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  1. Web Folk Art
  2. Bad Meditator
  3. Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part VI
  4. Another Web Crawl
  5. The Proper Use of a Cineplex
  6. Doing What You Love for a Living Redux
  7. Free Reads -- Theodore Dalrymple
  8. Another Web Crawl
  9. Tell, Don't Show
  10. Oil Painting and Sex

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Saturday, March 1, 2003

Web Folk Art
Friedrich -- Internet folk art, gotta love it. At least I do. * Here you'll find a musical-animal charmer. Be sure to click on the horses. A Blowhardy Award to anyone who manages to refrain from saying "Awww" or "Too cute!" * Brace yourself for some gangsta Hobbits here. * Completely independent of any political preferences I might have, I'm often delighted by the inventiveness of home Photoshoppers. Here are a couple of recent creations (no idea by whom) that made me laugh. Both are pop-ups, so be sure to click on them and enjoy a more fullblown experience. The artistic power of the people, unleashed at last! What do you suppose the Marxists will make of this? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 1, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Bad Meditator
Friedrich -- Have you ever been a meditator? I've had stretches when I've done it regularly. I get a lot out of it, though saying that apparently makes me a bad meditator -- a true Zen type doesn't have reasons to meditate, he just meditates. Me, I meditate for more than a few reasons, and probably wouldn't meditate at all if I didn't have them. Nonetheless, I've still managed to have the occasional meditation-bestowed moment of revelation. The latest: that, while I'll certainly never reach enlightenment in this lifetime (because I meditate for reasons), maybe that's OK. Well, anyway, in Michael Blowhard-land, that's the kind of thing I choose to regard as a revelation. Superficial soul that I am, I meditate because, when I do, I'm a little happier, a little more resilient, a little less bugged by ego-nagging; I'm probably a little nicer to other people, too. Those are the main benefits. Another benefit -- much more minor, but one that I still appreciate -- is the way it helps me deal with dead time. A meeting has gotten boring? The subway is taking its time showing up? A friend is late for lunch? Instead of tapping my foot and nursing a feeling of annoyance, I'll try to pay attention to my breath. Which is still, admittedly, a very boring way to spend time. But it's something to do that's presumably worthwhile, and it's not boring/boring. It's interesting/boring. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 1, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, February 28, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part VI
Michael: This is the next installment in my attempt to reconstruct what Impressionism meant to its creators and its contemporaries. As I explained in parts #1-#5, I’m trying to re-evaluate each element in what I’ve called the Standard Account of Impressionism (which, for purposes of convenience, will here be represented by quotes from a popular art history book: “A Treasury of Impressionism” by Nathaniel Harris). As I mentioned in Part #2, Mr. Harris begins his book by denying the existence of any controversial content in Impressionist pictures. He is then left with the problem of explaining why the French art market didn’t embrace this happy, cheerful painting in the 1860s or 1870s. To make sense of this the mysterious market failure, he provides the following (essentially Marxist) social analysis: …France [during the Second Empire] was going through an economic and social transformation: her version of the Industrial Revolution, with its accompanying factories and workshops, booms and slumps, railways and steamships. The middle class, or bourgeoisie, grew rich and powerful from the proceeds of expanding industry and trade. A new industrial working class began to resent the appalling conditions in which it lived and laboured. The specters of socialism and communism began to haunt France; and indeed the radical workers of Paris took the opportunity provided by the defeat of 1870 to organize a revolutionary government, the Commune, that was bloodily suppressed by the regular army. Bourgeois distaste for exposes of economic realities, and a deep fear of revolution in any form, were two shaping factors in contemporary attitudes to art. After examining each point of this analysis (and finding it wanting), I’ve developed a less schematic but more factual version of the social background to Impressionism: Friedrich’s Revised Account of Impressionism: Under the 2nd Empire, France entered the railway age. This didn’t create wrenching new social conditions but did provide many highly visible symbols of modernism—promoting a belief in progress and modernity as a positive force. As the rapid growth of the 1850s petered out during the 1860s, the urban bourgeoisie, which lagged the rural landowning class both financially and in terms of political influence, began to think that it could do better under a republican system of government. Meanwhile, although the financial lot of the Parisian proletariat was improving relative to its miserable conditions of the 1840s, it was deeply alienated by being exiled to the suburban wasteland by the urban renewal programs known as Haussmannization. Under the leadership of a socialist labor movement encouraged by Napoleon III, the politicized working classes attempted to seize control of the country via the Paris Commune (during an extraordinary vacuum of power caused by the Franco-Prussian War). The defeat of the Commune and its savage repression however, no matter how dramatic, were essentially distractions and only temporarily obscured the "slow revolution" by which the moderate republican ideal was gaining traction against the dominant political class, the rural landowners. The struggle of urban bourgeoisie to implement their “revolutionary” ideal (i.e., a capitalist democracy,... posted by Friedrich at February 28, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Another Web Crawl
Friedrich -- * If you didn't happen to catch the mention of this in the NYTimes (and, boy, don't I hate it when the Times gets wise to things before I do), here are the Photobloggies -- prizewinning (in the most friendly and low-budget way) photoblogs. The great thing about surfing photoblogs: lots of visual pleasure. The worst thing about surfing photoblogs: realizing that I'm not just a so-so photographer, I'm in fact a really bad photographer. * An amusing review by an unnamed writer in the Economist (here) of Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni's new biography of the film producer Sam Spiegel. I often go on, no doubt tiresomely, about how very much filmbiz people differ from normal human beings. Here's pleasing confirmation: "Honesty came no more easily to Spiegel than financial regularity. To get his way, he would fake heart attacks. 'Telling the truth unnerved him,' according to an acquaintance." * The Economist's obit of JFK advisor Walt Rostow (here) makes something clear I'd never quite understood before. I'd known that Rostow played a big role in getting the U.S. involved in the Vietnam War. What I hadn't realized was that the war was an extension of Rostow and JFK's altruistic foreign aid policy -- ambitious do-goodism gone mad, it seems. This deserves a long-ish excerpt: Mr Rostow's ideas matched the mood of the Kennedy administration. It fitted with liberal notions of ending poverty at home and devising a welfareish state. Kennedy declared the 1960s the “decade of development”, and Mr Rostow was allowed to try out his ideas. He became particularly concerned with South-East Asia. South Vietnam was getting American aid, and prospering. But it was being undermined by guerrillas infiltrating from communist North Vietnam. If the South fell, Mr Rostow feared that a series of countries would topple like dominoes into the communist grasp: Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. His remedy was that the United States should use force to rid South Vietnam of guerrillas to allow the country to continue to develop successfully. It was this policy, seemingly carefully thought-out, that dragged America deeper and deeper into what came to be called the Vietnam war. * In the Financial Times, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (here) ask whether the joint-stock company has been a blessing or a curse. I can't tell whether this piece is an excerpt from a forthcoming book or an appetizer for it. What is going on? Seen from a broad historical perspective, two things stand out. The first is that the current wave of anger against companies is completely normal – even a healthy thing. The second is that the company’s gainsayers – particularly the anti-global crew – are wrong: the company has been an institution that has changed the world enormously for the better. Indeed, it has been the secret of the west’s success. * I missed this first time around, but NRO, bless them, has had the inspiration to run it again: Catesby Leigh's review of the WTC proposals, here. Have you... posted by Michael at February 28, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, February 27, 2003

The Proper Use of a Cineplex
Michael: I think I’ve finally figured out the proper way to use a multiplex: for movie surfing. (Okay, so I’m a little slow—better late than never, I say.) The other night I needed to get out of the house and see a movie. Unfortunately, when I got to the movie theater, I realized that I had arrived between waves of movie start times—it over an hour until the next showing of a movie. I thought, I can’t wait that long, I’ll just walk into some movie late and it’ll be okay. I chose “Gods and Generals” (by alphabetical order) and sauntered in. Well, I promptly sat through about 15 minutes of snore-inducing character development, apparently designed to show that the ferocious Stonewall Jackson (a guy who could have given Osama Bin Laden lessons in fanaticism) was secretly a sensitive soul. It all made me pine for the greater candor of one of Jackson’s real-life soldiers, who famously remarked that Jackson would have a man shot at the drop of a hat and would drop the hat himself. When the movie got around to a scene establishing that Ambrose Burnside, the Union commander, was a world-class moron, I thought, well, we know how this turns out and left the theater. I went over to see how Michael Caine and Brandon Fraser were doing in “The Quiet American.” While this was a superior product to “Gods and Generals,” perhaps half an hour of it was enough for me to absorb the essence of this little morality play as well. On a roll, I hopped out of my seat and went to check out the remaining offerings. Finally, I spotted “The Life of David Gale” and wandered in. Well, the less said the better about this particular offering. Nonetheless, although it was my first time movie surfing at a Cineplex and regrettably turned out about as well as channel surfing on T.V. usually does—a lot of shows and nothing absorbing to watch—it made me realize that given the formulaic nature of most movies, wasting a whole two hours watching one is rarely necessary. And, you don’t have to worry about when they’re playing, either. When you need to kill some time, just wander in off the street. Pretty soon, you’ll find that the whole experience isn’t so bad—as long as you keep moving. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at February 27, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Doing What You Love for a Living Redux
Friedrich -- As you know, one of the issues I return to over and over again (apologies for the monotony of this, by the way) is whether or not it makes sense to try to turn doing what you love into a career. Whether or not it makes sense even to imagine making a living by doing what you already love, in fact. We're encouraged (by parents, schools, friends, movies, our own dopey fantasies) to think in these terms, even to be unhappy if the dream hasn't yet come true. Yet, IMHO, it can be a ruinous and destructive way to think, especially about a life in the arts. Why? In the first place, there's next to no chance it'll happen. In the second place, if it does happen -- or if something like it does happen -- there's a good chance that the very act of doing it for money will ruin the pleasure. You're likely to wind up with the worst of both worlds -- a perilous and not-great job doing something that has ceased to mean anything to you. (Yet what you're selling has got to seem special -- and where does that special touch come from if you've lost that special feeling? So you fake an emotion, then wind up feeling like you've betrayed a lover. And on and on the heartbreaking cycle goes ....) A few notes from the outside world to give my argument a little weight. The gifted erotic-art photographer (I don't know his name and can't find it on his website) who runs Eumorphia (here) is closing up the commercial side of his shop. (But be sure to visit: there's much still there at the site to explore.) Why? In his words: I've decided to shut down the pay side of things. There are many reasons for this which I'm just not really wanting to talk about but the main issue is this: Doing photography as a commercial enterprise is not doing photography as an artform. I'm giving up the commercial side of things and going back to making art. The very funny and industrious Andrew Marlatt ran SatireWire (here) for almost three years. Recently he quit. Take a guess why. Here's the way he puts it: It's not about the money. The site actually makes money ... Nice little setup, actually. I've been very lucky. But the bottom line is, it has ceased to be fun. My heart is not in it. My head is not in it... The thing is, SatireWire, successful as it has been, is also suffocating. I work best tangentially, meaning I work best when I let ideas just come at me, flitting about my head like confetti as I marvel at all the pretty colors, the way they turned in the wind. I would pick out the ones I liked, put them together, make a story. But the confetti no longer falls. It's all on the ground now. The parade is over. I'm just sweeping up... posted by Michael at February 26, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Free Reads -- Theodore Dalrymple
Friedrich Another brilliantly grumpy piece by the British prison-doctor/essayist Theodore Dalrymple, here. His theme this time is youth crime and anger management. Sample passage: What has changed is our ability to accept and tolerate this ineluctable condition of human existence. We do not need more anger management: we need to say no to our children as a matter of principle and abandon the notion of rights, our own included. Every time I hear someone say "It's my right", well, I grow angry. Link thanks to Chris Bertram (here), whose posting reminds me that I really ought to feel more ashamed than I do by the way I'm forever making dismissive cracks about Rousseau without having read more than a few pages of his work. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 26, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Another Web Crawl
Friedrich -- *Aaron Haspel (here) threatens that his latest "How to Read a Poem" posting will be the last in the series. Email him and theaten grievous bodily harm unless he continues. *Jim Ryan (here) continues his excellent series on the conservative philosopher John Kekes. *Brian Micklethwait (here) argues that while Mies van der Rohe's influence on building was largely bad, his influence on interiors was for the better. *Now that Daniel Libeskind's mausoleum/videogame design has won the competition for the reconstruction of the WTC site, it's all the more timely to give Brian Hanson and Nikos Salingaros' brilliant essay about it a read, here. *James Howard Kunstler is the New Urbanist movement's attack dog, an entertaining (and brainy) combination of Dennis Miller and Anne Coulter who does his ranting and joking on the topic of suburbs and buildings. I've often wondered why people in towns and cities don't form protest groups and picket aesthetic atrocities. Kunstler shows the way. His own high-blood-pressure website is here (don't miss the q&a he did with the great Jane Jacobs); a decent short interview with him is ">here. You can buy his eye-poppingly good book The Geography of Nowhere ">here. *And, did you know that making little Flash animations of stick figures engaging in fights, especially kung-fu fights, has become a standard Web folk-art thing to do? I didn't either, until I read about it in The Scotsman. (Damn, can't find the link to the exact story anymore.) Anyway, this one guy who goes by the handle Xiao Xiao (here) is considered to be the true auteur of the school. Fun and impressive: plot lines, humor, Bruce Lee-style sound effects -- and watch for the slow-mo/3D "Matrix" passages. Thwack, thwack, Michael... posted by Michael at February 26, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tell, Don't Show
Friedrich -- I recently finished Paul Johson's magnificent History of the English People (out of print, but Amazon will do their best for you here), as well as John Keegan's elegant short biography of Winston Churchill (buyable here). Thought I should know a little more about English history than the eensie bit I did -- they have royalty, some white cliffs somewhere, and produce many programs for Masterpiece Theater. First-rate books, both of which I listened to on audiobook. I don't understand why more people don't use audiobooks, which are a great way to spend commuting and traveling time (beats the radio), as well as exercising time (I got tired of my music tapes pretty quickly). Audiobooks also spare middle-aged eyes, something I'm appreciating more and more. Did someone say "expense"? But renting audiobooks turns out to be quite a cheap way to go through books. The Paul Johnson is a long work of history, yet, renting it from the excellent Blackstone Audio (here), my total cost was about 20 bucks -- a steal, really. (Another good rental source is Books on Tape, here.) Arty flibbertigibbet that I am, my main reflection on finishing the Johnson and the Keegan was about the writing. Well, one aspect of the writing. American teachers and critics often go on and on about the importance of "showing, not telling," advice that tends to enrage me. Why the general preference for one over the other? There are times when it's appropriate to tell, and times when it's appropriate to show. Plus, heck, my tastes run more towards telling anyway. Stendhal, my favorite author, is in "tell" mode probably more than half the time. Aaron Haspel (here), a "tell" buff himself, points out that one of his favorite authors, the great Heinrich von Kleist, almost never "shows." Johnson and Keegan, bless their hearts, are both primarily tellers, not show-ers. When they feel they need to, they'll zero in on a detail or a setting or a anecdote. But most of the time they're simply telling you what you need to know. Why not? I wonder if this is partly a British/American thing. American writers and publishers (and presumably at least some readers) seem to be crazy about show-ing: "On the evening of August 8th, 1764, a small boy in a straw hat was whittling a piece of birch with his father's penknife..." My response: who cares? (My other response, which I'm a little ashamed of: What a bunch of rubes we Americans can be!...) A biography-buff friend of mine shares my aversion to excessive show-ing, but claims that it's the quality of the writing that makes all the difference. According to him, there are a couple of biographers who can make "show" mode really sing. I'll take his word for it. As for me? Hey, authors: When you've got something to tell me, tell it to me. You want to keep it lively with a few concrete details? Fine. Otherwise, shut up. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 26, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Oil Painting and Sex
Michael: I hear you're doing some oil painting. A bit daunting, isn't it, with paints and medium and turpentine and all. I've done oil painting, although I was never systematically instructed in it (another legacy of going to a contemporary art school.) I remember being quite frustrated by the complexity of oil-paint "logistics" when I was first forced to confront them. And I'll admit that over the years I've had a few paintings go down into a death spiral when I simply couldn't get parts of them to dry in a reasonable time frame. Of course, I seem to have a strange fascination with painting wet-into-wet, which can create some dazzling passages when it's working but invites problems when its not. As a result, I've generally chosen to paint in acrylic, since I know it'll dry pretty fast and I won't be smelling up the house with turpentine. The downside of spending time painting in acrylics is that it hasn't trained me to pay close attention to the whole very important issue of thick paint vs. thin paint, smooth-paint vs. textured-paint which is a natural part of oil painting. I gained a greater interest in this particular painting issue when I recently visited a traveling show of the Phillips collection at the Phoenix Art Museum. I spent my time in the exhibit looking at how the paintings were painted and how that process impacted their sense of space. I also tried to figure out why the painters had chosen to paint them the way they did, although this is a much tougher intellectual problem. For example, I know that early in his career Monet often started his paintings with thin, semi transparent washes which he then overlaid with heavier, more textural touches. [Note from an irritated art-school student: "Classic" or 1870s Impressionism is all about layering--don't let sloppy instructors pawn off that nonsense on you about broken brushstrokes being the essence of the Impressionist style. As a practical matter, broken brushwork won't work unless it's been set up by layering. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.] In painting this way, Monet was following "standard" oil painting practice, since the human eye perceives heavily textured objects as close at hand, while distant objects are much more purely visual, like thin washes of color (objects in the distance always have a kind of watercolor-y look). Granted, Monet applied more visible brushstrokes (both thick-and-meaty and runny-uneven) than was standard in his day, but he was still respecting the process and visual principle of thin/distant and thick/close. Then, as he got older, he started to use heavy, chalky paint throughout his image. There's a grey-day landscape looking over cliffs along the Normandy seacoast and then out to sea in the Phillips collection (painted around 1890, I think) which was a bit startling. Although it "read" properly in the line drawing sense, when you squinted at the painting and deliberately ignored the "subject matter" the whole painting sort of bulged forward around the linear... posted by Friedrich at February 26, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Humbled Again
Friedrich -- The Wife and I were out at dinner the other night with a woman friend. We talked of this, we talked of that. Then the Wife and our friend discovered that as girls they'd both been horseback riders. They'd both owned horses. They'd taken part in competitions in California within a few years of each other. They compared notes; their eyes shone; they imitated the sounds horses make; they made cute faces and burst into giggles; they talked about how much they missed their horses; they looked at me pityingly ... A man will never be anything more than a poor substitute for a horse. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 25, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Nature v. Nurture
Michael: A few years ago I bought a book entitled “Beyond Left and Right.” I thought at the time that I might be in for some genuinely new political thought. Unfortunately, upon examination at home, I found the contents consisted of new fashioned ways to sell old-fashioned left-wing ideas, the desirableness of which were simply taken as a given. I mention “Beyond Left and Right” because I just read something in the New York Times that feels a lot like it. I refer to Natalie Angier’s column, “Not Just Genes: Moving Beyond Nature vs. Nurture.” (You can read it here.) I won’t keep you in suspense about the similarity; Ms. Angier ostensibly lists examples of how science doesn’t support either position in the political debate over nature or nurture while managing to give the impression of wanting desperately to hang on to the nurture thesis. Ms. Angier notes what is the politically correct position in science, which is that genes are always dependent on their environment for expression. She also points out that scientists are, like everybody else, politically opinionated: “Everyone calls themselves an interactionist," said Dr. David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York. "Yet often, when you scratch below the surface, you find a sociobiologist who marginalizes the importance of culture, or a social constructivist who hates the very idea of sociobiology, and they end up painting caricatures of each other. True integrative thinking is in the very early stages." Regrettably, Ms. Angier is among those who aren’t up to “true integrative thinking” at least at the political level. All the examples she selects appear to support a “nature” hypothesis, but viewed more closely (she claims) are really more ambiguous. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, she selects no examples that, at first glance, appear to support “nurture” but in reality turn out to be more ambiguous. Beginning her catalogue of ostensibly erroneously "naturist" thinking she cites phenylketonuria, or PKU. This disease results from a genetically inability to break down phenylalanine, found in foods like milk, eggs, meat and bread. Excess phenylalanine then builds up in the body, resulting in tremors, seizures and brain damage. She argues that because it is possible for sufferers to manage the condition by avoiding foods containing phenylaline, this condition can’t be considered merely “genetic.” Say what?! Last time I looked, the nature-nurture argument had to do with the ability to create new—and better—human relations by modifying social conditions. That is, the better society is the cause that leads to the effect of better human beings. Lefties, by and large, believe passionately that human beings are malleable enough to be manipulated into virtue by their social environment, while righties, by and large, have a much lower opinion of the malleability of human nature and fear that such manipulations are more likely to have extremely nasty unintended consequences. For this example to have supported the point that Ms. Angier seems to be making—that human beings are more flexible than hard... posted by Friedrich at February 25, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Free Reads -- Political Test
Friedrich -- Another online "what are your politics" test, here, but more thoughtful and nuanced than most such, or so it seems to me. Although these tests never make enough allowance for those of us who simply dislike politics, or prefer to see politics kept out of as much as possible. I can't tell who's behind it, can you? Still, pretty well done. I'll tell you my results if you'll tell me yours. Eager to hear how everyone else scores too. Other volunteers? Yahmdallah? Laurel? Michael Serafin? J.C.? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 25, 2003 | perma-link | (36) comments

Monday, February 24, 2003

New Magazines
Friedrich -- Do you follow the style magazines? I don't mean the fashion magazines, I mean the style magazines. I do, though I sometimes wonder why. I guess that I simply enjoying keeping up with what people are doing with magazines. And what I find myself mostly buying these days are examples of a new breed of style magazine. I wonder if you’ve run across them. Hard to describe; I don’t know if the genre has a semi-official name yet. Style, fashion, art, celebrity -- but, frankly, old fart that I am, I can’t tell what their subject matter really is, and I can’t tell what it is they’re selling. There seems to be nothing at the core. There’s little or no information in them, the writing is drivel (and next-to-unreadable anyway, what with the text being Quarked way over to the side, reduced in size and made sans-serif -- it isn’t writing, it’s decor). There’s no gear on sale. There seems to be nothing graspable there. Which seems to be the point: style, look and attitude. These magazines seem to be all about edgy media values. Period. There’s a fair amount of art-school-style semi-nudity, fashion and performance-art self-consciousness, and new-look models hoping to make it big. But they’re a long way from a Maxim or a Stuff. This is alternative product, and part of what’s bewildering about them is the combination of grunge and uptown-quality production values. For some reason, nearly all of them have one-word titles: Zink, Flaunt. Trace. Contents. And they’re often quite spendid, as lavishly and sumptuously produced as art books. They also make me think of those legendary custom-made art-thing magazines that were financed by rich people for about five issues back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and whose titles escape me at the moment. The big diff between them and traditional art-and-word-centric publications is their value-set, which derives from the media. Whoosh. Fwoof. Kapow. They’re as consciously designed and constructed as art things, and in a way, that’s about as good a description as I can come up with: they’re media-derived abstract magazine experiences, Quark and Photoshop extravaganzas put together (as far as I can tell) by recent art-and-design grads. The thing about Quark and Photoshop is that they enable you to compose a magazine in a non-linear way; designers actually speak about “constructing” pages, layouts, passages, entire issues. These magazines take that approach as far as any I’ve run across. The individual pieces are subordinated to the larger digital-media page-flipping experience. They’re disappointing -- nonexistent, really -- in terms of content. But why be square: Content, that’s so 20th century. No, they’re all about media effects. A lot of lavish paper, gorgeous models all shiney and full of ‘tude, photographs blown up so that the bigness is the point, and the whole put together to create (this seems to be the point) an abstract media-magazine experience. It’s all about look, feel, rhythm and effects. It’s as though the raw material is the Fwoof... posted by Michael at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

A Feathered T. Rex--Image Evolution
Michael: According to a story in Scientific American, the evolution of feathers seems to have occurred not in "birds" or even "proto-birds" but in dinosaurs. Specifically, feathers seem to have developed in therapod dinosaurs (the carnivorous types that ran about on two legs with prominent teeth.) Apparently feathers have a host of valuable properties not connected with flight, including being good heat insulators and being waterproof, to say nothing of allowing all sorts of interesting opportunities for sexual display and differentiation. So feathers came first, and flight was something that showed up later (possibly, much later) in the game. One consequence of this is to change the primary definition of birds from feathered, flying bipeds to the longest-running show among the therapod dinosaurs; another is eliminating the question: "Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?" What astonished me, however, is that the current thinking (if I'm reading this story correctly) is that all therapod dinosaurs may have been feathered, including famous macho nasties like the velociraptor and T. Rex. The cover of Scientific American shows what I think is a velociraptor running around like a really scarey (and rather demented-looking) chicken. I can understand why they didn't even try to illustrate a feathered T. Rex--it would go against too deeply ingrained a mental image. I keep thinking about what the damn thing would look like, and having my visual imagination conk out. I mean, it seems like I just got used to the idea that T. Rex walked around with its body held horizontally, and not dragging its tail. I wonder if this will hurt the popularity of dinosaurs--trying to match up the idea of T. Rex's tons of bone and tooth with cute ruff of fluffy feathers. Or will it end up pictured more like a giant vulture, dripping blood and dropping gore-stained feathers? (This image seems to be supported by recent theories that T. Rex was too big and slow to hunt and was therefore more of a scavenger or stealer of other dinosaurs' kills.) That has a messy reality that might put off children--and Hollywood, too! Evolution of T. Rex's Image From Tubby to Buff to...Avian? The "mutation" of T. Rex's image from upright, big-bellied tripod to horizontal menace (sort of a crocodile with really long back legs) at the time of "Jurassic Park" was speedily accepted, largely because it made our boy seem far more fit and athletic--a true tyrant king in tune with 90s ideas of masculine sexuality. But I'm guessing that aesthetic preferences may hold the notion of a feathered T. Rex back for a while. I guess Darwinism isn't just for living creatures; now that I think about it, mental images seem to have a "survival of the fittest" aspect as well. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Affirmative Action: An Education for Us All
Michael: Bob Herbert in the New York Times of February 24 spells out the logic behind affirmative action in an Op-Ed piece by. In it he makes the following rather oddly paired assertions: A glance at the current challenges to affirmative action in higher education would show little more than the fact that a number of white applicants have asserted in court that they were illegally denied admission to college or law school because of preferences given to racial or ethnic minorities. ...The United States is a better place after a half-century of racial progress and improved educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities and women. We have all benefited and, and voluntary efforts to continue that progress, including the policies at Michigan, are in the interest of us all. [emphasis added]. I think it's true that “The United States is a better place after…improved educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities…” However, one would have a hard time arguing that the “white applicants who have asserted in court that they were illegally denied admission to college or law school” are wrong to feel that they may have benefited from affirmative action just a tad less than, perhaps, the racial or ethnic minority students that were admitted to the University of Michigan Law School. In fact, I suspect they probably feel like they’ve gotten the short end of the stick. Wouldn’t you? My question is: why should the costs of a policy that Mr. Herbert argues benefits “us all” (by which he presumably means that this policy is in society’s best interest) be born by this particular set of individuals (i.e., the white students refused admission)—without any compensation? I notice Mr. Herbert doesn’t even try to make the case that these particular students were in any way personally responsible for racial discrimination aimed at minorities and ethnic groups. Nope, apparently they’re just society’s sacrificial lambs—too bad, boys and girls. It would seem to me that affirmative action would have virtually no downside if the specifically “damaged” applicants were compensated for the harm being done to them. It would be fairly easy to calculate such damage, and for the University of Michigan to write a nice little check to each of them. But that would interfere with the unmentioned but clearly implied emotional calculus of left-wing social programs. I mean, let’s face it, how many racial or ethnic minority individuals are ever going to the University of Michigan Law School? Only a few hundreds will attend out of tens of millions. So the issue is largely one of symbolism. I guess that symbolism is made a bit more emotionally gratifying when it involves the spectacle of somebody else getting screwed. I guess these kids just need to suck it up—Mr. Herbert seems to need his pound of flesh. And the administration of the University of Michigan (who are not required to make any personal sacrifice here in order to practice “virtue”) intends to give it to him. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Free Reads -- Corby Kummer on Slow Food
Friedrich -- As long as I'm crashing around The Atlantic's site... Here's a good long q&a with The Atlantic's tiptop food writer Corby Kummer, who recently published a lavish book about the Slow Food movement (buyable here). Have you heard of Slow Food? Begun in Italy, it's a worldwide network of people devoted to artisanal food -- home-made cheeses, by-the-case wines, "heritage" poultry, etc. Slow down, take your time, sink into things, recover the good old qualities, savor life ... That's the general idea. Kind of the equivalent in the field of food to what the New Urbanism is in architecture, and just as admirably entrepreneurial. Sample passage: Europeans are pretty much converted already. In Europe almost everyone has memories going back over generations of food with actual flavor, food that's carefully raised. So Slow Food has appealed not just to rich people who like better things but to pretty much everybody who knows that there was once actually good food... There's a real problem with Slow Food in America, and it's this: we don't have that memory bred into us, so it's still a movement of the elite...Generally, once people taste eggs, cheese, barbecue, beer, bread, that has real flavor, they understand that this is something they'd like to have again, and that might be better than what they're having every day. But you have to organize events that will reach a wide range of people and give them something for a really reasonable cost. Or else they're not going to try it, and they're not going to know it, and it's going to seem like an elitist movement. I'm all for Slow Food even if, like the New Urbanism, it sometimes shades into yuppie-Volvo do-goodism. It's a little like the old Arts and Crafts movement, organizing and promoting, and helping a decent number of people take note of what's around them and start to appreciate quality of life issues. The q&a with Kummer reminds me of a blog posting I may never get around to writing, which is on this topic: that of all the high-end art forms these days in this country, the one that's in the best shape is cooking. I'm not much of a foodie myself, but The Wife is. So I've tagged along to an amazing number of amazing meals and have this to report: there are a lot of brilliant high-end cooks and kitchens at work these days. It wasn't all that many decades ago that good eating was in very short supply in this country. Today, you can do pretty well for yourself in many places, and superlatively well in quite a few. That's quite a change. How has this happened? Heaven praise Julia Child and Alice Waters, of course. But other elements have fallen into place too: look at the good craft-and-trade-oriented schools, for instance. Places like the French Culinary Institute and the CIA turn out class after class of well-trained grads. Look at the quality of the journalism about the... posted by Michael at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Free Reads -- Jonathan Rauch
Friedrich -- In this month's Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch writes humorously about introverts (he admits that he's one) and extroverts. Sample passage: Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As you probably suspect, "up with introverts" is his theme. He mentions in passing how tragic it is that politics is dominated by extroverts. I'd push this idea a step further: I think it's tragic that politics is dominated by people who are interested in and care deeply about politics. Why entrust something so important to that awful bunch? The piece is readable here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Showbiz People -- Mariel Hemingway
Friedrich -- The Wife is enjoying tut-tutting her way through Mariel Hemingway's recent memoir (buyable here). Boring and bad is the verdict -- "too much about yoga." Even so, I notice that The Wife hasn't stopped reading the book. Hmmm ... Anyway, remember Mariel? Margaux's younger sister? She played the teenager Woody Allen fixated on in "Manhattan"; then she starred in "Personal Best" and "Star 80"? I know very little else about her. The Wife guffawed a little while ago and read me a passage from the book. It seems that Mariel wanted desperately to play the role of dreamy Playmate Dorothy Stratten in Bob Fosse's "Star 80," despite how unlikely a physical match she was. Where Stratten was creamy, blurry, and well-upholstered -- a woman born to wear cashmere and lipstick -- Mariel was leggy, athletic, and tomboyish, someone you picture developing a sunburn from too much cross-country skiing. Still, for god knows what reason, Mariel was determined to win the role, and (at the age of 19!) had her breasts enlarged to make herself more plausible for the part. Fosse eventually did give the role to Mariel. Then, once filming started, he (surprise!) put the moves on her. When she resisted, he professed amazement, using this great line: "But I've never not slept with my leading lady!" As I often say, we civilians are kidding ourselves when we imagine that we have much in common at all with showbiz people. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 23, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments