Friday, March 30, 2012

Film Review: "John Carter"

Long a fan of the pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps best known as the creator of Tarzan, I had eagerly awaited the release of Disney's production of John Carter, based upon Burroughs' first Barsoom (Mars) novel, A Princess of Mars. Well, except for the Disney part. I must admit that Disney's involvement had me a little apprehensive. Clearly, the film wouldn't be a Frazetta painting brought to life. Oh well. But the fact remains that a novel which had served as a childhood inspiration for some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of the 20th century, not to mention several generations of fans, was being brought to the big screen, and that is reason enough for excitement.

Despite the film's weak box office performance (the word "flop" is being routinely bandied about) and the less than impressive trailers, I was pleasantly surprised. John Carter is a fun film, quite effectively capturing the adventure and spirit of the original pulp novel. Certainly, the characters were somewhat two-dimensional, but that is not surprising considering the source material. It was a pulp novel, after all. If anything, the writers for the film managed, to their credit, to give the female lead, Dejah Thoris (ably portrayed by Lynn Collins), somewhat more depth than the original, making her more independent and resourceful than the stereotypical damsal in distress that she was in the books (and thus more palatable for modern audiences). The John Carter character himself is also given some more depth, at least in terms of exhibiting character growth as the film progresses. The Carter of the book is unchanging, constantly honor-bound to fight against injustice. The Carter of the film, played by Taylor Kitsch, has a few personal demons to confront, and by and large is only interested in getting home until later in the story, when he realizes, motivated both by love and a sense of honor, that he must do the right thing.  Sadly, that love aspect, the kindling of feelings between Carter and Dejah Thoris, isn't well explored, and is rolled out in the story in a somewhat perfunctory and pro forma fashion, as are many of the aforementioned improvements in Carter's character.

Overall, the film remains astonishingly faithful to the book, although there are some major differences, and I can quite readily see why most of those changes were made. For starters, the film transforms the Therns from the book The Gods of Mars into beings who turn out to be an advanced alien race not indigenous to Barsoom. Travelling from world to world, the Therns manipulate the historical development of the civilizations they encounter (including, it would seem, that of Earth), seemingly feeding upon the chaos they introduce.  This change allows the filmmakers to not only introduce a stronger overall story arc to the film, but also allow them to correct one of the weakest aspects of the book: how John Carter got to Barsoom.

In the book, Carter travelled to Barsoom by means of, well, essentially wishing himself there. The best way to describe the process would be astral projection, but with the added benefit of actually having a material body at the other end of the journey. This rather unsatisfactory explanation is replaced in the film with a bit of advanced Thern technology, consisting of what is basically a transporter which constructs a copy of the body at the destination, leaving the true body in a state resembling death.

Another major change is the transformation of the city of Zodanga into a moving city, striding across the Martian landscape and consuming resources as it goes. Whether the purpose of this change was to simply introduce a bit of visual spectacle or to make the Zodangans seem a bit more nefarious is unclear, but perhaps it was a bit of both.

Whatever the motivations, the filmakers did an effective job of bringing to life the Barsoom of Burroughs' imagination, which in turn reflects the Mars imagined by Percival Lowell. And it looks like a fascinating place to visit, provided that one stays on the good side of the Tharks.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The 411 on the PPACA

As the Supreme Court tussles over the constitutionality of provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (frequently tagged with the derisive and misleading label "ObamaCare"), my friend Dr. Margo Bergman (who holds a PhD in Economics and a Master of Public Health in Public Health Genetics) over at the StayAtHomeEconomist blog has been writing a series of articles going over what is actually in the law. This is a pretty handy thing, considering how grossly ill-informed most people seem to be about the topic. (Hint: There are no "death panels" in it.)

Here is what is up so far. I'll add links to additional postings as they appear.
  1. Getting to Know the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
  2. Health Care in America – a brief tutorial
  3. Section 1001
  4. Section 1001 – continued!
  5. From my cold, dead, but presumably healthy (except the dead part), hands
  6. Sec 1001 – the final push
  7. A Three-fer for you!
  8. And we move faster, faster through time and space, well, just the PPACA, really
  9. Sorry for the hiatus – teething baby!
  10. Moving into the future
  11. Special Rules – oh boy
  12. In need of health care myself
  13. Consumer Choice
  14. Remember the Tooth!
  15. Back in the Saddle
  16. Back to Work
  17. More Fun with Reinsurance
  18. Risk, Risk, Risk
  19. Affordable Coverage Choices for All Americans
  20. Cost-Sharing!
  21. A little departure
  22. Can I, Can I?
  23. Finishing up Eligibility
  24. And now, Small Business!
  25. Best laid plans
  26. The day after blues
  27. And a few addemdums, ipso facto…

Friday, March 16, 2012

Legislating Lies

This article in the Texas Observer has been making the rounds of late, highlighting one family's pain in the wake of Texas' controversial ultrasound law. It is a heart-wrenching story, but one part in particular jumped out at me:
"When the description was finally over, the doctor held up a script and said he was legally obliged to read me information provided by the state. It was about the health dangers of having an abortion, the risks of infection or hemorrhage, the potential for infertility and my increased chance of getting breast cancer."
I had to go back and re-read that just to make sure I had read it correctly. Sure enough, it said "increased chance of getting breast cancer."

"Well, that can't be right," I thought. So I took a look at the actual legislation. Sure enough, there it was in the Health and Safety Code, Title 2, Subtitle H, Chapter 171, Section 012:
Sec. 171.012.  VOLUNTARY AND INFORMED CONSENT. (a)  Consent to an abortion is voluntary and informed only if:
(1)  the physician who is to perform the abortion informs the pregnant woman on whom the abortion is to be performed of:
(iii)  the possibility of increased risk of breast cancer following an induced abortion and the natural protective effect of a completed pregnancy in avoiding breast cancer;
The thing is, that this is completely false. There is no medical evidence of an increased risk of breast cancer following an induced abortion. The following is from the National Cancer Institute's Fact Sheet "Reproductive History and Breast Cancer Risk" and hints at the origins of the abortion-breast cancer myth (emphasis added by me and citations re-numbered):
Is abortion linked to breast cancer risk? A few retrospective (case-control) studies reported in the mid-1990s suggested that induced abortion (the deliberate ending of a pregnancy) was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. However, these studies had important design limitations that could have affected the results. A key limitation was their reliance on self-reporting of medical history information by the study participants, which can introduce biasProspective studies, which are more rigorous in design and unaffected by such bias, have consistently shown no association between induced abortion and breast cancer risk (1–6). Moreover, in 2009, the Committee on Gynecologic Practice of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concluded that “more rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk” (7). Major findings from these recent studies include the following:
  • Women who have had an induced abortion have the same risk of breast cancer as other women. 
  • Women who have had a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) have the same risk of breast cancer as other women.
  • Cancers other than breast cancer also appear to be unrelated to a history of induced or spontaneous abortion.
The citations are for the following articles:
  1. Reeves GK, Kan SW, Key T, et al. Breast cancer risk in relation to abortion: results from the EPIC study. International Journal of Cancer 2006; 119(7):1741–1745. [PubMed Abstract]
  2. Michels KB, Xue F, Colditz GA, Willett WC. Induced and spontaneous abortion and incidence of breast cancer among young women: a prospective cohort study. Archives of Internal Medicine 2007; 167(8):814–820. [PubMed Abstract]
  3. Beral V, Bull D, Doll R, Peto R, Reeves G. Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. Breast cancer and abortion: collaborative reanalysis of data from 53 epidemiological studies, including 83,000 women with breast cancer from 16 countries. Lancet 2004; 363(9414):1007–1016. [PubMed Abstract]
  4. Henderson KD, Sullivan-Halley J, Reynolds P, et al. Incomplete pregnancy is not associated with breast cancer risk: the California Teachers Study. Contraception 2008; 77(6):391–396. [PubMed Abstract]
  5. Lash TL, Fink AK. Null association between pregnancy termination and breast cancer in a registry-based study of parous women. International Journal of Cancer 2004; 110(3):443–448. [PubMed Abstract]
  6. Rosenblatt KA, Gao DL, Ray RM, et al. Induced abortions and the risk of all cancers combined and site-specific cancers in Shanghai. Cancer Causes and Control 2006; 17(10):1275–1280. [PubMed Abstract]
  7. Committee on Gynecologic Practice. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 434: induced abortion and breast cancer risk. Obstetrics and Gynecology 2009; 113(6):1417–1418. [PubMed Abstract]
Then there is this. In Summary Report: Early Reproductive Events Workshop - National Cancer Institute under the section "Epidemiologic Findings":
  • Induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk. (1)
  • Recognized spontaneous abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk. (1)
The "(1)" at the end of each item is a rating of the strength of the evidence, with 1 meaning "Well-established." This is the highest rating.  And it isn't just the National Cancer Institute that maintains this position based upon the evidence:
Need I go on? Certainly, there are (usually) health benefits to carrying a pregnancy to full term, but the consensus of the medical community is that there is no link between abortion and an increased risk of breast (or any other) cancer. Yet, the Texas State Legislature has seen fit to require physicians to tell their patients that there is. In short, the law requires doctors to lie.

Yes, abortion is a divisive and controversial issue. And let us put aside for a moment the other atrocious aspects of this legislation. It is one thing for politicians to lie. They do so on a regular basis. But requiring others to do so? Has furthering a political agenda grown so important that it has come to this?

Way to stay classy, Texas Legislature.