The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 18

It is 7 a.m., and already two beef-broth injected brisket are on the smoker. First music of the day: The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Between Nothingness & Eternity. The coffee is Costa Rican. It is a beautiful morning on the deck.

1, Today’s lead story, “The Corrosive Legacy of Oil Spills,” confirms what you probably already know, or suspect: Every oil spill is different, but each leaves an ecological legacy that lasts for decades, even when it’s not readily visible. In 1969, a barge that hit the rocks off of West Falmouth, Mass., spilled 189,000 gallons of oil into Buzzards Bay. Yet even today, “the fiddler crabs at nearby Wild Harbor still act drunk, moving erratically and reacting slowly to predators,” The Times writes.

2, A few pages later, on Page 9, is another one of those overly earnest full-page ads by BP, saluting the company’s clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

3, Facebook is facing the inevitable: Death. The death of your Facebook friends. “Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in the machine,” The Times reports, “but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution.”

4, I often wonder if Sarah Palin deserves all of the attention that she draws from the media, given the Tea Party’s well-documented tendency to exaggerate the size of the crowds at its rallies. Palin’s political action committee filed its quarterly financial report last week, claiming it raised $866,000 and donated $87,500 to Republican candidates, many supported by the Tea Party. The numbers, The Times notes, are “hardly exceptional for a prospective presidential candidate.”

5, Guatemala’s largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, is under attack. The region, the size of New Jersey, is home to what may be the world’s largest ancient pyramid. “Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest,” The Times writes, once the cradle of one of the world’s great civilizations, are being razed by cattle-ranching drug barons.” Cattle-ranching drug barons. There’s a new global villain for you.

6, Columnist Matt Bai has a perceptive analysis of last week’s tiff between the Tea Party and the NAACP, which urged the group to face its racist aspects; and you’d have to be anesthetized to have not picked up on the Tea Party’s racism. But as Bai notes, “we tend to not recognize the generational divide that underlies it.” A poll finds that three-quarters of Tea Party supporters are older than 45, 29 percent are older than 64. In short, the Tea Party is fueled by people who grew up in a time and place where racism was more commonly practiced, or silently accepted as a part of the American landscape.

7, “Garbo couldn’t exist in the 21st Century,” writes Ben Brantley in the Sunday Styles section. “I mean Garbo the lady of mystery, not the rather dull, stingy woman who is reported to have resided behind the persona.” He goes on to add, “Today’s democracy of technology would, of course, conspire to put a fast and brutal end  to the tantalizing demi-invisibility that a Garbo sustained so well.”

8, While the cable entertainment shows are giggling and expressing their lightweight shock over Mel Gibson’s racist rants, before moving on to the Lindsay Lohan matter, columnist Frank Rich sees what the whole Gibson episode really means. Recalling his anti-Semitic rant captured on tape following a DUI arrest in 2006, Gibson “is the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard that he is today,” Rich writes. “But his fall says a lot about the changes in the country over the last six years.” Rich reminds us of what was happening in this country in 2004, when American “values” were being defined as shock over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl costume and Newt Gingrich warning against the war on Christmas. Where are we today? The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority are gone, as are Jerry Falwell and James Dobson and, “What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades.” Rich points out how today’s conservative groups, such as the Tea Party, have had no comment on last month’s Massachusetts court order nullifying the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act,” or last week’s overturning of the FCC indecency rules put in place after Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” The virtue police of 2004 are withering away. Rich quotes New York Post conservative columnist Kyle Smith: “The morality armies have failed to inspire their children to join the crusade.”

9, The comedy of Climate Change deniers is coming to a boil, writes Nicholas D. Kristof after this, the hottest six months on the planet since such  data started being kept in 1880. Kristof cites the famed mountain climber David Brashears, who compared photos of Himalayan glaciers that he has taken with those taken by climbers from decades ago. “Time and again,” Kristof writes, “the same glaciers have shrunk drastically in every direction, often losing hundreds of feet in height.” How can we ignore this? Kristof cites research that suggests human brains evolved to understand imminent dangers, such as saber-toothed tigers, but not slowly encroaching trouble such as climate change.

10, In the magazine, “When Funny Goes Viral” tries to argue that we should be taking seriously all of these Internet postings of fat cats, Hitler screaming about pop-culture issues and sites like Chuck Norris Facts. For those of us who wonder daily where the Internet is going, and express dismay at what it has done to the thinking process, this seems useful. But the best the story can do is pose the same question as where it started: “Like, what, exactly, am I laughing at?”

11, The Book Review cuts into Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and People Who Cook, judging it as “half cooked.” Bourdain is the former chef and now world traveler who advocates against mediocrity (Rachel Ray) and for cultural authenticity (Vietnamese street food). Reviewer Christine Muhlke, a Times food editor, types with one hand that Bourdain may be too marinated in his own shtick, then with the other hand writes that Bourdain himself is all-too aware that his cynicism risks turning him into “Andy Rooney in a leather jacket.” I, for one, am not offended by a writer who “begins with a Lou Reed quotation and slides into a Graham-Green-meets-Tom-Waits reverie in Hanoi.” Bourdain remains one of the 10 guests I would invite to a fictional dinner party.

12, In The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, writer Peter Watson gives us the rundown of how, by 1900, Germans were dominating philosophy, music, science, engineering. And yes, war. As reviewer Brian Ladd points out, while celebrating all that Germany gave the world, it’s a little shortsighted to shrug your shoulders at  the Nazis.

13, William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies, fought at D-Day, but was afraid of spiders.