In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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  1. News Flash: Documentary Achieves Potential!
  2. DVD Journal: "Femme Fatale"
  3. Blog-a-palooza
  4. Doodles & Their Uses
  5. Tennis Gals vs. Tennis Guys
  6. Odd Couples
  7. Derbyshire Q&A
  8. The Arts Litany
  9. Postcards from L.A.
  10. Winged Migration

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Saturday, May 24, 2003

News Flash: Documentary Achieves Potential!
Michael: I just got home from seeing “Spellbound” and despite the fact that I was eager to see it (which would usually have torpedoed my reaction to it like the German U-boat that got the Lusitania), I had the best time I’ve had at a movie in months and months. Another Relaxing Moment in Extreme Spelling As you may be aware, “Spellbound” is a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee which follows eight contestants from their wins at regional “bees” to the Big One, broadcast on ESPN! (The film is in color, despite the black and white photo I've posted above.) Because the kids are 11-14 years old, the coverage of the children’s life outside of spelling includes a lot of information on their parents, who range from a single mother in Washington D.C., to illegal immigrants in Texas, to Connecticut suburbanites, to families who have immigrated from India. I found it hard to root for or against any of the kids, as they are all personable, intelligent, incredibly hard working and quite level headed. None of them considers winning the contest to be a life-changing event, and none of them experiences any kind of epiphany in the course of the film. Even the parents—at least those that appear on camera—appear to be pretty okay people. Moreover, as the documentary makes clear, the whole format of a spelling bee introduces a ton of luck into the process, as everyone gets different words to spell. Oddly, the very factors—no heroes, no villains, no and then everything changed moments, a big “luck factor”—that a Hollywood screenwriter would have altered or suppressed immediately didn’t make the film any less emotionally compelling. In fact, because some screenwriter wasn’t shoving tired screenwriting formulae down your throat, it allowed you to consider the more subtle patterns you were seeing—like the fact that the kids’ involvement with competitive spelling seemed to reflect story arcs that are multigenerational, family-centric and even culturally-centric. These kids, while not lacking for individuality, are also clearly the most current blossoms on very ancient trees. The film, assuming it was shot in the spring of 1999, seems to have taken quite a while to be put together. In this case, the extra time paid off: while the photography is merely functional, the editing in general and the sound editing in particular are amazing. The juxtapositions, the choices about how the material is ordered, the way time is occasionally (and mostly sonically) compressed are more impressive than anything I’ve seen in a long time. If, like me, you’ve ever thought that documentaries (at least theoretically) had a lot more potential than they usually manifest, this is the film you’ve been waiting for. Go out and see it. I’d worry about over praising it and ruining your enjoyment of it except that this particular flick seems immune to such considerations—and, coming from me, that’s saying a lot. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 24, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

DVD Journal: "Femme Fatale"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I know you've seen the movie already, but some of our visitors might enjoy learning that Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale is now out on DVD. Friedrich wasn't crazy about the film; I found its contemplative eroticism and dream-noir logic entrancing. (My posting about it is here.) The Wife, who (sigh) also didn't love the film, described it as a "meditative art movie on sex-thriller themes," and that pretty well nails it. Who's in charge? A treat for the curious is this q&a Bill Fentum did with De Palma about the movie (here). De Palma is known as one of the few major directors who has remained a film buff -- directors generally stop attending many movies once they become bigshots -- and if you read the interview you'll get a taste of his enthusiasm and brains. Now that's a film nerd! Fentum's site, Directed by Brian De Palma (here), is a phenomenal thing, by the way, as is Geoff Songs' De Palma a la Mod (here). Interesting that two of the very best movie-nut websites should be devoted to De Palma. I've got some theories about how to explain that ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 24, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friedrich -- It may be impossible to keep up with all the good culturechat in blogland, but that isn't going to stop this Blowhard from trying. Alexandra Ceely has given her art-history blog Out of Lascaux a fresh look, poured it into Movable Type, and parked it at a new address (here). Felix Salmon (here) enjoyed an evening of Woody Allen one-act plays. Mike Snider (here) asks why there isn't more erotic poetry written from the hetero-male point of view, and supplies his own lovely example of such. Brian Micklethwait (here) buys a set of Dvorak's string quartets and wonders what will become of the classical-music CD business. Felicity McCarthy (here), deep in the midst of a major move, decides to take charge of her dad's 80th birthday party. Lynn Sislo watches "This Old House" and wonders why she doesn't have her own show on PBS (here). Yahmdallah (here), on an inspired tear, discusses the "remastering" of CDs, Kurt Cobain's journals, people who take pop music 'way too seriously -- and reprints a "date from hell" story he originally wrote for Salon. Forget the review in your local paper. Dick Ranko's posting on "The Matrix Reloaded" (here) is the one to read. J.W. (here) is presenting his 25 favorite comic books. "The Matrix Reloaded"? "Batboy"? That new Robert Flaherty DVD? Tim Hulsey (here) has brainy and helpful things to say about them all. At this pace, he's giving Yahmdallah a run for his money. Over at the ever-hopping, Deb English loves an E.F. Benson "Lucia" novel (here). Will himself gets his first eyeglasses (here), and switches to Mac (here). Scott Chaffin, a fan of suspense potboilers, reads a John Sandford thriller (here). My find of the week is S.Y. Affolee, a young Asian-American woman (and self-described geek) who's studying bio at Dartmouth. She writes a me-blog and posts about this 'n' that, yet I was taken by her sharp mind and her voice, which is intimate yet reserved, direct yet discreet, solemn yet sly. Her blog's a charmer. If you want to taste-test, let me suggest this reflective posting here about what it's like to grow up being watched by older Asian ladies. Charlie B has been doing some sharp thinking about the relations between modernism, pop, and the new cyberarts here (but the permalink doesn't work, so go to his blog and then do a search on the word "pussy"). Aaron Haspel fearlessly takes on the important topic of zoning laws, technology and architecture (here). Don't miss the comments. Ian Hamet shows a lot of enthusiasm for two great ages of adventure fiction (here). The amazing Colby Cosh -- what is he on, and where can I get some? -- takes a break from mad cow disease and Canadian politics to discuss Benvenuto Cellini and the Italian Renaissance more generally (here). Over at Gene Expression, Razib describes the early migrations of our ancestors (here), while Jason Soon has a brilliant posting on Hayek, neural networks and free will... posted by Michael at May 24, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Friday, May 23, 2003

Doodles & Their Uses
Michael: Do you doodle when you’re on the phone? I do, especially when I’m on an important business call. This may seem goofy, but I do it for two reasons. One is to avoid talking out of nervousness (a bad habit of mine and a definite obstacle in being a tough negotiator) and to provide me with some insight into my feelings about how the call went after the fact. I usually find that my subconscious is busy giving me a message via the doodle, and one I usually often find fairly easy to interpret. Here is a sample from a call I was on yesterday. To understand it, you need to have some background. We had been working with a business ally on developing one of our projects. I thought both parties had a pretty good understanding of what benefits each of us would be getting from the project, as well as our responsibilities, and that we were both on board with that. In the past few days, however, I received some pieces of information that suggested that our deal was not quite as “done” as I had thought. Wanting to clarify this issue, as we are counting on this guy to do handle some significant aspects of the project, I gave him a call. We had a long and fairly amiable conversation during which he was working hard to convince me that he was still on the same page. I cranked out this doodle in ballpoint pen and whiteout (some of my favorite art supplies) during the conversation, drawing at random out of my head. After the conversation ended, apparently in total accord, I looked down at the doodle and thought, now what’s the title of this little effort? The answer came back immediately: “And There Was a Crooked Man.” F. Von Blowhard, And There Was a Crooked Man, 2003 About an hour later one of my employees came in to tell me that he had just gotten off the phone with this same guy, and that the guy confessed after a bit of hemming and hawing that he wasn’t really happy with the deal as structured. I replied to my employee: “Ah, I knew that.” It may not lead to great art, but doodling can certainly be a management tool. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 23, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tennis Gals vs. Tennis Guys
Friedrich -- The tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams are fabulous athletes who are on track to go down as two of the greats. I'm a tennis fan who's followed the sport on and off for more than three decades, and who, for the last decade, has largely stopped watching men's tennis -- too bam-bam boring. Ah, women's tennis: drama, personality, strategy, frequent long rallies -- tennis as it once was, not some flash-cutting stunt circus. Its own game, with its own qualities, and not just a pale imitation of the men's game. And closer to what I think of as "tennis." But Venus and Serena have introduced a level of power and athleticism into the women's game that seems to approach what the guys routinely display. And, to be honest, I don't know how I feel about that. I worry as I watch them mow down one opponent after another. On the one hand: gosh and golly, what they do is amazing! On the other: gee, I'd hate to see the women's game go the way of the men's. I like the stuffy old back and forth of traditional tennis. So I've often found myself wondering: how close to the power level of the men are Venus and Serena anyway? I've never known, at least not until this morning, when I found the answer in an article by Allen St. John in the Wall Street Journal (not available online). Here's how it goes. The women pros often train by playing or rallying with guy players. Which guy players? And how well do the women do against them? It turns out that these practice-session guys are usually top-level college players or low-ranking pros. It also turns out that these guys can more than hold their own against the tippy-toppiest women. St. John gives an example: In 1998 Serena jokingly challenged Karsten Braasch of Germany, then-ranked No. 200. Until that time, the pack-a-day smoker was best known as the impetus for the ban on smoking during changeovers. The match, played on a practice court with little fanfare, wasn't close. Mr. Brasch beat Serena 6-1, then turned around and beat Venus 6-2. Apparently the big factors in the diffs between the men and the women are foot speed (the men can run down a lot more shots than the women can), and the amount of topspin that can be generated (the men seem to be able to put as much as 50% more spin on the ball than even the strongest women). I'm breathing more easily thanks to St. John's article. It looks like the women's game won't go the way of the boom-boom men's game for a few years yet. Hey, the French Open -- my favorite of the big tournaments because it's on clay, which slows the game down -- starts in a couple of days. The official website is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 23, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Odd Couples
Michael: After blogging for the better part of a year my hard drive is now chock-a-block with pictures I've pulled off the web, received as e-mail attachments and scanned from books. I happened to look through a portion of this incredibly random hoard the other day and noticed that occasionally pictures that were next to each other in my directory had an odd sense of connection to each other. Let me give a few examples: HEADLIGHTS AbuLordofVegetation.jpg; Ad.jpg CHEEKBONES AND ATTITUDE DelacroixESelfPortraitDetail.jpg; DietrichMarleneSmoking2.jpg EXCITING SCIENTIFIC HORRORS TheNationCover2.jpg; TheThingCover.jpg VISUAL SUBSTRUCTURE UccelloChalice.jpg; UglowTheWave1991-7.jpg I bet you can pull a few of these odd couples off your hard drive, too. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 23, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Derbyshire Q&A
Friedrich -- As you know, I'm a fan of John Derbyshire, who writes opinion columns for National Review. He's a true conservative (a rarity), and one with a lot of writing style -- I enjoy his dryly incisive and amusing way with a sentence, a paragraph, a piece. (Semi-aesthete and anti-political person that I more or less am, I'm moved and impressed by flair.) Those babies are turned. Plus, hey, agree with him or not -- and he takes a lot of stands that many will find outrageous -- he makes tons of worth-wrestling-with points, at least if you're open to the fun of wrestling with a well-made conservative argument. Perhaps this is a special taste. Derbyshire has a typically good column here, asking (vis a vis the Jayson Blair scandal) why we take journalists all that seriously anyway. Bernard Chapin interviews Derbyshire at length here for Enter Stage Right. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 22, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

The Arts Litany
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I'm just back in the city after a few days visiting Western New York, my old stomping grounds. Back to blogging! Many thanks for being such a blogging he-man while I was gone. My visit was refreshing and renewing. Shhh -- Western New York is a beautiful part of the country, in a modest, storybook-endearing kind of way. For one thing, once you drive out of the Catskills, you exit the NYC orbit, always a delight. For another, well: the Finger Lakes. Apple orchards and other flowering trees. Real live small towns. Vineyards and cornfields. An utter lack of style and self-consciousness. Seneca Lake: Small-town America really does exist The ever-collapsing economy, the rotten weather, and the really lousy cooking can be a little off-putting, granted. But the place is still blissfully wonderful, at least in my eyes, and will always be home for me. "It's, it's, it's, well, it's like Middle Earth, and it's full of hairy-toed eccentrics, and I'm a Hobbit returning to his cave," I blurted to the Wife at one point. "That's what it's like!" And it's true. Western New York is a little like Middle Earth. The Wife sweetly pretended to see my point. On the way back to the city, we stopped in Ithaca for lunch. Have you ever visited? An amazingly pretty hill-and-water academic town at the south end of Cayuga Lake, like a small San Francisco, full of old houses, beautiful churches and proudly repurposed commercial buildings. (I'll pass lightly over the really awful more recent buildings.) Culture, too -- bookstores, clubs, concerts, foreign movies. The biggest downside to life in most of Western New York is what at other moments can be its sweet upside: the pleasant boringness of it all. (I came to the big city not out of dislike for the small Republican town where I grew up but in order to have easier access to the kinds of art-and-ideas things that get my motor going.) And then there's Ithaca -- everything that's great about Western New York, plus culture. Unfortunately, plus much else too: tie dyes, white kids with dreadlocks, older balding guys with ponytails, local "characters" on bicycles, brown rice, scary postgrad hangers-on -- a little too much Berkeley, in other words. The Wife and I looked at each other at one point and rolled our eyes. "Good Christ," I said. "Just for the sake of a little culture, you don't have to buy the whole package, do you?" Ithaca: Spot the white kid's dreadlocks This is part of what annoys me about America and the arts -- the way they come so encrusted with superstitions, styles, and beliefs, so many of them boring and unattractive. I like the arts, when it really comes down to it, because they're sexy. They can be a turn-on; they can touch my emotions; they can get my senses buzzing and my head spinning. And the basic appeal for me of living an arts life... posted by Michael at May 22, 2003 | perma-link | (35) comments

Postcards from L.A.
Michael: I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 22 years now, and while the man-made environment can often be described (in my father’s phrase) as “pretty miscellaneous,” the natural environment has always struck me as God’s country. To keep my feelings about the local landscape from being completely buried under the detritus of everyday life, I thought I might make some “picture postcard views” of it from time to time for this ‘blog. My View When Picking My Daughter Up from Middle School My Route to the Beach Looking forward to your views of Manhattan. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 22, 2003 | perma-link | (23) comments

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Winged Migration
Dear Michael: I went to see “Winged Migration” late Sunday night, sitting virtually alone in a very small theater. I had been quite intrigued by seeing the trailer, and sat waiting for the film to start in a state of some excitement . I thus, of course, violated my own longstanding rule: never walk into a movie theater with high expectations. Doing so is more or less a guarantee of being disappointed. And regrettably, although the movie had terrific qualifities, I ended up feeling a bit distant from the proceedings. My alienation was not as a result of the terrific, brilliant, amazing photography, however. The film’s many, many cameramen apparently used remotely piloted drone aircraft to get their cameras right in among flocks of birds. I will always remember one shot that conveyed just how much more 3-dimensional a bird’s life is than that of any land animal. A very sensible-looking, un-heroic bird casually leaps off a vertiginous cliff and dive bombs straight into the water hundreds of feet below, and a camera follows it down. And no jiggly hand-held cameras for this movie, either. Almost every shot was either a beautifully smooth tracking shot or a quite carefully composed tableaux on a locked down tripod. I have no idea how the filmmakers worked so close to birds on the ground without spooking them, or how they got birds on the wing to fly in and out of their picture postcard views. And the alienation wasn’t a result of the subject matter. Birds are, obviously, amazing. (If you ever doubted that, seeing this movie will absolutely convince you otherwise.) The movie brought home to me something that, I suppose, should have been obvious: that many birds have to function under water, on the water, on land, in low altitude flight and thousands of feet in the air, with the landscape stretching out hazily beneath them. One species of Indian geese that may take the cake for adaptability are shown resting in their migration north to Siberia. They are perched on the very rock-and-ice peaks of the Himalayas, casually enduring what appear to be 50-or-60 mile per hour winds while primly hunkered down in the snow. And who would have guessed that these birds can also function in the summer heat of the Indian lowlands. Birds also have to be able to fly for hours (days?) at a stretch without taking a break, and navigate by some combination of internal compass, stars and terrain recognition. Nor was I alienated, exactly, by the very nasal French narrator, who usually uttered fairly gnomic remarks, which was okay with me because I could only make out about two thirds of what he was saying when he did talk. (It was more or less as if they had brought Jacques Cousteau back from the dead to do the narration). The Frenchman's words and a few subtitles were the only explanatory content the movie offered. This was too bad, as I could have used a lot... posted by Friedrich at May 20, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Shocked, Simply Shocked
Michael: Sorry to be behind the times, but did you notice the shocking recent ruling of the Supreme Court on false claims by telemarketers? According to a May 6 Wall Street Journal story: The high court ruled unanimously yesterday that a telemarketer who raised funds for Vietnam War veterans and falsely assured donors that most of their money would pay for Thanksgiving food baskets, rent and similar items can be sued for fraud. Under a contract with the charity, VietNow National Headquarters, based in Rockford, Ill., Telemarketing Associates Inc., retained 85% of the more than $7 million raised. My god, where will it all end? Does this mean that citizens will be able to sue politicians for fraud if they promote one policy prior to the election and then, after getting your vote, pursue a different one in office? Or how about when politicians put a bond issue on the ballet with the explanation that the funds will be used for one purpose, and then they end up actually using/wasting them for another purpose altogether? I mean, if we’re not careful here, the damn Supremes could take all the fun out of being a politician. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 20, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Affirmative Action, Part II
Michael: As I promised, here is Part II of my post on affirmative action. In this part I lay out a program for low socio-economic affirmative action, which I believe should replace race-based affirmative action. Part I, which can be read here, discusses my criticisms of arguments for race-based affirmative action. My discussion of this topic is indebted to the excellent study, “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, And Selective College Admissions,” (2003) by Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, which you can read here. Following are arguments in favor of a low socio-economic affirmative action plan: Argument #1: Low socio-economic affirmative action has far more political support than race-based affirmative action. Public opinion polls commissioned by Carnevale and Rose revealed the lack of support for race-based affirmative action programs: Americans…strongly associate affirmative action with racial preferences and do not view racial preferences favorably. Among White Americans, 52 percent say affirmative action should be abolished, and more than 80 percent oppose preference in hiring and promotions for racial minorities, even when the programs may help compensate for “past discrimination. Meanwhile, low-socio-economic affirmative action receives strong political support, as it conforms much more closely to traditional American values: Our polling is consistent with the findings of other research that has found that Americans endorse policies that promote upward mobility for high-achieving students from poor and working-class backgrounds. A large segment [of the public] wants to reward and encourage students who succeed despite heavy odds. Many believe colleges should enroll such students even if their test scores and grades fall slightly below those of other high- income applicants. Argument #2: There is a far larger pool of very capable low socio-economic students out there than are currently attending highly selective schools. The effects of financial barriers can be seen in several different statistics. One such statistic reveals that by no means all highly qualified students end up attending highly selective universities. According to Carnevale and Rose, Of those who had an SAT-equivalent score greater than 1300 and attended a four-year college, only 41 percent went to the 146 top-tier colleges. Twenty-two percent enrolled in second-tier colleges, 25 percent attended third-tier colleges, and 12 percent enrolled in fourth-tier institutions. This is despite the fact that, as we saw in Part I, attending such colleges tends confers a major boost, career-wise, on students from a low-socio-economic background. I can only assume that financial constraints are a significant factor in such an outcome. Argument Three: Highly selective schools are not trying very hard to recruit low SES students, and, consequently, they don’t admit very many of them. In marked contrast to the situation with race-based affirmative action, where in the year 2000, 66 percent of four-year public colleges and 54 percent of four-year private colleges recruited minority students, the efforts aimed by highly selective colleges at recruiting low socio-economic students are much more minimal. The share of colleges that recruits economically disadvantaged students is generally a little more than half of those that recruit minorities. Generally, the... posted by Friedrich at May 20, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, May 19, 2003

Test, this is only a test
Michael: I was just trying to figure out if our blog mechanics had figured out how to let us create thumbnails yet. Evidently they haven't, which is why the following picture is so big. C. Oldenburg, Soft Light Switches, 1963-9 (Anyway, as you and our loyal readers have long since figured out, I only blog in order to illustrate, so I don't really mind putting up oversize pictures.) The above "soft" sculpture by Claes Oldenburg (the inventor of the genre and all-round King of Pop Art) was auctioned off on May 14 for a record price of $574,500. While that's good news for Claes, it also turns out to be good news for the creditors of none other than corporate bad-guy Enron. Yep, Enron was actually investing some of its ill-gotten loot in art, and made money on the deal too. So next time somebody criticizes the social utility of art, tell them that at least it makes a better investment than, say, electricity futures. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 19, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

These Girls These Days
Friedrich -- There's some fuss out there about David Brooks' Atlantic article "The Return of the Pig" (readable here). Brooks writes in his piece about Maxim magazine, and about what significance there is to be found in the new laddishness generally. Which makes me ask two questions. 1) Isn't this piece about five years behind the times? And 2) Hasn't anyone looked at the young women's magazines recently? They're as coarse and slap-happy as Maxim. Remember Cosmo? Well, the young woman editor who replaced Helen Gurley Brown revved the magazine up with thwacka-thwacka graphics and has given it a Riot Grrrl kick in the pants. It's now full of aggression and attitude. Some sample features and featurettes from a recent issue: Spat of the Month: "His burping and farting really skeeve me out." Butt-Ugly, Not-to-be-Believed Bridesmaid Dresses 5 Times It Really Pays to Act Ballsy Hot for Higher-Ups Add Oomph to Newlywed Nooky Jane magazine is similar, if slightly (I'm guessing here) hipper and more upscale. But it has the same MTVish design and the same you-go-girl ethos. Some features, items and pullquotes from the current issue of Jane: He's Small But You Love Him (a reference to his length, not his height, and illustrated with graphics of sex positions) Sima and Jason Don't Really Like Each Other. Booze Works Wonders. If You Screw Like You Drive, I'll Walk "Britney makes want to beat the living shit out of her. She's a total fake, with the crappiest live show since the Brady Bunch performed." The Truth behind Brad Pitt's Expanding Boxers Do you hear the same haw-haw horselaugh I do? The same Whoosh! Pow! Yeah! Haw haw haw haw! Actually, the 22ish-year-old women I run into these days laugh just like that, as though using a vulgarity or doing something greedy is a great personal triumph, like winning the British Open. Take that, Maxim. Sensitive zeitgeist detector that I am, I've picked up a few related signs-of-the-time too. One is the way a number of 30ish-year-old women have been complaining recently to me about 22ish-year-old women. Granted, women turning 30 often do complain about younger women. These recent complaints, though, seem a little different than the usual. They're delivered with a look of concern and outrage. The younger women are badly behaved. They're self-centered. They've got no conscience. They do evil shit. Something, it gets conveyed to me, has gone wrong in the culture generally. Thinking (as, despite all, I sometimes still can't keep myself from doing) with my own smaller head, I notice that I don't find these 22ish women alluring. They're certainly physically attractive. They're bright and shiny. They're proud and aggressive. They're healthy and big. And all I get from them is an initial Fwoof! (Then they're off somewhere, going Haw haw haw...) There seems to be nothing more to them than that initial Fwoof. We used to say "Is it real or is it Memorex?" I guess these days we might say "Is she real or... posted by Michael at May 19, 2003 | perma-link | (26) comments