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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Feb. 26

Today’s coffee is, once again, Guatemalan. First music of the day: The elegant Massachusetts indie-rock band Winterpills.

1, Perhaps you remember the 2010 State of the Union address, when Barack Obama castigated the Supreme Court for the Citizens United ruling that declared, as Mitt Romney has said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.” But as Obama warned, corporations wielding checks unchecked is a disaster for this county’s political process. Today’s front page of The Times reports on how the supposed separation of super Pacs – the organizations that can contribute unlimited funds to a cause, but not a candidate – is a glass wall. Perhaps literally. Romney’s campaign and the allegedly independent super PAC Restore Our Future share a company, TargetPoint, that specializes in direct-mail strategies. Restore Our Future (in reality a Romney fundraising operation) and TargetPoint even share the same office suit in Alexandria, Va. “Elsewhere in the same suite is WWP Strategies, whose co-founder is married to TargetPoint’s chief executive and works for the Romney campaign, The Times writes. “Across the room is the Black Rock Group, whose co-founder – a top Romney campaign official in 2008 – now helps run both Restore Our Future and America Crossroads, another independent group that spoke up in defense of Mr. Romney’s candidacy in January. Finally, there is Crossroads Media, a media placement firm that works for American Crossroads and other Republican groups.” As The Times notes, “The overlapping roles and relationships of the consultants in Suite 555 at 66 Canal Center Plaza offer a case study in the fluidity and ineffectual enforcement of rules intended to prevent candidates from coordinating their activities with outside groups.”

2, A cruise ship loaded with maritime-disaster enthusiasts will sail from Southampton, England, in what’s billed as a “re-enactment” of the Titanic‘s fatal voyage in April of 1912. Re-enactment? Really?

3, I had no idea how sinister Virginia’s proposed ultrasound legislation was until I read Erik Eckholm’s analysis in the Sunday Review. While the proposed law, which was withdrawn last week as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was beaten with the stick of national outrage, did not specifically call for the procedure which requires a wand-mounted camera to be inserted into a woman’s uterus, that was the only practical way that a doctor could get the results that the law spelled out: Before performing an abortion, the doctor would have to offer his patient the opportunity to listen to the heartbeat of the first-trimester fetus. And the doctor would offer to point out, on a video screen, the discernible features of the fetus at that early point in its development. The Times notes that, since 2008, passing state ultrasound requirements has been an anti-abortion movement strategy for attacking Roe v. Wade. Six states have passed a bill compelling an abortion provider to offer his patient the opportunity to view the image of the fetus (Virgina’s law, now pending, was in this category). Three states – Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina – now have more Draconian laws that require a doctor to show his patient the images of the fetus. There is no medical necessity for this procedure for a woman seeking an abortion. “For a long time it was about shaming women,” The Times quotes Elizabeth Nash, the state issues manager with the liberal Guttenmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. “And now it’s about humiliating women.” A California sociologist and expert on abortion care, Tracy Weitz, says “The women who come in for an abortion know what they are doing,” pointing out the six in 10 women seeking abortions have already had a child. “Woman are having abortions because of the conditions of their lives, their economic situation, their partner situation, their age, and the ultrasound doesn’t change that.” As proof that these laws are motivated by conservative politics, the medical director for Planned Parenthood in central Texas says “There are no other situations where the legislature injects itself into the examining room and dictates how physicians practice.”

4, Today’s astounding technologies are coming at us fast, but they are in some respects the result of a century of patient work.  The Sunday Review examines Bell Labs, whose 20th century innovations included the transistor, the solar cell, communications satellites, the first cell phone systems and fiber optics; everything we’ve needed to create the 21st century. Mervin Kelly, who eventually became chairman of the board at Bell Labs, was largely responsible for this culture of innovation.  “He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill N.J., opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another,” writes Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. “Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.” These idea men and women were also encouraged to understand the practical applications of their work through the men and women on the assembly lines and factories. “As manufacturing has increasingly moved out of the United States in the past half century,” Gertner writes, “it has likewise taken with it a whole ecosystem of industrial knowledge.”

5, “Wanted: Conservative columnist who understands we’re living in the 21st century. Please apply at The New York Times.”  Ross Douthat, still trying to help us forget the Times‘ failed William Kristol Experiment, finds ideas in the non-ideas of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose “greatness was manifested in the crises he defused and the mistakes he did not make,” as Douthat writes. “He did not create unaffordable entitlement programs, embrace implausible economic theories, or hand on unsustainable deficits to his successors. He ended a stalemated conflict in Korea, kept America out of war in Southeast Asia, and avoided the kind of nuclear brinkmanship that his feckless successor stumbled into. He did not allow a series of Middle Eastern crises to draw America into an Iraq-style intervention. He did not risk his presidency with third-rate burglaries or sexual adventurism.” OK, aside from those last three sentences being an inadvertent call to return Barack Obama to office this fall, now that we have or have had all of that – courtesy of a series of unfortunate Republican administrations, from Nixon to the Bushes, I might add – how does Eisenhower’s “masterly inaction,” as Douthet calls it, get us out of this mess?

6, In the magazine today, Matt Bai sums it up in that work in progress, The 1 Page Magazine. “I mean, Ike was a terrific general, but was he really one of our greatest presidents? Apparently a nostalgic generation is going to keep building monuments to the 20th century until the mall looks like a zombie garden of calcified presidents. Except for Taft, because you know, there’s just no room for that.”

7, I looked it up: Taft weighed 340 pounds when he left office as president.

8, Maureen Dowd has coined a new coda for the GOP: “Ghastly Outdated Party.” In evaluating the deranged views coming from Republican candidates for president, she quotes no less an authority on such matters than Rudy Giuliani. “It makes the party look like it isn’t a modern party,” says the former New York City Mayor who once wanted to defund the Brooklyn Museum for presenting a piece of modern art that he did not like (That’s my fond recollection of Rudy, not Dowd’s). “It doesn’t understand the world we live in,” Rudy says. Yes, even the Republicans realize, the dire situation is just as Dowd describes: “The Republicans, with their crazed Reagan fixation, are a last-gasp party, living posthumously, fighting battles on sex, race, immigration and public education long ago won by the other side. They’re trying to roll back the clock, but time is passing them by.”

9, Bloomberg News reported last week that energy production has increased so dramatically under Obama that “the U.S. is the closest it has been in almost 20 years to achieving energy self sufficiency.” It is a transformation, columnist Thomas L. Friedman suggests, that “could make the U.S. the world’s top energy producer by 2020, raise more tax revenue, free us from worrying about the Middle East, and, if we’re smart, build a bridge to a much cleaner energy future.” But for this to happen, environmentalists and the oil and gas industry need to agree on standards for safe yet efficient energy production, Friedman warns.  And then Friedman writes something startling. Something that should be oh-so-obvious if the United States does indeed reach its goal of energy independence. “No one likes higher gas prices,” he says. “But – perversely – the high price benefits America as we rapidly become a bigger oil producer and it ensures that investments will continue to flow into energy efficient cars and trucks…. As our producers succeed, we would become increasingly energy self-sufficient, keep a lot more dollars at home for our Treasury, stimulate innovation on renewables and drive down the global oil price that is the sole source sustaining Iran and other petro-dictators.”

10, Headline on the editorial page that says it all: “Mitt Romney and the other candidates can’t admit that the auto bailout worked.”

11, Kraftwerk, the robotic German synthesizer band of the 1970s, is performing eight of its albums in their entirety April 10-17 at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Kraftwerk. Did anyone think to ask Dylan to do this? Or, James Taylor, even?

12, Tucker Max, whose business card describes himself – correctly, apparently – as “Internet celebrity, boozer, Lothario and admitted Class A Jerk,” first hit the best-seller lists in 2006 with I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. He’s made two more trips to the NYT best-seller list, including the new Hilarity Ensues, debuting this week at No.2 in Nonfiction. Now 36, he has a fridge stocked with organic health drinks and does yoga. “I’ve sold millions of books!” he says. “I’ve had sex with hundreds, maybe thousands, of women. And I still had to go to analysis! I started analysis after all that dude.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Dec. 4

This morning’s coffee, Rwanda freshly roasted by Java Joe. First music of the day: Three discs of jazz bassist Charlie Hayden, on load from the library of Rick Simpson.

1, The Drug Enforcement Agency does its work by making a deal with the devil. American  undercover agents have laundered or smuggled millions of dollars in Mexican drug cartel money in their efforts to uncover where the money goes, and who’s getting it. “As it launders drug money,” The Times writes, “the agency often allows cartels to continue their operations over months or even years before making seizures or arrests.”

2, Dan Boren, a Democratic representative from Oklahoma, is one of the biggest friends that oil and natural gas have in Congress.  “The congressman’s income has jumped in the last six years,” The Times writes, “thanks to two family businesses he partly owns that have signed more than 300 mineral leases, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of those deals are with Chesapeake Energy, a top donor to his campaigns.”

3, Book publishers – real books, not e-books – are experimenting with giving readers more, not less. Steven King’s novel of the Kennedy Assassination 11/22/63 includes pictures, unheard of in fiction. The cover of Haruki Murakami’s new 925-page novel IQ84 comes wrapped in a translucent sleeve through which a woman peers. The March release of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles will arrive with a textured cover, with cracks and punctures. As The Times writes, “If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning not just reading.”

4, Preservation groups have long sought to protect the old homes of New England, but now they’re turning the attention to modernist homes. Low-slung buildings filled with windows, designs which often seem poor matches for the heavy New England snow with their flat roofs. But these homes, built from the 1930s to the’60s,  match the ideals of woodsy philosophers such as Thoreau, it is argued, and should be protected from developers looking to re-purpose the land with McMansions. The Times writes that one preservationist says, “the plain, functional style of modernism, meant to blend into the landscape, echoed Thoreau’s desire to live simply and in harmony with nature.”

5, The Times sports section seems to have acquired the conscience that’s been missing in our games for some time now. Three weeks ago it devoted the entire section front, plus inside space, to the violent world in which former NFL offensive lineman Kris Jenkins lived for a decade. This week, the tragic life and death of NHL player Derek Boogaard is examined in the first of a three-part series. The kid wanted to play hockey, but from a young age all he was ever encouraged to do, even by his well-meaning parents, was play it with his fists, as an “enforcer.” Part One today details his rise through Canadian junior hockey, and even then you can see this coming: Boogaard died this spring, at age 28, of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol. As we’ve seen with the child-abuse scandal at Penn State, and perhaps at Syracuse University as well, our sports institutions are fiefdoms that do not answer to anyone or anything, including decency and common humanity.

6, The Travel section makes a brief stop at the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.,  “the ambitious pet project of Alice Walton, 62, who, as the daughter of WalMart’s founder Sam Walton is the third richest woman in the world, according to Forbes,” The Times reports (No.1, L’Oreal heiress Lillian Bettancourt; No. 2, Alice’s sister, Christy). “Before the museum opened, The Times writes, “the biggest tourist attraction in Bentonville was the Walmart Visitor Center.”

7, The Sunday Review section opens with “The New Digital Divide,” exploring how Americans with high-speed wired Internet (200 million now) will have all the best in quality of life access, while a second class of citizens (100 million) are limited to restricted wireless Internet. Unregulated cable companies, free of competition, will be charging whatever they can get away with, and that will leave the poor at a disadvantage for many on-line benefits, which increasingly includes access to the best jobs, health insurance and education opportunities. “The new digital divide raises important questions about social equity in an information-driven world,” writes Susan P. Crawford, a law professor and former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. “But it is also a matter of protecting our economic future. Thirty years from now, when African-Americans and Latinos, who are at the greatest risk of being left behind in the Internet revolution, will be more than half of our work force. If we want to be competitive in the global economy, we need to make sure every American has truly high-speed wired access to the Internet for a reasonable cost.”

7, The Times can’t seem to find any conservative columnists with a grasp of reality. Ross Douthat’s unbalanced and weightless “The Decadent Left” praises Tea Party and Glenn Beck rallies while dismissing the voice of Americans as “left-wing street theater” when it’s “union-organized rallies across the Midwest,” “the environmentalists protests, complete with arrests outside the White House” or Occupy Wall Street. The last, Douthat insists, “earned by far the most attention while achieving the least in terms of actual policy.” He’s oblivious to the fact that it was OWS that changed the national debate from the conservative red herring of national debt to where the real problem lies, the vast disparity between the haves and have-nots in America. Douthat seems completely blind to his contradictory points that, while criticizing OWS with the dried-out attack dog of not having “settled on concrete political objectives,” he admits the protesters “at least picked a deserving target… Wall Street’s and Washington’s betrayal of the public trust.”  What we’re seeing now, and what will emerge stronger than ever when the spring weather returns, is what critics such as Douthat are missing: The American Occuoy movement understands that the enemy is huge, multitudinous and complex.

8, Columnist Thomas L Friedman praises the Obama administration’s deal with automakers to slowly improve their vehicles’ gas mileage until their total fleet average – trucks, SUVs, sedans – will reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The current fleet average is 27.5 mpg. It will spur innovation and push U.S. car manufacturers to reach levels already planned for by European and Japanese car builders, Friedman writes, with a higher cost in cars (estimated at $2,000) more than offset by the savings in gas purchases over the life of the car (estimated at $6,000). It will cut oil and gas consumption, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a win, win, win! Except Republicans, lead by California’s Darrell Issa, “are fighting a last-ditch effort to scuttle the deal,” Friedman writes, just as they did during the Reagan administration, “and ultimately helped to bankrupt the American auto industry and make sure the United States remained addicted to oil.”

9, The Book Review’s Holiday Reading issue is too big to consume in this sitting. But the back-page essay, “Read It Again, Sam,” has caught my eye: So many writers confess to reading the same books over and over. Stephen King says he’s re-read Lord of the Flies eight or nine times, and lists multiple books that he’s re-read. And I so I think: Have I ever re-read a book? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one I read once, and then picked through here and there over the years, never re-reading from cover to cover. I honestly can’t think of a book I’ve re-read, even though so many have grown a little dim in my memory. “I have never fallen in love with a book that I have not loved all the more the second time,” says Patti Smith. “With each reading, more is revealed. One builds a beloved relationship, adding layers of associative memory and visual impressions. I’m like Gumby, excited to re-enter the atmosphere.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Sept. 11

A beautiful morning, just like I remember from 10 years ago today.

1, A very compelling photo on the front page leads The Times‘ coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A section of the new memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. In the background, a waterfall and pool marking the footprint where one of the great towers once was. In the foreground, a section of blue granite engraved with the names of the victims. It it wet from a recent rain. The raindrops look like tears.

2, In its lead editorial, The Times recalls the country’s mood in the days following the tragedy. “Do you remember? It was an enormous, heartfelt desire to be changed. People wanted to be enlarged, to be called on to do more for country and community than ordinary life usually requires, to make this senseless horror count for something. It was also a public desire, a wish the be absorbed in some greater good, a re-imaging of the possibilities of our national life.” Alas, this spirit was misspent. “Based on false pretexts, we were drawn into a misdirected war that has exacted enormous costs in lives and money…. As a nation, we have done a better job of living with our fears, sadly, than nurturing the expansive spirit of community that arose in those early days.”

3, Columnist Thomas L. Friedman applauds Obama’s Thursday speech before Congress. “If the GOP thinks it can just obstruct Obama and hope that the economy tanks – so Republicans will benefit in the 2012 election – it will be a mistake for the country and the party. I believe most Americans want a Grand Bargain both in substance and in style.”

4, “In a series of rulings on the use of satellites and cell phones to track criminal suspects, judges around the country have been citing George Orwell’s 1984 to sound an alarm. They say the Fourth Amendment’s promise of protection from government invasion of privacy is in danger of being replaced by the futuristic surveillance state Orwell described.” The government wants to use your cell phone and GPS system as your Big Brother. American Civil Liberties has the surprising allies of concerned judges and a long-dead writer.

5, “The United States government offers tax incentives to companies pursuing medical breakthroughs, urban redevelopment and alternatives to fossil fuels. It also provides tax breaks for a company whose blockbuster hit this year was the gory video game Dead Space 2, which challenges players to advance through an apocalyptic battlefield by killing space zombies.”

6, “Authentic” is officially a fad word. Which means it is no longer authentic. Calculated authenticity, The Times notes, “is obvious in politics.”

7, Like most Americans, I get my news from the satirical comedy shows. The Sunday Review section each week includes  a handful of the weekly quiz questions from the NPR show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me. Question No. 3: “A San Francisco resident’s home was raided and searched, as he was harshly questioned by agents working for whom?” Answer: ” ‘Apple Investigators,’ escorted by armed San Francisco police officers, were searching for a lost iPhone prototype. Apple devotees were shocked to find out that Apple offered home invasions, and started lining up early outside the Apple stores to order one.”

8, On the next page, Brian McFadden’s cartoon, The Strip, offers the “Unpleasant Anniversary Activity Page”: In one panel, a kid explains 9/11 to one of his friends, “It’s a flawless and elaborate conspiracy committed by our incompetent government!”

9, Christopher Hitchens’ point of view often struck me as a bulldozer at work, and I’ve never read much of him. But he will soon be dead of cancer – even Hitchens readily admits this – and death has a way of bringing resurgent examination. So next week I’ll run out and buy his new collection, Arguably: Essays. A British citizen, Hitchens has adopted America for better and for worse. “At a time when America is experiencing a resurgent campaign to proclaim us a ‘Judeo-Christian nation,’ Hitchens delights in the plentiful evidence that the founders were not all that religious and certainly not interested in creating a sectarian country,” writes reviewer Bill Keller. For those who see Hitchens as all-too enjoying this American age of decay, Keller cites this Hitchens passage: “There is currently much easy talk about the ‘decline’ of my adopted country, both in confidence and resources. I don’t choose to join this denigration.” As Keller notes: “Christopher Hitchens: American patriot. We’ve done a lot worse.”

10, The Book Review also takes note of what  rose to the top of the best seller lists immediately after 9/11. Books about the new enemy, like Taliban, Bin Laden and The Koran For Dummies. A year later, we turned inward in a noisy way with Let’s Roll!, a memoir by the widow of a woman who lost her husband on Flight 93, and the more-tone deaf rants of Sean Hannity’s Let Freedom Ring, Ann Coulter’s Slander and, on the children’s picture book list, Lynne Cheney’s America, a “patriotic primer.”

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