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

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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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Entrepreneur and arts buff
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Media flunky and arts buff

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Our Last 50 Referrers

Saturday, November 1, 2003

Dear Friedrich -- * How lucky for everyone that City Journal, one of the best magazines around, puts all its contents online. There's a new issue up here, and it's full of tasty-looking treats. Be sure not to miss this piece by Brian Anderson here, about how the leftist hold on the media is relaxing. It's interesting and perceptive -- and I don't say that only because a certain M. Blowhard is quoted in it. (Twice!! Twice!!! Oops, sorry: lost my cool there for a sec.) * How to get a foot onto the art-world ladder? Rose Aidin writes a good piece for the Guardian about young artists who take jobs as assistants to famous artists, here. * Mike Snider (whose own blog is here) spotted this NYTimes piece by Michael Luo (here). It's about a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Manhattan that was originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and that has just gotten a fix-up. Not the most practical or convenient automobile showroom, apparently. * Signal + Noise (here) points out a Scientific American q&a with string-theory honcho Brian Greene here. * Alan Sullivan, who's a poet and a sailor, often blogs about the weather (here) -- he gives clouds and storms the kind of attention novelists sometimes give to their characters' psychologies. Recently he wrote a lovely posting about a show of French and British paintings from the 19th century (here). It isn't your typical piece of artcrit -- Alan focuses especially on how well the artists do light, clouds and water. * JW Hastings has some tart things to say about how blogging about comics compares to having message-board conversations about comics, here. * Jon Gertner profiles Harvard prof Daniel Gilbert for the NYTimes Magazine, here. Gilbert is studying happiness -- what causes it, why it goes away, etc. Visitors who've enjoyed conversations on this blog about such topics as behavioral economics, utility, and why we bother getting up in the morning at all will probably enjoy the piece. * It's a font-and-typeface universe these days, isn't it? Are you sensitive or responsive to typefaces? I'm not, at least not much -- about all I seem to care about is that the size of the body text show a little respect for my lousy middle-aged vision, and that it have serifs so my eyes have something to grab hold of. Even so, I enjoyed this piece here by the graphic designer Mark Simonson called "The Scourge of Arial," Arial being a typeface that Mark doesn't like one bit. * Tom Ehrenfeld takes the pulse of the Wal-Mart economy in three postings, here, here, and here. It's fun and interesting to follow his arguments as well as his links to other articles on the topic. * Social Security -- train wreck or ... well, train wreck? In TechCentralStation, Megan McArdle lays out the facts, the issues, and some possible ways of wrestling with the mess, here. * Have you heard the term "food porn"? It's a funny way of... posted by Michael at November 1, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

Friday, October 31, 2003

Generation Gap
Michael: Sorry about being AWOL the past few days, but the whole fire-and-evacuation thing, while fortunately a false alarm, kind of scrambled my ability to focus on blogging for a while. you may recall, I was an enthusiastic Super-8 moviemaker during our student days at our Lousy Ivy University. My moviemaking follies actually predate that; I was making movies since the 9th grade with a buddy who went on (amusingly, somehow, given our unbelievable initial clumsiness) to be a professional cinematographer. I bring all this ancient history up only to provide context for a recent parental moment: when my daughter showed me her first movie slapped together on her Mac. She had edited some home movies taken of her 2-year-old brother and added a pop-music soundtrack. What made my paternal bust swell with pride was the fact that she had created a genuine (and genuinely funny) video essay on how my young son strides through life with pop-star panache, unreflectively certain that he is, and deserves to be, the cynosure of every situation. I couldn’t help but compare her maiden effort with my own early movies—all of which, it goes without saying, were unspeakably lame. None of these had any (intentionally) documentary elements at all—they were all story films that just happened to feature my friends, our basements, our parents’ cars and the suburban Detroit landscape. We constantly struggled to think up plots that could be executed with a budget of approximately zero dollars, to advance our narrative film skills, to figure out the camera and lighting basics—which we got pretty good at, eventually—and to develop strategies to inveigle our female classmates to act. (The shortage of women in our movies was, of course, directly related to the state our non-existent love lives.) The stories in these films were derivative, silly and idiotic, of course, but the point is that we believed in stories. We were convinced that we needed stories. A narrative was the one acceptable organizing principle of my youth. One of the chief sources of pain in my teenaged life was that it didn’t seem to make much sense as a story. And my friends and I weren’t alone in this. The society we grew up in also believed in stories. The “national story” that played in the background while we were making movies in high school had originally been one of heroic resistance to communism in Vietnam, although it gradually gave way to another narrative which featured evil capitalist imperialism and bold, freedom-loving peasants armed with Soviet small arms. Nonetheless, whichever story was finally selected, we were gonna have a story. As a society we weren’t about to give up on meaningful narrative. In contrast, my daughter seems to find the real world around her full of amusing and interesting elements that she seems to feel no need to make add up to some overarching, highly dramatic, beginning-middle-and-end type whole. My first, unthinking assumption was that she’ll adopt more of a story structure when she... posted by Friedrich at October 31, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Yet More Husbandly Inadequacy
Dear Friedrich -- Something was clearly bugging The Wife. Nothing major, I could tell, but there it was. So I steered her over to the couch and asked what was up. She mentioned a problem she was having with a project she's working on. Being, as I like to fancy myself, The Man Who Isn't Afraid of a Woman's Feelings, I asked if she needed to vent a bit about it. She said she didn't, so I launched into a discussion of the substance of her topic. I was gentle and sympathetic, pulling it apart and looking at it from this angle and that. What could be more helpful? After couple of minutes, I realized that The Wife was finding me anything but helpful. In fact, she was glaring at me. What was up? Well, I got told that I was doing that male thing of disregarding her feelings. Why was I being so bossy? Why wasn't I being sympathetic? (Bewildered Blowhard response: "But I am being sympathetic!") And what made me think she'd been looking for advice anyway? (I hadn't been aware that I was giving advice.) A few minutes of minor emotional scuffling ensued. I never know what's going on during these episodes, do you? The Wife on the other hand seems to be in her element. Everything, all the "issues" and stresses that confound me, seem hyperreal and hyperobvious to her. I often suspect that she enjoys the feeling of power she has over me during these moments; the image that usually comes to mind when I think of these scuffles is pretty basic. We're in the ring; she's the young, invincible Mike Tyson; and me, I'm backed into the corner with my head ducked behind my fists, hoping it all ends soon without resulting in too much brain damage. Somehow, as always, a few minutes later, we were chuckling and snuggling. How we got to this point I have no idea, although I suspect it had something to do with her having wreaked sufficient (ie., outlandish) emotional havoc on my soul -- in her calculations we were now even. Feeling semi-manly once again (hey! I'd survived!), I foolishly dared to point out 1) that I'd made a point of checking in early on in the discussion to see if she wanted to spend time on her feelings before we started actually discussing her project, and 2) that I'd only starting discussing the substance of the topic after -- She stopped me here and said, "No, you were handing out unwanted advice." "OK," I said, "but I only started handing out unwanted advice after you explicitly told me that you didn't need to do any venting." And she made this response, with really impressive conviction: "But you should know that when I say I don't need to vent, I really do." Not for the first time, I find myself ruefully marveling over the number of things a husband is supposed to know about how to handle his... posted by Michael at October 31, 2003 | perma-link | (21) comments

"City Comforts," the Book
Dear Friedrich -- Has your copy of David Sucher's revised edition of his book City Comforts arrived yet? Mine showed up yesterday. I settled into the Barcalounger at 11 pm, planning to spend a little time with the book before sacking out. I wound up enjoying it so much I didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. Feeling a little bleary today, thanks. It's a really lovely book: a series of modest, down-to-earth tips about how cities and towns can turn themselves into more agreeable places. No theory, no philosophy, no criticism -- just practical observations about things that work and have shown their value, from curbs to traffic circles to awnings. David, who likes to present himself as an anti-ideas kind of guy, will object, but I maintain that his approach and his work are expressions of a set of deep convictions and ideas, namely the humane wing of architecture and town planning. Book buff that I am, I also love "City Comforts" as a book. It's a trim thing, a little larger than a guidebook, full of pictures and chunks of text. You can spend five minutes with it or hours with it; it's adaptable, it's here to help. It's a firstclass example of much of what's best about some recent trends in book publishing: it's designed to the max, and accessible and engaging visually as well as verbally, rather like a good Web site. David, who worked with the designer Magrit Baurecht, probably killed himself putting the book together. I've watched people put things like this together; they're major logistical challenges, like doing a tabletop-size jigsaw puzzle. People knock themselves out on the level of the concept, the visuals and the layout, which helps explain why so many such books seem beautiful but insubstantial; all the energy has been spent on look and feel. But "City Comforts" has, along with a first-class look and feel, substance galore, as well as a strong point of view and a personal voice. The book feels friendly and informal, yet it's also intellectually and artistically stimulating, something David would probably not want me to say. But there you have it. A few more thoughts: * My sense of self-satisfaction enjoyed noticing that David I have both found our way to the same cities-and-buildings reading list: Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, William Whyte ... It took me years -- years! -- of snooping around the architecture world before I stumbled into the writers and thinkers whose point of view I find congenial. I wonder how David found his way to them. In any case, his book belongs on the same shelf as their work, right alongside "The Timeless Way of Building" and "City." * I enjoyed noticing the influence on David's approach (and on his bookmaking too) of Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language"; I could be mistaken, but I think I also sense the influence of Stewart Brand and of "The Whole Earth Catalog." (Note to self: do a posting someday on these... posted by Michael at October 31, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Beyond Annoying
Dear Friedrich -- Some Great Recent Moments in Annoying Public Behavior: * The woman sitting a row behind us at the Film Forum who brought in an entire bagful of different snacks, each wrapped in its own paper or plastic packaging. She had so much food that it took her 45 minutes (and six separate ripping-and-tearing bouts with paper and plastic) to finish it. * The fat, arthritic older man at the end of the row at "In the Cut" who decided midway through the film that he needed to put on his windbreaker. What with stiff joints and a huge tummy to contend with, this process took him a good ten minutes -- ten minutes of tugging, muttering and gasping, and of the zip-whizzzz sounds of nylon on nylon. * I was in the waiting room at my eye doctor's, waiting for the eyedrops he'd given me to do their pupil-dilating thing. In walked a glittering, slim, Upper East Side woman. She sat down, rustled through the shopping bag she had with her -- and brought out an entire meal. Three or four courses, each in Tupperware. She placed the containers on her lap, opened them, pulled out plastic utensils, and dug in. That was the first time I've seen anyone eat a meal in a doctor's waiting room. I sometimes feel that I'm a wimp if I don't try to scold these people into behaving better, and I do sometimes crane my neck and glare in annoyance. But I never get any satisfaction, and so retreat back into silence and irritation. Cowardice and lack of spine explain a lot of this, of course. But also: well, this is New York, and the general policy here is, if you're criticized or scolded, attack back with both barrels blazing. Back in the late '70s, I was at a screening of some old classic movie at the Bleecker Street Cinema. It was a cold winter day; there were lots of parkas and coats to accomodate; the theater was nearly full and the heating was turned up 'way too high. At some point in the middle of the movie, a few rows in back of me, there was one of those hushing/shushing/whispering commotions you register semi-consciously. Then it erupted -- the voices got profane and angry, the rows of chairs shook. It was enough to make you turn around in alarm and curiosity. But things settled down ... After the movie was over I asked a couple of people from that part of the theater what had happened. It turned out a guy had been so offended by being told to shush by some other viewers that he'd pulled a gun on them and told them to shush themselves. When I was a young whippersnapper, the moviegoers I found most annoying were the ones who find it impossible to stay quiet and still during sex scenes and nudity. I love erotic scenes in movies myself, and, generally speaking, the artier they are,... posted by Michael at October 29, 2003 | perma-link | (32) comments

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

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. *** True Art School Tales October: the middle of term, the time of year when a young man's thoughts turn to dropping out of school and becoming a wandering minstrel painter, perhaps. *** Instead, I'm walking though the fluorescent-lit halls of the Graphic Design Department when something catches my eye. It's a poster -- the final project by some typography student. It consists of lots of angry lines and mix-'n'-match text. But the angry lines are slicing and dicing the type into ribbons. It's a nightmare; the eye boggles, as, of course, it's meant to. What next? Magic Eye ads? I harumph and write it off to the notorious insularity of the Graphic Design Department. I move along, thinking, as I often do, that the graphics students really ought to spend some time with illustrators as well as with actual advertisers. Perhaps that way they'd learn how to really design, and perhaps they'd also have some sense knocked into them; they might learn not to force the audience to decode their work. *** Then I see it -- the ugliest poster I have ever seen. Uglier by far than the one that had just brought me up short. This one consists of a series of black lines over white, with black text stuck tightly in between the lines. All the text runs together, the tops and bottoms are cut off by the black lines. It hurts my eyes to look at it. There's no other way to put it. The text is illegible, whether from up close or from a distance. The tension between the letters and the background is tangible and makes the design painful to look at. This is a poster conveying information about an event, and yet that information is impossible to read. It's meant to attract your attention, yet it makes you want to look away. This poster fails in every way, as concept and execution. Yet it somehow it made it though the classroom process. *** Something is rotten in the state of graphic design. It wasn't always like this. While my tastes run toward the 19th Century, I also have a fondness for American design before 1970. It's all so bright and cheerful, so clean and crisp. The type is easy to read and the illustrations are well-incorporated. These designs pack a lot of information into a small page without feeling cluttered or hectic. (My favorite example is a matchbook at Lilek's site here.) But my personal favorite designs? Art Nouveau posters. The solid forms, the large swathes of black and white ... They're intricate and beautiful, as well as readable, clear, and accessible. The sins of Art... posted by Michael at October 28, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

The Future of Book Publishing
Dear Friedrich -- If 15 years of following the publishing biz don't entitle me to pontificate grandly and extrapolate baselessly about the future of books, well, then ... (Huff, puff, snort.) What the hell good were those years? Don't answer that question. Nonetheless, I'm in a mood today to make a few modest predictions about the directions we'll be seeing book publishing taking in the future. First, the setup: some ruminations and observations. The trade-book biz -- the "you might buy it in a typical bookstore" end of the book-publishing business -- is in a recession. Aside from the occasional "Harry Potter" bonanza, the biz doesn't seem able to move much product; you don't have to sell many copies of your book to get on the bestseller lists just now. When will the biz come out of this cyclical slump? But is the slump in fact cyclical? Many people in the biz worry that it may not be. Hey, book-publishing people aren't blind; like you, me and everyone else, they've noticed that young people aren't reading in the same way young people used to. What if the business has simply lost the younger generations? How do the younger people you're in contact with interact with books? The ones I see don't seem to get through many books at all, especially fiction. (They also don't seem to see books per se as anything special.) The young women go through a little chick-lit, and do a little of what a book critic friend calls "worthiness reading" (Oprah books, the current jabbered-about collection of literary stories). The young men barely read fiction at all, although they seem eager enough to flip through certain kinds of nonfiction books (Nascar biographies), and books relating to their jobs and businesses. And these are bright kids from snazzy colleges. It seems that the media menu that young people order from isn't the same one that older people have been using. Interesting to note, for example, that network TV-viewing is down 12% just in the last year, with most of that decline attributed to young people watching less. What are these young adults spending their entertainment dollars and hours on? Since I can make a seat-of-the-pants guess as well as anyone else can, I may as well pitch in. As far as I can tell, the young people play with media things. A little websurfing here. Some thumbing-through-a-magazine there. A DVD with friends. Some videogaming ... Fiction's a special case. Americans have always had a hard time with it. We're practical, empirical people, more interested in getting ahead than in savoring what we have. We're also sincere and earnest, wary of amorality and artifice. Yet at the same time, we cling to what works for us; we keep watching a few TV shows and we keep going to movies. What this seems to mean for fiction books is that more and more people read fiction books as a substitute for the movies or TV they'd prefer to be... posted by Michael at October 28, 2003 | perma-link | (35) comments

Sunday, October 26, 2003

L.A. and The Sublime
Michael: I seem to remember you stating that you have a fundamental aversion to the Romantic aesthetic. This may explain why you don’t live in L.A. Occasionally, as today, Southern California throws up images that seem to have been designed to make one think one is living in the middle of a Turner or some other Romantic master. I took the first three pictures while driving around trying to make sure my own dwelling wasn’t about to become a fire statistic. The fourth followed a short while later as the sun set through the pall. I guess the sublime remains a workable aesthetic category…at least in this part of the world. Cheers, Friedrich P.S. All of this is noted with sympathy to those whose homes did become fire statistics today. My house came a good deal closer than I would have liked a couple years ago.... posted by Friedrich at October 26, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments