I read the Sunday New York Times so you don’t have to: Sept. 9
Today’s coffee comes from an unmarked bag that I found in the back of the freezer yesterday. First music of the day: jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon.
1, In its lead story today, the Times writes “If there is a road to a happy ending in Afghanistan, much of the path may run underground: in the trillion-dollar reservoir of natural resources – oil, gold, iron ore, copper, lithium and other minerals – that has brought hopes of a more self-sufficient country, if only the wealth can be wrestled from the blood-soaked soil.” Alas, for the Afghans, there is no infrastructure within the country, such as proper roads, that will allow these resources to be mined. The potential is dogged by “corruption, violence and intrigue,” and may fuel civil conflict in the years to come. I don’t doubt that, along with the sport of chasing the Taliban around the mountain passes, those natural resources are also a reason for our continued presence there.
2, My pessimism is confirmed in the Book Review. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War For Afghanistan is described by Linda Robertson as “a beautifully written and deeply reported account of how a divided United States government and its dysfunctional bureaucracy have foiled American efforts abroad, this time to suppress the Taliban insurgency and bring stability to Afghanistan. It tells a story of political foibles, overtly ambitious goals and feckless Afghans and Americans. The United States seems condemned to lurch between disastrous quick fixes and unrealistic visions of remaking countries overnight in its own image, never finding a middle road. No doubt most readers of this book will come away with the conclusion that our principal enemy in all this is ourselves.”
3, And again in the Book Review, there’s this comment by reviewer Alan Brinkley on Frederik Longevall’s Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the making of America’s Vietnam, regarding the French military disaster preceding America’s own involvement: “In 1959, there weren’t many in Washington who imagined they would make the same mistakes the French had made. For a time, the Americans believed they could stabilize the new South Vietnam. But only a few years later, they slowly began to realize that they were entering their own quagmire.”
4, A Stanford University study on organic food “concluded that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food,” The Times reports. “But it also found that organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides, fewer food-borne pathogens and more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer.” If that sounds like a bit of a contradiction, confusion seems to reign in the organic-food debate. “It’s not cheap,” a women tells The Times in defense of her preference for organic food. “But the big thing for me is I don’t like the pesticides and the chemicals they use to grow things like those monster red peppers. They’re too perfect.” Organic fans say the interpretations of the study are too hung up on nutrients. “They want food from healthy soil, and they want a direct line between the grocer and their food,” one small-scale farmer says. “Taste is up there, too.” Adds another organic customer, “Taste is what’s going to get us to eat seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day. To not consider taste and quality in the whole discussion is to completely miss the point about food.”
5, Architectural designer John H. Locke has been temporarily converting New York City telephone booths into free lending libraries. Locke has designed a set of lightweight shelves that fit inside the booths. He then fills the shelves with used books and, cautiously, curiously, people begin taking books. Locke checks on them from time to time. Generally, the books, and then the shelves themselves, disappear within a week or two. Observing the action at one re-purposed booth, The Times reports that “in large part, the bookshelf served to highlight New Yorkers’ ability to ignore anything in their paths. Mr. Locke said he was impressed that for each person who seemed to notice the bookshelf, at least a dozen walked by completely oblivious.”
6, Singing songs like “You’re a Pink Toothbrush,” “What Noise Annoys an Oyster” and “You Need Hands,” the British comedian Max Bygraves opened for Judy Garland on her tours of the United States in the early 1950s and sold millions of singalong records in post-World War II Britain in the 1960s and ’70s. He performed with Jack Benny and Dinah Shore, appeared opposite a ventriloquist’s dummy on BBC radio and had some movie roles. One of those entertainers we don’t know by name, but if you saw an old film clip of his “smart-aleck humor, Cockney charm and myriad rendition of easy-listening hits,” as The Times defines Bygraves’ style, you might remember him, or perhaps the vaudevillian style of entertainment from which he descended. Or perhaps not. Byrgaves died on Aug. 31 in Australia, and as The Times obituary notes, the singer-comedian complained during a 1999 interview that he’d entered a Max Bygraves impersonation contest and finished fifth.
7, Today’s Times is bursting with a massive, exhausting, three-section fall arts preview. One interesting thing: Starting Monday with a preview of the event, on Tuesday through Saturday your PBS station will present the entire 16 hours of Wagner’s The Ring cycle. It’s the controversial $16 million production presented at the Metropolitan Opera 2010-11 season, and featured a set simply called “The Machine,” which the Times describes as “24 rotating planks that twisted into staircases and walls and threatened to grind everything to a halt.” Actor Deborah Voigt, who played Bruunhilda, actually fell off the thing during one performance.
8, Winslow Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck, Maine, is now open to tourists, who can see where he created many of his moody seascapes. Visitors can also see the sign Homer posted to keep tourists from tramping around on his rocky coastline: “Snakes, snakes and mice.”
9, Back to the Book Review where, in reviewing Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, Marilyn Stasio writes that author Ginger Stroud, “draws startling parallels between the inexorable advance of the Interstate System and the proliferation of killers who were pathologically stimulated by that l0ng, open road.” Stroud’s thesis suggests that highway killers (Charlie Starkweather, Ted Bundy) are a continuation of the romanticized American criminal that has included train robbers, gangsters and mobsters. “In 2009, the FBI undertook its Highway Serial Killings Initiative to coordinate investigations in hundreds of unsolved highway murders in its databank,” Stasio writes. ” The map issued by the initiative, indicating bodies clustered at transfer roads all along the interstate network, looks like the MRI of an advanced case of arterial disease.”
10, I suspected as much: In the magazine, a story of weather forecasting reports, “In what may be the worst-kept secret in the business. numerous commercial weather forecasts are also biased toward forecasting more precipitation than will actually occur. (In the business, this is known as the wet bias.) For years, when the Weather Channel said there was a 20 percent chance of rain, it only rained about 5 percent of the time.” They did this because, “People don’t mind when a forecaster predicts rain and it turns out to be a nice day.”