The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Sept. 25

Today’s coffee comes from Burundi, a tiny landlocked African country on the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. First music of the day: The Essential Dave Brubeck.

1, The Times profiles the group that led last week’s day-long attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. “They are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.” Last week’s embassy attack by the Haqqani Crime Family, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullan said, was aided by the Pakistani military spy agency. You remember our allies in the War on Terror, the Pakistanis. The ones who didn’t know that Osama bin Laden had been living for five years 31 miles from the country’s capital, Islamabad.

2, Global warming is confusing cartographers. Geologists say that new edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World has removed too much of that country’s ice shelf. Scientists insist on a correction, remembering how climate-change deniers used a similar error in a 2007 United Nations estimate on the melting of the Himalayan glaciers to suggest that the idea of climate change is simply a worldwide plot by evil scientists.

3, “Arizona, after almost a decade of sending monitors to classrooms across the state to check on teaches’ articulation, recently made a sharp about-face on the issue,” The Times reports. “A federal investigation of possible civil rights violations prompted the state to call off its accent police.” This was apparently only an issue for teachers with Hispanic accents, and not teachers with Irish, Yiddish or New Joisey accents. As one civil rights monitor noted, “This was one culture telling another culture that you’re not speaking correctly.”

4, “Ralph J. Lomma, who at mid-century helped set the static pastime of miniature golf in motion, letting players tilt at windmills, shoot across rising drawbridges and, at game’s end, watch the ball vanish forever into the maw of a voracious clown, died on Sept. 21 in Scranton, Pa. He was 87.” The Times obituary says miniature golf”s “sheer ubiquity, enduring popularity and satisfyingly campy appearance are largely owed to” the valuable work done by Lomma  and his brother Alphonse.

5, In the Sunday Review, food writer Mark Bittman does the math. The myth that a bag of potato ships is cheaper than a head of broccoli is untrue. “In general, despite extensive government subsidies,” he writes, “hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home.”

6, Executed last week by the state of Georgia despite questions of his innocence beyond reasonable doubt, Troy Davis “received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for,” writes columnist Ross Douthat. He’s correct in asserting that our justice system is rife with many ills. The potential for executing an innocent person is only one of them. “In a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated,” Douthat writes. “His appeals would have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.” Dotuhat makes an interesting point, although one that isn’t likely to matter to Troy Davis, since he’s dead.

7, Republicans pounced on this week’s story that the California-based solar-panel company Solyndra received more than $500 million loans despite the fact that it was in imminent danger of failure, calling investment in green energy a fraud. In an editorial, The Times points out that “when judged by its diverse portfolio, the loan program appears, at least so far, to have performed well.” The economy is bolstered by such loans. “Some of them – advanced automobile battery projects, for instance – have provided thousands of much-needed jobs in Michigan and other recession-battered states.” The Times argues, suggesting that the U.S. is well advised to aggressively pursue green energy.  “Recent studies suggest that, globally, renewable energy will grow faster than any other energy source in the coming decades.”

8, More mischief: In Pennsylvania, Republicans are trying to re-arrange how the state’s electoral college votes are handed out in presidential elections. Currently, the winner there – last time Barack Obama – gets all of the electoral votes awarded to the nation’s sixth-largest state. Forty-eight states do it this way. Pennsylvania Republicans want to change that so that the winner of each congressional district gets that district’s electoral vote. Such manipulation could have chilling consequences for democracy. “If electoral votes were apportioned by congressional district,” The Times writes,  “Mr. Obama would only be able to count on Democratic districts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, possibly giving him just eight of the 20 votes even if he narrowly carried the popular vote.” Get that? The loser would get more electoral votes than the winner. Geography, rather than voters, could determine the next president of the United States.

9, Considering the two new political books released this week on Sarah Palin and the rough start to Barack Obama’s presidency – both seriously salacious in different ways – “If we persist in treating politics as a three-ring circus,” writes Frank Bruni, “we just might find ourselves with nothing but clowns.”

10, Speaking of clowns, Republican presidential candidate Willard Romney, columnist Maureen Dowd reminds us, is “a candidate whose liability is that he made a living eliminating jobs.” As a predatory businessman, Romney excelled at “buying companies, restructuring and downsizing, and selling them for a profit.” She notes that his own term for it is “creative destruction.”

11, Martin Scorsese’s documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, airs in two parts, Oct. 5 and 6, on HBO. The task was made easier by the fact that Harrison obsessively documented his own life, saving letters and even, The Times writes, “fully packed suitcases from trips abroad that he kept as time capsules.”

12, Bob Dyan, Alan Jackson, Jack White, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams and Jakob Dylan are among a dozen artists asked to finish unfinished songs for The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, to be released Oct. 4. “If you were a painter and were asked to execute a painting based on a very rudimentary fragment of sketches by Picasso, would you do that?” muses the country-music journalist Chet Flippo. Hell, yeah, says Sheryl Crowe, and she did so. “This was one way to interpret the lyrics, but I don’t think it defines the song,” she said. “I think whenever you’re playing tennis with John McEnroe, it ups your level a little. I hope this did something for my own art.”

13, As yet another Columbus Day approaches, bear in mind this evaluation by Ian W. Toll in his review of Columbus: The Four Voyages: “He was a harbinger of genocide. He was a Christianizing messiah. He was a pitiless slave master. He was a lionhearted seaman, a rapacious plunderer, a masterly navigator, a Janus-faced schemer, a liberator of oppressed tribes, a delusional megalomaniac.”

14, In a review of Adventures in rhe Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America, writer Christopher Turner describes how smarties such as William Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Albert Einstein tried out Dr. Wilhelm Reich’s “orgone energy accumulator.” It’s described as “a wooden cupboard lined with metal and insulated with steel wool. It was about the size of a telephone booth.” Reviewer Christopher Hitchens doesn’t tell us how this thing worked; I guess we’ll have to buy the Turner’s book. But Hitchens does select this passage from Adventures in the Orgasmatron, depicting the writer Isaac Rosenfeld: “Belligerently sitting inside his orgone box, daring philistines to laugh, Isaac nevertheless looked lost, as if he were waiting in his telephone booth for a call that was not coming through.”

15, The recent apology by Bill Keller in The Times magazine for his role, while managing editor of The Times, in not seeing the truth of the coming Bush invasion of Iraq has drawn interesting responses in the magazine’s e-mails to the editors page. “Better late than never,” one seems to sigh. “Sheer indulgence,” says another. But as Ruth Rosen, a former columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle points out, “I kept writing a steady series of columns exposing lies of mass deception. Those of us who exposed the lies and deceptions never had a chance. If anyone listened, they dismissed us as unpatriotic or as women or men who had been emasculated because they, too, were equally convinced an invasion of Iraq was a serious mistake.” How does Keller explain the fact that he may have been fooled, but millions of average Americans weren’t? One e-mailer recalls how he was a part of the hundreds of thousands who in 2003 marched through the streets of Washington, D.C., protesting the coming invasion. I was there, it was a stunning display of peaceful protest. That calm voice of democracy received scant attention from the media or our elected officials. Yet put 50 screaming Tea Partiers on a street corner, waving their misspelled signs about Obama’s birth certificate, and it’ll be treated like the Founding Fathers gathering on the first day of writing the Constitution.

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