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Saturday, October 11, 2003

Goltzius and Authorship
Friedrich -- Your posting here about authorship and the Bible got me thinking about authorship and other kinds of works too. As you know, there's little that peeves me as much as the determined hero-worshipping that seems so strong a part of the modernist/romantic ethos -- all that titanic-genius, lone-creator crap. (Responsible-adult break: of course there's a range here, with some artists working more on their own and some less. Nod, nod. Genuflect, genuflect. Now back to our previously-scheduled rant.) A little reality, please. We all depend on inherited forms and techniques, as well as on the work of others; we all need a culture within which to operate; we all count on and learn from friends, family, spouses, teachers, audiences, partners, associates, etc. Nobody comes up with everything. Still, lots of people cling to the idea of the loner-hero artist. I find this bizarre, although I suppose I should find it interesting instead; romantic and modernist ideas seem have a kind of cobra-like, hypnotic power. Even so, you'd think that by now people would be comfortable with the idea that not all artworks are the product of a single individual. An extreme example: the temples at Angkor Wat, built by thousands of hands over many centuries. Here's a more familiar example: the movies. There they are, the products of cultures, companies, teams and individuals -- yet still many people want to assign them to one name. In fact, one of the reasons it took the self-serious set so long to accept movies as an artform was because of the question, Well, if they're art, who's the artist? But it's this kind of messiness that often gives artforms like the movies their strength. To pick a classy example: "The Letter." To an acting fan, it's one of Bette Davis' strongest vehicles. To a literature fan, it's a solid adaptation of Somerset Maugham. To an auteurist film buff, it's one of the director William Wyler's best movies. Down-and-dirty, nuts-and-bolts types might want to remind us that without the producers, Hal Wallis and Jack Warner, "The Letter" never woulda happened. And surely there are a few people for whom the movie is really a Max Steiner thing, or a Herbert Marshall picture ... Who's the real creator of "The Letter"? It's a hard question to answer if we're allowed to volunteer only one name -- yet there the movie is. It got made, it exists, and it's there to be experienced and enjoyed. Why argue with that? I once asked a film critic, "So why do we film nuts call 'The Letter' a William Wyler film?" She gave a shrug and said, "It's a convenience." Look further into the facts than your college art-history course took you, and you discover that these kinds of complications crop up regularly, even in the domain of what's thought of as the more solitary arts -- the painting-type visual arts, say. The Wife and I recently spent a happy hour at the Metropolitan Museum going through... posted by Michael at October 11, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Sexual Selection and Fashion
Michael: Have you, like me, long been puzzled by certain aspects of feminine fashion? I never had any trouble with the kind of women’s fashions that are designed to emphasize the good bits and hide the more questionable bits and generally present the wearer as a prime candidate for reproduction—what I call, ahem, dressing for men. Then there’s a strange subsection of fashion that appears to have an altogether different aim, only dimly comprehensible to me (and, I suspect, to most men.) What I am referring to is hip ugly fashion. (Perhaps I need to make a distinction here--hip ugly fashion in the sense I am using it is not slob fashion or the absence of fashion. It is intensely and often expensively designed to be...well...ugly. And hip.) Examples of Hip Ugly Fashion from Jeremy Scott's Sexybition of September 2003 For years I racked my brain trying to figure out what was going on here. I formulated many hypotheses. Noticing that much of this hip ugly fashion is quite expensive (it is quite a bit more prevalent at the couture level than at WalMart, and far more visible in Vogue than in Allure) I wondered if hip ugly fashion was a weapon in a status war between women. The only problem with this notion is that I couldn’t see the value in winning such a status war, at least today—how rewarding can it be to boss the other ladies in the Junior League? Wouldn’t it be more gratifying to the power-hungry to be a Senior Vice President at Goldman Sachs? And hip ugly fashion doesn’t seem designed to help one get ahead in the corporate world. I also wondered if hip ugly fashion was intended as a form of self-expression or rebellion. But this seemed dubious when I noticed that the fashion establishment disseminates hip ugly fashion in a far more command-and-control method than it does attractive fashion. Hip ugly fashion always seems to be accompanied by commandments from on high: Thou Shalt Wear This Now! This would seem to limit the opportunities for using it to burnish your credentials as a free spirit. However, I think I’ve made a conceptual breakthrough. I was reading an essay by Geoffrey F. Miller, “Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays,” in a fascinating book, The Evolution of Culture, when I came across this quote: [In 1975] Amotz Zahavi stirred intense controversy with his ‘Handicap Principle’… Zahavi proposed that the only way to reliably demonstrate one’s quality during courtship is to display a high-cost signal such as a heavy peacock’s tail, an exhausting bird-song concert or an expensive sports car. Only these costly ‘handicap’ signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake… Suddenly it all became clear. Hip ugly fashion is intended to be a handicap! If you can still look even remotely sexy in hip ugly fashion, you are one hot momma indeed! Just dressing to be ordinarily attractive as a sign... posted by Friedrich at October 11, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Quote of the Day
Friedrich -- It is easy to lose ourselves in efficiency, to treat that efficiency as an end in itself and not as a means to other ends. -- Management theorist Charles Handy (an interview with whom can be read here.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 11, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Fact of the Day
Friedrich -- The largest generation of adolescents in history -- 1.2 billion strong -- is preparing to enter adulthood ... Nearly half of all people are under the age of 25 -- the largest youth generation in history. -- From the UNFPA State of World Population Report 2003 (here, found via Crumb Trail, here). Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 11, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, October 10, 2003

Friedrich -- * Here are results of a study of blogdom done by Perseus Development. Some highlights: about a quarter of all blogs created are abandoned after only one day. Men tend to abandon their blogs slightly faster than women do, while women are slightly more likely to create a blog in the first place. More than 90% of all blogs were created by people under 30 years old. The average active blog is updated only once every 14 days. [UPDATE: Alan Sullivan points out that Perseus studied only the world of hosted blogdom -- Blogspot, Live Journal, etc -- which surely affected their results.] * Terry Teachout has written a lovely elegy for middlebrow culture here. Great quote: "The information age offers something for anybody: Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody." * An interesting discussion at the Adam Smith Institue has been kicked off by Madsen Pirie's suggestion that the world set itself a couple of new goals, here. * Look a little closer at some of those items on sale at Ebay, here. (Link thanks to Daze Reader, here.) * When it comes to the impact of digital technology on movies, we run ourselves into a rut when we consider only theatrical feature-type movies. Here's an example of what I suspect digi-movie-tech is going to be bringing us a lot more of -- "movies" that are small, cheap, short, and delivered over the web. A development that makes me feel much more cheerful, by the way, than the ones in the feature-film world ... (Link thanks to S.Y. Affolee, here.) * As you know, my preferred semi-solution to the health-insurance crisis is to break the link between emploment and health insurance. Stop giving employers a tax break to pay for it, and start giving individuals the tax break instead. The jeers came loud and thick, but I'm taking comfort in some classy company -- Arnold Kling (here) and Ronald Bailey (here), who make similar (if much better informed) arguments. * David Sucher (here) and Chris Bertram (here) have a vigorous conversation going about compassion and government. I'm not sure I follow all the points being made, but I couldn't resist jumping into the comments thread anyway. * Are stressed-out couples more likely to give birth to girls than to boys? Tyler Cowen considers the evidence and offers a generous helping of links, here. * Ian Hamet watches some blaxploitation movies (here), as well as Akira Kurosawa's first movie, here. * Genitalia worship, religion, and art -- give me one good reason why they shouldn't be buddies (here). This is just a small corner of the very idiosyncratic but rich website Kamat's Potpourri, which is devoted to all things Indian. * Jon Walz muses about the beauty of a great old movie palace, Phoenix's 1929 Orpheum Theater, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 10, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Why The Times?
Friedrich - Question for the day: Why the Times? What I mean is, why do so many bloggers love hovering around the New York Times? They monitor it; they criticize it; they attack it, etc etc. I do a bit of this myself. What is it about the NYTimes that encourages so much of this kind of behavior, especially on the part of bloggers? It seems to me that any rational person who's bugged by the Times would simply stop looking at the paper and turn elsewhere. After all, why patronize an establishment that offends? It's not as if there aren't alternatives. Naughty, subversive (if diverging from my topic) thought here: don't these eternally-outraged bloggers realize that the Times is happy about their outrage? After all, that means they've still got their attention. The Times' editors don't care if you hate them -- so long as you buy and read them. After all, they're in the business of delivering eyeballs to advertisers. As someone in the mediabiz, I'm sometimes amazed by the naivete of many otherwise impressively smart bloggers. Hey folks, the news game is a business! So long as they have your eyeballs (and especially so long as you're steering other eyeballs their way), they've got you! They win! Criticize them, and they win! Express your outrage at them, and they win! Simple fact: So long as you're paying any kind of attention to them at all, they win. There's no way around this. If you disapprove of the Times and want to do it damage, then the only thing to do (assuming you really want to do it damage) is to stop looking at it, and encourage others to stop looking at it too. Sorry, phew, OK. Anyway, why should the Times so obsess so many people? They've really got a knack. It's not as if the Times is the country's official national newspaper. It's just a media operation like any other. And, besides, the country's other national papers, the WSJournal and USAToday, don't seem to get under people's skins in the same way. Why not? And -- a calm pause to be reasonable here -- the Times does deserve credit for running a lot of thoughtful, good articles that few other newspapers would run. What other paper compares where culture and ideas stories are concerned, for instance? My guess about this? It's that the Times is so morally officious (and hence puffed-up and annoying), and so pretentious, so center-of-the-world, and so final-arbiter-of-what's-really-news self-satisfied, that it's hard to resist taking shots at them. Which of course only delights their editors, who are thinking, Aha, gotcha! What's your hunch about this? And why don't people who are peeved by the Times simply drop it, leave it behind, forget about it, etc? These outraged, obsessed people must be getting pleasure out of going after the Times -- so much pleasure (or, hey, "utility") that they don't care that their actions only serve the Times' ends and not their own. I... posted by Michael at October 10, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

No Wonder It's So Confusing
Michael: I don’t know if you’ve come across the “Documentary Hypothesis” that the Jewish Torah (for non-Jews, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are the work of four authors cut and pasted together by one editor or redactor. This hypothesis, also known as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis after the scholars who originally formulated it back in the 19th century, claims to be able to separate the contributions of the four authors by word choices, literary style, and preferred name or names for the Big Guy upstairs. (For the curious, there is a succinct description of the theory here.) I’ve been dimly aware of this theory for ages—I ran into it (in my tender years) during my own religious education. Ever since I first heard of it I’ve been curious to read the Torah disassembled into its original sources. Of course, since I'm quite lazy, this was one of those ‘I’ll get around to it someday’ aspirations. It probably would have remained that way permanently except that my hard-working brother, as part of a larger project he is working on concerning Middle Eastern religions, went to the trouble of e-mailing me a copy of the Torah (plus the book of Joshua), color-coded for the different sources. Being the simple-minded guy I am, I am in the process of separating the four original accounts. My brother’s color-coding follows the work of Richard Elliot Friedman, perhaps the leading contemporary proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis, as presented in his books, “Who Wrote the Bible?” and “The Hidden Book in the Bible.” I’m not even finished with Genesis yet, but I have to say reading the ostensibly original sources is pretty intriguing. (Let me offer a disclaimer here: I am no biblical scholar, I don’t read Hebrew and I am resolutely unqualified to comment seriously on any aspect of the truth or falsehood of the Documentary Hypothesis. If the comments that follow offend you, feel free to ignore them as the work of a lunatic amateur.) Based on the material as translated into English in the 1952 Revised Standard Version, I will say that each identified “author” seems to maintain a quite constant point of view and literary style—an identifiable voice. What intrigues me—at least so far—is just how different the various versions are. The two most voluminous sources so far are the “P” source and the “J” source, both of which form fairly continuous narratives (although “J” is more encyclopedic—if the Documentary Hypothesis is correct, chunks of the “P” story must have been edited out as redundant). The “J” source is into drama and psychology—it is the source that contains the Garden of Eden episode, the Tower of Babel episode, the Cain and Abel episode, the various episodes where Abraham passes his wife off as his sister, the episode of Lot offering his virginal daughters to the lust-crazed inhabitants of Sodom and the episode in which Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him, rather than Esau, his blessing. The relationship... posted by Friedrich at October 10, 2003 | perma-link | (17) comments

Thursday, October 9, 2003

"Out of Time"
Friedrich -- As a big fan of the film version of "Devil in a Blue Dress," I was looking forward to the new Carl Franklin/Denzel Washington collaboration Out of Time. I found "Devil" a delight. It struck me as a nearly-ideal example of Hollywood classicism; its liveliness played off against the beautifully-shaped crime story in a way that enhanced both the funkiness and the elegance, and Denzel's restraint conveyed not just dignity but also fire. "Out of Time," though, is a juiceless letdown. It's nothing if not professionally engineered, but to what end? Briefly, Denzel's a police chief in the Florida Keys who gets set up, then has to race to prove his innocence. The chases, the twists, the surprises -- all are impressively well-done. And the casting and acting have bounce and life; Denzel even gets to show off some fear and tension that I haven't seen from him before. So what's missing? It's as though the filmmakers skipped one important step as they developed the movie, the one where they're supposed to ask themselves, Now, why should people keep watching this? With a half-Hitchcock/half-noir story like this one, the usual thing is to press a few buttons with your narrative's central fantasy, and to use the protagonist's journey to expose the audience to some memorable environments and characters -- a sexy bar, a creepy and scary guy, a touching floozy. But the central fantasy here has no wickedness, and what Denzel races through couldn't be more anonymous. You're left with the cast, with Denzel, with the Florida Keys ... It isn't unpleasant, but it isn't enough either. Maybe this is just me, but crime stories seldom suffer from a little dirtiness; I thought "Wild Things" and even "Palmetto" (laughably absurd in some ways, but likable and sexy too) did great jobs of giving the same ol' story some sassy new heat. "Out of Time," though, is more in the spotless, lifestyle-catalog mode of something like the Ashley Judd hit "Double Jeopardy." (Which, come to think of it, did have a few fresh elements -- the central one being the fantasy of being a wronged woman entitled to not just get revenge, but to get in shape and look good wearing stunning fashions while settling scores.) What's the central fantasy here? The fear of being mistaken for a bad person. Yawnsville. The Denzel character is never morally compromised, at least not seriously; he never comes close to crossing the line. There's some daring racial jokiness in the movie that a white filmmaker probably wouldn't have risked and that the audience enjoys. (What a relief a lot of people seem to find it to be able to chortle a bit about race.) And the picture does begin with a promising couple of minutes of hot buttered lovin'. But from then on out, the movie succumbs to a color-coordinated, genteel yuppie respectability. It isn't without interest as filmmaking. Franklin seems to have decided to shoot and edit the story's three acts... posted by Michael at October 9, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friedrich -- * Polly Frost (here) sings the praises of samurai movies, and offers her own ten-best list. * John Nye writes about the economics of taste and style here. * Virginia Postrel reports on a study a couple of economists have done on buzz and word-of-mouth, here. * Mike Snider continues to talk sense (evo-bio and otherwise) about poetry and rhythm, here and here. Great passage: "An endless stream of ones carries no information, and neither does an endless random stream of numbers. What matters are variations within a recognizable pattern." * Anyone curious about the thoughts and contributions of the urban theorist (bad word for her, but ...) Jane Jacobs should find this excellent 1997 Robert Fulford article fascinating, here. A (slightly-edited) teaser: Jane's responses to urban settlement ... are both radical and highly personal ... She likes street life, people sitting on porches, short blocks, diversity, informality, old-fashioned neighbourhoods, high density, and different types of buildings ... She doesn't like grandeur, she doesn't like complicated plans drawn up by bureaucrats, and she has an aversion to big institutions ... Her friends tend to be on the left in politics, but she's no socialist. She's attracted to entrepreneurs, people who create wealth for themselves and others, who see a need and imagine how it might be filled. Contrary, pragmatic, arty, humane -- that's how we (often) like 'em around here. * The Queens house where Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived is due to open as a public museum next week. John Leland and David Dunlap provide pre-coverage , here and here. If you can keep your eyes from misting over while reading these pieces, well, you aren't as big a Louis Armstrong fan as I am, I guess. * Alexis translates a short Samuel Johnson essay into modern English, here. His posting wins this week's Best Compare-and-Contrast Oscar. * Hey, an artist who really knows what he likes, here. Click on "dolls," and be amazed and amused. * Hey, the first Neuroeconomics blog, here. * Women suffer worse hangovers than men do, here. * Glenn "Mac" Frazier has never been busier, here. I'd feel overwhelmed by the length of his obligation and chores list, but he says he's never felt happier. * Tim Hulsey keeps the is-Classical-music-dead conversation illuminatingly alive, here and here. * JW Hastings finds that working for a charitable nonprofit organization has moved his politics to the right, here. Great quote: "I don't think anyone of any political persuasion is against giving help to people who deserve it. The question is whether or not the government should be in charge of doling out the help." * Have you wrestled with the work of the hot Belgian artist Luc Tuymans? Here are some of his paintings, and here's a book about him. I haven't settled yet on whether I approve or disapprove of his art (I know the world can't wait to find out my decision), but I did once run into something he... posted by Michael at October 9, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

"The Devil's Playground"
Friedrich -- A quick note to alert you to an interesting small movie. You know the way that a documentary that has got hold of a great subject can fascinate even when the movie itself is no better than passable? The Wife and I just watched an example of this: Lucy Walker's The Devil's Playground. It's about Amish teenagers, who we learn aren't baptized into the faith as children. Instead, at 16, they're set free to leave the community if they want to, and to sow some wild oats. It's a rite of passage the Amish call Rumspringa; the idea is that people should be able to choose on their own, and in full consciousness, whether or not to join the Amish church and community. Lucy Walker follows the adventures and fortunes of about a half-a-dozen Amish kids as they dip their toes into the world of what they call "the English," ie., the rest of America. Some presumably stay near home, but some go hogwild. The movie spends most of its time with these kids, who smoke, drink, and hang at the mall. Many seem to love videogames, cars and cellphones. Walker's main subject, a gaunt teen named Faron, becomes a drug addict and a dealer. The boys seem to take instantly to MTV-and-rap-style fashions and behaviors, while the girls generally act out more cautiously and continue wearing Amish clothes. But kids of both sexes are ardent partyers. When word about an Amish-kid party starts to spread, look out. Amish kids show up from all over -- and then more of them, and then more, until there's hundreds of Amish kids out in the cornfields, smokin', chuggin' brewskis, cruisin' each other, doin' the whole heavy-metal, head-bangin' thing. I often feel a lot of sympathy for makers of small documentaries like this one. It can't be easy. You find a subject, you cobble together whatever time, money, contacts and equipment you can, you work really hard ... and then have to face the crapshoot factor. You pick a bunch of people to focus on and hope like hell that something interesting happens to a few of them. Or even one of them. Walker didn't have the greatest luck in this department. Faron kicks drugs, gets dumped by a girlfriend, goes home to live, works for his dad, misbehaves some more ... He's a lost kid hoping he's got a destiny somewhere, in other words -- an interesting case history but, as it turns out, not a galvanizing figure to hang a movie on. So it's the footage, the lore and information, and the interviews that carry you through the film. Walker's no technical genius but she does OK, and deserves credit for lots of things. She got access to this world, which can't have been easy in itself. And she's open and fair with her material. She shows both the attractions of the Amish world (where there's always a place for you) and its chore-ridden dullness too. She lets you... posted by Michael at October 8, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Macbeth Through The Years
Michael: Do you have certain works of art that you return to repeatedly as you go through life? One of these works that keeps coming back in my own life is “Macbeth.” I grant you that “Hamlet” is a work of greater eloquence, and “Lear” a work of greater moral vision, but “Macbeth”—that murderous son of a bitch—is still my son of a bitch. H. Fuseli, Macbeth and the Witches; H. Fuseli, Lady Macbeth I first read Macbeth in 10th grade English. I started out reading it purely as an assignment, a few pages at a time, but on the third day or so of that I got hooked and read the rest in an hour. When I snapped out of my trance, I found myself staring at the end page, my back sore from the hunched over posture I had assumed reading. I knew this story was compelling as all get out—that, on some level, Macbeth was the story, or one of the stories, of my life—although I had no idea why. In my twenties I went another round with Macbeth. After being out on my own for a few years, I had moved back into my parents’ home so I could go to law school—thus committing two capital crimes against myself. I was also still suffering from the nasty breakup of my first serious relationship. As I contemplated the gloomy Scot in my state of unwanted celibacy, it suddenly dawned on me that Macbeth’s childlessness was the key to his character. It made him vulnerable to his ambitious wife, who browbeat him into killing Duncan the king by hinting broadly that he wasn’t “a real man.” A Macbeth who was afraid of not being a “real man” would clearly be hostile to Banquo, MacDuff and Duncan, all of whom had children. Pondering Macbeth's fate as well as my then-current state of regressed sexuality, I decided that it was my duty to bail out on law school, move out of my parent's basement and get on with starting a family. Otherwise, I might well end up stabbing my own parents in their beds. (Listen, after months of living at home as an adult, it got touch-and-go there for a while.) In my thirties, a small businessman and a father twice over with plenty of ambivalence over having assumed so much “adult” responsibility, it was the similarities between Hamlet and Macbeth that I noticed: Both are emotionally involved with morally questionable mothers. In "Hamlet," Hamlet’s mother married her husband’s murderer and presumably had an affair with him before the murder. In "Macbeth," Lady Macbeth—who’s had children by another man--is eager for our hero to move up in the world via butchery. Both Hamlet and Macbeth are hostile to fathers and father figures. Hamlet hates and mistrusts his uncle and is passive-aggressive about revenging his father's murder. Macbeth actually kills his mild mannered father-king, Duncan. Both Macbeth and Hamlet seem reluctant to assume an adult role. Hamlet seems very unwilling to... posted by Friedrich at October 8, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Pop Culture Equals Junk Food?
Friedrich -- As far as you're concerned, is popular culture (most movies, TV, magazines, music, etc) the culture equivalent of junk food? I realize that I simply assume that this is so. It's conceivable -- if unimaginable to me -- that others may not agree. I mean the comparison, by the way, not as a put-down but as a which-slot-to-put-this-in thing. Pop culture? 99% of it is, inevitably, industrially-produced entertainment for the masses. It has its glories; and sometimes someone (or some bunch) of talent does something startling in the field, or uses the idiom and the techniques to convey something lovely or different. But the business is basically -- and necessarily -- an industry devoted to making profits by producing entertainment. Which prompts a question: I know a fair number of people who are still what I'd call rock-and-roll-revolutionaries. They think of pop culture as a liberating force -- sexually, politically, psychologically. It isn't just that popcult can be fun, distracting, amusing, and occasionally surprisingly moving. And it isn't that pop culture can be seen as an amazing creation in its own right and on its own terms. It's that pop culture can be, and ought to be, a Politically Good Thing. Overaged adolescents still clinging to a silly dream, and unwilling to abandon silly teen tastes and fantasies? Or what? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 8, 2003 | perma-link | (24) comments

I'm Nick-Free
Friedrich -- In the immortal words of Scott Chaffin, "Edge gel + Mach 3 Turbo = no cuts in years." This morning I gave Scott's formula a try and, praise the lord, it works. Well, apart from that length of Adam's-apple flesh I managed to separate myself from. Still: one wound rather than the usual six -- a big improvement. God bless technological progress, and I eagerly await the advent of the Mach 4. Scott's blog is here. Go, enjoy, imbibe wisdom. Best, Michael PS: Achin' forearms forced me ease up on the blogging for a few days. They don't seem to be in loud protest mode this morning, so I'll start venturing the occasional posting again.... posted by Michael at October 8, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, October 6, 2003

Friedrich -- When we last left off (here), I was bemoaning my lack of prowess with electronics. The Wife and I have a temperamental Sony Wega that puts out annoyingly bad sound. What's someone who loves watching DVDs at home to do? Feeling overambitious, I ordered up a home theater -- an amp and a speaker array. The boxes arrived, and there I sat, stymied, surrounded by bits and pieces of mysterious this and that, watching my wallet grow thinner and hoping that my freelance-wiring-guy Oscar would prove up to the challenge. Well, Oscar has visited and I'm pleased to report that Oscar has prevailed. The whole mess seems to work. It even looks orderly and companionable, if only from the front. From behind, though -- good Lord. And this is after Oscar did his best to minimize the area's rat's-nest quality. I post these pictures as a public-service announcement too -- as a let-this-be-a-lesson warning to anyone else (especially of a Lib-Arts bent) who's contemplating getting a home theater. Just look at the number of plugs and wires! The Sonys and Panasonics of the world say you can put these things together for yourself. They lie. Oscar has been doing wiring chores professionally for more than a decade, and even he was left scratching his head in puzzlement a few times before licking certain problems. By the way, Oscar was charming, sweet, prompt, and fast. And, bless him, his price was reasonable, by NYC standards anyway. If anyone in the area is looking for someone to hook up home-stereo or home-tv electronic equipment, I'd be happy to put you in touch with Oscar. Email me at the address at the top of the blog. Last night, as The Wife and I settled back into DVD-watching after a couple of weeks of DVD-deprivation, I luxuriated in the lovely sound quality and sighed with relief at being able to understand all of a film's dialog for the first time in years. I also noticed that part of my brain was busy with calculations; it was totalling up how much I've spent on this mess of flickering, pulsing boxes and wires. Let's see, including wiring, including Oscar, including the table it's all stacked up on ... Gettin' mighty close to $2500. And then there's the monthly cable bill. And the DVD rentals ... Lordy. I'm going to have to start putting in some serious overtime if I want to be able to support our home leisure habits. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 6, 2003 | perma-link | (17) comments

Can't Be Too Soon for Me
Michael: I don’t know how much time you spend driving in New York, but the amount of time I spend in Los Angeles behind the wheel pondering the lack of driving skills among my fellow Angelinos is easy to describe: too much. After watching traffic routinely bunch up every time a freeway takes a bend or goes up a hill, it’s hard to keep a very elevated notion of the skill level and attention span of one’s fellow drivers. I understand the reasons for the public policy decision to allow more or less everyone of adult years to drive. But I can’t help but fantasize about how much more efficient getting from place to place would be if we could require the least-skilled ten percent of the population to use the bus. (I swear, rush-hour traffic speeds would, at a minimum, double.) Since this is one of those fantasies that would require becoming Diktator of California to bring about—in short, not worth the effort involved, even during the recall campaign—I’ve found a new subject to fantasize about while driving: using computers to substitute for the questionable judgment and reflexes of my fellow automotive travelers. As a result, I eagerly read a story by Dan McCosh in the NY Times, “With a Computer at the Wheel, the Steering Thinks for Itself.” (You can read this here.) As electronics have increasingly invaded car control systems, engineers have given them a role in boosting safety by watching out for driver errors such as locking the brakes in panic stops. This process has been taken a step farther by a system called ‘Active Steering’ available as an option on the BMW 5 series. New BMW 5 Series: Smarter Than Some of Its Drivers? This allows the car’s electronics to change the ratio of the steering wheel to the movement of the car’s front wheels depending on the speed and driving conditions. Among other things, it allows the driver to park with far less effort than previously, the front wheel movement : steering wheel movement ratio increasing greatly at very low (parking) speeds. But as Mr. McCosh points out, that ain’t the half of it: Active steering has another, more impressive trick up its sleeve, though this innovation remains unused until an emergency arises. For the first time, a car is being equipped with the ability to steer itself in certain situations, presumably with greater skill and accuracy than the human at the wheel…This action takes place when sensors that track the car's movement indicate that the steering wheel has been turned more than is necessary or prudent for a safe maneuver, potentially causing a skid. A computer-controlled electric motor overrides the driver's motion at the steering wheel, turning the front wheels up to 2.5 degrees in the opposite direction. Mr. McCosh tests the system in emergency-esque situations on a test track and comes away humbled by the ability of the system to take extremely difficult maneuvers (with a great risk of losing control of... posted by Friedrich at October 6, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments