“Exodus:” Biblical epic in a digital age Reply

The good news is that “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is pretty successful as a Biblical epic and reasonably faithful to the original source. The bad news is that people apparently don’t want to see Biblical epics anymore. After all, how many ways are there to part the Red Sea? Everyone knows the story – the sea comes back and the Egyptians are drowned. Been there, seen that. So what’s new?

In the Ridley Scott epic currently showing to sparse crowds, what’s new are giant crocodiles whose chomping on fishermen starts the process of turning the Nile blood-red. Okay, I can deal with crocodiles. But a few twists like that really can’t sustain interest in a two and a half hour movie.

Christian Bale as a fightin' Moses.

Christian Bale as a fightin’ Moses.

Also new is the idea of personifying God as an 11-year-old boy. Presumably Scott didn’t want Morgan Freeman or some other Voice of God actor speaking from the burning bush. So he hired an English schoolboy, Isaac Andrews, to play God in person. He is listed in the credits as a character named Malak, but no one else besides Moses can see him – Aaron sees Moses talking to thin air – so the character is an divine apparition, not a boy.

Christian Bale’s portrayal of Moses as a reluctant hero is the film’s biggest weak spot. Moses is content to launch a sort of intifada against the Egyptians. Malak/God has to take charge and show the Pharaoh he means business and that it does not pay to mess with the Lord. The God of the Old Testament was not the warm and fuzzy type.

The special effects, digital work, and stunts are all well done, but that is expected these days. Sorry, there’s nothing exciting about a digital ancient city or big wave.

I had the impression from some reviews that the film took great liberties with the Biblical text, like the “Noah” film starring Russell Crowe. In fact, the biggest departure from the book is that Moses is shown as a general of the Egyptian army and right-hand man to Pharaoh. The book of Exodus doesn’t go there; Moses could have been a busboy for all we know. But Scott’s version sets up the rivalry between two strong-willed men, so its works. Scott’s overall interpretation of the text seems reasonable and respectful to me.

Perhaps it is the very predictability of the story that that is keeping people away. Most people learned the Exodus story when they were children. If you have time for a long movie during the holidays, why not try something you don’t already know – something with hobbits and dwarves in it, perhaps?

“Philomena:” the search for a lost child Reply

“Philomena” is the story of an Irish woman who searches for the son she was forced to give up for adoption many years before. After years of fruitless inquiring, she teams up with a British journalist and learns the truth about her son and about the system that took him away.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in  "Philomena."

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in “Philomena.”

Philomena Lee was a “Magadelene,” an unmarried girl who got pregnant and was packed off to a convent to have the baby. Then she had to work in a laundry for three and a half years to pay back the nuns who ran the place. She was forced to acknowledge that the baby would be given up for adoption. Little Anthony was given to an American couple who already had three boys and were looking for a girl, but decided to take him as well because he came right up and embraced the mother. The price: a donation of a thousand Irish pounds each.

The film belongs to Judi Dench, who plays the title character as a ordinary, working-class person, a lover of snacks, brandy, and mass-market novels, but one with a steely determination to find out what happened to her son.

The journalist is Martin Sixsmith, played with understated wit by Steve Coogan, a British comedian not well known in this country. Sixsmith has just been sacked from his job as a government spokesperson and sees Philomena’s story as a way back into journalism.

The search for Anthony takes unexpected turns that Philomena accepts with more grace and sense than expected by the somewhat supercilious Sixsmith. Together they solve the mystery and arrive at closure for Philomena, not to mention a career reboot for Sixsmith.

The film is based on Philomena’s true story, as told by Sixsmith in a book. The real-life Philomena said the film is reasonably true to life, and she is thrilled to be played by Judi Dench.

The book was published during an uproar in Ireland over revelations of abuses in the long-established “Magdalene” system. Coupled with disclosures of sexual abuse by priests, the scandal rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland. The film suggests that the church today is not as rigid and authoritarian as it was fifty years ago (which hardly needs to be said). Nevertheless, the emotional climax is a confrontation, initiated by Sixsmith, between Philomena and an aging nun, Sister Hildegarde, who is just as mean and judgmental as she was in the old days — eager to cast the first stone. Naturally, Philomena’s response is far more Christian than Sister Hildegarde’s.

The film is a civilized little British production in which sex is discussed but not shown, there are no car chases, and nothing gets blown up, so it seems unlikely to get much beyond the arthouse circuit. But Dench and Coogan are worth watching, and the search for Anthony provides enough narrative momentum to keep the film going.

Science: Major journal retracts anti-GMO paper Reply

A year ago, in November 2012, opponents of genetic modification in food and agriculture had reason to celebrate: a major scientific journal published an article claiming that genetically modified corn and the herbicide closely associated with it, glyphosate, caused tumors in

Unfortunate rat in Seralini experiment

Unfortunate rat in Seralini experiment

laboratory rats. Pictures of the unfortunate rats with enormous tumors flashed around the world. The principal author, veteran anti-GMO campaigner Gilles-Eric Seralini, was hailed as a hero by the anti-GMO crowd.

The flimsy structure of this particular exercise in rigged science has now come crashing down. The journal that published the study, Food and Chemical Toxicology, has retracted the article. The editors finally admitted what everyone else knew as soon as the study was published: it was bogus through and through.

The editors could not bring themselves to state the case quite that plainly. Instead they said, “There is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected.” The strain of rats, that is. Seralini was careful to select a type of rats that are known to develop mammary tumors at about two years of age (which is old for a lab rat). He fed the rats genetically modified corn and spiked their drinking water with glyphosate. Then he kept the experiment going until the rats developed the tumors you would expect anyway, and claimed that the tumors resulted from the corn and herbicide.

Seralini’s published data did not even begin to support his conclusions. The German scientific academy, in an earlier review of the study, found his data presentation “incomprehensible.” He resisted requests for the raw data – although authors are supposed to provide it upon request. Apparently he eventually acceded to a request for the raw data, and the FCT editors delicately concluded that “no definitive conclusions could be drawn” from the data.

The rigging was so transparent that many prominent scientists pointed it out immediately, and it is still a mystery why a relatively prestigious journal like FCT published the article to begin with. Scientists around the world erupted in condemnation of the article, and scientific academies across Europe denounced it. But it took the editors of FCT a year finally to own up to their mistake and retract the article. They did so in a news release.

Hopefully the retraction will remind both scientists and scientific journals that peer review is supposed to occur before an article is published, not as the result of an all-out scientific war after publication. FCT could have saved itself a serious blow to its prestige by taking peer review a bit more seriously.

Regulatory burden on U.S. poultry industry Reply

The U.S. poultry industry is closely regulated by several agencies of the U.S. government, including several within the Department of Agriculture, OSHA, the Food & Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection

EPA is trying to set pollution limits for every basin and sub-basin in the vast Chesapeake Bay watershed.  (Photo: US EPA)

EPA is trying to set pollution limits for every basin and sub-basin in the vast Chesapeake Bay watershed. (Photo: US EPA)

Agency. Of these, EPA is the most aggressive in trying to expand its authority over poultry operations. Watt Poultry USA Magazine has just published my article on the topic, entitled “EPA’s heavy hand on the U.S. poultry industry.” I cover EPA’s attempts to rope poultry farms into the type of water pollution control regime used for industrial facilities. It looked to me like EPA was going far beyond its authority. And whaddya know — after the piece went to press, a federal court firmly rejected EPA’s attempt to regulate farms.
But EPA does not give up easily. I cover several other regulatory initiatives and pieces of litigation in the article. Unfortunately the magazine requires a subscription, but if you’re interested, it’s at http://tinyurl.com/Lobb-enviro

Regulations: GMO Apple Up for Approval Reply

On the regulatory front, there’s good news in food and agriculture: The federal government is moving towards approval of the Arctic Apple.

What in the world, you may ask, is an Arctic Apple? In short, it is an apple whose flesh stays white after you slice it. This neat little trick will make the apple more appealing to finicky eaters — children, say — who turn their noses up at slices that have turned brown. It would allow caterers to put apple slices on buffet tables where they have to sit for a while. It could significantly increase the demand for apples over a period of time.

So what’s the problem? Why is federal approval needed for such an appealing product?

Because it’s biotechnology, that’s why. The apple stays white because the gene that causes it to turn brown when exposed to air has been turned out. Gene silencing, they call it.

In most biotech crops — corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets — the genetic engineering aspect is invisible to consumers. The plant is engineered to resist insects or to survive weedkiller, but the food made from the plant is no different in any meaningful way.

The Arctic Apple will be the only plant product on the market that you can tell at a glance has been bioengineered — because it doesn’t turn brown. The benefit will be out there for all to see.

McAuliffe scores unimpressive win Reply

How much satisfaction can the Democrats take in yesterday’s elections in Virginia? Not too much, I think. Their candidate for governor spent over $30 million and scored something less than an impressive win.

The biggest winners may be the downtown Richmond hotels, which will fill up with election lawyers coming in from all over the country for the recount in the race for Attorney General. Republican Mark Obenshain has a lead of 726 votes out of 2,205,843 cast, according to the State Board of Elections. That’s close enough that Democrat Mark Herring has the right to request a recount paid for by the state.

In the race for governor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli must be wondering what he did to deserve such rotten luck. Almost nothing went right for him. The government shutdown in early October infuriated tens of thousands of federal employees who blamed the Republicans for those anxious couple of weeks. The Washington Post published a poll showing him way behind, which no doubt cost him plenty in campaign contributions. And the embarrassing scandal of a businessman’s gifts to Governor and Mrs. McDonnell cost him the active support of a formerly popular figure.

He also had to contend with a Libertarian Party candidate, someone named Sarvis, who barely campaigned but served as a sort of depository for the anybody-but vote. He collected 145,418 votes, or 6.5%. How many of those would have otherwise gone to Cuccinelli, no one can say, but he could easily have cost Cuccinelli the election.

Cuccinelli has only himself to blame for other misfortunes. His supporters made sure the statewide nominations would be awarded in a convention, which led to his being saddled with an unelectable candidate for lieutenant governor, the firebrand preacher E.W. Jackson. His support of a silly “personhood” bill pushed by conservative zealot Bob Marshall left him (and Obenshain) open to charges of wanting to ban birth control. And my impression is that Cuccinelli and Obenshain did not campaign very hard in Northern Virginia, where they might have been able to limit their losses.

Instead, Democrat Terry McAuliffe ran up the score in the Washington suburbs and urban centers downstate, and managed to carry the northern suburbs of Richmond (Henrico County) while leaving the more rural areas to the Republicans. More…

Lynas urges biotech companies: label GMOs Reply

Mark Lynas, the British author of books such as “The God Species,” delighted many in the biotechnology industry in January when he renounced years of anti-biotech activity and put himself firmly in the pro-GMO camp. Since then, he has given many speeches and interviews supporting GMOs in food and agriculture and blasting the opponents as quacks, charlatans, and nutjobs.

But now Lynas has taken a position at odds with the biotechnology industry – but it is a position the industry may come to embrace.

Lynas has come out for labeling.

Food label from Australia

Food label from Australia identifying genetically modified ingredient.

Labeling, that is, of any food item produced with the aid of modern biotechnology — which in theory could include the majority of packaged goods and many others such as cheese and beer.

Lynas has concluded that the public supports the “right to know,” so the battle against labeling is lost.

“It’s time to make a virtue out of a necessity,” Lynas said in a speech to the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) summit in Chicago on Oct. 15. (The text of his speech and a video can be found at http://www.marklynas.org/) “If enough people say that GMOs should be labeled, then labeled they must be.”

USDA won’t make up missed reports Reply

The U.S. Department of Agriculture got back into business today as the federal government reopened, but announced that it will not attempt to make up key statistical reports closely followed by agribusiness that were not published due to the shutdown.
The World Agricultural Outlook Board’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report that normally would have come out Oct. 11 is canceled, USDA said in a news release.  The next report will come out on schedule Nov. 8, the agency said.  The same applies to Crop Production and Cotton Ginnings reports from the National Agricultural Statistics service (NASS).
Additionally, NASS’s Crop Progress reports scheduled for Oct. 7 and 15 are cancelled and its Cattle on Feed and Peanut Prices reports scheduled for Oct. 18 are postponed, the agency said.
“While the lapse in federal funding has ended, NASS has not been able to engage in the necessary data collection and analysis over the past few weeks,” USDA said in a news release.  “NASS is assessing its data collection plans and evaluating the timing of upcoming reports.”
Agricultural and food interests use the reports to help estimate supply and demand and facilitate price discovery.

What is it about chicken nuggets? Reply

There’s something about chicken nuggets that children love and food purists really hate.  Since McDonald’s came out with the McNugget worldwide in 1983 and created the category, critics of the modern food system have repeatedly jumped on the fact that nuggets are not exactly health food.

“When it comes to childhood nutrition, few foods are as unhealthy and insidious as the chicken nugget,” Tara Parker Pope wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2004.

Morgan Spurlock gorged on chicken nuggets and other fare at McDonald’s while gaining 24

McDonald's McNuggets

Is this what’s making Mississippi fat?

pounds for his 2004 documentary, “SuperSize Me.”   Spurlock also launched the spurious notion that nuggets were made from “old chickens” that could no longer lay eggs and are ground up into a “mash.”

A blog posting on that theme made the rounds a few years ago, supported by an authentic video showing the production of mechanically separated poultry (MSP), which consists of bits of meat squeezed off the frames (bone structures) of turkeys and chickens. The resulting paste-like product is used in frankfurters and other “pegboard” products but is not typically used in nuggets.  But the blog insisted not only that MSP is used in nuggets, but it is treated with ammonia to kill germs – which is also untrue.

Food activists vs. farmed fish: who’s right? Reply

My go-to meal when dining out is broiled salmon with a side of rice and some veggies.  Add a glass of pinot noir, and I’ve got a healthful and tasty meal.

The food activists, however, are eager to tell me that I am overloading on PCB’s, mercury, and antibiotics, particularly if – as is usually the case – the fish was raised in a tank or a pen rather than caught in the open ocean.  Farmed salmon is one of those food commodities that the food busybodies love to hate.

“Wild-caught” is as important to fish, in their view, as “organic” is to any terrestrial food.

Farmed or wild-caught?

Farmed or wild-caught?

Farm-raised fish is evil as far as Mike Adams, a.k.a. “The Health Ranger,” and numerous bloggers are concerned.

“Fish farming (is) killing off native species; boycott farmed salmon before it’s too late!” screams a post on Adams’ website.

Too late.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service, about two-thirds of the salmon eaten by Americans every year is farm-raised.  Most of it is imported from Norway, Chile, or Canada.

Science, fortunately, has debunked the scare stories about farmed salmon.  Harvard professors have estimated that that the health benefits of eating salmon far outweigh any risk from PCB contamination, for example.  EPA, FDA and the Institute of Medicine have all found the risk from mercury in fish is so hard to pin down that they can’t recommend any limits on seafood consumption by adults.

But there is always the hipster appeal of paying more for wild-caught.  It makes the buyer feel good and it tastes better, right?

“Mud” – Huck Finn meets modern Southern gothic Reply

When a couple of 14-year-old Arkansas boys find a cabin cruiser fifteen feet up in a tree on an island in the Mississippi River, you can tell we’ve entered Huckleberry Finn territory, where freedom and truth are on the river, while violence and betrayal are on the land.  Just to make it clear, the title character – “Mud,” played by Matthew McConaughey —  is a superstitious man with a cross pattern in a boot heel – just like Huck Finn’s father.

Matthew McConaughey with young helpers

Matthew McConaughey with young helpers

McConaughey is on the run after having gunned down the man who beat up his sometime girlfriend, Juniper,  played by Reese Witherspoon, who is much better as a tramp than she is in her usual ingénue roles.  The police are looking for Mud, but he has little to fear from them.  His problem is with his victim’s father and brother and hirelings, who are out to kill him.

The boys who encounter him on the island are played quite brilliantly by Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, or Nick.  Tye is the more romantic and Nick the more level-headed, and both are utterly believable as boys who have already seen too much of life and are struggling to make sense of it.

They do their best to help Mud escape the island and reconcile with Juniper, but reality intrudes and their lives are in jeopardy until a mysterious neighbor sets things right with a sniper rifle.  There is no Southern Gothic without sudden and explosive violence.

The cast is wonderful, with Joe Don Baker as the revenge-seeking patriarch and Sam Shepard as the neighborhood sharpshooter. The film belongs to McConaughey, who demonstrates that he can thoroughly inhabit a character.  But it wouldn’t be a coming-of-age film without Sheridan and Lofland, who see more of life in a few weeks than most people see in their whole lives.

The film would have benefited from some editing – Ellis’s infatuation with older girl takes up too much time – and the ending is pat, but the story is well-told and the acting is well worth watching. McConaughey has been on a tear lately to prove that he is more than a hunk and an action hero, and “Mud” serves that purpose admirably.


Surprises in the Washington Post Reply

Everything is seemingly spinning out of control at The Washington Post.  I am dizzy from reading Wednesday’s paper (4/17/2013).  Can’t believe it. In foreign news, and on the front page no less, is an article stating that national regulation of the economy in France is out of control.  Why, the article even cites criticism of the Precautionary Principle, the rule which basically states that you can’t do anything for the first time.  It is used to stifle innovation in Europe and is a cardinal principle of the reactionary left.  To see it cavalierly dismissed in the Washington Post is quite a shock.

Even more astounding is a column by Courtland Milloy, who is sort of a race columnist — he nearly always writes about racial issues.  Guess what — he is against what the Obama Administration is trying to do with gun control.  Go after the criminals with guns and leave the rest of us alone, he says.  Not what you expect to hear from an urban liberal, but there it it.  I don’t even care that much about guns (never had one), but I am amazed. (There is also a rather distinct note of disdain for Barack Obama. Milloy definitely thinks for himself.)

Here are the links if you are interested:

“France drowning in rules and regulations, critics say,” by Edward Cody,  http://wapo.st/Z4qqBi

“False hope and folly in gun control,” by Courtland Milloy, http://wapo.st/174l4If