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.

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Friday, July 9, 2004

Sex Differences
Dear Vanessa -- I'm having a good time flipping around inside Steven Rhoads' evo-bio-influenced new book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously. (And god bless Rhoads for having the guts to use the word "sex" instead of "gender," blech, patooie.) Some nuggets: How often do men think about sex? And how often do women think about sex? "On average, men say three to five times a day. Women say several times a week or several times a month." "One survey of men and women over 45 asked how often they felt sexual desire. More than seven times as many men as women said more than once a day, and more than four times as many women as men said 'not at all'." "About 6 out of 7 men report masturbating more often than the average woman." "Women say they engage in sex to share emotions and love. Men give reasons that are more narrowly physical, such as need, sexual gratification, and release. And when deprived of sex, men are much more likely than women to become morose and irritable." "Women with medical conditions producing extremely high levels of testosterone have male-like sexual arousal patterns and they desire sex with strangers. When they voluntarily have their condition treated, they retain an interest in sex but are pleased to be 'relieved of clitoral hypersensitivity'." "Among married men, 7 percent have had sex with more than twenty partners. Among male homosexual couples, 43 percent have had sex with more than twenty partners. Among lesbian couples, only 1 percent have had sex with more than twenty partners." In their sexual fantasies, "women are two and one half times as likely to focus on the personal and emotional characteristics of a partner; men four times as likely to focus on the physical characteristics. Women are twice as likely as men to find 'the idea of anonymous sex not at all appealing'." "The readers of the original feminist magazine, Ms., bought cosmetics and toiletries at a higher rate than the readers of any other women's magazine. Ms. readers ranked frist among 'heavy users' of lipstick and lip gloss, second among 'heavy users' of eye shadow." "Half the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies are at least six feet tall, whereas the average height of an American man is five feet nine." "Women on average bench-press about one-third of what men do." "Women prefer average-looking or even unattractive doctors to very attractive teachers." "Highly-paid professional women have an even stronger preference for high-earning men than do women working in less well-paid jobs." "Men prefer a woman shorter than they are, and women a man who is taller. But on average men prefer her to be 4.5 inches shorter, while women want him a full 6 inches taller." The book can be bought here. Best, Michael (all alpha-hunky five feet nine inches of me)... posted by Michael at July 9, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Not-Boomer Boomers
Dear Vanessa -- Greg Ransom (here) points out a good WSJ story by Jeff Zaslow here. It's about how little many late Boomers feel they have in common with older Boomers. Not every Boomer went to Woodstock, trashed the Dean's office, and then snagged a superfab job, y'know. Virginia Postrel comments approvingly here. Hey, wait a minute, I blogged about this phenomenon back in April, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 9, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Dear Vanessa -- * Heartworn Highways (buyable here and rentable here) is a terrific, lowkey documentary about the alt-country scene. Townes, Guy, Rodney, Steve -- a hard-to-beat collection of talent, and visited with fairly early on, too. * There's a new book out by a 2Blowhards intellectual hero, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. (We wrote about V.S. here, here and here.) It's called A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, and it's buyable here. I've got my copy already. * I can recommend an hour-long episode of the History Channel's Modern Marvels series called The History of Bathroom Technology. Honest to God, it's really interesting. (As well as full of reasons to be grateful you live in the modern world.) It's showing from 10-11 pm EST on Wednesday, 7-14. * Timothy Taylor's wonderful Teaching Company lecture series Legacies of the Great Economists is on sale here for the amazing price of $15.95. It's a ten-part introduction to the history of economic thought, and is a great way for math-o-phobes to edge into the subject. Stories, personalities, ideas -- all explained in plain English. Taylor's a clear and enthusiastic lecturer. * I'm gonna blog one of these days about another firstrate Teaching Company production, Darren Zarefsky's Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning. This is one eye-opening series, an introduction to the work of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who makes an enormously useful distinction between formal logic and informal reasoning -- and then goes on to investigate this "informal reasoning" thing. Not: how ought we to think? But: how to we actually think? What's involved in fumbling our way by? How do we manage? Toulmin might well be to thinking-about-thinking what Christopher Alexander is to thinking-about-architecture. The series is on sale right now (for $34.95!) here. * Bravo rebroadcasts an entertaining and touching episode of Inside the Actor's Studio with Bette Midler from 3-4 pm EST on Friday, July 16. * Though I could never get interested in Saturday Night Live, whose tone of big-city Boomer triumphalism struck me as off-puttingly smug, I always adored SCTV. What a brilliant show, and what an unmatchable collection of brilliant performers: Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Dave Thomas, and especially that nutty genius Andrea Martin. I notice that a DVD set of the show's first season can now be bought here. * IFC will be showing Rene Clement's psychological suspense classic Purple Noon a couple of times next Monday: from noon-2 pm EST on Monday, 7-12, and from 6-8 pm that same day. I blogged here about the joys of psychological suspense. Along with philosophical art-porn, psych-suspense is my favorite narrative genre. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 9, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Gimme Stills, and Gimme Video
Dear Vanessa -- I have no idea whether this new Sanyo device here works well or not, but it represents a product category I'm eager to spend some money on -- a card-based (not tape-based) device that's half a good-quality still camera and half an OK digital-video recorder. And it's pocket-sized -- whee! (A review of this Sanyo gizmo can be read here.) I've read unenthusiastic reviews of a couple of other early examples of these things -- do they have a settled-upon name yet? Either the stills or the video were lousy; battery life is a problem; the memory cards digest information sluggishly; and the ergonomics aren't yet ready for prime time. But it's hard to believe that we won't be seeing well-done examples at decent prices within a year or two. Not that anyone should pay me any mind, but my hunch is that these products will be a great success. After all, given digital technology, why shouldn't your everyday camera shoot both good stills and decent video? While in St. Barth, I was surprised to find myself using the video function on my low-end Kodak as much as I was using the still-photo function. After all, and as ever in the digital universe: why not? My Kodak's video quality (when played back on a computer) is OK enough, at least if you're expecting next-to-nothing, which I was. People and scenes are recognizable, if not exactly in vivid detail. My Kodak's short video clips can't compare to DV footage; they're best thought of as video sketches, or video snapshots. But the sound quality was surprisingly good. More important, though, was the video-making experience. I found it much more pleasant to shoot casual video with a cheap, small camera than with a conventional video camera. Pull the handy little thing out of your pocket, give it a twist and a poke, and you're shooting. Another poke and a twist, and it's back in your pocket, video all shot. Not having to worry about wires, backup batteries, tape cassettes, and sand-vunerable tape-motors is a very big plus. (The camera records video and sound to the same SD card it records still images to -- ie., almost no moving parts.) You download the video clips to your computer the same way you download stills. Now, how cool would it be if -- while all else remained simple and easy -- the video quality were genuinely good, and the lens could zoom? I've read articles that have argued that card-based video will never catch on because A) you can't cram enough footage onto a card (around 15-30 minutes, depending on the card and on the video quality), and B) how are you going to store the video once you've downloaded it from camera to computer? My response to A is that, where video's concerned, 90% of the time all I'm looking to do is shoot quick, informal clips as conveniently as possible. When I'm ready to shoot a theatrical feature I'll resign... posted by Michael at July 9, 2004 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Who Designs? Our Tools or Us?
Dear Vanessa -- How much impact do the tools we use have on the products we make? I tend to think the answer is, Quite a lot. Tatyana, on the other hand, disagrees. Speaking from experience as a pro, she points out that many designers use computer aided design (CAD) to create ultra-traditional artifacts. No disputing that, of course. Darn it. Yet I'll persist a bit anyway. The developments I've witnessed over the last few decades in TV, magazines, and movies have left me with the impression that, while technology can't be said to determine anything, it can certainly be said to condition much. For instance, most magazines these days are put together with the computer programs Quark and InDesign. Both of these programs work by constructing pages out of boxes -- picture boxes, graphic boxes, headline boxes, text-column boxes, etc. And what do most magazines look like nowadays? A bunch of jazzed-up, poppy boxes. But taking Tatyana's point, I admit that Quark and InDesign are being used to create completely traditional magazines too. The Nation, The New Republic, and The New Yorker are probably all constructed using the same tools that are being taxed to the max to create Entertainment Weekly. Still, take movies. While computer-editing and image-tweaking technologies can be used to craft classical movies, I can't help noticing that since the introduction of these gizmos the standard American movie is no longer a traditional movie; it's instead a pumpy, cyber-media, cut-cut-cut thing. Coincidence? But this is all merely a longwinded run-up to my lousy photo of the new Time-Warner center in Manhattan. (I blogged a bit about this building here.) Does that look like a real building to you, or does it look like a CAD computer-screen image of a building? For reference, here are a couple of CAD images: I notice that the Time Warner building and the CAD images have some similarities. They're featureless, they're texture-free, they're abstract, they're plasticky. "Toy Story"-esque, no? For comparison, here's a traditional pen-and-ink architectural drawing: Unrealistic in its own way, perhaps. But this drawing feels handmade. It conveys an awareness of tactile textures and of how light interacts with materials. It conveys depth and weight. I notice more emphasis on the context the building is intended to fit into as well. As computers speed up, will CAD renderings catch up with hand-drawing in terms of conveying texture, presence, and weight? Or is it more likely instead that our tastes will adapt themselves to what CAD tends all its own to deliver? Perhaps many people already prefer polygons, vinyl featurelessness, and flourescent-esque computer-light to the real, er, traditional thing. By the way, does the Time-Warner Center remind you, as it does me, of Darth Vader's mask? (A friend calls the style of this building "Death Star architecture.") Reflect-y planes of sinister black glass ... Don't ask me why, but when I look at this building, I can hear the voice of James Earl Jones. Which re-raises a question that came... posted by Michael at July 8, 2004 | perma-link | (29) comments

The New Young Gals
Dear Vanessa -- One of the neat things about leaving the country for a stretch is the experience of re-entry, don't you find? For a few days, things back home stand out in relief more than they usually do. Fresh back from the Franco-Carib, I find myself (as ever, admittedly) trying to figure out What's Becoming of These Young Gals These Days. It seems to me that a new stage may have been reached. BoomerGals: gettin' angry, bein' political, and resentfully claimin' their space. X'erGals: actin' out, showin' the aggression, and defiantly grabbin' for the gusto. But these new youngerGals ... They seem breezily free of all the old complexes, don't they? I detect no political anger, and no generational spite. (Actually, they seem less to have been set free to be who they are than to have been actively goosed into ceaselessly expressing nonexistent selves. But leaving my crankiness aside ...) They seem to have grown up with no questions about what life would be like: a big shopping mall brimful of possibilities for self-pleasure. I'm not alone in being amazed by how uninhibited they are. Little that was once taboo seems to carry any charge for them at all. Anal? Oral? S&M? So what's the big deal? Yet, as untroubled and uninhibited as they are, they're also the most square group of young women I've ever run across. When they get together, their talk seems to consist of nothing but the drivel-iest feminine drivel: boys, hairstyles, baby showers. Having been (at great expense) set free to be who they want to be, they turn out to want to be ... banal traditional girls. They've got nothing on their minds -- anal sex aside, I suppose -- that wouldn't have been commonplace to their great-grandmothers. They're half Jenna Jameson, half Doris Day. Which isn't a bad description of Britney Spears, come to think of it. Jenna or Britney? Porn star or pop star? I'll refrain from making the snarky comment I'm dying to make. On second thought, no I won't. Ain't it always the way, chuckle snort. You dream about the glorious things that'll result from liberation, then inevitably feel let down when the smoke and debris clear. Gollygosh: people are going back to being people again! Where's the outrage? But perhaps, as The Wife often reminds me, I'm overgeneralizing from my absurdly narrow media/culture circles. Curious to hear your observations about the new 22-25 year olds. Come to think of it, you're in an interesting position to do some amateur sociology. Although a youngster still yourself, you've gotten to the point where a yet younger cohort has come along behind you. An unnerving sensation, no? Are you feeling older and wiser these days? ("They'll learn," muttered grimly -- that kind of thing.) Also, having recently moved from NYC to Chicago you're no doubt registering differences between the Manhattan youngsters and the Chicago set. Eager to read your observations about the New Young Gals, in any case. What kind... posted by Michael at July 8, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

My Politics
Dear Vanessa -- I sometimes think that my politics, such as they are, boil down to this: politics are best viewed (and attended-to) as a necessary evil, not as something that might deliver on your hopes. As for voting: if you're going to bother, pull the lever for the candidate you think will do the least harm, then prepare to feel betrayed anyway. Handy confirmation for my p-o-v comes from Michelle Malkin (here), who spells out where some of the money for John Kerry's campaign originates. At her blog, here, Malkin provides some good links to Web resources for people who like to keep tabs on these things. Do you keep up with Fred Reed, by the way? What a writer: a juicy, semi-gonzo voice at the service of a downhome, wised-up mind. The topic of his latest column (here) is, coincidentally enough, how best to view politics. Answer: from a hammock, in a tropical breeze, with a good drink in your hand. I'll second that. Best, Michael UPDATE: The essential Greg Ransom (here) points out this TechCentralStation piece here by James Pinkerton. It's about Kerry's running mate, the very successful trial lawyer John Edwards; some of it concerns where Edwards' campaign money has come from. Fun passage: Eight of the top ten contributors to his presidential campaign were law firms. Indeed, according to the Federal Election Commission, throughout his career, Edwards has received some $10.3 million from trial lawyers.... posted by Michael at July 7, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Back to Rewrite
Dear Vanessa -- You know how there ought to be Oscar categories for all kinds of things? Worst Phone-Answering-Machine Message. Dumbest New Food Product. Most Transparent Attempt to Excuse a Screwup. I've got a new Oscar category: Opening Line Most in Need of a Rewrite. My current odds-on favorite is this corker from a Village Voice movie reviewer, Michael Atkinson, who kicks off his review of the new "King Arthur" this way: Another ornery bear leaping atop the new millennium's pig-pile of demi-historical and/or magick-stuffed battle sagas, King Arthur is, on the surface, a familiar parade of McEpic flourishes: calamitous (but decidedly bloodless) combat scenes, anachronistic Asian sword antics, hilltop posturing, helicopter shots, and thundering one-liners. Had you even been aware that the new millennium has been delivering a lot of historical battle sagas? Let alone a "pig-pile"'s worth? I hadn't. I wonder if it'd be worth suggesting to Atkinson that he substantiate one or two of the dozens of generalizations his sentence relies on. Really, though, staring at Atkinson's clotted lead sentence, I'm not even sure where I'd begin to suggest rewriting it. My head does little but spin. Any thoughts? But perhaps some sentences really do deserve nothing more than being put out of their misery. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 7, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Dear Vanessa -- I'm fresh back from a luscious nine days in St. Barthelemy, a beautiful and exclusive French Caribbean island much-beloved by celebrities. So expect lots of postings over the next few days on the topics that have been preoccupying my mind recently: the French, food, leisure, and toplessness. And then toplessness a couple more times too. To be a honest, The Wife and I were only able to afford our Voyage Into Decadence thanks to a few factors: some good friends who let us rent their lovely, right-on-the-beach villa at a discount; offseason prices generally; and our own frugality with food. Given that you could quickly double the US's foreign debt by eating one meal a day at a St. Barth's restaurant, we chose to prepare nearly all our meals for ourselves instead. As you'd imagine, what this really means is that The Wife did all the actual preparing. Some of the standout dishes she served up: plantains browned in butter and sprinkled with rum, sugar, and salt; and pork with pineapple, onions, green peppers, soy sauce, and (yes!) rum again. My efforts to be an equal partner consisted of hanging around and pitching in with such essentials as carrying the grocery basket, taking husbandly charge of garbage management, and (my one culinary achievement) mixing up the salad dressing. Next year: Michael Blowhard learns how to prepare guacamole. Hey, how do you and The Hubster divvy up food chores? All of which leads me to today's stop-the-presses blogtopic: yogurt. St. Barth is very French -- much more French, it seemed to us, than Caribbean. What with the St. Tropez glitz, the St. Tropez dough, and the island's many hills and vistas, St. Barth is a lot more like a toy version of Monaco than it is like a Frenchified version of Jamaica. Most of the people on the island are French; the nonchalance, stylishness, and toplessness are French; most of the food-preparation is French; much of the food in the markets is imported from France. Including the yogurts. What a pleasant surprise to take home a four-pack of French mini-yogurts, crack 'em open, and discover that they taste like ... yogurt. Tangy and sour, and unashamedly creamy. Are you much of a yogurt fan? I've been ever since I first ran across it. As far as I can tell, yogurt was invented by the Bulgar people of Central Asia, and was first popularized in this country as an exotic health food. (There were stories going around about people in the Caucasus eating little but yogurt and living until the age of 120, etc.) The food was supposed to have almost magical properties; in the '70s, I was one of credulous many who bought little yogurt-making machines -- heaters and cups, basically, which were good for a couple of tries before winding up in the garbage can. It's nice these days that yogurt in America has become so convenient, and so easily-found. What ain't so nice that it's become... posted by Michael at July 7, 2004 | perma-link | (10) comments