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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  1. Elsewhere
  2. Pointy Toes
  3. Policy Break: Work and Taxes
  4. Elsewhere
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  6. Visual Perception and Biology
  7. "Glow" Update Redux
  8. Ad Update -- "The Glow"
  9. Milton Grenfell on Traditional Architecture
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Our Last 50 Referrers

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Dear Friedrich -- Finally, what the world's been waiting for: an all-boys linkfest. Radical 'roid ranting! Or something like that. * Tyler Cowen asks why women like cads, here. * Aaron Haspel knows how poetry should be taught, here. Mike Snider's got some thoughts on the matter too, here and here. * George Hunka (here) is reading a book I've wanted to catch up with for years, Auberon Waugh's famously testy autobiography "Will This Do?" * Obnoxious, overcaffeinated white guys who are bursting with exasperation sometimes make me laugh a lot. Maddox (here), for example: I find him hilarious. Here's a great rant about the "Matrix" sequel, and here's the best review I've read yet of the "Lord of the Rings" movies. I especially liked Reason #2. * Felix Salmon's got the lowdown on not-for-profit credit-counseling services here. Not a sexy-sounding post, granted. But I bet it'll hold your interest. * Steve Sailer's got the lowdown on how the GOP won the California election, here. * Evan Kirchhoff sharpens his bushido sword and does to "Kill Bill" what Uma, in the movie, does to her opponents, here. * So, Michael Eisner: devoted blog-reader or not? Gerald Vanderleun can't help wondering, here. * Speaking of the recently-canned Gregg Easterbrook, Scott Chaffin makes a gallant effort to cheer up the blogger and former ESPN sports guru, here. * Ionarts has some thoughts about the big Gauguin show in Paris. Here's part one -- scroll up and you'll see two more postings on the topic. * Alexis does some sharp thinking about depression, modern life and drugs, here. * Brian Micklethwait has a good word for perfectionism, at least when it comes to performances of Brahms on CD, here. * Ian Hamet is amazed that he now loves some Western movies, here. * Terry Teachout suspects that some of the people who say they don't like anything modernist have simply missed a few of the more likable modernist things, here. * Does more money always make people happier and more satisfied with life? Andrew Norton reviews some of the evidence, here. Yo, dudes!!! Alpha-bloggers forever!!! (Note to videotape editor: Insert sound here of football helmets clacking aggressively together. And how about some backlit, slo-mo footage of brawny fists tossing cold, dripping, job-well-done beer cans to each other?) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 25, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, October 24, 2003

Pointy Toes
Dear Friedrich -- Are women in L.A. still wearing long, pointy shoes? (Does this shoe style have a name, do you know? Evo-fashion maven that you are ...) They're still being worn in NYC, a fact that amazes me; it seems to be something more, if only slightly more, than a fad. How do the shoes strike you? When I first noticed them, probably about a year ago, I found them appalling and amusing -- semi-fun to look at, but sheesh. These are shoes so slim and elongated that there must be an extra inch of shoe out there in front of the toes. How do the women wearing these things not trip over their own feet? Yet, despite its absurdity, the fashion is still with us. (Always a good question: why do some fashion-things stick around for a time while so many don't catch on at all?) Interesting to note, too, that the women wearing these pointy clown shoes aren't just the usual fashion-victim crowd. The shoes seem to appeal to a larger percentage of women than the usual, ghastly high-fashion fads do. Even so, they're such an extreme kind of taste thing that ... Well, hard to imagine that many men find them exciting. In fact, I find it hard to imagine a woman wearing these shoes to please any man, a few nutty pointy-shoe fetishists aside. And just for the record: women aren't decking themselves out in absurd shoes BECAUSE OF ME. Happy to admit that I like it that women often take care with their looks. Happy to admit that I like it that women are often enthusiastic about decorating themselves and making themselves appealing. But -- picture me here pleading my case before a judge -- it would never occur to me to insist that any woman wear wobbly, dangerous shoes. Well, over-wobbly, over-dangerous shoes, anyway. And of course I'd never insist, just gently suggest. But still! Fond though many women are of presenting their own preferred behavior as something they're really doing for someone else's sake, I think it has to be said that the current pointy shoes have "women sometimes get carried away with fashion fads purely for their own sake" written all over them. Or do you think I'm being unfair? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 24, 2003 | perma-link | (32) comments

Policy Break: Work and Taxes
Michael: I don’t know about you, but I keep reading articles and op-ed pieces that earnestly suggest that taxation has no particular effect on the amount of work or the amount of risk taking in an economy. (The authors of these articles seem quite happy about this disconnect. It seems to promise them that we can raise taxes through the roof without, er, killing the goose laying the golden eggs.) As an extremely lazy individual, this notion has always struck me as dubious. I find my own motivation to work very much affected by how much I expect to earn and keep. Hence I noted with interest a research paper published by Edward C. Prescott of the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “Why Do Americans Work So Much More Than Europeans?” (You can read Professor Prescott’s paper here.) Professor Prescott notes that in 1993-1996, Americans aged 15-64 racked up 50% more hours working in the market sector than did their French counterparts. He also notes that this was not true in the 1970s, when the French worked more hours than did Americans. In fact, the number of work hours per individual in many of the G7 countries changed markedly over that same stretch. The good professor was puzzled by the size of these shifts, but noticed that there had also been significant increases in the tax rates in Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada over those same two decades. To see if the tax increases were the cause of the labor market fluctuations, Professor Prescott built what he terms a “standard” macro-economic model to investigate the impacts of these tax changes on household decisions to choose work or leisure time. A model of this nature involves, of course, a significant number of simplifications over the real world; one of these simplifications is a way of representing all marginal taxes on labor with a single number. As Professor Prescott explains: The labor and consumption tax rates can be combined into a single tax rate [T], which I call the effective marginal tax rate on labor income. It is the fraction of additional labor income that is taken in the form of taxes holding investment, or equivalently savings, fixed.I’m not qualified to sit in judgment on the details of professor’s model. I will note that it seems to work; he cranks out estimates of hours spent working per week per person for the G-7 countries in both the 1993-1996 period and in the 1970-1974 period. These predictions are generally accurate to within an hour or two of the actual numbers as reported by the OECD. (He doesn’t do quite so well in the earlier period, particularly with Italy and Japan, but has some explanations for what caused the discrepancies.) But even such an economics-challenged individual as I didn’t find it too hard to see a relationship between the professor’s [T] tax rates and hours worked between the various G7 economies in the 1993-1996 period. The relationship, in... posted by Friedrich at October 24, 2003 | perma-link | (25) comments

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Dear Friedrich -- * Courtney has turned up some interesting papers on the topic of introversion and multitasking, here. * I was planning to make fun yet again of the NYTimes' absurd and always-hyperventilating radical-architecture propagandist Herbert Muschamp, whose topic today is Frank Gehry's new Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., here. Muschamp is quite the phenomenon, about as dizzy and self-entranced a writer as I've ever run across. I'm not sure this is logically possible, but it seems that every time I read him I think, "He's outdone himself again!" as well as "What's this guy on?" It's impossible to narrow the outrages he commits down to a mere one or two; nearly every paragraph he writes makes the eyes bug and the jaw hit the ground. Still, try we must. Here's one brief passage from today's review: Though the forms are abstract, fleeting images can be glimpsed in them. Drive-in movie screens. The curving edge of a bass cello. A ship's prow. Sails. The Rust Belt before the rust. If you're unwilling to mix your metaphors, you've come to the wrong place. Boy, I'll say. But Philip Murphy (here) says it far better. * Get out the tweezers! Yet, can you beat this here for cute? * My favorite movie of the year so far is one that you'll never get a chance to see, Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night, a surrealist Italian chamber drama about the Red Brigade team that kidnapped and ultimately murdered Aldo Moro. It's a quiet, rich experience, as beautifully lit and acted as anything I've seen in years, and so subtle you worry a bit whether it's ever going to go anywhere. But it does: the Red Brigade team, which you watch through the eyes of their one female member, at first appears to be idealistic, young, and committed -- halfway attractive, and halfway plausible as human beings. By the end of the movie, although little external has changed, you understand without a shred of doubt that they're psychopaths. When a title comes up informing you that these deranged maniacs were caught but are no longer imprisoned, you want to go find them and put them down like rabid dogs. Here's a page about the movie. Here's a short q&a with Bellocchio. And here's a piece about America's Weather Underground by James Miller that describes a similar band of radicals. (Link thanks to Arts and Letters Daily, here.) I saw "Good Morning, Night" at the New York Film Festival, but the film hasn't been picked up for distribution in the States, and probably won't be. * In her wrestle with the old "what is art?" question, here, Alice Bachini shows once again that "hilarious" and "profound" can sometimes walk hand in hand. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Quotes of the Day
Dear Friedrich -- I'm reading a wonderful paper by N.K. Humphrey entitled "The Illusion of Beauty," and thought I'd pass along a couple of lovely passages. The first is a quote Humphrey cites from the British philosopher A.N. Whitehead: The essence of rhythm is the fusion of sameness and novelty; so that the whole never loses the essential unity of the pattern, while the parts exhibit the contrast arising from the novelty of their detail. A mere recurrence kills rhythm as does a mere confusion of differences. A crystal lacks rhythm from excessive pattern, while a fog is unrhythmic in that it exhibits a patternless confusion of detail. And a passage from Humphrey himself: If I give a hungry dog a solution of saccahrine it will lap it up; if I show a cock robin a bundle of feathers with a red patch on its underside the robin will attack it; and if I show a man an abstract painting or play him a piece of music he will, if he thinks it beautiful, stop to watch or listen. There is, I believe, a formal similarity in all these cases. In each we have an animal performing a useful and relevant piece of behaviour towards an inappropriate sensory stiumulus. But there is, I agree, a rather basic difference, namely that in the first two cases we have a good scientific explanation of what is going on, while in the third we're almost ignorant. I notice that Humphrey has worked with both Richard Dawkins and Dian Fossey -- beat that. A number of his papers, which I'm just beginning to read through, can be seen here. The next one I'm going to dig into: "Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind." Bliss. To think of the time and energy American lib-arts departments have wasted on their love-affair with politics and deconstruction when there are minds like Humphrey's out there to be enjoyed. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Visual Perception and Biology
Dear Friedrich -- Colors -- tons of them, an infinitely divisible spectrum. Don't even computers these days display something like 16 million of them? Yet the names of colors are so few ... Let's see: red, green, blue, yellow ... Er. Violet. Orange. Pink. Purple. Tangerine. ... And some of those colors that seem to mean something to chicks if not to most dudes: fuchsia, aqua, heliotrope, chartreuse. Why do we break down the spectrum in the limited way we do? We bundle all these colors and put the label "red" on them. We bundle all those colors and put the label "purple" on them. Why don't we slice and dice the spectrum in an entirely different way? Biology is apparently the answer, though don't ask me for specifics. It turns out that all -- or nearly all -- cultures slice and dice the spectrum in pretty much the same way: red, blue, green, yellow, etc. Our wiring is simply such that red, blue, green, yellow, etc, stand out; they speak to us and we recognize them. In between? I dunno, it's kinda muddy ... I've heard of a culture or two that don't recognize this or that color. But apparently these exceptions and deviations are rare. The lesson: there is no color perception without interpretation. To perceive is to interpret -- no one sees a color for what it really is. (Which of course is simply waves.) Anyway, I've just run across a study that reports that not only is the way we break down colors biologically based, so is the way we visually experience distance. Duke University Medical Center neurobiologists have run experiments, and the results support the theory that "the visual system has evolved to make the best statistical guess about distances and other features of visual scenes, based on past experience." In other words, we aren't general-purpose computers gathering an infinite amount of data and then sifting and sorting our way to the truth through an infinite number of possible interpretations. Instead, we're made up of special-purpose modules that zero in on what pertains, more or less, to our survival. Judging distances, like judging colors, isn't a logical process -- it's a series of statistically-based best-guesses. You riffle through a limited number of possibilities until you hit on the one that feels right. There are interpretive biases built into the very biology that is us. Cool! Though, really, who'd have expected otherwise? Here's a quote from one of the researchers, Dr. Dale Purves: You see distances in this way because reflected light from points in space that project onto your retina is completely ambiguous with respect to how far away that point really is. The observer nonetheless has to solve the problem of what's out there. The visual system has evidently evolved to use the statistics of past experience to 'understand' what those distances are most likely to be, and that is what you see. Here's a description of the study. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

"Glow" Update Redux
Dear Friedrich -- The Wife tells me (supportively and sweetly, but firmly) that I blew it bigtime with my previous posting -- that I didn't make myself clear. Oh, well: sometimes happens. In fact, I notice that it's more likely to happen with the postings I've given the most thought to. I wonder why. Anyway: a quick attempt to clarify, condense, and make punchier what I was fumblingly trying to say earlier. The nature of the media world has been changing ever since computers started being widely incorporated into the media-making process. The media world reflects our consciousness. Our consciousness finds expression in the media world. Two-way street. If the media world has been undergoing in-its-nature-and-being change, that means that the nature of the general consciousness (ie., the mental world we all kinda-sort share) has been changing too. When we were growing up, what seemed most striking about the art and media worlds were the uses to which the creators were putting their media. Hence critics and reviewers were important, and often were able to say interesting and insightful things about Life As It Was Being Lived. But since circa 1980, what has seemed most striking to me about the art and media worlds has been something different. It's been the glacial/tectonic/whatever changes that have been going on as we've all been adjusting to a new set of basic production conditions. Out with the old grids and the old hierarchies; out with the Dewey Decimal system. In with ever-updated, ever-revised, ever-shifting interlinked databases. In this new world, which hasn't attained anything like a steady state (if it ever will), new elements and approaches are forever being introduced and tried out. Some of them seem to take; some of them seem to resonate. Many don't. In other words, we're all adapting. Following this process of trial-and-error adaptation has struck me (a pretty arty guy) as, in general, far more interesting than following whether the current hot novel, or dance piece, or the current big release is worth attending to. As a consequence, the cultural commentary that has struck me as most enlightening over the last couple of decades hasn't often come from critics and reviewers. (I feel for them; they often got into their fields because they grew up at a time when it seemed exciting and glamorous to be a critic and a reviewer. And these days they're often in the position of being service providers.) It has often come instead from people thinking about econ, tech, cities, and business. The pix I included? They were just me having fun trying to track what people in the ad game are doing in their attempts to adapt to new conditions. A new vocabulary, a new set of conventions, a new pallette of attacks, and none of it yet settled out. Not that I expect anyone to pay attention to these musings, of course ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Ad Update -- "The Glow"
Dear Friedrich So far as the arts and the media go, the era during which we grew up -- the '50s, '60s and '70s -- was mainly interesting for what the creators were doing. During the '80s, '90s, and the aughts, watching what the creators have been up to has been less interesting than watching the impact digital technology is having on the arts and the media. (I'm going to say this once and hope everyone will agree to let it hover over everything in this posting: IMHO, and many exceptions allowed for.) I often find that when I venture an observation like this, some people will treat me as though I'm either being perverse or have some vested interest in making the argument. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. I'm unhappy about this development. I'd much prefer to be spending my adult years enjoying a rich era of fascinating new artworks -- wonderful literature, luscious painting, etc., all of it illuminating our lives and fates in fresh ways ... I just haven't found this to be true. Like it or not (and I don't), it's been my strong impression that the last few decades have been, by and large, a time of adjustment to a changing tool-set. So why isn't there more discussion of these developments? Not in whizbang tech-and-gizmo terms, but in terms of values, experience and esthetics? God knows it's fun to trade tips and compare notes about individual artists, and about individual works of art and entertainment. But coverage of the arts often seems to me stuck in 1970, with the (often really good) critics and reviewers discussing their fields as though little in the social/economic/technical matrix they're rooted in has changed since then -- here's a Charles Paul Freund piece in Reason Online that makes some similar points. Why isn't more notice being taken of the changes in the context? I hope my critic and reviewer friends will forgive me for saying this. Back (say) in the '70s, individual movies and books gave reviewers plenty of opportunities to take note of larger social/consciousness/etc changes. These days, even the best art and entertainment often doesn't. So critics and reviewers, many of whom got in the reviewing game because of how exciting they found the arts in the '60s and '70s, are now stuck tending their gardens; they cover their assigned field, they recommend this and advise against that; they try to wing a joke, or an evocation, or an idea, or even a little writin' past their bosses ... These days, the cultural coverage that resonates for me often doesn't come in the form of reviews or criticism. Instead, it comes from business books, sociological studies, writers on the economy, discussions about demographics. It comes from pros like Freund, Denis Dutton (here), Joel Kotkin (here and here), Virginia Postrel (here), Tyler Cowen (here), Malcolm Gladwell (here), Camille Paglia (here), Steve Sailer (here), Frederick Turner (here), Nikos Salingaros (here)and Christopher Alexander (here); and it comes... posted by Michael at October 22, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Milton Grenfell on Traditional Architecture
Dear Friedrich -- Laurence Aurbach, an editor at The Town Paper (here), left a comment on the previous posting that I can't resist making into its own posting. He was responding to my link to an article about the Charlotte, N.C. New Classicist architect Milton Grenfell. Here's Laurence's note: Michael -- Milton Grenfell wrote a fine essay on style for a publication I helped to produce, "Council Report III/IV." Here is an excerpt: Remarks on Style I would contend that the style of architecture marked by its radical rejection of all historical styles, namely Modernism, is a style inadequate to the task of creating "comfortable and interesting" places because it is deficient in three aspects which are crucial to such places, namely: 1) intelligibility, 2) complexity within order, 3) connectivity. First intelligibility. There are three ways abandoned by modernism that architecture has traditionally made itself intelligible: typology, ornament and tectonics. Typology transmits information through association that convention has assigned to forms. Traditional typologies tell us what is a house of worship, what is a bank, what is a school, what is a house, and where the front door is. Typologically, shed roofs are for rabbit hutches, outhouses and other such modest outbuildings. Quonset huts are for temporary military encampments. Ornament as a means of making buildings intelligible has, until the modernist movement, been inseparable from architecture. The totemic devices painted and carved into the wooden posts of even the most primitive shelter proclaimed the owner’s lineage or his powers in battle or the hunt. Before typology or tectonics, when we lived in mere holes in the earth, mankind adorned the walls of his caves with pictures that still delight us. Indeed, delight, that third prong of Vitruvius’ timeless Triad — Commodity, Firmness and Delight — is inseparable from ornament. Since we ornament where we live, where we are buried, and even our own bodies, man might well be described as the "ornamenting animal." Such behavior is peculiarly and inextricable human. Finally, that term beloved of architects, tectonics, which might be defined as a building’s expression of the craft of building. This expression often operates on the level of actuality and metaphor. For example, a cornice projection actually shelters a building’s fabric and occupants from sun and rain, but also creates a metaphor for shelter. Whereas the swelling, or entasis, of a column shaft is purely a metaphorical representation of the column’s load bearing. Nevertheless, such metaphors speak of truths about building that transcend mere fact. --from "Remarks on Style" by Milton Grenfell I can't post Grenfell's entire essay, but here are links to other essays that appeared in the same publication: "A Conversation with Dan Solomon and Andrés Duany," here. "Learning from Traditional Mediterranean Codes" by Besim S. Hakim, here. Best, Laurence Many thanks to Laurence Aurbach, and I do urge everyone to visit The Town Paper (here) -- lots of sensible, intelligent talk about buildings, neighborhoods and towns. Me, I'm scooting over to read the Solomon-Duany and Hakim papers... posted by Michael at October 21, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Dear Friedrich -- * Get to know some of the world's most obese people here. * The art critic Robert Hughes' biography of Goya goes on sale soon here. It's been released already in Britain, where reviews have been enthusiastic. Here's Sebastian Smee in The Spectator. * Lynn Sislo offers a compact history of the castrato in classical music here. * Graham Lester writes a sensible posting about poverty, here. Great (or at least simpatico to me) line: "Poverty is primarily a practical problem, not a moral issue." * In the Financial Times, Mark Archer reviews Robert Skidelsky's biography of John Maynard Keynes, here * Find out which Western stars have been doing the Bill-Murray-in-Lost- Translation thing -- ie., shilling products in Japanese commercials -- here. * Nancy Levovitz (whose own site is here) has a knack for turning up fascinating and unexpected art. Here's a page featuring the work of Jirapat Tasanasomboon, a contemporary Thai painter whose work crosses traditional Thai motifs with characters from American comic books. * I've met a number of New Classicist architects, and many of them tell the same story: of loving buildings, of being trained as Modernists -- and of waking up one day to the fact that they were designing buildings they loathed. Milton Grenfell, a New Classicist architect in Charlotte, N.C., lived a similar experience. Here's an article by Richard Maschal about Grenfell. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 21, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Women, Men and Decisions
Dear Friedrich -- Do you find that (generally speaking, lots of exceptions allowed for, etc, etc, yawn) women and men have different ways of approaching and seeing the question of making a decision? As far as I can tell, men see a decision as something 1) to be faced or avoided, 2) if faced, then dealt with, and 3) if dealt with, then moved on from. Women, on the other hand, seem to see a decision as the first step in a long process of renegotiation and revision, all of it emotionally fraught, and with every agonizing step of it to be deeply relished. For them, decisions aren't so much something to be made as emotional-conversation starters. Wary that I might be generalizing unfairly from mere personal experience, I dug in and did extensive research -- ie., compared notes over drinks with a couple of married buds. They both nodded their agreement. And as we told our stories, we also ran into something I now think of as the "flipping a coin" syndrome. Here's how it goes. When it comes to making a choice, we guys tend to proceed by narrowing things down to a small set of acceptable options, each one as good as the other. At that point, though, how to choose? Well, we might literally flip a coin -- something we discovered all of us do on occasion. We also discovered that, in the case of all three marriages, this practice drives our wives crazy. Why should this be? By now we were a couple of drinks into the topic, and here's what we came up with: we suspect that women don't like the arbitrary, cast-your-fate-to-fortune aspect of flipping a coin; in their eyes, a choice shouldn't be committed to until a good, emotionally-solid (or something, god only knows what) reason has been settled on. Our wives are appalled -- morally? emotionally? esthetically? -- that, past a certain point, we truly don't care. They want us to care. But why? That one we couldn't answer. But, conveniently enough, I just lived through an example of what we were musing about. I happen to have bought tickets to two of today's Film Festival screenings, yet I'm getting over a bad cold and don't have the energy to make it to both. A decision was needed: which screening to go to? As fate would have it, both movies sound equally promising, and both are equally inconvenient to see. So, 30 minutes ago, (and with The Wife's encouragement, I'm puzzled to note) I settled the question by flipping a coin. Or thought I'd settled the question. Five minutes ago -- and I'm not sure how this happened, but it did -- The Wife managed to reverse that coin-flip decision. We're now going to the other screening instead. Now, this is OK with me, because I never really cared which movie we finally saw; that's why I was happy to flip the coin. So what was really going on during those... posted by Michael at October 19, 2003 | perma-link | (33) comments