Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times so you don’t have to: June 10

Today’s coffee is from the island of Java. The first music of the day: birds singing outside the open windows after the early morning rain.

1, In this poor economy, unemployed people in their 60s are being forced to turn to Social Security much sooner than they’d planned. About 200,000 more people than expected filed initial claims in the last two years which will, of course, place a greater strain on that entitlement program. And when Republicans blame people for not working, we have to gently remind them: Congress must pass the jobs legislation that they are blocking. People want the opportunity to live to their full potential, and the country will benefit from  that. “I would rather be functioning and having a job somewhere,” says a 62-year-old California who lost her job as an executive ad assistant in 2008. “I really don’t enjoy living like this. I’ve got too much to do still.”

2, Monday is the 50th anniversary of the escape of three prisoners from Alcatraz. It is generally assumed that the three men – Frank Lee Morris (who had a genius IQ of 133) and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin – drowned in the attempt. Their battered raft, made from raincoats glued together, was found the next day on an Angel Island two miles away. But today’s story in The Times says that a 2011 National Geographic TV program “disclosed that footprints leading away from the raft had been found on Angel Island, and that contrary to official denial, a car had been stole nearby on the night of the escape.”

3, Speaking of enduring mysteries, Jane Mendelsohn, who years ago write a book called I Was Amerlia Earhart (she wasn’t claiming to be, she was simply inspired by the aviator) writes in the Sunday Review about the public’s fascination with her disappearance. Earhart’s in the news again as an expedition prepares to search for the remains of her plane on a Pacific island where someone found a broken jar that once carried the kind of face cream that Earhart used. And a old photo taken on that island years ago now looks to someone like a piece of the landing gear from her airplane. And radio signals long ago dismissed as either hoaxes or the product of freak weather have been re-analyzed and declared very likely to be distress signals that came from Earhart hours after her plane would have run out of fuel. “But did she really survive?” Mendelsohn writes. “I still don’t think it matters. We will always care and wonder about the things that vanish, the personal ones like a jar of face cream or our 20s, or the big ones like Amelia Earhart or the MF Global money, but what’s important is taking responsibility for our actions and for the things we’ve lost, even and especially if what we’ve lost is out own way.”

4, Just a reminder, in case you’re for or against Obama’s health care law, from an essay by Pam Belluck, a health reporter with The Times: “Most of the major elements of the Affordable Care Act have not taken effect, and would not until 2014.”

5, In an editorial, The Times warns, “If you wanted to reproduce the conditions that lead to the Great Recession in 2007, the easiest way would be the plan unveiled last week by House Republicans: gut the regulators who are supposed to keep the worst business practices in check.”

6, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, examined Google searches to determine if a decline in racial prejudice helped elect Barack Obama. His conclusion? Quite the opposite. “Racial animus cost Mr. Obama many more votes than we may have realized,” he writes. “A huge proportion of the searches I looked at were for jokes about African-Americans.” Depressingly,  Stephens-Davidowitz writes, “In 2008, Mr. Obama rode an unusally strong tail wind. The economy was collapsing. The Iraq war was unpopular. Republicans took most of the blame. He was able to overcome the major obstacle of continuing racial prejudice in the United States. In 2012, the tail wind is gone; the obstacle likely remains.”

7, Modern classical compositions, such as works by Philip Glass, offer a daunting problem: The electronics on which they are created quickly become outdated. So a Glass piece written for an electronic organ in 1978 will very likely sound different today because of improvements in the technology of the instrument. “Ligeti’s Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes (1962) should be the easiest of his scores to perform,” writes Allan Kozinn in the Arts & Leisure section. “All you have to do is wind up the 100 metronomes, start them at exactly the same time (OK, that is not so easy) and let them wind down until the last one stops. But try finding 100 wind-up metronomes these days.”

8, I lived in Texas for three years. I know what Gail Collins is talking about in her new book, As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. Texas politics does seem to have played a major role in destroying important financial and energy regulations, and has contributed characters to the debate – George W. Bush –  who weren’t up to the job of leadership. The Alamo and “the massacre of 189 stubborn white men,” as reviewer Lloyd Grove writes, is certainly a symbol of the Texas mindset. He points out a Collins comment that The Alamo reflects Texas as a state which is “at its best when there’s an enemy to rise up against. Outsized and brave. And frequently somewhat lunatic.”

9, In the magazine, we learn that, “According to a new study in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, failure to follow unwritten ‘Facebook friendship rules’ causes immediate, real-life defriending.” Please allow me to apologize now to all of you if my Facebook etiquette is lacking; but that comment defines exactly why I hold social media in such disdain.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: June 3

Rain: It’s a deluge this morning. The dog refuses to go out. She’d better not crap by the door. The coffee is from the island of Java. First music of the day: Jimmy Smith’s jazz organ.

1, The National Rifle Association always remains quiet whenever a gun crime leads the day’s newscasts, and last week’s killings in Seattle were no exception. A guy who’d been ejected from a coffee shop for erratic behavior returned with a .45 automatic, shot two people dead, both klezmer musicians, then murdered three people in a carjacking before killing himself. Seattle has had 21 gun homicides in the first five months of 2012, equal to all of last year. “If you look back to the shootings we’ve had this year and the prior year,” says Mayor Mike McGinn, “you can see many of them are related to the belief that it’s OK to carry a gun somewhere to solve a dispute.”

2, A debate simmers over the September 11 Memorial Museum, taking shape at the site of Ground Zero. “Everyone agrees that it is the museum’s job to tell the truth,” The Times writes. “The question, though, is how much truth. The museum has more than 4,000 artifacts, from a wedding band to a 15-ton composite of several floors that collapsed into a stack, like pancakes, and then fused together. There are photographs of men and women jumping out of the windows, burned and mutilated bodies, scattered and blood-soaked limbs, images so awful they tested the bounds of taste and appropriateness.” Also, the cockpit recorder from Flight 93, the jet that crashed into a Pennsylvania field, which “captured the hijackers’ last words and a flight attendant begging for her life.” As a museum exec says, “We have to transmit the truth without being absolutely crushed by it.” And, the museum’s initial plan to display photos of the 19 hijackers has been questioned. But as the site’s chief executive says, “You don’t create a museum about the Holocaust and not say it was the Nazis who did it.”

3, “What explains the ongoing literary bloodbath?” asks Jill LePore, musing in The Sunday Review over all of the vampire films and literature of the day. Evidently, there’s yet another film on the way, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. LePore explains it as “basically, Buffy in a stovepipe hat.” The film is based on a book by Seth Grahame-Smith, whose first book, LePore notes, was The Big Book of Porn. He followed up with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So it looks like this genre is a fusion of sex and refusing to let a good thing die a dignified death. LePore notes that the average age when Lincoln was president was 16, and life expectancy was under 40. Now, you have a fine chance of living past 80. “Dread of death, not love of sex, is why the dead keep rising,” LePore concludes.

4, Twenty-thousand species are considered a high risk for extinction. If that story unfolds, it would be a mass extinction rivaled only five times in the planet’s fossil record (Intelligent Design proponents may stop reading here). The last time was 65 million years ago, with the demise of the dinosaurs. Does it matter if we lose a frog here and there? “It is often forgotten,” writes scientist Richard Pearson, “how dependent we are on other species. Ecosystems of multiple species that interact with one another and their physical environments are essential for human societies. These systems provide food, fresh water and the raw materials for construction and fuel; they regulate climate and air quality; buffer against natural hazards like floods and storms; maintain soil fertility; and pollinate crops. The genetic diversity of the planet’s myriad different life forms provides he raw ingredients for new medicines and new commercial crops and livestock, including those that are better suited to conditions under a changed climate.”

5, From the Department of I Take It All Back: Gary Taubes, who has researched the question for decades writes, “the evidence published from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting how much salt we eat can increase our likelihood of dying early.”

6, Two psychologists – one from the University of Washington, one from Cornell – have determined that “Gaydar,” the ability to detect whether a person is gay, “is indeed real and that its accuracy is driven by sensitivity to individual facial features as well as the spatial relationships among facial features.”

7, In the Travel section, “Wi-Fi and Amtrak: Missed Connections” headlines a whiny story with rail passengers complaining about poor Internet connections on the train. They don’t know what to do with themselves! Should they, like, talk to each other?  “It’s a mandatory break from work, since I can’t connect,” concedes one passenger. “Maybe they are doing me a favor.”

8, Oh, no! It’s The Summer Reading edition of The Book Review! I don’t have time for this. I’ll set it aside and read, at my leisure, reviews of books on the New York Yankees, the making of Animal House and a comic book called Best of Enemies: A History of U.S.and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953. But I’ll peak at a review of two new books on Dylan and Springsteen, musicians who, reviewer Robin Finn writes, “outwitted the hype.” Finn points to a description drawn from Who is that Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan, in which author David Dolan describes Dylan as “some great galleon encrusted with barnacles, seaweed, old shoes, tin cans, condoms,” before conceding “the authentic American genius is a synthetic personality. They’re all hybrids, hence, inevitably charlatans.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: May 13

At 4:33 a.m., I heard the familiar coat-hanger-suspended muffler of my delivery guy creeping down the street, then the satisfying, heavy slap on the front stoop: The New York Times had arrived. And following a few weeks of time-consuming chaos that had altered all of my most-cherished routines, I was ready to read it.

1, The lead story opens with Kelsey Griffith, a 23-year-old who graduates today from Ohio Northern University, working two restaurant jobs to pay off a $120,000 college-loan debt at $900 a month. The numbers say that college grads will make more money over their lifetimes than those who don’t go on to higher education, yet they’re increasingly carrying life-crushing loans. And while Republicans insist they’re worried about saddling “our children and grandchildren” with national debt, they have no qualms about burdening the kids with a mountain of personal debt, as demonstrated by their decision last week to allow student-loan rates to rise precipitously. The Times story spends much time on Ohio colleges, and the recent actions of politicians such as Gov. John Kasich. According to the story, “There is an ideological and political tug of war as well. State Representative John Patrick Carney, a Democrat, said if legislators were serious about financing higher education they could find a way, like eliminating tax breaks for corporations. He noted that even as funds for higher education were being reduced, Mr. Kasich and the Republican-controlled Legislature eliminated the state’s estate tax, which will cost the state an estimated $7.2 million a year.”

2, Elmore Leonard is now officially irrelevant. “For years, it was a schedule as predictable as a calendar,” The Times writes in another front-page story. “Novelists who specialized in mysteries, thrillers and romance would write one book a year, output that was considered not only sufficient, but productive. The but the e-book age has accelerated the metabolism of book publishing. Authors are now pulling the literary equivalent of a double shift, churning out short stories, novellas or even an extra full-length book. They are trying to satisfy impatient readers  who have  become used to downloading any e-book they want at the touch of a button…. ”

3, As the Summer Olympics in London draws near, some residents of the city’s bleak public housing projects have been informed that their apartment buildings may be used as anti-terrorist posts. ” ‘It looked like one of those things where you get free pizzas through the post,’ Hilal Bozkurt said, describing the innocuous-looking leaflet that came through her mail slot recently. ‘But this was like, free missiles.’ Ms. Bozkurt said she did not think that a residential apartment building, even one made of concrete and built in the pugnacious Brutalist style of the 1960s, was a suitable place for a pop-up military base featuring surface-to-air weapons able to travel at three times the speed of sound and hit targets more than three miles away in less than eight seconds.”

4, In the Sunday Review, the smart political comic strip, The Strip, tackles Obama’s support of same-sex marriage with a killer final panel. “Oh No!” wails an elderly man, looking in a mirror at his bald, wrinkled, angry head. “I wasted my life obsessing over the lives of gay strangers!”

5, The Book Review tackles 808 pages of Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives. I’m not sure how you can leave out Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller but include Dick Francis, but let’s try: The future author of racetrack thrillers was in fact a jockey as a young man, and once had a horse collapse beneath him just yards from victory. The horse’s distress, according to author John Sutherland, was a case of gas “so explosive as to prostrate the unluckily flatulent beast.” And on to the typewriter you go, Mr. Francis.

6, Also in the Sunday Review, “A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are ‘clinical psychopaths,’ exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an ‘unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication and manipulation.’ (The proportion at large is one percent),” writes essayist William Deresiewicz. “Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law.” Deresiewicz then goes on to wonder why anyone is surprised by this. I am only surprised that the number is so low.

7, Oh, and how timely: In the magazine, the headline reads “Psychologists now believe fledgling psychopaths can be identified as early as kindergarten. The hope is to teach these kids empathy before it’s too late.” I’d read the story but, actually, it is too late.

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