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The Critical Mass

The dim bulbs of Congress

Republicans had a bright idea: Tuesday night, they orchestrated a vote in the House of Representatives calling for repeal of light-bulb efficiency standards that will take effect at the beginning of 2012. Their argument was that these regulations were an assault on liberties dating back to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson may have been ambivalent about the slavery issue, but we can say with a great deal of certainty that he never envisioned a future in which the government could tell you how to illuminate your home.

“This is about more than just energy consumption, it is about personal freedom,” said Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas yahoo who helped sponsor the bill. “Voters sent us a message in November that it is time for politicians and activists in Washington to stop interfering in their lives and manipulating the free market. The light bulb ban is the perfect symbol of that frustration. People don’t want congress dictating what light fixtures they can use.”

We have regulations for supermarket meat. We have regulations for jet airline engine maintenance, and how much explosive gas can be present where coal miners are working, or how many lead-paint chips their kids are allowed to eat. Cars have to be inspected, so that we know the guy barreling toward you in the opposite lane of a rain-slick highway isn’t riding on bald tires. We even have regulations for rating movies, so that the children living in Joe Barton’s district aren’t exposed to too much pornography, lest they get too many crazy ideas in their heads

It’s a regulated world. Societies have to make decisions about what’s right, otherwise chemical companies would still be dumping toxic waste in the most-convenient river.

And in a planet where energy consumption is literally draining the life from the earth, it’s irresponsible for the United States to not take steps to reduce its role as the consumer of one fourth of the world’s energy.

And according to Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, the new standards don’t even specifically ban incandescent bulbs, so Barton’s wrong there. The new rules are technology-neutral, and more-efficient incandescent bulbs have already been developed and are available today. It’s the same as telling the auto industry that it had to produce cars that get better gas mileage.

It’s estimated that the new standards would save the country billions of dollars per year, perhaps $6 billion by 2015 alone. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, estimates that Americans’ energy costs would drop by an average of 7 percent, or about $85 per household every year. Nationwide savings would be more than $12.5 billion annually by 2020, when the new standards are fully in place.

Wiser heads prevailed, and the bill failed to pass. But the kooky ideas will be back. This wasn’t really about light it was about two things. It was about creating another fake issue, which Republicans prefer working on, rather than tackling tough issues like debt, jobs and wars. And it’s about trying to create an atmosphere favorable for de-regulation. Gotta protect those oil companies and banks from scrutiny.

Conservative political candidates are big into signing pledges these days. Anti-tax pledges. Anti-gay marriage pledges. They’re anti-pro choice. Anti-universal health care. Anti-clean energy.  It’s as if they’ve all signed pledges to not move into the 21st century.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 31

This morning’s coffee was imported from Mexico, which you may interpret as a statement on immigration policy if you wish. First music of the day, the Debussy opera Pelleas et Melisande. It’s in French. The dog is chewing on a rawhide bone from Brazil.

1, In a front page dominated by analysis of the upcoming election on Tuesday (same stuff you’ve been reading for weeks), Page 1 shares a little space with this story: The first sign of Alzheimer’s disease is often “Unexplained Debt and Creditors’ Calls,” resulting from “an inability to understand money and credit, contracts and agreements.”  Remember that, as well, when casting your vote on Tuesday.

2, After the discovery of what appears to be two bombs on planes from Yemen, and bound for the United States, “White House officials do not want to look as if they are seizing on a potential catastrophe to win votes,” The Times writes. “But at the same time, they remember when President Obama was criticized when he said nothing publicly in the three days after an attempt to blow up an airliner on Dec. 25.” You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

3, I do not own a cell phone. It’s endorsing mediocre technology and communication. In the magazine this week, in a piece called “Funeral For a Friend,” Virginia Heffernan voices what we’ve lost as and lines dwindle.  “Your phone voice was distinctive; your phone manner was distinctive. You thought a great deal about people who rhythmically and mysteriously inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke while they talked, or left long silences or didn’t hang up immediately after saying good-bye.”

4, An elementary school in Los Angeles, which Michael Jackson briefly attended, has removed the plywood obscuring the name on Michael Jackson Auditorium. The support to reveal the sign, covered up seven years ago after Jackson’s arrest on child-abuse charges, was nearly unanimous in the community. One dissenting voice has come from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Already it’s extraordinarily hard for sexually violated kids to come forward,” said the network’s director. “When we honor accused pedophiles, especially one as high profile as Michael Jackson, it risks intimidating even more victims.”

5, The Sunday Styles section, in a story headlined “The Great Unwashed,” describes a movement whose devotees do not shower or wash their hair daily, and do not use deodorant.  “We don’t need to wash the way we did when we were farmers,” says Katherine Ashenberg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. According to The Times, “Retention of the skin’s natural oils and water conservation are two reasons.” Researchers may be coming around to this idea as well, noting the skin holds many beneficial germs.”

6, The Week in Review ponders why, as millions of dollars from Wall Street, corporate America and special interests  pour into Republican campaigns, President Obama – raised by a single mom who sometimes had to resort to food stamps to feed her family – is portrayed as an elitist. “The elitism argument is kind of a false one because the president talks about people’s economic interests and middle-class families,” The Times quotes Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, who apparently advises Obama (It’s been my experience, in watching Obama during this campaign, does do exactly that). “And those that are supporting Republican candidates right now – because they think they’ll look out for their interests – are going to be very surprised when they find out what the corporate sponsorship of that party is buying.”

7, On that note, in an editorial, The Times notes that nearly $4 billion is likely to be spent on the midterm elections. By contrast, it’s estimated that $2.85 billion was spent n the 2006 midterms.  “Much of this is a direct creation,” The Times writes, “of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., which has cut away nearly all campaign finance restrictions.”

8, In another editorial, “It is past time to pull the plug on the ‘virtual fence’ that the federal government has been trying to erect on the border with Mexico,” The Times writes. A $7.6 billion project that began with the Bush administration, it’s an overwhelmed piece of non-functioning technology that mistakes tumbleweed for illegal immigrants. “So long as there is a demand for cheap labor, a hunger for better jobs here, and almost no legal way to get in,” The Times writes, “people will keep finding ways around any fence, virtual or not.”

9, Columnist Frank Rich, quoting many old-line Republicans, notes that Tea Party candidates who win on Tuesday will quickly be incorporated into the Republican Party. The greatest service that the Tea Party is providing, Rich writes, it allowing Republican candidates to hide from the massive failures of the Bush administration. By the time the next presidential election rolls around, “the equally disillusioned right and left may have a showdown that makes this election year look as benign as Woodstock.”

10, Thomas L. Friedman notes that while India is thriving in the new economic environment that was launched by American innovations such as what was happening in Silicon Valley more than two decades ago, the U.S. is standing still, and poised to go in reverse. “The U.S. seems sadly unprepared to take advantage of the revolution it has spawned,” he says one Indian editor writes in Businessworld magazine. “The country’s worn-out infrastructure, failing education system and lack of political consensus have prevented it from riding a new wave to prosperity.”

11, It is astonishing the degree to which we are distanced from the events of the world. Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, a fine book about Civil War re-enactors, notes that Nov. 6 will be the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, Horwitz writes, 75 percent of eligible southern men served in the military, more than 60 percent of northern men did so. One out of three southern men died in the war. The public saw gruesome testimony of the war through battlefield photos of the dead brought to them by this new invention, photography. “We’re spared this discomfort today,” Horwitz writes, “with the American dead from two ground wars air brushed from public view.”

12, The Pee-wee Herman comeback is real. The Pee-wee Herman Show opens Nov. 11 on Broadway, and advance sales are reported to be “solid.”

13, In a review of Grant Wood: A Life, Deborah Solomon describes Wood’s most-famous work as “a pale, homely farming pair posed in front of their white house, looking as if their dog had just died.” That’s as fine a summary of “American Gothic” as I’ve ever read. R. Tripp Evans’ summary of Woods’ life seems equally interesting. A strange, taciturn, incoherent man who lived with his widowed mother, always misplacing his keys and wallet, addicted to sugar to the point that he’d sprinkle it on lettuce. The painter’s brief marriage, described as “calamitous,” to a light-opera singer 10 years older that he prompts Evans to postulate that Wood was a repressed homosexual, but the evidence suggests merely a repressed human.

14, I was puzzled by Lee Siegel’s “Beat Generations” Oct. 10 essay in the Book Review, which suggested that Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac and Tea Party chanteuse Sarah Palin had more in common than is immediately evident. In a letter to the editor, Seton Hall professor of English Jeffrey Gray found what troubled me. “Presenting the Tea Party as hip bohemia obscures the fact that what the Beats ushered in, in the 1950s, was the beginning of the end from a Tea Party standpoint,” he wrote. “Rejection of capitalism; flight from jobs and family in pursuit of mystical or sexual ecstasy; fascination with ethnic others; experimentation with illegal substances; and general descent into hell in a handbasket.”

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.

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