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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Sept. 16

The coffee is Guatemalan. First music of the day: Danish jazz  trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, as close to a living Miles Davis as you’ll hear today.

1, In today’s top story, “After days of anti-American violence across the Muslim world, the White House is girding itself for an extended period of turmoil that will test the security of American diplomatic missions and President Obama’s ability to shape the forces of change in the Arab world.”

2, We lost a good man in the effort to work with the Muslim world when Libyan ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed last week. He was so willing to adopt the ways of the people he was among that he often signed letters “Krees,” the way Arabs pronounce his name, Chris. “Some people enjoy bureaucratic fighting in Washington,” one of Stevens’ former bosses said of the young diplomat that he knew in the 1990s, “but he wanted to be on the front lines where the fires burn.” Stevens also did not like have security forces around him, which may have led to his death. “Chris had fallen in love with Libya’s revolution,” The Times quotes an Iranian-born writer who met him. “At the end, those very forces whose influence he thought would be curbed had claimed his life.”

3, The political landscape has shifted dramatically since the Democratic convention. Polls show that three-quarters of Americans now trust Barack Obama over Mitt Romney with handling the future of Medicare.

4, Some Republican candidates are quietly pushing away the Tea Party’s confrontational ways. Even George Allen, running against Tim Kaine for the Virginia senate, after losing to Kaine last time around, has been talking about how much he enjoyed working with Hillary Rodham Clinton. But, as The Times notes, people tend to remember if you’ve said of Democrats, as Allen did at a convention of Virginia Republicans, “Let’s enjoy knocking their soft teeth down their whining throats.”

5, People who have written bad checks – in an example presented by The Times, a woman who unwittingly bounced one for $47.95 – are getting letters threatening them with imprisonment. But even though these letters appear to be coming from the local district attorney’s office, they’re actually from debt-collection agencies that have paid for the right to use the seal and signature of the DA. The letters often demand that the citizen take a “financial responsibility class,” a additional $180, some of which goes back to the DA’s office. Approximately 300 district attorney offices around the country are using this startling practice.

6, Tissue engineers are using plastic and the body’s ability to grow its own cells to create simple hollow organs, such as windpipes and bladders, for transplant. Researchers are working on more-complex organs such as kidneys and livers, as well as blood vessels.

7, Michael Wreszin, who specialized in writing biographies of American radicals, has died at age 85. Life as a liberal is not easy, The Times says Wreszin once conceded. “For those despairing souls who identify with the left,” he wrote in one of his books, “this is a history of a group of dedicated radical intellectuals who experience almost nothing but defeat, disillusionment and ultimate loss of hope. This story offers an example of the message in Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague. The struggle is endless and futile, but engaging in the struggle is what makes one human.”

8, Did you know more than 3,000 former NFL players are suing the league over concussions?

9, On the editorial page, The Times writes, “As the country approaches the first anniversary of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ on Sept. 20, politicians and others who warned of disastrous consequences if gay people were allowed to serve openly in the military are looking pretty foolish.” More foolishness in the years to come, I say.

10, Also on the editorial page, Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal is used to launch a very convincing argument that Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the stimulus – worked in a big way: saving or creating 2.5 million jobs, keeping unemployment from reaching 12 percent, helping the economy to grow by as much as 3.8 percent. “Republicans learned a lesson from  the stimulus that the Democrats didn’t expect,” The Times writes. “Unwavering opposition, distortion, deceit and ridicule actually work, especially when the opposition doesn’t put up a fight.”

11, “Death and the Civil War” is the next episode of the PBS series American Experience, airing Tuesday. “To lose the same proportion of the population today that died in the Civil War, the historian Drew Gilpin Faust says,” The Times reports on one of the brutal observations made, “would mean seven million deaths.”

12, Arts & Leisure takes on the impossible task of defining shock and the arts. Impossible, because the standards change with time, place and the individual. Amusingly, two essays on the subject both choose to open with a reminder that the 1913 premier of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” was greeted with the audience breaking out into a brawl-filled riot. “Shock long ago went mainstream,” The Times writes, “raising the question: Can art still shock today?” Yes or no, it remains the duty of the artist to do so, seems to be the conclusion, “to reflect the real world back at itself.” As the ’90s performance-shock artist Karen Finley says, “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to go out and try to shock people.’ It’s usually a much more subtle matter of time and place.” Critic Maggie Nelson adds that art needs “to say things the culture can’t allow itself to hear. But all shock is not created equal. Once the original ‘ugh’ is gone, you’ve got to look at what the next emotion is.”

13, An excellent short interview with writer Nicholson Baker in the book review. He’s overwhelmed by the sheer size of Barnes & Noble: “No More! Stop the presses!” He gently lampoons the promotional toils of today’s authors, who “seem to be able to work hard and finish big shiny books and keep going and complain about their hotels and give bouncy interviews and readings and do all the things you’re expected to do.” And then, he goes into a dark assessment of sending drones on  military missions: “We’re in the middle of a presidential administration in which one man in an office with velvet couches goes down a kill list. Our president has become an assassin. It sickens me and makes me want to stop writing altogether.”

14, Do not read page 10 of the Travel section if you rely on Taco Bell for your Mexican fix. Otherwise, only authentic street food will do as writer JJ Goode follows Roberto Santibanez, owner of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Fonda restaurants and author of Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales. He reports on tortillas rolled with chicken that is doused with “mole verde, a verdant, rich sauce from pumpkin seeds and thrilling from the mellow but persistent heat of cooked green chiles.” And  a “banana-leaf-wrapped tamal filled with mole verde, fragrant with the herb hoja santa.”

15, After you’ve enjoyed your tacos, in the Magazine we read in the bird world that not only do “baby Eurasian rollers – aka Coracias garralus – vomit on themselves when they sense danger, but the smell of the vomit sends their parents flying for cover. Scientists now think that the birds throw up not only to ward off predators but also to warn their doting caretakers not to return to the nest until the threat has passed. As the researcher Deseada Parejo noted, ‘They parents seem to be saving their own skin.'”

The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: April 24

First music of the day: Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. The coffee is… Uh oh, Wegmans Columbian. Guess I gotta go see Java Joe. But first, a Royal Wedding-free reading of the Times.

1, While the stimulus spending may have averted a deeper economic catastrophe than the one from which we are slowly emerging, at least as far as business goes, it’s not reaching most Americans. “The latest estimates from economists, in fact, suggest that the pace of recovery from the global financial crisis has flagged since November,” the Times writes.

2, “The breathtaking pace of transformation for upwardly mobile Chinese – from bicycles to cars, village to city, housebound holiday to ski vacations – now extends to faces,” the Times writes. “In just a decade, cosmetic and plastic surgery has become the fourth most popular way to spend discretionary income in China…. Only houses, cars and travel rank higher.” The most-requested surgery is “designed to make the eyes appear larger by adding a crease in the eyelid, forming what is called a double eyelid.” No. 2 raises the bridge of the nose, “the opposite of the typical nose job in the West.” No. 3 is reshaping the jaw to make the face narrower and longer.

3, “A renegade warlord here said Saturday he was ready to lay down his arms as ordered by the new president, but that it would take time,” the Times reports from the Ivory Coast.  OK , I keep encountering the phrase “warlord,” without actually knowing what it means. Wikipeda, any ideas? “A warlord is a person with power who has both military and civil control over a subnational area due to armed forces loyal to the warlord and not to a central authority.” Warlords may be found today in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma, Russia (Chechnya), Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

4, The computer music pioneer Max Matthews has passed away at age 84. Among his many innovations were electronic violins and the Radio Baton, which became the gestural controllers used in some electronic entertainments today. Matthews ignited the initial spark of computer music in 1957, when he wrote a program enabling a computer to play a short composition that he’d written. During a visit to the laboratories where Matthews worked, Arthur C. Clarke heard the new vocoder, or voice recorder synthesizer, singing “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built For Two)” along with a music program written by Matthews, and incorporated it as the voice of the warlord computer Hal 3000 in his novel, and later the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

5, With male pilots in short supply during World War II, Violet Cowden was one of thousands of women recruited as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. They flew new planes from the factory, towed gunnery targets or became flight instructors. “By all accounts, the women did their jobs capably and ardently – until the men came home and suddenly the Army had no need of them,” the Times writes. “Then, unable to work as peacetime pilots, they faded into the 1950s….” Cowden, who was 94, died on April 10. Their role in the war was considered so significant, the Times writes, that “the airlines were ordered to displace any passenger if a WASP needed to be shuttled to an assignment.” Cowden witnessed this first hand when she discovered, after getting off a commercial flight to Memphis, that a throng of women on the tarmac had been waiting for the passenger who had been bumped to make room for Cowden, Frank Sinatra.

6, In The Week in Review, an editorial cartoon shows a man wearing a Birther T-shirt. The Easter bunny says to him, “You strain credulity….”

7, Also straining credulity, the Times says in its lead editorial, is the Republican plan for Medicare, as outlined by Paul Ryan’s budget. Noting the party’s “historical animosity toward the program,” older voters flocked to Republicans in the last election as their candidates claimed to be Medicare’s defenders. The Times hopes voters will notice the enormous flip-flop – it’s more like a flip-flop-flip-flop-flip-flop-flip – on that position, as most recently flipped by the Republican warlords’ plan. “We were skeptical when the Republicans suddenly claimed to be Medicare’s great defenders,” the Times writes. “We are even more skeptical now that we have read their plan. We are also certain that repealing reform – the Republicans’ No. 1 goal – would do enormous damage to all Americans and make it even harder to wrestle down health care costs, the best way to deal with the country’s long-term fiscal crisis.”

8, Werner Herzog is certainly one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. But the director of such great films as Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God is actually more of a documentary maker: Two thirds of his 50 films are documentaries. That includes his latest, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams, a 3D film on the 32,000-year-old cave drawings of Chauvet, France. Herzog is not content to merely witness, saying, “we must never be flies on the wall, unobtrusive and just registering. As filmmakers, we should be the hornets that go out and sting. The fly on the wall is a perspective that is suspicious to me per se. Every single camera angle is already a choice and a statement.”

9, It’s gonna be a good week: Emmylou Harris has a new album coming out. The songs of Hard Bargain were mostly written by Harris, who is not a prolific songwriter. But she’s drawn from her own 64 years for these words, including songs about people who are dead: Gram Parsons, Kate McGarrigle, Emmit Till and her father, whose plane was shot down during the Korean War. He was imprisoned and tortured before his release. A downer of a record? Perhaps not. While calling herself an upbeat person, Harris says that she doesn’t believe that “being melancholy or being sad is an unnatural state.”

10, A line from Sunday Styles: “Andy Warhol was always a tech nerd. He was obsessed with his tape recorder (he called it his “wife”) and was rarely seen without his headphones.”

11, The magazine’s cover story on why Barack Obama’s mother went to Indonesia and took her 6-year-old son with her is very illuminating. She was a smart woman in search of experience, and she did her best to pass these qualities on to her son. “The Javanese, especially the Central Javanese, place an enormous emphasis on self control,” writes Janny Scott, author of a soon-to-be-published book on Obama’s mother.  ” ‘You demonstrate an inner strength by not betraying emotion, not speaking loudly, not moving jerkily,’ ” she says an anthropologist who knew both mother and son tells her. This sounds like the Obama that we have today.

12, The Book Review examines 1861: The Civil War Awakening. Reviewer Debby Applegate points out that it was estimated in 1995 that 50,000 books had been written about the Civil War, and thousands more since then, and many more are on the way as we enter the 150th anniversary of the event. But, “few will be as exhilarating” as Adam Goodheart’s new book, she writes. “Goodheart turns the lens away from the usual stars of the story, the politicians, military officers, activists and editors who strove to direct the course of events. Instead, he explores the more obscure corners of antebellum America, introducing fascinating figures who loomed large at the time but have now been mostly forgotten.” And forgotten groups such as the Wide Awakes, “who showed their support for candidate Lincoln by parading at night through the Northern cities in eerie silence, draped in makeshift capes of shiny black oilcloth that reflected the blaze of their flaming torches.” This is not the Civil War that I heard about as a kid.

13, Czechoslovakian wines, for 40 years dying on the vine under communism, are making a comeback since the fall of the Iron Curtain. “In the Middle Ages” – a time rife with warlords! – the water was unsafe to drink, so we Moravians drank wine,” says a wine merchant quoted in the travel section. Of course, I’ve never been fully convinced that our drinking water today is particularly safe, so….

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