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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: March 25

This morning’s coffee is Mexican Oaxaca, imported last week from Austin. Is that a hint of vanilla? First music of the day: A three-CD set of Townes Van Zandt.

1, Last fall at Ruidoso Downs Race Track in New Mexico, “a national champion jockey named Jacky Martin lay sprawled in the furrowed dirt just past the finish line, paralyzed, his neck broken in three places,” The Times writes in a front-page expose of the sport. “On the ground next to him his frightened horse, leg broken and chest heaving, was minutes away from being euthanized on the track. For finishing fourth on this early September day last year, Jacky Martin got about $60 and possibly a lifetime tethered to a respirator.” Not exactly a Run for the Roses. “On average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America,” The Times writes. “Many are inexpensive horses racing with little regulatory protection in pursuit of bigger and bigger prizes. These deaths often go unexamined, the bodies shipped to rendering plants and landfills rather than to pathologists who might have discovered why the horses broke down.” There’s something soul-less about how some factions of humanity move imperiously about this planet, as though how we treat animals doesn’t tell us anything about ourselves. The day after Jacky Martin’s accident, on the same track, another horse broke its leg and had to be put down, “then dumped near an old toilet in a junk yard a short walk from where he had been sold at auction the previous year.”

2, The European recession is resulting in government funding for the arts. This impacts more than American tourists. “In contrast to the United States,” The Times writes, “Europe has embraced a model that views culture not as a commodity, in which market forces determine which products survive, but as a common legacy to be nurtured and protected, including art forms that may lack mass appeal.”

3, “Dolphins in Barataria Bay off Louisiana, which was hit hard by the BP oil spill in 2010, are seriously ill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Friday.  The agency said that it was likely that the dolphins’ ailments were related to toxic substances in the petroleum, although evidence of a link was not conclusive.”

4, “For decades, Republicans have recruited outside groups and individuals to amplify their party’s message and its influence,” writes Kevin Baker in a Sunday Review essay. “They have carried this off brilliantly, helping to shift the political spectrum in the United States significantly to the right.” But now these outsiders, such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, have outgrown the fading, aging party. TV access is more prized than political office. ‘Two of the most-popular Republican candidates for president going into the race, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, declined to run rather than jeopardize their shows,” Baker writes. “Newt Gingrich turned much of his campaign into book tours for himself and his wife. Ask yourself which was more likely: that Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann thought they could be elected president, or that they were looking to preserve their ‘brand?’ ” Baker notes that “their candidates and their ideas are seen as so many junk bonds, and they don’t seem to have the wherewithal to remake the party from within.”

5, Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s an actual debate over whether Israel should conduct an air strike against Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Nicholas D. Kristof points out that “it’s the same kind of debate as the one about climate change – credible experts are overwhelmingly on one side.” Against. As Kristof writes, “anyone who is confident about what would happen is a fool.”

6, A California man, Gilad Elbaz, has built an Internet company, called Factual, whose goal is very simple: Store every fact known to man. “The world is one big data problem,” he says. “What if you could spot any error, as soon as you wrote it? Factual is definitely a new thing that will change business, and a valuable new tool for computing.”

7, While we’re on the subject of storing facts, Vincent Kartheiser, the actor who plays Peter Campbell on the AMC series Mad Men, does a quick Q&A in the Sunday Review. As to what he is reading, Campbell cites Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music. “It’s an interesting world the writer has created,” Kartheiser says. “Memory is stored externally from your body so you’re constantly asking this box what you know. It’s interesting because it was written in the ’90s, and it’s kind of where we’re going as a society. I think eventually we will have external hard drives that store our emotion and our memories.”

8, More Kartheiser: “I’m an adult, I don’t do blogs, I’m not a fan of the Twitter. I’m not a fan of the Facebook. I’m vehemently anti- actually. I think those things are  – stupid.”

The Critical Mass

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

Good morning. It’s raining, and that means the first music of the day will be Bill Frisell’s Good Dog Happy Man.

1, The narrative adopted for a year now by the news media has insisted that incumbents, and Democrats, are in trouble in these upcoming mid-term elections. Not so fast, says The Times, writing, “enough contests remain in flux that both parties head into the final four weeks of the campaign with the ability to change the dynamic before Election Day.” The story notes that “even as the spending from outside groups is threatening to swamp many Democratic candidates, Republican strategists estimated that only half of the 39 seats they need to win control of the House were definitely in hand. Many Democratic incumbents remain vulnerable, but their positions have stabilized in the last month as they have begun running negative advertisements to raise questions about their Republican challengers and shift the focus away from contentious national issues like health care, bailouts and President Obama’s performance.”

2, In Afghanistan, 40 female Marines have “skirted” – an inadvertent pun, I’m sure – “Pentagon rules restricting women in combat,” and are fighting alongside their male counterparts. They were originally moved into the units in order to work with rural Afghan women, who are culturally banned from associating with outside men. The tough resistance being met by the Marines has meant the women are getting shot at, and are shooting back.  None have been killed or injured yet.

3, We’ve grown overly accustomed to Osama bin Laden’s rants against the United States. But we never hear many other bin Laden tapes. The most recent urges aid for the flood victims of Pakistan, blaming global warming. He has commented on many worldwide issues, and apparently has a reading list the includes the leftist writer Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter’s recent book on the Palestinians. But as noted by Lawrence Wright, who wrote a book on bin Laden, “It’s a little galling to hear bin Laden lecturing on flood relief when Al Qaeda has never done any socially constructive work, but has only sowed chaos.”

4, In the New York section, a beautiful Sunday Routine Q&A with 91-year-old folk legend Pete Seeger, who offers advice on cooking omelets, making salads (“almost a religious experience”), chopping wood (“It’s in our DNA to go ‘whack’ “) and how “It’s very important to learn to talk to people you disagree with.”

5, In Sunday Styles we meet the actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the starched ad salesman Peter Campbell in the AMC show Mad Men. Kartheiser is quite the interesting fellow, living in LA without a car. He uses public transportation. “They’ve done a study and they’ve found that people under 30 no longer view cars as status symbols or even positive things,” he says. “They look at them as pollutants.”

6, The wrong version of the most-talked about novel of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, was accidentally released in Britain last week. Apparently, an early draft of the book was used, rather than the acclaimed finished product that much of America has been reading.

7, Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who over the years has won my trust with some prescient observations, predicts that a serious third-party presidential candidate, backed by a serious third party, will emerge in 2012, He’s not talking Tea Party. “I know of at least two serious groups,” he writes, “one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing ‘third parties’ to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.” This revolution is not from the left or the right, but from what he calls “the radical center.”

8, Columnist Frank Rich is laughing along with the rest of us at the Republican candidate for the Senate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, “a bottomless trove of baldfaced lies, radical views and sheer wackiness.” But, he warns, this may be obscuring more-dangerous truths that need to be understood as the next election nears. Namely, who are all of these unnamed benefactors contributing millions of dollars, each, to conservative reactionaries like the Tea Party? O’Donnell, he writes, “just may be the final ingredient needed to camouflage a billionaire’s coupe as a populist surge.”

9, On facing pages, the Book Review asks the same question of two presidential biographies: Do we need another book on these guys? The answer is yes, because Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life are so well written. The common thread between these two legendary presidents, and these biographies, is how these men reacted to their times. Lincoln, who initially had no interest in freeing slaves, and saw blacks as inferior, was molded by his times to see otherwise on both counts. George Washington “didn’t just learn from events; he shaped them to his own purposes.”

10, Interesting profile of Glenn Beck on the cover of The Times magazine. The conservative mouthpiece comes off as an opportunist, shifting with the broadcasting winds as he leverages the best route to his next goal. His ideas do not seem particularly notable; they’re just bumper-sticker opinions and conspiracy theories cut from different sources and pasted together in an incomprehensible collage. Jon Stewart is quoted, a comment he made about Beck, back when Beck was still on CNN, and that evaluation still stands. “Finally,” Stewart said, “a guy who says what people who aren’t thinking are thinking.”  The story also notes that Beck rarely gives interviews. That must be a fairly recent development. In the last five years, I’ve turned down two offers to interview Beck, back when he was touring auditoriums with kind of a “Support the Troops, Liberals Aren’t Americans” style of show.  I told Beck’s publicist both times, anyone who calls the widows of 9/11 victims “tragedy whores” would have to draw his crowds without my support.

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