windfall could push you into a higher tax bracket. A married couple making $135,000 who win $10,000 would see their federal rate increase 3%, which would pad their tax bill with an extra $231 compared with someone whose winnings kept him in the same tax bracket. 

Then there's the state tax bill. Winners must file a return where they won (usually California or New York), then claim the taxes paid as a credit in their home state, Labant says. If your home state has a lower tax rate, you won't get back the difference. For example, an Ohio resident who won $5,000 might pay as much as $528, or 10.55%, to California, but claim a credit for only $150, the 3% his own state would have taxed him on that income. That second state return also adds to fees for tax prep and e-filing --, for example charges $36.95 per state in most of its online filing options to prepare and file a return online. Net loss: $414.95. 

3. Winning could ruin you.

Like lottery winners, game show contestants who come home with a cash or prize windfall can end up worse off than before, says Susan Bradley, a certified financial planner and the founder of the Sudden Money Institute. Problems start with a winner's pie-in-the-sky idea that the $100,000 he won is really exactly that amount in his pocket (taxes: see above). 

The next domino: spending more than he can afford on a big ticket purchase such as a vehicle, home or home renovation. "You're mentally spending $100,000, but you don't have $100,000," says Bradley. "You have maybe $70,000." What's more, winners don't always ask the important questions on a big purchase -- even if their winnings can cover it. "Can you afford the taxes, the insurance, the upkeep," asks Bradley. Smart winners limit "celebration" spending to 10% of the winnings, she says, and make a plan about how best to use the total amount.     

4. Taping the show makes jury duty look tame.

When Carl Balediata arrived for a 2007 taping of "Wheel of Fortune," he didn't think he'd spend the next 10 hours sequestered with other contestants to wait for his taping (the last of four shows to be taped that day). There were escorts for bathroom trips and network compliance officers to make sure contestants couldn't talk to audience members, Pat Sajak or anyone else. "It was like being on a jury," says Balediata, a San Diego lawyer who went on to win $14,000. 

The tough restrictions hew to Federal Communications Commission regulations designed to prevent cheating, says Gary O'Brien, a contestant producer for "Wheel of Fortune." "We like to avoid the appearance of any impropriety," he says. It also prevents a curious contestant from wandering on to a live soundstage, say. The long waits are typical for games shows, which cram up to six 40-minute show tapings per day--plus time for breaks and a few hours for makeup, practice games and a briefing of the rules, O'Brien says. 

Contestants are alerted that taping day is intense, and shows allow them to bring select books, games or other entertainment to pass the time, says Nicole Dunn, a Los Angeles producer who helped cast the U.S. daily syndicated series of "The Weakest Link." "It's not like you're locked up and you can't leave," she says. Plus, you might get lucky and tape on the early end. If not, like Balediata, you'll just be that much more eager to get up and spin that wheel. 

5. Our prize values are inflated.

Non-cash prizes -- from cars and vacations to computers or a year's supply of pudding -- are considered income, which means winners will pay taxes on the value. But the official retail value, as stated by the game show, might be significantly higher than the actual going rate, says the AICPA's Labant. For example, a New Yorker who wins a 2011 Chevrolet Traverse might be expected to pay taxes on the MSRP of $29,999, even though price-tracker reports most buyers are paying just $29,076 for the SUV. For someone in the 25% federal tax bracket, that's an extra $231 in taxes. The gap between retail and real value can be especially harmful for winners who accept a prize with the intent to resell it: They're paying taxes on a value they have no hope of recouping, which eats into the profits. 

Game show winners can fight the estimated value in tax court, but proceedings can take months and rack up hundreds of dollars in court costs, says Labant. To determine if the difference in tax is big enough to warrant the fight, gather evidence on the prize's real-market value. Winners can also decline to accept a prize they don't want. In that case, there's no income to report, and no tax bill owed.     

6. Win or lose, you'll be a target.

Imagine waking up to the following barrage: "Kill yourself." "You're an arrogant douche. People like you give lawyers a bad name." "You are greedy and stupid!!!" Those are just a handful of the comments posted on lawyer Ken Basin's personal blog days after he became the first person to flub the $1 million question on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He also received hundreds of emails, many to his work address, from people who wanted to express their thoughts -- good and bad -- on his performance. "I was surprised -- people get really fired up," says Basin, who could have declined to answer and left with $500,000, but ended up with $25,000 for the wrong answer. ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" did not respond to requests for comment.) 

Being in a spotlight -- sometimes, any spotlight -- presents an opportunity for people to go online and find you, says Paul Stephens, the director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Viewer attention could mean hate mail or a greater risk of fraud or identity theft if scammers are attracted to your winnings, he says. It also makes winners vulnerable financially, targets for investment pitchmen and family members who expect them to foot the bill for everything from great-aunt Ethel's trip to London... to Dad's credit card debt.     

7. Your competition does this for a living.

Michael Souveroff first caught game show fever in college as a contestant on "Remote Control" and "Clash." In the last 10 years, he's been on "Jeopardy!," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and "Wheel of Fortune" – enough appearances to disqualify him from another until the summer of 2011, according to restrictions in show contracts. But as soon as he's allowed, he's going to rejoin the small cadre of regulars on the game show circuit. "People who do one time on a lark, that's the odd case," says Basin, who started his game show career on the college edition of  "Jeopardy!"  

Wannabes, take note: Souveroff, Basin, Usui and other repeat game show winners say their experience gives them an edge, because they're comfortable with the audition process and confidant in their performance. Many regulars even meet up to test their skills in regular trivia bowls. But previous experience can hurt, too -- producers aren't likely to pick someone who they recognize from a memorable appearance on another show, says Lewis Fenton, executive producer for Juma Productions, which is behind shows including "The Singing Bee" and "Elevator Up." And Basin points out that his college "Jeopardy!" appearance prevents him from auditioning for the main show, something he didn't think about at the time.  

8. Fast reflexes trump a high IQ

Playwright Walter Meyer swept the board during his "Jeopardy!" audition, beating his competitors -- both former ministers – even in the Old and New Testament categories. The trick: Meyer managed to nail the timing of the buzzer system, which lets contestants ring in as the last syllable of the last word in the question is read. But on the day of the taping, his luck ran out. "I was just a little out of sync, and if you ring in early, you're frozen out for 1.5 seconds," says Meyer, who came in a distant second. Former contestants often complain about the buzzer systems, though they acknowledge that the challenge of simultaneously listening to the question, thinking about an answer and watching for the prompt to buzz in is what makes for good TV. ("Jeopardy!" did not respond to requests for comment.)  

Successful contestants practice, practice, practice, Meyer says, and they pay attention to producers' instructions during the audition, too, for important clues. Souveroff says producers at "Wheel of Fortune" instructed guests to "just say, 'M,' not 'I'd like an 'M,' please." Those who didn't do so didn't get through.  

9. You're lousy on camera

Plenty of would-be contestants make it through the paper test, the interview and practice games only to fall flat when faced with a camera. "People have a lot of powerful reactions to a camera," says Fenton. Some look terrified; Others get so absorbed by the lights, the set, and everything going on around them that they come across as distracted. Neither get a call back. "Producers tend to look for people who, if they're happy, you can see it from 50 miles away," says Fenton.  

Contestants need to bring on the energy, Fenton advises, but not so much that it comes across as fake, which would get you knocked out of the running, too.. Bright "TV-ready" clothing in bold colors helps too.  

10. Even if you win, you might go home empty-handed.

When Meyer was a "Jeopardy!" contestant, he says he was told ahead of time that runners-up would get prizes instead of whatever cash they had earned during the game, as an incentive to get them to wager all they had banked on the "Final Jeopardy!" question. "They want you to go for broke and bet it all," he says. For his $5,200 bounty, Meyer's prizes included a trip to New York, a year's supply of Rice-A-Roni and a carpet cleaner. New Yorker Meredith Finnin, who also placed second on the show, ended up with even less -- just a framed photo of her and Alex Trebek -- because she turned down her prize of a vacation to Lake Mead. Taxes, she says, would have amounted to close to 40% of the trip's value.  

Ah, but the lure of the show is the competition, not necessarily the prizes, say repeat contestants. The most common feedback "The Singing Bee "producer Fenton gets is that people wished they had made more of the experience. (Perhaps that's why so many go back for seconds.) "Consider it a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he says. "Suck up as much of it as you can."  

Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article misstated the federal tax implications of pushing a game show winner into a higher tax bracket.

Read more: 10 Things Game Shows Won't Tell You -    

Back in the Day: Oldest Video Games

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Think Mario is old-school? In the grand scheme of things, he's a regular newbie. With roots reaching back to the middle of the 20th century, the earliest video games were crafted by risk-taking inventors who toiled away in anonymity for the sheer sake of technological progress. Take a trip through time and check out gaming's true classics.     
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OXO (1952) -- In the beginning, there was an O...and an X...and then more Os and a few more Xs. Written by British professor Alexander Douglas, the appropriately-titled OXO was more than just a computerized version of tic-tac-toe: thanks to its pioneering use of digital graphics, it's widely considered the first video game ever.     
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TENNIS FOR TWO (1958) -- Call it pre-Pong. Using an oscilloscope, this groundbreaking game was built by physicist William Higinbotham in a mere three weeks. It was the first to include motion, letting players lob a tiny ball back and forth over a small net.     
SPACEWAR! (1962) -- Two spaceships, one goal: blast each other out of the sky. Built by a small team at MIT led by computer scientist Steve Russell, the relatively action-packed space shooter was outrageously ahead of its time, spawning several other influential classics.     
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CHASE (1966) -- Ralph Baer is considered the father of video games, and it all started with two blocks. His basic chase game -- in which players could control two small squares on a standard television screen -- would lead to the creation of the Magnavox Odyssey, the world's first video game system.     
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GALAXY GAME (1971) -- Miss the days of flicking quarters into arcade cabinets? That all began with Stanford's Galaxy Game. Essentially a port of Spacewar!, the coin-op cabinet was an on-campus hit. Currently it can be found entertaining Google employees at the company's main office.     
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COMPUTER SPACE (1971) -- The Galaxy Game might have come first, but Computer Space was arguably more important as it was the first effort by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the eventual co-founders of Atari. As the first commercially sold coin-op game, this Spacewar! spinoff let players fight off flying saucers.     
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PONG (1972) -- First? Not technically, but for millions of gamers, it all started right here. Under the guidance of Atari bigwigs Bushnell and Dabney, designer Al Alcorn created the legendary tennis knockoff as the fledgling company's flagship title. An instant hit, it put Atari firmly on the map -- and opened the floodgates of the game industry.     
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GUN FIGHT (1975) -- Hardly a household name, this two-player arcade shooting game wasn't just a technical achievement -- it was the very first arcade game to be exported to North America from Japan, where it was known as Western Gun.    

The NHL Guardian Project origin story

Adam Baratta works with superheroes, but doesn't need mutant powers of perception to assess the initial reaction to the NHL's Guardian Project.

"I understand what's happening right now. We're getting negative feedback from some of the hockey purist bloggers," said Baratta, chief creative officer for Guardian Media Entertainment.

For the last few weeks, the NHL has been releasing images and videos detailing 30 superheroes created by comics legend Stan Lee and Guardian Media Entertainment -- with designs and abilities representative of each NHL team and city. Many hockey fans have greeted this bold marketing initiative with clever ridicule or outright scorn, rhetorically pummeling these characters like a Marvel piñata on message boards, blogs and social media.

Cutting through that cynicism, said Baratta, is the fact that the Guardian Project's Facebook campaign has generated over 1,000,000 votes from fans in an ongoing contest to see which Guardians are revealed on each day.

The NHL has put so much faith in the project that it's made the Guardians part of its All-Star Game marketing hook this season. The superheroes will officially debut in a 5-minute live segment during next Sunday's NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh; "a combination of in-arena ice projection and hologram show," according to Baratta, as the 30 heroes "save" the  
Carolina fans from their arch enemy after he takes over the arena.

Sure, it sounds corny; but Baratta said the creators of this project are confident that once the Guardians' mysterious storyline and the sprawling scope of this campaign are revealed, the detractors will believe that a hockey-based superhero project can fly.

"Right now, it's like asking you to judge how good your steak will be from Wolfgang's by looking at a cow in the field. We haven't even rolled this thing out yet. All we've done is reveal an image, and given you a slight tease on what's to come,"  he said. "This is not a one-off, or a small, limited scope venture where it's just at the All-Star Game. There is a major business venture behind this, with a tremendous amount of planning."

So what is the NHL Guardian Project? Where did it come from? Where is it going? And is there any chance it can turn derision into dedication? Like every Stan Lee creation, there's an origin story ...


About 12 years ago, Tony Chargin, now the executive vice president of GMW creative affairs, was home for Thanksgiving when he asked his nephews if they wanted to go outside and toss around the football -- but they weren't into it.

Chargin began to think about the disconnect between professional sports leagues and generations of young fans growing up in the digital age. What would make a kid today interested in a sport he or she wasn't already fascinated with?

Chargin turned to his own childhood, when he was obsessed with superheroes, and had this brainstorm: Turn each team in a pro sports league into its own unique character, and there's your entry point.

Stan Lee, the legendary former president of Marvel Comics, joined the effort about seven years ago. They first took the idea to the NFL, only to walk away from a deal with the League, according to Baratta. The reason? The NFL wanted to cast active players as the superheroes, something the creators felt had obvious pitfalls because you can't always anticipate the mistakes and poor judgments of real people.

"At the time," recalled Baratta, "they wanted to center it around Michael Vick."


GME's involvement with the NHL spans roughly 16 months, as Chargin and co-creator J.D. Shapiro pitched the idea that this superhero project was a way for the League to grow its brand globally and especially among "9-14 year old boys and girls" who may not follow hockey at all. (Strange demographics, incidentally, considering none of the Guardians appear to be female.)

"We want to give fathers and mothers an opportunity to introduce the sport of hockey to their kids in a way that speaks more to what the kids are interested in," Baratta said.

"Hockey fans, above and beyond all other sports fans, are purists. We've been cognizant of that since the start. So we're trying, right now, to create something for hockey that will expand their awareness -- hopefully around the globe."


The design team visited with each NHL franchise, talking with presidents and CEOs to ensure that the characters were representative of the team and the city. The Predator, for the Nashville Predators, is a "skilled musician" who is duty-driven since he's from the Volunteer State. That sort of thing.

Once their attributes were established, next came the look of the characters, which has proven to be problematic in the eyes of some fans. The Bangin' Panger blog has been chronicling the similarities between Guardians and other recognized comic characters; for example, the Juggernaut may want to get lawyer'd up and go after the Edmonton Oilers Guardian:

But face it: Stan Lee created his first character (Destroyer) in 1941; since then, nearly every superpower, costume and look has been claimed by comic book heroes and villains, with plenty of crossover.

"There were certain limitations we had in the creation of these characters. The Flame had to have fire, OK? The Bruin had to be a bear. I think we've been fairly creative," Baratta said.

"If you look at the majority of the superheroes created out there, there's a similarity in the way they're created. They all have ripping muscles and tight suits and have very similar looks and feels. We needed to have 30 characters that were unique and distinct and recognizable."

OK, so the Guardians are derivative of other, better-known characters. What do you expect when, within the storyline, they were actually created by a child?


Part of the disconnect between hockey fans and this project is, quite frankly, that they haven't a damn clue what it's all about. Which is a point of frustration for Baratta in the weeks leading up to the project's big reveal.

"Look, there's a lot that I'd like to share with you about what we've done, how we've put this project together and where we're going in the future," he said in a phone interview last week.

To hear Baratta spin the plot summary of the NHL Guardian Project is like hearing a screenwriter pitch a fantasy film to a skeptical studio head: He knows all the characters, all the origins, all the plots and explains them all in painstaking detail. It's a fully realized world these characters exist in, to the point where there's a 400-page book in the works to provide more back-story.

The full plot is under wraps; we had to sign a non-disclosure form after seeing all 30 character designs and hearing the complete origin story for the project. But the non-spoiler summary goes like this:

Mike Mason is a huge hockey fan, and was born "special" at birth. Not a disability, mind you; "special" in the sense that he's smarter and stronger than other kids, for reasons we can't share. By the time he's 15, Mason is your average teenager; Stan Lee calls him a "Peter Parker" type.

He's obsessed with hockey and with superheroes, and earlier in his life created 30 different characters for the NHL teams: Meticulously designing their powers and personalities; giving them alter-egos and writing about grand adventures they'd embark on.

We can't explain how, but know this: Eventually, these Guardians come to life for Mike as a combination of artificial and organic materials. They "download" all of the information he's created for them, from their origin stories to their hockey knowledge. Hence, the Ranger and the Flyer don't get along, and neither do the Blackhawk and the Red Wing. (A bickering team of super-powered heroes? How very Stan Lee.)

They become Mike's friends, partners and protectors; banding together to fight the evil Devin Dark and his military machines. (For those who speculating about the Big Bad of the Guardian Project, sorry to disappoint; it's not actually Sean Avery (notes) or the NBA.)

Alas, that's as much as we're allowed to share. The rest of the origin includes things like nanobots and medical miracles and some classic Stan Lee comic traits like crisis of identity. The creators have done more than just develop 30 artistic drawings with NHL logos for posters and lunch boxes; they've developed a complex narrative that, in their eyes, will play out over the course of years, maybe decades.

"We are teasing this in a way that has no frame," said Baratta. "The truth is that I fully expect that when people understand the depth and the passion that we have to stay true to hockey while at the same time staying true to Stan Lee's fanboys, they're going to be blown away by the thought process that goes into this."


Nine months ago, GME had a chance to do a Guardians TV series. "The problem was they wanted to do it around four characters, and we didn't want to do anything that didn't involve 30 teams," said Baratta, who probably will never be hired for a programming job with NBC if that's his vision for the NHL.

Television is still in the plans. So are feature films, video games and social media games.

So is incorporating each Guardian into the in-arena experience, so they "react" to what's happening in the game.

"You're at a hockey game. Everything you see on the LED boards is controlled by a game operations director. We've talked with purists from the Canadian teams and some of the younger teams, and what we found from start to finish is that they have their own approach. If we design content that's cookie cutter to all 30 teams, they wouldn't run it. So we're working with the teams to tailor these characters for their cities," said Baratta.

What does that mean? How about the Los Angeles Kings Guardian either raising his sword in celebration or slamming it down in anger during a home game, depending on what the team does on the ice?

So are the NHL Guardians like a second tier of mascots for NHL teams?

"These guys are not mascots," said Baratta, curtly.

"Mascots are cute and cuddly and really for the very young fan. Superheroes are the kick-ass tough guys that represent the spirit of the team."


Admittedly, we had to ask Baratta several times during our chat about how any of this will create a single new NHL fan. Because, like you, we're sorta baffled by that notion.

The first thing to know, according to him: "It's really not all about hockey."

Making the project about hockey, he said, would have repelled those who aren't into the sport. The direction they took allows readers or viewers to fall for the plot and characters, and then gradually ease into hockey fandom.

"Do I expect kids to fall in love with the sport because the superhero is wearing the logo on his chest? Immediately, no; I expect the kid to fall in love with the story and what the hero represents," he said.

So say junior loves the Blackhawk Guardian. How does that lead to his becoming a Chicago Blackhawks fan? There are three primary ways the project reaches out to non-hockey fans:

1. Brand Recognition.
Baratta said the average person can name about two hockey teams. His hope is that in five years, these characters and their logos become so popular that it leads to better name recognition of NHL teams.

2. Social Media Gaming.
Fans of a particular Guardian will be encouraged to follow his hockey team every night. Social media games in which users earn points or bonuses when the team does well are being designed; for example, if you're a fan of the Flyer, and the Philadelphia Flyers go on the power play, you've have a chance to earn double points within whatever Guardian social media game you're engaged in while the Flyers on the man advantage. So while dad's watching the game, his young fan is watching both the game and a mobile device, playing along. In theory.

3. Hockey References.
"While our story isn't about hockey, the entire spirit of it is inspired by it," Baratta said. "When Mike creates the Flyer, he knows everything that's ever been written about the Flyers, and instills all of that into the character. He knows who Bobby Clarke is. All of these histories of every single club, these characters represent."

What they envision is a bit of a "Shrek" effect: References to hockey in the comics and cartoons that make hockey fans chuckle and young non-hockey fans want to seek out the meaning of the allusions.

If the project works, there will be generations of fans discovering hockey in this manner. Because Baratta and Co. believe the Guardians are here to stay.


I caught an episode of the old "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" cartoon the other night on cable. Through 33-year-old eyes, it was a tepid mishmash of obvious plotting, ridiculous dialogue and homoerotic overtones. But back when I was nine, I wanted to watch every episode five times and get all the toys for Christmas.

I thought about that experience in thinking about the NHL Guardian Project. Like most of you, it has made me cringe more than a few times as a hockey fan and a comic fan. Many of the character designs are unoriginal. Many of the character traits are sometimes laughable: The Minnesota Wild Guardian "is an intellectual and avid reader, taken from the fact that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is one of the most highly literate in the Country." The Buffalo Sabres Guardian has a body "totally comprised of water." 

Even after speaking with Baratta for an hour, I still don't quite understand how it converts a kid who's not into hockey into being a puckhead. The social media aspects sound promising; but is a 9 year old who likes The Lightning because he "is a natural ladies man with an in-your-face bravado" going to eventually want a Steven Stamkos (notes) jersey?  

But the thing with my skepticism is ... I'm not the target audience. I never was. Most of you aren't, either. We've been killing this thing for not being about hockey when, in fact, it never was. We've been recoiling at how cheese-tastic the characters are, but a 9 year old might actually dig the Blue Jackets' "state flag of Ohio made of astral plasma." Or relate to the general storyline of the project in a way we can't.  

Maybe the target audience embraces the NHL Guardian Project; maybe it never catches on and we're seeing The Canuck action figures in the dollar-store graveyard in a few years.

Either way, we can all agree on three things: That the Guardian Project goes way deeper than what we've seen thus far, and will live or die on that narrative; that the Canadien is the love child of Iron Man and Cobra Commander; and that the NHL All-Star Game presentation of the Guardians is going to be ... er, memorable.    

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What you might not know about Tic-Tac-Toe

It's designed to be unwinnable, has the strategic depth of Jersey Shore, and stops being entertaining right around when you stop believing in Santa Claus. As a kid's diversion, it's genius, but as a grown-up game, it's the pits.

It's tic-tac-toe, the definitive zero-sum game.

But it's more interesting than you think.

It ruffled PETA's feathers.

Appearing in numerous casinos over the years, the "Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken Challenge" pits a live chicken against hopeful gamblers in a good, old-fashioned game of tic-tac-toe. Confined in a glass cube, the chicken goes first, pecking away at an X or an O while the human taps out a retort on a video screen. Several moves later, and we have a winner -- usually the chicken. Sound crazy? It certainly did to PETA, who protested on the grounds that the game treated its avian adversary inhumanely. Unfortunately, their efforts didn't pay off, as the game is still being played in casinos across the country.

t's old. Really, really old.

It might be a simple game, but tic-tac-toe's roots run deep. Scholars suggest ancient Egyptians played it as far back as 1300 B.C., though it also bears a striking similarity to an ancient Roman game called Terni Lapilli.

One game, thousands of outcomes.

You place an X, I place an O, and away we go, filling in the board's nine spaces before throwing our hands in the air and cursing whoever invented this thing. But how many different ways can that board turn out? Without diving too deep down the game theory well, the most widely accepted answer is that there are over 26,000 possible outcomes in a game of tic-tac-toe -- enough to let you play one game every day for over 70 years and potentially see a new outcome each time.

It can be played by Tinkertoys.

You read that correctly, although to be more specific, tic-tac-toe can be played using a computer built out of the classic children's construction set. Created in the '80s by some truly inventive MIT students, the towering contraption can legitimately play tic-tac-toe -- with a little human intervention. It's currently housed at the Museum of Science in Boston. 

It's got many names.
Care for a game of Noughts and Crosses? Maybe some Exy Ozys? How about a few rounds of Twiddles & Bears? If you're living in Great Britain, Ireland or Norway, respectively, you'd still just be playing tic-tac-toe. So where did North America dig up its hyphenated variant? That's up for debate, though many believe the name "tic-tac-toe" is derived from a 16th century backgammon game called "ticktack."    

Famous Crab Nebula Shoots Off Mysterious Flares

One of the most well-known celestial objects still has some tricks up its sleeve, according to a new discovery of surprising gamma-ray flares coming from the famous Crab Nebula.

The Crab, long-considered such a steady celestial light that it was used to calibrate other sources, has now had three flare-ups where it brightened significantly in the gamma-ray range for a few days, astronomers report. [ Hubble photo of the Crab nebula]

"Our belief of a stable Crab got smashed completely — now we have to think again," said Marco Tavani, an astronomer at the INAF-IASF (Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica-Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica) in Rome. Tavani was lead author of one of two papers announcing the discovery of the flares in the Jan. 7 issue of the journal Science.

Tavani's team used the Italian Space Agency's AGILE satellite to observe flares in October 2007 and  September 2010. Another team, led by Stefan Funk and Rolf Buehler at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, observed the September 2010 flare as well, along with one in February 2009, using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

"We had always thought we understand essentially what is going on in the Crab Nebula, but obviously these flares we didn't expect," Funk told

The Crab Nebula is actually the burial ground of a long-dead star. Its photogenic layers of colorful gas are the sloughed-off remains of the star's body, ejected before it collapsed in on itself to create a dense hulk  called a neutron star.

The particular neutron star at the heart of the Crab Nebula is called a pulsar, because it emits a continuous beam of radiation like a lighthouse that appears to pulse when it crosses Earth's line of sight.

Yet why this nebula is emitting these strange flares is not known. These flares, which each lasted a few days, are different from gamma-ray bursts, which are much shorter explosions of light sometimes created when a massive star dies.

"It's still a real mystery what is the ultimate cause," Tavani said.

The basic idea is that the pulsar releases a stream of charged particles that get accelerated — though by what means remains open to debate. When the particles — mostly electrons and their positively charged siblings, positrons — hit the nebula surrounding the pulsar, they interact with the nebula's magnetic field, causing them to release a type of light known as synchrotron radiation, which is mostly in the form of gamma rays.

These are the first such gamma-ray flares to be seen from any nebula.

"It's essentially telling us something new about how particles are accelerated in astrophysical objects, in particular in these nebulae," Funk said.

This acceleration is about 1,000 times more energetic than the largest man-made particle accelerators, including Fermilab's Tevatron in Illinois and CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Tavani said.

The cosmic particle accelerator in the Crab is speeding up those electrons and positrons to nearly the speed of light. As a result, the gamma rays they release are of higher energies than any others ever before seen from astrophysical sources.

"The ultimate goal of the studies is to really understand the process of particle acceleration," Tavani said. "This would be really great for models and theories that can address how particles are accelerated to these very large energies."

There are still many unanswered questions about the mechanism at work in the Crab Nebula, including why it flares up only periodically.

"It's very exciting and it's very important to continue to study it," Tavani said.

The researchers hope to catch the Crab Nebula in the act of flaring up in the future, as well as to possibly observe the phenomenon in other nebulas.