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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.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Aug. 29

Still no end to these awesome Upstate New York global warming mornings. The coffee’s on, last of the stuff from some island in the Flores Sea. First music of the day: Now is the Hour, Charlie Haden Quartet West.

1, In today’s lead story The Times notes that President Obama “is the first president in four decades with a shooting war already raging the day he took office – two, in fact, plus subsidiaries.” He’s had to learn this commander-in-chief thing on the run, and seems to have been doing so at a very hands-on level. “He has learned how to salute,” The Times reports. “He has surfed the Internet at night to look into the toll on the troops. He has faced young soldiers maimed after carrying out his orders. And he is trying to manage a tense relationship with the military.” Unlike his predecessor, he is a man “hungry for information” on which to base his decisions. “Where George W. Bush saw the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as his central mission and opportunities to transform critical regions, Mr. Obama sees them as ‘problems that need managing,’ as one adviser put it, while he pursues his own mission of transforming America at home.”  As Defense Secretary Robert Gates says – and don’t forget, Gates was also Bush’s defense secretary – “From the first, he’s been decisive, and he’s been willing to make big decisions.”

2, Society is running in reverse throughout the world. Ultranationalists are holding unprescedented loud street demonstrations in what The Times describes as “conflict-adverse Japan.” “Since first appearing last year, their protests have been directed at not only Japan’s half million ethnic Koreans, but also Asian and other Chinese workers, Christian churchgoers and even westerners in Halloween costumes. In  the latter case, a few dozen angrily shouting demonstrators followed around revelers waving placards that read, “This is not a white country.”

3, In an editorial called “Waiting For Mr. Obama,” The Times urges the president to turn up the volume on his rhetoric, and turn up the heat on Republicans. “Mr. Obama must tell Americans,” it writes, “that claims from Republican leaders that the country can both cut taxes and tackle the deficit are absurd and cynical.” That’s just one point he must make. “We believe Americans are ready for hard truths and big ideas,” The Times insists.

4, But not Glenn Beck’s ideas. While the Fox News bombthrower was playing host to his “Reclaiming Honor” rally this weekend in Washington, D.C., columnist Frank Rich is busy pointing out just who is bankrolling these supposed “grassroots” Tea Party events. Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, is one, of course. The others, lesser known, are two Texas brothers, David and Charles Koch, whose combined wealth is exceeded, Rich notes, by only Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The amount of money that these tycoons have poured into conservative causes is staggering, all in the name of arranging favorite-corporation status for their vast conglomerates. Speaking of blue-collar supporters of the Tea Parties and their Glenn Beck microphone, Rich writes, “The Koch brothers must be laughing all of the way to the bank knowing that working Americans are aiding and abetting their selfish interests.”

5, Martin Dannenberg has died. His name may have been lost in history, but not the circumstances that surrounded him. He was a U.S. Army intelligence officer who, days after he’d seen dead bodies stacked at the death camp at Dachau in April of 1945, opened a swastika-covered  envelope that he found in a bank vault. Those four typed pages were the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, signed by Adolph Hitler, stripping Jews of German citizenship, outlawing marriage and sex between Jews and people of “German blood” and establishing the swastika as the national symbol of Germany, while banning Jews from displaying it.  “I had the most peculiar feeling when I had this in my hand,” he said in a 1999 interview. “Because here is this thing that begins the persecution of the Jews. And a Jewish person has found it.” Interestingly, Gen. George S. Patton kept it himself as a war souvenir, then  passed it on to a California library whose founder had been a close friend; It was secretly kept in a bomb-proof vault for 54 years, its existence revealed in 1996.  When Dannenberg learned that year that Patton had kept it for himself, rather than for use at the Nuremberg Trials as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had instructed, Dannenberg called Patton “that scoundred.”

6, “Belief in reincarnation, traditionally part of Eastern religions, is gaining acceptance in the West,” says Sunday Styles. Dr. Paul DeBell, a psychiatrist who specializes in past-life regression through hypnosis, believes he was once a cave man, “going along, going along, going along, and I got eaten.” The story does not say what, or who, ate this proto-DeBell, but it does cite a study last year that claimed one-fourth of Americans believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation, DeBell says, “allows you to experience history as yours. It gives you a different sense of what it means to be human.”

7, In 17 of the last 21 presidential elections, the taller man has won. Eighteen of the last 21, if you count Al Gore in 2000, as many people do.

8, Seattle appears to be the next new jazz hotbed, thanks to a groundswell of interest among young students in the classrooms and coffeehouses. Fueled by inter-school rivalries, one drummer says big bands “are kind of like high school football in Texas.”

9, We have infrastructure fatigue. The nation’s dams are typically 50 years old. “Despite their monumental size,” The Times reports, “the dams can be weakened by foraging gophers and squirrels, whose holes undermine the foundation.”

10, The Book Review introduces me to Shirley Jackson, who wrote disturbing stories from the 1940s until her death in 1965 at age 48. Stories such as “The Lottery,” which this review will only tease as “about an exceptionally nasty small-town ritual.” Houses play a big role in much of Jackson’s writings. Often, they’re weird, twisted houses, as with “Hill House,” a story of ghost hunters. Houses as a box of our fears. It’s in a collection called Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories.

11, But zooming to the top of my reading list is Milan Kundera’s Encounter. A collection of essays about art and thinking by the Czech novelist who moved to France and uncovered, as he writes, “the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying  because the need for art, the sensitivity and love for it, is dying.” Kundera’s wide-ranging interests in the arts opens windows for Icelandic novelists and Bertolt Brecht’s substantial body odor.

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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