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  1. Timothy Taylor Redux—Not Everything Changes
  2. Three Questions
  3. The Elvgren Mystery Continues
  4. If Reality is a Head of Hair, Is Language a Comb?
  5. Timothy Taylor
  6. Squaresville Can Be Good
  7. A Visit to the Land of the Optimists
  8. Guest Posting -- Toby Thain

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Saturday, April 3, 2004

Timothy Taylor Redux—Not Everything Changes
Michael: I was intrigued by your posting on Timothy Taylor, especially by the list of how much things had changed for Americans since 1900. I did, however, note that at least one thing had not changed greatly, if at all. According to your post: Most people lived within a mile of where they worked, and depended on their feet to get them around. Okay, so most Americans have given up on the getting-around-on-foot thing, but their commute time hasn’t altered that much. By my reckoning, walking a mile would take people from roughly 20 to 30 minutes (at a rate of 3 or 2 mph, i.e., at either a brisk stride or a leisurely stroll.) According to a 2002 U.S. Census Bureau study of average travel time to work in 69 cities (which you can see here) in only 3 of those cities does the average worker take more than 30 minutes to get to work, and in only 9 of those cities can he or she make it in less than 20 minutes. In other words, most of us urbanites make it to work in roughly the same time as our grandparents or great grandparents. Granted, given that now we travel there via auto or mass transit at something more like 40 miles per hour, we may be traveling 13 or 20 miles instead of one, but the experience may not be so different. I wonder how much impact such apparently arbitrary preferences have on how we organize ourselves? If we could travel by flying car or jetpack or bullet train at 100 miles per hour to work would we live 2.5 times as far from work as we do now? Kind of interesting to ponder the enduring power of things like 10-minute coffee breaks, an hour for lunch, the half-hour sitcom, no? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 3, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, April 2, 2004

Three Questions
Dear Friedrich – The Wife and I are on vacation in Sedona, Arizona. Do you know the town? An amazingly gorgeous area, in the same (very general) neck of the woods as the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, and full of what everyone fondly refers to as “Red Rocks” -- peaks, mesas, valleys and boulders of a deep rust color. Huge skies with three or four weather patterns visible simultaneously; snakes and cacti; surprisingly dense patches of desert greenery … No matter which direction you look in, you pretty much expect John Wayne to step into closeup. The town itself doesn’t have much to recommend it unless you’re a seeker; it’s a New Age haven, full of rumbling tourist buses, pink Jeeps taking clutches of midWesterners for trips out to the Power Vortexes, and stores selling wind chimes and crystals. Lolling around the great west, I find myself wondering about three questions. Are you as fascinated as I am by the way certain styles and personalities make it onto the semi-permanent cultural menu? Two that have become perennials are hippie-backpacker style, and punk-rock style -- who'd have thought? You and I were around during the early days of both styles; I don’t know about you, but at the time I’d never have guessed that either one had long-term potential. I also have no idea why they appeal to contempo kids. Do you? Are you as struck (and annoyed) as I am by the way video screens seem to be cropping up everywhere? For instance: above the entrance to the typical NYC subway stop is a rectangular, iron-encircled space that for years has been filled by an advertising poster. Slowly, these posters are being replaced by video screens. And, as video screens will, they flash, they glow, and they twitch -– they’re yet another grabby distraction you have to train yourself to ignore. And at airports ... Killing time at airports has become even more annoying ever since airports started filling waiting areas with TVs tuned to news, sports and financial channels. The TVs at New York’s LaGuardia are almost inescapable; it can be hard to find a gate-side seat that doesn’t face a TV, or at least put you within earshot of a TV. Is it written in the Constitution that every vacant square foot is fair game to sell as advertising space? New rule of American life: if a video screen can go there, it will. Are there categories of art whose members are all bad? (Not including such categories as “lousy art,” wiseguy.) As our recent conversation about light entertainment hinted, I’m inclined to think that non-lofty art categories have much to offer. I like some cowboy art, for instance -– enough, anyway, to feel ashamed that I don’t know the field better. And I’m prone to think that even such categories as “tourist art,” “t-shirt art,” and “greeting-card art” can be interesting; god knows I’ve run across handsome and attractive tourist art, nifty and funny t-shirts, and... posted by Michael at April 2, 2004 | perma-link | (30) comments

Thursday, April 1, 2004

The Elvgren Mystery Continues
Michael: A couple months ago I broke the remarkable story of Gil Elvgren's astonishing burst of painting in a 1938 sabbatical from his career as an illustrator. (My posting can be read here.) Over a few months in that year, Mr. Elvgren, ordinarily a creator of pretty-girl calendar paintings, cranked out a set of masterpieces which anticipated the formal concerns of artists many decades in the future like Frank Stella and Gerhardt Richter. Shockingly, several more examples of his visionary work have appeared. As a result of my close relationship with the security guard currently watching over these paintings, and my willingness to make a large contribution to his favorite charity—him—I was allowed to take these photos, which have never before appeared anywhere. G. Elvgren, Black Painting, 1938 The first painting appears to anticipate many of the concerns of noted abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt, as well as the series of all-black canvases produced by a variety of artists in the 1970s. What is particularly uncanny is the use of Reinhardt’s patented square format for the painting, as well as the exploration of the aesthetic subtleties of black on black. G. Elvgren, Springboard, 1938 The second painting appears to utilize much of Mark Rothko’s compositional apparatus, here making the link between abstraction and landscape painting particularly visible. Some commentators feel that a remarkably early commitment to raising the public’s awareness of the dangers of industrial pollution is also a factor in this unusual work. How to account for Elvgren’s time-warping genius? I doubt it’s possible. Still, we’re going to keep on trying. The answers are out there, somewhere. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 1, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

If Reality is a Head of Hair, Is Language a Comb?
Dear Friedrich -- The first time I ran across linguistic relativism -- the doctrine that language determines thought -- I reacted with utter disbelief, as I did the first time I ran across philosophers arguing that we don't speak languages, languages speak us. "Ya gotta be kiddin', right?" -- such was my super-sophisticated, instant response. And yet, and yet ... I'd spent a teenaged year living in France, and it seemed clear to me even then that the French language had something to do with why the French love paradoxes; why they don't understand Anglo-style humor; and why they love logic-pirouettes ("wit"), highly-ornamented music, and haute couture. Language is embedded in, and an important part of, culture. And if culture doesn't dictate what you think and say, well, it certainly has an impact. I was a young twit who was bad at languages, but even I could tell that my brain operated differently when it was in French mode than it did when in its usual American mode. I was dimly aware that speaking French seemed to lead me into new kinds of conversations; because I was speaking French, I was hearing, thinking and saying different things than I usually did. Or was this happening not because of the language but simply because I was in France? I'd think about French, English and reality more generally, and I'd go around muttering things like "different combs; same head of hair." After some years, I settled on this way of thinking about language and culture: they don't determine much, but they certainly condition an awful lot. It seemed an accurate, and useful, way of summing up my experience. So I enjoyed this Philip Ross article for Scientific American about the Berkeley linguistics prof Paul Kay, here. Kay has spent years looking into how various languages attend to matters of color; the larger question he's been probing is, To what extent does language determine thought? I find his answer tres sympat -- as I do the provisional way he tenders it. Did I ever tell you about the college friend of mine who moved to Italy? She'd always been a charming, gabby woman in a stylized American-girl way. The first time I visited her in Italy, though, I was amazed. Speaking American-English, she was her usual self. But speaking Italian, she was something else entirely. Not only had she picked up Italian quickly and convincingly, she was waving her hands, moving the pitch of her voice up and down the musical staff, and making emotional faces that could be read from miles away ... When I asked her about the creature she'd become, she responded this way: "In Italy, if you simply say the words, no one pays attention -- no one really hears you. Unless you wave your hands, singsong your voice and make exaggerated facial expressions, you aren't really speaking Italian, at least not as far as the Italians are concerned." The little lesson I took away from this exchange: "language"... posted by Michael at April 1, 2004 | perma-link | (31) comments

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