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Photo: America goes topsy-turvy

The Loop the Loop coaster in Luna Park at Coney Island in 1903. Photo: Library of Congress

On this day 127 years ago, the first American roller coaster appeared at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Built by LaMarcus Thompson, the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway featured a gentle, wavy hill and traveled at an “invigorating” 6 miles per hour. The coaster car could hold 10 passengers and originally featured sideways seats so riders could enjoy the views. The ride was so popular that the coaster earned $600 daily, at a nickel a ride. It paid for its own construction costs within three weeks.

Other coasters at Coney Island soon followed. The following year in 1885, the Flip-Flap Railway was built, which featured a 30-foot drop and a circular vertical loop. The problem with the ride was that it produced 12 times the force of gravity at the bottom of its loop, or 12 Gs. A modern fighter jet can produce 9 to 12 Gs in a turn. Passengers on the coaster frequently passed out.

The coaster featured in the photo above was the answer to the problematic Flip-Flap. The Loop the Loop, built in 1901, was made of steel instead of wood, and had a larger loop that was an ellipse, which pulled a much smaller g-force than its predecessor. Sadly, riders were wary of the coaster after the reputation of the Flip-Flap. People preferred to watch the ride in action instead of ride it themselves. Owners of the attraction decided to charge people admission to the viewing area, and soon the coaster was making more money by spectators than riders.

So: Which rollercoaster almost made you pass out? What’s your all-time favorite?

Report: Is Grandma hitchhiking again?

This is a big year for the nation’s Baby Boomers. It’s the year they begin turning 65.

A new report, “Aging in Place, Stuck Without Options,” out from Transportation for America, a group that advocates for improved public transportation, says the country’s boomers are going to have a hard time getting around as they get older, if their kids take away the keys, that is.

“By 2015,” according to the report, “more than 15.5 million Americans 65 and older will live in communities where public transportation service is poor or nonexistent. That number is expected to continue to grow rapidly as the baby boom generation ‘ages in place’ in suburbs and exurbs with few mobility options for those who do not drive.”

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Do not operate this marriage while drowsy

When married women have trouble falling asleep at night, it makes for a tough next day on the homestead, according to a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Whether because of insomnia or other delays getting to dreamland, neither the husband nor the wife are as happy the next day if she sleeps poorly.

Sleep studies usually look at individual sleep patterns, but this one looked at the interaction of couples from both sides. Some of the results were surprising: a hard day didn’t affect that night’s sleep as much as a bad night’s sleep affected what happened the next day. The quality of the wife’s sleep had more effect on the marriage than the husband’s.

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In turnaround, Republicans struggle to attack Obama on national security in first debate

GOP candidates stand on stage before the first Republican presidential debate in Manchester, N.H. Photo: AP/Jim Cole

The first Republican presidential debate to feature all seven declared candidates was, for the most part, tame. The participants were civil and restrained, avoided attacking one another and reserved their most searing criticisms for President Obama. As expected, they hammered away at what is likely to be the defining issue of the campaign: jobs.

Perhaps the most notable takeaway, then, was the Republicans’ collective inability to land a solid punch on what has traditionally been one of the GOP’s most profitable issues: national security. All seven of the Republican candidates either strained or demurred when asked to critique the president’s record on foreign affairs. And when they did go on the offensive, their attacks were muddled and vague.

The perceived front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, referred only obliquely to Obama’s timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, saying, “I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.” Romney even sounded like a Democrat when he added: “Our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.”

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Photo: Hero pilot saves passengers

A Goodyear blimp crashes in western Germany, on June 12, 2011. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

It starts out like the “Miracle on the Hudson”: An aircraft in trouble, a quick-thinking pilot and passengers who walked away from certain disaster. But unlike the story of US Airways Flight 1549, which crash landed into the Hudson River two years ago, this story has a sadder ending.
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Few sharp exchanges in first GOP presidential debate, as candidates assail Obama

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, listen during the first Republican presidential debate Monday. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

The full field of Republican presidential candidates met on the same stage for the first time Monday night in New Hampshire, seven months before the first vote of the primary season. But the candidates mostly passed on opportunities to draw sharp distinctions between one another, seeking instead to establish a united front in their attacks on President Obama.

In particular, observers were scrutinizing the dynamic between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, widely perceived as the front-runner, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has sought to position himself as the more ideologically palatable alternative to Romney. Pawlenty exhibited restraint when, early in the debate, he was asked to explain a phrase he had coined — “Obamneycare” — to describe similarities between President Obama’s health reform law and a Massachusetts measure signed by Romney in 2006.

“In order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you’ve got to be able to show that you’ve got a better plan and a different plan,” Pawlenty said. When asked why he had criticized the Massachusetts law, Pawlenty demurred, saying, “I just cited President Obama’s own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a guide,” and added: “He’s the one who said it’s a blueprint, and that he merged the two programs.”

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Walking through walls with Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron in the play "Jerusalem." Photo: AP/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Simon Annand

What was Mark Rylance talking about last night when he accepted his Best Actor award at the Tonys? Something about walls? Wires? It was a detailed treatise, in fact, on the fine art — and perhaps lonely, pitfall-prone occupation — of walking through walls. To quote:

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, “Say, I want to try that.” Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren’t so good. They won’t hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren’t pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it’s the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don’t know, but I’ve torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it’s a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

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Photo: Vive le grand hamster

A Great Hamster of Alsace in an eastern France breeding center. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

The European Union’s highest court intervened Thursday on behalf of a 10-inch French furball.

The EU Court of Justice warned France that it would face huge fines if it failed to take steps to save the Great Hamsters of Alsace, whose numbers have dwindled to only a few hundred. The hamster, considered a farm pest in spite of its Internet-friendly face, has been killed off by farmers and forced out by agricultural practices and urbanization. In 2001, there were some 1,160 burrows, each housing a single hamster, in the region, whereas in 2007, there were merely 180. The goal, the court said, should be a population of 1,200 to 1,500 hamsters.
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I’m dreaming of a large coffee

Photo: Flickr/Zach Inglis

Too much coffee under stress can do more than just make you jittery. It can make you hallucinate songs – namely, those by Bing Crosby.

A study released this week by researchers at Melbourne, Australia’s La Trobe University measured the effects of caffeine and stress on 92 participants. Under varying stress and caffeine levels, the participants listened to white noise on headphones. They were told that among the white noise, they might hear Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and when they did, to press a button. Those who consumed higher amounts of caffeine reported hearing the song more often.

However, “White Christmas” was never played.

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