Documentaries can change the world

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back near the water, SeaWorld announced that it will phase out its world-famous—and more recently, infamous—killer whale shows. The decision comes after months of pressure from community and animal-rights groups outraged by scenes depicted in the documentary Blackfish.

To further show the power of documentaries, however, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that it would phase out the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, transferring its remaining test subjects to an ape sanctuary.

NIH officials have given numerous reasons for the decision, citing the weakness of animal models for human disease and technological advances that make such animals less necessary. Many, however, suspect the government agency is bowing to pressure from community groups fearing the post-apocalyptic world highlighted in the documentary series Planet of the Apes.

In particular, the actions of former laboratory test subject Koba scared the shit out of everyone.

There is no doubt that this trend of documentaries changing animal policies will intensify. For example, it is anticipated that the 2016 release of Ice Age: Collision Course will prompt the U.S. government to change its policies regarding the Scrat…whatever the feck that is.

NEWS FLASH: Spill on Mars

Mars

Within moments of announcing the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars, NASA officials were back at the podium with an additional announcement.

“We have to admit that we were completely caught off guard by this, but it seems that an oil tanker has run aground in one of the Martian streams and is spilling massive quantities of oil into the aquifer,” announced the saddened official. “Upon identifying the owner of the vessel, we will be working with their containment specialists to try to limit the environmental damage.”

“There is no indication that any native species are in immediate danger from contamination,” he pressed. “Although we are saddened to report that signal transmission from the NASA rover ceased shortly after the grounding was initially reported.”

NASA released the last image that the rover transmitted back to Earth.

"Had no idea oil companies were working in the area." - NASA official

“Had no idea oil companies were working in the area.” – NASA official

The Pentagon on a Tuesday morning

pentagon-02

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001–as we did every weekday–my wife and I rode the bus from our home in Northern Virginia to the Pentagon Metro Station, where I still daily marveled at my proximity to one of the most iconic buildings on the planet. As I described it to my then mother-in-law: “big building, five sides, it’s in all the movies”.

Moving with the crowd, we descended into the station to ride the train, parting company in town as she headed to work and I headed for an Amtrak train to Baltimore. It was Day Two of a scientific conference that I was covering for my publication MDD.

An hour after we got off that bus and headed into the tunnel at Pentagon Metro Station, the plane struck one of those five sides.

Below is the latter half of my report on that conference. The first half was a litany of instrumentation, seminars and breakthroughs that immediately became unimportant to everyone in attendance.

But the focus on the show floor quickly shifted from biomolecular screening to terrorism. People by the dozens flipped open cell phones, holding fingers to open ears in an attempt to better hear dial tones that were not there, moving swiftly from the floor into the atrium hunting in vain for a signal from above.

A voice boomed from the public address system letting us know that the impossible had indeed happened and that planes had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All speech ceased as a thoughtful pall descended on the floor, with only the perpetual whine and click of the robotic plate handlers breaking the silence. Finally, the voice broke through to tell us that it would try to keep us up-to-date as information came in.

But the waiting became too much as the line for computer access became longer and the cell phones were intermittent comfort at best. A crowd formed around the booth hosted by Beckman Coulter, which had turned its large screen monitors to CNN, and we all stood transfixed as we witnessed the madness that was New York. Some of the witnesses wiped away tears while others whispered silent prayers.

By noon, the day was over and convention center staff moved through the hall trying to herd attendees into the atrium while company representatives threw swatches of cloth over the equipment and turned off the lights. Without a defined place to go, however, the attendees milled about the atrium for several minutes before finally flowing as if by gravity into the streets around the convention center.

The conference that started with such high scientific hopes was interrupted by an act of insane brutality.

0 1 0 9 1 4 - F - 8 0 0 6 R - 0 0 3    FBI agents, fire fighters, rescue workers and engineers work at the Pentagon crash site on Sept. 14, 2001, where a high-jacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building on Sept. 11.  The terrorist attack caused extensive damage to the west face of the building and followed similar attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.   DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill.  (Released)

DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill. (Released)

Illiterate in 3 languages…all English

canadianEnglish

“That which we call a rose, would by any other name, smell…”

William Shakespeare, Bad Line Break theatre

As many of you know (or have quickly surmised), I am Canadian, and more specifically, Anglo Canadian. Unto itself, that’s a pretty cushy thing to be in this country.

In choosing to live as a writer, however, I added an otherwise unnecessary twist to my life—I forced myself to learn English as a second language.

Wait. Didn’t you just self-identify as an English-speaking Canadian?

Yes, I did. But I’m a Canadian English-speaking Canadian.

And one of the first things you realize when you become a Canadian writer is that you will probably starve for lack of work.

Now, I’m not knocking Canadian writing, whether fiction, for film and television, journalism, what have you. It is easily some of the most beautiful writing available in the English world. But it is often written to (if not for) an incredibly small market, and opportunities to succeed are therefore often few and far between.

If feels like 8 writers encompass the entire Canadian television landscape. And name a Canadian movie. (I’ll wait.)

Nope and nope.

Nope and nope.

Okay, now name one not directed by David Cronenberg or Denys Arcand.

I was once offered a job as the Editor of a Canadian biotech magazine—yes, I used to be even more nerdy—for $30kpa. And yet, already on my resume was a job working for an American biotech mag that started around $65kpa.

Bottom line is thank goodness for my passion to write, because my passion for money has taken a beating.

(Side note: This was a choice I made and for which I take full responsibility. I don’t mean this to be a “life is so unfair” rant.)

What this has meant, therefore, is that to make it as a writer, I have had to learn English as a second language. In this case, American English.

Recently, the BBC published a short article that tried to explain Canadian English within the context of its British and American counterparts. Rightly, the author noted that the differences were more than a matter of spelling (e.g., centre v center; honor v honour). Rather, the differences also manifested in idioms, speech patterns and word choice.

As long as everyone's having fun

As long as everyone’s having fun

As with most Canadians, I had a bit of a leg up on learning American as our proximity to the border (mere kilometres and even fewer miles) means we are inundated daily by American film and television programming. But I also had the additional benefit of having been married to an American, and a Southerner to boot (more on “boots” later).

Where I would recommend taking the 401 across north Toronto, Leela would suggest taking 66 from Fairfax into Washington. Luckily, we were both practical enough to set aside arguments about whether we needed to go to hospital or the hospital.

All this to say that although the differences between Canadian English and American English can be subtle, they can easily explode before the eyes of the unsuspecting.

Writing for an American biotech magazine and working with American editors was something of an ESL boot camp. And over the intervening 15 years, I like to think I honed my American skills to the point where you suspect I am from Minnesota or Western New York (hello, North Tonawanda).

In fact, I’m going to rely heavily on my multi-Angloism as most of my writing, whether for money or in my screen- and novel writing, is aimed at American audiences. And although my primary goal remains writing the best story, my secondary goal is writing it in the most innocuous way. I don’t want my writing to “read” Canadian.

Versus

Truth be told, I don’t want my writing per se to be noticeable at all. If it is, I’ve taken the reader out of the story.

This is not to say that I want my stories to be bland, but rather that I want all of the art to be in the story itself, rather than the more mechanical aspects.

In my Canadian stories (so far a sitcom pilot and screenplay), which are set in Canada, involve Canadians and target Canadian audiences, I write Canadian. For pretty much everything else, I write American.

Should I start targeting British audiences, then I’ll spend more time learning British English, and make fewer spelling changes.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to bounce back and forth between the multiple Englishes like a character out of Monty Python.

What’s it aboot?

Anyone can make fun of how Canadians communicate (or don’t). Goodness knows Canadians do. But I have to admit that I struggle with the whole “oot and aboot” phrasing that American audiences in particular seem to see as a Canadian phrase.

It’s not that I think we pronounce these words correctly so much as we don’t say “oot”. Rather, we say “oat”.

As I mentioned, I was married to a Southerner, and one day, we had a lengthy conversation about the word “South”. Try as she might, Leela could not get me to pronounce the “ou” without it taking on a surreal emphasis akin to “owwwwwww”.

Instead, I would say “Soath”. And instead of “about”, I would say “aboat”. And as I made a point of listening closely to Anglo-Canadians speak, I never heard a single one say “aboot”. It was always “aboat”.

That being stated, I will totally cop to “eh”. It’s us. End of story.

Inside definitely Out (a review)

poster

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to see the latest Pixar movie Inside Out in the company of one of the film’s writers and its story supervisor Josh Cooley (a very nice man). And aside from receiving a lovely lecture about story development at the famed animation house, the connection afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the movie much more than I did on simple viewing.

To briefly bring everyone up to speed, Inside Out tells the story of the emotions that rattle around inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she struggles with a move across the country. Although we are introduced to 5 main emotions in Riley Headquarters (get it?)—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear—there is no mistaking that Joy is numero uno in this space.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) sucks the oxygen out of any room she’s in and proves that even the best intentioned of assholes is still an asshole. Her goal in life is to make every moment of Riley’s life a happy one and is not worried about shoving aside the others (ever so happily) to ensure that.

But where Joy has developed a respectful détente with Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader), she firmly but gently has no use for Sadness (Phyllis Smith), practically ostracising the poor creature to the periphery.

With the upset of the move from Minnesota to San Francisco, though, Sadness seems to want to be more involved and in a fracas with Joy, the two get sucked out of headquarters and into the long-term storage hinterlands of Riley’s brain.

At this point, the story basically turns into the Odyssey as the two emotions struggle to return home before Riley falls completely apart at the hands of the others. (To say much more would be to offer spoilers.)

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

The challenge I had was in trying to figure out exactly at whom Pixar was targeting the movie.

Superficially, this is a pure kids movie (ages 6 to 10, maybe), unlike many previous Pixar concoctions, which had elements for both kids and adults. Inside Out doesn’t have the depth of Toy Story or The Incredibles to truly speak to adults, much as the most mature 11-year-old isn’t ready for the adult world.

I’m not saying there aren’t adult-focused jokes interspersed throughout the film, but rather exactly that. They are interspersed, like small granules of sugar designed to feed the parents accompanying the kids to the theatre.

Up talked about loss and aging

Up talked about loss and aging

There is no real adult storyline to this film to touch adults as there was in Up or Wall-E. Instead, the film has sweet, adorable moments of baby bums and first goals that might tug at a parent’s heartstrings but never engage the soul.

But as a friend suggested, it is not strictly a kids flick either because it touches on esoteric aspects of the psyche that kids that age would never be able to comprehend, such as abstract thought and the concept of forgotten memories. The problem is these aspects are more conversations of the mind and not the soul. So even here, the adult is largely passed over unless they have an interest in neurology and psychology.

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

And as a writer, perhaps the biggest sin with Inside Out is there is no sense of what’s at stake.

Sure, Joy is losing her cool as she fights to get back to headquarters. For her, Riley having a down moment is a disaster.

And Sadness isn’t exactly having a picnic as she is routinely sideswiped or ignored by Joy in their efforts to get home. If anything, she increasingly takes the blame for everything onto herself.

But what’s at stake? What if they don’t get back to headquarters?

Does someone die? Is life no longer worth living?

I don’t know because that was never a question on the table. And without stakes, I find it difficult to root for the hero.

And this challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that the hero (Joy) is also the villain, albeit passively. She is truly her own worst enemy, and so I quickly find myself irritated by her with no great concerns about the outcome.

The six hour conversation and lesson with Cooley helped me see a lot more of what the writers, animators, editors, directors and producers were trying to accomplish. And that did help me understand the movie better. The thing is, few others were going to get this kind of help.

The movie will do well at the box office. Of that I have no doubt. It is a wonderful vivid distraction for young kids.

But it won’t have the staying power of Pixar’s earlier efforts and likely won’t be spoken of again in a few years other than in possibly hushed whispers.

Left-handed (DNA) compliment

While attending the surprise birthday party for a friend in the sciences, I noticed he owned a coffee mug from a group called Life Sciences Career Development Society based at the University of Toronto. Actually, to be more accurate, what caught my eye was the DNA double-helix on the mug…and the fact that it was wrong.

Wrong

BOOM! My head explodes.

As someone with biochemistry & genetics degrees who has written about the life sciences for ~15 years, this seemingly innocuous error drives me crazy. This must be how copy editors feel when they see a misused semi-colon (and I’m sorry about that).

right v wrong

For the non-biochemists, through a characteristic known as chirality (look it up…too hard to explain here), the typical DNA double-helix in human cells—the famous Watson-Crick-Franklin structure or B-DNA—has a right-handed helix. This means that if you could see the double-helix (above) and let your fingers follow along the curve of one side as it wraps around the other, you could only do this comfortably with your right hand.

You can see that in an example of a single helix that curves either to the left (left) or the right (right).

handed

Unfortunately, somewhere in the mists of science illustrations time, an artist drew the double-helix of DNA in the wrong direction and that double-helical abomination has perpetuated ad nauseum, including irritatingly enough, in science publications and scientific logos such as a recent health article in the Toronto Star (image below), the cover of a sci-fi novel and the LSCDS logo.

DNA - backwards

And if I only saw this in 50% of the images, I’d be irritated but probably not the raving loony I am now. But no, this freak of nature is everywhere. The correct right-handed DNA illustration is the anomaly.

So why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, and I am just a raving loony.

Certifiable loony!

Certifiable loony!

But for me, I struggle with what else might be wrong in a life science or healthcare story if they can’t get the DNA helix right. Do I trust the math of an investment planner who doesn’t know that four quarters equals one dollar?

Luckily, the fix is an easy one. Simply mirror the image you have (not turn it upside down) and the left-handed double-helix becomes a right-handed one. (In a mirror, your actual left hand looks like a right hand.)

So, medical illustrators everywhere, please fix your catalogues of scientific illustrations. My head can’t take too many more explosions.

So much better

Nerves already calming.

[Also, from a design perspective, up and to the right is more palatable for North American audiences as it implies future success (e.g., rising value). Has nothing to do with handedness, here.]

For the more biochemically savvy:

Yes, there is left-handed DNA, which is also known as Z-DNA. But as you can see from the illustration below, its structure is significantly different from the smooth-flowing curves of B-DNA (and the equally unusual A-DNA).

Two rights don't make a left

Two rights don’t make a left

Off the pedestal, Western medicine

hubris

Western medicine can be a smug son-of-a-bitch. Seriously.

Now, it would be unfair to lump this attitude on all practitioners of Western medicine, but I haven’t the time to survey all of its adherents and gauge individual opinions so that I can name names of those who are the smug bastards and those who believe in thoughtful open-minded consideration.

To provide some context, I have a B.Sc. in molecular biology and a M.Sc. in medical genetics, and have written about the latest biotechnical and biomedical advances for about 15 years. I have also written about Western medicine for about 7 years.

Given this background, it may seem odd to some that I am writing a complaint about the attitudes of Western medicine, but what may not be as obvious about that background is the amount of hubris and self-satisfaction I have seen in questionable practices with limited benefits.

Old wisdom isn't useless because it is old

Old wisdom isn’t useless because it is old

Recently, there was an article in New Scientist magazine that described the rediscovery of a possible treatment against superbugs (e.g., MRSA), a therapy chronicled in an Anglo-Saxon era manuscript. The roughly 1000-year-old remedy is being studied in a modern lab and early results suggest that it may prove effective against the bugs that threaten modern lives on a weekly basis.

(BTW, there is a thousand miles between early results and coming to a pharmacy near you.)

But what struck me most was the response to the findings in various media, which bordered on shock and awe that something relevant to today could come from such an ancient source. Even CBC’s The National (Canada’s national news broadcast) commented that the discovery came from an era when leaches were considered good medicine.

Which leads me to scream:

Science wasn’t invented in 20th century, people.

The grand assumption seems to be that anything that happened in medicine before the First World War was complete voodoo and not worthy of consideration in an era of rational thought.

Everyone involved in health remedies before the modern medical era was either a charlatan or a moron, and either way was dangerous to the people around them. The human capacity for sober scientific enquiry did not occur until shortly after the invention of the Erlenmeyer flask, the spectrometer and the harnessing of the X-ray.

I call bullshit.

If you can grind it or infuse it, you can medicate with it

If you can grind it or infuse it, you can medicate with it

Folkloric medicines are based on scientific inquiry by people without test tubes and spectrometers. The approach may have been less statistical in nature, but everyone from apothecaries to shamans (shamen?) ran clinical trials the old-fashioned way.

Take this. Do you feel better? Great. It’s a keeper. Did you die? Yes. Nuts, try something else on the next guy.

Having actually looked at modern clinical trials, the only differences between then and now are the test patient population size and the accounting of the results. And I don’t know that we can say definitively that these parameters have improved things.

I am not advocating that we discard modern medicine—it has merit—but rather than it must get off its high-horse and approach historical medicine with an open mind so that more rediscoveries like this latest one can happen and be tested.

TCM has worked for millennia

TCM has worked for millennia

China has about 20% of the planet’s population, so there might be something to Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs). The same goes for India and folkloric Indian medicines (FIMs). Or Anglo-Saxons or Sumerians or the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These people were not morons.

Our ignorance and outright hubris is a hangover of the Age of Reason as we dismiss everything that came before because it was often presented in raiments of spirits and ritual.

Modern does not guarantee success

Modern does not guarantee success

We should not let our fascination with the instrumentational bells and whistles of the modern scientific method blind us to the wonders of the not-so-modern scientific method, which lacked in instrumentation but not in knowledge and understanding.

Before you blithely dismiss something as troglodyte quackery, perhaps you should ask yourself:

What would Hippocrates do?

And as to the CBC’s comment about the era of leeches, both leeches and maggots have a long history up to this day of facilitating health in people (see Leeches and Maggots).