Monday, June 29, 2015

Pasteur and Rabies

Louis Pasteur
On July 6, 1885, Louis Pasteur cured a human rabies patient for the first time in known history.

Until then, getting bit by a rabid animal led to ghastly illness and almost certain death.  

(Pasteur also is known for his work identifying germs, developing pasteurization processes to kill bacteria in milk and wine and forcing surgeons to wash their hands and instruments before operating on patients.  He did a lot of good in his day.)

In fact, the rabies treatment came late in Pasteur's career, following work that led to the development of vaccines for anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera and smallpox. 

In the rabies case, Pasteur had extracted nerve tissue from infected rabbits and then dried the tissue to weaken the virus it contained. 

One hundred thirty years ago, Pasteur's vaccine was given to a nine-year-old boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog. It was a gutsy move by a non-physician scientist, but it worked.  The boy survived, which was remarkable in a time when such a bite was a mortal event.  


Rabies Today  

Developed countries have virtually eliminated rabies with the broad vaccination of pets.   There are still occasional rabies cases -- like the coyote bite that infected a New Jersey man late this spring -- but effective treatments are readily available.

Unfortunately, less developed countries have had to focus on other issues first. 

An April report by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control said that domestic dog bites cause more than 99 percent of all human rabies deaths, which it estimated at almost 59,000 annually.   

The deaths are clustered in Africa and Asia, particularly in India, and are especially unfortunate at a time when vaccinations and treatments are available to eradicate the disease. 

The group has quantified the losses in the hope of galvanizing efforts in poor countries to vaccinate pets and treat human victims.

After 130 years, it seems about time. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Can Gay People Save Marriage?


Like most of my friends, I was pleased with the Supreme Court ruling Friday.  

Simply put, gay men and lesbians are part of the human family.  I am happy that they can enjoy the satisfactions that family life has afforded me. 

One thing that surprises me a little is that lesbian and gay adults seem to be embracing the idea of marriage when many of the rest of us are leaving it behind.



Statistics


A.

This chart ends in in 2013, when the Census Bureau recorded "nearly 252,000 households (were) headed by same-sex married couples . . ., a notable increase from the 182,000 estimated in 2012, but still a small fraction of the 56 million total U.S. married couples." 

In fact the trend in the chart continues. According to more recent reports, just fewer than half of American adults are married today. 


B.  A 2001 study by the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center (?) reported these findings:


        -- "Female adolescents’ attitudes toward marriage have undergone the most 
       dramatic changes, from nearly 39 percent believing that marriage leads to fuller 
       and happier lives in 1976 to just 22  percent expressing this view in 2001." 
       
        --  "Among black adolescents, 41 percent agreed that marriage leads to fuller and 
        happier lives in 1976, versus just 26 percent in 2001." 


C.  Here are some Gallup Poll comparisons of changing American attitudes about marriage over the years. 

1)  When a man and a woman plan to spend the rest of their lives together as a couple, how important is it to you that they legally marry?

                             Very             Somewhat      Not too        Not at all      No Opinion
                             Important     Important        Important    Important

June 2006             54%                19%               13%             12%             1%

June 2013             43%                 21%              16%             19%             1%


2) When a man and woman have a child together, how important is it to you that they legally marry?

                             Very             Somewhat      Not too        Not at all      No Opinion
                             Important     Important        Important    Important                       

June 2006             49%                27%               12%             11%             1%

June 2013             38%                26%               15%             20%             1%



Today's Commentary

Friday's Supreme Court decision on gay marriage was of sufficient import that several articles in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times were devoted to its analysis. Two quotes:

"The gay movement has stood . . . for other ideas . . . that risk being lost in this moment's pro-family turn: that intimacy, domesticity and caretaking do not always come packaged together; that marriage should not be the only way to protect one's children, property and health; that having a family life shouldn't be a requirement for full citizenship; and that conventional respectability shouldn't be the only route to social acceptance.
     ". . . . We were not, for obvious reasons, the marrying kind; that was part of what made us special."
Timothy Stewart-Winter
"The Price of Gay Marriage"


"Admittedly, there's probably no surer way of destroying your marriage than writing a paean to it.  I also should acknowledge that I have no idea if I like the institution of marriage or if I just like my specific husband.  The jinx I've invented here notwithstanding, I hope I never find out."

Curtis Sittenfeld
"Wedded Bliss for Everyone!"

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Court Cases and Jury Duty



A couple days ago I wrote about a hilarious case being tried in a federal court in Manhattan.

The plaintiff is an aggrieved former model from Sweden who claims that the Wall Street boss who paid for her apartment, for expensive gifts and for whatever work former models do at allegedly big-deal financial firms was a bad guy who forced her into a sexual relationship involving several encounters over a period of some months.

The Wall Street boss says she is making the whole thing up.  He has accused her on his website of visa fraud, extortion and loose womanhood.  (In addition to being an international financier, he also claims to be an investigative journalist.  His lawyer conceded that "We all know [he] has diarrhea of the keyboard.")


No More Testimony 

People with a particular tabloid fixation were sorry to learn that testimony in the case ended Friday.  The last witness was the financier's wife, who pretty much backed up her husband's story.  She of course broke into tears on the stand. 

She said her husband offered the former model a job on the evening they met at a function at the family home.  (The former model told a slightly different story.)

The wife said she herself had pressed her husband to increase the pay of the former model/intern/marketing chief by $700 a month.

The wife also said she agreed that her financier husband ("financier/horndog" husband per the New York Post) should pay the rent for the former model's Tribeca apartment, beginning only six weeks after the woman started work at his firm, but not without a question.   

      "I was wondering, 'Why would he want to undertake the liability as the guarantor?'
      But he told me it was good for the business.  (The former model) could be closer 
      to the office, focus on work and bring him more deals.  I said okay."

Later, at a business event in Luxembourg, the wife said she saw the former model flirting and laughing with her husband.   The wife saw this as "annoying and unprofessional" and suggested firing the woman.  The husband said he could not. 

      "He was in a tight corner.  She was important for the transaction.  He couldn't 
      let her go.  He needed her to get it through."

This is actually funny.  I have met several big-deal finance people.  They do not rely on 24-year-old former models, interns or marketing chiefs to close big sales.  At least the ones who are not pimps do not.

As I mentioned in my last post, the aggrieved former model is suing the financier/horndog for $850 million.  Near as I can guess, it is in neither party's interest to let on that the guy may not have that kind of cash or that his firm isn't doing all that well.  More about him soon.


Jury Duty

All the fun now will be had in the jury room, where six everyday people will try to make sense of this lawsuit.  Now that the courtroom histrionics are over, I don't think anybody really cares about what happens to any of the people who have testified.  I know I don't care. 

This coincides with my latest call to jury duty.  I have been summoned Monday to join the latest jury pool at our county courthouse.  It is the fifth time I have been called since moving to New Jersey.  I also have been called, multiple times, in the other three states where I have lived since attaining voting age. 

Some people win $15 on scratch-off lottery tickets.  I get jury summonses.   

Over the years I have sat on a single jury. It was not a peak experience, but it was more fun than counting hours in a holding pen waiting for a judge to call for a jury panel.  This is how I have spent the rest of my time at courthouses.  

They also serve who only sit and wait, I suppose. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tabloid Heaven

When I go into New York, as I did earlier this week, I always buy a newspaper to read on the train ride home.

I suppose I could pick up the Financial Times, but I don't.  I get a copy of the New York Post, a fun tabloid that is a sort of guilty pleasure.  The Post never disappoints.


"Raging Wall Street Horndog to intern's beau: "Did you f-k her?'"



Former model and Wall Street guy 
That was the front page headline the other day.  It led me to a very interesting case being tried in a federal courthouse downtown and reported in tabs from here to Britain as well as online.  What a story this is.

Here's the gist:

A 23-year-old "former model," from Sweden met a man two summers ago at his house in the Hamptons, a trendy summer redoubt for wealthy New Yorkers.

The man, a Chinese guy, is the CEO of a Wall Street/Beijing company that arranges international transactions, but I can't find evidence of any particular deals.  He claims two graduate degrees from Columbia and says he is also an investigative reporter.  His internet site, TheBlot Magazine, looks a lot like the sort of thing that would appeal to regular tabloid readers.  He also is married with children.

After their meeting, according to the former model, the Wall Street guy invited her to lunch.  Here's what she said happened:

     "He ordered wine for us.  And when we got the wine, he asked me if he could
      move over, jump over, and sit next to me  And so he did.
      "And then, well, he basically said that he wanted a girlfriend.  
      "So I told him that I was not interested. 'I think you have to keep looking because
      I'm interested in a job.  And I just can't accept your proposal.'"

One day later, he called to congratulate her for turning him down and offer her a job in his firm's Wall Street office.  She accepted.  Her title has been reported variously as intern and marketing chief.  

Then, she says, he pushed himself on her during business trips to Boston and Dubai.  In each case, he rented a single hotel room for the two of them to share.  She rejected his advances during these trips, she says.

Later, at a restaurant dinner in December 2013, he plied her with wine and presented her with a $2,000 designer handbag.  He took her home to the $3,600 Tribeca apartment he had rented for her.  

(I know several 20-somethings who work in New York; to my knowledge, none of their employers provides staff members with apartments.)


Over in Two Minutes

Then, according to her lawyer, "He has sex with her and it's over in two minutes,"  a comment that has been repeated again and again. 

The former model asserted that she had not even kissed the Wall Street guy and the experience was traumatic:

     "I felt so used and weak, and I was so ashamed that I let this happen. . . . And 
     everything that I've ever been -- strong, independent -- he just took that away from
     me. . . . He just came in the office the next day and pretended as if nothing had
     happened, as if everything was OK."

According to the woman, the executive pressured her into sex three more times over a period of three months.  She said she put up with this because she was afraid of losing her job and the nice apartment.

The Wall Street guy says the two of them never had sex.  His lawyer claims that the Wall Street guy was concerned for the woman and that he "cared."


The Other Man

During this period, the former model took another lover, a 31-year-old "club promoter" who may or may not have drug and weapons convictions on his record.  

Sometime in February 2014, the Wall Street guy went one morning to the woman's apartment, opened the door with his key and reported that he found the club promoter alone and naked in her bed.

The club promoter testified this week.  He said he was not naked but wearing shorts.  He said he had spent the night with the woman and stayed after she left for work in the morning.

He said the Wall Street guy confronted him, demanding to know, "Did you fuck her?"

According to court reports, the club promoter said this:

     "I was like, 'are you kidding me?' I think it's very extreme for you to ask me that."

Extreme or not, the Wall Street guy fired the former model and kicked her out of the apartment that afternoon.


The Wall Street Guy

Hell hath no fury like a Wall Street guy scorned.  Apparently he contacted the former model's family members and friends, accusing her of prostitution, drunkenness and drug abuse.  

She moved back to Sweden and took a job in a cafe, where the Wall Street guy appeared one day, feigning surprise.

The Wall Street guy also used his website, which bills itself as a "voice for the voiceless," to take out after the Daily News, another New York tabloid.  The site called one reporter a corrupt racist who "fabricated the contents" of an early article on the matter.


Court Case

Naturally this has gone to court.  The former model wants $850 million. 

(To put that in context, the NFL agreed this spring to a $1 billion settlement for 6,000 former football players who contracted Alzheimer's, ALS and dementia after their retirements.)

Six jurors are sitting on the case.  For them, I see pluses and minuses

On the plus side, this is much more interesting than another one of the many slip-and-fall claims against the city.

On the minus side, how can the jurors tell who is telling the truth here, or indeed if anyone is telling the truth?  

For tabloids from New York to the UK, the story is golden for as long as the trial runs. 




Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Two New Buddy Pictures

Unless you live near an artsy cinema in New York or Los Angeles, you will find that the only new movies to see this weekend are a couple of off-beat buddy films.

Buddy movies typically pair two dissimilar characters and set them to play off each other and/or solve a major crime.

Some highlights of the oeuvre:

     -- Laurel and Hardy, 1930s; 
     --  Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "Road to ..." movies, 1940s;   
     -- "I Spy," a television series with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in the 1960s;
     -- "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Paul Newman and Robert Redford, 1969;
     -- "Silver Streak," Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, 1976;
     -- "48 Hours" Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, 1982;
     -- "Lethal Weapon," Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, 1987;
     -- "Thelma and Louise," Susan Sarandon and Geena Gibson, 1991;
     -- "Rush Hour," 1998, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker; and
     -- "The Hangover," a buddy ensemble film, 2009.

Over the years, the genre grew to include black and Asian heroes, and even women.  


LIke the last entry in the list, this week's releases are a little offbeat, pairing a man with a teddy bear and a boy with a dog.  Here's what's up:



Ted II



This is actually a sequel to "Ted," a movie about a grown man whose talking teddy bear accompanies him through life.  The original, also an R-rated comedy, was pretty well received even if it was not every moviegoer's cup of tea.  One disgruntled critic's take:

"The lone punch line?   It's that the cute-and-cuddly teddy bear is actually a filthy mouthed, pot-smoking, ethnic-slurring, gay-bashing, beer swilling degenerate misogynist who parties with prostitutes like an oversexed rock star."


Haters gonna hate, I guess.

The first Ted movie was the 12th highest grossing picture of 2012.  A second iteration was inevitable.


Max

This movie's premise wears its heart on its military sleeve.  Its two lead characters are a grieving dog whose Marine handler has been killed in Afghanistan and the Marine's younger brother, a moody and struggling teenager. 

I haven't read a review of this, but one film writer says, "It appears to be a nice story until the kid and dog need to be Hardy Boys in order to solve some sort of crime involving a member of the deceased brother's unit."

That said, there is no reason to believe "Max" will not find its audience.  People love dogs. Men and boys are moved by tales of brave soldiers.  And parents are always eager for stories of young people who grow into honorable adults. 


Monday, June 22, 2015

Failure to Launch


Last week a 21-year-old South Carolina man took a gun into a prayer meeting at an African American church and shot nine people dead. 

The shooter planned to kill himself when he was finished, but he ran out of bullets. 

He fantasized that his actions would start a race war.

In this, too, he failed.


Failed Young Men

Dyllan Roof never got traction as an adult.  His family life fell apart when his father and stepmother divorced and she moved away.  He repeated his freshman year of high school and then dropped out.  He did not have a job or any prospect for a career.  He used drugs. His father gave him, or gave him the money to buy, the gun he used to kill nine generous, kind people.

Unfortunately he is not alone.  There are many Dyllan Roofs in this world. 

In the last two weeks, without intending to do so, I have posted about two other young men who turned personal frustration into justifications for murder.

On June 12, it was a 20-year-old black man with nothing much going for him besides a gun.  He settled a verbal argument by killing two men.  He will be in prison until he is 92, if he lives that long.

On June 10, it was Anders Breivik, a Norwegian man who set a bomb and then went on a shooting spree, killing 77 people.  He had convinced himself that Muslims were destroying Europe.  Like Roof, he had delusions that his rampage would set off a race war.  He too is in prison, likely for the rest of his life.

None of these guys was going anywhere.  The power to kill was the only power any of them had.  They used that power deliberately.

There are many more young men, equally frustrated and going nowhere but not violent.  It is time to do something about their failures to launch.


Helping Lost Boys

At the last report I could find, for 2013, the U.S. high school graduation rate had reached a new high, 75 percent.  My guess is that most of the dropouts are young men.  College enrollment, we know, is now 60 percent women.

A high school diploma, even from a crummy school, makes a difference.   It tells a potential employer that a young person has stuck with something to its completion.  It unlocks access to vocational school and community college.  

I can imagine some things that might keep guys in school -- more male teachers (particularly military veterans), more tech classes, internship opportunities in skilled trades, more adult attention instead of suspension for misbehavior, and outreach to bring truants back into the classroom.  

It also wouldn't hurt to make economic growth a national priority. Young people want careers, not part-time jobs at a higher minimum wage. Why not also make it easier for people  -- young men who've mastered a skill, say -- to start their own businesses?  

How about rethinking our juvenile justice system?  When young people act out, prosecution might not be the best response.  It would be nice -- maybe impossible, but nice -- if young miscreants could be paired with good people like the ones Dyllan Roof met at that church in Charlotte.  The last resort should be locking young offenders up with other boys who have all the same problems.

Most of all, young men need strong families, particularly fathers and uncles and grandfathers.  Boys crave the guidance of honorable men like thirsty sponges. 

Dyllan Roof's father will not be held legally responsible for what his son has done, but unless he is an inhuman monster he will carry a heavy burden for the rest of his life.      


Sunday, June 21, 2015

World Refugee Day


A UN map of the dispersal of refugees in 2015
Yesterday was World Refugee Day, a moment set aside by the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to spotlight the millions of people worldwide who have fled their countries in fear of their lives, and, also, the growing numbers of IDPs, internally displaced persons who have left their homes to avoid persecution and war.

On refugee day last year, the UN estimated there were 50 million refugees around the world.   Since then, armed conflicts have spread and grown worse.  The number of refugees has increased by millions. 

A brief but incomplete rundown:



Syria

Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan
Now four years into a civil war, Syria has the dubious distinction of having created the world's largest population of refugees, about 11 million.  
        The Zaatari Refugee Camp, pictured above, opened in Jordan three years ago and at its height held about 150,000 Syrians.  Later Jordan built another tent city of similar size, reducing by half the Zaatari population.  Since then, more people have fled Syria for Jordan; Zaatari now has about 83,000 residents.
          There are many other Syrian refugee camps across the Middle East.


Libya

A civil war that started after the 2011 ouster and death of Muammar al-Qaddafi rages on.  Between 1 million and 2 million Libyans have fled the country, and at least 400,000 have been displaced (are now IDPs) by the fighting.  ISIS has become active in the country, terrorizing Libyans and performing at least 49 public executions of Christians.

Burma

This southeast Asian country is 90 percent Buddhist with a minority Muslim population estimated at between 1 million and 1.5 million.  These people, the Rohingya, trace their residence in Burma to the eight century BCE.   Still, the Buddhists insist the Rohingya are Bangladeshis.           
        The Rohingya are forbidden to attend public schools, work for the government or hold political office.  Burma restricts their movements, and has forced many, including children as young as seven, into hard labor for no pay.  
        An estimated 140,000 Rohingya are held in a huge IDP camp.  Not surprisingly, almost as many Rohingya have fled by sea to seek new homes in Muslim countries; hundreds are understood to have drowned, and an unknown number have been preyed upon and killed by human smugglers.


Ukraine

Fighting continues between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Donetsk region.  According to a recent report from the UNHCR:


         Ukraine's Ministry of Social Policy puts the number of registered IDPs countrywide 

         at 980,000 – a figure that is expected to rise as more newly uprooted people are 
         being registered. In addition, some 600,000 Ukrainians have sought asylum or 
         other forms of legal stay in neighbouring countries, particularly the Russian
         Federation, but also Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Romania, since 
         February 2014.


Europe

More than 625,000 immigrants/refugees sought asylum status in Europe last year, almost 200,000 more than in 2013.  It is estimated that as many as 500,000 refugees from Africa and the Middle East are massed in Libya, waiting to board boats for the treacherous passage to Europe.  Almost 800 died in a single shipwreck in April this year.  More such deaths are expected this summer. 
         

History

Europe has a recent history of refugee populations.  At the end of World War II, estimates of the numbers of displaced Europeans ranged from 40 million to 60 million.  (Nobody seems to have attempted similar counts in Asia and Africa.)

Much of Europe's infrastructure was destroyed by the war, but it had defined countries, educations systems, and remnants of highways, bridges and commercial structures that could be fixed.  It also had the American Marshall Plan, which sent about $120 billion, in current dollars, to rebuild the continent's economies.

Even with all that, the last refugee camp in Europe was closed only in 1960, fifteen long years after the end of the war.  

None of the conflicts the UN is addressing today seems near to resolution.  How long will today's refugees be stuck in camps, their lives on hold?  How many will be offered asylum and citizenship in more ordered countries that themselves have high unemployment and low economic growth rates?  



Saturday, June 20, 2015

Dinosaur Movies




Above is the trailer for a summer blockbuster movie that opened last week.  You probably don't need to watch the preview because, according to entertainment news reports, just about everybody in the country will have seen the film by tomorrow night. 

"Jurassic World" took in almost $209 million just in the U.S. last weekend.  This weekend's box office will be lower, but still is expected to surpass that of the newest Pixar movie, "Inside Out."  This is a pretty big deal because Pixar's clever animated family films generally outsell all other movies in their opening weekends.  

People who follow movie money are excited.  There are whispers that "Jurassic World" could make more money than Disney's action hero hit, "The Avengers," or even -- dare it be said -- the biggest-selling movie of all time, "Avatar," which grossed more than $28 billion in ticket sales alone in 2009. 


The Jurassic Series


Steven Spielberg made the first Jurassic Park movie in 1993.   It was based on a 1990 book by Michael Crichton, an author who had a knack for originating story ideas that could be turned into films with broad crowd appeal.

The "Jurassic Park" book was the story of scientists who recreated dinosaur DNA and, then, actual dinosaurs.  A profit-seeking billionaire (is there any other kind?) capitalized on this to create an island theme park of Mesozoic animals.  The dino-human interactions of course turned out to be fraught, leading to exciting conflicts and a pretty good movie. 


There were two sequels:  "The Lost World: Jurassic Park"  in 1997 and "Jurassic Park III," in 2001.  "Jurassic World" is the fourth movie in the set.  

Like most summer blockbusters, the current current Jurassic iteration has been received with tempered enthusiasm by film critics.  Most say the thing moves pretty slowly during its first hour or so.  

Then, according to Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, it "trundles onward to a late slugfest that bows not only to 'Jurassic Park' but to the rules of engagement laid down by 'King Kong,' requiring humans to yield the arena to the beasts. In short, there is plenty here to divert, but little to leave you enraptored. Such is the fate of the sequel: Bigger. Louder. Fewer teeth."

No doubt the people at Universal Studios, which created "Jurassic World," are crying all the way to the bank. 
   
Other Dinosaur Films

Early dinosaur movies were animated features, usually aimed at children, and for good reason.  Who among us did not learn about dinosaurs in grade school?  

There was a 1955 Czech cartoon film involving four boys who find a cave in the NY Museum of Natural History that leads them to dinosaurland.  There followed a 1988 American outing about an orphaned herbivorous dinosaur and then a 1993 piece about a really nice dinosaur and the children who become his friends.

During the 1950s era of the "B" movies, a Japanese monster film, "Gojira," inspired many Godzilla movies in the United States.  To fans, Godzilla was a mutant and possibly radioactive dinosaur;  discussions continue to this day about what kind of dinosaur -- or hybrid of several dinosaurs -- Godzilla really was.  (Some people have a lot of time on their hands.)

After the initial Jurassic film, when dinosaurs were a trending theme, an unfortunate 1995 movie called "Theodore Rex" was released and disappeared from view almost immediately.  In it, a very reluctant actress (I will not say her name, but her initials are Whoopi Goldberg) costarred with a suited tyrannosaurus rex.  It was described as "buddy/cop/sci-fi/family fun."


Why Now

It's pretty obvious why dinosaur films and extra-terrestrial films and other blockbuster films have become more popular over the years.  The development of computer-generated images (CGI), and their steady refinement, have allowed for realistic portrayal of creatures, scenes and whole universes that previously were the exclusive domains of human imagination and literature. 

George Lucas set CGI into gear with the first Star Wars trilogy.  The latest Jurassic creators have crowed about their further enhancements in this most recent movie, whose boffo opening inspired Disney's Marvel movie team, heavy CGI users themselves, to offer their congratulations. 





Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Political Dread

I do not enjoy presidential election years.  Unfortunately, 2016, a presidential election year, is approaching.

Elections of course are the essence of democracy, a chance for people to indicate their preferences as to the direction of the country.  Elections are good for us.

But then there is our politics.   Maybe American politics was ennobling at some point.  No longer.

I follow issues -- at least to the watered-down, ill-informed extent that we have issues today.  By the time November 8 arrives, I will have selected my candidates and I will cast my vote.

But between now and then I am going to have to put up with a bunch of crap that I would rather avoid. 

I have left-wing friends and right-wing friends and, best of all, friends who do not wear ideological straitjackets.  Sometimes I discuss political matters with this latter group, but not often.  I suspect that they, like me, have grown wary of what passes for political thought in our country.

The rest of them -- the people on the ends of the political spectrum -- put me off.  

The left-wing people assume that any belief held by a person on the right is wrong and bad and must be denounced as spurious and stupid.

The right-wing people assume that any belief held by a person on the left is wrong and bad and must be denounced as spurious and stupid.

Genuine discussion does not seem to interest these people.  Even with my limited education, I can tell that history, economics and science seldom figure prominently in their reasoning, which seems driven more by emotion than logic.

Both sides read publications and follow television programs and internet sites that congratulate them for what they already think.  They are strikingly incurious about why other people might disagree with them. 

My left-wing and right-wing friends all seem to assume that I agree with them and that we are like the cool kids in high school who always know just what to wear.   

Like the cool high school kids, people on the left and right are proud with themselves. They are also smug. They make up nasty names for their opponents, whom they regard with genuine contempt.

I cannot recall a time when I was convinced to change my mind by someone who called me names and treated me with contempt.  This is why I suspect that people on either end of the political spectrum are not interested in genuine discussions, only making points. 

Not surprising, then, that I avoid political discussions.  I don't think I'm not the only one.

Now all we have to do is endure the next 509 days.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Roller Coasters



Above is the Coney Island Cyclone, New York's iconic old roller coaster.  It opened in 1927 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  

Perhaps because it has been featured in many movies, the Cyclone remains popular.  It is one of those tourist spots frequented by visitors to the city.

Recently Last some riders got more excitement than they expected.  The coaster stopped mid-ride, and the passengers had to inch their way back down the wooden infrastructure.  This was the second such event this season.

Here is a video taken of the Cyclone experience, in case you are curious.




Newer Roller Coasters


As roller coasters go, the Cyclone is a tame experience.  Its maximum speed is 60 mph, its "drop" is a scant 85 feet, and its angle of descent is less than sixty degrees.

For years now, amusement parks all over the world have been involved in what seems to be a roller coaster arms race.  

The chains that pull cars up the initial ascent have been replaced by accelerator engines; at least one can move from a starting stop to 128 mph in 3.5 seconds.  Another coaster, the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi has a top speed of 149 mph.

The heights are higher.  Currently the tallest climb is on a New Jersey ride call Kingda Ka, which ascends 456 feet at a 90-degree angle and then goes right back down.  See it here.

 



The newer roller coasters are steel contraptions, unlike old wooden ones like the Cyclone, and are said to offer less jostling, if not less exhilarating, rides for passengers.  And they come with calculations of g-forces, which previously were discussed in the context of the fighter pilot experience. 

There is continuing talk of newer, taller and faster roller coasters with updated models released in theme parks every year.  

It takes only a quick internet search to find that there are many, many roller coaster devotees.  They seem mostly to be men who travel great distances to sample and rate roller coasters.  There are many "Best of" lists, and many knowledgable discussion participants.

For them, I'm guessing, the Coney Island Cyclone is about interesting as a merry-go-round.




Sunday, June 14, 2015

Magna Carta



Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede

Tomorrow is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.  On June 15, 1215, King John acceded to the demands of a group of English barons and gave them a say in how their country was run. 

John had not been a popular king.  His subjects were tired of fighting his wars and paying his increasing taxes.  A group of nobles pressured him into a meeting on a field called Runnymede and presented him there with a document laying out a number of clauses.  The most important of these established a committee of 25 barons who could overrule any action taken by the king.

It was a fait accompli.  King John had no option but to affix his seal to the document, which he did. 

John immediately asked the Pope to annul the document, and the Pope obliged.  The king rewrote some of the clauses and there was a little war over the matter, but after John's death in 1216 his successor and other English kings affirmed the original agreement. 

The Magna Carta had altered the nature of English government.  Its influence was durable and, over time, broad. 

More than 400 years later, the Magna Carta was pressed into service as justification for the English Revolution of the 1640s.  At the time, people had had enough of King Charles I, who believed he was the country's divinely appointed and sole ruler. (His reputation as high taxer and his wife's Catholicism in the now-Protestant country did not help.)  Parliament and the people rebelled.

In due course, Charles was convicted of treason and executed.  England rechristened itself a Commonwealth, ruled jointly by a lord protector (Oliver Cromwell) and Parliament. This lasted until the Restoration in 1660, when Parliament invited Charles II to assume the role of monarch. 

In 1685 another king, James II, took the throne and threw down the cudgel.  In his first message to Parliament, he warned that "The best way to engage me to meet you is always to use me well."  

James, a Catholic, then proceeded to promote full religious tolerance; leaders feared he was setting up a return to state Catholicism.  This led to what is called the Glorious Revolution in 1688.  Citing the Magna Carta, Parliament rejected James, who was removed from the throne and exiled to Catholic France.  

The next year, England adopted a Bill of Rights with elements that foreshadowed the United States' document of the same name.  

When 1776 rolled around, American leaders were familiar with the Magna Carta. They also had read English philosopher John Locke's theory of the social contract, which amplified the Magna Carta theme of the rights of barons to include all men. 

Here is how Thomas Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence: 

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers 
from the consent of the governed.” 


Some people now believe that the Magna Carta was just a ripple in England's messy history -- that kings always had been required to negotiate with nobles in order to hold power -- but I believe it is important for at least two reasons.

First, it was, or at least became over time, a binding contract written on paper. The Magna Carta put a ceiling on the king's rights; when he violated one of its terms, subjects could point to the document and object without the need to wheedle or capitulate.

Second, as the rights of citizenship were extended over centuries, foundational documents came to embrace more people -- landholders, then tradesmen, then all men, then people of color and then women.  The Magna Carta, the first of these documents, started the ball rolling.  It was a very good idea indeed.


Notes

The memorial pictured above is one of three at Runnymede.  It was funded by donations from members of the American Bar Association in 1957.

Monday is probably not the exact 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.  Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, and this altered the calendar year a bit to conform more precisely to the time it takes the earth to circle the sun.  I think June 15th is close enough for the purpose of historical commemoration, however.

While Americans call the document "the Magna Carta," the English refer to it as "Magna Carta."  Americans also used to speak of students attending "the university" or "a university" but now have followed the British and say students "go to university."   Given time, I fully expect that when we are sick, we will be taken "to hospital."  We speak less often of the Magna Carta, and so our American characterization may persist a bit longer.



Friday, June 12, 2015

Gregory of Jersey City

Gregory
 There is a young man named Gregory who grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey.  Not much information is available online about his childhood. 

At 14, he was a steady scorer on the Stars, a Rec League basketball team.  He also ran track at his school that year.

Then Gregory disappeared from view until June 2, 2014, when he was 19.

At 3:45 a.m. that morning, Gregory and another man, both armed with handguns, approached four men and demanded money and drugs.  One of the four took a gold chain from his neck and handed it over.  

The four men ran in different directions.  One headed for his car with Gregory and his accomplice in pursuit.  They fired three shots at the car, missing the driver, who managed to get away. 

A week later, Gregory did something much worse.


Two Murders

Around 11:45 p.m. on June 9, Gregory shot a 9-mm Smith and Wesson handgun at two men who were sitting in a car on a residential street in Jersey City.   

The shots woke a neighbor, who went outside and found one man with blood on his face.  He was sitting against the door of a car and gasping for breath.  Another man was lying on the street, moaning and writhing in pain.  

Ambulances took both men to the hospital.  One had been shot in the torso, the other in the head.  Seven hours later, both had died.

Police established quickly that Gregory had had a beef with one of the men, a 22-year-old new father who had attended Catholic schools and a technology academy. 

Here is what that man's sister said:

      "As far as I know there were words going back and forth (between them) and 
      it got escalated in social media. These kids want to kill each other for words.  He 
      and my brother had a personal problem.  It was a situation that could have been
      resolved by talking like grown men."

The other dead man was described as a nice, easygoing guy, 21 years old and in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Friends and relatives put up a makeshift shrine where the shooting occurred.




Later in 2014, an older Jersey City woman died.  She seems to have been Gregory's mother. Here is what a friend wrote about her on an online memorial book.

      "A Friend, an advisor, a second mother our angel. She would help anyone,her
       cooking, her friendship, her wisdom. She taught us so much, she always told 
       me she and God where good friends. I am comforted in knowing Mildred is 
       with  her God now. Our angel has now gone home no more suffering no more 
       pain just peace. God bless you, we will all miss you rest in peace."


Justice

Yesterday Gregory returned to court.  He admitted that he had committed all the crimes described above and accepted the plea offered by the prosecution.

Here is his sentence:  He will serve 30 years, consecutively and with no chance of parole, for each of the two shooting deaths.  Then he will begin to serve a 15-year sentence for the other crimes with no chance of parole until he serves more than 12 years of that sentence. 

Gregory is now 20 years old.  He has 300 days of jail time to credit against his sentence.  He will be eligible for parole when he is 92.

In recent court appearances, Gregory has worn a beard and a muslim cap called a kufi.

Yesterday, he said, "I'd like to apologize . . . I'm deeply remorseful for my action, and I know nothing I say will change what I've done."

Later, as he was being led out of the courtroom, Gregory turned to family members of one of his victims.

"What the fuck are you looking at?" he said to them.

A man jumped up from a visitor's bench and lurched toward Gregory.

"What did you say?"  he asked.

His family and sheriff's officers pulled him back as Gregory was taken away to pay his debt to society.


End 

What is sad about this is that it is not unusual.  In New Jersey, we read reports of criminals and victims with different details but the same sad results just about every month.

I don't believe Gregory was born this way.  But I don't understand how a sweet, innocent baby grows up to be a man like Gregory.