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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