The Critical Mass

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

The coffee is a simple, winter-morning Colombian. First music of the day: Jazz drummer Paul Motian’s Flux and Change. Today’s Times is a particularly good one.

  1. Winter is descending on refugees in Lebanon, many of whom fled next-door Syria, ripped by civil war, in little more than T-shirts and sandals. “More than a million people in need of aid remain out of reach if international relief efforts,”the Times writes.
  2. “With his majority enhanced and a crop of frustrated young Democrats pushing him hard, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, says he will  move on the first day of the 113th Congress  to diminish the power of Republicans to obstruct legislation,” the Times writes. Procedural fossils such as the filibuster are among his targets.
  3. That’s an important goal. As the Times writes in an editorial today, “If Republicans are serious about repairing their party’s standing among women, gay and Hispanic voters, they need to adjust some policies and stop sending hostile messages. A good place to start would be for Republicans in the House to  stop blocking re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act over provisions deemed too protective of gay and immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.”
  4. Larry Hagman, J.R. Ewing on the iconic TV show Dallas, has died at age 81 from complications of cancer. “In Malibu, where he lived for many years, he was known as an amiable eccentric, given to wearing offbeat costumes and frequently leading impromptu parades down the beach,” the Times writes. “He was known to ask autograph-seekers to sing him a song or tell him a joke in exchange for his autograph.” His obituary also quotes him from a 1980 interview: “Life is terminal, death is not. I think death is just another stage in our development. I honestly believe that we don’t just disappear. We don’t go into a void. I think we’re part of a big energy curtain, an energy wave, in which we are all like molecules.”
  5. In a front-page story headlined “Martha Stewart Clicks With a Tattooed Crowd,” we read that the 71-year-old doyenne “has emerged as something of a patron saint for entrepreneurial hipsters,” the Times writes, “20- and 30-somethings who, in a post-recessionary world, have begun their own pickling, cupcake and letterpress businesses and are selling crafty goods on sites like etsy.com.” Golly NYC is a line of T-shirts and lamps made from re-purposed vintage children’s bedsheets, with the focus on superheroes. “The truth is, in my own little Alphabet City tattooed way, I’m uptight too and I like to do things right,” confesses Golly NYC co-owner Tony Stinkmetal. It’s a good thing. I guess.
  6. The name of Joe Paterno, disgraced for his role in the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, is rarely heard for such a once-iconic figure. “The onetime king of Pennsylvania is like the statue that represented him: stored away, out of sight and, if not totally out of mind, in a dark recess waiting for an ultimate fate to be determined.” That could come with the approaching trials of the three surviving Penn State administrators in the case, all of whom were dismissed for their role in allegedly covering up the scandal: school President Gordon B. Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and University Administrator Gary Schultz. While the mention of Paterno’s name on campus still draws sympathetic comments, particularly in regard to his family. “Interesting, in all of this there is very little sympathy for Spanier, Curley and Schultz,” says one professor who knew Paterno well.
  7. “Is this the end?” James Atlas ponders in the lead essay in the Sunday Review. “Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there’s a good chance that New York City will sink beneath the sea,” he writes. Science tells us that we are losing control of our coastlines. Climate data tells us the planet is against us. Mobile gates are being installed in the lagoons of Venice in an effort to keep that city dry, Renaissance buildings are being moved to higher ground. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says “we have a 100-year-flood every two years now” as he proposes a levee for New York Harbor. “Contemplating our ephemerality can be a profound experience,” Atlas writes. “To wander the once-magnificent Roman cities strung along the Lycian coast of Turkey – now largely reduced to rubble, much still unexcavated – is to realize how extensive, how magisterial this civilization was. Whole cities are underwater; you can snorkel over them and read inscriptions carved into ancient monoliths. Ephesus, pop., 300,000 in the second century A.D., is a vast necropolis. The amphitheater that accommodated nearly 25,000 people sits empty. The Temple of Artemis, said to have been four times larger than the Parthenon, is a handful of slender columns.”
  8. Geoff Marcy, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, is part of a research team that has discovered 300 planets so far. He’s drawn inspiration from a book called Centauri Dreams: Imaging and Planning Interstellar Exploration, by Paul Gilster. “I came away with a clear answer as to the best means of propulsion to get to the stars: solar sails,” he tells The Sunday Review. “The idea is for a spacecraft to unfurl an enormous sail very much like a sailboat, but this would be miles across. What the sail would do is capture not wind but photons from the sun. Photons carry momentum, and these photons would hit the sail and push the spacecraft the way the wind pushes the sail on a sailboat.”
  9. In a discussion on the non-traditional narrative styles of films such as The Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi – not to mention the books upon which they are based – Times film critic A.O. Scott notes, “It’s funny how much people complain about spoilers, when so many plots are the same. This is partly because so many movies fit comfortably into established genres, and much of the time moviegoers seek out the comforts of familiarity.”
  10. “In the world of avant-garde classical composition,” critic Steve Smith writes in Arts & Leisure, “electronic music has typically been cast as a fringe populated by outliers and eggheads; severe mathematicians with punch cards on the one hand, cosmos-divining gurus and weird beards on the other.” This misconception is set right by a handful of recent collections of electronic works by women, Smith writes. Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Daphne Oram and Suzanne Ciani. But in particular, the new two-CD collection of music by Laurie Spiegel on Philo, The Expanding Universe, created while she worked at Bell Laboratories in the ’70s. As Speigel writes in the liner notes, “I was lucky in that when I was 8 or 9 and might have gotten music lessons or a doll, my father gave me a soldering iron instead.”
  11. Ginger Baker, “once voted the rock star least likely to survive the ’60s,” Franz Lidz writes, is celebrated in a new documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker. The former Cream drummer, now 73 and confined to a leather recliner as he takes drags off a morphine inhaler, was a difficult subject for the filmmaker, Paul Bulger. “Formidable and occasionally terrifying, he berates, belittles and besmirches Mr. Bulger, and, in a paroxysm of rage, breaks the director’s nose with a cane,” Lidz writes. Bulger made it to the end. “My initial attraction to Ginger was figuring out what happens when you live by your own rules without compromise, artistically, spiritually, socially,” Bulger says. “Here’s what happens: You wind up alone at the end of the world.”
  12. Oliver Stone is preparing to unleash a new alternative history, a 10-part Showtime series and 750-page book called The Untold History of the United States. It’s a Cold War retelling in which Stalin comes out looking like the good guy. This may not fare well with the critics, from both the right and the left.  Conservative historian Ronald Radosh has reviewed some of the episodes and notes a pattern in which Stone and co-writer Peter Kuznick “manipulate evidence and ignore evidence that does not fit their predetermined thesis.” From the other side, “Always beware of books that describe themselves as the untold story of anything, because it’s usually been told before,” says Sean Wilentz, a left-leaning thinker who’s writing a review of the book. “It sets up this thing that there’s some sort of mysterious force suppressing the true facts, right? Glenn Beck does this all the time.” A comparison to Glenn Beck? Damning criticism. Wilentz calls The Untold History of the United States “cloud-cuckoo land.”
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