In Other Words, Free Learning

NOVA, the 42- year- old PBS television series, is citizen science’s best friend – thoughtful, balanced, free of charge, and available to millions of people via several media platforms. That makes Senior Executive Producer Paula Apsell NOVA’s fairy godmother. Apsell has shaped and guided the award-winning science documentary series for 30+ years, calling upon a … Continue reading NOVA: Citizen Science at its best

via NOVA: Citizen Science at its best — Green News Update


Hungry for Change

There’s a mall in ###### that is currently anchored by J.C. Penney’s, Best Buy, Sears, Macy’s, and as of 2013, Bon-Ton. What the hell is a Bon-Ton, anyway? Sounds like something you order off a Thai food menu. Well, it’s not important. The Macy’s on the mall’s northwest wing is.

Macy’s popularity, much like there stock, has been falling in recent years. This doesn’t much separate them from any other major department store retailer, virtually all of who are hemorrhaging profit thanks to online businesses like Amazon. But Macy’s has a plan: bring back department store restaurants.

“Restaurants inside of large retailers – especially their flagships – is nothing new. It’s a practice that was prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says retail expert Warren Shoulberg in The Robin Report.

It’s actually not a tactic so far dated. Before 1996, the Macy’s at The ##### Mall was a Jordan Marsh. Founded in Boston in 1861 by Eben Dyer Jordan and Benjamin L. Marsh, Jordan Marsh was arguably the first department store in the United States – there’s some gray area here. The concept of the department store then, however, differed from its current antiquated notion. After the Industrial Revolution, consumers sought out shopping districts, often located in central urban environments, to acquire both daily and seasonal purchases. As forerunners for what would later become the shopping mall, department stores like Jordan Marsh would expand to take over whole city blocks accommodating all the needs of shoppers in one store; this was particularly beneficial in colder climates where outdoor traversing could be a shopping hindrance.

Shopping districts and lifestyle centers remained fairly commonplace until the 60s/70s when the shopping mall overtook them as the de rigeur consumer destination. Department stores like Jordan Marsh, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Nordstrom’s found continued success by “anchoring” regional shopping malls. In other words, they acted as the feature destination for shopping needs in suburban epicenters and attracted customers to the smaller specialty shops that comprised the majority of the mall.


Note the distinct awnings that were omnipresent at all northeast Jordan Marsh’s in the 80s. (Credit: Michael Lisicky).

What does this have to do with anything? Retrobacktive exists for posterity. It’s not supposed to be one curmudgeon’s mournful report of an allegedly superior decade. Rather it’s a fond reexamination of personal history. This cathartic nostalgia is in old movies and yearbooks and recipes and letters and all the other tidbits we hang on to through the years. And sometimes you hear a story on the radio about Macy’s attempt to revitalize its market share by bringing back restaurants and you remember the hidden bakery cloistered on the second floor of Jordan Marsh, just behind the cookware. And then you remember adjacent to the bakery an entire restaurant brimming with tacky pastel walls and tasteless teal upholstery. It’s one of those places in memory that probably wouldn’t top anyone’s “must-try” list, but for some reason at one time it held great allure. Why? There’s the mystery component: who ate there? Did anyone I know ever eat there? What kind of food would they serve at Jordan Marsh? Then there’s the closed window: no matter how much curiosity drives you, you’ll never be able to go back and experience it in the present moment.


The famous Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to shop with pastry?

It’s the latter in particular that drives Retrobacktive. Once something is gone, it’s gone for good. For many, this is a non-issue; there is only the future, and the past is best left in the past. That’s fine. There’s a lot to be said for moving forward. But a lot of horrible things have happened throughout history thanks to unchecked progression. Corruption comes from every direction. So it may not hurt to keep a few cultural watchdogs around to blog about ninja movies, and GI Joe, and restaurants in defunct department stores.

Okay, so Retrobacktive is probably more toy-dog then watchdog. Well, what do you want? No one is getting paid around here to do this!


Feral Max?

We do a lot of Mad Max posts on Retrobacktive. In case you haven’t figured it out, it’s a certain blogger’s favorite movie trilogy (if over 20 years pass between a third and fourth film in a franchise, the first three are a separate “trilogy”). To be fair, the fourth entry, Mad Max: Fury Road, is an awesome addition to the Mad Max catalog. Great action. Lots of fun characters. Stuff actually blows up.

Still, there’s something a bit off about Fury Road. It’s an excellent action flick, but it doesn’t feel exactly like a Mad Max movie. In a previous analysis, heavy examination was put on Tom Hardy’s portrayal as Max. Was it good? Was it bad? Is he simply not Mel Gibson and naturally going to have different mannerisms and quirks that will make his performance unique? Or is there something more going on?

Here’s what’s important to know: George Miller is as meticulous a director as can be. His attention to detail is legendary. In the former continuity of the original Mad Max trilogy, Miller was highly particular of the character’s timeline. His stance in the wake of the success of Fury Road has taken a 180 degree turn. Miller seems to want to treat the series as an anthology. It dismisses a lot of his earlier effort to create a linear story with the dots all finely connected.

So what’s happened? Has Miller changed his position? Are the original movies locked in time, and so far removed from the release of Fury Road that a few out-of-place hiccups were bound to occur? Or…

Is Tom Hardy’s “Max” really the Feral Kid from The Road Warrior?!

WARNING: endless spoilers to follow.


The Feral Kid

The answer is yes, and here is why:

1) His Family

Mad Max: Fury Road opens with one of the most gratuitous continuity errors in cinema history. Okay, it’s been 30 years since the last film; audiences needed a refresher course in Max’s history. But die hard fans were shocked to see a flashback of Max’s dead daughter.

Feral Max

The Feral Kid?

Max didn’t have a daughter. He had a son, Sprog, who was murdered along with his mother in the first movie. This is the pivotal moment that drove Max “mad.” How in the world could Miller have forgotten this detail? Given how precise he has been in all his other films, it’s impossible to believe he missed this standout component, and even harder to imagine that he just didn’t care. So already, something is off about our hero’s history.

2) Narration

Fury Road begins with narration provided by Max, something he never offered in the previous installments. There is, however, a rather omniscient monologue that opens The Road Warrior, which in a twist we find out at the end is actually the Feral Kid speaking as an older man. So the only time we’ve heard narration from a Mad Max film has been from the point of view of the Feral Kid. Even the term “road warrior” is unique to the Feral Kid, and it’s used by the narrator in both Mad Max 2 and Fury Road.

3) All the Grunts

Aside from the narration, the Feral Kid only grunts and hollers in The Road Warrior. Mel Gibson’s Max had a New South Wales Australian accent. Well, we could assume this is just Mel’s accent. But it doesn’t explain all of Tom Hardy’s grunting throughout the movie. His dialect has a completely different tone and cadence. So is it Hardy’s own spin on the character?

Tom Hardy went out of his way to try to work with Mel Gibson to honor the original actor’s characterization. Seems odd Hardy, who has shown a lot of promise as a credible actor, wouldn’t even make an effort to sound the way Max does in every other film. Yet his mannerisms certainly appear to resemble that of another Road Warrior character.

4) He Can’t Shoot

There is a scene in Fury Road where Max is down to the final four shots of a long-barrel rifle as he tries to take out the Bullet Farmer. He misses, despite the advantage of a large scope, until he has one shot left before conceding his bad aim and handing the weapon over to Imperator Furiosa who blinds the Bullet Farmer by shooting out his headlight.

In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome as Savannah attempts to lead an unsupported scouting party for Tomorrow-morrow Land, Max stops her by firing multiple well-placed shots around her head using a long-barrel rifle with no scope at all.

According to Miller, Fury Road is supposed to take place after the events of Thunderdome. So when did Max lose his ability to shoot so well?

5) The Music Box

During their drive to the Green Place, Toast the Knowing is seen playing with an antique sound box. In The Road Warrior, Max gave the Feral Kid an antique sound box (they’re visually identical). We can only assume Toast got the toy from Max’s jacket in Fury Road. So what? It’s a desolate future with little-to-no food, water, resources, but there’s a ton of these little, broken music boxes just kicking around?

6) He Barely Knows His Name

When Imperator Furiosa first asks Max his name he doesn’t respond. Maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he doesn’t trust her. Or… maybe he doesn’t have one? Later when Furiosa is dying and Max performs an impromptu blood transfusion to save her life he tells her his name is Max. His exact line is:

“Max. My name is Max. Max is my name.”

The way he says it sounds ambiguous, as though he were saying it for the first time. The Feral Kid lived his whole life in reverence of Max; he relays this at the end of The Road Warrior. One could theorize not having his own name, he decides during an emotional exchange to take up the moniker of his childhood hero.

7) Time Out of Mind?

The timeline is off. Miller claims Fury Road takes place after Thunderdome. Thunderdome takes place 15 years after the events of The Road Warrior. Max was 45 in Thunderdome; he’s supposedly 37 in Fury Road. Again, continuity errors are frequently dismissed when you have to consider the use of younger actors to play time-locked roles. But that’s for lesser directors. Not George Miller who went so far as to make Mel Gibson wear a single contact lens in one eye throughout Thunderdome to uphold the continuity of the character’s damaged retina from The Road Warrior. Miller could have just as easily said Fury Road takes place before the events of Thunderdome. But…

8) The Best Laid Plans…

Miller is likely holding something back. His comments on the “Feral Kid conspiracy” have been dismissive, but what other reaction should one expect from a visionary director amid reconstruction of his magnum opus? Miller has stated in interviews that he is moving forward with future Mad Max projects. If his intention is to have Hardy’s character be a grown version of the Feral Kid he’s certainly not going to admit it at this point in the series’ production.

Imagine what would happen if a few crafty film theorists guessed that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father after watching Star Wars: A New Hope, and what would happen if they presented this theory to George Lucas. Would Lucas just admit right then and there that yes, Darth Vader is Luke’s father? “There’s no point in seeing the next movie. You’ve figured out the mystery. Go tell your friends the secret while we scrap production of The Empire Strikes Back since there’s no point in making it now.”

It’s just business. Miller is not going to concede to any fan speculation at this point. With so many mediums and springboards for commentary someone was bound to piece together these clues. Though, to be honest, they were anything but subtle to avid Mad Max fans. Miller’s stoicism, nonetheless, is to be expected and can’t be read into anymore than good marketing.


Tom Hardy is actually the Feral Kid. He grew up in awe of a heroic childhood figure. He pieced together a new V8 Pursuit Special, patched together an outfit that resembled his idol’s, and took on his name when pressed to reveal his identity. The events of Fury Road happen at a transitional period before he becomes the leader of the Great Northern Tribe. At some point he loses someone close to him, as Max did. Perhaps a daughter, biological or adopted. This, similarly, drives him to a breaking point. Though in the post-apocalyptic environment he grew up in, his violent sense of self-preservation is natural. His actions, much like the original Max’s, are in line with the essential behavior of anyone trying to survive such inhospitable conditions. To interrogate every last action of Tom Hardy’s character, or incur endless speculation of his motives, is something of a waste of time. Who wouldn’t be vengeful and unsympathetic in the dystopian wastelands of the outback? But there are more than enough physical clues to shine light on the new “Max’s” true identity.

This leaves us with what George Miller has in store for “Max.” According to tweets from the director there’s “more Max to come.” And a fifth entry in the series has already been given the working title Mad Max: the Wasteland. Some have argued Miller’s intent is to create an anthology series. Others speculate Furiosa will become the new lead character.

Whether or not Tom Hardy’s Feral characterization comes to fruition, examining Mad Max: Fury Road from an alternative lens opens viewers to new perspectives that may reinvigorate interest and personal fulfillment in the films. Despite his attention to detail, Miller is the kind of director who aims to challenge his audience with the hope they will conceive their own interpretations of his work. So if you choose to believe Tom Hardy is the Feral Kid, that’s who he is.

Admittedly, re-watching Fury Road from this perspective elevates the movie to another level of greatness and expands upon it’s range of emotional and mental dynamics…but, it’s still not as good as The Road Warrior.



Already Gone

Glenn Frey was kind of a bad ass. He was rugged in the 80s when rugged, for a man, was fringe. You had your clean-cut, coke-sniffing suits on Wall Street, or your downtown scenesters laced in eyeliner. Not putting either down, but the coolest guys in the room are always the ones who don’t care. That was Don Johnson and Glenn Frey and everything Miami Vice related.

Frey, the de facto leader of the Eagles, joined a somber list of notable artists who have passed away less than three weeks into 2016 on Monday, January 18th. He was 67 years old.

Though most famous for his longstanding tenure with the Eagles, Frey had a successful solo career in the 80s highlighted by two No. 2 Billboard hits, “The Heat is On,” and “You Belong to the City.”

The song and video for “You Belong to the City” deserve their own post. They sum up the magnetism of ‘bright lights, big city’ 80s culture to absolute perfection. It is at once grimy but alluring; dangerous but seductive; heartbreaking but undeniable. It may appear trivial to the uninitiated, but it was this song/video combination that planted the kernel of urban wanderlust in one Retrobacktive creator’s head. And despite the 20-year separation, New York City lived up to all the dirty glamour suggested in Frey’s 1985 hit song.

So thanks, Glenn. If you have to have a song stuck in your head for 30 years, this ain’t a bad one.

The Character We’re Not Supposed to Like, but…

Since Retrobacktive’s inception I have long ached to write an article detailing to the finest point the amalgamation of genius that is Die Hard. It is the apex of 80s cinema. Yet there has always been an invisible curtain of refrain. What, after all, is there to lend to its legacy? Die Hard is widely considered the greatest action/adventure movie of all time. As a whole there’s little left to examine. More obscure matters always pressed.

Now, however, a sad and poignant moment draws the collective conscious of the cinema world back to arguably the film’s most impressive attribute.

In 2003, the American Film Institute rated Hans Gruber, Die Hard’s cold and calculating antagonist, as the 46th greatest villain in film history. The man who brought the iconic character to life was Alan Rickman. And by all accounts his portrayal should have earned at least a top ten spot on AFI’s list – if not an Oscar.

Rickman was born in London in 1946. He began his career on stage after studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Few people realize Die Hard was actually Rickman’s first film role. He was skeptical of the part, but fortunately for moviegoers was talked into it by the production team. Rickman’s serpentine Hans Gruber was a perfect foil to Bruce Willis’ gritty John McClane, and he is more times than not the scene-stealer throughout the film.

Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. deSouza, in a 2015 Creative Screenwriter interview, best summed up Alan Rickman’s character. “Who’s the protagonist of Die Hard? It’s Hans Gruber who plans the robbery. If he had not planned the robbery and put it together, Bruce Willis would have just gone to the party and reconciled or not with his wife. You should sometimes think about looking at your movie through the point of view of the villain who is really driving the narrative.”

Rickman drives the film with venomous motivation that is equal parts eloquent and ruthless. Reviewing Die Hard some 27 years later, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor playing Hans Gruber; the film’s huge success launched the English actor’s film career. Rickman went on to appear in numerous memorable roles throughout his life: the scheming Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Potion Master Snape in the Harry Potter film series, and Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Alan Rickman passed away on January 14, 2016 from pancreatic cancer.

Rickman once said he often played “the character you’re not supposed to like.” But given the outpouring of shock and dismay over the star’s recent death, it seems safe to say Rickman was a master of creating characters audiences couldn’t get enough of. His contributions to cinema will be sorely missed.

By two I’d have told him pretty much whatever he wanted to hear.

Happy trails, Alan.



My Trust in God & Man

Every loss is unique as it is something unique and irreplaceable we lament. David Robert Jones, better known as David Bowie…Ziggy Stardust…the Thin White Duke…was “one of a kind.” Those aren’t my words. They actually belong to my mother, a woman not known for deep appreciation of rock and roll. Yet even she is not beyond the influence of modern music’s greatest chameleon. On January 10th, 2016, Bowie’s legacy was forever cemented. Artist. Icon. Global treasure.

Retrobacktive serves to chronicle the 1980s. Bowie’s music as a whole is timeless, yet his many personas and experimentation can be easily compartmentalized due to his ferocious focus and deft ability to reinvent himself. In honor of him, Retrobacktive pays memorial by considering some of Bowie’s finer points during the 80s.

“Ashes to Ashes” (1980)


“Ashes to Ashes,” from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was described by Bowie as “wrapping up the seventies really.” He considered the song a modern nursery rhyme that seems to deal with the artist’s own recovery from years of drug abuse. Both the song and album went to No. 1 in the U.K. and the video (co-directed by Bowie himself) is considered a landmark in the then burgeoning video music landscape.

“Under Pressure” (1981)

It might be the greatest collaboration in rock history. Officially released as a Queen song on their 1982 album Hot Space, controversy still abounds as to which musicians contributed to what parts of the song. As far as the lyrics are concerned the consensus generally points to Bowie as the primary writer. Regardless of the minute details the song’s juggernaut crescendo has few rivals in pure rock majesty.

Let’s Dance (1983)

After a roller-coaster decade of successes and setbacks in the 1970s, Bowie reached his commercial apex in 1983 with the U.K. No. 1 album, Let’s Dance. Focusing on a hybrid of synth-pop, blues rock, and funk, the album produced some of Bowie’s most popular hits, including the title track, “Modern Love, and “China Girl.” Bowie himself, however, often felt stifled by the album’s success, telling David Fricke in a Rolling Stone interview, “I had every intention of continuing to do some unusual material after that. But the success of that record really forced me, in a way, to continue the beast.”

Live Aid 1985

In addition to a high-energy performance at Wembley Stadium for the televised, multi-venue 1985 Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief, Bowie and Mike Jagger debuted their video for the song “Dancing in the Street,” with the single’s proceeds going to the charity. It was another top ten hit for Bowie.

Labyrinth (1986)

Never confined to a single medium, Bowie made more than one venture to the silver screen, but perhaps outside of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie’s most memorable cinematic performance was as Jareth, The Goblin King, in Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth. While not a box-office hit upon it’s release, the film has since gained a cult following and for many Gen X’ers this was their first introduction to the late, great David Bowie.

“As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three: how long and what do I do with the time I’ve got left?”

Bowie released his final album, Blackstar, two days before he died. Peel away all the layers – and there are many – at his core Bowie was a prolific musician as dedicated to his craft as any artist before. Despite an 18-month battle with liver cancer he carried on gracefully and left the world with a final gem in one of the most colorful catalogs of creation the world has ever seen. He leaves a great void in our world where the stars, indeed, look very different today.





Not A Drop to Drink

Here’s something you probably don’t think much about: what did you used to like to drink as a kid? It’s a strange question, but follow along.

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who drink generic beverages (e.g. Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Starbucks) and those who seek out the unusual. The latter is in the (obvious) minority, but there’s something about the idea of unique flavors, an affinity for life on the margins, that holds an unquenchable yearn for discovery that “taste-ophiles” can’t resist. Sadly nomadic consumers can rarely satisfy the financial needs of niche brands enough to sustain them. So a lot of cool drinks have come and gone throughout the years that have left a void of variety and even worse, deliciousness. This has become a recent point of contention upon discovering the truth behind the “disappearance” of one of the greatest sodas ever made: Hires Root Beer.


Food and beverage articles are no stranger to Retrobacktive. But in the past they have mostly lent to whimsy and nostalgia. But the case of Hires Root Beer is a tragic tale of deception, intrigue, and “murder.” Take this hyperbole with a grain of salt, but in lesser terms what Dr Pepper Snapple Group has done to Hires Root Beer is a shame. First, because it is (or at least was) arguably the best tasting soft drink on Earth. Second, it is unarguably the longest continuously made soft drink in the United States… but not for long.

Years ago you got cans of sodas from vending machines. You could only get cans. Why? Because bottles were made of glass and would break when released into the pickup bin. They still have vending machines today; they’re soulless and ugly and practically deliver your plastic bottle of liquid sugar in a bow. It’s exorbitant, but hey, things change. Old vending machines carried an air of mystery; their inner workings a secret that magically delivered refreshment at the push of a button. They usually displayed a big banner highlighting either Coca-Cola or Pepsi, and there was always one big button on the machine typically offering one of the two flagship sodas.

Well, here’s some news: never been a fan of cola. What the hell is it? Coca plants? What’s with the caramel aftertaste? Why is it so dry? Coke or Pepsi? Neither. And in fact now as an adult I pretty much hate soda in general and rarely drink it. But there’s something about that brown Hires button on the side of a vending machine that brings back memories of sipping a cold, fizzy beverage on a hot summer day.

Now the whole point of Retrobacktive is to examine those artifacts of the 80s that have gone the way of the Dodo. But this seems particularly cruel. Technically speaking you can still get Hires Root Beer in select parts of the United States. Very, very select parts. Why? Because Dr Pepper Snapple Group is attempting to kill Hires Root Beer via slow, painful attrition. Here’s what happened:

Charles Elmer Hires created the formula for his eponymous soft drink in 1876. Hires was a pharmacist who initially grew his product’s reputation by touting its “medicinal” properties, which was not uncommon for future soft drink makers to do for their “tonics.” Despite his day job, Hires was something of a marketing guru and even found ways to broaden his beverages appeal during the temperance movement, when anything with the word “beer” in it was frowned upon.


Hires died in 1937, but the company he founded remained family operated until 1960 when it was purchased by Consolidated Foods. Here is where the trouble begins. From this point on Hires Root Beer found itself the prodigal orphan, bounced around from one home to another. Consolidated Foods sold Hires Root Beer to Crush within two years; Crush was bought out by Proctor & Gamble in 1980; they then sold the brand to Cadbury Schweppes in 1989. When Cadbury Schweppes divested its soft drinks division in 2008 it renamed itself Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Hires Root Beer’s fate was sealed.

The problem is Dr Pepper Snapple already has a famous root beer brand, A&W. Similar to the VHS/Betamax format war, two entities exist that cannot occupy the same space. Dr Pepper Snapple sided early with A&W, but instead of halting production of Hires completely they have slowly “encouraged” bottle suppliers to handle only A&W. So if you happen to live in a part of the country that still has retailers with Hires on the shelves, snatch up those 12-packs (that’s the only way you can buy Hires now), because one by one Dr Pepper Snapple Group is going to infiltrate every bottler to phase out Hires.

Antiquity is an ugly world. Heritage less so, but still rings with a echo of dangerous sentiment, particularly in a culture bred in violence and oligarchy. But we are talking about soda here; it’s relatively harmless.* Detach yourself from the evaluation of traditions and you may still find the little pleasures in life that are worth preserving. A phone call from a friend when you are sad. Fireworks illuminating the night sky in July. A cold can of root beer on a hot day. Countless dalliances that may seem trivial are under seige from social media or groups of overly-sensitive activists. It’s a shame Dr Pepper Snapple Group can’t realize this and consider that perhaps preserving America’s oldest soft drink would be the sort of small gesture that might give the rest of an ever-changing world some healthy pause.

Not to mention it’s the best tasting root beer ever. Sadly now the exiled Atlas of the soft drink world.

* I am aware of the United States’ current epidemic of obesity, and that “harmless” is a relative term. Again, perspective: no one ought to be under the impression that soda and juice are anything more than liquid sugar. If you suck down 20 Cokes a day, on top of candy and french fries and cheese – cheese, cheese, and more cheese; this country is unhealthily obsessed with cheese – you do not have a “disease.” You are just a moron. Please drink responsibly.