Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sex and the Slope

It's time for us to sell our house and move. Now. From today's New York Post:

'...After years of taking shots from Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, Brooklyn is about to get its due.

Producers are giving Park Slope the star treatment with a pilot by the same executives who brought "Sex and the City," starring Sarah Jessica Parker, and "Melrose Place" to TV.

According to industry sources, Darren Star, who created those smash shows, has teamed with Sony and NBC for a proposed series about a group of affluent characters who live in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood.

Sue Kramer, who wrote and directed the 2006 romantic comedy "Gray Matters" starring Heather Graham, Bridget Moynahan and Molly Shannon, is writing the script.

"It's an hour-long dramady," Kramer, who lives in Park Slope, told Page Six.

"It takes place in Park Slope and Park Slope is one of the characters in it. Park Slope has so much juice, just like Manhattan. It's got a lot of pizzazz and energy."

The show remains untitled and has not yet been cast, but will have the usual staples of a Darren Star project: laughs, drama, heartbreak - and, of course, sex, sources say.

If the show gets the green light, viewers can see the first episode sometime next year...'

It's just my luck that they would start producing a 'dramady' [sic] in my neighborhood just as real estate values are dropping. I can't catch a break...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Unnecessary War

We just finished the HBO series John Adams. Contra the New York Times review, we both enjoyed Paul Giamatti’s, and Laura Linney’s, performances, and overall I thought that the miniseries was excellent. I had a few quibbles, such as the self conscious filming style, with the constant steadicam and camera tilt, and the constant buzzing of flies in key scenes, meant I assume to be some form of symbolism that I didn’t care enough about to decode. But my largest complaint was how brief the entire thing was, even condensing his entire presidency to less than a single episode. It’s understandable of course, seeing how the entire series is ten hours already and there is so much of interest to cover, and more to the point, I thought they did a good job with the condensing. Just because I find his presidency to be of great interest doesn’t mean that everyone else would want to sit through a 40 hour miniseries, and I had better be thankful that the series got made at all – under 2 million watched the finale.

In the brief sketch made of his presidency, one interesting item that was ignored was the Treaty of Tripoli. During the 18th century, American shipping (like that of the European nations) was under constant attack by the Barbary Pirates. Prior to the revolution, Great Britain defended American Shipping, and during the revolution, France did. But after the revolution we were on our own.

The Barbary pirates were from a series of Islamic principalities on the North African coast, remnants of empires that waxed and waned from the time that initial Muslim invasions back in the seventh and eight centuries overran the remnants of the Roman Empire. Their main economic function was piracy, forcing people to fight or pay bribes. After the Revolution, America was not in a position to fight, so John Adams decided to pay bribes instead. Yearly tributes were authorized by Congress, culminating in the payment of a large sum, with the ratification of the Treaty of Tripoli by the Senate and signed by President John Adams.

The treaty was originally written in Arabic, and it was an English translation that was officially ratified. Part of the treaty ensured the release of numerous Americans that had been abducted aboard ships, and the bulk of the treaty covered renumerations that the United States paid to the Islamic principalities. Of most interest, though, is Article 11 of the treaty:

‘As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.’

Quite the argument on the separation of church and state. Now in the past two centuries many people have argued for the irrelevance of the article, as there is some doubt over whether it actually was part of the original Arabic treat document. But ultimately it is an irrelevant point, as the version of Article 11 in English is what was ratified by the Senate, signed by the President, and made into the law of the land.

In the end, the treaty didn’t matter. Adams always preferred bribery to war, and Jefferson, his successor as President, preferred war to what he perceived as an unjust tribute. Ironically as well, since the only way to fight was to raise a national navy, and Jefferson loathed federalizing anything, especially armed forces. Nonetheless, war broke out and in the end another peace treaty was signed in 1805, but it also included American payments of ransom. But that still didn’t solve things, and fighting continued for years more, until a final treaty was signed in 1815, by which point the tides had already turned against the Islamic states – their end was coming, and they ultimately became colonies of France.

But the longest lasting remnant of those pointless wars remains the forgotten Article 11 of that original treaty, now gaining further relevance in our current age of pointless wars.

Friday, April 25, 2008

‘A Wasted Life, Better Left in Silence’

(Above, the white sheep of the family.)

From the Catholic News Agency:

‘…The Vatican has approved the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the English convert and theologian who has had immense influence upon English-speaking Catholicism, the Birmingham Mail reports.

John Henry Newman was born in 1801. As an Anglican priest, he led the Oxford Movement that sought to return the Church of England to its Catholic roots. His conversion to Catholicism in 1845 rocked Victorian England. After becoming an Oratorian priest, he was involved in the establishment of the Birmingham Oratory.

He died in 1890 and is buried at the oratory country house Rednall Hill.

The Catholic Church has accepted as miraculous the cure of an American deacon’s crippling spinal disorder. The deacon, Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusetts, prayed for John Henry Newman’s intercession.

At his beatification ceremony later this year, John Henry Newman will receive the title “Blessed.” He will need one more recognized miracle to be canonized.

The case of a 17-year-old New Hampshire boy who survived serious head injuries from a car crash is being investigated as a possible second miracle…’

Most people take pride in their family history of having descended from one or more famous people, and although in many cases the stories don’t hold up, they often make for a good telling around a wine-fueled dinner table. My family really doesn’t have anyone famous in their background; we have many good stories of our ancestors, but none of them were famous. Except for Cardinal Newman.

My grandmother’s (on my father’s side) maiden name was Newman, and the story that I was repeatedly told growing up (assuming I remember it correctly) is that it is the same Newman as the family of the famous Cardinal Newman. Now, John Henry Newman, being a catholic cardinal, was not married, and didn’t have kids, so we obviously didn’t descend from him. No, we are descendants of one of his brothers.

Cardinal John Newman had two brothers (and three sisters). His youngest brother, Francis William Newman, was a Unitarian and a well respected professor of Latin in University College in London. We’re not descended from him. No, the story is that we’re descended from the middle brother, Charles Robert Newman. From ‘Charles Newman and His brothers,’ published 1956 by Martin Svaglic:

‘…Few, however, seem aware that there was a third Newman brother named Charles Robert, one year younger than John, the story of whose eccentric life has come to be known in any detail only since 1948…Francis Newman passed it over on one page of his strange little ‘corrective’ book on the Cardinal, calling it a “wasted life, better left in silence.” [Cardinal] John Henry did his best to keep hidden from public curiosity what he called the “aimless, profitless, forlorn” life of his brother, even to the point of buying up from a virtual blackmailer a batch of Charles’s letters, after his death in 1884, to prevent their coming to popular attention…’

Charles Newman was the family black sheep, an atheist and a reclusive hermit, who was pretty much ostracized by the family, although supported enough for him to spend most of his life by himself in a small cottage in Wales. He didn’t start out as a hermit; he started out as a school teacher. That didn’t end so well, as this reminiscing letter to the New York Times from an admirer of Charles in 1884 points out:

‘…At the time I am speaking of, [Charles] Newman was miserably poor, entirely dependent on his small pittance as an usher in a third-rate country school. The task of teaching rude Sussex louts was, as might be imagined, intolerably irksome to a man of [Charles] Newman’s high intellectual power. It was like chopping logs with a fine-edged razor. The relations between him and his principal soon became strained, and the connection did not last long. The engagement was suddenly terminated by a tussle between the usher [Charles Newman] and his class, in which, as might be expected, the usher got the worst of it. He was knocked down, and, unable to defend himself with his hands, he employed his teeth, inflicting a bite on some fleshy part of his assailant’s person with such effect that the boy fled howling. This act sealed Newman’s fate. He was instantly dismissed…

[Archbishop] Hare, I remember, used to make excuses for Newman’s religious and moral obliquities on the ground of partial insanity. There was a screw loose somewhere…’

Pretty soon, Charles ended up spending the rest of his 40 years living in a small cottage in the Welsh town of Tenby. Another reminiscence from an admirer:

‘…Dressed in a pea-jacket, with a shawl or a rug thrown over across his shoulders, and with a sou’-wester over his head, he marched along-rigid, erect, with staccato step, looking not to the right nor to the left. He wore shoes (sometimes slippers) and, as his trousers were short and wide in the legs, a considerable interval of his white socks was left exposed. I am sorry to say that the lads and lasses and the vulgar sort of folk regarded Charles Newman at Tenby much as the formerly did Tennyson at Farringford and Carlyle at Chelsea. Once, I recollect, when he came to me to tea, he was followed to the door by a crowd of gaping urchins, whom I had to disperse with the threat of a stick…’

Charles died in 1884, and his writings, which is what he busied himself with during those 40 years in Tenby, were mostly destroyed by the Cardinal and other members of his family. What remained was collected and published posthumously in 1891. Long out of print, his ‘Essays in Rationality’ (along with a good potted biography) has been scanned and is now available as part of Google’s effort to put every book ever printed on line.

The problem, as you may have noticed, is that nowhere in my (admittedly brief) research can I find any mention of Charles Newman ever marrying or having kids, which could obviously pose a problem to those in my family who tell the story of our being Charles’s direct descendants. But it’s a good tale to tell at a wine-fueled dinner table, being descended from the ne’er-do-well brother of a soon to be beatified Cardinal.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I, for one, welcome our new Robot Overlords

The Japanese have for some inexplicable reason decided that equipping some of their 40 million robots (1 million industrial and 39 million domestic) with lasers is an excellent idea. Apparently Battlestar Galactica hasn't reached there yet.

Food Riots

So now, instead of bank runs, we have food runs. Panic has seized the minds of American food consumers and now there are runs on basic grain staples in Wal-Marts, Costcos and Sam’s around the country. People are now buying massive quantities of rice after reading articles such as this one from the Wall Street Journal, where we are faced with the very odd spectacle of investment advisers recommending that Americans stock up on foods as a hedge against global rising food prices. It makes sense on a certain level, as rice is definitely tastier than Bear Stearns stock certificates.

This panic is fun to watch, as it ends up being a classic self-fulfilling process. People stock up, the shelves go empty (as the store distribution system is not set up to deal with a sudden spike in demand like this) and it will take a while for the plentiful stocks of rice in this country to make their way back onto the shelves. But in the meantime the empty shelves will prompt more panic buying, as people think the shelves are empty because of a lack of rice, and not because the supply chain isn’t used to dealing with irrationality on a massive scale.

The real problem is not here, where we have plenty of food, but in many places elsewhere on the globe. Food riots are popping up like mushrooms after a rain, as countries are dealing with a perfect storm of economic and weather problems that are affecting different parts of the food supply around the world. My brother in his new blog today posts an article from this week's Economist which covers the problem.

Or, rather, problems, because anyone who thinks that there is one problem causing all of this is being myopic. Natural catastrophes such as drought are playing a large role in all of this, but only in local areas. Rice harvests around the world are abundant, but there are many places where they are not, due to a lack of water for the thirsty crop. Distribution remains the largest problem there. But the main problems are economic.

To blame those on the left, a huge problem has historically been a crude and mishandled subsidizing of food production. This is one of the main reasons for the riots – the prices have gone up so much because they were held artificially low to begin with, at levels that were economically unsustainable. And while giving away rice and wheat to a hungry populace may sound like a good idea, over the long term it’s a disaster, as it gives farmers no reason to produce anything. Well, except for drug crops like cocoa and poppies, whose prices are supported at artificially high levels due to their illegality.

But lest I sound like a rampant capitalist, a large amount of the blame goes to those on the right. The fiscal policies of this country have managed to devalue the U.S. dollar to a great degree, and the U.S. dollar is the main currency of international trade. This is one of the main reasons the price of oil has gone through the roof. And for the exact same reasons, it’s why the price of traded food, and therefore all food, is going through the roof as well. For the past year, the supply of and demand for food has not in and of itself changed appreciably, but the currency used to purchase food has changed dramatically. Which is why 2008 is the year of food riots, and not 2007.

And to blame everyone, no matter their political persuasion, most of the grain on the planet doesn’t feed people; it feeds cows, pigs and chickens (there are 1.5 billion cows on this planet, weighing as much as all 6 billion people, and 50 billion chickens hanging out all over the globe.) Eating meat is a grossly inefficient way to get calories from the soil to peoples’ bellies – the most common statistic is that it takes ten calories of grain to produce one calorie of meat, and it's estimated that 70% of all agriculture on this planet is directly devoted to livestock, and not people. And now that millions of newly affluent people in Asia want a new lifestyle to go along with their new found wealth, they are looking at the only culture that historically has a lifestyle of plenty for guidance and inspiration. America, land of car driving carnivores. America has three great inspirational exports to the new middle classes of Asia: a love of cars, a love of meat and a love of Pentecostalism. The world would be a better place if those millions instead stuck to riding bikes to a vegetarian restaurant to discuss Confucianism.

Of course, our country would be a better place if we did that as well, instead of driving the SUV to Wal-Mart to load up on a hundred pound bag of rice we wont be eating.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Still More Family Circus

(Above image from the Nietzsche Family Circus)

It's been a while since I posted. You can attribute this to my workload and the fact that I finally had my wisdom teeth removed last week; I got to spend a long weekend in a codeine fog catching up with reruns of Battlestar Galactica.

So I missed the chance to make any comments on Senator Obama's Reverend Wright affair. Not that I had much to add that hadn't already been said a thousand times on other blogs. But what is annoying to me the most about this issue is how comparatively unexplored the religious practices of the other candidates have been by the same media that lept all over the story of Senator Obama's preacher.

As a result we have been denied the opportunity to examine the church of Hillary Clinton: none other than The Family, which I have blogged about before. From CommonDreams:

'...Clinton fell in with The Family in 1993, when she joined a Bible study group composed of wives of conservative leaders like Jack Kemp and James Baker. When she ascended to the Senate, she was promoted to what Sharlet calls the Family’s “most elite cell,” the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, which included, until his downfall, Virginia’s notoriously racist Senator George Allen. This has not been a casual connection for Clinton. She has written of Doug Coe, The Family’s publicity-averse leader, that he is “a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.”...'

Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet wrote an article for Mother Jones last fall going into more detail on Senator Clinton's foray into The Family's special blend of power and religion:

'...Clinton's prayer group was part of the Fellowship (or "the Family"), a network of sex-segregated cells of political, business, and military leaders dedicated to "spiritual war" on behalf of Christ, many of them recruited at the Fellowship's only public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Aside from the breakfast, the group has "made a fetish of being invisible," former Republican Senator William Armstrong has said.) The Fellowship believes that the elite win power by the will of God, who uses them for his purposes. Its mission is to help the powerful understand their role in God's plan...'

The whole article is well worth reading. One of the reasons this won't be getting much play in the election is that Senator Clinton is not the only person attending meetings of the Family. From ABC news:

'...But if Clinton has a Coe problem, then it seems Obama would also: a quick call to the Obama campaign elicited a confirmation that the junior senator from Illinois had also attended "a couple" of Coe’s meetings. And, like Clinton reportedly has, Obama spoke at one of the meetings about his faith, spokesman Bill Burton confirmed...'