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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Most Beautiful Yet Precariously Placed Monasteries on Earth


Photo: Charalampos Konstantinidis

All religion might be said to teeter on the edge of an abyss. For those whom the word means something more than a catch-me-if-I-fall donation to a toll-free number, faith is a dizzying business. “The rocks beneath one’s feet are ever liable to crumble into the void, but that’s the test faith demands – and we shall be protected,” the crazies who built the perilously placed monasteries featured here seem to have been saying – unless they simply dug free rock climbing, that most ancient of extreme sports.

Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Photo: Douglas J. McLaughlin

The awesomely named Taktsang or ‘Tiger’s Lair’ monastery at a glance looks like something out of a bad 80’s Eddie Murphy movie, but pan out and you realise just how jaw-droppingly situated Bhutan’s famous Buddhist monastery is. Enveloped in mist, this beautiful but perilously positioned sanctum clings onto a sheer-sided cliff at a dizzying altitude of 10,200 ft (3,120m), some 2,300 ft (700m) above the bottom of Paro valley in the Himalayas.

Mist-cloaked crag: ‘Tiger’s Nest’ teeters some 2,300m ft above the Paro valley
Photo: Stephen Shephard

Completed in 1692, Taktsang was built around one of the thirteen taktsang caves where Guru Padmasambhava – the Indian sage said to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan – meditated in the 8th century. The name ‘Tiger’s Lair’ was born of the legend that Padmasambhava flew there on the back of a tigress. Today, less divine visitors must claw their way up the slope to the monastery’s seven temples on foot or mule-back. Still, mustn’t grrumble.

Xuan Kong Monastery, China

Photo: BRUNNER Emmanuel

Built into the sheer cliff overlooking a canyon near Mount Heng in China’s Shanxi province, Xuan Kong Si – the hanging temple – looks as if it might collapse given half a divine chance, but has actually stood up rather well – and against earthquakes no less. The halls and pavilions of this structure follow the contours of the rock face, its buildings connected by bridges and walkways – the highest of which wavers over 200 ft (60m) above the riverbed, atop stilt-like pillars.

Mind over matter: Hanging monastery, a marvel of engineering and aesthetics
Photo: Patrick Streule

Constructed an über-beard-growing 1400 years ago, Xuan Kong Si is unique not only due to its position on a precipice but because it brought Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist elements to the party. Architecturally, crossbeams inserted into the rock provide foundation and the rock behind support to deny gravity. Xuan Kong’s location has sheltered it from rising flood waters as well as snow and rain from above, and in tune with the Taoist idea of tranquillity, it rests undisturbed by everyday noises. Chilled.

Sümela Monastery, Turkey

Photo: Dust Mason

Hovering dramatically on the ledge of a steep cliff overlooking the lush forests and streams of Turkey’s Altindere Valley, Sümela lies at an altitude of around 3940 ft (1200m). The drop’s making us feel woozy already. As well as a Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens and other room, this majestic old monastery boasts a sacred spring revered by Orthodox Greeks and a many-arched aqueduct constructed against the side of the rock face.

Don’t look down: Sümela’s soupy plunge at an altitude of 3940 ft
Photo: Queen Esoterica

Access to the monastery leads up a long and narrow stairway, but there are visitors aplenty due to its cultural and religious status. Founded in 386 AD, legend has it two priests got the ball rolling here after discovering a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in one of the mountain’s caves. Like many of our other monasteries, it fell into ruin and was restored several times over the centuries, reaching its current form in the 13th century under Alexios III. It was finally abandoned to the tourists in 1923.

Popa Taungkalat Monastery, Myanmar

Photo: Hoorob

Sat serenely among the clouds, some 2,417 ft (737m) up on top of a massive, sheer-sided lava plug, Popa Taungkalat towers above the plains of central Myanmar, a stunningly beautiful sight visible for miles around. The danger of the location admittedly diminishes when you learn that the volcano beneath this Buddhist monastery has ceased bubbling – but still, that’s some fall from the top.

Head in the clouds: Popa Taungkalat, nestled on a lava plug 2,417 ft in the air
Photo: exfordy

This unique site is not only a Buddhist pilgrimage centre, but is also home to 37 Mahagiri Nats – spirits of humans who met violent ends revered in local belief, the statues of whom can be seen at the base of the shrine. The many visitors who flock here must remove their footwear, climb the 777 steps to the summit – once maintained by the famous hermit U Khandi – and if that’s not enough run the gauntlet of hundreds of hungry, kleptomaniac macaques. Still, enlightenment awaits.

St. George Monastery, Israel

Photo: Ester Inbar

Another cliff-hanging complex with a precipitous drop gracing one side, St. George Orthodox Monastery is located in the eastern West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Clinging precariously to the sheer north face of a gorge, this 6th century sanctuary is accessible via a pedestrian bridge across the Wadi Qelt – which incidentally many imagine to be Psalm 23’s Valley of the Shadow, immortalised on the Old Testament and, well, Pulp Fiction. Just sayin.

In the Valley of the Shadow: St George Monastery in the bone-dry Judean desert
Photo: nir ohad

The beginnings of St. George Monastery lie in the 4th-century-designs of a few monks who sought the desert experiences of their biblical fathers, and settled around a cave they believed held spiritual significance. Building began in the late 5th century, but a hundred or so years later the monastery witnessed bloodshed as some pesky Persians swept through the valley massacring the 14 monks who lived there – the bones and skulls of whom can still be seen today.

Phugtal Gompa, India

Photo: Sajith T S

High in the Himalayas, an awe-inspiring sight greets the eyes of India-fatigued travellers trekking through the remote region of south-eastern Zanskar, in the far north of the country: Phugtal Gompa. Hanging onto the edge of a rocky gorge at the mouth of a giant cave, this strange, sacred construction is built directly into the cliff side, like some giant, human-sized honeycomb. Phugtal’s (Phuktal) devoutly busy bees would therefore be the 70 or so Buddhist monks who live there, dividing their holy time between the monastery’s library and prayer rooms.

Human honeycomb: Phugtal Gompa, basically built into a craggy gorge
Photo: Phugtal col.

Established in the 12th century by one Gangsem Sherap Sampo, this spiritual haven has weathered the attrition of time despite being made of mud bricks, stones and wood. In modern history, the Hungarian philologist Alexander Csoma de Korös, author of the first English-Tibetan dictionary, stopped by in 1826-27 – a stone tablet bearing witness to his visit.

Metéora, Greece

Photo: Exwhysee

Perched aloft natural sandstone rock pillars rising from the Plain of Thessaly in central Greece, the six remaining UNESCO World Heritage-listed Eastern Orthodox monasteries of the Metéora are a breathtaking sight to behold. Meaning “suspended in the air”, the haze-shrouded Metéora is one of the largest and most important monastic complexes in the Hellenic Republic – and surely the most mind-blowingly spectacular.

Towering pillar of rock: Metéora’s cliff-top-perched Monastery of Holy Trinity
Photo: Sofie Debognies

Metéora’s human foundations were laid in the 11th century when ascetic hermit monks moved up to inhabit the fissures of the ancient rock pinnacles, some of which tower 1800 ft (550m) above the plain. The great height and sheerness of the cliffs deterred all but the most determined. When, in fear of Turkish raiders, the original 20 monasteries were built between the 14th and 16th centuries, long ladders and nets were used to scale the giddy heights. With elevators this primitive, quite a leap of faith was required.

Big drop: Metéora’s Holy Monastery of Rousanou, ropes hanging down one side
Photo: Erud

Popular belief has it that St. Athanasius, founder of the first monastery, did not scale the rock, but was carried there by an eagle; today’s tourists have the less exciting luxury of steps, cut into the rock formations in the 1920s. Roger Moore had a thrilling, smirking time of it when the Monastery of Holy Trinity was featured as a location in the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. If only Sean Connery had been starring; we could end the post with: ‘nishe’.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The 11 People You'll Meet on 'Blackout Wednesday'

By Blair Koenig

anti thanksgiving cakeThanksgiving Eve -- Blackout Wednesday -- is one of the biggest party nights of the year. Once you've arrived home and settled into your old bedroom, reconnected with your MawMaw and listened to your crazy Aunt Phyllis talk about her recent dental work, it's time to hit the bar. Only problem? There's no telling who will be there. Here are 11 blasts from the past you're guaranteed to run into the night before Thanksgiving and how to handle them:

1. The Guy Who Barely Graduated

What to say: You can ask him what he's been up to, what he's currently got going on, and what his future goals are and he'll give you the same answer for all three: chillin'. Pay for your drink and don't forget to tip -- this former classmate is standing behind the bar.

2. The Ex-Boyfriend
What to say: Depends on a few factors. Are you single? Is he single? If the flame's still burning, there's no harm in seeing where the night goes. But if all of his good traits -- nice body, funny wit and irresistible charm -- have since reversed, lying about a nonexistent relationship usually does the trick.

3. The Queen-Bee-Turned-Mommy
What to say: Don't bother reminiscing about crazy times you two shared in high school -- she's long forgotten them. Bringing up the night you stole a street sign after throwing a hotel party at the Days Inn will make you feel uncomfortably old. Ask about her kids (Brayden is 3 and Aynslie will be 2 at the end of next month?! Wow, time flies!) and try not to ask about Baby Daddy, because you never know ...

4. The Guy Who Came Out of the Closetalcohol
What to say: Dive into a topic you both enjoy: men. Don't be surprised if you spend the rest of the night discussing Gucci, Broadway musicals and Jon Hamm. You've found a savior!

5. The Guy You Can't Remember
What to say: OK, this can get awkward. You're waiting in line for the bathroom and a totally unfamiliar face says, "NO WAY! How have you been?!?" You're trapped. My advice? Go with it. Never let him know that you in no way remember being lab partners for a day in eighth grade. You'd be amazed at how long you can keep up the act. Before you know it, your turn will be up.

6. The Girl Who Lost a Bunch of Weight
What to say: This girl won't be hard to find since all of the guys who haven't changed a day since graduation are offering to buy her drinks. You wonder how she dropped 100 lbs. in less time it took you to learn how to pronounce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Celebrate with another round, and toast to her on the way back from the bar.

7. The Frat Boy
What to say: Don't accidentally bring up a serious current event. Keep it light. This guy's here to build a beer-can pyramid, not discuss health-care reform. Limit the conversation to football, cover bands or porn. Surely one of these topics interests you?

8. The Girl You Hated Because She Was Dating Your Crush
What to say: It's all water under the bridge unless you overhear her tell someone that you used to be jealous of her (in that case, the fake nails come off!). Have fun and play nice together -- i.e. make fun of the guy you both used to like. Have you seen what he looks like these days? One word: K-Fed.

9. The Geek-Turned-Hottie
What to say: "Well, someone's been playing a lot less 'World of Warcraft'!" It's hard to believe that a pencil-neck dweeb who was once voted Most Likely to Win a Nobel Prize in Physics could grow up to be on the Hottest Guys Under 35 list, but it happens. Chances are this guy's already taken by a high-powered businesswoman, and they travel the world together in luxury. Losers.

10. The Nerd-Turned-Naughty Girl
What to say: She used to skip Friday night house parties for the library, but now she's wearing a low-cut tunic as a dress and has gargantuan (fake) boobs. Ask her how she likes living in L.A., and dance with her to the latest T-Pain. Tip: Do not bother asking about that bioengineering degree. She is a B-movie actress now.

11. Your Friend's Little Brother Who's Suddenly Hot and Single
What to say:: "How old are you again?" Sometimes returning home has its pluses! This former hellion used to drive you crazy, but now he looks like Rob Pattinson. Hey, what happens in your hometown over Thanksgiving stays in your hometown over Thanksgiving. Until someone posts pictures of you guys making out on Facebook.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sex life: 15 surprising factoids about sex in different cultures (plus a video!)

Sex is no doubt one of the hot button issues for modern married couples with children. Most parents will fess up to struggling to find time to rekindle romance while juggling work, wiping sticky faces and driving carpool and recent studies confirm that this is sadly the status quo.

But much of the data addresses sex in the U.S. and the U.S. alone, and we thought it might be fun to see how our western attitudes and practices (between consenting adults and in our sex ed for kids) fit into a larger, more international picture of the sexual habits and teachings across cultures.

Here, 15 surprising factoids about sex:

1) Wife Swap: The Australian Aborigines temporarily exchange wives as a gesture of friendship and goodwill at the ceremonies where puberty rites are held for their kids. The wives often initiate this, enjoying the change of ''scenery'' as well.

2) Bisexuality is more the rule, not the exception: Homosexual relationships are an accepted practice among the men and boys of the Siwans of Africa. The few who do not participate are considered peculiar.

3) It's ok to watch: Lesu children are premitted to watch adults, other than their parents, copulate.

4) No Virgins under 10!: The Ila people of Africa encourage their children to fully develop their sexual capabilities, permitting them any form of sexual expression they wish to partake in. It is claimed there are no virgins older than age 10 in this society!

5) Knowlege is power: Upon reaching puberty, boys of Mangaia (one of the Cook Islands) are given sexual instruction - including many details of positioning, and delaying their own satisfaction so that their parter women may experience multiple orgasms.

6) Why wait for marriage? In a survey in 1949 of 849 societys, 75 percent were found to permit premarital intercourse. Of course, in America in 1988 the stats showed that 70 percent of married American women had indulged in premarital intercourse as well . . . they are just supposed to feel *guilty* about it here! (source)

7) Experience preferred: Some Hindu sects require a preist to deflower a virgin before she consummates her marriage with her husband.

8) If one is good, two (or three!) is better: The most common universal form of marriage is actually Polygamy - one husband with two or more wives. Of those 849 societyes, 70 percent are polygamous.

*Conversly, polygyny (or polyandry), defined as "a wife with two or more husbands" is the least common form of marrige.

9) Keep it simple: The Aweikoma of Brazil are very literal people. Because eating and intercourse each involve entering bodily orifices, they use the same term for both activities.

10) Speak up! The inhabitants of Bali, and the Lepcha of Sikkim have no elaborate rituals or practices of seduction. If sex is desired, one only need ask for it - this is true for both men and women.

11) You break it, you buy it! If a Goajiro woman of Colombia successfully trips a man during a ceremonial dance, he is required to have intercourse with her. Be careful where you step ladies (and gentlemen...)

12) Three's a charm: Pacific-dwelling Marquesan men have acquired the ability to prolong their erections indefinitely until their parter is fully satsified. It is considered normal for the women to exeprience at least 3 orgasms.

13) Sisterly love: During the latter stages of a Hidatsa womans pregnancy, her husband is allowed intercourse with her sister. (and his pregnant wife is probably very relieved!)

14) Endless love: Its not uncommon for the Aranda of Australia to copulate three to five times nightly, sleeping for short intervals in between activity.

15) All bets are off! Anytime there is a show of blood from the uterus (during menses or after birth) a Jewish woman must not engage in sex with her husband. There are laws of family purity that say when and when not to engage in sex. During pregnancy, however, is the one time in a Jewish woman's life when it is permissible to have sex all the time. This explains a Jewish's man smile when he says, "My wife is pregnant."

If you'd prefer your factoids set to music, watch the Spelling Sex video below (safe to play at the office...)

Reebok Gets a Little Dirty With New Commercials (Videos)

Reebok Gets a Little Dirty With New Commercials

Reebok has a new product: Special women's shoes that supposedly make a woman's butt tighter and stronger than normal shoes. Whether the shoes actually work or not is not the problem here, though if they do that's great. The point is the subject of the commercial. The original ones shown recently involved butts talking to each other about how good they looked.

This new one goes a step farther. It features attractive women's chests talking about how they don't get attention anymore. These talking breasts claim that the reason for their fall from grace is how great women's butts look now that women are using the new amazing shoes. Yeah, talking breasts. On a commercial that will be run in prime time. You know who's chest I would love to hear from? Jenn Sterger's. I wonder how those guys feel about the reduction.

Classless? Totally. Gimmick? Definitely. But no matter how you look at it, they are taking a risk with it and you have to respect the effort. The ad definitely works for me. The shoes are a clever new product that are reminiscent of those shoes that make you jump higher they used to market. There's no reason to think these won't work and a bold ad campaign can only help that. It's doubtful this commercial will air for that long without being pulled, but regardless Reebok has some clever, and likely horny, advertising people.

James Cameron’s New 3-D Epic Could Change Film Forever

Photo: Art Streiber

12 years after Titanic James Cameron is betting he can change forever the way you watch movies
Photo: Art Streiber

In 1977, a 22-year-old truck driver named James Cameron went to see Star Wars with a pal. His friend enjoyed the movie; Cameron walked out of the theater ready to punch something. He was a college dropout and spent his days delivering school lunches in Southern California’s Orange County. But in his free time, he painted tiny models and wrote science fiction — stories set in galaxies far, far away. Now he was facing a deflating reality: He had been daydreaming about the kind of world that Lucas had just brought to life. Star Wars was the film he should have made.

It got him so angry he bought himself some cheap movie equipment and started trying to figure out how Lucas had done it. He infuriated his wife by setting up blindingly bright lights in the living room and rolling a camera along a track to practice dolly shots. He spent days scouring the USC library, reading everything he could about special effects. He became, in his own words, “completely obsessed.”

He quickly realized that he was going to need some money, so he persuaded a group of local dentists to invest $20,000 in what he billed as his version of Star Wars. He and a friend wrote a script called Xenogenesis and used the money to shoot a 12-minute segment that featured a stop-motion fight scene between an alien robot and a woman operating a massive exoskeleton. (The combatants were models that Cameron had meticulously assembled.)

The plan was to use the clip to get a studio to back a full-length feature film. But after peddling it around Hollywood for months, Cameron came up empty and temporarily shelved his ambition to trump Lucas.

The effort did yield something worthwhile: a job with B-movie king Roger Corman. Hired to build miniature spaceships for the film Battle Beyond the Stars, Cameron worked his way up to become one of Corman’s visual effects specialists. In 1981, he made it to the director’s chair, overseeing a schlocky horror picture, Piranha II: The Spawning.

One night, after a Piranha editing session, Cameron went to sleep with a fever and dreamed that he saw a robot clawing its way toward a cowering woman. The image stuck. Within a year, Cameron used it as the basis for a script about a cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the mother of a future rebel leader.

This time, he wouldn’t need any dentists. The story was so compelling, he was able to persuade a small film financing company to let him direct the picture. When it was released in 1984, The Terminator established Arnold Schwarzenegger as a huge star, and James Cameron, onetime truck driver, suddenly became a top-tier director.

Over the next 10 years, Cameron helmed a series of daring films, including Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and True Lies. Generating $1.1 billion in worldwide box office revenue, they gave Cameron the kind of clout he needed to revisit his dream of making an interstellar epic. So in 1995, he wrote an 82-page treatment about a paralyzed soldier’s virtual quest on a faraway planet after Earth becomes a bleak wasteland. The alien world, called Pandora, is populated by the Na’vi, fierce 10-foot-tall blue humanoids with catlike faces and reptilian tails. Pandora’s atmosphere is so toxic to humans that scientists grow genetically engineered versions of the Na’vi, so-called avatars that can be linked to a human’s consciousness, allowing complete remote control of the creature’s body. Cameron thought that this project — titled Avatar — could be his next blockbuster. That is, the one after he finished a little adventure-romance about a ship that hits an iceberg.

Titanic, of course, went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. It won 11 Oscars, including best picture and best director. Cameron could now make any film he wanted. So what did he do?

He disappeared.

Cameron would not release another Hollywood film for 12 years. He made a few underwater documentaries and did some producing, but he was largely out of the public eye. For most of that time, he rarely mentioned Avatar and said little about his directing plans.

But now, finally, he’s back. On December 18, Avatar arrives in theaters. This time, Cameron, who turned 55 this year, didn’t need to build half an ocean liner on the Mexican coast as he did with Titanic, so why did it take one of the most powerful men in Hollywood so long to come out with a single film? In part, the answer is that it’s not easy to out-Lucas George Lucas. Cameron needed to invent a suite of moviemaking technologies, push theaters nationwide to retool, and imagine every detail of an alien world. But there’s more to it than that. To really understand why Avatar took so long to reach the screen, we need to look back at the making of Titanic.

Photo: Art Streiber

Cameron reviews footage on set with (from left) actors Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, and Sam Worthington.
Photo: Art Streiber

“People may not remember, but it was an absolutely vicious time,” Cameron tells me in the private movie theater at his sprawling home in Malibu, California. He looks softer than he did at the Oscars in 1998 — his hair is longer and grayer and his face clean-shaven. But his famous impatience is still close to the surface. Early in our conversation about what he’s been doing for the past decade, he informs me that I “don’t know fuck,” so I try to let him explain how things unfolded.

“When we were filming Titanic,” he says, “we were just trying to figure out how much money we were going to lose.” Indeed, in the mythic afterglow of box office success, it’s easy to forget that Titanic was expected to be a disaster. The project went more than $100 million over its initial $100 million budget, making it the most expensive movie ever made. The main financier, 20th Century Fox, pressured Cameron to contain the overruns.

As a sign of his commitment, Cameron agreed to give up his entire directing fee and any profit participation in the movie. When Titanic missed its July 4 release date, it appeared that the project was in big trouble. Cameron kept a razor blade on his editing desk with a note: Use only if film sucks. “I just realized I made a $200 million chick flick where everyone dies. What the hell was I thinking?” he confided to a friend at the time. “I’m going to have to rebuild my career from scratch.”

The Hollywood trade journal Variety called it “the biggest roll of the dice in film history” and questioned whether Fox would come anywhere near breakeven. “Everybody was predicting catastrophic failure,” says Rae Sanchini, the former president of Cameron’s production company.

And then, miraculously, this Titanic dodged the iceberg and sailed into the record books, grossing $1.8 billion worldwide. “We went from the lowest lows to the highest high,” Sanchini says. “It was a disorienting experience for all of us, but most of all for Jim. He was emotionally and physically exhausted.”

Still, Sanchini expected the director to bounce back. Before Titanic, Cameron was excited about Avatar — it was, after all, the space epic he had been dreaming about since 1977. But now he didn’t seem very interested.

Part of this ambivalence stemmed from a meeting at Digital Domain, the visual effects company Cameron cofounded in 1993. He presented his concept for Avatar and explained that the main characters were 10-foot-tall blue aliens with narrow waists and powerful legs and torsos. They had to look utterly real, and the effect couldn’t be achieved with prosthetics. The aliens would have to be computer-generated. But given the state of the art, his team told him, that was impossible. It would take too much time and money and an unthinkable amount of computing power.

“If we make this, we’re doomed,” one of the artists told him. “It can’t be done. The technology doesn’t exist.”

Cameron was actually relieved. He didn’t feel like dealing with actors and agents and “all that Hollywood bullshit.” He needed a break. Luckily, a huge windfall was headed his way. Fox executives knew it was in their best interest to keep the self-anointed king of the world happy. They decided to overlook the fact that he had given up his financial stake in Titanic and, in the wake of its historic Oscar run, wrote him a check for tens of millions of dollars. (Reportedly, Cameron eventually earned more than $75 million from the film.) He wouldn’t have to work another day in his life.

“I had my fuck-you money,” Cameron says. “It was time to go play.”

Here’s James Cameron’s idea of play: scuba diving near unexploded, World War II-era depth charges in Micronesia. In the summer of 2000, he chartered an 80-foot boat and invited a group of people to dive down to a fleet of sunken Japanese battleships. He brought along Vincent Pace, an underwater camera specialist who had worked on Titanic and The Abyss. Pace, expecting to experiment with hi-def video, packed all of his gear but soon began to suspect that Cameron had something else on his mind.

They were looking over footage from a day’s dive when Cameron asked Pace a question: What would it take to build “the holy grail of cameras,” a high-definition rig that could deliver feature-film quality in both 2-D and 3-D? Pace wasn’t sure — he was no expert but knew about the cheap red-and-blue paper glasses of conventional 3-D filmmaking. They were notoriously uncomfortable, and the images could cause headaches if the projectors weren’t calibrated perfectly. Cameron believed there must be a way to do it better. What he really wanted to talk about was his vision for the next generation of cameras: maneuverable, digital, high-resolution, 3-D.

Inventing such a camera wouldn’t be easy, but Cameron said he was ready to break new ground. He mentioned a mysterious, long-gestating film project that would bring viewers to an alien planet. Cameron didn’t want to make the movie unless viewers could experience the planet viscerally, in 3-D. Since no satisfactory 3-D cameras existed, he’d have to build one. He’d brought Pace on the Pacific adventure to ask if the underwater cameraman wanted to help. His goal seemed kind of extreme, but Pace thought it sounded interesting and signed on. “Jim had a clear ambition on the dive trip,” Pace says. “It was fun, but I didn’t really know what I was getting into.”

Two months later, Cameron sent Pace a $17,000 first-class ticket from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and soon they were sitting in front of the engineers at Sony’s hi-def-camera division. Pace was there to help persuade Sony to separate the lens and image sensor from the processor on the company’s professional-grade HD camera. The bulky CPU could then be kept a cable-length away from the lens — rather than struggling with a conventional 450-pound 3-D system, a camera operator would just have to handle a 50-pound, dual-lens unit.

Photo: Art Streiber

Cameron delayed Avatar until the Na'vi could be rendered with utter realism.
Photo: Art Streiber

Sony agreed to establish a new line of cameras, and, using the prototype, Pace set to work. After three months, he had fitted the lenses into a rig that allowed an operator to precisely control the 3-D imaging. He figured they’d start with a simple test using an actor or two, but Cameron had other ideas. He asked Pace to install the gear in a rented World War II-era P-51 fighter and then sent him up in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Cameron jumped in behind the pilot of the P-51 and once airborne started filming while the pilot fired .50-caliber machine gun blanks at Pace’s B-17. “It was my first taste of what Jim considers ‘testing,’” Pace says.

The camera performed well, delivering accurate 3-D images that wouldn’t cause headaches over the course of a long movie. Pace thought Cameron would launch right into Avatar. Instead, the director took his new camera 2.3 miles under the sea to film the wreck of the Titanic in 3-D. The way Cameron tells it, he wasn’t done having “manly adventures.”

His partner on these adventures was the deep-sea explorer Andrew Wight. An intrepid Australian, Wight had explored a collapsing underwater cave, swum with great white sharks, and stared saltwater crocodiles in the eye. But even he had trouble matching Cameron’s intensity. When a hurricane headed up the Eastern seaboard toward their position over the Titanic, Wight assumed they would turn and outrun the weather. Cameron argued that it was a perfect opportunity to “tweak the tail” of the hurricane and get some great storm footage. The Russian captain of the ship overruled Cameron, and to the director’s chagrin, they ran.

“He’s a tough bugger,” Wight says. “But it’s not a death wish — it’s just his idea of fun.”

Sanchini, the former head of Cameron’s production company, wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “I knew he was tired of the film business,” she says, “but I didn’t expect him to keep taking detours.”

Cameron wasn’t just goofing off. He wanted to make Avatar, and he wanted to do it in digital 3-D. Unfortunately, theater chains were not adopting the technology. It would cost approximately $100,000 per theater, and exhibitors had to be convinced it would pay off. They needed some high-profile 3-D films that could generate enough revenue to justify the conversion.

So Cameron decided to let other directors test his system. The first was Robert Rodriguez, who shot Spy Kids 3-D using the new camera. The picture would still have to be viewed wearing old-fashioned red-and-blue glasses, but Cameron hoped it would demonstrate demand for more 3-D movies and goad theater owners into investing in next-gen projection systems. Released in the summer of 2003, Spy Kids 3-D made $200 million worldwide, but exhibitors remained reluctant to invest in the technology.

Cameron decided to talk to theater owners directly and showed up at their annual convention in March 2005. ShoWest, at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, was in full swing, and Cameron was ready to proselytize. He laid it on thick, telling exhibitors that the world was “entering a new age of cinema.” And in case the inspirational approach didn’t work, he tried something more ominous, telling them that those who didn’t switch would regret it. By the end of the year only 79 theaters in the entire country could show digital 3-D movies. But exhibitors had gotten the message: Between 2005 and 2009, they added some 3,000 screens capable of showing digital 3-D.

However, the lack of 3-D theaters wasn’t the only thing holding Cameron back. Special-effects companies were still struggling to create fully photo-realistic animated characters. That had begun to change in 2002, when Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital in New Zealand debuted Gollum, a stunningly believable computer-generated character who held his own against the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Cameron finally felt the time had come to try to build a CG world that would be indistinguishable from reality.

So in the spring of 2005, he met with Fox and asked for a few million dollars to prove he could create just such a world. The executives had some initial concerns, not all of which were technical. For instance: The tails — were the tails on the aliens absolutely necessary?

“Yes,” Cameron said flatly. “They have to have tails.”

He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t have to. The Fox executives stopped asking questions and agreed to pay for the test. Cameron’s Hollywood clout was intact.

The director spent five weeks putting together the 30-second test scene. It depicted an alien and an Avatar running through a forest and talking. Lucas’ own Industrial Light & Magic did the effects work, and it was enough to persuade Fox that the project was feasible. The studio agreed to a budget of $195 million, and Cameron was finally back in the director’s chair.

The first time Cameron set out to out-Lucas Lucas, he had to make do with $20,000 and a special effects studio set up in the back bedroom of his house in Orange County. This time around, money was not an issue, and his special effects were handled by hundreds of artists at Weta and ILM. But it wasn’t all about f/x. Lucas has had 30 years to expand the Star Wars universe. The franchise has gotten so big that he has developed a sophisticated system for cataloging and tracking all its far-flung characters, planets, societies, and conflicts. To conjure something even more elaborate for Avatar, Cameron went looking for expert help.

He started by hiring USC linguistic expert Paul Frommer to invent an entirely new language for the Na’vi, the blue-skinned natives of Pandora. Frommer came on board in August 2005 and began by asking Cameron what he wanted the language to sound like? Did he want clicks and guttural sounds or something involving varying tones? To narrow the options, Frommer turned on a microphone and recorded a handful of samples for Cameron.

The director liked ejective consonants, a popping utterance that vaguely resembles choking. Frommer locked down a “sound palette” and started developing the language’s basic grammatical structure. Cameron had opinions on whether the modifier in a compound word should come first or last (first) and helped establish a rule regarding the nature of nouns. It took months to create the grammar alone. “He’s a very intense guy,” Frommer says. “He didn’t just tell me to build a language from scratch. He actually wanted to discuss points of grammar.”

Thirteen months after he began work on Avatar, Frommer wrote a pamphlet titled Speak Na’vi and started teaching the actors how to pronounce the language. He held Na’vi boot camps and then went over lines one by one with each actor. “Cameron wanted them to be emotional, but they had to do it in a language that never existed,” Frommer says. If an actor flubbed a Na’vi word, Frommer would often step in with a correction. “There were times when the actors didn’t want me to tell them that they had mispronounced a word that had never been pronounced before,” he says.

With the language established, Cameron set about naming everything on his alien planet. Every animal and plant received Na’vi, Latin, and common names. As if that weren’t enough, Cameron hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to write detailed scientific descriptions of dozens of plants he had created. She spent five weeks explaining how the flora of Pandora could glow with bioluminescence and have magnetic properties. When she was done, Cameron helped arrange the entries into a formal taxonomy.

This was work that would never appear onscreen, but Cameron loved it. He brought in more people, hiring an expert in astrophysics, a music professor, and an archaeologist. They calculated Pandora’s atmospheric density and established a tripartite scale structure for the alien music. When one of the experts brought in the Star Wars Encyclopedia, Cameron glanced at it and said, “We’ll do better.”

Eventually, a team of writers and editors compiled all this information into a 350-page manual dubbed Pandorapedia. It documents the science and culture of the imaginary planet, and, as much as anything, it represents the fully realized world Cameron has created. For fans who want to delve deeper, parts of Pandorapedia will be available online this winter.

Cameron is trying to show me something with a laser pointer. He queues up a scene toward the end of Avatar and freezes the frame on an image of a large crowd of Na’vi. He uses the pointer to draw attention to an ornate headdress composed of hundreds of tiny beads. The onscreen image is amazingly crisp, and the headdress appears utterly real. Each bead was designed by a digital artist, Cameron says, so it would look handmade. “Every leaf, every blade of grass in this world was created,” he says, and his laser pointer streaks across the screen, alighting on so many things I can’t follow its path.

Back in 1997, when Cameron was struggling to complete Titanic, disaster seemed right around the corner. “We were pegged the biggest idiots in film history,” he says. Now he has the opposite problem: Expectations couldn’t be higher. “It’s making me work harder,” he says.

This time, though, Cameron seems to be enjoying the work. At least there’s no razor blade next to the editing controls. “For Jim, this project was in some ways the antidote to Titanic,” Sanchini says. “He didn’t have to deal with weather, wardrobe problems, historical accuracy, or huge sets. If the leading lady had a pimple, it wasn’t a disaster. Avatar gave Jim total control.”

Thirty-two years after realizing that he desperately wanted to make a space epic to rival Star Wars, Cameron has put the finishing touches on his picture. Now he has to wait to see what the public and critics make of the result. The days of total control are over.

Contributing editor Joshua Davis ( wrote about the world’s biggest diamond heist in issue 17.04.

Still got it! Eva Herzigova, Helena Christensen and Claudia Schiffer go naked (apart from their leather boots)

By Chris Johnson

Together they have an average age of 38, but these three supermodel veterans show they certainly haven't lost their sparkle.

Eva Herzigova, 36, Helena Christensen, 40, and Claudia Schiffer, 39, wore just leather thigh boots as they gave a cheeky wink for a magazine shoot.

And the sultry shots prove that age is no obstacle for the trio when it comes to looking stunning.

i-D magazine

Eva Herzigova, Helena Christensen and Claudia Schiffer posed nude, wearing only leather thigh boots, for i-D magazine

Claudia revealed that the chemistry between the former catwalk queens was the secret to making the photos so sexy.

It was shot by photographer Kayt Jones for this months i-D magazine.

'A great photographer doesn't stop you or give you boundaries. It's about flow and chemistry - you just go together like a wave,' Claudia revealed.

Claudia Schiffer
Eva Herzigova

Claudia (left) in Berlin last week said it was the chemistry between them that made for such a sexy shoot and (right) leggy Eva

Helena Christensen

Helena at the Marc Jacobs spring 2008 collection show during Fashion Week in New York in September 2007

All three women, who are signed to 1 Model Management, also posed in racy individual poses for contemporary style guide i-D.

In one, Claudia strategically holds a handbag - the only thing protecting her modesty.

A source told the News of the World: 'These women are so universally beautiful that they can wear high fashion, arty wear or more commercial stuff.

'Or they can just go plain naked.'

I traced my dad... and discovered he is Charles Manson

LIKE many adopted children, Matthew Roberts set about finding his biological parents with a mix of nerves and excitement.

In particular, he hoped that discovering his father's identity would help him to work out what made him the man he had become.

But nothing could have prepared him for being told his dad was... serial killer CHARLES MANSON.

Warped ... Charles Manson now
Warped ... Charles Manson now

Over a five-week period in the summer of 1969, Manson and his Family of commune followers committed a series of nine gruesome murders. Victims included pregnant actress Sharon Tate, wife of film director Roman Polanski.

Matthew, 41 - who bears a haunting resemblance to his father - sank into depression after discovering his identity.

He has since been in contact with his dad in a series of letters to his California prison and Manson has replied - each time chillingly signing off with a swastika.

Now Matthew, who was given up for adoption as a baby, has told of his horror at finding out he was the son of a monster.

Poison pen ... letter from Manson to Matthew
Poison pen ... letter from Manson to Matthew

He says: "I didn't want to believe it. I was frightened and angry. It's like finding out that Adolf Hitler is your father.

"I'm a peaceful person - trapped in the face of a monster."

Matthew grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and didn't know he was adopted until his sister told him when he was ten.

He loved his adoptive parents but always knew he was different. He says: "My parents were great people, but very conservative.

"They were products of the Fifties and I didn't relate to them. My biological parents were products of the Sixties and I take on a lot more of those characteristics."

He also reveals his adoptive father tried to discourage him from getting in contact with Manson, telling him: "Nothing good will come from this."


Matthew, who now lives in Los Angeles, began investigating his family history 12 years ago when he contacted a social services agency who located his mother, Terry, in Wisconsin.

He wrote to her straight away and their early exchanges will be familiar to adopted children everywhere.

Map ... Los Angeles
Map ... Los Angeles

She confirmed she was his mum and told him she had named him Lawrence Alexander - and that she would tell him his last name in time.

The jigsaw of his life was beginning to take shape but it was still missing a crucial piece - his father.

Terry remained tight-lipped about his identity but after Matthew pressed her for details in a string of letters, she eventually revealed the awful truth.

She said she met commune leader Manson in 1967 - two years before the infamous "Manson Family" murders in Los Angeles for which he is still in jail at the age of 75.

But back in 1967, Terry had been one of many who were transfixed by Manson's charms.

Her father had tried to chase him away when he met Terry, calling him a "white-trash biker bandit" but she found him charismatic and hypnotizing.

So she hopped on a bus with his Family and ended up in San Francisco. There she claims she was raped by Manson in a drug-fuelled orgy, after which she returned home and Matthew was born on March 22, 1968.

Cult HQ ... ranch near Death Valley where Manson Family gathered
Cult HQ ... ranch near Death Valley where Manson Family gathered

Terry always believed Manson was the father of the baby she gave up for adoption. And after seeing a picture of Matthew, her worst nightmare was confirmed.

For he is the spitting image of Manson, with the same nose, mouth, eyes and large forehead. They even have the same thick, arched eyebrows and long, thick, dark hair.

Like his father, Matthew is a songwriter and poet. He is even worried that he may have inherited his father's schizophrenia.

Matthew, now working as a DJ, recalls hearing mum Terry's bombshell: "She even said, 'You look just like him'.

"I'm not nuts but I've got a little bit of it. It's scary and upsetting. If I get worked up, my eyes get really big and that's really freaked some people out before.

Bad sign ... another note from the killer
Bad sign ... another note from the killer
Splash News

"I've tried to tone that down quite a bit. I don't like having that effect on people.

"I don't even like the fact that I'm big. It makes me even scarier. My hero is Gandhi. I'm an extremely non-violent, peaceful person and a vegetarian.

"I don't even kill bugs. I've had long hair all my life. I could make it go away, but I can't let the world and their fears change me." After discovering the truth, it took Matthew five years to pluck up the courage to write to his father at Corcoran State Prison in California.

Manson replied to Matthew's letter straight away and has since sent him a string of ten handwritten notes and postcards signed with the wartime Nazi symbol.


Matthew says: "He sends me weird stuff and always signs it with his swastika. At first I was stunned and depressed. I wasn't able to speak for a day. I remember not being able to eat."

According to Matthew, the letters mainly rambled and said "crazy things" but Manson did confirm he could be his father.

In one twisted letter he wrote: "The truth is the truth. The truth hurts."

In another note Manson talked about meeting Matthew's mother. He wrote: "I remember her. We came back to LA on the super-cheap train."

And Manson - who grew up without a father figure - even compared his childhood to Matthew's.

He said: "You got the same father I got. A hobo just left on the midnight train and died, lost at sea." Then in a postcard two years ago, addressed to Matthew's birth name Lawrence Alexander, Manson sent his son his prison phone number.

But Matthew has never made the call to his dad.

He says: "There's always a subconscious block.

"What I'm worried about is that you think you're going to meet your birth mother or father and they're going to love you and welcome you with open arms. But he's not that kind of person."

Despite Manson's evil actions, Matthew confesses he now battles confused emotions towards his biological father.

He says: "If I did talk to Charlie on the phone, I would say, 'I truly understand what it's like to be you, more than anyone could ever imagine on so many levels'.

"He's my biological father - I can't help but have some kind of emotional connection. That's the hardest thing of all - feeling love for a monster who raped my mother.

"I don't want to love him, but I don't want to hate him either."

Inside Air Force One With President Obama

Posted by: Ryan Deal

Here’s a look at the inside of Air Force One, the plane U.S. presidents have traveled in since 1990. There are actually two of the specially modified Boeing 747-200B’s and only use the call sign “Air Force One” when the president is on board. These pictures were taken by Pete Souza.

air force one 01