Sunday, April 27, 2008

VIDEOGAMES- Gran Turismo 5 Prologue

Well, I’ve spent most of the day playing Gran Turismo 5 Prologue and I’ve got a few thoughts that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else.

But first, the things you probably already know. GT5p isn’t a full game. It’s a demo that costs $40. The full game is supposed to be released sometime next year. You could say that it’s half a game (for 2/3 the price of a whole one) but honestly I hope that it’s nowhere near half of what GT 5 is going to eventually be. It has only 8 tracks and about 70 cars. The tracks are small and the cars are a decent mix but both of these are woefully sad compared to what we’ve come to expect from Forza or Gotham Racing. This is pretty inexcusable considering Polyphony probably got some of the first PS3 development hardware and yet just a releasable demo has taken over a year and a half of development. The PS3 hardware didn’t take that long to design. And considering how long this has taken, there’s a good chance that we’ll see the PS4 before we get a finished copy of this game. There is also the chance that Sony and Polyphony plan to nickel and dime players to death by dribbling out content online for the next year or more. This wouldn’t be out of character with the kind of contempt Sony has shown for their consumers recently, but would be a terrible mistake. OTOH, Sony has slipped from #1 to #3 in videogames and seen a huge drop in profits over the last couple of years by making just such mistakes.

What is here, however, is pretty great. I use the qualifier because there are a few disappointments that go beyond small tracks and few cars. Not with the play mechanics, thankfully. The game is undoubtedly the finest racing sim ever made for a console or computer. It runs at 1080P with an almost rock steady 60 fps framerate. Only setting yourself into a fast spin can cause any jitter. And all the cars feel different and the few I’ve actually driven feel right. I’ve spent most of my time so far in the Nissan 350Z, since it was the last car I owned and I’m quite familiar with how it drives. I have to say that the game reproduces its handling in an uncanny fashion. The game’s 350 wags its tail in response to throttle inputs like a happy puppy, much like the actual car. Likewise the virtual Acura Integra VTEC has the quirky, high-reving powerband and moderate tendency to understeer down cold. Light cars feel light and heavier cars are planted more firmly.

I started the game with the Sony controller but like all GT games it really starts to sing with a good racing wheel. I use the Logitech Driving Force Pro attached to the racing seat. Support for several legacy Logitech wheels is available from the OPTIONS menu and my wheel seems to work flawlessly. Kudos to Polyphony for this since I’m beginning to need a separate closet for all the wheels I’ve bought for various systems over the years. A good wheel is imperative to fully enjoy the game and the Logitech is economical (at less than $150) and allows for 270 degree action rather than the typical 180 degrees lock to lock, making it more like a real car. While I’m on the subject, I highly recommend the Bob Earl seat. It’s firmly built, simple, telescopes for storage, and most importantly holds my 6’6” body without any problems. Money well spent for an aficionado of racing games.

Now for the quibbles. First is the time it takes to get to your first race. If you haven’t kept your PS3 OS updated the game comes with the latest upgrade, which will take several minutes to load. Then the game loads content before it plays. I don’t know how much of the engine is loaded on the hard drive but on my 20GB PS3 I had to delete almost 4GB to give it enough space. Then several more minutes while more data is transferred. Finally you get to the intro movie. There are several movies for cut scenes and loving car views over many of the menus. They are all lovingly rendered and they all cause a few seconds of delay as you switch screens. It isn’t terrible but even small delays are frustrating by the time you get to the menus for the first time. The game doesn’t help this by taking you from each event back to the main menu every time. If you’re racing small tracks and few laps (the defaults at first) you wind up spending too much time navagating menus rather than racing. Still, this isn’t too bad and load times for the tracks are pretty quick.
But before you race for the first time you have to buy a car. You start with 35,000 credits and the pickings are pretty slim. Plus, you have to enter each manufacturers area, click for the showroom, enter each car to get specs, and then back all the way out and do it again for the next manufacturer. There are only a couple or three cars from each brand, so you wind up spending a lot of time choosing your first car before you can race. When you finally do get on the track the graphics are great but don’t expect the kind of busy environments you find in games like Gotham Racing. The tracks are, well, race tracks. The crowds don’t do much, and the distant backgrounds look like paintings. There are also graphical glitches. The lake in one track is reflective and has waves, but the waves don’t move. I also noticed light poles popping in an out of existence occasionally.

But all those quibbles are just quibbles. The game runs and plays great and the driving physics is the best in a GT game yet. I don’t know how a racing fan can pass it up, but we’re still waiting for the full game and will be for a while. Polyphony has done a great job on the basics, now they need to pack the final release with enough content that we won’t feel cheated having to buy the game again in a year.

MOVIES- John Adams

It is a melancholy rainy Saturday in the Tennessee valley today. It has been a week of beginnings and endings and the rain falls like tears to mark the passage of time. Spring ends winter, life is reborn. And yet life is finite. Which brings me to today’s topic.

I finished John Adams, the HBO miniseries, today. HBO has a history of bringing the best to television. They have a novel approach that is so fruitful one wonders why it is novel. It seems what they do is allow creators to create with minimal interference from non-creators who, while their instincts are for business still feel drawn to think they are creators but usually only manage to interfere with real artists. As it has been said, everyone is a critic. HBO at some point decided that deciding on money up front and then leaving the real artists alone was a better plan. The fruits of their labors have been extraordinary: The Sopranos, Rome, numerous comedy specials, Six Feet Under, Real Time with Bill Maher, numerous sports programs, and just lately the John Adams miniseries. High points in television programming that make them simply the best (an old advertising slogan that actually describes the product) network in an era of ubiquitous networks. Their movie purchases from theatrical release are lacking, but their original programming is of such high caliber that I continue to purchase their service every month. I am tempted by the variety of movies at Starz but HBO’s original programming keeps me loyal.

So on to the John Adams miniseries. Rarely has a drama looked at the founding fathers with such an accurate eye. Generally we wish to make saints of our original citizens. Just as we wish to look on history as a reflection of our own imaginary dialog with our lives. We see ourselves as Ptolomy, Socrates, Plato, Moses, Jesus, Newton, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Dalton, Watt, Einstein. In fact we more likely resemble one of the pitchfork or torch bearing members of the crowd storming the castle Frankenstein. Afraid of change and mired in our own worldview, we rail against the changes that later generations will think of as quaint, as history.

HBO’s miniseries biography of John Adams life showed him as flawed, arrogant, intellectual, and often right. Many things our current society looks on with disdain. We elevate the stupid because it doesn't challenge us. We deride the intelligent because we fear our inadequacies. We long for a simpler time, not realizing that times are never simple for those who live in them. We beckon to a celestial parent who knows that to ever be what we were born to be we must forsake our childhood and rely on ourselves. John Adams feared what we would become if we didn’t heed the better angels of our nature and thus pushed for harsh laws to keep men in line. A counterpoint was Thomas Jefferson who trusted what we were capable of being when we did but was somewhat naïve in his convictions. Washington was quiet and regal, taller than everyone else and virtually toothless at a young age. Franklin was a libertine more beloved in France than even in his own country, the hippie of the founding fathers. All these characters are finely drawn, as is the central relationship in the movie- that of John Adams and his wife Abigail. Despite their 18th century manners they seem more like a real married couple than most you ever see on television. They deeply care for each other and yet they often disagree. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney breathe life into these characters masterfully. As do every actor on screen. There isn’t a sour note struck by any of the portrayals.

In fact the whole miniseries is endowed with a kind of veracity that draws you into a world long gone. Every detail is as meticulously researched as the actors are inspired. The architecture, costumes, props, set dressing, down to things like saddles and hand tools are all as authentic as possible. And the production values are as good as any theatrical release. In the first episode Adams walks down the street in front of Boston Harbor and past him you first see the warehouses on the landward side and then the camera pans around and you see the harbor with dozens of ships docked. We don’t often stop to linger on the backgrounds but they strongly make the impression that you are in a real place. And never do they appear to be a special effect.

The series begins with Adams home and professional life before he becomes a revolutionary. All the high points are here. We see his defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. He is torn between the secessionist leanings of his cousin, Samuel Adams and the favor he has garnered in London by his successful defense of the soldiers. He becomes a member of the Constitutional Congress that drafts the Declaration of Independence. In Europe he makes a fool of himself as a diplomat. Returning after the war is over, he becomes the nation's first vice-president and then second president. The Alien and Sedition Acts are touched on, as are the lives of his children, one of whom would also be president.

The last episode is almost an epilogue. Adams old age and the losses that are the lot of a long life are chronicled. His daughter’s death from cancer, the loss of his beloved wife, and finally his own final contest with Thomas Jefferson to be the last of the founders to pass on end a story that has spanned almost 60 years of a mans life and the birth of our nation. A fitting end to watch on a melancholy rainy spring day.

The final words of the series are from a letter that Adams wrote to Jefferson just before his death and give a fine example of the quality of the entire production:

“My dearest friend,

“Whether I stand high or low, in the estimation of the world, my conscience is clear. I thank God that I have you for a partner in all the joys and sorrows, all the prosperity and adversity of my life. To take a part with me in the struggle. Should I draw you the picture of my heart you would know with what indescribable pleasure I have seen so many scores of years roll over our heads. With an affection heightened and improved by time. Nor have the dreary years of absence, in the smallest degree, effaced from my mind the image of the dreary untitled man to whom I gave my heart. You could not be, nor did I wish to see you, an inactive spectator.

“Now posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that your will make a good use of it. And if you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it. “

Friday, April 18, 2008

MOVIES- There Will Be Blood

In the third of our Oscar Best Picture roundup we look at THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Unlike Atonement, this is truly worthy of Oscar contention. But like NO COUNTY FOR OLD MEN it is for reasons that defy conventional wisdom and the usual that Hollywood has to offer. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a pure character study. As much as the winner, NO COUNTRY, was driven by plot and image, this movie is just as unique because it is driven by character and character alone. In fact, there are none of the usual movie making conventions. No adversary rears their head to thwart the hero in finding their path to a goal. There is no hero, only a group of individuals vying for their own for their own interests. There is no plot or dramatic structure, only events that happen to each of these monuments to single minded self interest. There is no denouement, only a point at which the movie ends.

The lead characters are the epitome of different kinds of pure horrific cynicism. Daniel Day Lewis gives an unflinching portrayal of the avarice and loathing for humanity that so many businessmen possess in the role of the ironically named Daniel Plainview. Paul Dano plays the charlatan preacher named Eli Sunday, who is interested only in self-aggrandizement and has no faith in anything except the belief that people are fools. The names almost put too tidy a point on the idea that these people are characatures rather than characters. The only person that can be called sympathetic in the whole movie is the son of Plainview, who we see grow from infant to man and thus encompasses the work of four different actors. This too is rather metaphorical I think. While the evil leads are clearly drawn by individual actors, the only role that can be said to represent good is rather nebulous and winds up being a pawn, a cardboard cutout, a set piece for the more interesting main actors. And like all the other names in the movie, his name is also a metaphor in that he doesn’t even have a name. Only initials tacked in front of the ironic Plainview surname. The movie never lets up in beating you over the head with it’s lack of interest in anything but basest of human motivations.

One hint to anyone who views the IMDB.COM page for the movie is the cast list. There are more roles in his movie for people without names than there are with names. Most are MINEWORKER #4, and ELI FOLLOWER #3. And the ones who do have names are literally named for their character traits. Nobody bothered to even pick up a phonebook and find names for the roles. Instead Plainview has only superficial vision, Eli (no doubt short for Elijah the prophet) Sunday is the preacher. We have an Ailman, a Rose, a Bankside, a Hunter, a Blaize, and a Blaut. The supporting cast are inconsequential. So much so that I, who is usually a nut for picking out character actors in brief supporting roles (I picked out John Larroquette under all that Kingon shit on his face in Star Trek III) didn’t even notice Paul F. Tompkins in a rather prominent role (so prominent that he actually got a name- Prescott).

LONG ASIDE AND INEVETABLE DIGRESSION WARNING: (I’ve been looking to see where Tompkins would land since he bombed so impressively and so dependably every week on the first season of Bill Maher’s HBO show. Rarely has a comedian done such good material only to be met with the sound of crickets chirping out in the audience. It’s a shame HBO won’t ever air those shows again, not even as podcasts. It was worth tuning in just to see the look on his face every time he launched into a routine just to have the mikes in the studio pick up the sound of the audience whispering to each other “who is this douchbag?” He wasn’t unfunny, but nothing he did could measure up to his complete and dismal failure with the live audience every week. That was pure hilarity. So I been keeping an eye on his career whenever it crosses my cultural radar. So far it’s been MTV’s shitfest Best Week Ever, where the object is, as far as I can tell, to lower the number of people on the LA unemployment roles since the idea of the show is that people who have no reason to give their opinions do exactly that every week. He also pops up on Keith Olberman’s show- where the primary criteria to be a revolving guest is to make sure you are never (a) taller, (b) prettier, (c) wittier, or (d) more of an egomaniac than the host. I love Keith and never miss his program but I suspect that someday his ego will grow so large that it will collapse in on itself and create a black hole in the solar system that will swallow everything else. One word from a devoted viewer Keith, O’Reilly may be a moron but at least he has somebody new on the show from time to time. I know how many eyebrow hairs Richard Wollffe has at this point. And his gay, pseudo-British pronunciation isn’t helping you in middle America.)

We see the supporting cast the same way Daniel Plainview sees them. Or doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. They don’t matter. He doesn’t see them and neither do we.

By now you may think that I didn’t like the movie. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a masterfully directed, interesting piece of film. But (to use a phrase I’ve come to hate in other contexts) it is what it is. Supposedly based on Upton Sinclair’s OIL you could just as well make a movie based on Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE by shooting two hours of the fictional biography of a meat packing manager who gleefully orders his workers to sweep the floor of rat feces and dump the refuse into the sausage hopper, while stopping on his way home every night at the local butcher shop for his own dinner. But to do it in the way that THERE WILL BE BLOOD does it you would have to shoot one beautiful, painterly scene after another and do it with a directorial panache that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats to see what happens next.

The film lets the audience know what it’s in for in the first five minutes. The first scene in the movie happens without dialog. We see a silver miner, face always in shadow, making a find, having an accident, falling down into the mine shaft, painfully pulling himself back up while dragging his broken leg behind him, dragging himself along the ground after having extricated himself from the earth, and apparently dragging himself straight to the assay office to lie on the floor while his find is assessed. It’s gruesome and yet riveting, an appropriate introduction to a movie that is gruesome and riveting. It tells you everything you need to know about Daniel Plainview, but makes you want to see the next two hours because despite the fact you wouldn’t want to know him, you can’t help but want to get to know him.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ultimate Showdown

Another link from G. F. (hey dude, you should be writing this blog). But I am more than willing to take credit for other people's genius (after all I stand on the shoulders of giants, just like Newton) I hope you enjoy this because it's really funny.

A couple questions I throw into the Ethernet.

Am I the only person who remembers Jambi the Jenni?

Who is the blue guy in the bridge? He looks like Frank Oz.

MOVIES- Star Wars and beyond

Over at CBR George Khouri makes one of the most concise and eloquent analyses of STAR WARS that I’ve ever read (props once again to my brother from another mother G.F. in leading me to this). He makes the case for STAR WARS being the pivotal movie, and indeed the most influential cultural phenomenon, in the last generation. It’s hard to argue with. The movie changed everything that would come after it by reaching back to everything that had come before it. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is so much more than a tagline. It’s a statement of intent, a mission statement, a state of mind. Khouri does a masterful job of placing the original STAR WARS into the milieu of what movies had become when this revolutionary film hit the screens. It was a return to classic moviemaking after an era when movies had become so cynical, so disheartening, and so realistic that a return to what movies had been for most of the history of film was considered refreshing, novel, and revolutionary.

I feel safe in saying that no film has had the impact on film in general that Lucas’ initial foray into space opera had. It’s hard to even count the departures from what was considered the axioms of successful film that STAR WARS embodied. It was released in the summer- at a time when conventional wisdom said that summer was the time to release films that wouldn’t do well to start with- a lull for the industry. Now all blockbusters are released in the summer. STAR WARS literally changed the whole industry’s thinking on what the best time to present films to the audience was.

It was science fiction (not really, but it looked and felt and seemed to be to the mass audience and the industry moguls), a genre that was a niche market at best, a literary and film ghetto at worst. Yet it proved what Ray Bradbury had said for years, that science fiction was the literature of our times. It spoke to people about the world they found themselves in. If Dickens, Poe, Chaucher, or Shakespeare were writing today, they wouldn’t be writing character dramas, or horror, or sundries, or historical plays. They would be writing science fiction. Because we live in a science fiction world. Everyone carries a communication device that links them to everyone else in the world in their pocket. Everyone owns a computer that can do hundreds of millions of calculations a second and links them to a worldwide repository of knowledge. Wikipedia, a constantly updated encyclopedia of all human knowledge with over 10 million articles, exists- something that was impossible and thought to be some flight of fancy only a decade ago. When we go to the doctor we get pictures of our insides made with invisible light, or magnetism, or even antimatter. Our cities are glowing sculptures of glass and steel that anyone from any past epoch would think are the abode of the gods. It goes on and on. And all this in the span of a human lifetime. I grew up on a farm without plumbing, where we grew most of our own food and were tied to the land and our animals for existence every day. I live in a world where everything I use and need to live is of exquisite workmanship and embody technological marvels that I only read about when I was young. Just like everyone else- I live in a science fiction world.

But as a cultural phenomenon, STAR WARS was the breaking point for the last generation. Today, the young can hardly imagine a world without Cell Phones, and the Internet, and Computers. They look at things differently, in just the same way that the last generation could only think of a world without telephones and electricity and automobiles. For most of human history we only had speech. Reading and writing were only for the select few. After Guttenburg we had the written word. Literacy became the entry into human society. A hundred years ago Edison invented a way to store pictures that moved. That way of human communication is nearing an end but it hasn’t yet. The latest generation is still informed by film and television. So what is the latest and perhaps last paradigm shift for our world that will come from film?

That tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Well, there's a whole lot to talk about. Obama's quote saying Pennsylvanians are bitter. Us starting to really understand what Issac Asimov called reverse poisons (and we call vitamins) in part 3 of our series on vitamins. My own personal situation (perhaps interesting but not what I'd rather talk about) telling all men what women are really like. The new Iron Man movie. The newBatman movie. Who owns Superman. Why the Bush administration has now been proven to be an attempt to turn the American form of government to pure fascism. Why God is dead and life is pointless. Why the Matrix trilogy are the greates movie series in hisotry. Why logic is better than emotion but emotion is easier. Why we are all going to die and death is the defining truth in our universe. And far more. Stay tuned for real truth. But be warned that real truth is nothing you will find flattering. Most of what you've been told is mostly lies.

Friday, April 11, 2008

POLITICS- Which Elton John song is Hillary Clinton most like?

Wednesday night Hillary Clinton had a fundraiser in New York that netted her 2.5 million. That really isn’t news and perhaps neither was the headliner, that American Patriot- Elton John. Elton was quoted as saying that not supporting Hillary was “misogynistic” which reminds us that being a great writer of pop music doesn’t keep you from being an idiot. Also acting for straight man for the obvious joke, Hillary said in her comments, “What I want you to know is, I’m still standing.” Misogyny aside, the Elton John song I was thinking of was The Bitch is Back.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

SCIENCE- Crossville TN's visit from the Flying Spaghetti Monster

About half way between where I live and Dayton, Tennessee (the home of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925) is the town of Crossville, TN. Crossville is a lovely little town set at the western edge of the Cumberland

Plateau, known primarily as home to a retirement community called Lake Tansi. Recently the town leaders invited the various religions in the area to place their religious icons on the lawn of the courthouse. Quite by surprise to said town leaders (and myself as well) some local decided to take the opportunity to erect a sculpture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as their chosen icon. I haven't been to see this for myself yet (hopefully tomorrow if the weather is good) but I did catch this editorial reaction in the local newspaper (with picture).

Since this miraculous happening was virtually in my own backyard, I could not resist a reply of my own to the reporter of the story. My first inclination was to adopt the tactics of the redoubtable General J. C. Christian as a response. I quickly realized that such a tact would surely be lost in the flood of similar but non-satirical letters which would certainly be written. So instead I decided on a more direct approach.

Mr Hayes,

I read your online article concerning the Flying Spaghetti Monster with some interest last week. I’m afraid, however, that you have missed the point of the original intent of the FSM and unfortunately taken it as a personal attack on your own religion. I find this an unfortunate and common tendency among some Christians in discussions which attempt to put religion into a larger context.

You state:

“While some may argue the statue was not locally done in effort to mock or belittle Christians, the idea of the spaghetti monster in its original context was proposed to do just that. In other words, the spaghetti monster concept was created to undermine the credibility of Intelligent Design as an alternative theory to Darwinian evolution.”

This is only partially correct. While the Kansas debate over the teaching of Intelligent Design was the impetus for the creation of Pastafarianism, and certainly Bobby Henderson’s tongue was pretty firmly in his cheek when he invented it, the actual point being made was quite salient. It doesn’t apply to Christianity but to all religions who would attempt to use the public schools to foster their personal religious beliefs. Many groups have creation myths, and indeed that is what they seem to any non-believer- myths. Christians take this view about creation stories of all other religions, and vice versa. The proponents of Intelligent Design had stated that their “theories” were purely scientific and not meant to advance any particular religion. If this claim is true then Henderson has a point that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is as likely a motive force for that design as any other deity. That this is taken as an insult by the Christian advocates of Intelligent Design proves that their intent was indeed to promote a particular religious creation story and not simply the idea that some unknown primordial force shaped the universe.

I do think that your points on the impossibility of a devout person not having their political decisions informed by their spiritual beliefs are undeniable. In fact, I cannot imagine that any persons spiritual beliefs would not affect every decision they make, political or otherwise. But that was not the point Mr. Henderson was making. And even if we would extrapolate any point he intended into some larger motive, I can only see that as being the idea that ANY religious dogma taught as science is an imposition on all believers of other faiths who have equally fervently held but different beliefs (to which they are completely entitled) but who are required by law to send their children to those same public schools. Opening the door to Intelligent Design also opens the door to all other sorts of religious creation stories which might be couched in pseudo-scientific terminology but are simply attempts to use public schools for missionary efforts.

Which brings us to another point which you do not seem to realize. Intelligent Design is not a credible scientific theory for a number of reasons. You seem to think that science is some sort of godless religion. I am afraid that this is simply patently wrong. Science is a methodology for understanding the natural causes for events in the natural world. Science is incapable of addressing causes of anything but an observable, quantifiable nature. Attempts to use political means to force ID into science curriculums acknowledge that it is unable to meet the same scientific standards by which any other scientific explanation would be judged. Advocates say this is because of the intransigence of scientific “dogma” but that ignores the fact that the history of science is replete with examples of scientific theories being replaced by newer theories. All scientific knowledge is contingent upon new information and new discovery. The best any science can say is that with the knowledge we have, this seems the most plausible explanation.

The constitution does, contrary to your assertion, insist on governmental neutrality in matters of religion. This does not prohibit people from being influenced by their religious convictions but it does prohibit using the power of government to favor any religion over another. The founding fathers realized, having come from a country where religion and governmental power were inextricably joined, that unless all religions are treated the same and protected from interference can people be free to worship as they wish.

But all that has nothing to do with science. Science is neither democratic nor political, in spite of your attempt to advance the meme that it is just another philosophy or religion. Einstein’s papers on relativity in 1905 and 1915 were considered preposterous by the majority of scientists when first published. But 100 years of further exploration and discovery have shown it to be almost unerringly accurate. Ironically, the greatest error (by Einstein’s own admission the greatest error of his life) was that, faced with the theory’s implication that there had to be a “creation event” for the universe, he added the Gravitational Constant to rectify what he saw as an error. Ironically, a catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, reworked the equations in 1927, found the “creation moment” and corrected Einstein on it. Only a few years later Edwin Hubble was able to prove that Lemaitre was right and the universe did seem to have a beginning. There is no conspiracy to prohibit those of religious beliefs from science. Like anyone else, the ideas of the devout are judged just as any other ideas are- on the basis of their merit.

I hope that you do not interpret this letter as contentious. It is simply an attempt to rectify some misconceptions about the difference between science and religion. Perhaps becoming more familiar with what science actually says about the development of the universe would be informative. Your own article confuses cosmology with evolutionary biology. But I find that frequently people who share your beliefs on the current debate have been misinformed on what science and the scientific method really are. And, as a person with deeply held religious convictions of my own, I realize that whenever in the past religion has attempted to stifle scientific inquiry it has wound up hurting it’s own cause rather than helping it. The problem is also the basic difference between science and religion. Science is simply not dependent on faith to provide answers. It works or doesn’t work whether you believe or not. My microwave heats food with invisible light whether I believe or not. Likewise, evolution happens, whether you believe it or not. In just one of numerous examples, we are currently faced with a number of new bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and which simply did not exist 100 years ago. To refuse to believe in evolution is to refuse to believe in Doberman Pincher's, who also did not exist a few hundred years ago. To redefine science as a mere belief system is to forget that Galileo was right about the construction of the solar system in spite of the fact that the church locked him up and prohibited him from talking about what he had seen through his telescope.

You are free to choose whatever creation story you wish. Because the constitution prohibits the government from favoring any particular religion over the others. But to be called science, conclusions have to be arrived at in a scientific manner. Saying your religion is scientific does not make it so, and conversely misinterpreting science and calling it a religion does not make that so either. There is no “religion of Darwin” I’m afraid. Merely observations of occurrences in nature and the underlying framework they imply.

Thank you for your time. I hope you have found this letter informative and that it helped to clarify some of the misapprehensions you seem to have on the subject.

I am curious to see if I get any reply (It would be the second miraculous surprise to be associated with this story if I did).

Friday, April 4, 2008

SCIENCE- Vitamins and Diet (Part II)

In part one of our series on vitamins we saw how the voyages of discovery uncovered a hitherto unknown scientific fact about diet- that not getting enough of certain types of foods led to disease. No longer was diet simply a matter of getting enough to keep from starving. Suddenly what you ate could be as important as how much there was to eat. One such dietary disease, scurvy, almost incapacitated the British navy by the end of the 18th century and forced the addition of limes to the diet of the British sailor. Brits are referred to as limeys to this day as a result. They had solved the problem but they still didn’t know why it had happened in the first place.

It wasn’t only the British navy that had problems with disease related to being ship bound. By the second half of the nineteenth century Japan was modernizing and attempting to develop as a maritime power. Japanese sailors didn’t get scurvy. Their diet of fish, rice, and fresh vegetables prevented this from becoming a problem. What they did get was beri-beri. A disease characterized by nerve damage that caused severe weakness and eventually death. (The name comes from a Sri Lankese term for “very weak”) By the 1880s almost a third of the Japanese navy was suffering from beri-beri and, as you can well imagine, this was a cause for some concern among the commanders. The Director General of the Japanese navy was a bright fellow named Kanehiro Takaki who noticed that other navies, such as the British, didn’t have this problem. He also noticed that his officers didn’t suffer from the disease in the numbers that the average sailor did. (See a trend shaping up here?) He was quick to catch on to the fact that it might have something to do with the difference in diet between the officers and regular sailors, since the officers diet was far more varied. Taking a page from the Brits, he introduced meat, evaporated milk and barley to the sailors diet and the beri-beri disappeared. Now science had been marching forward since the voyages of discovery and it was now common knowledge that food was not “just food”. It had been discovered that food was composted of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Takaki incorrectly surmised that a lack of sufficient protein had been the problem. And since he was in charge, that was that.

But just like scurvy, beri-beri continued to be a problem among populations on land. (Even today it kills thousands of people and we know what causes it.) An epidemic of beri-beri was occurring in the Dutch East Indies (what we now call Indonesia) and prompted the Dutch government to send a group of physicians to deal with the problem in 1886. By this time the germ theory of disease was all the rage (having been first stated by Agostino Bassi to explain muscardine disease in silkworms in 1835) and one of these doctors, a fellow named Christiaan Eijkman decided some germ must be the cause. To test his hypothesis he brought with him a group of chickens to use as experimental animals. His idea was to breed the chickens, infect them with the disease, isolate the germ involved, and hopefully formulate an antitoxin that could be used on the human populace. This, however, was a total failure. Try as he might he was completely unable to infect the chickens with beri-beri. So he gave up.

And then, a little while later, the chickens came down with beri-beri.

Well, perhaps not actual beri-beri. What they had contracted was a very similar disease called Avian Polyneuritis but this didn’t deter Eijkman since he knew that beri-beri was also a form of polyneuritis. He immediately set about trying to infect other chickens, isolate the germ involved and create an antitoxin. This, however, was again a total failure.

And then to add insult to injury, the chickens got better on their own.

But being a good scientist, Eijkman was not married to his original hypothesis, He realized that if the chickens had gotten sick and then well without the normal signs of infectious disease he must be dealing with something else entirely. He set about to find out what variable in the chicken’s environment had changed that might coincide with their changes in health. Finally he tracked it down.

The hospital he worked in had a new cook.

It seemed that the previous cook had taken to feeding the chickens the leftovers of the human residents of the hospital. And the chickens started getting sick. When the new cook had taken over he had put them back on their old diet they had gotten better. What was the difference? The residents diet was heavy on polished white rice. The same thing that the Japanese sailors had gotten sick eating. Natural rice comes with an oily husk. The oils in that husk become rancid over time so to preserve the rice the hulls are “polished” away, leaving smooth white grains that can be preserved for long periods of time if kept dry. Making it an ideal foodstuff to take on a long sea voyage in which there is no refrigeration. When the new cook had arrived he decided that human food was too good for the chickens and started feeding them rice with the husk on again. As a result, they had gotten better. Just as the Japanese sailors had when barley was substituted for the white rice in their shipboard diet.

And here’s where Eijkman made one of those great intuitive insights that science depends on from time to time. He reckoned that if germs weren’t the culprit, and that something in the diet was responsible but not something commonly known as a staple of life- fats, carbohydrates, or protein, then it must be some trace of another substance that was necessary for life. It was widely known that traces of some substances were deadly if ingested in even small amounts. Arsenic was one such deadly trace substance. They were called poisons. There must be some poison in the white rice which something in the hulls neutralized.

Unfortunately this insight was completely wrong. But the idea that there were traces of poison in common foodstuffs and traces of antidotes to those poisons in parts of the very same foodstuffs set off a flurry of scientific experimentation.

Suffering from ill health himself Eijkman left Indonesia soon after this but an associate of his named Gerrit Grijns was finally able to put the pieces together. In 1901 he published a paper that stated the rice hulls were not an antidote for a toxin in the rice but rather contained something that was itself essential for life.

This was a revolutionary idea. There were traces of something in the diet that humans could not live without. It was the beginning of the idea of a “balanced diet”. It didn’t take long for the idea to catch on like wild fire. If Beri-beri was a deficiency disease, then it was logical that Scurvy was as well, In 1906 English biochemist Fredrick Hopkins suggested that Rickets was also a deficiency disease. Six years later, in 1912, Polish biochemists Casimir Funk would add the disease Pellegra to the list of diseases caused by dietary insufficiency. All this would pay off with the grand prize of science when in 1929 Hopkins and Eijkman would share the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the nature of trace elements in diet and health.

But what were these needed but unknown dietary supplements?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

MOVIES- Atonement


When I write about a movie it’s usually more from the viewpoint of literary criticism than coming from a mindset of a typical movie review. Reviewing is popular because it simply consists of supporting a like or dislike of a movie. That, coupled with the limitation not to give away too much of the film, inevitably leads to superficial examination and highly subjective opinion. As a result movie reviews often fail at their actual purpose- helping the reader determine if a particular movie is worth seeing. Literary criticism, OTOH, supposes that the reader is familiar with the work and attempts to examine the work for theme, subtext, and the success or failure of the artist in conveying more complex themes through less obvious methods such as metaphor. There are drawbacks in attempting to do this with film as well. Film is not literature. It has specific time constraints, its ability to impart didactic information is far more limited, and its ability to evoke emotion makes it perhaps more akin to music than writing. Yet, like all storytelling, it is available to dissection to uncover complexity which is less than obvious.

Atonement pretends to be an adult romance movie but can’t rise above its adolescent romantic triangle (which only one actual adolescent involved). The leads are competent in a sort of period drama way, but the setting is actually the years immediately prior to America’s entry into World War II and the tone is more evocative of the 19th century than the mid 20th. The story is an amalgam of cheap romance novel conventions- ill fated young lovers separated by class, a jealous sister tells a terrible lie that separates them, their undying commitment to each other in the face of years of separation, their eventual reunion, the poor are noble and the rich are selfish. It’s all pretty trite and the storytellers seem to realize it because they reach into the cliché bag for one final non-surprise. Turns out that the whole last part of the movie is just a dream! The heroes are dead and everybody that lied to tear them apart lives happily ever after! See, all that juvenile love is just crap after all. The world is a cold cruel place and then you die.

The movie is pretty and the performances are adequate. But as a whole there isn’t much there. That this got a nomination for best picture is beyond my comprehension.