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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.”

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.

The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Aug. 7

I’ve been out of town the past two weekends. I suppose I could have read The Sunday Boston Globe for you, or The Medina County Pennysaver. Instead,  thought I’d take a break from all the news. But now, here we go again, while listening to The Cowboy Junkies….

1, After Standard & Poors dropped the credit rating of the United States on Friday, the finger-pointing included Republicans blaming Democrats, Democrats blaming Republicans, China blaming free-spending American policy and Europeans blaming S&P’s math. But deep in the story is a startling number that I had not yet encountered, one that suggests why the economy is faltering: “The weakness of the American economy is most evident in the lack of jobs,” The Times writes. “Only 55 percent of working-age adults held full-time jobs in July, the lowest level in modern times.”

2, Thirty-one Americans were killed when their helicopter was shot down Friday in Afghanistan, the single deadliest day for U.S. troops in the almost decade-long war. To date, 1,678 American service members have died in Afghanistan and related actions. Just in case you’d forgotten that was still going on.

3, The Bergson group, covered in a fine layer of history’s dust, is finally being recognized in Israel for its efforts to save Jews and Holocaust victims during World War II. “The Bergsonites were appalled by what they saw as the indifference of the Roosevelt administration and the passivity of the Jewish establishment,” reports The Times, “which staunchly supported the administration and largely accepted its argument that the primary American military objective was to win the war, not to save European Jews.” The Bergson group’s campaign to bring attention to the massacre of Jews included lobbying members of Congress, taking out full-page ads in The Times and The Washington Post and filling Madison Square Garden twice with a pageant called We Will Never Die, supported by the writer Ben Hecht, Broadway impresario Billy Rose and composer Kurt Weil. The group also organized a march on the White House by 400 Orthodox rabbis, “most of them in traditional black garb, a spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in Washington,” The Times writes.  Among the resistors to this movement were traditional Jewish leaders, “apparently afraid of making waves, and losing their own prominence.”

4, On the Jobs page of the Business section, writer Peter Sims points out, “Even the most successful stand-up comedians, like Chris Rock, try thousands of new ideas in front of small club audiences in order to develop a one-hour set.” Ideas that don’t work are merely a part of the process. “Invention and discovery emanate from the ability to try seemingly wild possibilities; to feel comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a careful observer, open to different experiences; to play with ideas without prematurely judging oneself or others;  to persist through difficulties; and to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods, despite the conventional wisdom.”

5, In the Sunday Review, “Particularly on the conservative side, we’re seeing a lot of beliefs that have this faith-based quality, ‘We know it’s true because our ideology tells us it’s true,’ ” says Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science  at Emory University. Adds Jon A. Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford, “The minute you decide to buy the Toyota, your evaluation of it goes up.”

6, Check out “The Austerity Survival Guide” in The Strip. In one panel, cartoonist Brian McFadden advises, “For the sake of your own mental health, don’t look up ‘Recession of 1937’ on Wikipedia.” Pounding his laptop with his fists, a man screams “Hey! This happened before, and they’re doing it again?”

7, Geoffrey Grey, who’s written a book about D.B. Cooper, addresses this week’s news that a woman claims her uncle L.D. Cooper was the legendary hijacker, based on a brief conversation she overheard when she was 8 years old. Grey expresses amazement that anyone’s even paying attention to this latest suspect. “After researching the case for a few years and analyzing hundreds of FBI files on the hijacking, I can tell you that the tale of uncle L.D. is as unremarkable as they come in Cooperland,” he writes. I’m sure he’s right about that. But he’s wrong when he writes: “For all the clamoring hope for the day that Cooper is identified and the mask is finally pulled back, we want Cooper to keep getting away. After all these years, we need him to continue to escape.” That’s romantic nonsense. Actually, I want to know who D.B. Cooper was, and what happened to the $200,000 that he had on him when he parachuted out of that jet.  I want to know who Jack the Ripper was.  I want to know if Shakespeare wrote all of those plays. I want to see a Bigfoot skull.

8, In an editorial called “The Truth About Taxes,” The Times reminds us what the non-delusional of us know: “Here is the bottom line. There is no economically sensible or politically honest way to address the deficit without also increasing revenues and reforming the tax code.”

9, Here’s how the Republicans pulled off last week’s anti-American debt deal, according to another Times editorial: “Through a combination of fear and fervor, Republican leaders in Congress and in the presidential campaign have lined up behind a radical new strategy in which all major decisions are made under threat – to shut the government in April, to implode the economy in July, to cut off money for the Federal Aviation Administration in August. Party leaders have said they will do this again and again, in perpetuity.”

10, A movie is being made of the killing on Osama bin Laden, by the same folks who made the acclaimed film The Hurt Locker. The White House is giving the filmmakers unprecedented access to files on the mission. With the film due to be released a month before the 2012 presidential election, it’s image polishing, for sure, but perhaps not the same kind that we accused George W. Bush of practicing with his Mission Accomplished aircraft carrier party. “At least in this president’s case,” writes Maureen Dowd, something was accomplished.”

11, In travel, Seth Sherwood visits one of those charming little Euro-countries overlooked on the Adriatic, Slovenia. “I followed the strains of an avant-Muzak-like take on “Summertime” to Presernov Square, where hundreds of spectators were watching two humanoid snails perform Kama Sutra positions on an open-air stage. Absorbing the scene in the moonlight, I wondered: Would Shakespeare even recognize his own hand buried underneath this unorthodox interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It looked more like a midsummer night’s acid trip.”

12, Activist and writer Gloria Steinem writes about the South Korean island of Juju, often called one of the most-beautiful places in the world. Massacres have occurred there – thousands of the island’s residents were killed by Japanese occupiers during World War II, and as many 30,000 slaughtered by South Korean troops just before the Korean War, under the apparently unwarranted assumption that they would side with the North Korean communists. Yet the island has retained its physical beauty. Now a new threat looms: A giant naval base is apparently going to scar the coast. The people there have let it be known that they do not want to live amidst ballistic missiles. Steinem writes that “bulldozers were spreading small rocks in preparation for laying concrete over lava, and living coral that is a distinctive natural habitat,” she writes. “Once the bulldozers are out of sight, children pick up those rocks, pile them into towers and plant a peace flag in each one of them.”

13, A small note from The Book Review: “In the new biography David Bowie: Starman, Paul Trynka describes Bowie’s weekend routine when he was starring in The Elephant Man on Broadway in the early 1980s: ‘Every Sunday, he’d buy The New York Times and carefully read through the book reviews. Later in the week, all of the books that had received raves were lying on a table in his room; soon after, he’d finished them.’ On the other hand, Trynka cites a friend who accuses Bowie of having quoted Nietzsche and Khalil Gibran on the basis of reading their book jackets alone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

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