FRC Blog

Batman: The Dark Knight

by Chuck Donovan

July 21, 2008

At one level it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I regularly watch movies based on comic books. I’m 56 and my youngest is 14, so it’s at least a semi-voluntary endeavor. Nonetheless, I grew up with subscriptions to DC Comics, the “Justice League of America,” “Classics Illustrated,” and an obscure favorite called “Metal Men.” These readings did not replace literature for my siblings and me; they supplemented it, and, with “Classics” especially, helped to pique interest in the real (and even unabridged) thing. It’s hard even now to describe the imaginative windows opened by just a handful of N.C. Wyeth illustrations in the editions we craved as children.

Thus, an invitation to watch a full-fledged Batman movie with today’s technological accomplishment is no bow to my teenage son, it’s irresistible. The new feature, The Dark Knight, is engrossing and visually spectacular. Unlike the comic books, however, it also has psychological depth and is almost unremittingly dark. It is good v. evil, certainly, but it is a troubled good confronting, in the character of the calculating Joker played by the late Heath Ledger, an almost-explicable evil.

The intense scenes of the Joker wielding knives in the face of his victims are stomach-churning to watch (at least one hopes that audiences have not become used to scenes like this that, in Roman Polanski’s 1970’s film noir Chinatown, became an iconic image of sadistic criminality), but it is during these scenes that the character explicates his personal history. He is the tormented product, he seems to imply, of his father’s wanton cruelty to his mother, just as much as Batman, played by Christian Bale, is the product of his father’s heroic effort to save his mother. Role reversals abound in the movie, and the public’s need for heroes it can both treasure and revile supplies the broad dramatic tension, but good fathers clearly matter.

Among the twisted ethical dilemmas the Joker poses to Gotham City involves two ferry boats full of passengers who are challenged to a potentially mutually fatal decision. One boat is full of criminals, the other ordinary citizens, so it is not a “Sophie’s Choice” that is presented. The scene is played out to an extraordinary conclusion. In the murky moral swamp into which Gotham City has sunk, this depiction of “lifeboat ethics” leaves plenty of room for thought. The Dark Knight is overlong and the violence exceeds its prequel, Batman Begins, and there are instances of implied sexuality and some language.

Finally, the film redefines the Batcycle just as Batman Begins redefined the Batmobile. At least a few things in Gotham City have gotten definite upgrades. Now if only my mother hadn’t thrown out a half million dollars’ worth of comics . . .

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A Primer on the European Union

by Bill Saunders

July 21, 2008

Last week’s report by my interns on the talk discussing the reason Ireland voted against the new EU constitution (disguised as the Lisbon Treaty) reminds me that we have a good resource available for those who are not up to speed on the EU and some of the problems it, and related European institutions, pose on social issues. The paper is by my former research assistant, John Henry Crosby.

Follow this link to read “A Primer on the European Union.”

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California Stem Cell Meltdown?

by David Prentice

July 21, 2008

California’s Stem Cell Affordability Bill (SB 1565) has received no mention in the mainstream media, but has caused a tremendous stir. Sponsored by Sens. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, and George Runner, R-Antelope Valley, the measure will supposedly ensure equal and affordable access to any products developed through the state taxpayer-funded $3 billion stem cell grant program, give more flexibility for approval of projects by the grants review working group, and provide for an audit of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) governing board. So far no legislator has voted against it, and it will likely soon come to Gov. Schwarzenegger for his signature.

But during the legislative process, it has been attacked relentlessly by some embryonic stem cell advocates and by surrogates of the CIRM, Sen. Kuehl has been personally, viciously attacked by those same forces, and questions about the leader of California’s embryonic stem cell enterprise have re-surfaced. In particular there has been criticism of Robert Klein holding dual, and conflicting, positions as chairman of the state stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and president of the advocacy group, Americans for Cures. With the rather apparent conflict of interest, there were calls for Klein to resign from one or the other position, but despite some reports that he had resigned as president of Americans for Cures, that has yet to be confirmed.

For more stories and details on the histrionics in California, check the California Stem Cell Report.

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Most Scientists Get Along With Journalists?

by David Prentice

July 21, 2008

Scientists and journalists have not necessarily had a good relationship in the past. While scientists like the attention to their work, sometimes they have not been good at explaining their results, its real significance, and the process of scientific investigation, and there have been real fears about being misquoted. But the scientist-journalist relationship seems to be warming. In a report published July 11 in the journal Science, a majority of scientists interviewed said that they were generally happy with their media interactions. The report was by a team led by Hans Peter Peters of the Forschungszentrum Julich, Germany, interviewed more than 1,300 researchers in the fields of epidemiology and stem cell research. The survey found similar results with scientists from the U.S., U.K., Japan, France, and Germany. The study also suggests scientists are becoming more knowledgeable about how journalists work, and are more skilled at working with reporters than in the past.

One German stem cell researcher, Hans Scholer, obviously doesn’t fall in the majority, though. A number of German news stories (sorry, no English-speaking media have picked up the story yet) report that Scholer wants a gag rule for journalists. He even refused to continue a scientific talk recently in Berlin because he detected journalists present. Maybe a little media training is in order?

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Identification of Spinal Cord Adult Stem Cells for Repair

by David Prentice

July 21, 2008

Researchers at MIT and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have identified specific adult stem cells in the spinal cord that might be activated to repair a spinal cord injury. Konstantinos Meletis and co-workers have been able to mark the specific stem cells for the spinal cord. “We have been able to genetically mark this neural stem cell population and then follow their behavior,” Meletis said. “We find that these cells proliferate upon spinal cord injury, migrate toward the injury site and differentiate over several months.” The study, published in the July issue of the journal PLoS Biology, could lead to ways to activate the cells in an injured spinal cord for repair of damage and regrowth of nerve axons.

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Grow Your Own Heart Bypass

by David Prentice

July 21, 2008

Newly-published research shows that new blood vessels for the heart can be grown using adult stem cells from blood and bone marrow. The work combined two types of specialized (progenitor) adult stem cell types transplanted into mice, to give the best production of blood vessels of the type that are used for heart bypass surgery. The study was reported in the July 18 issue of the journal Circulation Research. One of the authors, Dr. Juan M. Melero-Martin of Harvard Medical School, said that “For clinical use, the way we envision it, if a patient has need to vascularize ischemic tissue, we can get cells from the patient ahead of time, grow them and inject them back into the patient.” One goal now is to reduce the time it takes to grow the blood vessels outside the body. Extensive growth now is seen after seven days, and the hope is to reduce that to 24 to 48 hours.

Growing your own bypass, with your own cells, may be what is taking place for many heart patients that have already been treated with their own adult stem cells. That’s how Lieutenant Ronnie Smallwood sees it. Smallwood suffered from congestive heart failure. He was treated by putting some of his own adult stem cells into parts of his heart muscle. Smallwood is now feeling better, and ready to go back to fishing in his off hours. He was treated by Dr. Emerson Perin of the Texas Heart Institute, who has treated a number of heart patients with their own adult stem cells. “What we are doing with the stem cells is hopefully creating better blood flow to areas of the heart that don’t get good blood flow,” Dr. Perin says.

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The Scent of Dirt

by David Prentice

July 21, 2008

Do you like the smell of fresh earth? Does a whiff from a freshly-plowed field or just-tilled garden improve your mood? Well it might soon be possible for you to get that fresh earthy smell even in your uptown apartment. That earthy smell comes from the combination of two harmless chemicals that are made by bacteria in the soil. Scientists report that they have successfully isolated the bacterial genes responsible for synthesizing those chemicals. Now maybe even those far from the farm (but who like the scent) can experience the scent, and without the dirt!

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New” Report on Embryonic Stem Cell Debate, Same Old Inaccurate News

by David Prentice

July 21, 2008

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has issued a new report on Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

The reason for the report is not obvious, because it contains very little new information, and even as a collection of the arguments it is slanted and superficial. The science section is incomplete and contains a number of inaccuracies, e.g., “In the mid-1990s, scientists began studying embryonic stem cells, at first in mice” (instead, two groups first isolated mouse embryonic stem cells in 1981.)

Worthwhile are the interviews with Yuval Levin and Jonathan Moreno, presenting the case against and for embryonic stem cell research, respectively.

The poll information is somewhat interesting, showing continually decreasing support for embryonic stem cell research, though as most now realize, the phrasing of poll questions determines the responses.

Much more informative is the poll recently done by the Ethics & Public Policy Center on Public Opinion and the Embryo Debates, showing continuing confusion about the basic facts of the debate. That article is definitely worth your time to read. But the Pew report may only contribute to the relative lack of knowledge of real facts

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Blade Runner Will Miss Olympics

by David Prentice

July 20, 2008

Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, nicknamed “Blade Runner”, will not be running in the Olympics. He failed to qualify in the 400m and was not selected for the 4x400m relay.

Pistorius received his nickname and running notoriety because he is a double amputee with two carbon-fiber prosthetics as legs; the prosthetics look like springy J-shaped blades. His bid to attempt an Olympic run was the subject of contention in the athletic community. Back in January 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAFF) had ruled that Pistorius had an unfair advantage and shouldn’t be allowed to compete against “able-bodied” athletes.

He appealed the ruling and in May, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the ban. A team of scientists led by Peter Weyand of Rice University, Houston, had done testing and found that Pistorius’ prosthetic legs did not give him an unfair advantage.

While it’s sad to see that Pistorius barely failed to make the 2008 Olympics, count on more discussions about prosthetics, body modifications, and whether some of these qualify as enhancements.

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Time For Another ACT Press Release?

by David Prentice

July 17, 2008

The Boston Globe is reporting that Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), a Massachusetts biotechnology company, is running low on cash and may have to shut down or at least make severe cutbacks. ACT has been in the news in the past (usually first with their own press releases) for claims such as the first cloned human embryo, animal-human hybrid clone, creating organs by gestating clones, and for a technique that supposedly might produce embryonic stem cells without harming embryos. As the Globe story notes, “ACT has been dogged by complaints that it over-hyped its research”, and there has also been controversy about the way it has promoted some of its science, including its penchant in some cases for publication via press release. In 2002 auditors found it had mispent grant funds. It is also facing some other recent problems, including departure of many of its executives, including founder Michael West.

Though unrelated to its own troubles, ACT’s name was also in recent news about the mayor of Beaufort, SC being charged with insider trading by the SEC. According to the SEC, in 2006 an ACT executive told Mayor William Rauch, who had been a consultant for ACT, about a breakthrough embryonic-stem-cell technique the company was about to make public, after which he bought more than $11,000 worth of ACT stock, which gained 360% after the announcement was made public.

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