Thursday, December 13, 2007

Glow in the dark cat

Speaking of cats, a Korean scientist has successfully cloned a cat after modifying the gene for skin color. The picture at the head of the article is rather striking; it's not every day that you see a cat that glows under ultraviolet light.

This cat represents a proof-of-concept for a process that they will use to clone tigers and other animals that are in danger of extinction. Unlike with stem cells, a virus is inserted into the ova of one cat and then the ova is implanted into the womb of a donor cat. It is unfortunate that we are coming to the point where genetic engineering will be necessary to preserve these species.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cats, Cats, Cats!

My dad and his wife recently visited and took some pictures of my cats. Tucker is the little black-and-white cat; I adopted him about six months back and he has assimilated into the pride nicely.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Romance and Cigarettes

I just got back from seeing this movie and wow, was I surprised. I honestly didn't expect too much from John Turturro's first film. He's a great actor but that skill doesn't necessarily carry over to the other side of the camera. Originally released in 2005 in a limited fashion, the movie is only now being shown to a wider audience. The tag line: A Savage Musical could not be more appropriate. If Bob Fosse, Joel Coen, Lena Horne and Matthew Barney all met at a singing, dancing, cinematic orgy this is what their illegitimate spawn might look like.

To say that this movie is ambitious would be an understatement. When you feature with Mr. Soprano himself, James Gandolfini belting out torch songs you know that you're talking about a movie outside of the status quo. In fact, within the first ten minutes this movie kills the status quo, buries it and pisses on its grave.

The remarkable thing is that with the exception of some pacing issues in the third act this movie works perfectly. The cast is incredible from top to bottom. Gandolfini plays the hapless lout, Nick Murder and Susan Sarandon his wife and foil, Kitty. Kate Winslet has a hilariously over-the-top turn as Nick's fowl-mouthed mistress, Tula, complete with a ridiculously affected Anglo-accent. Mandy Moore and Mary-Louise Parker (of Weeds fame) are Nick's daughters, Constance and Baby who along with Aida Turturro have formed a terrificly-bad rock band. Steve Buscemi has a great cameo as Angelo, Nick's warped coworker whose love advice is comedy gold. Eddie Izzard has a small but perfect role as Gene Vincent the leader of the church choir and the aforementioned Christopher Walken practically steals the movie as Kitty's neurotic Cousin Bo.

This movie is all over the map: one minute it hits you with a serious scene (Kitty has just discovered poems that prove Nick's infidelity) and the next second characters are bursting out with a song. Normally this sort of haphazard transitioning would be a recipe for disaster but when Nick joins the neighborhood garbage men for a song and dance number in the middle of the street the results are too spontaneous, too absurd to argue with.

For two acts, the movie never lets up; bouncing along, like a kid in a candy store eager to sample the next yummy treat. We're introduced to Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) - probably the most ridiculous character in the movie - whose infatuation with Baby proves introspective impetus for Kitty and Nick. Having Kitty alternate between bitterly singing love songs to warning Baby of the fleeting impermanence of love is part of this movie's charm. Credit goes to Turturro for the guts to so recklessly mix this fantastical stew of song, dance and emotions.

The casting could not be more perfect. When Christopher Walken (who was born to be in this movie) says without irony, "She was my first love; I traced her name in cow shit", the whole weight of how funny this movie truly is comes crashing down like a wave. More than any movie in recent memory, this movie is fun; when I wasn't laughing my ass off I was grinning like the Cheshire cat.

The only blemish on this otherwise perfect monster of a movie is the final act. Things take a sudden serious turn and the movie just seems to skip a beat. It's not that the seriousness seems out of place when the emotion has been red-lining for half the movie, there is just something jarring about the transition from the silly antics of this truly dysfunctional tribe into sadness at the fate of the patriarch. But to fault the final act is to quibble; this movie is so wonderfully outrageous from beginning to end that you cannot help but love it.

Bill Gates wants your right arm

I just stumbled across this awesome quote; it has often been attributed to Bill Gates but was actually part of a fictional interview conducted by the satire website Pointless Waste of Time:
I have 100 billion dollars... You realize I could spend 3 million dollars a day, every day, for the next 100 years? And that's if I don't make another dime. Tell you what-I'll buy your right arm for a million dollars. I give you a million bucks, and I get to sever your arm right here.
As effective as this quote is for satire, it really made me stop and think. It is mind boggling to conceive of someone so wealthy that every day for the rest of their life they can spend more than I'll make in my lifetime and they would still have billions of dollars left when they die. With that kind of money just think about what can be done to improve this world. I hope that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lives up to this tremendous potential. The above quote reminds me of one of my favorite lines from William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy:
And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Excercise Helps Fight Depression, Dukkha

Ars has a writeup of an article in the journal Nature about new research into the effects of exercise on depression. Essentially exercise stimulates the expression of certain genes that help prevent the symptoms of depression (or its nearest equivalent) in mice. I've always felt a certain serenity after a hard workout and it's good to see scientists working to ascertain the cause of this phenomenon.

This makes me mindful of how inefficient our reactive society is at dealing with many problems. Instead of exercise and a sensible diet, we stuff ourselves with junk food and then turn to diet pills to make us thin. Instead of living a more balanced life we complicate everything and burden ourselves with stress only to turn to Prozac and other "mood-altering" medications as a panacea. It seems like America wants to solve all of our problems by simply consuming more. More food, more booze, more drugs, more sex, more oil.

We focus on the perceived lack in our life and convince ourselves that only by filling those voids will we be happy. Hinduism uses a Pali word to describe this: dukkha. This word does not have a direct translation into English but it can best be described in terms of an allegory. Dukkha describes our life as a cart being pulled along a country road, but the cart has a wheel with a broken spoke. At times the road is smooth and so we do not notice the broken spoke and think that all is well. Other times the road gets rough and so we notice the one wheel which does not turn quite right. Until we attain personal enlightenment, we are on this journey with a cart that does not quite move correctly. We can change the load of the cart, pull it from the front, push it from behind, but until we fix the broken spoke our journey will be a painful one, particularly when the road is roughest and we are most in need of four well-balanced wheels. The world is filled with snake oil salesmen who will gladly provide us with all manner of "solutions" to make our cart ride more smoothly but these are all just distractions.

This holiday season we are faced with numerous opportunities to revel in consumption. After all of the celebrating is over it is the simple things which will truly bring peace and happiness. So when the guilt of all of that holiday gluttony descends upon us, we should take a walk and stimulate the expression of those anti-Dukkha genes.