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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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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College administrator and arts buff

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Architectural historian and arts buff

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Media flunky and arts buff

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  1. Time for Branding?
  2. Film Noir 101, Plus Many Self-Indulgent Musings
  3. Slow, Cont.
  4. Evolution and Architecture
  5. A Curse on Our Political Class
  6. John Massengale
  7. Movie Update

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Our Last 50 Referrers

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Time for Branding?
Dear Vanessa -- Shopping in a big-box store today, I nearly fell over when I approached the toothpaste counter. The varieties and sizes of Crest alone were overwhelming. I couldn't help myself; I counted. (I don't often shop in big-box stores.) There were 32 kinds of Crest on display. Do you want a large Crest Extra Whitening Clean Mint? Or perhaps a small Crest Whitening Plus Scope? The difference between Clean Mint and Scope I can kinda picture. The difference between "Whitening" and "Extra Whitening," though, really taxes my imagination. My favorite option was a "special-edition" Spiderman container of Crest. Too much! But at least Spiderman Crest came in only one size. Doesn't it sometimes seem as though any company that manages a popular brandname is determined to slap that brandname on as many varieties and products as it can? Plausibility, convenience, and respect for the brand's most loyal customers be damned, of course. Presumably choice is a good thing. Presumably too the companies take us for idiots. Has this vogue for branding gone just a little too far? Or has the time maybe come to issue a Spiderman Special Edition of 2Blowhards? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 31, 2004 | perma-link | (33) comments

Film Noir 101, Plus Many Self-Indulgent Musings
Dear Vanessa -- How easy do you find it as an adult to sustain your culture interests? What with life, family, job (and of course my many and deep character flaws), I find it's all I can do to make it through an individual book, movie, or art show. Setting myself grander goals than that -- hey, I think I'll spend the next two months reading Ibsen!-- always seems to lead to frustration and disappointment. I squirm; my attention fragments; I finally crap out ... Making grand resolutions seems to be my chosen way to guarantee that I'll fail to follow through. (My interest in yoga -- now a year old -- is a rare exception to this rule. Why I'm able to remain fascinated by yoga fascinates me, of course. And -- scary thought! -- I'm likely to bore everyone by blogging about it someday.) My culture interests generally seem to flit about. On-the-downslope middle-ager that I am, I do my best to say "Well, OK" to that. What's cheering is that interests do sometimes emerge out of the ditziness -- but they become apparent only after the fact. I might spend weeks playing with this and poking around that -- only to wake up and discover that all along I'd been pursuing an interest in something-or-other I hadn't really noticed. I just didn't know it. Recently, for example, I had no idea that I was going to delve into the history of teenagehood. It dawned on me one day that I was doing so. And, as is often the case, taking note of what was on my mind (and blogging about it, here) had the result of semi-ending my interest in that line of inquiry. A month ago, I was deep into the subject; my attitude today towards the history of the teenager is, Been there, done that. Meditation seems to me a useful comparison. You try to keep the conscious mind focused on something simple, but clouds of this 'n' that will roll by and distract you -- it's inevitable. How to contend? My meditation teachers have said: when you wake up to the fact that, hey, I seem to be drifting off, just take note of it, let it go, and return to your modest, close-in focus. It occurs to me that my blog postings are like manifestations of those meditation moments when, having drifted off, you take note and let go. I don't work at these postings, at least not in the usual "let's pull ourselves together and accomplish something" way. No, it's more like noticing a cloud passing by and then having the writing be the "letting it go" step. (Then the fussy writer in me takes over and starts tweaking like mad, hoping to make what's dropped into my lap semi-amusing to other people.) The Wife says that I'm a healthier, calmer person when I meditate and do yoga. She also says I'm happier and calmer when I blog regularly. Hmm. So I... posted by Michael at July 31, 2004 | perma-link | (26) comments

Friday, July 30, 2004

Slow, Cont.
Dear Vanessa -- I had a very good time reading Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, an informative and enjoyable introduction to the Slow Movement. (I blogged a little about the Slow Movement here.) Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Sex, even Slow Exercise -- Honore investigates and examines them all, with a skeptical but sympathetic and very clear eye. I enjoyed jotting down some of the facts Honore includes in the book. Some of the more striking: Annual worldwide traffic fatalities: 1.3 million, double the 1980 total. "A pedestrian hit by a car doing 20 mph stands a 5% chance of dying; at 30 mph that figure jumps to 45%." The average British family now spends more time together in the car than they do around the dinner table. In Britain, the average working parent spends twice as much time coping with email as playing with the kids. "Two centuries ago, the average pig took five years to reach 130 pounds; today, it hits 230 pounds after just six months and is slaughtered before it loses its baby teeth." A 1994 survey found that the average American devotes only a half-hour a week to lovemaking. More than 4 million Americans have taken up knitting since 1998. "Americans devote less time than anyone else -- about an hour a day -- to eating, and are more likely to buy processed food and to dine alone." As someone whose main job goal has been to sustain a middle-class lifestyle while minimizing on-the-job hours, I've always been amazed by how many people seem to want to live on the job, striving and advancing instead. (For what?) So I was especially interested in the job-related facts Honore delivers. A sampling: The average American now puts in 350 hours a year more on the job than does his/her European counterpart. One in four Canadians now works more than 50 hours a week. A Japanese study showed that men who work 60 hours a week are twice as likely to have a heart attack as men who work 40 hours a week. One survey "revealed that, given the choice between two weeks' vacation and two weeks' extra pay, twice as many Americans would choose the time off." Good to see that yoga and the New Urbanism get Slow nods from Honore. Interesting to learn that 28 Italian towns have officially been designated Slow Cities. And great to learn that Slow Food now counts 78,000 members. Honore's excellent book can be bought here; his very useful website is here. Best, Michael UPDATE: Robert Frank writes about economics and happiness here. Arnold Kling comments here. This Guy Claxton article here about the role relaxation plays in creativity is worth a read too.... posted by Michael at July 30, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Evolution and Architecture
Dear Vanessa -- David Sucher (here) reprints a terrific Philip Langdon piece (here) about all the lousy new architecture that Harvard and MIT are inflicting on the Boston area. Simply and straightforwardly, Langdon spells out the basic case for a traditionalist approach to building and urbanism: Although it's true that occasionally architecture moves forward in a giant leap, more often it advances incrementally -- carefully incorporating innovations into a base of design and construction wisdom that has been refined through decades if not centuries of experience. Traditional buildings, with their usually pleasing proportions, human scale and comfortable public spaces, are the beneficiaries of a long process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Traditional building and urbanism are the results of the same processes that have resulted in present-day life forms. (This is evo-bio at work in the arts.) When you look at a traditional courtyard, arch, column, porch, or piazza -- or even at those swags, medallions, and pineapples that traditional buidlings wear like jewelry -- you're looking at forms that are the results of longterm processes, and that are as marvelous and idiosyncratic as the life forms that have evolved to populate the world. Towns and cities are like ecosystems, in other words; the buildings in them, and the elements that make up these buildings, are like individual organisms. That's a big part of the fascination of architecture, for my money anyway: eyeballing buildings, neighborhoods, and spaces can be fascinating in the same way that looking through a microscope at tiny wriggling beasties can be. And let's hear it for free and accessible: experienced in this way, a city is like a giant, no-admission-charge, open-air museum of natural history. Modernist/po-mo/decon buildings, neighborhoods, and spaces? For all their occasional design pizazz, they're too often lacking in simple life. James Kunstler makes brainy, riotous fun of these chic-theme-park new Harvard/MIT buildings here, here, and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 30, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

A Curse on Our Political Class
Dear Vanessa -- Could our political class have come up with a less appetizing set of Presidential candidates than GWBush and John Kerry? Well, I suppose the answer is yes -- and I suppose we'll see worse someday, too. But still. In honor of this year's political stinkiness, I hereby vow to forsake party cheerleading and to focus instead on a question that to my mind is much more substantial than which jerk should win. (There'll be plenty of cheerleading. Why add to it?) I'm going to focus instead on how self-interested our political class has become. Bipartisan mockery, baby! To give my entire Evil Agenda away, where this year's presidential election is concerned, my one and only blogpoint is gonna be: "What makes you think either party is interested in the common good?" To kick off the fun at the end of this Democratic-Convention week ... Did you realize that, of the ten richest Senators, eight are Democrats? Further details here. Here's a terrific David Bernstein article from the Boston Phoenix about how a hundred million dollars of unregulated money is supporting John Kerry. We owe this to slippery organizations known as "527s" -- "independent committees" that, while supposedly forbidden from directly supporting a candidate, are still allowed to buy lots of partisan TV-ad time. One fun consequence: Kerry is able to say that he won't run any attack ads because the 527s will be taking care of the negativity for him. Don't miss Bernstein's breakdown of the sources of much of this 527 money, by the way: everyday folks with last names like Soros, Pritzker, Bing, Getty, and Rockefeller. Michelle Malkin has a good column about who some of the other big Democratic donors are here. Fun bipartisan note: although corporations are hamstrung these days in terms of making direct political donations, they're still allowed to support the national conventions. Bizarrely, the committees that put on the conventions are considered to be charitable organizations -- which means that the donating corporations get to put the parties in their debt, and then write the costs of this blackmail off on their taxes. My own political p-o-v this year? Completely cynical, but open to happy surprises. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 30, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

Thursday, July 29, 2004

John Massengale
Dear Vanessa -- I had a delightful New Urbanist lunch with the architect, author, and blogger John Massengale today. (John's blog is here.) Over Indian food, we first agreed that there's something about passing 50 that changes you from a detail person into a big-picture guy. Then we turned to such neotraditionalist topics as ... well, to be honest, a lot of what we gabbed about was off-the-record and will have to be kept that way. But I do think I'm free to say that you shouldn't be surprised to see the following stories show up in the Star sometime very, very soon: Christopher Alexander and Cameron Diaz: Their Romance to Become Reality-TV Series!!! Spotted Poolside at the Fontainebleau Drinking Fuzzy Navels: HRH The Prince of Wales and Donald Trump!!! Four-Picture Paramount Deal Inked by Nikos Salingaros!!! Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Leon Krier Home-Sex Video Now on the Web!!! Look Out Martha: Andres Duany and Target to Franchise the New Urbanism!!! Henry Hope Reed Escapes from Betty Ford Clinic, Beats Up Paparazzi!!! Just kidding, in case any of our more literal-minded visitors didn't pick that up. John's been doing a lot of top-quality blogging recently that I should have been better about linking to. Here he muses about modernity and classicism -- don't be afraid, it's an engrossing subject. Here he wonders why most airports provide such lousy welcomes to cities. Here he reveals "just how anal architects can be." Hardcore libertarians really need to wrestle with the Andy Singer cartoon John reproduces here. Blogging: among many other things, a good way to meet great people. It's a wonderful way to learn, too. Many thanks to John for a terrific lunch. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 29, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Movie Update
Dear Vanessa -- * Many thanks to Lynn Sislo, who passed along a link to this interesting blog devoted to French New Wave cinema, here. I'm looking forward to catching up with Lynn's own first-class blogging too, here. * Although I've never been a fan of the movies of John Cassavetes, I don't doubt for a sec that he's one of those landmark filmmakers whose work all filmbuffs should get to know. But I could never explain why as well as George Hunka does here. * It's always, or at least often, fun to argue with a movielist. Here's one devoted to the 50 worst movies of the '90s. And by golly but there were some stinkers, weren't there? * The Guardian's Neil Armstrong wonders what the hell was going on in "Donnie Darko" and "Mulholland Drive" anyway, here. * I notice that Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers has been released on DVD. I got Turbokitty yakking about the film here. The film is an NC-17 tribute to the French New Wave, and to Paris in '68. It's not really very good, but it's sexy fun to sit through anyway. I posted a few paragraphs about the terrific Gilbert Adair novel the movie is based on here. The film is buyable here and Netflixable here. [UPDATE: Thanks to Tatyana, who points out this Alan Sullivan posting about Bertolucci here. Alan in turn links to a Newsweek interview with Bertolucci here.] * "Not terrific but sexily pleasing anyway" pretty much sums up my reaction to the Spanish director Bigas Luna's newish Sound of the Sea too. By comparison to the playful/lyrical, Paris-bound "Dreamers," "Sea" is classical, austere-yet-luscious, and Mediterranean. It's a small-scale romantic tragedy that plays out against a rather overdone (but I loved it anyway) timeless backdrop. The film isn't short on ludicrosities, especially a doleful main character who does little but quote poetry. But though The Wife and I hit the "pause" button regularly to indulge a good giggle, we also didn't mind watching the film all the way through. It was enjoyably lulling, as well as ravishing to look at and listen to. Ah, my favorite movie genre: the arty, novella-ish story of sex, death, and poetry, peopled by beautiful, talented young performers who are often naked. Hey, it's a genre requirement. Buyable here, Netflixable here. * You know those absurd little moviethings we moviefans grow irrationally fond of? I have one friend, for instance, who loves death scenes. She can't wait to see how a character's going to die, and how the actor is going to handle it. Another friend loves movie phone numbers -- that awkward moment in recent American films when an actor tells another actor to dial 555-something-or-other. How can they say "555" like they mean it? One of my own favorite moviethings is the way movies try to persuade you that a character is a businessperson. Since movie plots seldom want to spend any real time on business intricacies but often need businesspeople as... posted by Michael at July 28, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments