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Friday, April 30, 2004

TV Bliss
Dear Friedrich -- Thanks to my DVR (a hard drive in my cable box that acts like a Tivo), here's some of the television The Wife and I have been able to watch in recent weeks: A documentary about feral ("wild") children A four-hour history of Russia A profile of the baritone sax legend Gerry Mulligan A long talk with the filmmaker Robert Rodriguez A history of London, from the point of view of building and urbanism A documentary about cannibalism An interview with the YA novelist Judy Blume An "Inside the Actors Studio" talk with Jay Leno An "Inside the Actors Studio" talk with Julianne Moore An "Inside the Actors Studio" talk with Francis Coppola A very well-done episode of "American Justice" about the Dr. Sam Shepard murder case A fascinating (really!) documentary about the development of bathroom technology Several Howard Goodall music shows about choirs around the world Kevin Brownlow's fabulous biography of Cecil B. DeMille A profile of the guitarist Wes Montgomery And that's skipping the movies we've watched at home recently. So, explain to me again why we're supposed to feel apologetic about watching TV? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 30, 2004 | perma-link | (15) comments

More Elsewhere
Dear Friedrich -- * I just learned that this year is the centennial of the birth of the roguish and great Fats Waller (1904-1943). He's certainly one of my favorite American entertainers; I can't think of many artists from any era whose work puts as big a smile on my face. Those who haven't yet treated themselves to Fats' fab and happy music might think of starting with this CD here. If tracks like "Honeysuckle Rose" and "The Joint is Jumpin'" don't raise your spirits, well, then you might as well give up now because you're already dead. Classic Fats line: "One never knows, do one?" * I found this Amy Harmon piece here for the NYTimes about Asperger's Syndrome fascinating. Asperger's, short version, is high-functioning autism. People with it are often very bright, and tend to develop intense if narrow interests. But they also seem to have a hard time picking up nonverbal signals -- they're emotionally tone-deaf. It's the syndrome du jour, which makes me a bit wary, but it's a fun syndrome to think about anyway. Might it help explain the work of someone like the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould, for instance? There are lots of talented and eccentric musicians, of course. Even so, Gould -- the man and his piano-playing both -- stood out. He was so ... singular. He was odd and distinctive to the point of seeming like an alien. So perhaps he was an "Aspie," as people with Asperger's call themselves. This isn't just my hunch, by the way -- the possibility that Gould was an Aspie has been much-discussed by Gould fanatics. Music buffs have also speculated that another great one-off, Thelonious Monk, might have had Asperger's too. Who knows? But both guys certainly seem to have rolled along a different set of rails than most of us do. Reading about the syndrome, I also find myself thinking about one side of my family. (Asperger's tends to run in families.) These relatives, who I'm very fond of, are smart and endlessly interesting. They're also ... Well, talking with them, you sometimes feel like you're talking to Martians. They're sometimes bizarrely blunt. They don't seem to have any instinctive sense of what's expected of them. The usual unconscious back-and-forth -- the swing of a conversation -- tends to grind to a halt. Signals aren't being picked up; things that don't usually need explicit spelling-out have got to be spelled out, or else. Aspies all, perhaps? Why do I suspect that a lot of ultra-brainy webheads might be a bit Aspie too? And how about all those oddball, pedantic college profs? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 30, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Dear Friedrich -- * I assume that almost everyone has enjoyed reading this excerpt from the new Jonathan Margolis book about orgasm. If not, don't miss it, here. Fun passage: The nature of the female orgasm can now be seen in a new light: as a selective mechanism for women to choose mates not as an animal would - by body size, ferocity and aggressiveness - but by qualities such as intellect, sensitivity, kindness and popularity, plus not a little dexterity. No wonder Darwin said: "The power to charm the female has sometimes been more important than the power to conquer other males in battle." So we sensitive males can rely on our charm, rather than our nonexistent alpha-impressiveness, to score a little nookie, eh? Good to hear! I guess it's inevitable that Margolis treats the male orgasm as no big mystery while he treats the female orgasm as something that requires a lot of ... well, thought. And attention. And scrutiny. (Link thanks to ALD, here.) * This piece here in the Contra Costa Times reports that a recent Harris poll found that only 36% of unscheduled absences last year were actually illness-related. In other words, a lotta people who are calling in sick aren't really sick. Quel shockeroo. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 30, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Blog Outage
The blog has been vanishing and re-appearing this morning. Apologies to all for inconveniences and confusions. I'm sure it's something I've done, computer genius that I am. But our bloghost is doing their best to make the blog behave. Here's hoping they have some success soonest, and thanks to all for your patience.... posted by Michael at April 30, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Social Pyramids
Dear Friedrich -- Gene Expression brainiac Razib wonders about something I've wondered about too. It goes roughly this way: once upon a time, there was a social pyramid, and its construction relied on inheritance, connections, tradition, family ties, etc. Boo, hiss, tear it down. These days, thanks to various kinds of "liberalization," that old-style pyramid has been semi-demolished. But but but ... Doesn't it seem as though the result isn't a life without a social pyramid, it's just a life with a new-style, roughly meritocratic pyramid? And if IQ correlates with economic success -- some claim it does -- and if IQ is to some extent heritable (many claim this is true), doesn't that mean that we've now got ourselves a new social pyramid that's likely to prove just as sticky and self-entrenching as the old one? I'm sometimes left wondering: so, although this change went under the banner of opportunity for all, was it really just a matter of one group trying to seize power from another? Razib, happily, is much smarter and more informed than I am. You can read his thinking on the topic here. Best, Michael UPDATE: I should have linked to the terrific Randall Parker posting Razib was bouncing off of. It's here. I notice that a commenter points out a similarity between Randall's point and Amy Chua's argument in "World on Fire" -- these are topics and thoughts that are in the air.... posted by Michael at April 29, 2004 | perma-link | (32) comments

My One Opera Tip
Dear Friedrich -- I spent years as baffled by opera as most hetero-male clods are. Hard not to marvel at the singing and music, of course. But as theater ... Good lord. I stared at those fat, lousy actors and wondered how the fans around me could possibly find the spectacle so enthralling. These days, though, I've finally got it, and I've become an opera fan myself, if of the ever-a-beginner type. The Wife and I, in fact, would see an opera once a month if only we could afford the luxury. Being middle-class instead, we manage to treat ourselves to excellent seats (at retail prices too -- no bargaining for us!) about twice a year. Still: bliss. My tip for other clods who, despite everything, are intrigued by opera? To get yourself started out on the right foot, skip the 19th century warhorses and go Baroque instead. Why? Because the key thing to "get" about opera is that it isn't meant to be realistic, it's meant to be symbolic. (It's the greatest of art forms, but it's also the silliest of art forms.) And the 19th century warhorse operas you're likely to be dragged to at first are often semi-realistic in style, which can confuse lunkheads like us. You're likely to sit there thinking, Sheesh, why isn't this more like a movie? Baroque opera, on the other hand, is flagrantly unrealistic. There's no mistaking it for anything but a super-stylized artform, more akin to ballet or pantomime than to movies. Also, hey, Baroque operas feature buckets of great tunes. Handel's the Baroque-opera Man, as far as I'm concerned. A typical Handel opera has an adorable, mythological love-farce plot, and a couple of dozen of the best songs (aka "arias") you'll ever hear. An evening at a Handel opera makes for wonderfully sumptuous and accessible -- as well as, ahem, moving and beautiful -- entertainment. His operas have always left me completely happy. If you want to try Handel's opera work out on CD before committing to an expensive opera ticket, don't buy a CD of one of his operas -- too much recitative (aka "the boring stuff between the tunes"). Buy a collection of his arias instead. Given that Handel was, IMHO, as great a composer of touching/sweet/whistlable tunes as Mozart was, any collection of his arias should be a winner. Why not try this one here? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 29, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Dear Friedrich -- * Richard Grant's encounter with the comedian and filmmaker Christopher ("Spinal Tap," "A Mighty Wind") Guest is, as you'd expect, very amusing. It can be read here. * Did you know that Martin Mull, who's best known as a comedian (I love his "History of White People in America," buyable as a book here and as a videotape here), is also a serious visual artist? Good stuff, too, at least if you're in the mood for sorta-conceptual, sorta-art-school painting. You can eyeball some of Mull's work here, and a book of his paintings can be bought here. * The Book Babes marvel entertainingly and informatively about Bill and Hillary's oeuvre, here. * Talk about ultra-low-budget moviemaking! Check out what you can do with a budget of approximately $3.98, here. * Book collectors love snagging books that have been signed by their authors. I didn't realize it until now, but this taste for signed books didn't become widespread until recent years. The first-class mystery novelist Lawrence Block tells what the development has meant for authors, here. * I often wonder why economists aren't more interested in symbolic activity than they are. It seems plenty obvious that some policies are arrived at not because they work in any rational sense, but simply because of the signals they send. They make people feel good; they somehow mean something important. How much of our effort (and money) do we put into this kind of behavior? And what are its payoffs and virtues? Any thoughts here, economists? Anyway, I was tickled to see that Glenn Loury has formulated this question much better than I have; his essay can be read here. * Westerners often think of yoga as nothing but physical exercise -- stretch class, basically. In fact, yoga is a loose suite of things -- a philosophical system, a set of self-help tips, a religion, and yes physical exercise too. I'm finding it fascinating to explore all these worlds, and I enjoy checking in with Alan Little's yoga-themed weblog regularly. Here's a good Alan posting on the hardcore style of yoga known as Ashtanga. Alan's a first-class photographer as well as a knowledgeable yoga buff, so all you folks who enjoy thinking about photography will find much to chew on chez Alan as well. * Susan, of the blog Spinning, has been doing some helpful thinking about reading styles and hypertext, here. Well, to be honest, I guess by "helpful" I really mean that I agree with her. You go, Susan. * Edgy design doesn't interest me much these days. But people who do get a kick out of modern design should be tickled by MocoLoco, a very well-done modern-design blog, here. Keep up with the latest in blobbiness, glass, fractured geometry, and translucency. * I have no idea whether he's considered a genius or a lunatic, but Rodney Stark's evo-bio-style thinking about religion strikes me as eye-opening and plausible. Well, more than that, really, but I'm in a self-restraining phase... posted by Michael at April 29, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 8
This is the final section of a new Nikos Salingaros essay. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, and part seven here. Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi by Nikos Salingaros 8. Conclusion: the necessity for theory. In this essay I pointed out which contemporary authors have in my opinion actually contributed to creating a theoretical foundation for architecture. I also argued that what is currently accepted by many architects as architectural theory is not theory at all, but rather a clever means to propagate a particular design style. Outsiders (which includes most people) naively assume that contemporary architecture possesses a theoretical basis, like for example chemistry and neuroscience, which explains why buildings ought to look the way they do. However, a mass of writings mislabeled as architectural theory only helps to generate and support certain images; those images are then copied, and used as templates for buildings in an alien style. That is not a theoretical foundation. Those writings fail to satisfy any of the accepted criteria for a theory in any field. Every discipline has a store of knowledge accumulated over time, which explains a huge range of phenomena. (Architecture has been collecting information for millennia). Some of this knowledge is codified into a compact theoretical framework; other parts are strictly phenomenological but tested by observation and experiment. Facts and ideas combine in a particular manner, common to all proper disciplines. The crucial characteristic of a valid theoretical framework is a transparent internal complexity coupled with external connectivity. This arises from the way explanatory networks develop in time: More recent knowledge about a topic builds upon existing knowledge. Older knowledge is replaced only by a better explanation of the same phenomenon, never because a fashion has changed -- this process creates multiple, connected layers of knowledge. A theory in one discipline must transition sensibly to other disciplines. This means that there ought to be some interface where one discipline merges into another, all the way around its periphery. Any theory that isolates itself because it is incomprehensible to others is automatically suspect. A tightly-knit internal connectivity, along with a looser external connectivity, provides the foundations for a mechanism of self-correction and maintenance. This holds true for any complex system. Architecture as a profession has repeatedly disconnected itself both from its knowledge base, and from other disciplines in an effort to remain eternally "contemporary" (the much-publicized recent connections to philosophy, linguistics, and science notwithstanding, since they are now exposed as deceptions). This is, of course, the defining characteristic of a fashion; the opposite of a proper discipline. Again and again, architecture has ignored derived knowledge about buildings and cities, and has embraced nonsensical slogans and influences. Those who profit from the instability and superficiality of the fashion industry are deathly afraid of facing genuine knowledge about the world. It would put them out of business. Architects and critics periodically change the reigning fashion... posted by Michael at April 28, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

What's Appropriate?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- The scene: my Bikram yoga class -- a 90-minute sweat-a-thon held in a room heated to over 100 degrees. It's damn hot in there. After 30 minutes, you're as wet as you'd be climbing out of a swimming pool. Between postures, you guzzle water and towel off; five minutes later, you have to towel off again. We're all there in order to get sweaty and red-faced, in other words, and we're dressed for the occasion. Guys are shirtless and wear baggy, long swim trunks. Gals are in lycra shorts and sleeveless tops; the more daring (and the more fit) wear jog-bra tops. Yesterday, two of the women in class were breaking new ground. Although they weren't together, both were wearing sleeveless t-shirts -- the kind the kids call "wife-beaters." These shirts are made of tissue-paper-thin, stretchy cotton fabric that goes transparent at the mere thought of sweat. Neither woman was wearing a bra beneath her shirt. I enjoyed witnessing the episode and am not about to get moral about it. Still, it did leave me thinking about a couple of questions. First: do women who do this kind of provocative thing know exactly what they're doing? The two in my yoga class weren't Bikram first-timers, so they knew they'd be doing some serious sweating. And when the boobies went on display, neither woman expressed embarrassment or made any attempt to cover up. So can I assume in this case that these women did know what they were doing? Wow: women in NYC can be amazingly aggressive in terms of their sexual self-presentation. These were four of the most publicly-visible nipples I've seen in a long time. I wonder if the answer might not have to do with a couple of factors. One is age. Of course, we all seem to get better control of our behavior as we age (at least up to a certain point, which I've probably already crossed). We throw out signals a little less blindly as we settle into ourselves. But from 15-25, we don't seem capable of doing much beyond acting out what our hormones tell us to do. Which makes sense: biology has us in a breeding frenzy. Girls during those years sometimes seem to think that they're just "being pretty" and "having fun" when everything about them is in fact screaming "impregnate me now." The other factor is class. Some of my women friends who were raised upper-middle or middle class look back on their youthful behavior and laugh ruefully. "I had no idea," they say. One preppy woman friend told me that as a teenager she used to wear denim miniskirts with no panties beneath. The boys loved following her up the high-school stairway -- quel surprise! I said to her, "And you had no idea?" Her answer: "Really, no. I just thought I was being prettty and cute, and I loved it that the boys liked me so much." Women friends who were raised poor... posted by Michael at April 28, 2004 | perma-link | (28) comments

I thought so
Michael: Surfing Marginal Revolution the other day, I came across a posting by Tyler Cowen, Is the welfare state good for growth? (You can check out Tyler’s posting here.) It’s a short discussion of a paper by Peter H. Lindert, a professor at UCSD, “Why the Welfare State Looks Like a Free Lunch.” You can read Mr. Lindert’s full paper here. Econ #101, of course, would predict that income redistribution wouldn’t be good for economic growth, and hence would not be a 'free lunch.' After all, redistribution would appear to create a negative incentive to work for both ends of the transaction—that is, for the person coughing up the dough and for the person receiving it. Mr. Lindert calls the effects of such negative incentives ‘deadweight’ and notes that there have been many recent and sophisticated attempts to estimate the size of such a deadweight burden. However, Mr. Lindert claims—and here I’m in no position to dispute or support him, being in zero possession of the relevant facts—that even very sophisticated analyses have never actually detected the presence of this theoretical ‘deadweight.’ Hence, it appears that for society as a whole, if not its wealthier members, the welfare state is a free lunch—at least in the sense that it isn’t paid for with less economic efficiency or with slower growth. Mr. Lindert admits that such studies have shown that redistribution could be fraught with potential growth-sabotaging landmines. For example, if strident class-warriors got their way and funded Swedish-style social welfare spending out of very high taxes on property or capital generally, the effect on growth would be grim. Likewise, having government bureaucracies provide services that the private sector can supply appears to lower economic efficiency and usually involves nasty corruption, as countless Third-World kleptocracies demonstrate every day. However, he claims that in the developed world (read Europe), social-welfare states have avoided—most of the time, anyway—steering their ships onto the reefs of really stupid tax and/or benefit policies. In other words, the welfare states of the world have not merely taxed harder, they’ve also taxed smarter than their lower-tax counterparts in North America, Japan and elsewhere. Mr. Lindert is quite frank about what this has meant: Postwar history has brought the evolution of a different style of taxation in the countries where social transfers take a large share of GDP. Contrary to what many have assumed about redistributive welfare states, that style tends to raise GDP and inequality, relative to the tax mixtures in the lower-spending countries. In the high-tax high-budget social democracies, the taxation of capital accumulation is actually lighter than the taxation of labor earnings and of leisure-oriented addictive goods. According to Mr. Lindert’s analysis, the Euro-style of taxation is as follows: #1. Social welfare state countries don’t tax capital any more harshly, and in many respects, somewhat less harshly, than do lower-taxing countries like the U.S., Canada, Japan, Switzerland, etc., which tend to go in for idiotic policies like double taxation of dividends. In fact, social welfare state... posted by Friedrich at April 28, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, April 26, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 7
This is part seven (of eight) of a new Nikos Salingaros essay. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, and part six here. We'll put up part eight on Wednesday. Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi by Nikos Salingaros 7. Can this ever be called architecture? To those outside the architectural arena, much of its contemporary writing and thinking seems incomprehensible. What stands for theory appears to be engaged with issues and ideas divorced from human beings, being concerned with topics that are irrelevant to people's activities and sensibilities. The field is instead driven by images. Without a theoretical basis, such images can lead to full-size buildings that feel monstrous and alien to their inhabitants and neighbors. What looks novel, cute, and exciting on a computer screen or magazine page may turn into a nightmare by distorting the lives of people who have to use it after it is built. Genuine architectural theory tells us which buildings are successful or not, and gives the reasons why. Unfortunately, that body of knowledge is felt to be outside architecture as it is currently defined by its leading exponents. Theoretical concerns such as the basis for hierarchical complexity in architectural form, and algorithms for generating adaptive structure are simply not part of fashionable architectural thinking. This material is not taught in the schools. Within the current architectural paradigm, there is little interest in rules for creating an architecture suited to human beings, and for designing urban regions that are manifestly alive with human activity. Apparently, no-one reads the few articles and books discussing those rules, and if they ever do, they certainly do not apply them. That is a consequence of a fundamental replacement of worldviews. Is it real? Or games with CAD? Going back to the computer analogy, an operating system can replace functions normally performed by hardware -- such as all interactions with the outside world -- with software. Most important, a computer that is hard-wired to have one type of interface can be made to mimic an entirely different interface via the imposition of a new operating system. The human mind, which is hard-wired for a specific set of input/output responses with the world, is known to be subject to programming that changes how it interacts with the outside. This programming downloads a new operating system that emulates an entirely different (alien) machine. Some puzzling architectural practices are now beginning to make sense. Contemporary architectural training substitutes a universe of alien images for the real world in the minds of impressionable students. Designs for proposed buildings have all acquired the characteristics of eerie computer screen images. Those ghostlike, translucent visions represent disassembled structures -- they intentionally make it difficult to visualize a form concretely, so that not only the form's image, but also its informational encoding communicates disassembly. The real world of physical forms has thus been replaced by a virtual one conforming to a peculiar aesthetic.... posted by Michael at April 26, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments