Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The Critical Mass

I hate Jackie’s new friend

My friend Jackie’s Christmas Day potato pierogies were awesome. She’d also spent the day watching a couple of the big Christmastime epics. No, we’re not talking Elf. This was Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Jackie may be Jewish, but she’s really into the holiday. As an educator at one of our top institutions, she mused, “I wonder how many of those Bible epics they made?”

“Depends on how broad your parameters are,” I said. “Ben-Hur is about chariot racing.”

She ignored me and turned to her new friend for an authoritative answer. As she has been doing for what seems like the past year. The new friend who knows everything. You know how annoying they are.

But this time, no. “Argh!” she wailed. “I can’t get on your WiFi!”

Indeed, Jackie’s new best friend, her iPad, was at a loss for words. Finally. And I was damn happy about it. Maybe I’m jealous, but I’m getting fed up with Jackie including that thing in every conversation, as though it were a real person. It’s dominating the Saturday afternoon gatherings at Java’s at the Market. It always remembers to bring the pictures from the latest trip to Jerusalem. It always knows what goes into a classic fruitcake. It always knows where to find her husband John.

Bible epics? “Why don’t you just ask us?” I said.

Spartacus!” Dick suggested.

“Yeah,” I said. “How about Davey and Goliath?”

But no, her old friends were not good enough. The answer had to come from a Higher Authority. The Internet.

Here’s what you can find on the Internet. Obama was born in Kenya. Death panels. The 9/11 government conspiracy. Anchor babies. Bigfoot. Archaeologists have uncovered a cemetery for extraterrestrials in Africa. The Apollo moon landings were faked. Tim Tebow is God’s quarterback. Sarah Palin’s son Trig is actually her daughter’s baby. The War on Christmas. The ACLU wants to ban crosses from Arlington National Cemetery. Jon Bon Jovi is dead. Michael Jackson is not dead. Need a recipe on how to deep fry a cat? JFK was shot by… well, at least a half-dozen different groups.  Jersey Shore‘s Snooki says the ocean is salty because its full of whale sperm.

Jackie, your new best friend is a liar.

The Critical Mass

The dim bulbs of Congress

Republicans had a bright idea: Tuesday night, they orchestrated a vote in the House of Representatives calling for repeal of light-bulb efficiency standards that will take effect at the beginning of 2012. Their argument was that these regulations were an assault on liberties dating back to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson may have been ambivalent about the slavery issue, but we can say with a great deal of certainty that he never envisioned a future in which the government could tell you how to illuminate your home.

“This is about more than just energy consumption, it is about personal freedom,” said Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas yahoo who helped sponsor the bill. “Voters sent us a message in November that it is time for politicians and activists in Washington to stop interfering in their lives and manipulating the free market. The light bulb ban is the perfect symbol of that frustration. People don’t want congress dictating what light fixtures they can use.”

We have regulations for supermarket meat. We have regulations for jet airline engine maintenance, and how much explosive gas can be present where coal miners are working, or how many lead-paint chips their kids are allowed to eat. Cars have to be inspected, so that we know the guy barreling toward you in the opposite lane of a rain-slick highway isn’t riding on bald tires. We even have regulations for rating movies, so that the children living in Joe Barton’s district aren’t exposed to too much pornography, lest they get too many crazy ideas in their heads

It’s a regulated world. Societies have to make decisions about what’s right, otherwise chemical companies would still be dumping toxic waste in the most-convenient river.

And in a planet where energy consumption is literally draining the life from the earth, it’s irresponsible for the United States to not take steps to reduce its role as the consumer of one fourth of the world’s energy.

And according to Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, the new standards don’t even specifically ban incandescent bulbs, so Barton’s wrong there. The new rules are technology-neutral, and more-efficient incandescent bulbs have already been developed and are available today. It’s the same as telling the auto industry that it had to produce cars that get better gas mileage.

It’s estimated that the new standards would save the country billions of dollars per year, perhaps $6 billion by 2015 alone. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, estimates that Americans’ energy costs would drop by an average of 7 percent, or about $85 per household every year. Nationwide savings would be more than $12.5 billion annually by 2020, when the new standards are fully in place.

Wiser heads prevailed, and the bill failed to pass. But the kooky ideas will be back. This wasn’t really about light it was about two things. It was about creating another fake issue, which Republicans prefer working on, rather than tackling tough issues like debt, jobs and wars. And it’s about trying to create an atmosphere favorable for de-regulation. Gotta protect those oil companies and banks from scrutiny.

Conservative political candidates are big into signing pledges these days. Anti-tax pledges. Anti-gay marriage pledges. They’re anti-pro choice. Anti-universal health care. Anti-clean energy.  It’s as if they’ve all signed pledges to not move into the 21st century.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 31

This morning’s coffee was imported from Mexico, which you may interpret as a statement on immigration policy if you wish. First music of the day, the Debussy opera Pelleas et Melisande. It’s in French. The dog is chewing on a rawhide bone from Brazil.

1, In a front page dominated by analysis of the upcoming election on Tuesday (same stuff you’ve been reading for weeks), Page 1 shares a little space with this story: The first sign of Alzheimer’s disease is often “Unexplained Debt and Creditors’ Calls,” resulting from “an inability to understand money and credit, contracts and agreements.”  Remember that, as well, when casting your vote on Tuesday.

2, After the discovery of what appears to be two bombs on planes from Yemen, and bound for the United States, “White House officials do not want to look as if they are seizing on a potential catastrophe to win votes,” The Times writes. “But at the same time, they remember when President Obama was criticized when he said nothing publicly in the three days after an attempt to blow up an airliner on Dec. 25.” You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

3, I do not own a cell phone. It’s endorsing mediocre technology and communication. In the magazine this week, in a piece called “Funeral For a Friend,” Virginia Heffernan voices what we’ve lost as and lines dwindle.  “Your phone voice was distinctive; your phone manner was distinctive. You thought a great deal about people who rhythmically and mysteriously inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke while they talked, or left long silences or didn’t hang up immediately after saying good-bye.”

4, An elementary school in Los Angeles, which Michael Jackson briefly attended, has removed the plywood obscuring the name on Michael Jackson Auditorium. The support to reveal the sign, covered up seven years ago after Jackson’s arrest on child-abuse charges, was nearly unanimous in the community. One dissenting voice has come from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Already it’s extraordinarily hard for sexually violated kids to come forward,” said the network’s director. “When we honor accused pedophiles, especially one as high profile as Michael Jackson, it risks intimidating even more victims.”

5, The Sunday Styles section, in a story headlined “The Great Unwashed,” describes a movement whose devotees do not shower or wash their hair daily, and do not use deodorant.  “We don’t need to wash the way we did when we were farmers,” says Katherine Ashenberg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. According to The Times, “Retention of the skin’s natural oils and water conservation are two reasons.” Researchers may be coming around to this idea as well, noting the skin holds many beneficial germs.”

6, The Week in Review ponders why, as millions of dollars from Wall Street, corporate America and special interests  pour into Republican campaigns, President Obama – raised by a single mom who sometimes had to resort to food stamps to feed her family – is portrayed as an elitist. “The elitism argument is kind of a false one because the president talks about people’s economic interests and middle-class families,” The Times quotes Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, who apparently advises Obama (It’s been my experience, in watching Obama during this campaign, does do exactly that). “And those that are supporting Republican candidates right now – because they think they’ll look out for their interests – are going to be very surprised when they find out what the corporate sponsorship of that party is buying.”

7, On that note, in an editorial, The Times notes that nearly $4 billion is likely to be spent on the midterm elections. By contrast, it’s estimated that $2.85 billion was spent n the 2006 midterms.  “Much of this is a direct creation,” The Times writes, “of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., which has cut away nearly all campaign finance restrictions.”

8, In another editorial, “It is past time to pull the plug on the ‘virtual fence’ that the federal government has been trying to erect on the border with Mexico,” The Times writes. A $7.6 billion project that began with the Bush administration, it’s an overwhelmed piece of non-functioning technology that mistakes tumbleweed for illegal immigrants. “So long as there is a demand for cheap labor, a hunger for better jobs here, and almost no legal way to get in,” The Times writes, “people will keep finding ways around any fence, virtual or not.”

9, Columnist Frank Rich, quoting many old-line Republicans, notes that Tea Party candidates who win on Tuesday will quickly be incorporated into the Republican Party. The greatest service that the Tea Party is providing, Rich writes, it allowing Republican candidates to hide from the massive failures of the Bush administration. By the time the next presidential election rolls around, “the equally disillusioned right and left may have a showdown that makes this election year look as benign as Woodstock.”

10, Thomas L. Friedman notes that while India is thriving in the new economic environment that was launched by American innovations such as what was happening in Silicon Valley more than two decades ago, the U.S. is standing still, and poised to go in reverse. “The U.S. seems sadly unprepared to take advantage of the revolution it has spawned,” he says one Indian editor writes in Businessworld magazine. “The country’s worn-out infrastructure, failing education system and lack of political consensus have prevented it from riding a new wave to prosperity.”

11, It is astonishing the degree to which we are distanced from the events of the world. Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, a fine book about Civil War re-enactors, notes that Nov. 6 will be the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, Horwitz writes, 75 percent of eligible southern men served in the military, more than 60 percent of northern men did so. One out of three southern men died in the war. The public saw gruesome testimony of the war through battlefield photos of the dead brought to them by this new invention, photography. “We’re spared this discomfort today,” Horwitz writes, “with the American dead from two ground wars air brushed from public view.”

12, The Pee-wee Herman comeback is real. The Pee-wee Herman Show opens Nov. 11 on Broadway, and advance sales are reported to be “solid.”

13, In a review of Grant Wood: A Life, Deborah Solomon describes Wood’s most-famous work as “a pale, homely farming pair posed in front of their white house, looking as if their dog had just died.” That’s as fine a summary of “American Gothic” as I’ve ever read. R. Tripp Evans’ summary of Woods’ life seems equally interesting. A strange, taciturn, incoherent man who lived with his widowed mother, always misplacing his keys and wallet, addicted to sugar to the point that he’d sprinkle it on lettuce. The painter’s brief marriage, described as “calamitous,” to a light-opera singer 10 years older that he prompts Evans to postulate that Wood was a repressed homosexual, but the evidence suggests merely a repressed human.

14, I was puzzled by Lee Siegel’s “Beat Generations” Oct. 10 essay in the Book Review, which suggested that Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac and Tea Party chanteuse Sarah Palin had more in common than is immediately evident. In a letter to the editor, Seton Hall professor of English Jeffrey Gray found what troubled me. “Presenting the Tea Party as hip bohemia obscures the fact that what the Beats ushered in, in the 1950s, was the beginning of the end from a Tea Party standpoint,” he wrote. “Rejection of capitalism; flight from jobs and family in pursuit of mystical or sexual ecstasy; fascination with ethnic others; experimentation with illegal substances; and general descent into hell in a handbasket.”

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