The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Feb. 14

This morning’s first music: the indie psychedelic-folk rock band Vetiver’s haunting Tight Knit. It is Valentine’s Day, I must remember to call my parents….

1, As is too often the case in tragedies, the death of a Georgian luger during a practice run Friday at the Winter Olympics was not unexpected. “I think we’re probably getting close, too close, to the edge,” American luger Mark Grimmette said a day before Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed at the venue, which had been marketed as “faster, steeper and more intense than any track in history.” Kumaritashvili was traveling an estimated 90 mph when he crashed. I wouldn’t feel safe going 90 on the Thruway in my Subaru Forester, which comes with air bags.

2, The Congressional Black Caucus’ intentions are noble, its fund-raising efforts designed “to help disadvantaged African-Americans by providing scholarships and internships to students, researching policy and holding seminars on topics like healthy living,” The Times writes. But absolute power, we know, corrupts absolutely, as “the bulk of the money has been spent on elaborate conventions that have become a high point of the Washington social scene.”

3, In another front-page story, we find how the rest of the world has been unable to escape the long reach of unregulated American business practices that led us into deep recession: “Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the financial crisis shaking Greece and are undermining the euro by enabling European governments to hide their mounting debts.”

4, William Tenn has died. Actually, Philip Klass has died. William Tenn was his pen name as a science fiction writer with a sense of humor. Klass, who was 89 and lived in Pittsburgh, wrote short stories such as 1948’s “Brooklyn Project,” in which a government spokesman denies time travel experiments can have any effect on the present, even as he and the reporters at a press conference change into bloated purple blobs, apparently the result of some genetic tinkering happening in the future.”

5, Great story in Sunday Business on what it takes to win at a big dog show. A campaign built on racking up wins at smaller shows, as well as buying as much as $100,000 in self-esteem boosting ads for your pooch each year in Dog News and The Canine Chronicle. Is it worth it? It is, just to read the final line in David Segal’s story, in which a bichon frise, “a tiny snowbank on paws” named Sloan, earns “an expensively won reputation – to put it in dog fancier terms – as a terrific little bitch.”

6, Walter F. Morrison, credited with having invented the Frisbee, died last week at age 90. The Week in Review quotes Gay Talese writing about the device in the Aug. 11, 1957 Times: “One Princeton crewcut said the gadget kept students so busy that they had no time for rioting…. It is generally believed in the trade that people can’t stand most toy fads for more than five months.”

7, Wow, the Week in Review is funny today! “According to Roman legend, the Beaver,” writer Bruce Headlam says of one of Canada’s national symbols, “will chew off its testicles and offer them up to the attacker. Modern biologists have dismissed this as myth. Beavers will only chew off their testicles if you ask nicely.”

8, The lead Times editorial looks forward to the Feb. 25 health care summit at the White House between Republican Congressional leaders and President Obama, who ate their lunches when they last meet. Addressing a public that The Times says is “spooked by all of the Republican hype about government takeover,” the editorial lays out a powerful case as to why GOP ideas about health care either won’t work, or are too small to have any effect on the crisis we’re facing.

9, Columnist Frank Rich says, yes, many of us are laughing at Sarah Palin, and her transparent lies that only started with her VP campaign claim that she had been against Alaska’s notorious “Bridge to Nowhere,” when she was actually for it. And yes, the Republicans are astonishing hypocrites, voting against any economic stimulus package while claiming credit for any stimulus money that comes to their districts. Yet, “What’s new,” he writes of Palin, “is the extent to which her test-marketed dishonesty has become the template for her peers in the GOP ‘populist’ putsch.” Rich warns that an alarming percentage of the population appears to be willing to be fooled into thinking that Republicans are fighting and voting for interests of the common man.

10, “How Christian were the Founders?” asks the cover story of the magazine this week, a startling look at how the Texas State Board of Education decides what will be history, and what won’t. This is an important vote, the story notes, as Texas buys and distributes “a staggering 48 million textbooks annually – which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State.” And what ideas have the heavily conservative board decreed? Last year, in looking at the standards for teaching history, the board was nearly successful in elbowing aside evolution to allow the teaching of creationism a spot at the blackboard. That is part of what appears to be a larger battle, instructing students that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” When discussing the Constitution, activists on behalf of that notion, the story notes, “are ignoring the fact that the founders explicitly avoided religious language in that document.” Most recently, in its examination of social studies standards, the board decreed that students should be instructed on “the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”  Newt Gingrich should be required study, Ted Kennedy not. As one board member – a Republican, no less – exclaimed, “Guys, you’re re-writing history!”

11, The Book Review notes that Howard Zinn died last month, a reminder to me that I must read A People’s History of the United States. My condolences to the families, but the death of a writer always moves he or she to the top my pile (I just picked up a copy of The Catcher in the Rye). In his autobiography, Zinn wrote, “Events are already moving in certain directions, and to be neutral accepts that.”

12, Uh, oh, Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue has dropped to No. 11 on the non-fiction best-seller list. Has anyone finished reading it yet?