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

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. More on Cameras
  2. My New Kodak
  3. The New York Times Takes Marching Orders From 2Blowhards
  4. Restaurant Realities
  5. Elsewhere
  6. Laughing About "The Passion"
  7. Laws for Lawmakers
  8. Rewind: Hudson River School, Part II
  9. Tables of Contents
  10. Lives and Loves of Great Mathematicians

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

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