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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Timothy Taylor
Dear Friedrich -- I’ve raved before about the economics professor Timothy Taylor, whose lecture series for the Teaching Company I’m a huge fan of. (Here’s his page at the Teaching Company’s website.) I’ve been through a ton of intro-to-econ products, and if I were to recommend the best way for a non-math-y person to get started with econ, it would be with Taylor’s series. (And when they’re on sale, they’re fabulous bargains.) Taylor’s about as good a teacher of intro-to-econ as I can imagine. He's clear; he's organized; he's likable and enthusiastic; and he has an amazing gift for turning this material into plain, vivid, even fun English. I’ve been through all his series but one, his History of the U.S. Economy in the 20th Century. I’d been putting it off for the sheer retentive pleasure of anticipation. But the other day I caved and finally began listening. Very pleased to report it’s just as top-notch as the others. Taylor kicks off the series with a review of what life was like in the U.S. in the year 1900. Here’s a sampler of some of the facts Taylor supplies: Total U.S. population in 1900 was 76 million people, less than a third the population we have now. The U.S. was the wealthiest economy in the world. Per capita income was on a level with Britain and Australia, was twice that of France and Germany, and was quadruple the standard of living in Japan and Mexico. Still, most Americans in 1900 were living in what we today would consider poverty. In present-day dollars, per capita American income in 1900 averaged around $5000, less than a fifth the current level. In other words, the typical American in 1900 had about the same income that a typical Mexican has today. Only three percent of American homes were lit by electricity. Only about a third of American homes had running water; only 15% had flush toilets; and half of farm households didn’t even have an outhouse. Most people lived within a mile of where they worked, and depended on their feet to get them around. Only one urban household in five owned a horse. Half of all people lived in spaces where they averaged more than one person per room. Taking in lodgers was common. Half the population drank alcohol; half didn’t. The half that did averaged two hard drinks and two beers a day; wine consumption was minimal. In Europe, by contrast, people drank twice as much beer, and averaged more than four glasses of wine a day. Life expectancy at birth was 47 years, and infant mortality rates were high. Of every 1000 babies born, 140 died in their first year. These days, fewer than 10 do. Flu, pneumonia, typhoid, gastritis, and whooping cough were common causes of death. 10% of the American population was completely illiterate, and the average adult had an 8th grade education. Only 7% of students would ever complete high school. A man’s typical on-the-job work week consisted... posted by Michael at March 31, 2004 | perma-link | (24) comments

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Squaresville Can Be Good
Dear Friedrich -- Last night, I watched the Wolfgang Petersen/Clint Eastwood thriller In the Line of Fire for the first time since it was released in 1993. Have you seen it? I think it's terrific. I can't say enough good about Jeff Maguire's brilliant script; about the slammin' (though calm) direction and filmmaking of Petersen and his crew; about the superduper, unanxious-seeming performances, even from Clint. And as the rogue-weirdo baddie, John Malkovich added a lot of spice; this was an early version of his virtuosically creepy thing, and it was still startling. Efficient big-budget suspense, but with enough room for character and color. (I notice, by the way, that Jeff Maguire's only produced screenplay since 1993 was last year's bomb, "Timeline." What a business, eh?) Watching the movie got me thinking about how fond I can be of big squaresville movies … about how rare the good ones are … and finally about how odd it is that Hollywood creates so very few of them. These days, the industry seems to want most of its product to have attitude or edge, or to be conceptual, ironic or hip (in no matter how dippy, inessential or meaningless a way) -- to be anything but a square-shooting, dignified production that wears its straight-ahead competence proudly. How strange it is that the moviebiz's establishment makes so few such movies. Curious about this, I started compiling a list of recent-ish movies that are solidly entertaining; have well-turned, 3-act scripts; that feature stars confidently deploying skills and charisma; that have convincing direction in a new yet classical style … Nothing rock video-ish, nothing indie or Lynch-esque, nothing "personal," no CGI spectacles or New Age romances, no new-style overproduced exploitation flicks, no computer animation … Just squaresville -- but rewarding! -- Hollywood. OK: "In the Line of Fire." "The Fugitive." The Gillian Armstrong version of "Little Women." The first of the "Die Hard" movies. And then I started coming up short. Do I include the first "Terminator"? How about the Jonathan Mostow movies, "U-571" and "Breakdown"? Or the fabulous "Mimic," or "Devil in a Blue Dress"? "My Best Friend's Wedding" struck me as the most original of the recent romantic comedies, and the Drew Barrymore dramedy "Home Fries" was pleasingly bittersweet … But I wonder. The first of these are really B-movie pleasures, and the two chickflicks are hip, post-'70s-esque things. So I suspect that none of them really belong. This is obviously a far from complete list, and I'm eager for help here. Might the Coppola version of that Grisham novel qualify? How about "Falling Down"? Both were solid entertainments. I'm probably forgetting many other likely candidates. In any case, thinking about all this led me to a Larger Thought, or at least a Larger Musing. It's about authority. Let's say that Hollywood is the movieworld's authority figure. That seems plausible -- in a world of foreign flicks and indieflicks, of this and thatflicks, Hollywood is everyone's mama and papa. Didn't Bertolucci once refer... posted by Michael at March 30, 2004 | perma-link | (35) comments

Monday, March 29, 2004

A Visit to the Land of the Optimists
Michael: I was intrigued by your recent posting, Prosperity and Immigration, (which can be read here). This discussed the oddly negative picture the media paint of the fortunes of Middle-America, as described in The Economist: The economy, it is said, is being “hollowed out” by international competition and the connivance of business and political elites, creating “two Americas”, one rich, one poor. Median income of American households, commentators often say, has been stagnant, though census figures give a rise of one-fifth since 1980. Lou Dobbs, on CNN's “Lou Dobbs Tonight”, is just one media fabulist who makes his living by claiming that, as America is being “exported”, so the well-being of middle Americans is in a parlous state. In truth, of course, most indications of the collapse of the middle-class are the result of statistical artifacts. America’s uniquely high immigration rate of the past twenty-five years, which has resulted in a large pool of very-low-income workers, has pulled numbers like the ‘median’ wage down. Once immigrants are factored out of the mix, median income—for the native-born—has shown the same growth that it did during the ‘golden age’ of the 1950s and 1960s. Partly this resonated with me because I had been hearing stories of the decline-and-fall-of-the-middle-class for years and yet couldn’t find any real-life examples of modern middle-class Americans who didn’t have nicer cars, didn’t have far more toys (for both children and adults), didn’t take far better vacations and didn’t have far larger investment portfolios than my family did when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. (This last wasn’t hard to beat, as we had none.) I’ve also been aware that I ‘ve had to pay employees, junior and senior alike, significantly higher real salaries recent years than I did in 1986, the year I started my business. In short, this analysis confirmed a suspicion that I had nursed privately all along, that the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s was quite a bit more widely shared than some class-warrior commentators had maintained. And who doesn’t like to be able to say: Ah, I thought so.) But I was also intrigued by the larger question: why are people so willing to embrace negative views of the world, even to the point of disregarding the fairly evident positive evidence in front of their eyes? (I’m not pointing any finger here—I’m by nature a fairly extreme pessimist, far more inclined to see the glass as half empty than half full. As you can see, I really have no business being an entrepreneur.) So when I saw that this analysis derived from a book by Greg Easterbrook with the title “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse,” I just had to buy it. I wanted to see the world through the eyes of an optimist for a change—sort of like going on a vacation to a sun-and-sand resort to get away from my own wintry mental landscape. Just Another Day in Easterbrook Land Well, Mr.... posted by Friedrich at March 29, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Guest Posting -- Toby Thain
Dear Friedrich -- In my years of following the arts, the biggest story has seemed to me to be the digitification of culture. (Have I ever just come right out and said that? I certainly should have.) It may be fun to argue about whether this novel or that show of new paintings is any good. But as topics they seem to me dwarfed, to say the least, by the question of what's happening to culture generally as it goes digital. I went into the culture field wanting to yak about books and movies (etc), and to add some product of my own to the culture stream. Instead, wham: along came computers -- and for the last 15-20 years, what's been most visible in the arts is the way that the various fields are reconfiguring themselves as digital waves sweep through them. We wouldn't have rap music if music hadn't gone digital. Magazines, ads and television wouldn't look the way they do if it weren't for computers. Bookselling superstores depend on databases. Copyright, distribution, the final experience of culture itself -- all are up for grabs because of digital technology Sigh: I've got no inborn interest in this process. I didn't enter the field knowing that culture would be going digital, and I never would have chosen to spend my adult life deep in the midst of these matters. But we're in a period of transition, and that's all there is to it. Perhaps in 50 years the process will finally be near-complete, and culture will have settled down enough so that people will be able to return to having civilized chats about stable-but-evolving artforms. A little late for me, but there you have it. In any case, it's inevitable that many of our interactions with culture– 70%? 95%? -- will be mediated by electronics. How will that affect the experience of culture and art? It can be helpful to ask these questions. What are we gaining? What might we be losing? How might artists and audiences respond? (IMHO: the most important thing artists can do these days is to take active part in the creation of digital culture, to make sure that art values aren't lost in the process. Artists: good lord, at the very least, put up a website!) I've learned a lot from the many discussions that have taken place on this blog about digital photography. We've compared notes, we've floated responses and ideas, and we've done a little theorizing and speculating. Many of us have used digital cameras, if in modest ways, so we can speak from hands-on experience. Jimbo loves the detail his Canon digital SLR delivers. Felix puts his Casio in his shirtpocket and pulls it out at parties. Lynn loves taking nature shots with her Canon. I bore everyone with worries about about whether digital photos have the magic film photographs sometimes do. And we all seem to love the convenience and fun. The other day, a very interesting and informative email about... posted by Michael at March 28, 2004 | perma-link | (25) comments

Friday, March 26, 2004

Light Entertainment
Dear Friedrich – Do we give light entertainment the respect it deserves? I started wondering about this question today as I was finishing the first book I’ve read by Ngaio Marsh, a mystery called Tied Up in Tinsel. (I listened to it on audiotape; it's rentable here. Hats off to the book's astoundingly good reader, Nadia May, by the way. I've listened to her read probably a dozen audiobooks, and she's never been less than clear, crisp and terrific. She has a flawless instinct for when it's appropriate to do some acting and when it makes more sense simply to read. When the time comes to act, she's dazzling: able to juggle scads of characters, as skillful with men's voices as well as women's, and able to score with dry humor as well as crude, knockabout farce. What a performer.) Do you know Ngaio Marsh's work? She's considered one of the half a dozen greats of the Golden Age, by which is meant the era ('20s-'30s) when audiences and writers had a taste for puzzle mysteries: Mr. Mustard in the cloakroom with a dagger, that kind of thing. She was born in New Zealand; although she was Anglo, her first name is a Maori one, and is pronounced "Nye-oh." She painted and wrote plays, and after she found her stride as a novelist split her adult life between NZ and Britain. Her writing has a lot of theatrical zing. She's one of those rare fiction writers whose characters stand up and walk around on their own; nearly all of the characters in the book I read were bursting with life. What she's most prized for is her dazzling social satire; when people get grumpy about her work, on the other hand, what they tend to say is that her novels are sparkling comedies of manners -- and then the crime happens, after which the books bog down. In any case, a not-bad way of describing "Tied Up in Tinsel" is P.G. Wodehouse meets Agatha Christie, with an added soupcon of malicious sexuality. Which is immensely high praise, at least in my cosmos. Reading the book, I had the following sequence of reactions and thoughts. At first: "This is brilliant! This is amazing! Wow! Who knew?" Then: "Well, harumph, let's be adults here: excellent though this book is, it is mere first-class light entertainment, after all." And, a while later: "Why the hell am I slamming on the brakes like that when this book is giving me so much pleasure? Isn't calling a book this good, this -- harumph, harumph -- phenomenal mere first-class light entertainment an act of condescension? And where do we get off condescending to something that's fantastically enjoyable?" When I emerged from the novel, I'd worked myself into quite a state of indignation about how dismissive we can be about light entertainment. To be sober for half a sec: it doesn't hurt to remember that we don't want to discuss the frothy stuff we love in ways... posted by Michael at March 26, 2004 | perma-link | (47) comments

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Cultural Hype
Dear Friedrich – I don't doubt that some of the people who visit the hot new gallery-art shows or read the latest hot "literary" novels do so out of simple enjoyment. I've got one friend, for instance, who, when asked what his cultural interests are, responds quickly, "Gallery art and graphic novels." Hey, he knows what he likes, and I see no reason to question his word. Our occasional Guest Poster Turbokitty is another example of someone who enjoys the hot-new-gallery-art scene. Her enthusiasm about it is winning and genuine. At the same time, I have zero doubt that some of the people who keep up with what's hot are doing so … well, for other reasons. They aren't reading, looking or listening simply because they love the stuff. Perhaps they're there out of curiosity. Perhaps they're there because they think "keeping up" is important, god only knows why. Perhaps – fools! -- they think something of immense cultural import is happening here and now, and they've got to, they've just got to, be part of it. Once upon a time, I followed a fair amount of the new, high-end hot stuff myself; I did it partly because I was curious and partly because I didn't know better, but mostly because I was being paid to "keep up." But I haven't been a pro for three years now. These days, interacting with the arts like a normal person (ie., choosing my cultural matter according to interest, whim and mood), I'm enjoying the arts far more than I did in my keeping-up days. I also experience them differently than I did during the pro years -- but that's for another posting. Which leads me to what I find myself wondering about today: if all the juju around the new and the hot cultural thing -- the hype, the cultural pressure, the pretences -- if all that evaporated, how many people would remain in the audience? How many would still be visiting that art gallery or buying that novel, let alone commissioning that piece of starchitecture? No way of knowing the answer for sure, of course. And in self-defence let's make all necessary noises about how people are grownups, are responsible for their own decisions, and are doing things for their own reasons, etc etc. Still, it seems obvious that a lot of what sustains these worlds and these phenomena is cultural pressure: newspaper and magazine babble, peer-group urgency, and whatever oomph the arts industries themselves can manufacture. Make those pressures go away, make the juju lose its magic, and how big an audience would remain? Some kind of audience, obviously. But how much of one? Me, I'm guessing that 80% of the audience for the new hot cultural thing would vanish if the hype and pressures sustaining it were to disappear. What would your guess be? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 25, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Life Among the Ruins
Michael: Thanks for the reference to an amazing website, “DetroitYes!” with its remarkable subtitle: “Home to the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.” (You should check this out, here.) I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. However, after reaching the ripe old age of 18, I only lived in the Detroit metropolitan area (on and off) for three more years prior to leaving for good at 26. Possibly because of youthful callowness and self-centeredness, I don’t think it really struck me at the time or even after my relocation to California that the period of my “blossoming” into adulthood had coincided with a truly remarkable collapse of my old home town. Oh, sure, even while growing up in Detroit it was known as The Murder Capital of the U.S.A. Heck, during my first job out of college when I was working downtown I myself was kidnapped at gunpoint while being relieved of my wallet and my car. (Nobody took this too seriously, not even me.) And the city was known for its racial tensions, what with the ’68 riots, white flight to the suburbs and the fights over forced bussing in the Nixon years. And in my few reflective moments during my stint working downtown (1976-8) it struck me as odd that whole swaths of downtown had been demolished as a result of something called urban renewal and didn’t appear to be slated for rebuilding anytime soon. (Few cities I’ve visited since combine skyscrapers with sudden patches of uncut grass growing in vacant lots a la Detoit.) And it did seem peculiar that some of the city’s worst neighborhoods were housed in large, stately structures that must have once verged on mansion-hood. But the true dimensions of what was happening didn’t really register, at least not consciously. After all, in many ways metropolitan Detroit was (and I assume remains) a wealthy area. During my youth, I recall, it was the third largest (media? retail?) market in the country. The auto industry was a huge money pump, and not only to its large executive class: in the late 1970s semi-skilled (if unionized) labor on the assembly line was paid $40 an hour (counting benefits, anyway). The suburbs, at least, continued to expand, swallowing up farmland north and west of the city. If you focused on that part of the story, things didn’t look so bad. But when I opened this website, I realized what a remarkable story had been unfolding under my nose. The creator of this website, Lowell Boileau (a painter) is a long-term Detroiter who has kept his eyes open during the past 30 years. He tells how he became a chronicler of ‘the fabulous ruins of Detroit’-- In the summer of 1971, I returned to Detroit after two and a half years in Africa, the Middle East and Europe where I had visited numerous ancient ruins. Detroit was restive, as the social revolutions of the late 60's played out their effects, and in transformation as its population began vacating... posted by Friedrich at March 24, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

String Theory Etc.
Dear Friedrich – Long ago at Camp Massaweepie, my Boy Scout chums and I would occasionally gather in a tent and ponder The Big Questions. "Nothing" was one of our faves. If Nothing were really Nothing, then how could we talk about it? Yet here we were talking about it. Didn't the fact that we were managing to discuss Nothing prove that Nothing has a Something sort of existence, if only as a topic of conversation for a bunch of Boy Scouts? And if Nothing is Something, well then … At this point, one of us would toss himself onto the ground and let out a holler of bewilderment and consternation. We loved that. Graybeard though I may now be, I'm having a Massaweepie Moment. Not long ago, I went through a couple of intros to relativity and quantum mechanics, and at the moment I'm in the middle of a Brian Greene introduction to string theory. Whee: is my head spinning. Have you had a wrestle with string theory? It's -- and I'm happy to admit that I speak here as nothing more than someone partway through a Brian Greene book – an attempt at a Theory of Everything. The basic challenge string theory is meant to meet is this. On the one hand, there's relativity, which does a good job of explaining things at a big scale; while on the other hand, there's quantum mechanics, doing a fine job of explaining things at the subatomic scale. Two sets of circumstances; two sets of equations. This situation is apparently intolerable; it seems to rubs theoretical physicists the wrong way. They look at black holes, where the two sets of equations go haywire, and they want something to bind relativity and quantum mechanics together. Even better would be to arrive at the one Equation of All Equations that underlies both relativity and quantum mechanics. There must be such a thing, if only for the sake of … elegance, or something. String theory is an attempt to be that Equation of All Equations. It's the idea that matter and forces both are made up of minuscule vibrating loops of energy; differences in vibrations account for differences in matters and forces. According to Greene, string theory is what the best young theoretical-physics minds are excited about at the moment. They find it promising and attractive, if not without its problems. My mediocre and arty mind finds it appealing too; I enjoy playing with the obvious connection between vibrating strings and ancient ideas about the Music of the Spheres. Why does music hit us the way it does? Why should it exist at all? Perhaps it really is an emanation of the basic Nature of Everything! In any case, it's an exciting moment: we may be on the verge of something really enormous. My heart goes pitty pat … and then my feet start to drag. Not that my reactions could matter less, of course. Nonetheless, I'm feeling reckless tonight and will forge on.... posted by Michael at March 24, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Why Crime Pays
Michael: Many people have wondered why it has taken so long for the corporate scandals of the past few years to result in convictions. Perhaps they should take a closer look at the the ‘fine print’ of our nation’s securities fraud legislation. The importance of this ‘fine print’ is currently on display in the trial of Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski and former chief financial officer Mark Swartz. The two men are accused of stealing $170 million from Tyco to finance their lavish lifestyles by taking unauthorized bonuses and abusing company loan programs as well as reaping an additional $430 million by inflating Tyco stock prices via improper accounting and then dumping their shares from 1995 through 2002. A conviction requires that the men were motivated in these activities by ‘criminal intent.’ It appears that the definition of this critical ‘term’ is stumping the very people who most need to understand it: the jury. From an A.P. story on the trial: NEW YORK - Jurors at the Tyco International grand larceny trial asked a judge Tuesday to explain the term “criminal intent,” the second time they have requested that explanation in four days of deliberations. In making the request, the panel asked state Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus to “go slowly” this time in giving his explanation. On Friday, under protest from prosecutors, Obus informed the jury that criminal intent was meant to describe a defendant’s state of mind, and that there was no separate definition of the term. “That’s what the law says,” Obus told the prosecution on Friday. “I know you’re not crazy about it, but we just work here.” Adding in impossible-to-objectively-prove criteria like “criminal intent” is a wonderful way to let legislators appear to be doing something about the bad guys without, um, actually doing anything about the bad guys. (Where would the law--that paradigm of intellectual precision--be without its metaphysical mysteries like 'intent' and 'the reasonable man'?) Truth-in-advertising applied to the legislative process would reveal that an amazing amount of the laws on the books are riddled with this kind of semantic nonsense. Of course, the heavy campaign contributions of the securities’ industry to Congress wouldn’t have anything to do with this sort of clever drafting, would it? I can hear the objections now. I mean, haven't most of us--at one time or another--ended up with some large fraction of $600 million in our pockets as a result of forgiven corporate loans, bonuses granted during informal board meetings where no minutes were kept and as a result of regrettably inflated financial results given out to the investing public? And that surely didn't mean that we had 'criminal intent,' right? It was all just an honest mistake! If eliminating intent, criminal or otherwise, as a requirement for securities fraud seems too draconian for you, I have another suggestion. Let's get rid of securities fraud as a crime. The way it currently is, the public is duped into thinking that having their money stolen by crooked management... posted by Friedrich at March 23, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, March 22, 2004

Comment-Spam Update
Dear Friedrich -- Sad to report, but we've hit a small landmark. We've now banned over 200 evil IP addresses from posting comments on our blog -- well, really, from comment-spamming us. There oughta be a law. Well, maybe not. But some tactical nuke-ing would suit me fine. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 22, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Business and Craft in Animation..and the World
Michael: I just read a story in the L.A. Times of March 21 that gave me amazingly mixed emotions. “Out of the Picture” discusses the significant cutbacks in the L.A.-based animation workforce. (I planned to link to this story, but unfortunately, this content seems available only to paying L.A. Times subscribers who are willing to go through a lot of rigamarole. Sorry.) While there is no shortage, apparently of animation work, particularly for television, a lot of animation now involves CGI 3-D animation (and a different set of skills). In another negative trend, jobs in ‘traditional’ animation are being outsourced to shops in cheaper international markets like Australia, Korea, Taiwan and India (for a cost savings to the studios of around 50%.) The net effect over the past three years has been a loss of around 1,000 jobs, representing roughly 40% of the American animation workforce at its maximum. Naturally, this has resulted in a lot of bitterness among traditional animators who have been tossed into the boneyard. One who is profiled in the story is Eddie Goral, now working at the checkout counter at local grocery store Trader Joe’s: “Before this?” he’ll explain, if you press him as he runs bottles of “Two-Buck Chuck” through the price scanner. “I was an animator.” Suddenly whimsy drains away. Anger flashes in its place. “Until Disney got rid of all of us.” Once upon a time, not so long ago, Goral worked “cleanup” on a variety of big-screen Disney products—from “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Great Mouse Detective” in the ‘70’s to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Mulan” in the ‘90s. He averaged about $1,200 a week, not high-end animator money, but Goral had no complaints—he was doing what he loved. But then worked slowed, eventually dried up, and Goral joined the growing ranks of the newest displaced Los Angeles employee—the out-of-work animator. It’s impossible not to feel for these people, since it is clear that collapse of Disney animation, at least, was hardly the fault of its lower-ranking employees. The Eddie Gorals of the animation world didn't screw up. No, clearly, the ‘suits’ are to blame here for bad business and artistic decisions (like the last four or five Disney animated movies, with the notable exception of “Lilo and Stitch.”) And yet, is it really fair to blame the ‘suits’? Is it really the responsibility of the ‘suits’ to ensure that the Eddie Gorals of this world are employed at reasonably well-paid salaries doing what they love? Isn’t part of the problem that the Eddie Gorals of this world want to beaver away at their craft, and don’t want to be bothered to think about raising money and launching new projects that would ensure that they stay employed? I know the tradeoff Eddie thought he was making—the ‘suits’ would get the big bucks and he would settle for a middle-class life-style coupled with a steady-stream of craftsmanly job satisfaction. But that didn’t take into account the more-or-less inevitable... posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, March 19, 2004

Dear Friedrich -- * Kevin Drum, formerly the Calpundit, is now chief bloggeur at The Washington Monthly, here. * Alan Little (here) points to this excellent and helpful Ken Rockwell piece (here) comparing digital point-and-shoots with digital SLRs. Alan wonders how Itunes might better handle classical music, here. * First-class online filmcrit: New Zealand's Adrian Hyland (who did a Guest Posting for 2Blowhards here) has an archive of reviews here, and Boston's Mark Delello has stashed some of his own film writing here. Both guys have ferocious minds, turn a snappy phrase, and (best of all) are great fun to compare notes with. During a recent tour 'round the website of the firebreathing architecture and suburbia critic James Howard Kunstler (here), I was surprised to learn that he's also a terrific movie reviewer. Here's a page of his short reviews. I suspect that no one's ever accused Kunstler of being coy about his opinions. * In recent weeks, Steve Sailer has been even more of a brainy, brave dynamo than usual. Check out these two essays, here and here -- and be sure not to miss his blog, which is the yellow column on this page here. Steve also points to this excellent John Leo piece here about bogus "hate crimes." * "Anyone who isn't a socialist at 10 has no heart, anyone who still is at 20 has no brains," writes Aaron Haspel here, who grew up a lot faster than I did. * Where does women's much-noticed cattiness towards other women come from? The Discovery Channel offers a new point of view, here, wisely using a woman writer to deliver the news. * I found this Atlantic Unbound q&a about race (as in blacks and whites) with the author Debra Dickerson refreshing, here. In this chat here with the Chicago Tribune, Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. says many similar things. I wonder if we're at a turning point in thinking about black/white racial things. (Links thanks to Gavin Shorto, here.) * Are you still the Rubens buff you once were? If so, you'll probably enjoy this Sebastian Smee review for the Telegraph, here. * Did I ever link to this page here of games before? They're sweet and simple, but I also find them beautiful and poetic. * Terry Teachout (here) finds Keaton funnier than Chaplin; George Hunka (here) prefers the guy with the moustache and the cane. * The standard thing was once to assume that Anglo-Saxons completely overran the native Britons. New evidence reported here suggests that the invading force may have been far smaller than was thought. * I love Fenster Moop, a new culture/politics blog, here. Fenster has a searching mind, a firm hand on the wheel, and tons of horsepower under the hood. * The British designer Neville Brody was one of the most influential visual people of the 1980s -- think The Face magazine. DesignObserver's Rick Poynor takes a look back at Brody's significance here. * The talented young horror-film director Eli... posted by Michael at March 19, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments

Massengale on Modernism
Dear Friedrich -- You won't want to miss John Massengale's brilliant posting about Modernism, here. John has managed to squeeze several books' worth of thinking and knowledge into a few thousand words. Long live the blogosphere: where else are you going to find this kind of to-the-point, essential (and free) cultural history? IMHO, of course -- but, grrr, disagree with me at your peril. John got my own thoughts, such as they are, firing off in a variety of directions. The one that's making the most noise is a question that's been ricocheting around my head for years now. It's this: can Modernism ever take its place as just one style among many? The obvious, level-headed, easy, and probably correct answer is: Sure, why not? John thinks so, and it's certainly to be hoped that he's right. But I can't help wondering if this Modernism-thing isn't a bit more complicated than that. Why? Because of the nature of the grip Modernism had (and still has) on some people. For many years and for many people, it functioned as ideology, as vision, as credo -- really, as a substitute religion. Although Modernism was meant to be an approach that suited a post-religious age, it quickly took on all the characteristics of a traditional religion, not that it was ever able to deliver the satisfaction and happiness traditional religions sometimes manage to. Like those other 20th century pseudo-religions Marxism and Freudianism, Modernism depended for its zing and popularity on the promise of redemption. Over time, it developed religious trappings too: a priesthood, a gospel and a doctrine, sacred spots to which believers made solemn pilgramages. Modernism was art as a way, or rather art as The Way. Buy into it sincerely enough, pray hard enough, submit to its imperative to go on finding new ways to defy tradition and -- who knows? -- Greatness might strike. The Self would find liberation and fulfillment, the masses would be set free, bliss would be attained ... Probably not, of course -- gotta keep the masses supporting the cause and kowtowing before the Genius we all serve, after all. But you never know, do you? Maybe life really can be transformed in its very nature. And gosh, we all sure hope so, don't we? Don't we? Thwack! My question seems to boil down to this: does enough remain of this kind of pseudo-religion when the spark goes out of it to constitute a viable style? Does Modernism -- Modernism simply as a style -- have enough going for it to stay alive as one option among many? It seems to me that styles that have staying power resonate; they've got some real appeal, something that not only fascinates but pleases, and perhaps even serves. If Catholicism, for instance, were to lose its hold, I'm sure that the "culture" created in its service would still transfix; it's a mighty rich one. But of course Catholicism is a real religion. How about a pseudo-religion like Modernism? How... posted by Michael at March 19, 2004 | perma-link | (24) comments

"M" and Camera-Space
Michael: You may remember my email to you of a few weeks ago: What, no response to my crack about a chimpanzee being able to direct a Hollywood feature? At least one equipped with (1) a ‘radio drama’ script in which all the key information is conveyed via the soundtrack and (2) a cinematographer who could expose the film correctly, get enough basic coverage (i.e., ensure you can see everyone talking and acting) and deal with basic continuity (keeping the actor on the right on the right and the one on the left on the left as you switch shots). Actually, that raises an interesting question: what exactly is the difference between such a chimpanzee (or, say, Rob Reiner) and someone who knows how to use a camera (say, in his 'Warrior' days, Walter Hill or Carl Dreyer)? Well, as you recall, I ended up answering my own question with a reference to something I called camera-space. I meant the use of visual elements (cinematography, lighting, art direction, sets, locations and the staging of the action) to suggest the feel of the ‘space’ in which the film takes place. Such space can seem claustrophobic (Carl Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath”), menacing (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”), vast & existentially empty (Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”), intoxicatingly fluid (Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game”), mechanistically deterministic (Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”) etc., etc. Directors who create a consistent and emotionally affecting sense of this ‘space’ in a film constitute, to me, the elite of their profession. A brief aside to fans of Rob Reiner: I’m not criticizing Mr. Reiner or his films, some of which I like. I used his particular name in vain because he is fairly representative of modern Hollywood directors in having no obvious visual preoccupations in his films other than a desire to make sure that the audience can clearly follow the action and see the actors deliver their lines. (He also deserves some abuse for having directed the late, unlamented "Alex and Emma.") However, our discussion got me wondering whether or not my ideas—based on my college-student film-buff experiences, now several decades in the past—still held up, or whether I was just talking through my hat. So I decided to take another look at a movie that, according to my memory anyway, seemed to have a strong sense of such a ‘camera-space.’ Being a man of action, I quickly implemented this decision by bugging my wife to add the DVD of Fritz Lang’s “M” to our weekly order from Netflix. A few days later I watched “M” and was remarkably pleased to see that even in 2004 I still thought that the film was a masterpiece and that it not only possessed a ‘camera-space’ concept but one clear enough to demonstrate how the director went about the task of creating it. To make this discussion intelligible, I need to explain a bit about the film. The 1931 “M” is a sociological study masquerading as a... posted by Friedrich at March 19, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Prosperity and Immigration
Dear Friedrich -- The Economist runs a cheery article this week, the gist of which is that Americans are economically far better-off than our anxiety levels about jobless recoveries and outsourcing would suggest. The article leans heavily on Gregg Easterbrook's recent "The Progress Paradox" and is readable here. Some of its more interesting facts: "Among native-born Americans, poverty rates have declined steadily since the 1960s. In the case of black families, median incomes have recently been rising at twice the pace for the country as a whole ... Indeed, for the nine-tenths of the population that is native-born, middle-income trends continue their improvement of the 1950s and 1960s. For these people, inequality is not rising, but falling." "Between 1980 and 2002 Americans in work rose by over 40%, a far brisker pace than the 26% growth in the population. Some three-quarters of the adult population are now in work, close to a record and some ten percentage points higher than in Europe." "Most Americans have at least two cars and their own house, and they send their children to college. Certainly a bigger share of household income is being spent on things that did not feature 50 years ago, such as high-tech health care. But it has brought the benefit of a longer and better life, and not just for the old: since 1980, infant mortality has fallen by 45%." "The typical American dwelling now has two rooms per person, double Europe's level or America's half a century ago." Americans now spend $25 billion a year on boats and jetskis, and nearly half of their food dollars in restaurants. While it appears in a magazine that's relentlessly enthusiastic about high immigration rates, the article also admits that the current "scale of immigration into America [is] outpacing all immigration in the rest of the world put together," and that the country's cheery growth picture exists only if you "strip out immigrants." Not knowing quite what to make of this, I read the magazine's next article (not available online). Its subject: how many immigrants to the U.S. are bypassing the big cities and settling in suburbs instead. Important matters, especially seeing as how an Urban Institute study estimates that one in five children in American today is the offspring of an immigrant, and that by 2015 one in three American children will be. Suburban hospitals are stressed, suburban crime rates are rising ... But not to worry, the Economist is quick to add. Why? Because the percentage of the country's population that is foreign-born -- about 11% -- has been bigger at other times. And didn't we manage fine then? What the article's writer doesn't see fit to acknowledge is what's obvious in the chart that accompanies the article: that the absolute number of foreign-born people in the country's population right now (over 40 million) is about three times higher than it was during previous big immigration waves. Not to mention, of course, the fact that the country's population is considerably larger... posted by Michael at March 18, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Low-Carb Update
Dear Friedrich -- I was at the health-food store eyeballing the huge selection of low-carb bars on display when one of them caught my eye, The Z-Carb Bar. Its tagline (or whatever you call the ad-ish line that pitches the product): Zero Carbs. Zero Guilt. Zero Laxative Effect. Sure makes me want to chow down! I hereby nominate the Z-Carb Bar for an Oscar for Least-Appetizing Sales Pitch Ever. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 18, 2004 | perma-link | (2) comments

Diet Update
Michael: Just thought I’d provide a little update on the whole diet experience. For those of you not following my personal soap-opera closely, I have been engaged in a pretty serious diet for the past three-and-a-half months. (Well, it wasn’t that serious during January as a result of home-remodeling and my daughter’s bat mitzvah, but I’ve gotten pretty hard-core recently.) So far, I’ve lost just over 50 pounds, 21 of those in the past four weeks. My approach in the last month has been what I would call ‘moderate’ strict Atkins: that is, a strict Atkins diet (less than 20 grams of carbohydrate a day, testing my urine with ketostix to make sure I’m in fat-burning mode) combined with moderate exercise (3-5 miles walking daily) and moderate quantities of food (as opposed to just shoveling the old protein in.) I would also stress the value of getting together with a reasonably intimate group to discuss progress and pitfalls weekly. To the extent that overeating is an addictive disorder, it appears that the peer pressure of such a group is the only practical defense against ‘falling off the wagon.’ I’m getting pretty serious about figuring out how to stay in such a group even after I hit my goal weight. Otherwise, any objective observer would conclude that my long-term outlook for maintaining weight is rather dicey, sad though that is to say. On the lighter side (no pun intended, it just popped out) I’ve noticed the press releases and news stories about a drug that is, at best, a good two years away from commercial release but already looks like it has ‘commercial blockbuster’ written all over it. Sanofi-Synthelabo (great name for a pharmaceutical company, no?) has been touting the early clinical successes of its CB1 blocker drug rimonabant (trade name: Acomplia). This drug seems to simultaneously make it easier for people to quit smoking and to not gain weight while doing so, or to simply help people lose weight. You can read about it here. My first reaction to this wonder drug was to think: quit smoking and lose weight? Doesn’t it give you whiter whites and brighter brights too? And how about a date on Friday night? (Now that I think about it, of course, it might actually deliver on that one.) But as I read about how this drug works on the endocannabinoid system, “a natural system that modulates the body's energy balance and nicotine dependence” I began to wonder about exactly what kind of research had led to this discovery. And in a story in the Wall St. Journal I hit pay-dirt: just as the name of that system implies, this drug comes out of ‘scientific’ research into why smoking marijuana gives you the munchies! Dr. Spicoli. Dedicated Researcher of the Endocannabinoid System Unbidden visions of the development process came to mind: a group of dedicated Jeff Spicolis sitting around in white lab coats blazing doobies. Naturally, they would be divided between a group taking a CB1... posted by Friedrich at March 18, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Towers in the Park
Dear Friedrich -- Fair warning: what follow are the rants of a semi-educated fan. Sensible people who want responsible commentary instead will find it chez David Sucher (here) and John Massengale (here and here). Now, on with the overcaffeinated ravings. You may have heard that New York City wants to host the 2012 Olympics. (Here's the website spelling out the city's bid.) Where would it house the athletes? And what would it do with the housing after the show's over? Some official-sounding group has commissioned plans from bigname celebritects; here's a piece about the proposals by the NYTimes' ludicrous radical propagandist, er, distinguished architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp. There's a link on the page to a slide show of the proposals. Oh, what the heck, why not copy and paste? Here are a couple of examples of what was submitted. By Zaha Hadid By Henning Larsens Tegnestue By MVRDV Architecture as lava lamps! Towers as progressive-school playground equipment! Buildings that strike poses and wear clown suits! All of which I suppose some people might find cool. But of course these aren't meant to be table-top pieces of "design," freely bought for personal use. They're meant to be buildings, which thousands of people will be stuck interacting with whether they want to or not. So how about getting down to earth for a sec -- 'way down to earth, in fact. Let's ignore the swirls and colors and take a look at the bases of these structures, where many, many people would be interacting with them. What's life like down there? Hmm, well ... A lot more familiar than the innovative zigzagginess of the designs would suggest. Yep: for all their Jetsons-esque edginess, these proposals are nothing but up-to-date examples of one of the most destructive ideas of 20th century modernism, the Tower in the Park. The what? Well, some essential (IMHO, of course) cultural history. We owe the idea of the TIP to the godawful Le Corbusier, the totalitarian of modern architecture, who was convinced that cities -- in their jumble, in their compression, and in their eclecticism -- needed drastic reform. (His kind of drastic reform, of course.) They needed order; they needed light; they needed air. Tear down the old! Build the rational, the good, and the new! What would the Good look like? Here's what The Corbu Man thought downtown Paris should be turned into: Le Corbusier's vision for Paris So much for those retro qualities, romance and poetry, eh? But the Radiant City, as Le Corbusier called his vision, suited the taste that many powerful 20th century figures had for imposing gigantic, rationalized, theoretical schemes on living organisms. And because the powerful saw their own virtue and visions reflected in these designs, the Le Corbusier-ian approach was given repeated tryouts; it became, in fact, standard architecture-world taste and product. It was what was being taught at Our Lousy Ivy University back in the mid-'70s, for instance -- one reason I never took architecture classes, curious though I... posted by Michael at March 17, 2004 | perma-link | (25) comments

Dear Friedrich -- I confess it: I'm a hoarder. Not a collector but instead someone who heaps up goodies while making vague vows to do something -- and something wonderful -- with them at some vague future date. That date never comes, of course -- which is how my link-a-thons get so overgrown. I know I should do better, so I hereby vow to pass along my hoards of cherished links more regularly. Hey, I'll be supplying link-a-thins instead of link-a-thons. * Glad to hear you enjoyed that Robert Locke piece about corporatism. I've enjoyed wrestling with a lot of his pieces over the last few days. Here's an archive of them. * Here's a semi-debate, semi-discussion between the modernist architect Dan Solomon and the New Urbanism honcho Andres Duany. My favorite passage from Duany: And finally, there is the win/loss ratio. Dan, you and I know that there are between 300 and 3,000 modernist masterpieces. We've visited them, we admire them, we understand them. They are not the problem. The problem is the 30 million failures of modernism that have destroyed our cities and our landscapes. You cannot have one without acknowledging the other. There were very few failures prior to modernism. Architects and builders could rely on tradition to give them a base below which quality would not drop while not preventing masterpieces. The problem with modernism is that without acknowledging tradition there is no bottom it does not reach. Too many architects, unsupplied with genius, are asked to emulate the design methods of Wright, Mies, LeCorbusier, and the few geniuses there have been. And the result has been a comprehensive, world-girdling disaster. We cannot, as urbanists, for the sake of the occasional masterpiece, tolerate such an abysmal win/loss ratio. No one would in any other field. Why should architects be exempt? * Also snagged from The Town Paper: Laurence Aurbach's terrific page of links to New-Urb websites, here. There's hours of fun browsing and grazing to be had from this page. * You can read, watch or listen to a talk with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Duany's co-honcho, here. If you've got a fast connection it's worth watching the video version -- Plater-Zyberk and the interviewer stroll through the new-traditionalist town of Kentlands as they talk. * Michael Hill explains the impact of the great, or not-so-great, Screen Actors Guild strike of 2000, here. * One of my favorite economists is the Chicagoan Frank Knight, probably as much for his snazzy, wry attitude and prose style as for his views. Here's a Library of Economics and Liberty page that links to a bio of Knight as well as to a piece by the Harvard economist George Borjas about immigration. The Library has posted a Knight essay here. * Andy Garcia is Modigliani, here. * The NYTimes' Nicholas Wade writes about what evolutionary biology might have to say about the origins of language, here. I think I snagged this link from Gene Expression, here. I notice at GNXP, by the... posted by Michael at March 17, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Greek Elections
Dear Friedrich -- It hasn't been widely noticed in the States, but 2Blowhards visitors may be interested to learn that on March 7th, Greek voters voted their center-Left government out of office, and voted into office a center-Right government. Architecture-wise, the leftist PASOK government had initiated an Olympics-related, build-lots-now program that leaned heavily on chic establishment architects. How much of a role did public dislike of this program play in the government's downfall? Hard to tell; discontent with inefficiency and corruption in a general sense were in any case far more important factors. Still, how fascinating to see that one of the first actions of the New Democracy government has been to stop work on the New Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi. Nikos Salingaros' Guest Posting for 2Blowhards about Tschumi's awful design can be read here. I was pleased to see that Nikos's essay was linked to by several Greek blogs, a Spanish blog, and was even translated into Italian. Emailing back and forth, Nikos and I decided that the time has come to start referring to the "Athens Effect" in honor of recent events. As we propose it, the "Athens Effect" describes the downfall of an institution (corporation, university, government, or nation) that embraces alien architecture. In short, it's the opposite of the "Bilbao Effect," which describes the magic transformation Frank Gehry's museum is said to have wrought on the city of Bilbao. Here's the news as reported by Kathimerini, an English-language Greek newspaper. I've stitched this together from two different news stories. Supreme Court deputy prosecutor Anastassios Kapollas has instructed an Athens prosecutor to press criminal charges for breach of duty against the state-appointed committee that awarded the museum contract to architects Bernard Tschumi and Michael Photiades ... court sources revealed on Thursday that nearly all the officials involved in the 94-million-euro museum project would face criminal charges for breach of duty in awarding the contract and approving the museum plans. Will this prove to be the first time that the academic-avant-garde-celebritecht establishment (designers as well as the people who award them contracts and give them prizes) has been called to serious public account? Beats me. Perhaps visitors who are more knowledgeable can help out here? Here's a brief report from INTBAU, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism. What fun to see that INTBAU cites Nikos' 2Blowhards piece, and includes a fresh quote from Nikos as well. Let me encourage everyone to explore the entire site, by the way, which is full of terrific information, images and articles: hey, there really is a high-class alternative to the anti-human, ego-driven crap the media and most of the schools are peddling. Ah, the web. I'm thrilled that anyone exploring INTBAU's site and links can get up to speed about these crucial if a little esoteric matters in a matter of a few hours. Still, I can't help feeling a little rueful that in the pre-web era accumulating that very same knowledge took me several years. Oh,... posted by Michael at March 16, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Reforming the Professions
Michael: Thanks again for sending me that link to Robert Locke’s essay on “American Corporatism” (which can be read here.) The essay lays out the ideology-bending reality of the interaction between powerful economic interests and the government: What is corporatism? In a (somewhat inaccurate) phrase, socialism for the bourgeois. It has the outward form of capitalism in that it preserves private ownership and private management, but with a crucial difference: as under socialism, government guarantees the flow of material goods, which under true capitalism it does not. In classical capitalism, what has been called the "night-watchman" state, government's role in the economy is simply to prevent force or fraud from disrupting the autonomous operation of the free market. The market is trusted to provide. Under corporatism, it is not, instead being systematically manipulated to deliver goods to political constituencies. This now includes basically everyone from the economic elite to ordinary consumers. As Mr. Locke points out, powerful established economic interests have a great deal of common interest with the government: What makes corporatism so politically irresistible is that it is attractive not just to the mass electorate, but to the economic elite as well. Big business, whatever its casuists at the Wall Street Journal editorial page may pretend, likes big government, except when big government gets greedy and tries to renegotiate the division of spoils. Although big business was an historic adversary of the introduction of the corporatist state, it eventually found common ground with it. The first thing big business has in common with big government is managerialism. The technocratic manager, who deals in impersonal mass aggregates, organizes through bureaucracy, and rules through expertise without assuming personal responsibility, is common to both. The second thing big business likes about big government is that it has a competitive advantage over small business in doing business with it and negotiating favors. Big government, in turn, likes big business because it is manageable; it does what it is told. It is much easier to impose affirmative action or racial sensitivity training on AT&T than on 50,000 corner stores. This is why big business has become a key enforcer of political correctness. The final thing big business likes about big government is that, unlike small government, [big government] is powerful enough to socialize costs in exchange for a share of the profits. Although Mr. Locke’s analysis, and even his term for the phenomenon, focuses on large corporations, he is being too narrow. Other powerful economic interests function in much the same cozy way with government, often through the guise of being ‘regulated industries’ or as ‘professions.’ The professions have certainly been in the news lately. The most egregious news, I guess, has been regarding the accounting profession. I refer, of course, to the $74.4. billion ‘restatement’ of MCI’s books that was recently announced after a complete overhaul of the corporate books since 1993. As a news account (which you can read here) notes: The process took more than a year and a half.... posted by Friedrich at March 16, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments

Saturday, March 13, 2004

More on Cameras
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I spent some time the other day talking with a Kodak engineer, who passed along some info you might find interesting. Inside dope, if of a modest kind. You know how digi-photos, no matter how dazzling, often look a little tight and flat? One of the reasons for this is that their exposure latitude is narrow. They record info from only a small range of brightnesses, which means that when you look at a digiphoto, you're looking at one tight little slice of the visual world; the darks will tend to fall off into black, and the lights will tend to blow out. My engineer told me that people in the industry have been on the case and that helpful new software will soon be on the market. However clear and detailed a digicamera image is, it still doesn't contain anything like the quantity of info a first-rate film photograph does. The Kodak guy said that he and his colleagues think that a digiphoto would need 13-16 million pixels to match a tiptop film image. He compared the current state of digi-photography to the early days of music CDs, when the sound they delivered -- while brilliant and clear -- was also cold and grating. "We're at the stage now where we're starting to be able to concentrate on making the images creamier and more appetizing," he said. What will be the next fun gizmo? My Kodak guy says that he and his colleagues bet that it'll be a hybrid still/video camera. The product is more than halfway here already; even my cheapo new Kodak can take minuscule videos with sound. And already you can buy examples, however primitive, of tapeless video cameras. (Here's one.) The quality of the video these tapeless gizmos produce is rapidly getting better; chips and software are now available that permit 24 fps or 30 fps full-screen video -- they've got the oomph to handle that quantity of throughput. (Hey, I just used the word "throughput"! I wonder if I did so correctly.) The only thing that stands between now and utopia is storage capabilities. Tapeless videocams stuff video information into the same cards that your still digi-cam stores still-image info on -- Memory Sticks, SD cards, whatever. Currently, such a card might hold 64 megabytes, or 256 megabytes, or maybe even a gigabyte of info -- which, however impressive, is far from enough for lots of quality video, for which you might well want 10 or even 40 gigs. My Kodak guy said that it's just a matter of time, and not too much time, before the cards will be up to the task; he's guessing that supercards will be available in 3-5 years. One consequence of this is likely to be that videocams that use tape will die off -- who'll need or want tape? Another is that the devices will get really small. Once we're rid of tape and the motors that move it around, we'll... posted by Michael at March 13, 2004 | perma-link | (15) comments

My New Kodak
Dear Friedrich -- I treated myself to a cheapo new digital camera the other day -- this Kodak number here. So far I'm lovin' it. For one thing, it's one-third the size and one-third the price of the fancy digi-camera I bought a few years ago -- yet it performs the same number of tricks, or almost. For another, it couldn't be easier to use. As far as I can tell from playing with samples at stores, Kodak seems to be the current ease-of-use digicam champ. My previous fancy-for-its-era Nikon was an impressive but (to me, anyway) often frustrating thing. Having spent a little time fussing with film and cameras, I'm familiar with the basics and even enjoy telling a camera what I want it to do. What I hate doing is spraining my brain figuring out how to communicate with the gizmo. The Nikon and I were often at odds. The camera's designers for some reason buried nearly all its commands in software and made them accessible only via onscreen menus. If you wanted to turn off the flash, you had to click through menus. (Peer, squint, click, click, click.) If you wanted to shoot in macro mode, you had to click through menus. (Peer, squint, click, click, click.) I was spending far, far too much time squinting at a tiny screen, deciphering icons, and pointing-and-clicking my way through options, and far too little time actually squeezing off photos. Often by the time I was able to pull my eyes and brain out of menu-ville and return to the real world, I'd have lost the shot. Ah, but I'd had the satisfaction of adjusting the camera's settings correctly! Are there people who enjoy interacting with gizmos in this way? Me, I couldn't be happier to sacrifice some sophistication for the sake of directness, tactility and ease. I'm going to play Donald Norman for a sec and think out loud about what makes my new camera such an agreeable beastie. Hmm. I think most of my pleasure results from three choices the Kodak designers have made. Assigning the most-used functions to buttons. Real, physical, right-out-there, well-labeled buttons. What a pleasure, however retro: I can switch off the flash, review the stored shots, and do a few other things too almost without thinking. Does anyone find the state of mind they experience when they enter electronic menu-land to be enjoyable? I certainly don't; interacting with menus requires figuring-out energy. Although I'm semi-capable of summoning some up from time to time, I never find the process enjoyable, while stabbing well-labeled physical buttons gives me a lot of satisfaction. Simplifying the menus. OK, some functions inevitably will have to be lodged in menus. Why make the process of getting at them more laborious than it needs to be? Kodak minimizes the puzzle factor first by assigning certain functions to physical buttons -- which reduces the quantity of what needs to get stuffed into the menus -- and second by slightly restricting the camera's... posted by Michael at March 13, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, March 12, 2004

The New York Times Takes Marching Orders From 2Blowhards
Dear Friedrich -- Do you get the feeling that we're being watched? I do. We go on (and, admittedly, on and on) about the New Classicism in architecture. Yesterday, the NYTimes profiles the terrific New Classicist Thomas Gordon Smith, here. We promote a more open way of discussing books and book publishing, and the Times goes looking for exactly that attitude in their new Book Review editor. A story about who they've chosen for the position is here. We rave about the too-little-known novelist Tom Perrotta. And um, er -- whose new novel would you guess is on the cover of the upcoming Sunday NYTimes Book Review Section? Right you are. (This story isn't online yet.) Spooky! Next thing you know, the Times will start championing 19th century American art, running appreciations of Anne Coulter, dissecting contempo magazine design, wondering what's what with young gals these days, and covering the topic of immigration. Oh, wait: they recently started taking note of immigration. Good lord, they're snapping at our heels. I don't know how all this copycatting makes me feel. On the one hand, it's only just (of course) that the world should be coming 'round to our way of seeing. On the other, if the Times continues to take its cue from us, things will soon get to the point where nothing Times-ian will be left to complain about. And I do love bitching about the Times. I dread the day when everyone finally sees sense and agrees with us, don't you? Because then we'll have to come up with something new to annoy people with, and -- at our slowing-down stage in life -- I don't know whether I'll have it in me. Fires burn only so long. In the meantime, what do you say we demand a consultant's fee? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 12, 2004 | perma-link | (26) comments

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Restaurant Realities
Dear Friedrich -- I often love those little info-graphics in USA Today -- Snapshots, I see they call them. Today's is about restaurant traffic: How many meals are bought in which category of restaurant? The data come from a study done by NPD Group at the end of last year. The results? 74% of restaurant meals are bought from fast-food places; 14% from midscale restaurants; and 11% from "casual" places. I was surprised by fast food's 74% -- but now that I think of it, I'm surprised I was surprised. People picking up burgers without leaving the car, kids wanting more fries, people stopping while on trips ... Of course the figure would be really high. What surprises me most is the number of meals bought from what the study calls "fine dining" restaurants: 1%. I'd have guessed that figure would be quite a lot higher -- 5 or 10%. Shows you how bad my gambling instincts are. Also shows you what a minority taste -- or at least what a luxury -- tiptop food is too, I guess. USA Today's site is here. I can't find this particular Snapshot online. Best, Michael PS: People interested in the book publishing biz should enjoy a couple of long-view stories the newspaper is running in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of their bestseller list, here and here . One interesting factlet from among many: it's guesstimated that 7 out of 10 books either lose money or barely break even. I blogged here about bestseller lists, and about how USA Today's is the best of the bunch. You can eyeball their bestseller list here.... posted by Michael at March 11, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Dear Friedrich -- Hey, some new-to-me blogs I've been enjoying: * As far as I'm concerned, the big news in blogville is the return of the blogger formerly known as Cinderella Bloggerfella. He's now going by the handle J. Cassian and he has new digs here. But the old, inimitable brains and range of interests are on full display; already he's made some sense out of Macdonia, Catalonia, and Turkmenistan. Thanks to Tatyana for turning up CB's new incarnation. * The blogger (nameless, as far as I've been able to tell) at Rogue Classicism (here) is delivering a lot for your blogsurfing energy and time: this-date-in-history stuff; lots of classicist info, links and thoughts; even classical-history-oriented TV-viewing tips. * First-class Texas observing/thinking/reacting/writing is available at Three Dog Blog (here) and from Cowtown Pattie (here). Both have exuberance and freshness to spare. * Simon Kinahan (here) keeps it loose and witty. Recently he's written about ski injuries, CEOs who are younger than you are, and how irritating Neal Stephenson can be. He's one of those writers I read, nodding my head and thinking, "I know what he's talking about." * The English blogger Bilious Young Fogey (here) is young, conservative, and gay -- seems to be the latest thing. Bilious is also smart, free-thinking and provocative. * It's hard to beat Michael Huang (here) for thoughtfulness about big and weighty matters. Check out his postings on "The Passion"; I enjoyed another posting, this one about religious iconography, even more. * Rowdiness and brains from San Jose's WhiskeyPrajer, who blogs at Sodden Revelations, here. WhiskeyP finds himself in the middle of a favorite of yours, Walter Hill's "The Warriors" (here), and wonders whether such a thing as sexual maturity exists here. * The host at Tumblehome (here) describes himself as a Torontonian and occasional canoe guide, and he looks set to bring some welcome Canadian p-o-v into the cultureblogging scene. Here's an impressive and enjoyable posting about Canada's Group of Seven painters. Don't miss the galleries of G7 art he's put up too. * The lefty media critic Eric Alterman made jaws drop all over the country when he entitled his latest book "What Liberal Media?" The bloggers at Oh, That Liberal Media (here) are doing a convincing job of answering Alterman's question. * High-class filmchat and more from Michael Brooke, here. * Ah, the old question: are the English really bright, or is the appearance of intelligence just a function of how well they use the language? Mick Hartley (here), for one, seems to be both terribly bright and a really good writer. He gabs about politics and culture from what I guess I'd call a funky-right p-o-v. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 11, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Laughing About "The Passion"
Dear Friedrich -- Have you read Paul Rudnick's humor piece in the current issue of The New Yorker? It's a riff on "The Passion" and it can be read here. If you do get around to looking at it, would you let me know how you react? I found it pretty funny -- Rudnick, who's a playwright and screenwriter (and who also writes the sometimes-hilarious Libby Gelman-Wexler column in Premiere), can be one mischievous imp. Still, still ... I was left wondering: would The New Yorker run a humor piece that tried to get similarly impish laughs at the expense of, say, Judaism or Islam? Your hunch, please. By the way, that loose cannon Anne Coulter hits a few bullseyes with a column about the New York Times and its coverage of "The Passion." It can be read here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 10, 2004 | perma-link | (38) comments

Laws for Lawmakers
Dear Friedrich -- On my walk to work this morning, I found myself thinking about the political class ... and about how strange it is that they get to make laws and regulations that the rest of us have to follow ... And it occurred to me: how come we don't get to make rules and regulations that the members of the political class have to follow? Shouldn't we-the-people be able to write one regulation hemming in the political class for every regulation they write that hems us in? I mean, where's the fairness? Which got me thinking about laws and regulations we might slap on our political class. Here are my first two efforts. Let's insist that every government employee begin the day with a 15 minute-long meditation on the theme of "I'm grateful for what I already have." And let's make sure that every government employee add a spoonful of soluble fiber to their morning breakfeast cereal. Hmm. Perhaps a codicil requiring that senior elected officials add double the usual amount of fiber wouldn't hurt. A more peaceful, prosperous and rational world, guaranteed. Got any laws you think we should slap on our lawmakers? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 10, 2004 | perma-link | (29) comments

Rewind: Hudson River School, Part II
Note – Michael Blowhard and I are pleased with some of our very earliest blogwriting, and we're pained that nearly all of it went unread. It takes a serious while to find a reader or two in the blogosphere. So we've decided to unearth some of that early writing and give it a fresh chance; now and then we're going to indulge ourselves and re-run some of our earliest postings. Here's hoping a few readers get a kick out of them. I chose this episode, in part, as a response to Michael Blowhard's posting 1903, or Jumping on Terry, which was itself a reaction to some comments by Terry Teachout which could be read as disrespecting 19th century American Art. This is the second part of a two-part series on the Hudson River School. Part I can be read here. Michael— As promised, I am continuing with the history of the Hudson River School as the torch was passed from Thomas Cole to the second generation. But before discussing the specific artists, I wanted to sketch out some of the cultural issues that affected their work. The settling (and exploitation) of the West was the great American project of this era. However, the relationship between the wealthy patrons of the Hudson River School—who virtually all lived in the urban East—and the rural or wilderness parts of the country were complex. The landscapes of the Hudson River were originally chosen as motifs because they were easily accessible to New York City-based artists; they are, in essence, tourist vistas. (It’s no accident that commercial tourism and the Hudson River school sprang up at roughly the same time, the 1820s, or that the geographical range of the Hudson River school expanded along with the growth of the railroads and steamship lines.) These paintings embodied the only personal relationship the Eastern urban elite was likely to have with undeveloped nature, i.e., that of a tourist. The Hudson River landscapes also addressed a more general cultural problem of the wealthy, urbanized Eastern elite. For generations European settlers had been used to an essentially practical or “business” relationship with North America—it was a good place to live and extract cash. But now this more leisured elite wanted to find an aesthetic relationship to this vast territory, and their cultural apparatus, oriented towards European models, wasn’t helping. As Rebecca Bedell in her book, “The Anatomy of Nature” notes: Americans had long suffered from an inferiority complex about their continent. It had been stigmatized as “The New World,” a savage place devoid of historical associations and bereft of intellectual and aesthetic stimuli. In…the American landscape many found answers to these accusations…In the great falls of Niagara and in the sculptured towers and ravines of the Southwest, Americans found substitutes for the castles and cathedrals of Europe. They could take pride in the sublimity, vastness and beauty of their country’s natural wonders. More generally still, Americans of this era, being an intensely religious people as well as very interested... posted by Friedrich at March 10, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, March 8, 2004

Tables of Contents
Dear Friedrich -- When you think of a magazine's Table of Contents, you probably think of a linear, top-to-bottom, instantly-graspable guide to what's coming up in the issue -- something like this page from a recent issue of The New Yorker. (If you click on the images in this posting, you'll be able to see how the magazines handle story orders and page numbers.) Or maybe you stretch your imagination and memory and come up with something like this. Here, the editors of The American Conservative have broken the more important stories out from the pack. So on the left-hand side of the ToC page, you've got a north-to-south list of the issue's big pieces; on the right-hand side, a north-to-south list of the magazine's small pieces. It takes about a microsecond to figure this out; then the whole page opens up and is there to serve. (You might notice one odd hitch here: why is Taki's column, p. 39, listed at the top of the short stuff? Oh, right: he's the magazine's co-editor.) Black and white ... A general north-to-south thing ... Maybe a few touches of color ... I mean, what the hell else can you do with a Table of Contents, right? Ah, you unhip, cranky curmudgeon you. Like me, you're an Old Media dinosaur. Let's treat ourselves to a look at what many up-to-date popular-magazine editors and designers are doing with their ToCs. Here's something typical, from Cooking Light magazine. In the actual issue, these two pages aren't run next to each other -- you have to turn an in-between ad page to get from the first ToC page to the second. What's going on here? It takes me a couple of seconds to begin to comprehend what I'm encountering -- and then I'm not really sure. Looking at the first page, my reactions go roughly like this. Whoa! Color! Visual punctuation! Bip-bop, throb, flash ... Oh, there's information too. Now, what do we have? It's ... well, it seems to be a grab-bag of features. But why aren't the stories presented in any normal order? Is there some coded-signifiers system in place here that I'm failing to grok? And what is that box on the left, the one with its own little list of stories? Feeling buzzed and confused, I flip to page two. Page one has been useless to me, but perhaps the key to the puzzle is to be found in page two. I look around a little and find no enlightenment. At the top of the page? "Departments." OK -- but I'm left wondering what's meant by "Departments" in the case of this magazine I'm not familiar with. I notice that there are some general regions within the page, and some north-to-south listings within each region. OK, I got it! But on the left, there's a bunch of stories on the theme of "Healthy Living." Bizarre: wouldn't you expect most stories in Cooking Light to qualify? At the top of the page,... posted by Michael at March 8, 2004 | perma-link | (27) comments

Lives and Loves of Great Mathematicians
Michael: A while ago, as you may remember, I blogged about Carl B. Boyer’s and Uta C. Merzbach’s “A History of Mathematics.” Well, having plowed through several hundred more pages of it, I must say that a historical account such as this one certainly humanizes the study of math—which otherwise can seem (to intellectual lightweights like me) a forbidding exercise in abstract thought. In fact, what strikes me on going through the book is that mathematicians, far from being ethereal creatures living on air and focused solely on matters of pure intellect, have often been rather remarkably accomplished in other areas as well. To start with, it turns out that some mathematicians, at least, are pretty good at earning money. I was intrigued to note that Thales of Miletus (c. 624-c. 548 B.C.)—according to tradition, the first person to offer a demonstration or ‘proof’ of a geometric theorem—not only wandered around doing mathematical things like measuring the height of the pyramids in Egypt by the lengths of their shadows, but was also shrewd enough to corner the supply of olive presses one year when a particularly massive olive crop made the need for such presses quite urgent. (That must have paid for a number of years of abstract speculation, huh?) And Hippias of Elis, a sophist of the latter fifth century B.C., who was responsible for introducing the first curve other than a circle into mathematics, considered his proudest accomplishment to be having earned more money as a teacher than all of his intellectual rivals in Athens combined. (He thereby, of course, earned the mortal enmity of Plato, who burlesqued him in a dialogue, but that’s another story.) More recently, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), a strong candidate for the ‘most-accomplished-mathematician-of-all-time’ award, somehow found it possible, despite having to raise a large family on a fairly modest salary, to amass a fortune by what Boyer and Merzbach describe as “shrewd investments.” Okay, if making money doesn’t seem remote enough from the beauties of pure mathematics, how about making war? Archytas of Tarentum (428-350 B.C.) not only wrote on the application of mathematics to music (he apparently originated the term ‘harmonic mean’), but he was also a never-defeated general. Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 B.C.), the greatest mathematician of the ancient world, didn’t scruple to devise, in the words of Boyer and Merzbach: …ingenious war machines to keep the enemy at bay—catapults to hurl stones; ropes, pulleys and hooks to raise and smash the Roman ships; devices to set fire to the ships [during the siege of Syracuse by the Romans in the 2nd Punic War.] Archimedes was so successful at sowing death and destruction that it took the Romans two full years to take Syracuse. Even when confronted by an enraged Roman soldier brandishing a sword in his face (a young man who seemed to take personally the many Roman deaths caused by Archimedes’ fiendish machines) the ultra-macho 75-year-old mathematician coolly ordered the boy to step away from the geometric diagram he... posted by Friedrich at March 8, 2004 | perma-link | (31) comments

Glued to the Tube -- So Why Am I Not Complaining?
Dear Friedrich -- Still be-flu'd, and still dependent on the TV for distraction and education. Viewed today: An A&E Biography about the comic-book great Stan Lee. A Howard Goodall documentary (on Ovation) about the history of the piano. A French-made documentary (also on Ovation) about the super-subtle jazzman Bill Evans. Entertaining yourself while sick at home isn't like it was in the old days, when you had to make do with re-runs of "I Love Lucy." These days, a sick guy can pick from a lot of classy options. I may have a bad case of cabin fever, but I'm feeling anything but culture-deprived. The cliche is that TV's a wasteland, and yeah, OK, I guess. But there are so many gems to be found amidst the rubble ... and there's this groovy new Digital-Video-Recorder way to find and collect the goodies .... And, well, I wind up wondering something. TV was the beginning of the end, granted; the tube vaporized what civilization we had. But perhaps the combo of TV-plus-DVR will prove to be a way by which civilization will glue itself back together again. Am I being too optimistic? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 8, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, March 7, 2004

Video Finds
Dear Friedrich -- I've come down with a terrible flu. For the first few days of it, I felt like I'd been fed arsenic, forced into the ring with Mike Tyson, and then run over by an 18-wheeler. I'm feeling a bit better today and my cheerfulness has returned, but I'm still unable to read or concentrate. So I've been killing the boredom by catching up with videotaped shows and movies. And, hey, I've made a few finds. The Rise and Fall of the Spartans. I'm often amazed by how OK-to-pretty-good many of the History Channel's shows are. Even more surprising are the handful that are really superb. This is one of them, a stirring, clear-as-glass two-parter -- the history of ancient Greece from the p-o-v not of the usual Athenians, but of the Spartans. (Ancient Greek history is another one of those subjects I enjoy reading and watching endless intros-to, BTW.) What a strange bunch the Spartans were, dropping unfit babies over cliffs, eating horrible food, forsaking money and art, terrorizing their helots, and glowering menacingly at everyone else in the Eastern Mediterranean. The show is the usual History Channel mix of slow-mo re-enactments, animated maps, talking heads, and panning-and-zooming over art. But the producers here do it with gusto and brains, and they keep everything -- even the complicated politics -- comprehensible and exciting. The talking heads -- among them are Victor David Hanson, Donald Kagan, and Paul Cartledge -- are a classy, enthusiastic bunch; the maps and computer graphics couldn't have been more helpful ... Whew -- fab stuff: three and a half hours long, and I wouldn't have minded more. It's also one of those culture products that makes you wonder how many college courses can equal it. I can't find any upcoming showings of "Spartans" on the History Channel's website. But I do see that you can buy a DVD copy of the show for a very reasonable $39.95 (a well-produced video for the price of a big hardcover book) here. I've never run across a really good TV history of the Romans. Does such a thing exist? I'd sure love to watch it if it does. Stalin: Man of Steel. A biography that does a brilliant job of moving between public and private, and from the man back out to the broader history. The show leaves you fascinated and appalled by his character and marveling over Russia at the same time. It's an immaculate and impressive production that manages to juggle and present an amazing amount of material with clarity and gravity. Hats off especially to the show's researchers, who turned up a rich array of footage and sources -- historians, victims, guards, relatives, witnesses. Ever since seeing this show, I've been pestering Tatyana (a Russian emigree) with email questions about her native land. She's been sweet enough to respond, and may even have managed to shake a little naivete about Russia out of me. I see no indication of "Stalin" on the History... posted by Michael at March 7, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Saturday, March 6, 2004

Fantasy and Reality
Michael: I recently made a safari into the dark recesses of the female teenage (pre-teen?) mind, and it got me thinking about the relationship between fantasy and reality in art. The occasion of this mental safari was a decision to take my 13-year-old daughter to the movies, and to let her pick the film we would see. My daughter chose “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” a Disney vehicle originally developed for Hillary Duff (apparently an iconic presence for the pre-teen female demographic) but which had ended up starring Lindsay Lohan when Disney and Ms. Duff parted ways. The upshot was a truly unique viewing experience, sort of like watching a foreign film in a language you don’t understand, and without subtitles. Actually, it was even more disorienting than that, because it seemed as if I could understand the dialogue and yet I still found myself asking (mentally) “What? Huh? Why is this happening? What is supposed to be going on here? Why did she say that? I think I’m missing the point here. Is there a point here?” As best I could make out, the film was an attempt to touch on a series of primal fantasies of very young girl-women. Our heroine, Ms. Lohan, moves from arty Manhattan to blahsville suburban New Jersey, where, despite knowing no one and having no social status, she blithely refuses to knuckle under to the bullying of her high-school’s queen-bitch. She knows that she is destined for Something Better Than Suburban Boredom. As this ‘something’ apparently includes stardom on the Great White Way, she easily upstages the gorgeous queen-bitch in tryouts for the lead in the school play. Our heroine’s artistic-sexual fantasies are focused on the lead singer of a famous rock-group, and she naturally gets to attend a fabulous party in Manhattan held at the singer’s SoHo loft (on the occasion of his world-famous group’s breakup) as well as to rescue said singer from his drunken ways. When the now-reformed singer shows up at the cast party of our heroine’s school play, her rival, the queen-bitch, is so shaken that she actually falls into a fountain and is forced to take our heroine’s helping hand to stand up, which seems to suggest she's been converted by the superior moral force of our heroine and will now ‘repent her evil ways.’ And along the way, naturally, Ms. Lohan manages to catch the eye of a cute boy who delivers her very first kiss (a moment that provoked a chorus of horrified yet fascinated “ewwwww’s” from the preteen female audience.) For me, this was like being trapped for an hour-and-a-half inside a masturbatory fantasy of someone whose erotic tastes I share not in the least. It was made more difficult by a number of incoherent elements in the movie, not the least of which was casting Ms. Lohan, a rather womanly 17-year-old, in the role of a very young, never-even-been-kissed girl. Perhaps the high point of my incredulity came during the climatic rock-star... posted by Friedrich at March 6, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

Friday, March 5, 2004

Method Look. Now: Method Cropping?
Dear Friedrich -- It's fun to watch culture fads emerge, gather force, peak and vanish. I haven't noticed too many baseball-caps-worn-backwards recently, for instance, while one style that seems to be everywhere today -- have you noticed it? -- is the silvery-whoosh car ad. A big spread with lots of air; something streamlined, abstract and silver (that would be the car); and a few discreet Quark boxes in subdued colors supplying the necessary information -- the whole of it screaming (but classily) "Expensive German engineering," even if what's in fact being peddled is a Chevy or a Honda. I seem to notice two or three of these ads in nearly every magazine I leaf through. Perhaps that's a sign that the style has already peaked. Perhaps it's a sign that it's becoming a classic. One trope that's been around for decades -- it's a classic with a capital C -- is what I think of as The Method Look. The model gazes out from beneath impassioned eyebrows, making eye contact so direct that ... Well, I guess we're meant to feel that the model's looking deep into our soul and whispering, "I know what you're thinking, and it's something dirty and now, and it's about me and you, baby." A private exchange, meant to turn us on and make us go Yikes at the same time: young, bruised, resentful, hurt, challenging, and of course hot hot hot. For a moment the social niceties have been set aside and the raw Thing Itself -- vulnerable, intense, defiant -- is being channeled. I'm no student of ad styles, but I'm guessing that The Look dates back to early Method days, to Brando particularly. He seemed to look at everyone that way, all the time. Was he the originator? I wonder. Did John Garfield use The Look before Brando did? Going back even further, Navarro and Valentino certainly smouldered -- but was their smouldering Method-esque? Beats me. But it's certain that since Brando, stars like James Dean and Paul Newman, as well as hundreds of wannabes, have used The Look pretty consistently. Let's just say that a lot of actors and models have spent a heckuva lot of time standing in front of mirrors while adjusting t-shirts, leather jackets, and eyebrows. The Method Look has been a big presence in our cultural life for at least 50 years, yet apparently it still works. Pretty amazing, no? I wonder what its magic consists in. Any thoughts? In any case, I'm only just now getting around to noticing a new way the media biz has developed of presenting The Method Look. They're managing to keep it fresh, I guess. Here are a few examples I plucked from current ads. As ever, apologies for crummy scanning skills. The Method Look, Gal Division The Method Look, Guy Division Familiar stuff, no? The sultriness, the eyebrows ... But what I've only recently begun to notice about the way The Method Look is presented these days is how uniform... posted by Michael at March 5, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Histories of Music
Dear Friedrich -- How many subjects would you say you're interested in beyond the Intro-to, 101 or 102 level? In my case, the answer is "very few." On the other hand, tons and tons of subjects interest me right up through the intro-to level. In fact, where some subjects go -- econ, philosophy, Western art music -- I'm such fan of good introductory surveys that I go through example after example. I just love a good introductory text. I've been through probably 20 intros to economics, and as many intros to philosophy and Western art music too. Where some subjects go, I don't know why, I seem to get intense pleasure out of being marched through the basics all over again. Jokes permitted at this moment about what a thick skull and a slow brain I must have. Funny consequence #1 of this habit of mine: I'll never be anything like an expert where econ, philosophy or Western art music are concerned. Funny consequence #2: I know the basics of these subjects pretty well by now. Funny consequence #3: I've become a connoisseur of well-done intros-to. And, hey, I've got a brand-new tip. Until now, my favorite intros to Western art music were two Robert Greenberg audio series for The Teaching Company: his How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (buyable here) and his How to Listen to and Understand Opera (buyable here). Greenberg's an amazing teacher and lecturer, and they're both sensationally good packages. As always with the Teaching Company's products: buy them only when they're on sale. Not to worry, though, because they go on sale two or three times a year. When they're on sale they're fantastic bargains. But I've just finished going through a couple of Naxos packages that I think would make even better first-times-through -- Richard Fawkes' History of Classical Music, and his History of Opera. (Amazon is out of stock, but you can buy copies from Audiobooks online, here.) Like Greenberg, Fawkes is organized and helpful. His text is beautifully read by Robert Powell, and the musical examples are well-selected. Where Greenberg's an enthusiast and a showman, Fawkes is suave and lowkey, yet friendly and approachable. The big advantage Fawkes' intros have as first-times-through is simple -- they're much shorter than Greenberg's. Sounds silly and basic, I suppose, but it matters. To move through all that material so fast, Fawkes has to present it from far, far overheard. That's very helpful in terms of helping you get a sense of where the landmarks are, how the elements interrelate, and what the general outlines are like. And, like Greenberg, Fawkes is strikingly good at something I admire a lot: summing up the significance of a work, an artist, or an era quickly, in a very short space, and doing so in a way that's clear and vivid yet that actually does justice to what's being described. This may sound easy; it's anything but. Imagine trying to explain Italian neorealism -- the look, the... posted by Michael at March 4, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

The Cher Mystery
Dear Friedrich -- Can you explain the popularity of Cher? I marvel at it. She's a phenomenon, one of those performers with amazingly long-lasting careers. Yet I can't explain it. She's got a fabulous look, and although I can't listen to her singing, I thought she was pretty good in some of her movies -- "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean," "Silkwood," "Moonstruck" and "Mermaids." Hmm, so she's pretty enough; she can act; and she has a distinctive if lousy pop voice ... But that's far from enough to explain the persistence of her popularity, or how broad-based it is. I've often been struck by how many women really like Cher. I've also often been struck by how many different kinds of women like her: older and younger, earthy and flighty, office workers and production people. They smile when you mention her name. They don't mind thinking about her, and on a regular basis. They seem to feel like they know her. "She's a survivor," is the answer I usually get when I ask a gal friend why so many women love Cher, and no doubt that explains some of the mystery. But there must be more to it, don't you think? I think she must really connect with many women. On what basis, do you suppose? Do gals relate to the way Cher's both glamorous and a little ridiculous too? Do they like the way she's sexy, yet funny and frank? Maybe they relate to the way that Cher has done a lot of living out in public, to the way she has made more than her share of mistakes, and has even been a public joke -- and yet she never denies any of this, and has learned to laugh ruefully about herself, and then soldiers on enthusiastically anyway. I guess my theory boils down to: maybe women look at Cher and see an embodiment of their own you-take-your-knocks-but- keep-smiling-and-looking-good spirit. Hmm: maybe all of this (and more) is what my gal friends mean when they look at me like I don't get it and say, "She's a survivor." What's your theory about Cher? Ahem: of course, it's not as if red-blooded, alpha-male studs like you and I would ever confer any of our manly thought-energy on a topic like Cher. Hell no. But if we were to, what might you come up with? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 4, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

1903, or Jumping on Terry
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's pile-on-Terry-Teachout time! In "An Open Letter to Terry Teachout" (here), John Massengale chides Terry for a characterization Terry once made of the American arts in 1903. Here's Terry's passage: What a difference a century makes. In 1903, comparatively few Americans took anything like a passionate interest in the arts. Only two living American novelists, Mark Twain and Henry James, had done major work, and Twain's was long behind him. Our best painters, the American impressionists, hewed to a style frankly derivative of their European models; our art museums were narrowly provincial in scope and ambition. We had no great composers, no great poets or playwrights, no ballet companies, and only a handful of symphony orchestras and opera companies. Here's a bit of John's response: I�m surprised by your endorsement of this Modernist bias towards the early 20th century. You are breezily dismissing one of the greatest artistic periods in American history ... 1903 was the heart of the period called the American Renaissance and the peak of the widespread and very popular City Beautiful movement. Without question, it was the greatest time in America for architecture and city-building. I feel bad about letting myself be drawn into this, because Terry's a model citizen -- a terrific critic and an ultra-generous and enthusiastic blogger. Writers about the arts nearly all have a lot to learn from him. Still, I can't resist. I think John's got Terry good: it seems perfectly clear to me that the more you learn about 1903, the more it can make 2003 look lame. But the real reason I can't hold back is that I so vehemently agree with what I take to be John's larger point, which is how surprising it is that that even educated, arty Americans lack awareness of how vibrant pre-modernist American culture was. It's a pet rant of mine too. We often look back on early 20th century American art -- let alone 18th and 19th century American art -- and don't see much there. A few painters ... some white marble sculpture ... maybe some folk art ... Melville 'n' Poe 'n' Twain 'n' Hawthorne ... And that's about it. The rap on pre-modernist American art is that there simply wasn't much, and that what was there was provincial, derivative, rube-ish -- hardly worth paying attention to at all. Generally a dismal, almost shameful episode we'd do well to leave behind. One example: even publishing-world pros and insiders tend to assume that there was no "real" American publishing prior to the arrival of some Euro emigres in the early 20th century, modernist figures who finally gave us a "real" book-publishing culture. Um, er ... How many ways can you spell "bullshit"? To explain things a bit more patiently: given the kinds of educations and brainwashings we've gotten for several decades and given the ways our "educated" tastes have been formed, it's understandable that many people hold these assumptions. This is simply part of the... posted by Michael at March 2, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

Spending Time in Bruegelville
Michael: I think I’ve mentioned before that the older I get, the more landscape painting seems to satisfy my emotional ‘art needs.’ Well, the other day I was looking through a book on Pieter Bruegel, the 16th century painter from what is now Belgium, and it struck me that perhaps I’ve underestimated landscape drawing as well. Bruegel is of course a one-of-a-kind type of guy, who doesn’t fit easily into categories: he was by turns a history painter, a satirist, an illustrator of proverbs, a depictor of peasant life (without himself being a peasant), a fantasist in the manner of Bosch, a designer of etchings and engravings, and a landscape painter. (Bruegel was a rough contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and seems to have shared with him a cultural mindset combining acute social observation with a vigorous fantasy life.) Bruegel was also the master of a particular style of pen and ink drawing in which every line, stipple, cross-hatch, dot and hook creates an astonishingly atmospheric rendering. It is as though the light shimmers and the air moves between every stroke of his pen. Of course, his pen is also perfectly capable of creating monumental figures, solid tree trunks, and sturdy tools and buildings as well. (Creating is, of course, the operative word here; these drawings are by no means a ‘tame delineation of a particular place’ and appear to spring chiefly from Bruegel’s imagination.) To show you an example, here is a detail from a drawing he made for a series of engravings on the Seasons. P. Bruegel, Spring (detail), 1565 The figures are remarkable, but my eye takes off for the far reaches of space, pausing briefly on the lover’s party on the banks of the river, formed with incredible economy from a few strokes of the pen (and obviously inspiring Ruben’s “The Garden of Love” of the next century.) Another example is “A Landscape with St. Jerome” (the little saint is visible at the base of the tree kneeling in prayer.) P. Bruegel, Landscape with St. Jerome, 1553 But what I focus on increasingly these days are the half-hinted-at distances behind: These drawings, for reasons only known to my subconscious, or to God, make me muse on my mortality, but in a pleasant kind of way. It’s becoming clearer to me that in a few more decades I’ll be leaving, er, this place. Looking at these drawings, I fantasize that when when I do, I’ll head out into the kind of vibratory, tremulous distances that Bruegel’s pen renders so well. It looks like a nice place to, well, dissolve into the mist and the light and the air. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 2, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Monday, March 1, 2004

Spam Musings
Dear Friedrich -- Good lord, but the flow of information on the Internet is filling up with crap. To use this blog as an example: In our blog's mailbox, we receive around 75 pieces of junk for every legit email. Every few weeks, blizzards of spam comments glom onto our postings. I weed them out, and am diligent about banning offending IP's -- I've now banned more than 130 IP's. Nonetheless, every few weeks spam comments barrel in from a new set of IP's. That button in our left-hand column called "Our Last 50 Referrers"? It's a nice feature. Click on it, and you can see the sites where visitors have clicked through from. It's a way to learn about who's linked to us, and a wonderful way to learn about other blogs. Well, that feature is the latest one to fall victim to spam-esque assaults. Nearly half of the sites that show up as referrers are bogus -- outright porn sites, or innocent-seeming Blogspot sites that, when clicked on, wrench you into a hell of popups and endlessly-cycling windows, with no way to put an end to it but to shut down your browser. It's a nightmare. A small and manageable nightmare so far, although I'm not thrilled about the hours I've lost picking through trash email and cleaning out spam comments. We pay a monthy fee to our blog's host; now we're paying yet more in terms of the time we spend defending ourselves against spam and quasi-spam. And it's getting worse; the Economist recently reported that spam now accounts for close to 60% of all email traffic. Do you have any sense of what's likely to happen? A few questions: Spam-commenters spend tons of money buying up IP's, right? Which must mean that they make enough money from scattering spam comments to justify the expense, right? But how do they make money from scattering spam comments? What's going to happen when spammers start attaching video files to their emails? If the 'net is clogged now, how clogged will it be then? Let me see if I'm getting this right: Natural understandings, restraints and arrangements -- costs, weight, physical material -- repress and oppress us, and the Internet sets us free of them. But there's no Internet without spam. To defend ourselves against it, we now have to develop new forms of restraint and control. But this time around we don't get to rely on what's unspoken and passed along. Instead, we have to consciously design these new arrangements; they have to be explicit. And because they'll inevitably have the quality of puzzles, and because some maniac will always be trying to crack these puzzles ... Well, we're stuck in an endless arms race, right? Is my reasoning off here? Do spammers argue that they're exercising their freedom of speech? That would seem to raise the question of cost. For example: it costs the spammer next to nothing to exercise his freedom of speech by adding my name... posted by Michael at March 1, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments