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102 posts from April 2005

April 30, 2005

Majikthise reviews The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I'll admit, Garth Jennings' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was much more entertaining than I expected.

Martin Freeman's Arthur Dent is actually a more likable protagonist than his literary counterpart. Mos Def plays a charismatic but bland version of Ford Prefect. In the novel Ford is a jaded, slightly psychopathic hedonist. Whereas, in the movie, Ford is primarily Arthur's cool buddy. Sam Rockwell's Zaphod Beeblebrox is an embarrassing cross between Jeff Lebowski and Maj. T.J. Kong* from Dr. Strangelove. Douglas Adams wrote Trillian as a brilliant mathematician/astrophysicist who was bored and kinky enough to run off with a two-headed alien. Basically, Zooey Deschanel's Trillian is pretty. The romantic subplot is so bad that I prefer to read it as posthumous "fuck you" from Douglas Adams. (I need a romantic subplot? Right, then, we'll give it three scenes.)

Bill Nighy gives HHG's best performance as Slartibartfast. His Magrathean planet-construction sequence is the highlight of the film.

The art direction and set design are hit and miss. The good guys' technology has a satisfyingly bulbous look. The design is timelessly nifty--retro, yet futuristic. (That's no mean feat. To look futuristic in 2005, you can't just recycle what people envisioned the future to be like in the late 1970's.) The marshmallowy Heart of Gold spaceship, the fire engine red explorer pod, and Marvin the depressive robot resemble Murakami's Superflat sculptures.

At this writing, everyone is raving about those Vogons. Agreed that Jim Henson's Creature Shop executed the Vogons beautifully, but I wasn't quite as impressed with them as Wyld Card, et al. Too much evil, not enough banality of evil, if you ask me. I hate to say it, but the Vogons' environment looks way too much like sets from Fraggle Rock. No disrespect to Jim's FR, but the Vogons' digs are just too squalid for a race of faceless corporate bureaucrats. (And call me a fangirl, but I had my heart set on a yellow Vogon constructor fleet.)

I applaud Jennings' decision to use animated "entries" from the Hitchhikers Guide to explain some of the more obscure plot points, including the Infinite Improbability Drive. The HHG novels are less emphatic on this point, but the central conceit of the radio play is that the listener is hearing the story from the Guide itself. Happily, the same actor supplies the voice of the Guide in the movie as in the original radio drama. (Turns out I was mistaken about the identity of the Guide. Thanks, Johnny.)

Unfortunately, most of the actual animation sequences look pretty stupid. The animators were obviously going for a retro vibe, but the end product was an artless grab bag of the worst graphic design cliches from the 1950's to the present.

It's hard for me to judge the movie except as an adaptation of the book, but I get the feeling that it wouldn't be very satisfying to anyone who wasn't already a fan. In the novel, the plot serves primarily as a structure for witty digressions, riffs on philosophy and physics, a huge cast of minor characters, and wordplay. The movie omits most of that, not to mention the clever non-linear storytelling devices. It also adds a lot of slapstick.

HGG was obviously not an easy story to adapt. Making a movie about Adams' universe is like trying to project a globe onto a two-dimensional map. Considerable distortion is inevitable. The movie is remarkably successful at suggesting the eccentric charm of the source material without actually showing very much of it.

*Historical note: Slim Pickins' beloved nuclear cowboy is also thought to have been a major influence on G.W. Bush's "43rd President of the United States" character in Dick Cheney's America.

Update: David Edelstein has an interesting review in Slate.

The sexual politics of meat

R.I. Police Say Man Offered Steak for Sex
R.I. Police Say Man Solicited Sex From an Undercover Officer by Offering Her a Steak

Apr. 29, 2005 - He didn't have any money. But police say that didn't stop Wayne Glaude, 22, from soliciting sex from an undercover officer Thursday night. Instead, police said, he offered steak.

Glaude, who works at a meat company, tried to strike a deal with the undercover officer, according to Detective Capt. Luke Gallant.

"He didn't have any money, and had a couple of nice T-bones sitting at home," Gallant said.

Glaude, of Woonsocket, was arrested and pleaded innocent Friday in Providence District Court to a count of soliciting from a motor vehicle. He was released on personal recognizance.

Gallant said Woonsocket police had never had a case like it.

"I can honestly say it's the first time," he said.

Ivory billed woodpecker

28ivory

On Thursday ornithologists announced that the ivory billed woodpecker had been spotted in the swamps of Arkansas.

Birders and scientists were amazed. The woodpecker, described by James Audubon as the "great chieftan of the woodpecker race" and by James Wolcott as the "The Lord God Holy Grail Elvis of Little Peckers", was assumed to have been driven to extinction 60 years ago.

Eli of Left I on the News explains how this species nearly became a a casualty of war.

Also, check out Eli's fine feathered photos from his bird watching vacation. No ivory billed woodpeckers, but impressive all the same.

Lizard-derived type 2 diabetes drug approved

Lizard-Derived Diabetes Drug Is Approved by the F.D.A. [NYT permalink]

A diabetes drug derived from a poisonous lizard has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, its developers, Amylin Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly, said yesterday.

The drug, called Byetta, will be the first in a new class of drugs to reach the market for Type 2 diabetes, the form that usually occurs in adults. Studies have shown it can help control blood sugar and also help people lose a few pounds. The drawback for patients is that the drug must be injected twice a day and nearly half the people who use it suffer nausea, at least initially.

Analysts have said Byetta could achieve sales of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, or even more than $1 billion. Those sales could propel money-losing Amylin, a biotechnology company in San Diego, to profitability. Lilly, a drug giant that is already a leading producer of insulin, could further bolster its presence in the diabetes drug market.

April 29, 2005

With friends like Peggy

I'm sure Pegs means all this in the nicest possible way, but...

The case of John Bolton is about politics (unhousebroken conservatives must be stopped), payback (you tick me off, I'll pick you off) and personality. People who have worked with him allege he is heavy-handed, curmudgeonly and not necessarily lovably so.

I don't know him, but I suspect there's some truth in it. Do the charges disqualify him to serve as American ambassador to the United Nations? If reports of his behavior are true--he is tough, pushes too hard, sends pressuring e-mails and may or may not have berated a coworker as he threw paper balls at her hotel door--the answer is no.

Via Alicublog.

An early May Day present for Mexico

Fox clears the way for Lopez Obrador to run in election [Financial Times]
By Ronald Buchanan in Mexico City
Published: April 29 2005 03:00
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico City's mayor, yesterday welcomed President Vicente Fox's move in effect to shelve criminal charges against him, clearing the way for the mayor to run in next year's presidential elections.
Under pressure to defuse a growing political crisis, Mr Fox made a television address to the nation on Wednesday night to announce that he had accepted the resignation of Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the attorney-general, who had been pursuing the case against Mr López Obrador.

Mark Kleiman is pleased about the implications for Mexican democracy, but uneasy about López Obrador's ability to run Mexico. I'm delighted about his legal victory and hopefully agnostic about his prospects for a successful presidency. He will certainly face formidable opposition from his own Congress and from the United States.

April 28, 2005

Avian influenza H5N1: Tiger-to-tiger

Thanawongnuwech R, Amonsin A, Tantilertcharoen R, Damrongwatanapokin S, Theamboonlers A, Payungporn S, et al. Probable tiger-to-tiger transmission of avian influenza H5N1. Emerg Infect Dis[serial on the Internet]. 2005 May.

During the second outbreak of avian influenza H5N1 in Thailand, probable horizontal transmission among tigers was demonstrated in the tiger zoo. Sequencing and phylogenetic analysis of those viruses showed no differences from the first isolate obtained in January 2004. This finding has implications for influenza virus epidemiology and pathogenicity in mammals.

In mid-January 2004, an epizootic outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI H5N1 strain) was reported in poultry and various other birds in Thailand (1). Two tigers (Panthera tigris) and 2 leopards (P. pardus) in a zoo in Suphanburi, Thailand, died after experiencing high fever and respiratory distress; H5N1 infection was later confirmed as the cause of the illness (2). The animals had been fed raw chicken carcasses that were possibly contaminated with the HPAI H5N1 virus. A tiger zoo in Sriracha, Chonburi, Thailand, was affected by HPAI beginning on October 11, 2004.

Damn. Bad news: probable mammal-to-mammal transmission. Good news: occured in a GRAC species (GRAC=generally regarded as cute). Sorry, Vietnamese babies are not GRAC in the current media climate. Nor is the pope, though, as Revere notes, he also belongs to a high risk group.

Field guide to accusations of moral relativism

David Velleman compiled a comprehensive taxonomy of ways to attack relativism as a straw man, with an assist from Matt Yglesias.

April 27, 2005

Ratz

Open source Pope.

Norwegianity saw him first.

No "conscience clause" judges, please

Mark Kleiman responds to Professor Bainbridge's claim that a pro-choice litmus test for federal judges is discrimination on the basis of religion.

Bainbridge writes:

Let's be clear about the point I was trying to make: What the Senate is doing is in fact having a disparate impact on people who hold traditionalist religious beliefs. Accordingly, the Democrats ought to have the burden of showing that they are motivated by concerns other than opposition to or disdain for the religious beliefs of the defeated nominees.

Simple. The Democrats oppose anyone who intends to criminalize abortion. It doesn't matter whether they're a fundamentalist or a secular utilitarian--if they want to criminalize abortion, they fail the litmus test. This stance has nothing to do with prejudice against any particular sect, nor with any bias towards secularism over religiosity. There are pro-choice people in every denomination. Unless Bainbridge wants the government to take a position on who's a "serious" Catholic or evangelical, he can't very well complain that a pro-choice litmus test disadvantages adherents of some religions, qua members of those sects.

Of course, one may wonder whether it's ever appropriate for senators to reject a nominee for "ideological" reasons. I'm going to sidestep that issue and refer readers to this fine Michael Kinsley article on the ethics of Borking.

In fact, a pro-choice litmus test is directly relevant to an appointee's ability to do her job, and therefore not discriminatory even if its impact is differential. A judge must not allow her moral beliefs to influence her rulings. (In practice, that theory is rarely borne out, but let's keep up the polite fiction for the sake of argument.)

Judges are supposed render their unbiased opinions based on their interpretation of text and their knowledge of the law. Analogously, pharmacists are supposed to dispense meds based on their unbiased readings of prescriptions. But we're all too familiar with "conscience clause" pharmacists who claim that their religious beliefs supersede their professional responsibilities. A judge who believes that her moral convictions supersede the demands of her office must be voted down. A vote for a known (or suspected) "conscience clause" judge is a vote for judicial activism.

It may shock you to learn that people sometimes lie to get jobs. Senators have to weigh the credibility of a judge who says that she's willing to be open-minded about abortion (or any other morally charged issue). People will say a lot of things to get a job for life. In these situations, it's reasonable for senators to wonder about potential conflicts of interest. If a judge has sworn allegiance to a religion that tells her that she will go to hell unless she opts out of the demands of her office, we might legitimately question her commitment to place professional duties ahead of personal conscience. By the same token, we should be suspicious of a secular judge who is adamant that all abortion is murder. It would be difficult, if not impossible for a decent person to be impartial about abortion law if they really believed that legal abortion is murder.

Finally, a senator might treat a judge's opposition to legal abortion as reductio ad absurdem of that candidate's judicial philosophy.* If so, that senator would be justified in imposing a pro-choice litmus test on the grounds that anyone who supports the criminalization of abortion must have made several critical errors in their legal reasoning. I'm not going to argue for that conclusion here, but it's certainly a justification open to senators who wish to apply the litmus test.


*(An even more more clear-cut example would be a judge's support of the criminalization of sodomy. It's fair to assume that anyone who actually thinks that anal sex between consenting adults ought to be a crime is laboring under disqualifying levels of empirical ignorance, logical error, and/or constitutional confusion. If I were a senator, I wouldn't hesitate to apply a sodomy litmus test. The abortion issue is slightly more complex because there is some dispute about when a fetus becomes a person and how the rights of a fetus should be balanced against those of the woman sustaining it.)