Scott Simon

In the torrent of news this week, one line especially pierced me: "Interactions may be less positive when they become artificial."

It comes from researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and the Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Austria, who compared the vital signs of 28 cows as they were petted while listening to a live human voice, and those same cows being petted while they heard merely a recording. They published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

When the the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced this week, the hopes of many in Kenya were dashed — again — when author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o did not win.

Thiong'o is the country's most celebrated poet and playwright. Decades ago, he was jailed in Kenya for writing a play in Gĩkũyũ, his mother tongue, rather than in English.

A true reporter knows you don't have to venture to the other side of the world to find great stories. Look right in front of you.

Jim Dwyer was 19, and a Fordham student, when he saw a man on the ground, shaking on a sidewalk in the Bronx. He was having an epileptic seizure. Jim was among the strangers who stopped to try to help. But there were also people who passed by and muttered, "'junkie, 'scumbag,' that sort of thing," he later wrote for the student newspaper, The Fordham Ram.

A lot of Americans may wonder this morning: How could the president, of all people, come down with the coronavirus?

The President of the United States is often called the most powerful person in the world. They can cause armies to march and rockets to soar. They also can hear directly from some of the finest scientific and medical minds in the world. Presidents are surrounded by rings of highly-trained security guards, who protect them at all times.

"We live in times when it seems that it is enough to click, retweet or Like to do something good," Piotr Cywinski told us this week. "It is not."

Congress used to like to pass spending bills before an election. Representatives could return home to campaign and say, "Look what we did for you!"

But with 13.6 million people out of work, Congress may not pass a new coronavirus relief bill. Both parties may feel, in today's fractious politics, they can fire up their supporters best if they don't compromise, and blame the other party.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg adds another loss to a year that has already seen so many. 2020 has brought illness, isolation, financial struggles, and overwhelming fear. It's often felt like the hardest year many of us have ever known. And it's still months from being over.

But this weekend also begins 5781: it's Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. And that number – 5781 – may remind us that humanity has suffered other plagues, famines, losses, wars and disasters for centuries before 2020.

Simón Mejía and his band, Bomba Estereo, love to give their fans cause to party with their music. But after years of nonstop touring, as well as becoming a father, Mejía felt he needed a break. So he set out to reconnect with nature in his home country, Colombia.

The dreamscape of California has looked like a hellscape this week. California, America's Golden State — "Warm, palmy air — air you can kiss ..." wrote Jack Kerouac — has had choking air, scalding heat and surreal orange skies.

California has been the dreamland of so many who hope to strike it rich or start over, a state of mind, as well as a state: a place for fresh starts, freeways and free love.

In the new documentary All In: The Fight For Democracy, Stacey Abrams bears personal witness to the struggle to vote, from the experience of her own family in Mississippi to her 2018 campaign for governor of Georgia.

In 2018, while Abrams was running for governor against then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, she showed up to her polling place and was told she couldn't cast a ballot, because, according to their records, she already had voted.

Singer Danielle Ponder knows that empathy is a powerful tool in songwriting. "I think in music, you're telling a story," she tells NPR's Weekend Edition, "and a good songwriter is telling a story in a way where the audience empathizes or can see themselves in that person's shoes."

It's really not that different, the Rochester, N.Y.-based musician says, from being a defense attorney. She should know; outside of her music career, Ponder also spent five years as a public defender.

Now and then, two news stories rub up against each other and strike sparks.

This week David Blaine, the magician and illusionist, strapped himself to 52 helium-filled balloons, lifted off into the big, blue skies above Arizona's Great Basin Desert and floated. It was something out of a childhood dream.

"I want to go up and become a tiny dot in the sky," he had told the New York Post.

Punching the Air is a novel in verse about a 16-year-old boy, Amal, with a budding artistic talent and promising future, who is put away in prison for throwing a punch. But in a way, was he put away before that, by an uncaring and prejudiced system?

Yusef Salaam, who has become a noted educator and activist after spending more than six years in prison for his wrongful conviction in what was known as the Central Park jogger case, wrote the book with author Ibi Zoboi.

Gifty tells first dates her job is to get mice hooked on cocaine. She's joking — she actually gets mice addicted to a nutrition drink, which is cheaper. Her mother, from Ghana, lives with her, but mostly under the covers.

The greatest athletes know: Children are watching. They see them in the stands and on the streets, wearing small versions of their jerseys. They hear them shouting their names. They know from their own lives how children can see sports figures as heroes — and imitate how they play, walk and talk — and what they do.

Posthumous pardons don't do much for the people who receive them. They're usually given to try to make a statement for history.

But President Trump's pardon this week of Susan B. Anthony, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which secured the right for women to vote in America, has dismayed some of those who know the most about Susan B. Anthony, and her story.

"A pardon says you've done something wrong," Rutgers Professor Ann Gordon, a leading scholar of the women's suffrage movement, told us. "Susan didn't think a woman voting was wrong."

Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, built an education enterprise on virtual learning. But as many communities across the country prepare to start the fall with online-only instruction, even he admits that distance learning is a less than perfect substitute for in-person schooling.

The former hedge fund analyst first hatched the idea for Khan Academy as a way to tutor his younger cousins in math. Since its launch in 2008, the site has been providing free video tutorials and lectures. Today, it serves more than 100 million users worldwide.

The new novel A Room Called Earth opens with a young woman as she gets ready for a holiday party in Melbourne, Australia.

Getting ready takes 17 chapters. And every detail has a reason for being. As the narrator tells us, "My inner processes can be visceral to the point of being completely illusory, and absurd."

A lot of music these days has to be made in isolation, but Jacob Collier an old-pro at that. The cover of the 26 year old's debut album, In My Room, was a 3-D shot of Collier surrounded by instruments in the room where he arranged, played, recorded and produced the album — the same room he played music in growing up, in the house in London and where he lives with his mother and sisters and connected with NPR's Scott Simon.

We got a gift from a friend this week—a true note of grace in discordant times. You may know our friend: Amy Dickinson, who writes the advice column "Ask Amy", and is a panelist on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."

Amy grew up singing in the choir of the Freeville United Methodist Church in Freeville, New York, where her grandmother was the organist and choir director.

Amy is still in that choir today.

Nate Marshall has a new collection of poems. It's called Finna, and he says the title of this new book comes from the Southern phrase "fixing to, right, which is like 'about to.' One of the things that I love about that, and that is a kind of central thing in the book, is it's all about what happens next. It's this thing that is informed by history, but that is all about looking forward, all about possibility. That's sort of what I hope the poems do, is that they I hope they sort of wrestle with history, but also look forward."

Kathleen Edwards had devoted fans and a successful career, with hits on the Billboard Top 40 charts and songwriting awards. But after her last album in 2012, she walked away from the music business. In fact, she opened a cafe in the suburbs of Ottawa, Canada, called Quitters Coffee.

The series Upright opens with a man hauling an upright piano in a trailer across the bare Australian landscape. He's frazzled and alone at the wheel, guzzling beer and gobbling pills. He gets a text message: "Mate. Time is running out. Don't duck this up."

Ah, spell-check.

Then he drives into a ditch, hears his piano bleat, and the shouts of an angry, profane 16-year-old he's just run into. Upright is the story of two strangers, Lucky and Meg, who take off across the expanse of Australia, scheming, swearing, pilfering, and becoming vital to each other.

TAB RAG SCRIBE MAKES LAST DEADLINE!

Pete Hamill was a tabloid man: a columnist and top name on the masthead, mostly for the New York Post and Daily News, who wrote punchy, passionate, lyrical chronicles of city life, often for people who had to read them while they held onto a strap, standing on the Number 7 train from Queens.

In the first frames of the documentary, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, you glimpse a group of charming young men at a New York bus stop in 2005; they're beat-boxing and rapping to amuse a little girl. They shout across the street to a friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda. As he dodges cars to dash across the street, you realize: A key figure in show business history almost got run over.

I've had lunch with politicians, clergy, reporters and people who've just been indicted at Manny's Cafeteria and Delicatessen in Chicago, and there's a code of silence over the clatter: it doesn't count. The schmear of cream cheese thick enough to be a ski jump? No calories! Potato pancakes hefty as manhole covers?

No calories!

Remember Utopia Avenue? Elf, their keyboardist and singer — a voice from the clouds. Dean, the bluesy Cockney bass virtuoso. Griff on the drums — who didn't love gruff Griff? And of course, the peerless Jasper de Zoet, shredding, I mean shredding the guitar.

Their great hits — "Abandon Hope," "Smithereens," "Mona Lisa Sings the Blues" — propelled Utopia Avenue from seedy Soho clubs to Top of the Pops, and then America in the enchanted times of bell bottoms, the Beatles, drugs, sex, and street protests. Remember?

Ants do it. Lobsters do it. Even equatorial mandrills do it. Why don't many Americans do it: Wear masks and keep a wise social distance from each other?

Scientific American reports this week how several animals seem to know how to take precautions and keep their distance so they're less likely to be infected by a peer.

July 4th is U.S. Independence Day. But D.L. Hughley, the comedian and author, suggests in his new book that all U.S. holidays "be put on a probationary period to ascertain their relevance and value to All Americans, acknowledging that days off are nice and that mattress sales must occur ..."

His book, co-written with Doug Moe of the Upright Citizens Brigade, is Surrender, White People! Our Unconditional Terms for Peace.

Baseball's Negro Leagues were formally founded a hundred years ago this week. They should never have had to exist — but they sure had some glorious players and times.

Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and many more stars who couldn't play in the major leagues because of the cruelty of segregation engineered a sports enterprise of their own with superb teams that included the Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants and the Homestead Grays.

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