25 April 2009

What's Part Pig, Part Bird, Part Human?

I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke; but, in this case, the answer is not funny:

You have probably heard of the fatal outbreak in Mexico of a strain of influenza virus that is causing a lot of concern around the world. The culprit is thought to be an animal variant of the H1N1 virus.

What makes this fascinating is:

a: this variant is thought to be a combination of strains found in humans, birds and pigs now found in a single virus

b: this variant was the root of the influenza outbreak that killed more than 40,000,000 people around the world circa 1918-1920. (Called "Spanish Influenza" although its first known case was in America.)

c: just last year, the Centers for Disease Control reported on the resistance of variants of H1N1 to Oseltamivir -- a very strong and wide-spread antiviral.

d: a company predicted in April 2008 a high probability of a major outbreak in the H1N1 virus.

Back in January I wrote about the prevailing school of thought that we were going to start seeing more and more outbreaks of once-common and easily treatable infectious diseases. This would appear to be the next in a (probably) long line of such events.

Will this Mexico outbreak be the beginning of the next big pandemic? One can only wonder.

You can read more about the recent Mexico outbreak here.

The CDC has a report on the spread of the H1N1 virus to America here.

You can read the 2008 prediction here.

You can read about the history of the 1918 influenza outbreak (featured in the illustration) here.

23 April 2009

Where's Detroit?

I am not a huge fan of contemporary music. I mean, really, aside from a couple songs, has any good music been written since the war? (And by that, I mean WW2.) Well, I know a few people who read my little bloggie are big music fans (Hi, Matt! Hi, Dan!) so I want to direct them to a really great story I heard this a.m. on NPR. It's about efforts to help Detroit create some kind of center to honor the great music that came from there through the years.

You can hear the report here.

21 April 2009

The Many Faces of Gatsby

Arguably, the best novel written by someone other than Ayn Rand (see entry of 20 April 2009) is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Few novels capture a time, a people, and a slice of America quite the same way.

I have been fixated on "Gatsby" for many years. I have seen three of the four filmed versions, and am desperate to see the long-thought-lost 1926 silent version. Apparently others have sought out this missing classic, too, with no luck. (A tantalizing glimpse of the silent "Gatsby" exists in the form of the movie's original trailer. The only version actually filmed in the correct time period, it seems to really capture the era. Apparently, contemporary reviews disagree.)

Which actor was best at portraying Jay Gatsby? It's hard to tell, not being able to see Warner Baxter in the 1926 version. Alan Ladd (1949) seems too rough on the edges, clearly telegraphing his supposedly-mysterious past; Toby Stephens (2000) was too, I don't know, too British, or something.

The best portrayal was Robert Redford (1974) in what has to be the definitive version: It has the right look (costumes, sets, locations), music (Nelson Riddle) and the correct -- what, ennui? -- that define the people and the time.

If you have never read "The Great Gatsby" you really are missing something amazing.

If you have a copy of the 1926 silent version, please let me know. Really.

20 April 2009

Rand Shrugged

I think this is rich: suddenly, out of the woodwork, suddenly, thanks to the recession, everyone is becoming a fan of Ayn Rand's masterpiece "Atlas Shrugged." It is so bizarre that her 1957 novel should, 52 years later, be "discovered" by the masses, after decades of influencing thinkers around the world. (A 1991 survey conducted by the Library of Congress found it to be to second most influential book in the United States.)

My first brush with Rand (pictured) came about 30 years ago -- when I was going through my "I want to be an architect" phase and found out about "The Fountainhead." I knew it was about an architect, but when I started to read it I just wasn't ready. So, several years later, while recovering from my first back injury, I found it on my book shelf.

Wow! What a novel! An architect insists on doing things his way, building his way; and, when his work is corrupted, blows it to smithereens. I love it! It's hard to put into words just what this book meant to me then and still does today. I was hooked, and went out and bought every book on or by Rand -- including, of course "Atlas Shrugged."

Long ago I stopped reading novels, focusing only on biographies and histories. However, there are two novels I read every few years: "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged."

"Atlas Shrugged" is about as close to a bible as I have ever found that I can believe in. It is about the freedom to do as you choose as long as that choice does not interfere with the desire of others to do as they choose. It speaks of a world free from government intrusion, from rules and regulations that stifle creativity, where people are judged by the deeds they accomplish, not by how needy or corrupt they are. It is, in effect, the description of a utopian world where one does the right things because those are the right things to do -- not because someone is forcing them to do them. It is very difficult to sum up the power of Rand's works. They must really be read to be appreciated for their true power.

And what would Rand think about all this renewed attention? I think she would just shrug and say "I knew it would happen." She was smart that way.

You can read an article here that just came out about the renewed influence of "Atlas Shrugged." You can read about the novel here, and more about Rand herself here.

You can purchase the novel here.

18 April 2009

A Golden Age of Television

I was pretty damned lucky to have grown up in the 1960s. Not because of the music, books or movies that were big at the time, but because of television. I have made no secret of my distaste of current television offerings. These are not the rantings of a dottering old man; rather, the observations of someone who grew up surrounded by shows that are considered some of the best television ever made.

Recently, I compiled a list of the television programs that I most enjoyed when a child.

My favorite of all time was, as I have written here before, "Mission: Impossible." It premiered in 1966 when I was about six. That same year was, of course, the original "Star Trek."

By then, I had already been introduced to great writing and concepts of science fiction in "The Outer Limits" (starting in 1963) which, more than anything, scared the crap out of me. (Fun scary, not permanently-damaging-my-fragile-young-mind scary.) Also already on the slate was "Lost in Space" (starting in 1965). I know it was campy; but (I realize now) I watched it more because I was in love with Mark Goddard (pictured).

My next favorite shows all came from England starting around 1972 with "UFO" which caught me because of the science, "Space: 1999" (in 1975) which I started watching because Barbara Bain was in it, and the funniest show ever produced in the entire history of television "Monthy Python" (also in 1975). (I remember arguments in high school between the "Monty Python" contingent and the "Saturday Night Live" contingent over which was funnier.)

What surprises me is that FIVE of these shows were science fiction. Of course, I watched other television during those years -- notably "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (from 1970), "The Bob Newhart Show" (from 1972), and the greatest variety show ever produced, "The Carol Burnett Show" (from 1967) -- but, great as these shows were and have proven to be through time, they just did not stay with me decades later like the original seven.

The one show that really affected me when it was canceled was "Mission: Impossible." Soon after it went off the air in 1973 I went to some kind of convention that was promoting the appearance of (get ready) Peter Lupus ("Willy" on "Mission: Impossible." I know, right?). I went, found him, begged him to autograph a photo I had of him and then, while he was signing, asked him why the show went off the air "because, clearly, it was the best program on television, ever!" He said in a weary, bored and condescending tone: "I don't know, kid. I guess the network just wanted something else." He shoved the photograph back at me and walked away. What a shit! Barbara Bain would surely have been classier than that.

17 April 2009

On Film

The magazine "Total Film" does another one of those subjective lists -- this, the 67 most influential films ever made. I agree with many, disagree with many, and wonder where others are (What? "Singin' in the Rain" wasn't influential?) but it's an interesting list, despite my quibbles. (You could say I have trouble with quibbles.)

You can find the listing here.

13 April 2009

A Susan Boyle Moment

In the coming days, months and years people will be using the phrase "that was a Susan Boyle moment" to describe something totally unexpected and wonderful (hopefully replacing the most overused phrase in the history of phraseology "it was a perfect storm").

I realize I am, like, the 9,000,000th person to write about this woman's performance on the British television series "Britain's Got Talent" but I just had to put in my two cents about something that I discovered decades ago but so many people have yet to understand: talent has nothing to do with looks, it has nothing to do with being young. Not only did this woman's performance shock a lot of (young) people in the audience, I hope it taught them something very, very important.

You can read what happened here. The article has a link to the performance. Stick around and hear what the judges had to say. That was even more impressive.

11 April 2009

Back and Forth

Friday I had the third (and, for now, last) round of steroid injections in my back. I am happy to say they seem to have done their job of reducing the swelling of the nerves that branch out from the L4 / L5 area of my spine. Nearly all the ancillary symptoms (numbing and tingling in my feet) have ceased. Overall, another victory for modern medicine.

I thought you might find this x-ray photograph of interest. This was taken yesterday after the doctor had placed both needles in my back. (They position both needles first, then inject the dye, then the steroids.) This x-ray was taken from my right side so it looks like both needles are sticking straight back, but they are sticking out either side of me. (The front of my body is to the right, the back to the left.)

To the left of the yellow arrows is my spinal canal; to the right you will see vertebrae and disks (the space between the vertebrae). The dark line directly aligned with the two arrows is the dye in the area where they inject the steroids. The dye helps them know they have the needles in the right place.

(Interesting to note that the first round of injections, back in February, did not hurt very much. The second batch, in March, hurt more. This set really hurt -- much more than before. I wonder if this is normal.)

I am done for now, as you cannot have too many steroid injections in a short space of time as steroids can be very harmful when used too much. So, I am on my own now with back exercises and continually being very aware of how I lift and exert with regard to my back.

If you want to read the previous entries about my back saga, you will find the MRI adventure here and the tale of the first round of injections here.

10 April 2009

Can They Suffer?

A very interesting op-ed piece in Wednesday's New York Times has had me cogitating about the whole issue of animal rights -- an issue long near and dear to me. While I won't go so far as to equate non-human animals and human animals, I deeply believe humans need to learn to be nicer to other animals. (And nicer to humans, too.)

There was a time, thankfully long ago, when the prevailing theory was that non-human animals felt no pain, had no intelligence, and were put on this earth for the complete and total use of humans and no other reason. People felt it okay to starve animals, neglect them, even use them for vivisection. Over time, cooler heads prevailed and humans slowly came to realize that -- whatever their "purpose" on our planet -- animals could indeed reason, feel pain and were more than just "dumb." (Clearly, once Jane Goodall saw a chimpanzee alter a twig and use it as a tool, there was no turning back.)

This understanding is pretty much universal today; but what amazed me in the op-ed piece was to learn that the idea of animals being more than just "dumb" officially dates back more than 200 years, to the writings of Jeremy Bentham who, in 1789, posited that animals might actually have the inherent right to not be made to suffer. Pretty heady stuff for the late 18th century.

For most of my life I have respected animals without really knowing why. It just seemed fair to be nice to them. I think it was in the opening scene of the 1992 movie "The Last of the Mohicans" where some Indians were hunting an elk or some such large animal. After they killed it, they gave a prayer of thanks for the animal giving its life to them, and wishing the animal's spirit a safe trip to the afterlife. I was moved by that scene and, since then (call me crazy) whenever we have meat for dinner, I say a little prayer of thanks to the animal which gave its life for us. I like meat, I eat meat, I wish there were some way we could have meat without killing an animal to get it. There is no reason to make the animal suffer just for our dinner.

[Note: The op-ed piece mentions the animal rights initiative passed in California in November saying calves, pigs and chickens should be kept in cages where they can be more comfortable than current law demands. I am happy to say Arizona passed a similar law in 2006.]

You can read the op-ed piece here.

You can read more about Bentham here; and his seminal work "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation" here.

My two previous entries about animals and their rights will be found here and here.

The illustration of a seahorse is by famed naturalist Charles Harper.

09 April 2009

The Future?

Today's Los Angeles Times has a rather startling article about the possible future of the planet, thanks to climate change. It talks about the dramatic changes to the weather being seen in Australia in the way of heat, fires and drought. Even if you don't believe in climate change (because, I don't know, facts aren't enough for you?) you cannot deny what many Australians are seeing every day.

You can find the article here.