The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 30

1, Just in case you’ve forgotten this was still going on: “At least 13 American soldiers and four Afghans were killed when a Taliban suicide car bomber attacked an armored shuttle bus in Kabul on Saturday…. It was the single most deadly attack for American or other NATO troops in the capital since the war began, military officials said, and follows brazen Taliban assaults on the American Embassy and NATO headquarters in the capital last month.”

2, The Occupy movement is worldwide. In India, The Times reports, people in the streets “vented their outrage at India’s political status quo.” There, it’s not Wall Street that’s the target, but it’s really the same thing. Anger at the 1 percent.

3, For the second straight night, a judge dismissed arrest warrants against 26 Occupy Nashville citizens who had settled into Legislative Square, saying he could “find no authority anywhere for anyone to authorize a curfew.” However, “a different set of challenges to the movement began to emerge on Saturday, namely winter.”

4, Columnist Frank Bruni in the Sunday Review: “The disconnect between the seriousness of our angst and the silliness of our politics – between how big our problems are and how hopeless or just plain stuck the people who are supposed to address them seem – defies belief.”

5, “At a time when the Republican National Committee remains weighed down by debt,” The Times writes, “outside conservative groups, freed from contribution limits by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year, are playing an ever-larger role and operating in an increasing coordinated fashion.” In other words, the Republicans aren’t getting enough popular support, so the 1 percent is stepping in.  Now Republicans will be even further beholden to special-interest groups such as “the Karl Rove-funded American Crossroads, the Republican Governors Association, the American Action Network and Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.”

6, Why Occupy Wall Street matters is a relatively new phenomena. “It’s hard to believe today, but from the 1960s to about the 1980 workers in finance made little more than those in the private sector, on average,” The Times writes.  Then, deregulation of safeguards that protected us from those with their hands on the financial wheels led to gaming the system in their favor. “By 2006,” The Times notes, “bankers and insurers were making 70 percent more, on average, than workers in the private sector.” Now, ask yourself this: Is there any reason a banker makes more money than a teacher, or a fireman, besides the fact that the banker is closer to the money?

7, Bob Beaumont, first person to have ever produced an electric car, has died of emphysema at age 79 in Maryland. Beaumont was inspired by the battery-powered lunar rover and the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Beaumont sold his traditional car dealership and introduced the CitiCar in 1974: “eight feet long, 1,100 pounds and shaped like a cheese wedge on a golf cart chassis,” The Times writes. It could move at 4o mph. A little more than 2,000 were sold before the company went bankrupt after oil prices dropped to consumer-acceptable levels and questions arose about the safety of driving such a vehicle on American roads. A company that bought the design sold about 4,400 more of the vehicles, called Comuta-Car, before it shut down. “Mr. Beaumont often ran into resistance from the auto industry and its allies in government,” The Times writes that one friend said of the pioneering automaker. The friend, David Goldstein, noted: “In the end he was amused that after all these years Detroit had come around to his way of thinking…. I’m now driving a Volt, and I believe I owe that legacy to Bob.”

8, Was Steve Jobs smart? That’s the question offered by Water Isaacson, author of a book on the Apple computer creator. No, he says, not in the sense that Bill Gates is smart. Gates would read science books while on vacation and displayed a mind for problem solving through logic. Jobs, Isaacson writes in the Sunday Review section, was instead a genius, “whose success dramatizes an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experimental wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.” Gates, Isaacson reminds us, made the Zune. Remember that? No? Jobs made the iPod.

9, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist, academic and former White House adviser, points out that the United States spends 35 percent more per person on health care than the next-highest spending countries, Norway and Switzerland. Even when you adjust the numbers to account for the fact that medical personnel in this country earn more money, and that brand-name drugs cost more, we still spend 15 percent more than those countries, “and about a quarter more than countries with some of the best health care systems in the world, like Germany and France.” And, as Emanuel notes, “The truth is, the United States is not getting 20 or 30 percent better heath care or results than other countries.” In fact, we’re getting ripped off by by everyone eager to dip into the U.S. health-care trough, particularly the pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

10, Hasan M. Elahi, a professor at the University of Maryland, had an experience shared by many people living in this country who have exotic names or appearances: He’s been harassed by government agents, armed with incorrect information. Elahi cleared himself by revealing a trove of detail regarding his whereabouts from Sept. 12, 2001, and on. And he has continued to keep detailed records of his activities, a task we ask of few Americans. And Elahi makes this information public, loading it all on his web site. Elahi asks, is this the kind of information that’s needed to monitor our citizens in the search for terrorists?  “If 300 million people stated sending private information to federal agents, the government would need to hire as many as another 300 million people, possible more, to keep up with the information and we’d have to redesign our entire intelligence system.”

11, The numbers are numbing: The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. That’s 2.3 million Americans behind bars, but “less than half the inmates are serving time for violent crimes,” The Times writes. “Far too often, prison has become a warehouse for people with drug or alcohol addiction. More than half the population has some form of mental illness.” Virginia’s Democratic Senator, Jim Webb, recently called for a panel to review our prison system. Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act would have cost a mere $5 million. But Republicans blocked the plan, vaguely calling it a violation of “state’s rights.” So there will be no possibility of reform, and a $77 billion a year industry has been protected.

12, In the travel section, a story on Frank Lloyd Wright expresses surprise that his architecture is so visible in his home state of Wisconsin. “Avant-garde art movements generally take root in major cities,” The Times writes. “It help to have a dense population of young artists competing for greatness.”

13, One hundred curators spent four years trying to identify the 100 objects in the British Museum that tell the history of the world. Spoiler alert, although you’ll be disappointed after centuries of miracles: “The final object was a plastic, solar-powered light about the size of a coffee mug that came with a charger and cost about $45,” The Times reports. “It can illuminate an entire room, enough to change the lives of a family with no electricity.”

14, The much-awaited collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica, Lulu, is released Tuesday. It’s the story of a woman who is killed by Jack the Ripper, told with unrelenting gruesomeness. The Times hints that this one might not be for everyone. But Reed and Metallica may have needed each other to shake up the art. As Iggy Pop notes in the story, “Success is like being embalmed.”