The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Dec. 4

This morning’s coffee, Rwanda freshly roasted by Java Joe. First music of the day: Three discs of jazz bassist Charlie Hayden, on load from the library of Rick Simpson.

1, The Drug Enforcement Agency does its work by making a deal with the devil. American  undercover agents have laundered or smuggled millions of dollars in Mexican drug cartel money in their efforts to uncover where the money goes, and who’s getting it. “As it launders drug money,” The Times writes, “the agency often allows cartels to continue their operations over months or even years before making seizures or arrests.”

2, Dan Boren, a Democratic representative from Oklahoma, is one of the biggest friends that oil and natural gas have in Congress.  “The congressman’s income has jumped in the last six years,” The Times writes, “thanks to two family businesses he partly owns that have signed more than 300 mineral leases, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of those deals are with Chesapeake Energy, a top donor to his campaigns.”

3, Book publishers – real books, not e-books – are experimenting with giving readers more, not less. Steven King’s novel of the Kennedy Assassination 11/22/63 includes pictures, unheard of in fiction. The cover of Haruki Murakami’s new 925-page novel IQ84 comes wrapped in a translucent sleeve through which a woman peers. The March release of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles will arrive with a textured cover, with cracks and punctures. As The Times writes, “If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning not just reading.”

4, Preservation groups have long sought to protect the old homes of New England, but now they’re turning the attention to modernist homes. Low-slung buildings filled with windows, designs which often seem poor matches for the heavy New England snow with their flat roofs. But these homes, built from the 1930s to the’60s,  match the ideals of woodsy philosophers such as Thoreau, it is argued, and should be protected from developers looking to re-purpose the land with McMansions. The Times writes that one preservationist says, “the plain, functional style of modernism, meant to blend into the landscape, echoed Thoreau’s desire to live simply and in harmony with nature.”

5, The Times sports section seems to have acquired the conscience that’s been missing in our games for some time now. Three weeks ago it devoted the entire section front, plus inside space, to the violent world in which former NFL offensive lineman Kris Jenkins lived for a decade. This week, the tragic life and death of NHL player Derek Boogaard is examined in the first of a three-part series. The kid wanted to play hockey, but from a young age all he was ever encouraged to do, even by his well-meaning parents, was play it with his fists, as an “enforcer.” Part One today details his rise through Canadian junior hockey, and even then you can see this coming: Boogaard died this spring, at age 28, of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol. As we’ve seen with the child-abuse scandal at Penn State, and perhaps at Syracuse University as well, our sports institutions are fiefdoms that do not answer to anyone or anything, including decency and common humanity.

6, The Travel section makes a brief stop at the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.,  “the ambitious pet project of Alice Walton, 62, who, as the daughter of WalMart’s founder Sam Walton is the third richest woman in the world, according to Forbes,” The Times reports (No.1, L’Oreal heiress Lillian Bettancourt; No. 2, Alice’s sister, Christy). “Before the museum opened, The Times writes, “the biggest tourist attraction in Bentonville was the Walmart Visitor Center.”

7, The Sunday Review section opens with “The New Digital Divide,” exploring how Americans with high-speed wired Internet (200 million now) will have all the best in quality of life access, while a second class of citizens (100 million) are limited to restricted wireless Internet. Unregulated cable companies, free of competition, will be charging whatever they can get away with, and that will leave the poor at a disadvantage for many on-line benefits, which increasingly includes access to the best jobs, health insurance and education opportunities. “The new digital divide raises important questions about social equity in an information-driven world,” writes Susan P. Crawford, a law professor and former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. “But it is also a matter of protecting our economic future. Thirty years from now, when African-Americans and Latinos, who are at the greatest risk of being left behind in the Internet revolution, will be more than half of our work force. If we want to be competitive in the global economy, we need to make sure every American has truly high-speed wired access to the Internet for a reasonable cost.”

7, The Times can’t seem to find any conservative columnists with a grasp of reality. Ross Douthat’s unbalanced and weightless “The Decadent Left” praises Tea Party and Glenn Beck rallies while dismissing the voice of Americans as “left-wing street theater” when it’s “union-organized rallies across the Midwest,” “the environmentalists protests, complete with arrests outside the White House” or Occupy Wall Street. The last, Douthat insists, “earned by far the most attention while achieving the least in terms of actual policy.” He’s oblivious to the fact that it was OWS that changed the national debate from the conservative red herring of national debt to where the real problem lies, the vast disparity between the haves and have-nots in America. Douthat seems completely blind to his contradictory points that, while criticizing OWS with the dried-out attack dog of not having “settled on concrete political objectives,” he admits the protesters “at least picked a deserving target… Wall Street’s and Washington’s betrayal of the public trust.”  What we’re seeing now, and what will emerge stronger than ever when the spring weather returns, is what critics such as Douthat are missing: The American Occuoy movement understands that the enemy is huge, multitudinous and complex.

8, Columnist Thomas L Friedman praises the Obama administration’s deal with automakers to slowly improve their vehicles’ gas mileage until their total fleet average – trucks, SUVs, sedans – will reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The current fleet average is 27.5 mpg. It will spur innovation and push U.S. car manufacturers to reach levels already planned for by European and Japanese car builders, Friedman writes, with a higher cost in cars (estimated at $2,000) more than offset by the savings in gas purchases over the life of the car (estimated at $6,000). It will cut oil and gas consumption, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a win, win, win! Except Republicans, lead by California’s Darrell Issa, “are fighting a last-ditch effort to scuttle the deal,” Friedman writes, just as they did during the Reagan administration, “and ultimately helped to bankrupt the American auto industry and make sure the United States remained addicted to oil.”

9, The Book Review’s Holiday Reading issue is too big to consume in this sitting. But the back-page essay, “Read It Again, Sam,” has caught my eye: So many writers confess to reading the same books over and over. Stephen King says he’s re-read Lord of the Flies eight or nine times, and lists multiple books that he’s re-read. And I so I think: Have I ever re-read a book? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one I read once, and then picked through here and there over the years, never re-reading from cover to cover. I honestly can’t think of a book I’ve re-read, even though so many have grown a little dim in my memory. “I have never fallen in love with a book that I have not loved all the more the second time,” says Patti Smith. “With each reading, more is revealed. One builds a beloved relationship, adding layers of associative memory and visual impressions. I’m like Gumby, excited to re-enter the atmosphere.”

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