The Critical Mass

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

First music of the day, the smoky saxophone of Ben Webster. He also worked well Saturday afternoon on the deck, as I wound down a beautiful day with a cigar and a glass of whiskey, while a pork shoulder relaxed in its smoker surrounded by a cloud of apple wood.

1, The saga of the 33 Chilean miners trapped below ground since Aug. 5 is 2,050 feet closer to what will be the most-beautiful story of the year, if all goes as planned. But the most-perilous part remains. On Saturday, a larger drill broke through to the chamber where the men are trapped. Monday, the rescue begins as, one by one, they’ll be hauled to the surface in a specially designed chamber. The hole they’ll emerge from isn’t straight, The Times reports, and is a tight fit, with a risk of the rescue chamber getting stuck during its nearly mile-long journey to the surface. The miners have been kept alive by supplies lowered through the smaller hole that was initially drilled. With ideas from around the world coming together in the Chilean desert, from the cylinder-shaped pies sent down to the men to NASA advising on the construction of the rescue chamber, it’s been an international effort to get these guys out. Sometimes, the world can work together for the good of everyone.

2, And now, on to the rest of the news from this dangerous, cynical planet. The new villain is China. In  campaign attack ads, “Democrats and Republicans are blaming one another for allowing the export of American jobs to its emerging economic rival,” The Times writes.

3, Machines are taking over. Soon humans, their bones gone soft, their reproductive organs dwindling, unused, will lie like piles of laundry in front of their massive entertainment centers. The latest design in this road to ruin is coming from Google, which is working on a car that uses artificial-intelligence software to drive itself.

4, Two fringe screamers are each treated to large profiles today in The Times. Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs web site publishes irresponsible falsehoods about the Muslim world (and doctored photos, like one of new Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in a Nazi helmet).  Republican philosopher Newt Gingrich has borrowed some of her phrases in his own comments on Islam. And there’s the self-described prophet of God’s wrath, 80-year-old Fred Phelps of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, the group whose case is now before the Supreme Court; they’re the pleasant folks who stand outside of the funerals for soldiers killed in action, holding signs like “Thank God For Dead Soldiers,” which they believe is God’s retribution for accepting  homosexuality. Most chilling is the photo of a 15-year-old member of the Phelps family actually helping to make such signs. Is it all free speech, or intolerant bullying? As one blogger says, “when people like Pam Geller are the loudest voices out there talking about it, it drowns out everything else and makes everyone look crazy.”

5, Columnist Thomas L. Friedman opens with these lines: “I still find it amazing that with all of the climate, security, health and financial interests America has in reducing our dependence on oil, our Congress could not work out an energy bill over the last two years – especially when China, Japan and the European Union are all hurdling ahead on clean tech.”

6, Right next door to Friedman, Frank Rich mocks political candidates who use social networking, and the people who buy it. Pointing to the bizarre Republican candidate for the Senate, he writes Christine O’Donnell was “a Delaware primary triumph of a mystery candidate with a falsified resume, no job and apparently no campaign operation beyond out-of-state donors and out-of-state fans like Palin ‘writing’ her Twitter endorsements.” He calls it “a brave new world where candidates need only exist in virtual reality.”

7, Converse, Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Nike, Levi’s and Bacardi Rum are all establishing labels for rock bands, nurturing their own acts as a further way to infiltrate the culture. “Artists are finding the only way to achieve any financial safety is to become a lapdog of the great corporations,” says writer and media critic Douglas Rushkoff, “just like the great painters did in the Renaissance, when it became impossible to sustain oneself as an artist without a patron.”

8, Humphrey Bogart enthusiasts such as myself revel in his classic films, the ones everyone’s familiar with. A review of a new box set of 24 of his films ($99.98, why don’t you guys just take another two cents and call it what it is?), points out that lesser movies such as Action in the North Atlantic show “he was not only a late bloomer, but an intermittent one.”

9, In the Moscow subway system, stations celebrate Russian culture, including one station decorated with mosaics depicting scenes from Dostoyevsky novels. “One piece shows the main character from Crime and Punishment, the mentally unstable Raskolnikov, wielding an axe over a cringing woman,” The Times reports. I’d  love to see the U.S. celebrate its culture in public spaces. And not just Huck Finn, we’ve got plenty of safe stuff. How about a scene from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, with the guys sharing a joint and listening to some Coltrane?

10, Fans of graphic novels are probably unfamiliar with Lynd Ward. But between 1929 and 1937, he published six novels that were completely wordless, relying on his own dark, German Expressionism-influenced wood cuts to tell the story in illustrations, which seem to reflect this difficult era of Depression America. The entire collection has now been reprinted in a two-set volume called Six Novels in Woodcuts. It’s art, really, as reviewer Steven Heller notes that the only comic Lynd is know to have read was Prince Valiant.

11, Lee Siegel’s essay in the back of the Book Review suggests my beloved Beats such as Kerouac and Ginsberg may have had a lot in common with today’s loutish Tea Partiers. Both groups were against government control of our lives, with the Tea Party people seeming to want to turn over control to their religion, Siegel writes. I guess the Beats, for their part, wanted to turn over control to jazz musicians. Noting Ginsberg’s “Dionysian” poetry readings, “Some might say the difference between Allan Ginsberg and Glenn Beck is the difference between psychedelic and psychopathic,” Siegel writes, “but Beck might well envy Ginsberg’s attempt, in 1967, to help Abbie Hoffman and a band of anti-war protesters levitate the Pentagon by means of tantric chanting, though Beck would no doubt concentrate his telepathic efforts on the IRS.”

10, The Magazine this week is the Food Issue. I love this idea, as proposed in a story called “The 36-Hour Dinner Party,” although it’s also breakfast and lunch: “Here’s the concept: Build a single wood fire and, over the course of 30-plus hours, use it to roast, braise, bake simmer and grill as many different dishes as possible.” A goat is the star attraction, as the cooks use as much as possible for a variety of dishes, including making stock from its head, organs and bones.