Monday, December 24, 2007

Biopirates (Arrr!)

We've previously discussed some of the new species that Marc van Roosmalen has catalogued in the Amazonian rainforest (the dwarf manatee, the giant peccary), but earlier this year the Dutch scientist was convicted of violating Brazilian laws against biopiracy. Van Roosmalen was sentenced to almost 16-years imprisonment, and he was jailed in Manaus until this August when his lawyers managed to have him freed while awaiting the ruling on his appeal.

What is biopiracy?

Biopiracy is the appropriation of biological materials (e.g. plants and seeds) and biological information (e.g. chemicals and genes extracted from plants), normally from developing nations with great biodiversity, without paying compensation to local people.

In 1993, a Convention on Biological Diversity was signed by 183 nations. One of the objectives of the treaty is to allow developing nations to reap more of the rewards stemming from the use of their biological resources, and it recognizes that countries' have the right to regulate access to the biological resources contained within their borders. The United States was a signatory to this treaty, but it has not been ratified by the Senate.

Swashbuckling tales of biopirates

It makes sense that Brazil has adopted serious anti-biopiracy initiatives given that it was a victim of what is perhaps the most notorious example of historic biopiracy. In the 19th century, the commercialization of rubber -- extracted from trees which grew only in the Amazon rainforest -- was big business, and rubber barons in cities such as Manaus and Iquitos amassed considerable fortunes (just ask our old friend, Fitzcarraldo). Then, in 1876, British biopirate, Sir Henry Alexander Wickham, managed to smuggle around 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Brazil to crown colonies in Southeast Asia. Rubber tree plantations were founded in Malaya and Ceylon which were able to outproduce the Amazon region, where traditional methods were used to extract rubber from trees in remote area of the jungle, thus signalling the end of the South American rubber boom.

Today's biopiracy usually takes a more subtle form. Researchers from pharmaceutical companies may extract chemicals from plants found in developing nations (often plants which had long been known for their medicinal properties among indigenous peoples). The pharmaceutical company then patents the chemical and commercializes it without paying any sort of compensation to the local people or the country where the plants grow. The wikipedia entry on biopiracy lists some other famous cases and includes some links. I also found a site by the Coalition Against Biopiracy which bestows the Captain Hook Award to particularly nasty biopirates, and another site highlights biopiracy concerns in the Amazon.

In the 1970's Squibb used venom from the Brazilian arrowhead viper in order to develop the drug captopril which is used to treat hypertension. And more recently some Indian tribes in Brazil have complained that blood samples were taken from tribe members under ethically-questionable circumstances and have subsequently been used in international genetic research.

Brazilian anti-biopiracy laws

In the last few years Brazil has passed legislation to combat these practices. These measures have generally been supported by the Brazilian people, but scientists complain that the new laws are vague and create bureaucratic obstacles which stifle scientific research.

In order to receive authorization to conduct field research in Brazil, scientists must obtain approval from up to five government agencies, and -- although the law provides that agencies must respond within 90 days of the request -- in practice, responses are often issued much later as the agencies lack the resources, staff and know-how to process scientists' applications. Thus many scientists have decided to go ahead with their work in the meantime, assuming that they will eventually receive government authorization, but the Van Roosmalen case has given them pause.

Enio Candotti, who has serve as the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, estimates that over half of research conducted in Brazil is thus technically illegal. Candotti, a physicist, supports protecting the environment and indigenous knowledge, but he is against the new legislation stating that "research needs to be stimulated, not criminalized."

Renata Furtado, an official at the National Defense Council, an agency that has been involved in approving research requests in recent years, recognizes that there are some problems with the system but she places most of the blame with scientists whom she says refuse to compromise, resist supervision and insist on working in sensitive border areas. "We are trying to make the process more democratic," she says, "more open to dialogue, by inviting in all interested parties, including the military and indigenous groups, and when that happens, naturally you have people for and against." Boy, doesn't that sound like the definition of a bureaucratic nightmare?! And as for scientists resisting "supervision" and refusing to "compromise" can you blame them for wanting to conduct their research independent from government interference?

The case against van Roosmalen

So what exactly has van Roosmalen done to run afoul of the law in Brazil? He was once detained during a boat trip for transporting monkeys without a license, and he had monkey feces sent out of the country for laboratory analysis. Furthermore, in order to raise money for his work, van Roosmalen made an offer through his website to name the new species he might discover in honor of international financiers (remember how the trichechus bernhardi and callecibus bernhardi were named after Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands?): Brazilian authorities assert that this too is illegal, even if there is a longstanding historical precedent for recognizing patrons in this maner (e.g when Galileo discovered four moons of Jupiter, he named them "Medicean Stars" in honor of the Medici family).

In July of this year, at a biologists' conference in Mexico, 287 scientists from 30 countries signed a petition asserting that the jailing of van Roosmalen was "indicative of a trend of government repression of scientists in Brazil." In addition to deterring scientific research, scientists claim that these measures and the targeting of van Roosmalen demonstrate xenophobic prejudice.

Scientists who have worked with van Roosmalen admit that he can be stubborn and ill-tempered and that he does not respond well to authority. He often clashed with superiors at the state-funded National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus with which he was affiliated. Eventually he and the Institue parted ways in part because of his colleagues' jealousy after Time Magazine named him a "Hero of the Planet" in 2000. Despite his flaws, a former schoolmate of his, Wim Veen, sums up the case this way: "if there is anyone in Brazil who is defending the Amazon, it is Marc, which makes it particularly cynical to see him being made the victim of a legislation meant not for him but those who want to extract the riches of the tropical rainforest for their own material benefit."

Van Roosmalen has worked hard to catalogue new species in the Amazon and to publicise threats to their habitats. I think that regardless of whether one might consider some of his actions censurable, surely we can agree that 16 years in prison is a draconian punishment.

Biopirate flag taken from Photo of Marc van Roosmalen (c) Eraldo Peres/AP

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Kid Sis in Trouble

By now I'm sure you've all heard how Britney's younger sister, Jamie Lynn Spears (star of the Nickelodeon show Zoey 101), is pregnant. 16yo Jamile Lynn got knocked up by her 19yo boyfriend, Casey Aldridge, who -- from what I've read -- is the son of a Tennessee paper mill worker whom she met in church. The Mississippi Picayune describes him as a "pipe layer" (no joke).

Jamie Lynn and her mom sold the story to OK! magazine. As you can see, the cover says that Jamie Lynn was "shocked" to which I say "you were presumably having sex and not using birth control, didn't you realize this could happen?" I also read somewhere that her mom, Lynne Spears, was shocked when she first heard the news to which I say "wasn't your daughter shacked up with her boyfriend, how fracking shocked can you be?" Oh, I also just read that Lynne was planning on coming out with a book on parenting and that the publishing date has been indefinitely postponed. I'm sorry, but you'd think the train wreck that is older daughter Britney's life would have already disqualified this Kentwood mama from trying to give anybody parenting advice. Has she shared any of her treasure trove of knowledge on how to be Mother of the Year with Brit Brit who lost custody of her two children?

According to the ever reputable Us Magazine, Jamie Lynn's father was angry that his ex-wife and daughter decided to blow up their family's business all over the front page of OK! To that I say "hey, they have to pay for baby's diapers somehow..." Britney I guess is probably happy that this teenage pregnancy thing will help take the spotlight off of her hot mess at Christmas dinner.

But of all the peripheral news I've read related to Jamie Lynn's pregnancy announcement, I think my favorite is the rumor that Ashlee Simpson, Jessica Simpson's younger sis, is upset that everyone was too engrossed in this scandal to notice that she put out a new video for her song "Outta my head." Waa, waa. You can check out the video here: the song is kind of catchy, but Amanda is totally right on calling out that this is awfully reminiscent of the Alice in Wonderland video for Gwen Stefani's "What you waiting for?".


Jamie Lynn's story made me think of Solange Knowles. For those of you who don't know, Solange is Beyonce's younger sister. She launched her debut album in Jan 2003, and it looked like father/manager, Matthew Knowles, was grooming her to follow in big sister's footsteps, when in February 2004 she was married off to a Texas Southern University football player named Daniel Smith.

News of her wedding seemed to come out of the blue leading some people to suspect that Solange had a bun in the oven, and sure enough she gave birth to Daniel Julez Smith by October of that year. This October, Solange told Essence magazine that she is now divorced from the baby's father, which raises the question of how long they were actually together. Was this all just a sham wedding arranged for appearances sake? Was Matthew Knowles worried that Solange's unwed pregnancy would tarnish the family's reputation in the community or that it would damage the girls' singing careers?

Solange was in this Bring It On sequel that came out last year called Bring It On: All or Nothing along with the cheerleader from Heroes (now that's what I call versatility). Did you know that was the third Bring It On movie and that a fourth one just came out this month? Madness! Papa Knowles has also confirmed that Solange is going to join Destiny's Child for their next album that should be out in 2009 or 2010. Apparently, there's been talk of this happening for some time, and Solange has collaborated with the girls on a few tracks in the past. Right on: Destiny's Child was a quartet back in the day when they gave us such classics as "Say My Name." From what I've heard from her Solange isn't a bad singer, and my H-town sources tell me that she is nice and cool and not as full of herself as big sis (which... her and the rest of the human race).


If you think Solange's shotgun wedding was bad, when Brandy got knocked up in 2002 at the age of 23 she straight up lied and told everybody that she had a husband. She told everyone that she had secretly married a producer/songwriter named Robert Smith (not the guy from the Cure). She was quoted as saying "I’ve fallen in love with a very warm, gentle, understanding and focused person. This summer we married quietly. A new experience, a new day for me – I couldn’t be happier!" She kept up this charade until 2004 when, while promoting her album Afrodisiac, she admitted that she was never actually married to Smith and that she made up the secret wedding to preserve her image as little Miss Perfect. You'd think being caught out in such a huge lie would have caused more of a scandal. Anyway, it seems like the lesson here is that SWF celebrities can announce to the world that they're going to be unwed mothers, but SBF celebrities have to hurry up and marry some guy named "Smith."

But the marriage lie is nothing compared to what happened last December when Brandy killed somebody! A distracted Brandy was cruising down an LA highway in her Land Rover when traffic slowed down. She hit the car ahead of her which then collided with the car in front of it and the center divider before it was struck by a third car, fatally wounding the driver. Brandy wasn't driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but clearly she was not paying attention to the road (no word on whether she was on her cell phone). Still, bitches like Paris, Nicole and Lindsay are always driving drunk and no one gets scratched, but Moesha goes to switch CDs and somebody dies.

At the time, the LA City Attorney's office considered charging Brandy with misdemeanor vehicular homicide which carries a maximum penalty of $1,000 and 1 year in jail. But now it looks like girl might get away Scot free as the accident occurred last Dec 30 and there is a 1-year statute of limitations. I'm sure Brandy and her lawyers are hoping prosecutors get distracted by holiday parties this week and forget all about it.

And that's the thing: Brandy lies about her martial status for 2 years and kills somebody, and it's a momentary blip of the tabloid radar. But Jamie Lynn' pregnancy is the only thing anyone has been talking about for a week, and -- back before she really hit the skids -- Britney walked barefoot into a truckstop bathroom and precipitated a global economic crisis. As Dee suggested to me, could it just be that Brandy has a much better publicist than the Spearses?

Images: Dec 31, 2007 cover of OK! Magazine USA edition, photo of Solange's wedding produced by the Knowles family, album cover for Brandy's Full Moon (c) Atlantic Records.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Brideshead Redux

Last week I read an article about how they're coming out with a new film version of Brideshead Revisited. As a big fan of the novel as well as the classic miniseries, my first reaction was "no way."

Whenever I hear that a book I loved is being turned into a movie I am at first exhilarated, then worried that the movie is not going to come anywhere close to doing the book justice (I think it takes a rare genius to make a great film out of a great book), then I'm upset about the idea of my lovely book being tarnished by its association with some crap flick, and then eventually I'm like "eh, I guess I'll see what they've done with it." (A little like the stages of grief maybe -- well except for the initial exhilaration).

And when I hear a movie (or tv show) I love is getting remade I usually start out all "blasphemy!", then I'm usually like "you know it's going to suck," then "well you know maybe if they approach it from a different angle, and with today's visual effects, and a big budget, and if they're able to get away with more sex and nudity...", and then as the theatrical release approaches and the first reports of the film come in it's usually like "nope, my first guess was correct. It really does suck." So I'm going to call it right now, that this new movie is going to be nowhere near as good or memorable as the novel or the miniseries. Nevertheless, I am definitely going to watch it someday just to see how badly they screwed things up (much like I did with Madonna/Guy Ritchie's Swept Away [don't get me started]. Oh, and I still want to see that bad remake of the Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage).

The Book

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder was first published in 1945. It was written by the English author, Evelyn Waugh, who up until then was best known for his satirical novels. But, unlike his previous books, Brideshead's tone was more sentimental than comical, and it was meant to be taken seriously. Waugh himself described the novel as "nothing less than an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world..."

I first read the novel when I was living in New Orleans after law school. I bought a cheap, tacky paperback copy at a book fair which had a photo from the miniseries on the cover. Until then I only knew about Brideshead because when I was a teenager my mom had the miniseries' soundtrack on CD and because it was referenced in A. S. Byatt's novel Still Life. When Byatt's heroine, Frederica, is studying at Cambridge she mentions that she prefers Brideshead's nostalgic schmaltz to Kingsley Amis' comic novel, Lucky Jim, a favorite among her mostly male classmates, as she didn't appreciate what she saw as its misogynistic and anti-intellectual slant. I think that part of the reason I connected so much with the book is because of where I was in my life at the time: I think I was looking for a job, unemployed and bored, and so the novel's rich escapism sucked me in.

The Plot (A barebones synopsis. I try hard not to give the whole story away, but if you want to "go in clean" skip to the next section)

The story begins in the 1920s. Charles Ryder is a young man from a middle class family who goes off to study at Oxford. There another student named Sebastian Flyte catches his attention. At first he finds Sebastian annoying (homeboy carries around a teddy bear which he calls "Aloysius"), but soon after they meet Charles is won over by Sebastian's charm and his carefree lifestyle and the two become very close friends. Sebastian comes from a old aristocratic family whose last two generations happen to be Catholic.

The first sign of future troubles occurs when Sebastian takes Charles to see his ancestral home. He is careful to avoid running into any relatives because, as he tells Charles, if Charles meets the family he'll become a family friend but Sebastian wants Charles to remain his personal friend. When Charles does meet Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain, she tries to enlist him to keep an eye on her son. Not long after this, Charles begins to realize there is a problem, as Sebastian continues to binge drink and is ever more frequently in a foul mood. Things come to a head one Christmas holiday when Sebastian escapes from the family and goes on a bender (I should be so lucky this coming weekend). This precipitates a big row and a falling out between Charles and Lady Marchmain.

After that, Charles doesn't see the Flytes for years. He marries and makes a small fortune as an architectural painter (painting families' stately homes before they're forced to sell them). Then, sometime in the 1930s, Charles runs into Sebastian's sister, Julia, on a transatlantic voyage back to England. Julia has meanwhile married a Canadian-born veteran/politician who turned out to be a boor. The two bond aboard the ship while the rest of the passengers are seasick, and when they return to England they fall in love (which is a little creepy given how close he was with her brother -- not to mention the fact that we're told how much they look alike). They makes plans to both free themselves from their unhappy marriages and to be together, but in the end Julia finds that she cannot break the tenants of her faith by divorcing her husband.


Besides the novel's rich portrait of the era, I was impressed by the authenticity of the character's psychological profiles. I thought that the way Sebastian's alcoholism was described seemed really genuine (uh, not like I'm an expert or anything), and it's interesting to see how his problem was dealt with (or not) in a time when people didn't have such a clear, medical understanding of "dipsomania."

As for the Catholicism theme, Waugh himself converted to Catholicism in 1930. He saw Brideshead as dealing with "the operation of Grace" which he describes as the "unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself." But, as Frederica points out in Still Life, it's easy to come away from the book with the impression that the Flytes were ultimately unhappy because of their faith. Julia (although she married a divorced man who wasn't Catholic and she had an affair with Charles) decides to remain in her unhappy marriage rather than getting a divorce in contravention of the Church's teachings. Likewise I would say that the root cause of Sebastian's alcoholism and depression was his inability to live up to the tenants of his faith. It doesn't take a great imagination to reach to the conclusion that Sebastian is gay (even if Charles wasn't): heck, when we catch up with him in the '30s Sebastian is living in North Africa where he hangs around a monastery and cares for a crippled French soldier. Maybe the conflict between his family's religion and his sexuality is what drove him to the bottle. Julia and Sebastian's stories are all the more interesting because -- unlike their other two siblings, Bridie and Cordelia -- they're not religious individuals, yet I guess deep down their Catholic upbringing has left a lasting impression. I suppose this is what Waugh would call the operation of Grace.

The Miniseries

In 1981, an 11 episode television miniseries was produced for Grenada. Unlike the BBC miniseries of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which Amanda and I both had fond childhood memories of, but which on a more recent viewing floored us with its cheap production values, this was a lavish production with beautiful cinematography. The miniseries was filmed on location at Oxford, Castle Howard in York (which is generally believed to have inspired Waugh's fictional Brideshead), and on board the QE2.

Jeremy Irons stars as Charles Ryder; I think that sometimes he can be a snoozefest (like in that lousy version of Lolita), but he wasn't bad here. And Sir Laurence Olivier gives an amazing performance as a dying Lord Marchmain. He has a great speech about how a couple of generations ago Brideshead was called the "New House" "in the nursery and in the field when unlettered men had long memories."

That's the thing: the miniseries has a total running time of 11 hours, so they were able to give the story the treatment it deserved. I remember that this adaptation included just about every scene and every line of dialogue I remembered from the book.

The new movie

From what I've read, the director of the new film version (Andrew Davies, who also filmed the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth) has decided to make this a radically different Brideshead. He elected to abandon the nostalgic tone in favor of drama, and to truncate the treatment of Charles and Sebastian's time at Oxford, focusing instead on Charles and Julia's love affair which he sees as the central story. And Aloysius the bear gets axed from the new script!

As for the actors, Charles Ryder is played by Matthew Goode who was in that Chasing Liberty movie, where Mandy Moore is the President's daughter, which was sort of like Roman Holiday (err, don't ask how I know all this). Julia is played by Hayley Atwell who is also in that Cassandra's Dream movie Woody Allen filmed in Spain with Ewan McGregor and (ugh) Colin Farrell. The most exciting news is that Emma Thompson is playing Lady Marchmain. And Lord Marchmain is played by Michael Gambon who, since Richard Harris died, has been filling the shoes of everybody's favorite gay headwizard. Speaking of big shoes to fill, we will just have to see how this new adaptation stacks up to its predecessors.

Photo of Castle Howard taken by wikipedia user David59 is used subject to a GNU free documentation license. Photo of Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick taken from Brideshead Revisited miniseries (c) Grenada Television.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Monday Musing: Plastic Lids

When I was a teenager and
I saw one of those plastic lids
they place on top of paper cups
in fastfood restaurants and the like
with raised buttons you can press
marked COLA, DIET and ICED TEA,
I always would imagine that
someday a thousand years from now
a scientist who represents
some future civilization,
while excavating the remains
of our decaying cityscape,
would uncover this flimsy disk
(which will outlast the cup and me)
and studying its hieroglyphs
he would declare that this forebear
had once enjoyed a DIET drink.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Where to Travel in 2008 (DoS travel advisories be damned)

Last week the NYTimes Travel section came out with a list of 53 Place to Go in 2008 for global nomads like us. The suggestions range from the mundane to the exotic: some of these places sound awesome and some of them make you wonder what the folks in the Travel Section are smoking. Let's discuss...


More accessible than ever thanks to our good friend global warning, the NYTimes says that in 2008 ecotourists and adventurers can take an expedition cruise of the frozen-but-thawing North starting at $4,200.

RUNNER UP: Easter Island

Also known as Rapa Nui, this small volcanic island, lying some 2,000 miles west of Chile in the South Pacific, is one of the most isolated spots on Earth. It was given the name "Easter Island" by its first European visitor, Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen, who happened upon it on Easter Sunday. No one is sure where the native people of Rapa Nui came from, nor how the monolithic Moai statues that encircle the island were transported to their current locations. The NYTimes points out that 2008 will be a great time to visit since a new luxury resort is opening up on the island. You can take a cruise here or fly from Santiago, and they have scuba diving too.

HONORABLE MENTION: Barossa Valley, Australia

This photo alone is enough to entice me to one day visit southern Australia's wine country. And then there's the fact that this valley holds 60 vineyards and is one of the world's biggest producers of Shiraz -- one of my favorite red wines.


This small city on the Adriatic coast used to be known as a rather plebeian beach getaway. But the NYTimes says its becoming the "bling party capital" of the laidback penisula, attracting posh Romans with its all-night club scene and its designer hotels. (You know the N to the Y to the T be all about the blang blang.) Rimini is also the birthplace of Federico Fellini, and its only an hour's drive to Ravenna, the Byzantine capital of Italy known for the beautiful mosaics commissioned by the likes of Emperor Justinian (482/3-565) and King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths (454-526). Say, didn't Ada go to Rimini once on some sort of Houston/Rimini club scene goodwill tour?


Croatia's Dalmatian coast has become an increasingly popular tourist destination. A lot of people travel to the port city of Dubrovnik on the mainland to gamble, party, beach it and buy handmade crafts. But the NYTimes says the island of Hvar is becoming the Adriatic's answer to Saint-Tropez what with its ability to attract jetsetting partiers and yachters. The travel section says that Carpe Diem on the waterfront is party central and that the Adriana hotel in the old city center is Hvar's first hotel to be a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World.

I love Croatia. I've never been to the Dalmatian coast, but in the summer of 2001 I visited the little town of Pula on the Istrian peninsula. It had some nice rock beaches and a Roman arena.

My friend and I found the private room we stayed in thusly: we got off the train at around 5PM on a Friday evening with no clue where we were going to stay. While walking down the hill in what we imagined to be the direction of the city center we were met by a middle-aged woman walking her bike up the hill. After attempting to speak to us in what I assume was Serbo Croat she said to me in Italian "Are you looking for a room? I have a private room in my house." When we got there she showed us the room, gave us a key, and briefly introduced us to her son who was studying at the University of Trieste and who spoke English. That was the last we saw of her. Also, every time we left our room we seemed to run into her aged mother in the courtyard. She told me that my looks were "negrito" like her South American nephew, that when she was a schoolgirl Istria was under Italian fascist rule, and that as a young man her father had been drafted into the Austrian army.

In my experience, Croatian food had a lot of Italian influence and the local ingredients were awesome (truffles and fresh seafood, including my favorite cuttlefish in ink sauce, good grappa too). As for the party scene: on Saturday night we somehow stumbled upon this huge rave party (attended mostly by teenagers) held in a Napoleonic era fort outside of town. Good times....


Beer houses, sausage, Bavarian hospitality -- what's not to like? Just try to stay clear of the fratty American tourists... Come to think of it, I much preferred our time in the Bavarian countryside. The NYTimes mentions Munich's newly opened Jewish Museum and the posh new Charles Hotel.


The NYTimes mentions that Prague has moved beyond youth hostels, backpackers and expats with new luxury hotels: a Mandarin Oriental, a Hilton with a Gordon Ramsay restaurant (I wonder if the executive chef was on Hells Kitchen?), and a Rocco Forte hotel called the Augustine.

During our brief visit, my favorite sights were Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge (which may or may not have been featured in Mission Impossible) and the Church of Our Lady before Tyne. Oh, and there's the statue of Old King Wencelsas "from Christmas song."

On the last night we were there, we were in this pub that was going to close soon when I was befriended by this WASTED dude in the bathroom who asked me if I wanted to smoke hemp with him and his friends (apparently its legal to grow it and smoke it in the Czech Republic but not to sell it -- that's called a nonalienable good). We ended up tagging along when his friends went out to find this reggae pub in the part of the city called Prague 1. There my friend Lee met a cute Czech girl that later came to visit him in London (and I forever take credit for their meeting). I, on the other hand, ended up yacking on the street early in the AM. I'd like to return to Prague to see Kafka's grave and the cemetery where the Golem is buried and to drink some Czech absinthe.


Pack your burkhas, girls, because we're going to the Islamic Republic of Iran! (Did that sound like something Tyra Banks might scream in a future season of ANTM?) I would seriously love to visit the ruins of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire which was partially destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. And the Iranian people are known for the warm welcome they extend to Westerners, just ask the 15 BRITISH SAILORS THAT WERE HELD HOSTAGE IN IRAN IN MARCH/APRIL OF THIS YEAR!!!

I seriously cannot BELIEVE that the NYTimes would suggest its readers travel to Iran in the coming year. For one thing, there is an outstanding Travel Warning issued by the US Department of State telling US citizens to "carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran" and reminding the clueless that "some elements of the Iranian regime and population remain hostile to the United States" and "as a result American citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while travelling or residing in Iran." In other words, "You best step correct." The United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations and our government's heavy economic sanctions restrict trade. Do the folks writing for the Travel Section even look at the front end of the paper?

The article notes how some high-end travel agencies are planning to dip their toes into the Iranian market next year, and it seems to dismiss all the serious concerns I outlined above with a flippant "What Axis of Evil?" Yes, yes, that was a stupid speech the President gave in 2002, and we all know the Bush administration is constantly feeding us lies, but I have a feeling they're telling the truth when they tell us a vacay in Iran might not be the best choice.


Libya is ruled by that lovable dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, and is widely believed to be behind the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The DoS notes that US citizens may have difficulty obtaining Libyan visas (you can't even apply in the United States, you have to do so through a third country), and that citizens with valid visas are often capriciously denied entry at the border. It also notes that people with Israeli visas or Israeli stamps on their passport are denied entry to Libya. The Travel Section basically admits all this (yet still includes Libya on the list). It also notes Qaddafi's yet-to-be-implemented plan to build a carbon-neutral luxury resort on his country's Mediterranean coast (which also boasts Greek and Roman ruins). Wow, maybe Qaddafi will be the next Al Gore.


Proof that you don't need to travel halfway across the world in order to enjoy a crappy vacation, Detroit is often a frontrunner for such prestigious national titles as "Murder Capital" and "most dangerous city." The NYTimes mentions several new luxury hotels that have sprouted up in Motown (an MGM Grand, the Motor City Casino Hotel, the refurbished Westin Book Cadillac) and that the Detroit Institute of Art has just reopened after $158 million worth of renovations. Hmm, there's also a Motown Historical Museum. Doing a little research on the internet I guess this berg, known as Motown and Detroit Rock City, still has a lively music scene (the White Stripes are originally from Detroit). Who knows, maybe Detroit is fixing to cast aside its association with urban decay and to become someplace people actually visit (comparable to say Philadelphia or Baltimore).

TONIGHT'S BEER OF CHOICE: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

The following photos were found on the NYTimes website: "Trekking in Nunavut Territory" (c) Grant Dixon/Lonely Planet Images, Easter Island photo taken by Tomas Munita for NYTimes, aerial view of Barossa Valley comes from the Hess Collection, Persepolis photo taken by Greg Von Doersten for the NYTimes. Photo of Hvar (c)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Planet Unicorn Heyyy

Planet Unicorn is a series of cartoon shorts about A PLANET... FULL... OF UNICORNS! that was wished into existence by an 8-year-old gay boy named Shannon.

The main characters are Feathers, the feisty, Southern unicorn; Cadillac, the Hispanic unicorn who likes to have the last word; and Tom Cruise, the -- uh -- third unicorn.

As you would expect the unicorns are cute and innocent. But they can also be vain, superficial and catty (I don't think this is just me projecting). They're also not so smart.

Here's a typically cracky 3 1/4 minute episode:

You can watch the whole series here.

I have to thank Amanda for reintroducing me to Planet Unicorn and for finding the website. Back in the day, Planet Unicorn was featured on this show on VH1 called Acceptable TV which was only on the air for a hot minute (I only know about it thanks to BWE). The premise behind Acceptable TV was that each week they'd show half an hour worth of shorts, then viewers (all 10 of them) could go online and vote for which shorts they'd like to see more of. Enthusiasts were also encouraged to submit their own videos for possible inclusion on future episodes. Planet Unicorn was of course a crowd favorite. Which unicorn is YOUR favorite?

You can find more video series by the creators of Planet Unicorn, Mike Rose and Tyler Spiers, (along with like a million other videos) on this site called Channel 101.

Also, no post about unicorn videos would be complete without Charlie the Unicorn:

Props to Becky S for introducing me to this classic... and getting the Candy Mountain cave song stuck in my head.

WHAT I'M EATING/DRINKING RIGHT NOW: Taco Bell (2 bean burritos w/o cheese, 1 steak taco w/o cheese) and a Diet Snapple Peach Iced Tea.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mermaids of the Amazon

Last month, I mentioned Marc van Roosmalen in my post about his recent discovery of the giant peccary, but there's more to say about this Dutch biologist.

First, in addition to the giant peccary and a whole new genus of monkeys, earlier in our young century van Roosmalen also uncovered a new species of small, freshwater manatees living in the Brazilian rainforest.

Dwarf Manatee

The dwarf manatee is only about 4.25 feet in length, and it has an obsidian hide with a white spot on its underbelly. Members of this new species live in shallow, fast-flowing, clear waters where they graze on aquatic grasses and other non-floating plants, and their habitat is limited to the Arauanzinho river -- a 120 km tributary of the Rio Aripuanã. Hey, that's right near the giant peccary's hood! Van Roosmalen gives the species, known to the locals as pretinho ("little black fellow"), the scientific name trichechus bernhardi. Thus he named the dwarf manatee after HRH the late Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands just as he did with the titi monkey, callicebus bernhardi. Van Roosmalen says this new species must be considered on the verge of extinction given that the only viable population is restricted to a single small river.

Amazonian Manatee

There is another species of manatee that can be found in the freshwaters of the Amazon rainforest, the trichechus ingunius (called peixe-boi comum, or "common cow-fish", by Brazilians). These manatees are larger and inhabit blackwater and whitewater lakes and calm rivers with low visibility. There they subsist mainly on floating vegetation and submerged foliage. Their hide is also dark grey as opposed to the black dwarf manatee.

Other manatees

The only other extant species of manatee are the West Indian and West African Manatee. The West Indian Manatee can be found in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. Because of the manatees' low body temperature they usually stay in the tropics, but in the summer they have been spotted as far north as Rhode Island. The mysterious West African Manatee is very rarely seen which probably means that there aren't that many of them.


Along with the dugong, manatees comprise the order of aquatic mammals called sirenians. Dugongs differ from manatees in that they have a fluked tail like a dolphin as opposed to manatees' paddle-like tails, and they are found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The name Sirenian follows the widely held belief that these were the creatures that delusional seamen of yore mistook for plump mermaids (interestingly enough, in Italian and Spanish the word sirena is used both for the Odyssey's sirens and for Hans Christian Anderson's mermaids thus connoting that these mythical creatures were one and the same). In the wikipedia article on mermaids, it is noted that, although they don't look much like beautiful women, in centuries past people might have imagined that sirenians were humanoid creatures given that females cradle their babies between their flippers and nurse them just like human women.

Another species of sirenians which is now extinct was discovered in the Bering sea in the mid-1700s. It was named Steller's seacow after the species' discoverer. When Georg Steller first wrote about the species in 1741, there population is thought to have numbered around 1,500, but in less than 30 years they were hunted to extinction. People used their hide to make boats and their fat to make lamps. They were also hunted for their meat (which probably tasted more like beef than fish given that they are herbivorous mammals -- one more reason they were called seacows).

Today all surviving species of sirenians are considered threatened if not endangered. Manatees and dugongs are occasionally killed by crocodiles or sharks, but the only serious danger to their survival comes from humans.

Dwarf manatee photo (c) Marc van Roosmalen, Amazonian manatee photo (c) Sirenian International, Inc.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Compare and Contrast

Quick observation courtesy of Ada...




Janice image from The Muppets (c) Disney, New York photo (c) Gettyimages

Have a Very Homeboy Chanukah

My friend, Flaca, sent me this video a few days ago showing us all how to celebrate Chanukah thug style. Since then I've watched it several times so I figure that's a good enough reason to share it with you all.

Personally, I like to think of Chanukah as an excuse to eat fried foods.

I also stumbled across this moronic article by Christopher Hitchens about how if it wasn't for Chanukah there'd be no Al Qaeda and we'd all be living in a perpetual, Hellenistic wonderland. For those of you who are fortunate enough not to be acquainted with this clown, Hitchens is this conservative writer/journalist who (a) is one of the ten people on Earth who support Bush's war in Iraq and (b) takes every possible opportunity to ridicule and/or demonize anyone who believes in God or is anyway religious.

Oh, and here's my own little miracle of oil anecdote. When Nicole and I shared an apartment on Third Street in the New Orleans' Garden District back in 2003-2004, Nicole bought a little table and (2) chairs set off of a former law school classmate who was moving out of town. These chairs turned out to be crazy fragile, and after like two weeks of use one of the chairs fell apart. The other chair became wobbly and unstable shortly after that, yet, miracuously, it still stayed in one piece for months and months. So Nicole and I started referring to it as the Chanukah chair (there's some debate as to which one of us was the first to come up with this term) since, like the oil in the temple that was only sufficient for one day but ended up lasting for eight, this chair which we expected to give way any second ended up serving us for several months. When you think about it, the Chanukah story is all about lagniappe.

So have a happy Chanukah everybody, eat some tempura!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Get Ready for the Yule Lads

Someone who lived in this apartment before me must have been Icelandic or at least have travelled to Iceland because last December I received an offer in the mail for an Icelandair credit card. The envelope said something like "It's almost time for the Yule Lads!" and both the envelope and the enclosed letter were decorated with these goofy-looking little cartoon gnomes. I imagined that Icelandair was suggesting, to the native son for which the letter was intended, that he might want to fly back to his homeland for the holidays.

Well I certainly wasn't going to sign up for a credit card to earn miles on Icelandair, but I was nevertheless intrigued by these funny little creatures the letter called the Yule lads: who were these guys? I consulted Mr. Internet and found out that the Yule lads are mischievous little trolls who visit Icelanders' homes in the weeks before Christmas.

The fearsome ogress, Grýla

The Yule lads (jólasveinarnir) are the children of a mountain troll named Grýla. Grýla is one tough mama. She was first mentioned in Icelandic poetry in the 13th century, and she's been married three times: to Gustur, Boli, and most recently Leppalúði. Yet throughout the years its been clear that Grýla wears the pants in her household as her mates are scarcely mentioned and in some stories her husband is bedridden.

It was said that Grýla had 15 tails and that she descended from her mountain home to scoop up brats and stuff them in her sack. Grýla was always hungry, and her favorite meal was a hearty stew made up of naughty children.

This bloodthirsty ogress inspired such fear that a law was actually past in 1746 prohibiting adults from terrorizing children with stories of Grýla and her posse.

The Yuletide Cat

Grýla and her husband keep a household pet called the Yuletide cat. According to tradition this black feline will devour any child that doesn't receive a new article of clothing before Christmas. What's that, Timmy, you don't want to wear the sweater Grandma knit you?

The Yule Lads

The Yule lads are less ferocious than their mama and her pet, and -- at least in the last few centuries -- they're more of a nuisance than anything. There are 13 of these troublemakers, and one visits your home everyday from December 12 to December 24. Here they are in order:

Dec. 12 Stiff Legs aka Sheepfold Stick (Stekkjastaur): this guys likes to suckle sheep's milk from farmer's ewes.

Dec. 13 Gully Oaf (Giljagaur): he sneaks into the cowshed and skims the froth from pails of milk.

Dec. 14 Shorty (Stúfur): he likes to eat the leftovers in unwashed pans, scraping them clean (alright with me!)

Dec. 15 Spoon-licker (Þvörusleikir): he's as skinny as the ladles he likes to lick.

Dec. 16 Pot-licker (Pottasleikir)

Dec. 17 Bowl-licker (Askasleikir): this rascal snatches unattended bowls and devours their contents.

Dec. 18 Door-slammer (Hurðaskellir): he makes a lot of noise around the house.

Dec. 19 Skyr-glutton (Skyrgámur): this guy loves to eat skyr which is a cultured dairy product like yogurt (more on skyr below)

Dec. 20 Sausage-pilferer (Bjúgnakrækir): he climbs the rafters where sausages are traditionally left hanging after they're smoked (that whole sentence sounds dirty)

Dec. 21 Window Peeper (Gluggagægir): this nosy fellow spies at windows and maybe steals toys.

Dec. 22 Sniffer (Gáttaþefu): he has a big nose that he uses to sniff out cakes.

Dec. 23 Meathook (Ketkrókur): he uses his hook to reach down the chimney and snag hanging meats.

Dec.24 Candle beggar (Kertasníkir): in centuries past candles were an invaluable souce of light, and it was a treat for children to get a candle on Christmas Eve. This little guy wants one too.

Beginning in the mid-20th century the Yule lads have also started to act as little Santas. Children leave their shoes on the window sill, and each night the Yule lads leave a small present. Naughty children find potatoes or rocks in their shoes instead of a treat.


Dec. 23 is also the Feast Day of St. Thorlac, the patron saint of Iceland. Icelanders celebrate this holiday by eating cured skate -- salted, putrified fish.


Skyr is a cultured, fermented dairy product much like greek yogurt. When I was reacquainting myself with my buddies the Yule lads yesterday, I was like "what's skyr again?" and read all about it. Then last night I went grocery shopping at Whole Foods, and -- wouldn't you know -- I found skyr in the dairy case with the yogurt. So of course I had to buy some and try it out.

Now I know I'm supposed to be waging a one man war against the evil forces of milchig -- but lactards like me can usually digest fermented dairy products like yogurt and skyr since the cultures consume most or all of the lactose.

I tried out the skyr this morning, and it was really good: I guess its like halfway between yogurt and cottage cheese, and its really tart and sour. I ate mine with some blackberries and cornflakes. Skyr is also super good for you as it has lots of protein, no fat and 110 calories per container. Perhaps all the putrified fish won't catch on over here, but Skyr is one Icelandic delicacy which is apparently making inroads in the US market.

Illustrations (c) Halldor Petursson and taken from Christmas in Iceland site

Monday, December 3, 2007

Hibernation à la française

Last week I read a strange op-ed piece from the NYTimes. It begins by discussing how French President Nicolas Sarkozy removed tax penalties which limited workers to a 35-hour work week. The 35-hour work week had been established by Lionel Jospin's socialist party in 2000: the socialists believed this shorter work week would create more jobs while also allowing -- or, indeed, forcing -- French workers to spend more time at home with their families. Sarkozy, however, attacked this institution, claiming that it kept workers from earning more wealth and that it kept the nation from being economically competitive.

But the article's author, Graham Robb, points out that, if Sarkozy thinks that working 35 hours a week is inefficient, that's nothing compared with French habits from centuries past. He reports how, in the 1800s, economists and government officials lamented the fact that, in the countryside, almost all economic activity was suspended for the entirety of the winter.

They weren't alone. In 1900, the British medical journal reported how peasants in the Pskov region of northwestern Russia (close to the modern-day Estonian border) would spend half the year in pseudo-hibernation. With the first snowfall families would gather by the stove and settle down to sleep, and they wouldn't emerge from their homes until spring had sprung. Family members would take turns overseeing the fire while the rest of their family would sleep almost all day long, waking up to have a piece of black bread. This extremely sedentary existance would effectively slow a person's metabolism to a crawl so that he would require very little food for energy.

A similar custom was followed by Frenchmen, not only in frigid mountainous areas but also in more temperate regions such as Burgundy. Yes, the French have always known how to live.

When I first read this article I was kind of stupefied about the idea of people staying inside all winter, doing little but sleeping for months at a time. But, upon more reflection, I can see how this was probably very common, especially in places with harsh winters. Farmers who planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, would have few responsibilites during the winter and would want to conserve the food and fuel that they had managed to horde. Moreover, this was before the advent of central heating; and don't we all sometimes have trouble leaving our warm beds during colder months even today? So I could totally see sleeping in, and spending waking hours chilling around the house maybe wrapped in a blanket.

Sadly, doing nothing for months on end is not an option for modern man who needs to earn money to pay for things like rent, utilities, drugs. Yet, Robb suggets that society might want to enact initatives to once again encourage citizens to scale back on activities during winter months: yes, there would be a decrease in economic output, but there would also be a decrease in consumption and pollution. I would definitely volunteer to do fuck all for a couple of months if it was good for the enviroment. Hey, we all need to make sacrifies.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Attack of the Giant Scorpion

In a quarry near the German town of Prüm, scientist Markus Poschmann discovered an 18-inch fossilized claw which once belonged to a sea scorpion that must have been over 8 feet long. This scorpion would have been larger than a man, and it is the largest arthropod (i.e. animal with a segmented body, jointed limbs and an exoskeleton) ever uncovered.

In their article, published in the UK Royal Society journal Biology Letters, Poschmann and his colleagues report that this species (Jaekelopterus rhenania) lived between 460 and 250 million years ago during the Paleozoic era. It would have been one of the top predators in the food chain. They also believe that an arthropod of this size would have had difficulty walking on land and thus they were probably limited to acquatic habitats.

Co-author Simon Braddy says that scientists had long surmised that present-day creepy crawlies such as millipedes, cockroaches, scorpions and dragonflies were once much larger, but this is the first evidence of just how gigantic some of their ancestors were. One reason Paleozoic arthropods reached such colossal proportions was because of the elevated levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. In their report, the scientists also theorize that aquatic arthropods such as this sea scorpion evolved this way because it gave them an advantage against their prey the armored fish. During this era, much of the land making up continents such as North America was covered by epeiric seas (shallow bodies of salt water).

The giant arthropods died out when vertebrae predators came on the scene who viewed them as a hearty meal, leaving behind their smaller relatives who creep us out today. This is no reason, however, that they couldn't make an awesomely bad monster movie about one of these giant scorpion. J Lo, Ice Cube and Owen Wilson could star in it, and the tag line could be "He's been extinct for 250 million years... and now he's pissed off!"

Photo is a still from Clash of the Titans (c) Titan Productions found on

New t.A.T.u. video

For some reason we here at Too Much Information (i.e. "I") feel obligated to keep our readers abreast of all the latest news involving the psuedo-Sapphic Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. -- whether they might be showing up at human rights violations in Moscow or filming some weird movie with Mischa Barton. Well, on Friday, Nicole brought t.A.T.u.'s new video to my attention (we first learned about this on idolator). Here it is for your viewing enjoyment. The song is in Russian (I could understand a few numbers that were in there), but -- whatever --understanding the lyrics has never been a big part of the t.A.T.u. enjoyment experience.

Ok, let's discuss. Do you think that looked like an awfully nice prison bathroom there? I mean that minimalist shower was pretty stylin. Her underwear looked pretty fashionabe too (and why did they have to gun her down in her undies anyway?) Also, what's with refusing your last meal? It's not like you've got to worry about your girlish figure if you're about to be executed. But then again I guess it's easier to get drunk on your last bottle of wine on an empty stomach.

As far as the prisoner being pregnant... is it weird that my first theory was that perhaps her baby was foretold by prophecy? Come on it happens all the time: Moses, Jesus, Willow!

The song, "White Robe" (Biely Plashchik), is from their latest album Truth which was released in September. It's kind of cracky and eurotrashilicious, huh? It seems that now that the girls are older they're singing isn't so screechy. Nothing wrong with that.

Oh, and Idolator also has some news about Finding t.A.T.u.: there's apparently a scene with Mischa Barton working in a slaughter house, and at some point she utters the awesome line "Fuck everything but t.A.T.u.! They're nihilists. Beautiful nihilists." Can you contain your excitement because I know I can't.

Pink is the new Yellow

When I was in Bangkok I couldn't help but notice the throngs of Thai people dressed in yellow polo shirts. This phenomenon was explained to me on the bus coming from the airport: In Thai culture each day of the week is associated with a color. Monday's color is yellow, and the king was born on a Monday, so everyone wears yellow (especially on Mondays) in honor of the king. Most of the polo shirts featured a royal emblem on the breast pocket.

Now there's a new fashion trend in Thailand. It started when the King of Thailand, HM King Bhumibol the Great (b. 1926 and sometimes called "Rama IX" in English), went into hospital in October. King Bhumibol just celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year, and he is currently the world's longest reigning monarch. The king spent three weeks in hospital receiving treatment for heart problems and other ailments, and when he left he was photographed wearing a pink jacket. Astrologers told the king that pink was a lucky color for people, like him, born in the Year of the Rabbit. Check out the pic; it's actually pretty sharp and kind of makes His Majesty look younger.

Since then Thai people have been buying and wearing pink polo shirts in order to show their support for the king and to help bring him good luck.

People are used to seeing HM King Bhumibol dressed in more traditional dark suits, but now he has taken to wearing more bright colors. Why not wear something that makes the world a more colorful place? That's what I say. In the BBC news article they suggest that as the king is seen in various outfits there may be a similar rush on other colored shirts, and, indeed, I found a blog post reporting how people have been buying green polo shirts since the king was wearing a green blazer when he returned to the hospital for a visit last month.

Since my trip to Thailand I've been coveting the polo shirts (although not as much as the seriously hot orange wristbands which say LONG LIVE THE KING which were sold around the time of the king's 60th anniversary in 2006) even though I don't think yellow is my color (meh, maybe with a good tan...). I actually bought a blue one online yesterday, I'll take a pic when I get it.

Another thing I learned yesterday is that in Thailand insulting the sovereign, or lèse majesté, is a crime punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. According to wikipedia, a Frenchman was once charged with lèse majesté after he refused to turn off his reading light on a Thai Airways flight at the request of two Thai princesses who were also onboard. He spent two weeks in prison, but was acquitted after apologizing to the king. Another incident in December 2006 involved a 57-year-old, drunken Swiss man who vandalized images of the king. 57, huh, isn't that a little old for such antics?! Apparently he was unhappy about the fact that liquor stores closed early in honor of the king's birthday. He was charged with 5 counts of lèse majesté and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, but the king pardoned him less than a month after his conviction. Some government officials suspected that the man was put up to the vandalism by dissidents. Indeed the lèse majesté laws in Thailand have often been used by politicians to attack opponents, and by military regimes in order to suppress resistance. Anyway, after seeing Brokedown Palace (starring that hussy, Claire Danes -- don't get me started on her) I try to stay on the right side of the law in Thailand.

Here's a photo I took from the plane before I left Bangkok. Until I return, Long live His Majesty the King!

Photo of King Bhumibol (c) AFP, photo of lady with polo shirt (c) AP, I took the other two photos myself.