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The Critical Mass

I’m more popular than Bob Dylan

I’m really excited. Bob Dylan wants to be my friend.

He came looking for me under “Friend Requests” on Facebook. And immediately I thought, Why does Bob Dylan need to be friends with me?  Interestingly, we have seven mutal friends. I click on Bob’s profile (Yes, we’re already on a first-name basis). Hmmmm…. he only has 743 friends. That’s odd. I have 1,004. How can I be more popular than Bob Dylan? Bob has posted only seven photos. I have 319. Perhaps Bob doesn’t spend a lot of time on Facebook. 

His Facebook bio says he was born May 24, 1947, is from Hibbing, Minn., graduated from Hibbing High School, class of 1959. Studied at the University of Minnesota, works for Sony and lives in Malibu, Calif. Claims to know English, Hebrew and Latin. Under religious views, he says he’s Jewish. Under political views, he claims to be Christian. Oh that Bob, always cryptic! He lists his inspirations as Woody Guthrie, Jesus Christ, Noam Chomsky, Blind Willie McTell and Skanderbeg. Yeah, I had to look up that last one as well. He’s an Albanian hero, a 15th-century lord, according to Wikipedia, “considered by many in western Europe to be a model of Christian resistance against the Ottoman Muslims. ”

Under music likes, I see Bob’s into Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Robert Johnson, Rick Danko and Bessie Smith, among others. But Avril Lavigne? Plenty of favorite books, including the Guthrie bio Bound for Glory, some works on anarchism. Favorite movies – looks like Bob has a lot of idle time on the tour bus –  Metropolis, Che and Attack of the Killer Tomatos. TV? Bob watches Al Jazeera! Games? Bob plays Scrabble and Barbie: Game Girl. Interests include coffee, cigars, knickers, anarchy and  some Canadian political parties.  Bob also enjoys “Let’s Indict Tony Blair For War Crimes,” Charles Bukowski, the Firesign Theatre, the Albanian city of Tirana and Leonard Cohen’s Hat (the Canadian songwriter wears a small brim, wool-felt fedora called “The Melodrama.” Isn’t the Internet amazing?)

Maybe too amazing. I feel dizzy at the prospect of friending Bob Dylan. I click on “Not Now.”  But I’ll see you at your concert on Tuesday. Bob.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Feb. 6

My worst fears have crept into my Sunday-morning routine. Even the Times has conceded that no one’s paying attention to anything on this day except the Super Bowl. I thought the Times was above this fray. But it has surrendered. There’s little of interest on the front page, consumed by uncertain reporting from the unresolved revolt in Egypt. And a story about the unnatural interest in the upcoming Spider-Man Broadway play, interest generated in part by the fact that four performers have been injured during rehearsals. Alas, the story fails to describe the actors’ fates. Guess I’ll have to Google that.

1, The revolt in Egypt had many fathers, and a story inside the first section suggests Facebook may have been a major one. A Facebook page devoted the the beating death of an Egyptian man at the hands of Egyptian police quickly spread outrage through the Internet, and helped lead to what appears to be the revolution toppling of the Mubarak regime. Maybe.

2, The Week in Review section includes a note that Sudanese protests against that country’s police-state president were fueled by appeals on Facebook. Maybe.

3, Columnist Frank Rich, on the other hand, dismisses this as a “media-fueled cliche.” Rich writes, “the Egyptian government pulled the plug on on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger.” Some half-term Alaska governor can keep her name in the news with Twitter and Facebook postings. But in challenging the myth of how “American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses,” Rich points out “even in the case of the young and relatively wired populace of Egypt, only some 20 percent of those masses have Internet access.” Rich further notes that, as major news organizations cut back on their coverage of foreign countries, we really know less about what’s going on around the world than you’d expect in such an information-sharing world. Noting that we’re coming up on the eighth anniversary of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and “Shock and Awe,” Rich compares that event to our consumption of the news from Egypt.  “Those bombardments too were spectacular to watch from a distance – no Iraqi faces, voices or bodies cluttered up the shots. We lulled ourselves into believing that democracy and other good things were soon to come. It took months, even years, for us to learn the hard way that in truth we really had no idea what was going on.”

4, Sunday Business, looking at all of the smart phones, text messaging and social media at our disposal, turns to Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. She says that with all of this technology crossing paths, “home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is never likely to be restored.”

5, As Climate Change moves in on our world, the greatest danger we face, according to Mark Hertsgaard in his new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, is drought. “Floods kill thousands, drought can kill millions,” says one expert.

6, “The Arctic is the lead player in climate change,” Sara Wheeler writes in yet another new book, The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle. Western civilization, which includes the U.S. and the Russians, has been at war with the region for a couple of centuries now, destroying the culture and converting it into a radioactive dump. Wheeler was in Greenland in 1993 when scientists began pulling ice cores from ice sheets two miles deep, tests that first demonstrated how quickly the planet’s weather was changing. “The canary in the coal mine,” writes reviewer Holly Morris, “died ages ago.”

7, In Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart, writer Stefan Kanfer says there will never be another Bogart by pointing to the 20 top-grossing films of all time: Each, from Avatar to Finding Nemo, is targeted for a junior audience. Even aging big stars such as Jack Nicholson deal in “characters in whom an inability to commit and a bewilderment at the state of their own lives are meant to be endearing,” writes reviewer Megan Buskey. There was much to be admired in Bogart the man, whatever you think of his comment that “The whole world is about three drinks behind.” As Buskey notes, “Bogart’s appeal was and remains completely adult – so adult that it’s hard to believe he was ever young. If men who take responsibility are hard to come by in films these days, it’s because they’re hard to come by, period, in an era when being a kid for life is the ultimate achievement, and ‘adult’ as it pertains to film is just an euphemism for pornography.”

8, And finally, back to where we started, and social networking. This edition of the Times was evidently put out by that newsroom’s wonkiest thinkers while everyone else was preparing artichoke dip for the Big Game. In The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, writer Eugeny Morozov sees the Internet as a machine of both personal and sociological repression. Reviewer Lee Siegel points to Morozov’s descriptions of 2009 street protests in Tehran, during which political blogger Andrew Sullivan proclaimed, “the revolution will be Twittered.” And, Siegel adds,  “Clay Shirky, the media’s favorite quotable expert on all things Internet-related, effused: ‘This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.’ ” That revolution ended badly for the nerds after the old-fashioned tanks rolled in.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 18

It is 7 a.m., and already two beef-broth injected brisket are on the smoker. First music of the day: The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Between Nothingness & Eternity. The coffee is Costa Rican. It is a beautiful morning on the deck.

1, Today’s lead story, “The Corrosive Legacy of Oil Spills,” confirms what you probably already know, or suspect: Every oil spill is different, but each leaves an ecological legacy that lasts for decades, even when it’s not readily visible. In 1969, a barge that hit the rocks off of West Falmouth, Mass., spilled 189,000 gallons of oil into Buzzards Bay. Yet even today, “the fiddler crabs at nearby Wild Harbor still act drunk, moving erratically and reacting slowly to predators,” The Times writes.

2, A few pages later, on Page 9, is another one of those overly earnest full-page ads by BP, saluting the company’s clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

3, Facebook is facing the inevitable: Death. The death of your Facebook friends. “Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in the machine,” The Times reports, “but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution.”

4, I often wonder if Sarah Palin deserves all of the attention that she draws from the media, given the Tea Party’s well-documented tendency to exaggerate the size of the crowds at its rallies. Palin’s political action committee filed its quarterly financial report last week, claiming it raised $866,000 and donated $87,500 to Republican candidates, many supported by the Tea Party. The numbers, The Times notes, are “hardly exceptional for a prospective presidential candidate.”

5, Guatemala’s largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, is under attack. The region, the size of New Jersey, is home to what may be the world’s largest ancient pyramid. “Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest,” The Times writes, once the cradle of one of the world’s great civilizations, are being razed by cattle-ranching drug barons.” Cattle-ranching drug barons. There’s a new global villain for you.

6, Columnist Matt Bai has a perceptive analysis of last week’s tiff between the Tea Party and the NAACP, which urged the group to face its racist aspects; and you’d have to be anesthetized to have not picked up on the Tea Party’s racism. But as Bai notes, “we tend to not recognize the generational divide that underlies it.” A poll finds that three-quarters of Tea Party supporters are older than 45, 29 percent are older than 64. In short, the Tea Party is fueled by people who grew up in a time and place where racism was more commonly practiced, or silently accepted as a part of the American landscape.

7, “Garbo couldn’t exist in the 21st Century,” writes Ben Brantley in the Sunday Styles section. “I mean Garbo the lady of mystery, not the rather dull, stingy woman who is reported to have resided behind the persona.” He goes on to add, “Today’s democracy of technology would, of course, conspire to put a fast and brutal end  to the tantalizing demi-invisibility that a Garbo sustained so well.”

8, While the cable entertainment shows are giggling and expressing their lightweight shock over Mel Gibson’s racist rants, before moving on to the Lindsay Lohan matter, columnist Frank Rich sees what the whole Gibson episode really means. Recalling his anti-Semitic rant captured on tape following a DUI arrest in 2006, Gibson “is the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard that he is today,” Rich writes. “But his fall says a lot about the changes in the country over the last six years.” Rich reminds us of what was happening in this country in 2004, when American “values” were being defined as shock over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl costume and Newt Gingrich warning against the war on Christmas. Where are we today? The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority are gone, as are Jerry Falwell and James Dobson and, “What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades.” Rich points out how today’s conservative groups, such as the Tea Party, have had no comment on last month’s Massachusetts court order nullifying the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act,” or last week’s overturning of the FCC indecency rules put in place after Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” The virtue police of 2004 are withering away. Rich quotes New York Post conservative columnist Kyle Smith: “The morality armies have failed to inspire their children to join the crusade.”

9, The comedy of Climate Change deniers is coming to a boil, writes Nicholas D. Kristof after this, the hottest six months on the planet since such  data started being kept in 1880. Kristof cites the famed mountain climber David Brashears, who compared photos of Himalayan glaciers that he has taken with those taken by climbers from decades ago. “Time and again,” Kristof writes, “the same glaciers have shrunk drastically in every direction, often losing hundreds of feet in height.” How can we ignore this? Kristof cites research that suggests human brains evolved to understand imminent dangers, such as saber-toothed tigers, but not slowly encroaching trouble such as climate change.

10, In the magazine, “When Funny Goes Viral” tries to argue that we should be taking seriously all of these Internet postings of fat cats, Hitler screaming about pop-culture issues and sites like Chuck Norris Facts. For those of us who wonder daily where the Internet is going, and express dismay at what it has done to the thinking process, this seems useful. But the best the story can do is pose the same question as where it started: “Like, what, exactly, am I laughing at?”

11, The Book Review cuts into Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and People Who Cook, judging it as “half cooked.” Bourdain is the former chef and now world traveler who advocates against mediocrity (Rachel Ray) and for cultural authenticity (Vietnamese street food). Reviewer Christine Muhlke, a Times food editor, types with one hand that Bourdain may be too marinated in his own shtick, then with the other hand writes that Bourdain himself is all-too aware that his cynicism risks turning him into “Andy Rooney in a leather jacket.” I, for one, am not offended by a writer who “begins with a Lou Reed quotation and slides into a Graham-Green-meets-Tom-Waits reverie in Hanoi.” Bourdain remains one of the 10 guests I would invite to a fictional dinner party.

12, In The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, writer Peter Watson gives us the rundown of how, by 1900, Germans were dominating philosophy, music, science, engineering. And yes, war. As reviewer Brian Ladd points out, while celebrating all that Germany gave the world, it’s a little shortsighted to shrug your shoulders at  the Nazis.

13, William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies, fought at D-Day, but was afraid of spiders.

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