30 January 2009

Birds(?) of a Feather

The next time you are eating a piece of turkey or chicken, remember that you are eating dinosaur -- or, at least, the avian descendant of the otherwise extinct animals.

Today's Wall Street Journal had a really interesting article about how the fossil record is slowly revealing the evolution of feathers in animals like the beipiaosaur (pictured) which, although not an ancestor of modern birds, was a reptile with feather-like covering on its body. This is an example of convergence -- where two otherwise unrelated animals hit upon the same solution for a problem. In this case, the problem was not flight; rather, probably warmth or camouflage.

Even though it did not lead to modern birds, the beipiaosaur (and other animals that evolved feather-like structures) are helping paleontologists track the evolution of the feather.

You can read the article here.

You can read more about the beipiaosaur here.

27 January 2009

A World of Film

I have a little bit of OCD in me -- obsessive compulsive disorder (although I do not think of it as a disorder). I am compulsively organized and LOVE it. [Other opinions may vary (Hi, Matt!).]

Ever since Matt and I met in 1994 I have kept a list of the movies we have seen together. Right now that list totals 1,297 films.

The Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB, a great resource for information on films) allows you to rank a film on a scale of 1 - 10. Since 1999 I have been keeping such a list of the films. The total number of films ranked is 1094.

I was perusing that list today and noticed how few films I ranked with a "10." I believe the highest ranking should be reserved for the very best examples of filmmaking; everything is perfect: the cast, the script, the cinematography, the sets, the costumes, etc. (I know: a lot of people give a "10" to any movie they "enjoy." I am much more selective than that. I enjoy a LOT of movies, but only a small number of them are worthy of a "10.") (For the sake of comparison, my IMDB list includes 25 films that earned a "9," 169 that earned an "8" and 32 that earned a "1.")

For no reason in particular, I made a list of those films that have earned a "10." That list will be found below. There are a few interesting facts about the list:

There are 26 films on the list. This represents 2.37% of the total number of films listed.
There are eight foreign films on the list.
There are five animated films on the list.
There are three documentary films on the list.
There are no silent films on the list.

I am surprised there are no silent films. We watch a lot of silent movies. There are a lot of classic silents, but, apparently, none that I have considered perfect. We watch a lot of foreign films (at least a third of the films each year are foreign, i.e. not made in America), a lot of animated films and a lot of animated films from foreign countries. We also watch a lot of documentaries. So, there you are.

Here is the list, in chronological order, of the 26 perfect films I have seen since 1999 (the best of the best are marked with an asterisk):

The Olympiad (Olympia 1. Teil - Fest der V├Âlker) (documentary) (1938)
Rebecca (1940)
*Bambi (1942)
*Mildred Pierce (1945)
*All About Eve (1950)
*Sunset Blvd (1950)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
*Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
*Original Cast Album "Company" (documentary) (1970)
Jaws (1975)
All the President's Men (1976)
Network (1976)
The Last Emperor (1987)
Toy Story (1995)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
*Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) (1997)
*Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long) (2000)
*In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa) (2000)
Iris (2001)
Winged Migration (Peuple migrateur, Le) (documentary) (2001)
Vera Drake (2004)
Capote (2005)
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
*The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006)
WALL-E (2008)

24 January 2009

Of Plagues and Men

A little background:

I spent the first two weeks of October 1989 in Washington D.C. on assignment for our afternoon daily newspaper. I was doing a story on the Smithsonian Museums and, while there, catching up with my best friend Ricardo who was in the Coast Guard and stationed nearby.

About 10 years later I picked up a book called "The Hot Zone" that told of an outbreak of the always-fatal ebola virus in Washington D.C. (of all places). The outbreak occurred the first week of October in -- that's right -- 1989. As I was reading, I kept thinking that date sounded familiar. A quick consultation with my personal journal (which I have kept since February 1981) confirmed it: I was a mere 20 miles away from the outbreak at the exact time it occurred.

About 10 years later (last December) I came down with an annoying sinus and chest infection -- which is pretty standard for me. Whenever our weather turns cold and damp my allergies, asthma and bronchitis flare up, not helped at all by our "weather inversions" which cause really awful air pollution during the winter. Such infections usually clear up in a week or so. This time, it did not; so I went to the doctor, got an antibiotic and started feeling better a few days later.

Then I started feeling sick again. On New Year's Day I went to a local urgent care clinic (cheaper and quicker than an emergency room) and found out I had a really bad ear infection related to my earlier infection. Another antibiotic (that made me quite sick in itself) and another week of being sick and I finally got better.

While I was sick (nearly four weeks) I kept thinking of everything I had read about the drug resistance being developed by bacteria and viruses in our world. Too many people take antibiotics at a mere sneeze and bacteria evolve to survive it. The ebola virus is one thing; but this could be worse.

Many people, more expert on this issue than I, have warned that we would start to see the impact of these resistant bacteria and viruses: some strains of tuberculosis have evolved to resist our best antibiotics, as well as enterococcus and the now-famous Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, known as MRSA. Could I have an infection that would prove resistant to antibiotics?


Luckily for me, it appears not. However, in Friday's New York Times I read about famous Brazilian model Mariana Bridi who was very sick. She had been ravaged by some kind of infection that resulted in the amputation of her hands and feet. This morning, I found out she died -- and she was only 20 years old. It now seems that her problem was caused by a urinary tract infection of Pseudomonas aeruginosa that was resistant to antibiotics. She had been in the hospital since 03 January and now -- three weeks later -- was dead.

I really hope this is an isolated incident; but I am afraid this is just the first of many (or maybe another one of many) kinds of infections we will be hearing about in the coming few years: once common, easily treated infections becoming resistant to drugs and, therefore, fatal.

You can read about the death of Mariana Bridi here.

You can read more about Pseudomonas aeruginosa here.

You can read more about the 1989 ebola outbreak in Reston here.

You can find the book "The Hot Zone" here.

21 January 2009

Merrily He Rolls Along

I love Stephen Sondheim. Can't you just die at the man's brilliance? (If you don't know who Sondheim is then read no further. Seriously, what's the point?) He is the diamond in the coal bin of American musical theater, the sunshine in the day, the silver lining around the cloud. In all of Broadway history, his is the greatest talent at music and lyrics. No one comes even close to him, with the possible exception of William Finn ("Falsettos" among many others).

My greatest failing (probably only failing) in the ten years I was theater critic for our afternoon daily newspaper was not being able to get audiences to understand Sondheim. Despite some really excellent productions, people stayed away in droves. I suppose I should not be too down on myself as the same holds true on Broadway: people mount Sondheim shows and audiences stay away. Go figure.

But, put on a half-assed production of "Sound of Music" and you cannot get a ticket. I understand the appeal of such shows, but I find the works of, for example, Rodgers and Hammerstein, silly, sappy and without much merit. I know, I know, everyone in the world loves "King and I" and "Flower Drum Song" -- but really.

Compare any of the songs in those shows with anything by Sondheim and you will see what I mean. I saw Andrea Marcovicci in her cabaret performance singing "Finishing the Hat" (from "Sunday in the Park with George") that brought the entire house to tears (well, me for sure). That would never happen with "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" no matter WHO sung it.

So, put that all together and just imagine my joy at finding an article about a recent (and rare) appearance Sondheim made to discuss the musical theater, and rip apart the current Broadway revival hit of "South Pacific" -- which, in the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen. But I have seen plenty of productions of it (and even worked a production of it many years ago) so I am familiar with it.

You can find the article here.

More about the man is available here.

16 January 2009

129,899

A cabinet level position to oversee the arts in America? Yes, please.

If you want to see America step into the 20th century with regards to arts, then you will want to sign the online petition to create a Secretary of the Arts, spurred on by a comment by Quincy Jones.

I signed (number 129,899) and in the two minutes it took me to sign the petition, another 17 people also signed. Way to go!

13 January 2009

Kiss Today Goodbye


You know, I hate stories like this: 10 Species You Can Kiss Goodbye (including the black-footed ferret, pictured). Really sad how humans continue to wreak havoc on our home planet.

05 January 2009

A Back Story

In October I hurt my back carrying some fire logs. Long story. Anyway, I have had back problems for about 25 years. Usually minor. This time was different. After a month of it not getting better I went to the doctor. It was suggested I get an MRI -- which I did, and which you can see pictured.

Today, I got the results: I have stenosis of the L1 - L5 vertebrae. This basically means the disks between the vertebrae in my mid- to lower-back are squished. Look in the yellow box. You can see the black strips between the white vertebrae. Apparently, those black strips are thinner than they should be.

The doctor says my injury in October was not the cause of these squished disks; this was something that had been building up for many years, and the recent injury just sent it over the edge.

Now the choices: continue physical therapy which I have been doing for a month (and which has helped), get steroid injections in the spine somewhere (which is supposed to reduce the inflammation and help reduce the pain) or have surgery (which is totally unappealing to me).

When I was three or four, my dad had to have back surgery on a herniated disk (a more severe version of what I have). I remember screaming and wailing when the ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. He was there about a week, had a successful surgery and was basically fine the rest of his life. We visited him on Easter Sunday. I brought some eggs I had colored. My dad told me to give one of the eggs to the man in the bed next to him, which I did. Many years later I was talking to my dad about this episode and he said "Remember the guy you gave the egg to in the bed next to me? He died the next day."

01 January 2009

To Boldly Go...

The spouse and I saw out 2008 in the best possible way: Wednesday we took a trip to the Arizona Science Center to see "Star Trek: The Exhibition" purporting to be "the world’s most comprehensive collection of authentic Star Trek ships, sets, costumes and props from all five series and ten films."

Yeh, okay, I'll give them that.

For $20 we got to walk around and look at original costumes, props and ship models. We also got to see a lot of recreated props, make ups, ships and sets that came off more as creepy than fascinating.

A lot of effort has gone into gathering all these things into one place, but really it seems more like a tired old display of the personal collection from some fiftysomething fanboy. Many of the plastic screens protecting the objects were chipped and cracked, the domes covering authentic props were so filthy inside that it was hard to see through. The Federation of the 23rd century will be a dingy and poorly kept place if this exhibition is any indication.

While it was neat to see the original costumes and read up on the origins of the original series ("Let's make it a 'Wagon Train' to the stars!") the collection on a whole seemed spotty at best, aimed less at the aficionado and more at the casual "Star Trek" viewer ("You mean William Shatner did something before "Boston Legal"?).

It was neat having the entire "Star Trek" universe laid out in chronological order -- although the only two series I ever watched were the original show (when it originally aired, thank you very much) and "The Next Generation" so a lot of what else happened in that universe meant nothing to me -- as well as the section that showed the chronology of ships called "Enterprise."

What it could have used was a little more focus on the original show. I mean, seriously, it started the whole thing. So what if it was not a huge ratings hit when it first aired in the 1960s? It is the wellspring from which everything else sprang. Instead of photographs of the cool matte paintings done for the original series (pictured) why not the original art itself? This was all done in the days before CGI and digital video. It was done BY HAND, for crying out loud, yet the best homage they can give to it is a photograph? Sigh.

After, we went to Pei Wei and had a really great Asian lunch, although I think the cap fell off the jar of spice as my Pei Wei Spicy was WAY too spicy.

You can read more about the Arizona Science Center exhibition here.

The next stop for the tour is Detroit, although it says it opens there in February while the posters at the Science Center said it was running here through May. Maybe they will achieve that duality through some kind of space / time continuum.