Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Aug. 19

Today’s coffee is Burundi. First music of the day: The Margaret Explosion.

1, “At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of  China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electronic shavers. That is the old way,” The Times reports from Drachten, The Netherlands. “At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous humans…. This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution.”

2, More from the Brave New World: A handful of new companies are specializing in “predictive consumer analytics,” or the e-score. “These digital scores, known broadly as consumer evaluation or buying-power scores, measure our potential value as consumers,” The Times Sunday Business section reports. Unlike your credit score, you can’t get your e-score. Algorithms calculate a consumer’s number, and “banks, credit and debit card providers, insurers and online educational institutions are using these scores to choose whom to woo on the web.”

3, A saxophonist who I’ve never heard of, Von Freeman, has died at age 88. Fame came late to Freeman. “His work had a daring elasticity, with deliberately off-kilter phrasing that made it sound like speech,” The Times writes in the Chicago tenor player’s obituary. “He cherished roughness and imperfection, although, as critics observed, he could play a ballad with the best of them. Where some listeners faulted him for playing out of tune, others praised him for exploiting a chromatic range far greater than the paltry 12 notes the Western musical scale offers. ‘Don’t tune up too much, baby,’ Mr. Freeman once told a colleague. ‘You’ll lose your soul.'”

4, Dance critic Alastair MaCaulay strips the artsy facade from provocative nudity in dance. “This June, at the climactic moment of Paquerette, an hour-long duet at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn (part of the Queer New York Festival),” he writes, “Cecelia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud, after removing what few garments they had been wearing, inserted dildos up their backsides and kept them there for perhaps 10 minutes. The only dance moment of note occurred when, side by side, each held a balance on one foot while using the sole of the raised foot to hold the dildo in place.”  MaCaulay calls the performance “irksomely coy, along aren’t-we-being-bold-and-don’t-you-love-us-for-it lines.”

5, Bobak Ferdowski, flight director for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, is the accidental Internet celebrity scientist known as “The Mohawk Guy.” One of his cultural recommendations is Thrilling Adventure Hour, a podcast which he compares to “an old-time radio show. There’s a variety of shows within the podcast. One of them takes place on Mars. ‘The Nerdist’ is also a podcast hosted by guys who have interests similar to mine – sci-fi and technology. I’m not sure what the definition of a nerd is. Historically it could have been perjorative but now I think society is more embracing of people that might have more science-y or unorthodox interests.”

6, This headline on The Times lead editorial says it all: “Truth and Lies About Medicare: Don’t Believe Most of What Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan Are saying.”

7, Also on that page, an essay by Lawrence Downes notes the approach of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, but laments the soft image we’re being presented of the protest singer. He writes that “under the saintly folk hero has always been an angry vigilante – a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser who liked to eviscerate his targets, sometimes with violent imagery…. He wrote hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people.” Downes is dismayed that Republicans such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (a Bruce Springsteen fan who is also an enthusiastic union buster) and Paul Ryan (a Rage Against the  Machine fan who believes in cutting humanitarian services while escalating military spending) are apparently not listening to the words that castigate their positions. “It’s hard to be a troubadour with dangerous ideas,” Downes writes, “if people refuse to be challenged or offended by them.”

8, In the magazine, professional book critic Dwight Garner explains why it’s important for critics to be mean. So that we can start arguments, and get to the truth of the matter: Is this thing any good? Garner refers to an essay by Jacob Silverman on the web site Slate, which condemns Twitter as a “mutual admiration society” for writers, a world in which “all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.” The biggest problem I have with Garner’s essay is, his best idea is actually someone else’s idea. Got anything new for us, sir?

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 15

A steamy, humid morning. The kitchen is overflowing with the detritus of last night’s dinner party. Ugh. The coffee? All I have is that generic stuff. First music of the day: A Donovan collection. Remember, you can follow me on Twitter at @jeffspevak1.  Not that I have anything to say.

1, “U.S. Is Building Criminal Cases In Rate-Fixing” is the lead story of the day. Charges are expected to be filed later this year by authorities in Washington and London against banks and individuals who manipulated interest rates during the world financial crisis.

2, In the magazine, and “The One-Page Magazine” page, a one-sentence book review of Scott Reynolds Nelson’s A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters that’s shorter than the book title. “We have hardly ever had a well-functioning banking system.”

3, The Food and Drug Administration was spying on its own scientists – at first just five suspected of collaborating with Congressional officials, outside medical experts and journalists. The FDA’s goal was to quell criticism of the agency’s procedures, particularly concerns that some approved medical equipment, including scanners for mammograms, exposed patients to high levels of radiation. “The agency, using so-called spy software designed to help employers monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home,” The Times writes. “The software tracked their keystrokes, intercepted their personal e-mails, copied the documents on their personal thumb drives, and even followed their messages line by line as they were being drafted….” Alarmed, the White House told FDA administrators last month that it must operate within whistle-blower protection guidelines. That warning appears to have come too late. Some scientists who were dismissed by the FDA claim they were let go in retaliation for their whistle-blowing activities, and have filed lawsuits.

4, Joining the mountain of evidence that climate change is altering the face of the planet are the mountains themselves. Thirty-four people in the U.S. alone have died in avalanches since November. “The extremes are becoming more extreme,” says a mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park.

5, In the Sunday Review, we find more on the effect that man has on the planet and nature support system: “ecosystem services,” the biologists call it. “AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme Disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades,” says science writer Jim Robbins, “don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.” Our increasing encroachment on natural wildlife  habitats increases the likelihood of disease infecting the human species.

6, Brian McFadden’s political cartoon, The Strip, digs into voter disenfranchisement, with one panel lampooning the screenings that some segments of society – the poor and minorities, mainly – will be subjected to. “But fear not fellow Republicans!” says a guy who looks like Florida Governor Rick Scott. “The test will not reveal your Super-PAC donors. Adds another old white pol, “We respect their privacy.”

7, “Are Parents Too Involved?” asks Stephanie Coontz in an essay on parents who orchestrate  their children’s lives after college and beyond. Depends on the circumstances, Coontz writes; it’s certainly more costly for children to build a separate life these days. But the real damage, she says, may be that kids who have wealthy helicopter parents have an unfair and even dangerous advantage over the rest of us. “The academic achievement gap between low- and high-income children has increased over the last 40 years, as has the gap in rates of college entry and completion,” she writes. ” The arms race among high-income parents often does turn their children into winners. But society as a whole loses.”

8, “That device in your purse or your jeans that you think is a cellphone – guess again,” write Peter Maass and Megha Rajagopalan, two reporters specializing in digital privacy. “It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let’s stop calling them phones. They are trackers.” According to Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado, “Every year, private companies spend millions of dollars developing new services that track, store and share the words, movements and even the thoughts of their customers. These invasive services have proved irresistible to consumers, and millions now own sophisticated tracking devices (smartphones) studded with sensors and always connected to the Internet.”

9, In an editorial, The Times scoffs at conservatives who continue to insist that the answer to America’s energy needs is “Drill baby drill.” After noting that states such as California and Maine will not welcome the kind of rampant drilling of Republican dreams, The Times writes, “The deeper Republican fraud is the idea that a country with only two percent of the world’s oil reserves – and a daily appetite for more than one-fifth of the world’s oil production – can drill its way to energy independence.”

10, Japanese manufacturers  import cars to to our shores via box-like ships like the Andromeda Leader. It looks less like a ship an a floating warehouse, two football fields long, carrying 8,500 cars on 13 decks. The journey from  Japan to Jacksonville, Fla., at 17 to 19 knots, takes 28 days. The NYK Line, one of several operating between the two countries, has 120 ships similar to its Andromeda Leader. And there are other lines. When these ships return to Japan, they are empty. A dramatic illustration of the world trade imbalance.

11, While on the subject of imports, outrage hit these shores this week when it was revealed that the Ralph Lauren outfits to be worn by the U.S. Olympic team were manufactured in China. But the last couple of Lauren designs for U.S. Olympians were also manufactured offshore, while for a decade before that the U.S. teams were dressed by the Canadian company Roots, mostly without public outcry. This could all be avoided, The Times notes, if the teams were “to go back to the ancient tradition of competing in the buff.” Nice idea, until the  gymnasts get to the uneven parallel bars.

12, “The Plain of Jars” in Laos bears the scars of American carpet bombing during the Vietnam War. And the imprint of a forgotten Iron Age civilization that littered the landscape with hundreds of stone jars, some thigh-high, others 10 feet tall. Like the Easter Island statues, they were made elsewhere and brought to where they now stand, silent, refusing to bear witness to who created them, and for what purpose.

13, An improved version of the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers is out on DVD and Blu-Ray. The Times muses over whether this film is about pod people taking over the planet or is actually about McCarthyism and the fear of standing up to that evil. Your choice. But the latter resonates today when Kevin McCarthy says “I’ve seen how people allow their humanity to drain away. We harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is.”

14, The 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth on July 14 came with a reminder that his best-known song. “This Land is Your Land,” originally featured lyrics that you didn’t sing in elementary school, but that enjoyed a resurgence at Occupy encampments throughout the county:

There was a high wall there

That tried to stop me

A sign was posted that said ‘Private Property’

But on the other aside it didn’t say nuthin’

That sign was made for you and me

15, In the Book Review we learn that Guthrie wrote a novel, still unpublished, despite acolytes such as Bob Dylan praising its genius. House of Earth refers to the adobe houses that Guthrie became fascinated with in the Dust Bowl of the ’30s, where a man could build himself a home of mud if he set his mind to it. But it also has themes of greedy capitalists against the little guy trying fight the forces of nature in the scorched Texas Panhandle. “Today, Texas is in the midst of a prolonged drought; global warming is a scientific fact; and wildfires, blizzards and tornadoes increasingly ravage the American landscape,” write essayists Douglas Brinkley (who wrote the new biography Cronkite) and Johnny Depp (yes, the actor). “The unerring rightness of adobe living is now more apparent than ever. It’s almost as if Guthrie had written House of Earth with the summer of 2012 in mind.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 8

Today’s coffee is an unfortunate generic brand. I forgot to pick up something good at the market from Joe. First music of the day: Paco de Lucia En Vivo, a live set by by the renowned Spanish classical guitarist. And remember, social mediates, you can now follow me on  Twitter, @jeffspevak1.

1, So we were all worried about Super-PACS, the Political Action Committees that grew out of the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision that allows corporations to give unlimited contributions to their favorite political causes and candidates. Republicans, mostly. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.” Turns out those people, the corporations, are a step ahead of us. “Instead, there is growing evidence that large corporations are trying to influence campaigns through another route,” The Times reports in its lead story. “Donating money to tax-exempt organizations that can spend millions of dollars without being subject to the disclosure requirements that apply to parties, candidates and PACs.”

2, Mitt Romney is in the Hamptons at a Republican fundraiser being hosted today by the conservative billionaire industrialist David Koch. The cost: $75,000 a couple. I’m betting newly married Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank and his husband aren’t invited to this one.

3, The Sunday Styles section expands on this notion, with Barack Obama skipping the Hamptons fundraising circuit in order to emphasize the difference between the two candidates; you won’t get John Kerry and Jimmy Buffett playing “Brown Eyed Girl” together while celeb chef Daniel Boulud prepars them bacon-wrapped Montauk tuna (at least Kerry was a leader in the locavore movement). But the Republican soires won ‘t have star power either. “There’s enough interest in  stopping Obama,” said one Romney spokesman, “that you don’t need to hire entertainment and celebrity chefs.” Certainly it should be enough to hang out for a day at Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman’s estate, called by one tree-society bulletin “the eighth wonder of the horticultural world” and “the most outstanding private conifer collection the United States, a living work of art.” Romeny’s three Hamptons parties this weekend are expected to net his campaign $3 million.

4, “Dr. Gabriel Nahas, Marijuana Opponent, Dies at 92,” The Times headline reports. “Dr. Nahas saw his anti-drug campaign as nothing less than a continuation of the fight against totalitarianism,” the obit says, “which for him began during World War II as a decorated leader of the French Resistance; like totalitarianism, he believed, drugs enslaved the mind.” While many of Dr. Nahas’ medical findings – marijuana users display chromosome abnormalities – were disputed at the time, and still are, his anti-drug reputation resonated with many conservatives. “In the 1970s,” The Times writes, “he marshaled his newly public persona to sign newspaper advertisements criticizing opponents of the Vietnam War.”

5, International cheese authority Daphne Zepos has passed away from lung cancer at age 52. A writer up to her elbows in the cheese industry, Zepos campaigned hard on behalf of artisanal cheese in this country, The Times noting that her husband “said she might invoke Homer, Mark Rothko, the soul music of Stax/Volt Records and the pianist Glenn Gould in a single blissful breath.”  The Times also notes that Zepos was “a gerontologist of cheese. More precisely, she was an affineur, as someone who oversees the aging of cheese to its exquisite, carefully calibrated pinnacle is known.” As her editor at The Atlantic magazine said, “She loved looking at the light in your eyes when she put a piece of cheese in your mouth.”

6, In the Travel section, we learn about sidetour.com, where you can pay for one-of-a-kind New York City tour experiences that “include authors, artists, musicians, professional chefs, bartenders and restauranteurs, a farmer, a monk, a concert pianist and a handbag designer.” A 1 1/2-hour conversation at the Core Club with the jazz musician David Sanborn will set you back $200, but you can have drinks at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill or 1 1/2 hours with a Rolling Stone journalist for only $20.

7, London is experiencing a beer renaissance, a need that I was unaware of. I figured London always had craft beers aplenty, but in 2006 it had just seven working breweries. “It used to be the worst beer city in Britain,” says one pub owner. That number has since tripled. Civilization moves on.

8, According to a Princeton University study, the household standard for comfortable living in the United States is $75,000 a year, after which “the beneficial aspects of money tapered off entirely.”

9, In the Sunday Review, Brian McFadden’s comic strip, The Strip, nails lazy journalism. One panel is labeled “Trend Spotting,”  and shows a reporter hovering over her laptop and urged to “Write a trend piece about the first thing you see” as a woman holding balloons walks by. “Balloons: Summer’s Hip New Accessory.”

10, Lamenting the incorrect reporting that followed seconds – and weeks later, still – the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, University of San Diego law professor Frank Portnoy blames our rush to judgments. “E-mail, social media and the 24-hour news cycle are informational amphetamines,” he writes, “a cocktail of pills that we pop at an increasingly fast pace – and that leads us to make mistaken split-second decisions.”

11, The candidates for president are a little leaky with their history. When Obama points to Americans working together to accomplish great things in the past, such as building the Interstate highway system, he’s overlooking how contentious those projects were, a couple of history scholars write in the Sunday Review. And when Romney says the Founding Fathers were against gay marriage, stop and think: When did Washington or Jefferson ever address that issue? Did gay marriage ever even cross their minds?

12, Columnist Timothy Egan writes of events such as last week’s Colorado wildfires: “In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a special report of ‘unprecedented extreme weather and climate events’ to come. The events are here, though the skeptics now running the Republican Party deny the obvious, in large part because they are paid to deny the obvious.”

13, In the magazine, Sam Anderson has written an awesome piece on LeBron James. It spends a great deal of time with his exploits at the Greece Olympics in the 5th century B.C., as a Roman gladiator and then a 16th-century Aztec ullamaliztli player before arriving at his NBA career. James looks like “a sack of melons” Anderson writes, his face “a theater of strange beards and scowls.” Anderson uncovers a useful word – “uglyphine” – to describe James, “the paradoxical zone of attractiveness where beauty and ugliness meet.” Now that’s sportswriting.

14, It’s startling to hear the competitive Walker Cronkite described as “ruthless” when it came to competing with TV colleagues. Otherwise, he comes off quite as you’d expect in MSNBC host Chris Matthews’ review of Douglas Brinkley’s Cronkite. No subtitle needed on this book.

15, In My Cross the Bear, Gregg Allman describes the peak of the Allman Brothers Band’s success, and getting on the new private jet to find “Welcome Allman  Bros” written in cocaine on the bar. By his estimate, Allman was in rehab 18 times before it took. Happy at last, with a new liver, reviewer David Kirby says Allman’s last words are “I don’t know if I’d do it all again.”

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