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Best of the new: people & ideas

Shaquille O'Neill Shaquille O'Neill (Photograph by Matt Kalinowski)
By Best of the New contributors: Jenn Abelson, Ellen Albanese, Ami Albernaz, Kathleen Burge, Karen Campbell, Maria Cramer, Geoff Edgers, Jeremy Eichler, Devra First, Jan Gardner, Alyssa Giacobbe, Meredith Goldstein, Jolyon Helterman, Carolyn Y. Johnson, Susa
December 19, 2010

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Banning novelty lighters

Lighters aren’t toys, and lighters that look like toys aren’t safe. That’s the simple principle behind the state’s ban on novelty lighters – funny lobsters, realistic tractors, and sweet Santas that are attractive to children but also designed to produce a flame – that went into effect last month. Massachusetts was the 14th state to enact this kind of statute, according to the office of the state fire marshal, Stephen D. Coan, a key player both in getting the new law enacted and, now, enforcing it.

Chico Colvard

This is an area plump with good and great nonfiction filmmakers, and 2010 added another name to the list. Chico Colvard’s documentary, A Family Affair, is loosely about his sisters’ incestuous relationships with their father. But that’s a little like saying Chinatown is a movie about a drought. Colvard, 43, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has brewed a brutal melodrama out of American race and daughterly devotion, with enough psychological complexity to keep a therapist busy for decades. The movie premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, will play theatrically, and will air on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network.

Diffusion spectrum imaging

It’s a brain scan fit for an art museum. Technology being developed at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital offers a new look at the intricate architecture of the human mind. As part of a federally funded project to map major pathways in the human brain, scientists are building a next-generation scanner that will show the brain’s bundles of crisscrossing fibers in ways not seen before. Ultimately, the goal is to use these images to understand whether connectivity is disrupted in disorders like schizophrenia and autism.

Tiffani Faison

Boston’s notoriously ruthless dining scene seldom grants second chances. A wobbly launch and a few lukewarm reviews can mean a restaurant gets relegated to a shadowy also-ran field impervious to mid-game tinkering. Such seemed the fate of Rocca, the South End Italian eatery that languished after its glitzy 2007 opening. Then Tiffani Faison achieved the improbable. Taking over the kitchen in April, the 33-year-old gastro-wunderkind (and Top Chef alum) so nimbly overhauled the menu that local critics lined up to reevaluate the place, transforming a fading neighborhood haunt into a multi-starred culinary destination. Turns out all it takes are sufficiently addictive signature dishes (like the crispy quick-fried artichokes with a smear of roasted-garlic puree) to secure second, even third chances – often in the very same sitting.

Giving food trucks a hand

Guns, abortion, and double-groom cake toppers may continue to divide us, but a citizen’s right to scarf down carefully prepared, delicious, sometimes even healthful comestibles from the side of a parked vehicle has achieved a critical mass of popular support. This summer, the local food-truck movement started to gain political traction as well. Michael P. Ross, Boston City Council president, called a hearing on how best to get mobile-munchies merchants up and running – a marked change from past policy, which seemed bent on appeasing stationary restaurant owners. In November, Ross and fellow councilman Salvatore LaMattina embarked on a “listening” (read: face-stuffing) tour of Los Angeles’s established scene to find out why the sky there hasn’t fallen. The secret hopefully involves that city’s legendary Korean short rib tacos to some meaningful degree.

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez

With the exception of Russ Francis in the ’80s and Ben Coates in the ’90s, New England Patriots tight ends have tended to be more duds than studs. Not so this season. Fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez (top) is on pace to break the team’s rookie records for catches and yards at the position, showing off a wide receiver’s skill set in a 245-pound tight end’s body. Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski (bottom) is even bigger, using his 6-foot-6 frame to deliver crushing blocks and results in the red zone. His three touchdown catches against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 14 were the most ever by any Patriots first-year receiver. These two rookies, both 21, are proving to be a real score.

Paul Harding

In the increasingly fickle world of book publishing, it’s nice to know there are still stories like Paul Harding’s. For years, the former Cold Water Flat drummer, now 43, figured his first novel would remain unknown. But tiny Bellevue Press agreed to publish Tinkers, and then, in April, the unthinkable: Harding’s debut work won the Pulitzer Prize. The author, who lives with his family in Georgetown, says he’s three-quarters of the way through a draft of his second book, Enon. Charlie Crosby, the grandson of George, the protagonist in Tinkers, and his daughter, Kate, are the focus of the new book, which Random House will publish.

Hope for younger patients’ eggs

As survival rates have increased for young cancer patients, so has hope for preserving their fertility, which can be damaged by drugs and radiation. Doctors can remove eggs from girls today, but those eggs need to be coaxed to maturity before they can be used. Researchers at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School have used tissue-engineering techniques to create a honeycomb structure of cells (an “artificial ovary”) that successfully brought an egg to maturity outside the body. The research is preliminary, but one day such a solution may help girls and young women grapple with cancer without worrying about giving up the chance to have their own biological children one day.

Julia Jones

The actress, 29, isn’t technically new to Boston. She grew up in the heart of Jamaica Plain, dancing with the Boston Ballet as a youngster and starring in shows at the Wheelock Family Theatre as a teen. But in 2010, Jones took on a breakout movie role: brooding female werewolf Leah in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Yes, her ballet experience did help with those werewolf jumps, she says. And, no, she hasn’t forgotten her roots. She appeared at a Wheelock fund-raiser in May.

Keenan Kampa

Boston Ballet’s most promising new dancer this season is 21-year-old Keenan Kampa. A freckle-faced Virginia-bred blonde with an unassuming demeanor, she graduated last spring from the legendary Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, becoming the only American student ever to earn a Russian diploma at the Kirov Ballet’s prestigious school. That she survived the academy’s rigorous training is impressive enough, but she was one of its featured soloists, too. Kampa joined Boston Ballet at the entry corps level, but it’s very clear from both her physical talent and monster work ethic that she’s destined to rise.

MBTA schedules in your pocket

There are hundreds of thousands of apps. Catch the Bus and Catch the T are two of the very few that could truly change your life. The MBTA put global positioning system transponders on its buses and invited computer programmers to do something with the data. Jared Egan, Chris Bernardi, and Jing-ta Chow came up with the Catch the Bus iPhone app – their friend Serkan Ozel developed the Android version – which reliably tells users, down to the minute, how near (or depressingly far away) any MBTA bus is using GPS and traffic data. It doesn’t change how long you’ll wait – 29 minutes for the next SL5? Seriously? – but it does remove the guesswork and allow you to strategize alternatives or calm down and find a good place to wait. Now they’ve released Catch the T – but only for the iPhone – covering the Orange, Red, and Blue lines. 99 cents; http://catchthebusapp.com, http://catchthet.com

Edith Murnane

Boston’s first “food czar” has her hands full. Edith Murnane, 46, is now coordinating food-related policy for the mayor’s office, including initiatives to fight childhood obesity, improve school lunches (hear! hear!), deliver healthy food to shut-ins and seniors, and urge more urban farming.

Shaquille O’Neal

An easily embraced superstar is a rarity in sports. Yet Shaquille O’Neal, the 18-year National Basketball Association veteran with four championship rings, won Boston’s heart almost as soon as he showed up this summer. How often do 7-foot-1 NBA centers announce on Twitter that they’re posing that day as a statue in Harvard Square? Or dress in drag for Halloween? O’Neal, a.k.a. “The Big Shamrock,” gives the Celtics size, experience, and locker-room levity. Since O’Neal, 38, brought his many talents (power player, Justin Bieber backup dancer, and philosopher, to name a few) to Boston, he has the city ready to embrace another championship run.

In the age of Google, it makes sense that rape victims would turn to the Internet with questions. But a search for answers about rape kits and the legal system mostly yields legalese meant for criminal justice professionals and advocates, not survivors. So Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, got together with public health and law enforcement officials to do something about it. Her organization surveyed more than 150 survivors and advocates and collected answers to their most frequent questions on a new website, http://surviverape.org, which has information – Where do I go for medical help? What is the legal process like? – in English and Spanish and is tailored specifically to explain Massachusetts resources.

  • December 19, 2010 cover
  • Best of the New