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Saturday, October 4, 2003

Magazine Titles
Friedrich -- I'm in front of a rack of dazzling and lewd magazines, all of them screaming, "You know you want to buy me!" Among the titles are: FaceFull. SelfService. Hardcore. Wad. Cream. Fetish. Uncut. Ah, those porn magazines, eh? So-o-o subtle. Only I was in fact at a store that carries nothing racier than Maxim. The titles listed above are titles of mainstream (or mainstream-ish), consumer-type magazines. Anyone can buy 'em. Sometimes I want to grab a passing magazine editor, give him/her a good shake, and say, "Does your Momma know what kind of magazine you're publishing?" Problem is, Momma's probably got money invested in the magazine. Either that, or she's the half-naked babe on its cover. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 4, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

True Art School Tales
A new installment in John Leavitt's ongoing True Art School Tales, his irregular, illustrated diary about life as an art-school student. John's currently studying at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. His own website -- where he shows off his witty and elegant art, as well as his prowess as a designer and cartoonist -- is here. If you click on the thumbnails of the drawings John has included in his diary, you'll be able to enjoy them at a more sensible size. *** True Art School Tales This week, a taxonomy of art students, by major. Ad Design: Smug. Greedy. Dumb. Dress embarassingly up-to-date. Can't draw. Graphic Design: Jerks. Undeservedly big egos. Neophiles (in love with everything new). Overly cozy with Ad Design. Can't draw. Fine Arts: Drug-addicted. Lazy. Talentless. Dress like hobos despite trust funds. Can't draw. Illustration (Women): Quiet Koren girls. Good draftsmen, if overly concerned with shading. Illustration (Men): Fat. Live with parents. Can (sometimes) draw, if only busty barbarian babes. Textile Design: Shy girls. Very Patient. Can Draw. Package Design: Uncreative. Industry destroyed by computers. Can't draw (anymore). Fashion Design: Skinny preening men who wear their final projects. Obnoxious. Prissy. Can't draw without their templates. Fashion Merchandising Management: Blonde girls from somewhere upstate. Rich. Amazingly dumb. Not expected to work. Can't draw, not expected to. Photographers: Vaguely skilled. Wolly-headed. Can't draw, wouldn't occur to them to learn. Toy Design: Trolls who are given the hardest assignments. No one has ever seen one alive. Draw alot and often. Restoration: Actually lost chemistry students. Never see the light of day. Diligent. Can draw, despite not having to. Display and Exhibit Design: Misunderstood genuises. Get all the fun projects. Temperamental. Actually construct things, and even work nights. Can draw, and extremely well. --by John Leavitt... posted by Michael at October 4, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, October 3, 2003

Kazan and the Method
Friedrich -- Have you followed the obits for Elia Kazan? There have been a couple of beauties. I especially liked this one here by Patrick Goldstein for the LA Times, and this one by David Thomson for the Guardian (here). A giant though Kazan certainly was, I was never a huge fan of his work. Were you? I understand his place in theater and film history, etc. etc. -- I'm talking here only about personal reactions. In fact, the first time I saw "Streetcar," "On the Waterfront" and "Splendor in the Grass," I recoiled. And in a hurry: all the sweat, the swollen emoting, the pumped-up anguish, the luridly doted-on fumbling for words, the heightening of intensity via camera angles, light and music ... Good lord, what strange planet did these people come from? I felt at some points like a madman had me in his grip, and at others like I was watching a bizarre new kind of horror film. (The only Kazan film I took to instantly was "Baby Doll," which in fact was a kind of porno-horror comedy.) Polite small-town boy that I was at the time, I simply didn't have the resources to experience this carrying-on as anything but gross and terrifying. Everyone onscreen seemed hysterical and over-fleshy to me; the movies themselves seemed like emotional pornography. It took me years before I was able to take Kazan's work (and to be able to appreciate and enjoy it) on its own terms. But I've always struggled with Method acting, as a moviegoer and (for a misguided few years) as an acting student too. Pushy emotional exhibitionism wasn't, and isn't, my cup of theatrical tea. Yet back when you and I were young adults, the Method seemed to be what acting was, and all acting was. It wasn't a style or a school -- it was a meta-school. Remember all that talk about "the truth"? I found its claims bewildering. Could it really be that all acting paths led to the Method? Was the Method really what underlay the work of all performers, whether they knew it or not? Was my dislike of the Method a form of anti-art resistance that I needed to overcome? I finally got so puzzled by questions like these that I wound up trying to make some historical sense of it all. Long story made somewhat less long: no, no, no, no and no. In fact, the Method turns out to be a number of very specific things. The two that leaped out at me (yet that I've never heard said out loud) were these: * Art-historically speaking, the Method was in acting what modernism was in the other arts. It was a quasi-religious search for Truth, it made the same revolutionary claims as such other modernist quasi-religions as psychoanalysis, and it professed to get at the real essence of things in the same ways. It can help to think of the young Brando as the Jackson Pollock of acting. * Sociologically... posted by Michael at October 3, 2003 | perma-link | (19) comments

Friedrich -- * My favorite new blog-discovery is George Hunka's Superfluities, here. George manages the too-rare trick of bringing together a lot of in-the-midst-of-it art-and-media sophistication with a free-ranging and personal point of view. Superfluities is already high up on my blog-reading list, even if my eyes do ache from the tiny typeface. Nancy Lebovitz wrote in to point out a couple of very interesting pieces. * Here's software-usability guru Joel Spolsky on what it was like to move his business into a new office. People intrigued by the interactions of software, architecture, art, usability, beauty and business will probably find the piece fascinating. BTW, one of Spolsky's products -- a roll-your-own website application -- looks very alluring (here). Although, dangnabit, it isn't available for the Mac. And, hey, am I the only person who hates the word "application"? What's wrong with "program"? * Here’s an engrossing interview with the painter Michael Newberry. Objectivist art -- who knew? Certainly not me. Newberry's paintings look like a cross between New Classicism and sci-fi book-jacket art. Which about sums up Objectivism, at least so far as my understanding of it goes. * Nancy's own site, here, is something I’ve wanted to link to for a while. Have you ever helped yourself to a browse? It's a delight. Nancy sells buttons and bumperstickers, and you've never seen such a large collection of good one-liners. Oscar Wilde would admire many of them. * Alan Sullivan makes more sense (IMHO, of course) on the topic of gay marriage than anyone else I’ve read, here. * Mike Snider makes the case for using rather than defying form and tradition here. Be sure to follow the links in his posting too. * Lordy, identity politics, huh? Yucko: encouraging people to identify as this or that, to make a big deal out of it, and to join clubs and dorms based on it ... I'm probably not the only person who's wondered how long it would be before someone straight and white would say, "Well, since the game seems to be identity politics, why shouldn't I have a little identity-politics fun too? I mean, fair's fair, right?" Dennis Prager says it’s happening now, here. * Thomas Sowell responds to some dumb if all-too-typical remarks about civil rights here. * Kevin Michael Grace wonders whether classical music is alive or dead, here and here. * Does intelligence have survival-and-success value? OK, sure, but always? I’ve certainly seen a fair number of brilliant people make hashes of their lives. Hey, The New Scientist reports that experiments with fruit flies suggest that cleverness does indeed come with costs as well as benefits, here. * Alice Bachini makes an eloquent defence of sleeping late in the morning here. * A terrific blogging innovation from Yahmdallah, here, who MP3s and links to some of his favorite rock-guitar solos. Seems well within the bounds of fair use, as well as a first-class way to compare musical tastes. Yahmdallah likes the really far-out rock-guitar stuff,... posted by Michael at October 3, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Steyn and Me
Friedrich -- I notice that the amazing Mark Steyn has seen "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" -- he reviews it here. One of Steyn's observations made me nod in enthusiastic approval. It also made my head echo a little. Why? What was it reminding me of? Ah: it was reminding me of something I wrote a week or so ago here on this very blog. M. Blowhard (here): "Which means, as far as I can tell, that the electronically-mediated life tends to take the form of a catalog of highlights, or a never-ending Greatest Hits collection." M. Steyn: "Since the invention of the DVD, it seems to me a not insignificant segment of the public looks at certain movies as they do albums. Presumably, that's why they have that 'Scene Selection' listing: folks like certain tracks, and they skip the filler numbers." Dateline Blowhards: 9-18. Dateline Steyn: 9-27. I'm resisting the temptation to write a sentence beginning "Great minds ..." But probably not for long. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 3, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Pic of the Day
Michael: A week or so ago I was trying to get comfortable with the influences on Canada’s Group of Seven painters, so I spent some time looking at Post-Impressionist art on the web. I came across this little number by Toulouse-Lautrec which I hadn’t previously seen. H. Toulouse-Lautrec, The Kiss, 1892 How's that for fin-de-siecle decadence? Or, if that doesn't get your motor running, how's that for quietly terrific draftsmanship? Enjoy, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 3, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, October 2, 2003

Policy Break: 5 Year Anniversary of the Tobacco Settlement
Michael: Possibly you read in the NY Times on September 30 the headline announcing that “States Fail to Meet No-Smoking Goals for Women.” In this story, which you can read here, Anahad O’Connor notes that Thirty-nine states earned a failing grade when judged by a list of criteria from the Department of Health and Human Services and on the strength of their tobacco control policies. The nation over all also earned a failing grade. "Where we are in the United States is pretty appalling," said Dr. Michelle Berlin, an author of the study with Oregon Health and Science's Center for Women's Health. "The link between smoking and lung cancer is one of the strongest we know of. Yet more women are dying from lung cancer each year than they are from breast cancer." Unfortunately, this story pretty much has to be filed under the “like, duuuh” heading. Smoking isn’t declining among women because it’s not in anyone's interest (except for the women and their health insurers) for it to decline. The same is true for all forms of smoking. The latest data available from the CDC (which you can read here) reveals that: Overall, from 1996–2001, no change in the prevalence of current smoking was noted for 41 states and the District of Columbia. As for the other 9 states, over that five year period smoking increased in Georgia and Oklahoma, decreased in Tennessee, Utah and Hawaii, and fluctuated up and down in Minnesota, New Jersey, South Dakota and North Dakota. In short, guys, it’s been a wash. (Yeah, yeah, I know there have been claims that self-reported youth smoking is down, but they’re pretty unconvincing—odd, isn’t it, that there has been no sign of such a decline making its way into the adult smoking statistics after five years?) Not much of a showing for the enormous Master Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) negotiated five years ago between the state attorney-generals and four major tobacco companies. This settlement will ultimately transfer some $200 billion plus to the states, and has already resulted in the transfer of some $35 billion in “up-front” fees and “annual” fees. (And this doesn’t count another multi-billion dollar settlement between four states and the tobacco companies.) Moreover, none of this exhausts the financial contribution of smokers to our state government kitties, because the MSA- and other settlement-revenues sit on top of revenue from ordinary cigarette taxes. According to the website of Tobacco Free Kids, which you can visit here, total state tobacco revenues in 2003 are at an all-time high: The states in the current budget year are collecting a record $20.3 billion in tobacco-generated revenue, an increase of nine percent from the year before… Tobacco revenues are up because 21 states and the District of Columbia increased cigarette taxes in 2002. With all this dough, the states must be pumping out that anti-smoking propaganda like fire trucks at a 4-alarm blaze, right? Wrong. [In 2003, the states] have cut spending on already under-funded tobacco prevention and cessation... posted by Friedrich at October 2, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Electronics Agonies
Friedrich -- Do you have any knack for buying electronics? I seem to have an anti-knack myself. A typical experience: two weeks ago I bought a GameCube for $150. Seems to work fine, a little cheaper than the other videogame systems, patting myself on the back (in some relief) for a purchase well done, etc ... A week later, Nintendo reduced the price by $50. I could have used those 50 bucks. Another example: the home Imac. Nice little machine, very happy with it, even if the miniature-dentist’s-drill sound the hard drive has been making for the last year does hike the computing anxiety up a notch or two. But my timing ... The week during which I signed the credit-card slip for the purchase was the one and only week during which high-end Imacs like mine were manufactured without the ability to play DVDs. "Oh yeah," a computer-store guy once said to me, very slowly. "I remember that. There was like five minutes when that was happening." Yup: the five minutes during which I bought. Complicating matters is the fact that I rather enjoy doing the research -- arranging consultations with friends and acquaintances, riffling through consumer magazines, chatting with the guys at the store, making lists, endlessly websurfing. Especially endlessly websurfing ... My usual, and probably wise, pattern is to research an item exhaustively for several weeks, and then decide to put its purchase off for a couple of years. I do this (and announce it to The Wife) feeling as though I’ve really accomplished something. It’s only when I commit to an actual purchase that I get into trouble. Our TV, for instance. The Wife and I sprang a few years ago for a flat-screen Sony Wega. In the store it seemed to be a dazzling creature: that flat screen, those squared-off corners ... To swoon for. But our Wega turned out to be an unwieldy, temperamental beast. The picture is usually gorgeous but has some annoying flukes. And the sound quality is crap: optimized for thunderstorms and car crashes, and terrible at delivering simple dialog. When you watch an older, dialog-heavy movie you feel like you're failing a hearing exam. What to do? Rallying to the challenge, I bought some self-powered speakers. They helped a little, but not much. Evidently the problem isn't in the TV's speakers, it's (wouldn't you know it?) in the thing's wiring or circuitry -- its very nature, apparently. So we make do for a few more years, muffled dialog and all. And finally I just can't take it anymore -- something's got to be done. But there's the matter of timing: in five years, I keep reading, we're going to be living in a flat-screen, reasonably-priced, HDTV paradise. Which means that the question for now becomes: How to get, TV-wise, from here to there? Buying a new TV seems absurd. (The guys at Circuit City talk about this as buying a "transitional TV.") So it looks like a "home-theater" is going... posted by Michael at October 1, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Guest Posting -- Nate Davis
Friedrich -- A few postings ago I mentioned that I’d once met the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. That prompted Nate Davis, a Murakami fan and an occasional 2Blowhards visitor from Cape Cod, to send me an enthusiastic email. I thought what he wrote about Murakami (as well as about our "sexy words" poll) was terrific. Here it is: You got to speak with Haruki Murakami? I am jealous. I discovered his work a couple of weeks ago while reading a review of the video game, "Metal Gear Solid 2." The game gets quite surreal towards the end and that put off many of its players and reviewers, but the review I read defended its merits as a thought-provoking work of art and put it into context as a product of postmodern Japanese culture, comparing it with Murakami's work (specifically "Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World"). As the game had given me toe-curling paroxysms of delight, I rushed out to scoop up "Wonderland." What an unexpected pleasure! High-concept surreal sci-fi elements, neuroscience, mystery and eroticism all told with the clear voice of an accomplished storyteller. I kept thinking, "This is what all these new lit'rary snobs could do, if they could just get their own egos out of the way and tell the damn story!" Not that the language is plain, it's just clear, I guess. It does what it needs to perfectly, without unnecessary embellishment His descriptions of natural phenomena give me the same serene feeling that Japanese landscape prints do. That "Wonderland" came through so well in translation is remarkable. I just finished his "Wind Up Bird Chronicle" and enjoyed that every bit as much, but was dismayed to find that much of the story was cut in the English translation at the request of the publisher. This left the novel with several untied ends, and I don't think that was Murakami's intent. You wrote, "His English was terrible?" Better than our Japanese, I bet! I've been considering the challenge of learning another language well enough to appreciate literature from another point of view, and now I have Japanese to consider. I've thought of approaching Russian to read Dostoyevski or German for Rilke. Not much interest in French, although my wife is pushing for that as she'd like to get a villa in the South of France someday ... On a related note, your search for sexy words reminded me of a conversation a friend and I had about what language sounded sexiest. We both agreed on Russian. It's got a world-weary, earthy yearning to it that has some kind of allure, and a bit of German S&M hierarchical, martial sound withoug going over the top. French, the accepted "Language of Love," has too much sugar and snot. Japanese is pretty sexy too, but in a cloying creampuff sort of way. Any opinions on this pressing matter? My wife thought it was perhaps the stupidest discussion we'd ever had. Nate and I swapped a few more... posted by Michael at October 1, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friedrich -- * Hate to admit it, but the NYTimes has run some good pieces recently. David Brooks asks conservative professors here whether they’d advise promising conservative students to pursue academic careers. Answer: probably not -- there’s just too much leftie crapola to face. A good Brooks line about the consequences of leftie thought control on campus: "Students often have no contact with adult conservatives, and many develop cartoonish impressions of how 40 percent of the country thinks." * Corey Kilgannon writes about the sad old age of Mike Quashie, here. Celebrated in the ‘60s and ‘70s as the Limbo King, Quashie was a Village celebrity. He may well have invented much of the elaborate stage iconography of glam rock, and he was even buddies with Jimi. Now Quashie is poor, alone, and suffering from bad knees and a bad spine -- doing the limbo is hard on a body. A terrific slice-of-showbiz-life story. * Ah, those golden years 'way back when, when Islam was a tolerant, civilized thing ... We’ve all been told this, right? But how true is it? Edward Rothstein’s verdict (here): not very. The golden years featured mass executions, plunder, murder, religious tribalism, special taxes on non-Muslims, massacres, and forced exiles. The piece is well worth reading all the way through. Rothstein gets off a couple of terrific paragraphs near the end on the charm and power of Islamic art: "The viewer is absorbed in a formal world that overwhelms, inspiring awe with intricacies that seem beyond comprehension" -- that’s darned good. * According to John Tierney (here) as many as half of all Iraqi marriages are between first or second cousins -- a fact that has important (and discouraging) implications for attempts to do a little nation-building. Good to see Tierney acknowledging Steve Sailer, especially given that his piece is essentially a colorful re-write of one of Sailer's own American Conservative pieces (here). * Dept. of Get Over Your Fear of Conservatism: Steve Sailer has posted an interesting John O’Sullivan National Review piece here that’s a taxonomy of conservatives -- learn how to distinguish among 'em. Roger Scruton writes movingly about the nature of conservatism here. Someone has typed Michael Oakeshott's great esssay "On Being Conservative" into the web here. And Hernando de Soto explains the importance -- for the poor -- of property rights, here. * In The Oldie (here), Stanley Price remembers visiting the set of "The Quiet American" and meeting Graham Greene. * The brainy, arty and articulate Kelly Jane Torrance is a blogger once again (here). This time she's threatening to keep at the blogging for more than a week. * Pleased to learn that Colby Cosh (whose blog is here) will be writing a regular column for Canada’s National Post on Mondays and Fridays -- congrats to him. Here's a recent Colby column. * This Calvin Trillin profile (here) of the crime reporter/novelist Edna Buchanan is a classic New Yorker profile: droll, insightful, beautifully turned. * Catherine Blackledge's new "The... posted by Michael at October 1, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friedrich -- Forgive another Andy Rooney moment on the part of your blogging partner. I love the way that computers have made it easy to combine visuals with text, don't you? This is how books (and other publications) started out and were probably always meant to be -- nonlinear, and as visual as they were "written." Many people don't realize that the nothing-but-text, read-it-straight-through book that's still seen by many overly-serious people as the only kind of "real book" was a bizarre and anomalous publishing development; it was (in large part) a historical accident attributable to the difficulties of getting industrial-era publishing technology to manage images and text well. So it's lovely seeing books, magazines and websites making extensive and resourceful use of the visual side of things. When I visit a museum and look at old scrolls or early Bibles or Korans, I'm often struck by how much they resemble contempo publications -- they're "looking" as well as "reading" experiences. Still, the Quark-and-Photoshop revolution has delivered some -- OK, many --evils to us too. Foremost among them, as far as I’m concerned, is the vogue for what’s known as "reversed-out" type -- white (or light) type set over black (or dark) backgrounds. Have you noticed how common reversed-out text is these days? It's everywhere. Type on top of dark photos, type on top of color blocks and swirls. The eyes boggle -- which can be exciting and/or cool. What's not cool, IMHO, is when the eye-boggle goes on too long. Who can read extended passages of reversed-out text? I’m good for a couple of sentences of it myself; then my eyes and concentration give out. (I feel sorry for writers whose stories have been set in reversed-out text. Hard to imagine anyone reading all the way through their hard work.) It ain't easy to pull the written meaning out from a display that's so intensely visual. In fact, back in the classic era, it used to be one of those do-or-die typographical/layout rules: never use reversed-out type for more than a paragraph. Hey, designers: what do you say we revive that rule? And then enforce it, too. What are the Quark-and-Photoshop-era tropes and cliches that irk you the most? Best, if often somewhat cross-eyed these graphics-happy days, Michael... posted by Michael at October 1, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Luck and Economics
Friedrich -- You probably won't want to miss this piece here in the Boston Globe by Matthew Miller. (Tyler Cowen points the piece out and comments on it here.) In it, Miller talks to Milton Friedman and William Bennett about the role of luck in people's lives. I'll be curious to hear how you react. For what little it's worth, it seems to ultra-amateurish me that luck (like uncertainty) is a much-underdiscussed topic in economics. Can luck or uncertainty be modeled? Many economists seem to think they can be, but to what extent is anyone able to take them into account? Doesn't the ability to make a model presume that you have some understanding of what it is you're modeling? Yet don't the words "luck" and "uncertainty" -- like the word "inspiration" -- carry with them an acknowledgment that we don't, and probably can't, know much about them? They're elements in life that are unaccountable. And what the words represent is perhaps more a humble acceptance of this unaccountability than a specific, nailed-down meaning. IMHO, it's certainly true one can be "more open to" rather than "less open to" luck, uncertainty and inspiration. If I didn't think that I probably wouldn't be the arty guy I am, and I certainly wouldn't be a meditator. But what does it mean, to be open in this way? What can it mean beyond "being loose, alert and responsive, and more or less resigned to the fact that you're still going to be taken by surprise anyway"? Which reminds me of a comment J.C. once left on a posting. She was taking note of the common-experience fact that while there are jobs and fields where performance can be objectively evaluated (tournament golf and engineering, say), there are also jobs and fields where performance-evaluation is more subjective. Art, design, writing, pop music, and filmmaking would be examples of this. Her larger point was that in these latter fields, politics will tend to play a big role in how well people succeed. In the arty-media neck of the woods where I fumble by, I'm often struck by J.C.'s point. It seems to be a fact that nearly everyone here is bright, and that nearly everyone is competent. You and I may or may not like the work of a given individual, but we'd be hard put to argue that the person isn't bright and competent. There's a standard, accepted baseline that's commonly accepted and recognized, and so might as well be thought of as "objective." But how to measure anything beyond that baseline -- any excess qualities, talents, or energies? You can't, really, or at least not in any hard-and-fast way. By the way, one of the most eye-opening moments I've had as an arty guy came when I spent a little time doing show-business reporting in Hollywood. Hollywood, that awful town crawling with idiots and scum and no-talents, where they make so much rotten TV and so many lousy movies, right? Wrong-o. Certainly much that's... posted by Michael at September 30, 2003 | perma-link | (20) comments

Monday, September 29, 2003

Broken Windows
Michael: I have often wondered how educators (and the politicians they report to) think learning is going to take place in schools where such items as peace, quiet, discipline and even personal safety are in short supply. It would seem as if the first requirement of a school would be to ensure an environment where these items—at last report mostly free—are plentiful. Well, my intuitions seem to have been validated by a September 24 story in the New York Times headlined “A Private School That Thrives on Rules.” (You can read this here.) It is a profile of the Trey Whitfield private school in Brooklyn, which draws a student body identical in its demographics to the New York public schools in the neighborhood: Students come mostly from working-class families in eastern Brooklyn, the children of nurses' aides and bus drivers, teachers and police officers. Everyone is nonwhite, reflecting the demographics of this swath of Brooklyn. Some live in two-parent households, and others with single mothers or fathers, with grandmothers or in foster homes. Nor is there any attempt to select for academic performance: The admissions process is less about a child's I.Q. than a parent's attitude. The children are tested, but only to determine whether to put them back a grade. If a parent resists such a move, [Principal A.B.] Whitfield said, he often encourages them to go elsewhere. Trey Whitfield’s results, however, are not comparable to those of the local public schools, despite far lower spending levels: Trey Whitfield students perform two or three years above grade level on national achievement tests. On the state reading and math exams, they rack up 3's and 4's on a 1-to-4 scoring system, while 2's are the norm in public schools. None of these tests are required in private school, but [Principal A.B.] Whitfield knows that without them, "nobody is going to believe us." What is the school’s “secret?” The governing principle at the school is that structure, calm and safety are prerequisites for learning. "If we didn't have order, we couldn't teach these kids at all," Mr. Whitfield said, acknowledging that some people find his techniques robotic. These so-called “robotic” techniques seem to consist of dress codes for teachers, uniforms for students, and prohibitions (apparently enforced) on gold teeth, coarse talk in the hallways and hip-hop fashions. And, given the school’s Christian religious affiliation, daily prayer. Corporal punishment, while permitted by the school’s by-laws, has apparently never been necessary, possibly because of Principal Whitfield’s previous line of work as a professional football player. This former New York public school teacher also takes the time to greet every student from pre-school to 8th grade with either a hug or a formal handshake. It kind of makes you wonder if America’s schools aren’t failing for lack of well-socialized children, but for lack of leaders who are willing to be—well, you know, adults. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at September 29, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Genetic Algorithms and Their Uses
Michael: Do you ever feel like an “analogue-era” Moses, stuck on this side of the River Jordan, able to glimpse but unable to enter the promised digital land? I often do looking at interesting new developments in computing. I particularly felt that way looking at an article headlined “Darwin in a Box” by Steven Johnson from the August issue of Discover Magazine (okay, so I’m a little behind in my reading—blame it on blogging.) Since I'm unequal to the task of executing a notion that came to me while reading the story, I'll share it with you and our readers--maybe somebody can bring it off. The article discusses genetic algorithms, originally invented by John Holland in the 1960s at the University of Michigan. (Which of course makes me feel even worse, as that was pretty much the equivalent of my own back yard at the time.) According to the article: [The technique] creates a random population of potential solutions, then tests each one for success, selecting the best of the batch to pass on their “genes” to the next generation, including slight mutations to introduce variations…. To give the clueless (like me) an example of how the process works, the author shows how Torsten Reil, an Oxford researcher turned animation entrepreneur, used these algorithms to solve the problem of making a digitized character walk. He started with a simple stick figure, added muscles and a neural network to control them. The control network was the actual focus of the evolution. Reil and his team created a genetic algorithm to explore the potential ways that the figure’s control system could be refined. The ingredients of a genetic algortithm are actually relatively simple: a population of “organisms,” each with a distinct set of “genes”; rules for the mutation and recombination of those genes; and a “fitness function” to evaluate which organisms are the most promising in each generation. In this case, the fitness function was “distance traveled from the origin without falling over.” The algorithm generated 100 animated characters, each with a [random variation in its neural network.] Then the algorithm let them all try walking. Predictably enough, the first generation was almost completely inept. But a few figures were slightly better than the rest—they took one hesitant step before crumbling to the ground. By the standards of the fitness function, they became the winners of round one. The software made 20 copies of their neural networks, introduced subtle mutations in each of them, added 80 new participants with [randomly varied control] networks, and started the next generation walking. Eventually, the computer program created a successful striding figure, which Mr. Reil incorporated into an animation software package called Endorphin. I don’t know about you, but genetic algorithms—which are getting a fair amount of real-world use in the engineering realm to do things like optimize refrigerator design for cost and efficiency—would seem to offer a lot of possibilities for the cultural realm. To take one example out of many, imagine applying this idea... posted by Friedrich at September 28, 2003 | perma-link | (21) comments

I'm Exhausting
Friedrich -- You know that multipart posting I put up a few back? The one here, where everyone's now pitching in with movie-list and book-list ideas? I wrote it that way because I had a dozen things knocking around my head that morning and couldn't settle on only one of them to post about. So I decided, "Oh, the hell with it. Rather than plod from one to the next and lose most of what I have to say, why not do what I can to spatter them all out there at the same time?" Looking back at the results, I now realize that once I'd written, I should have broken the mega-posting up into a bunch of separate postings. Oh well: live and learn -- or try to, anyway. I asked the Wife a little while ago what she thought of the posting. And, sweetly, she took another look at it, and said a few appreciative and wifely things. Contented, I trotted back into hobby-land. A few minutes later I found The Wife lying in bed with one hand pressed wearily to her forehead. "What's up?" I said. "It's that posting," she said. "What about it?" "Well, it's like being married to you." She gave me an accusing look and then closed her eyes. She's snoozing now, evidently still In Recovery. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 28, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments