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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Saturday, August 28, 2004

Dear Vanessa -- * Lynn Sislo's "Ten Things I Have Learned About Blogging," here, is oh-so-true, right-on, and tone-perfect. My favorite isn't one of the ten; it's something Lynn volunteers in the comments: As soon as you start a blog, every little, insignificant thing that happens in your life suddenly becomes something you just have to blog about. This occurred to me when the diet Dr. Pepper fountain at Subway exploded all over me and the first thing I thought of was possibly posting something about it. Have I mentioned that The Wife has taken to announcing, before introducing certain discussions, "This is a blogging-free zone"? Life to a blogger is nothing if not grist for blogging. * NoseyOline sifts through the evidence that Bush has been bad for the economy, here. * Greg Ransom's Prestopundit (here) seems to be the blog to visit if you want to keep up with everything having to do with John Kerry and his war record. "All over that story" doesn't begin to suggest Greg's work. * Bad-boy Belgian artist Wim Delvoye (about whom FvB blogged here) has made a mischievous, witty, and very naughty series of X-rays, one of which can be seen here. * Terry Teachout writes about a few of the factors that made him become a critic, here. * Fred Himebaugh's got one wide-ranging, take-no-prisoners mind, that's for sure. I've been enjoying The Fredosphere, his blog (here) and general website, for a few weeks now, and am putting it on the blogroll. * I've also been enjoying Architecture Matters, here, an architecture blog by buff and author Rich Beaubien. Rich recently visited and loved Frank Gehry's MIT Strata building, here, the same flamboyant showpiece James Kunstler gave a recent Eyesore of the Month award to. * Yahmdallah sorts out the good rock bios from the bad ones, here. * A who-needs-Cinemax photo of beach-volleyball champs Kerri Walsh and Misty May celebrating their gold can be enjoyed here. Beach volleyball, eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge. Hey, don't even the names "Kerri Walsh" and "Misty May" sound like made-up porn-star names? Once again, I find myself suspecting that American life is self-transforming into a reality-porn-show version of itself. * The Brazilian-gal beach-volleyball team displays some of what Brazil's famous for here. * Thanks to Paul Deppler, who sent along a link to this wonderful account here. In 1935, two Soviet writers -- the satirists Ilya Elf and Evgeny Petrov -- made a ten-week drive across America and then back, taking evocative photos all the way. They wrote about the trip for a Soviet newsmagazine, and the online mag Cabinet has reprinted the piece, complete with some of the photos. Good lord, America looked different in 1935 than it does today. "The roads are one of the most splendid phenomena of American life," Elf and Petrov write cheerily. Be sure not to miss their account of what it was like to stop at a service station. The piece is full of Russian humor... posted by Michael at August 28, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, August 27, 2004

The Renaissance
Dear Vanessa -- I just finished reading two compact histories of the Renaissance, William Henry Hudson's The Story of the Renaissance (which I listened to on audiotape, rentable here), and Paul Johnson's The Renaissance (buyable here). They're both accessible and helpful, as well as miracles of organization and condensation. If anyone's interested: I'd recommend reading the Hudson before the Johnson. Johnson's awfully good on the art of the period, and he brings his vigorous and earthy commonsense to bear on everything he says. But Hudson's book is much more comprehensive, without being much longer than Johnson's. It's the better E-Z general survey. A couple of things struck me as I was going through these books. One was ... Well, it's going to take a few sentences to set up. The Middle Ages, out of which the Renaissance emerged, was a theocratic time. All the era's best brainpower went into re-justifying theological conclusions that were already agreed-upon: the medieval Christian view of the world. As Hudson writes, "All thought led back to the monastery." As the Middle Ages started to come apart, some people started looking outwards. They looked beyond the walls of the monastery, began comparing what they saw with what they'd been told, and having new and fresh thoughts. This opening-up was the Renaissance Humanist spirit at work; the ingrown reasoning it slowly dislodged was Medieval Scholasticism. My modest reflection? That what the PC/multiculti/academic view of the arts -- whether modernist, post-modernist, or deconstructivist -- represents is a present-day equivalent of Medieval Scholasticism. It's a never-ending, self-justifying, all-devouring system that's a labyrinth leading nowhere but back to its own premises and predetermined conclusions. Both books -- but especially the Johnson -- were very effective at reminding the reader how naive we are when we imagine Renaissance artists as early versions of self-expressive, modern, gallery-art-type artists. In fact, Renaissance artists were almost all outgoing entrepreneurs with bills to pay and contracts to honor. Art was their business; hustle, talent, and skill were what they were selling. Manpower, too: Bellini was famous for employing dozens of assistants. Here's a vivid passage from the Paul Johnson book about what the art game was like in Renaissance Florence: We must not take too elevated a view of the Florentine art shop. It was a business venture, whose chief object was to get lucrative commissions, execute them at a profit, and excel or fend off the competition. Florence was about art, but it was also about money. In 15th century Florence, there was a continuum from the countinghouse through the wholesale cloth warehouse, to shops selling embroidery and colored shoes, to the all-purpose art workshop, catering to the sometimes vulgar taste of rich parvenus, but also producing works of genius that we now venerate. That's the stuff, as far as I'm concerned: don't be so blind that you ignore the actual circumstances out of which art emerges; but don't be such an unresponsive clod that you fail to experience and acknowledge how beautiful and... posted by Michael at August 27, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Moviemaking and Food
Dear Vanessa -- I enjoy keeping up with American Cinematographer, the monthly magazine of the American Society of Cinematographers. I learn more about what movies are and about how they're made from flipping through this trade magazine than I do from reading movie criticism these days. A highlight in the September issue is a lively q&a with French cinematographer Willy Kurant, who has worked with such greats as Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, and Orson Welles. In an interesting and unusual exchange, Kurant spells out some key differences in the way French and American movies are made: American Cinematographer: Let's start by discussing working hours. Willy Kurant: Some Americans think "French hours" means working without a break, and with a permanent buffet. In reality, working time is defined by French law. There are two types of days: either from 9 to 6 with a one-hour lunch break, or from noon until 7:30 pm with lunch at 11. You work between 8 and 10 hours a day, and then there is overtime, which has to be requested by the production and accepted by the crew. Overtime after 8 p.m. is very expensive. AC: French crews have time to eat dinner in the evenings? Kurant: Often the older guys will go home to eat with their families, and the younger ones will go out to a brasserie together. That is where teams coalesce. On location, I've noticed that while French crews will often eat together, U.S. crews will get room service or face a microwave in a rented flat because of their longer hours. For a European, the American workload is staggering. In the U.S., it's supposed to be 12 hours contractually, and the union would like us to work for no more than 14 hours. Nevertheless, we often face 16-hour days in the States ... The American unions are very strong, whereas the French ones are weak, and it's surprising that the working hours are so long in the States with such a strong union. How do we resist in France? I think it's because of the laborers: grips and electricians. When you see pizzas arrive on an American set after 12 or 13 hours, you know you're in for a 16-hour day. In France, pizzas just wouldn't cut it. AC: In France, the meal is sacred! Kurant: The meal is the sacramental act, and it has to last one hour, seated and served. Conversations at the table always drift toward creative aspects of the metier. Teams are often created around a table. Off-set dinners are equally important. Many French projects are born in restaurants -- that is where production teams are defined. .. In the American system, you eat six hours after the beginning of the shoot, so lunch can be called at 5 p.m. ... AC: Lunch is an essential part of the life of a French movie. Kurant: I've been told by American producers that they didn't want electricians and grips drinking wine, but it's a matter of French... posted by Michael at August 27, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, August 26, 2004

TV Colors
Dear Vanessa -- I've always found the colors displayed by TVs appallingly crass; they're as imprecise and crude as the colors in a daily newspaper. Ian Austen's helpful article in the NYTimes here explains why: the process of capturing and displaying visual information on TVs remains mired in 50-year-old standards. A large amount of color information is simply discarded along the way; the consequence is a buzzy, garish color wheel. Sigh: Americans and our obliviousness to matters of taste and beauty, eh? But Austen's article provides some hopeful news too. A new company has developed technology that can replace some of that missing color with excellent results. An independent expert who viewed a demo said, "I was absolutely blown away." Whee! Eye-relief is on the way: the technology should start showing up in some new TVs next year. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 26, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Image Management
Dear Vanessa -- Digi-photo news: I've been playing with Google's Picasa software for image management, here. It's iPhoto for Windows, basically, with one major advantage over iPhoto; it respects your own filing system. Unfortunately, it has a couple of badly-judged failings; no ability to zoom in on the pix; and no ability to burn CDs. But it's free and attractive, it's a snap to download and install, and it's eager to serve. I've also been having fun with Flickr, an online photo-management whatsis. You can upload photos, designate who can see which images, and arrange and display the photos in albums. I've had a good time doing so. But what I've enjoyed most about Flickr has been surfing other people's photos, which Flickr enables you to do via numerous paths. It's amazing how many striking images people are making with their cameras; and it's giddy-making to be allowed glimpses into other people's lives. You can give Flickr a looksee here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 26, 2004 | perma-link | (2) comments

Dear Vanessa -- * One of my favorite Teaching Company lecture series is the very enlightening American Religious History, by Emory University's Patrick Allitt. (I blogged about this series here; it's currently on sale and can be bought for a terrific price here.) So I was happy to learn in a review by Philip Terzian in today's WSJ that Allitt has published a new book, I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester In The University Classroom. In his review, which can be read here, Terzian calls the book "charming and compelling" -- and, as a big fan of Allitt's, I'll bet that it is. The book can be bought here. * Yet another Frank Gehry design wins an Eyesore of the Month Award from James Kunstler, here. * Some eloquent Kunstler expressions of political disgust from his blog, here: Kerry can't get any traction in this campaign because he is, as Kevin Phillips aplty put it, "a haircut in search of a brain." He doesn't have any more "vision" than Bush 41 or Bush 43. He lacks the moral courage to tell the public the truth about our futureless living arrangements. His position about the war against Islamic fundamentalism is incomprehensible. For all I know he distinguished himself in Vietnam, but he's mentally AWOL in the 2004 campaign for the White House. Am I supposed to vote for him just because he isn't Bush? As a registered Democrat, that's not good enough for me. * I don't follow the Olympics much, but I've spent a lot of enjoyable time reading Steve Sailer's bloggings about the Games, here. Why isn't some pro publication paying Steve big money to write sports commentary? Hard to imagine he wouldn't quickly attract legions of loyal readers. * I've enjoyed following the "should Olympians pose nude?" controversy. A few of these very beautiful photos -- those bodies! -- can be eyeballed here. * Is anyone else as amazed as I am by how wholesome and normal some of the models in online porn appear to be? Here's an example: a webcam gal who looks ... well, like a very pretty example of the smalltown, all-American, cornfed girls I grew up with. Not a tattoo, piercing, or popped vein visible on her. Has performing for the webcam become a standard way young people accumulate enough money for the down payment on their first condo? * As if Alex and Tyler don't provide incentive enough to keep regular tabs on Marginal Revolution (here), they've enlisted the excellent financial journalist James Surowiecki as guest-blogger this week. By the way, I hadn't run across this particular Tyler essay here for Policy magazine before; it's a good introduction to his thoughts about culture. * Sho Yano scored a 1500 on his SATs at the age of 8. He graduated in three years from Loyola University, and he's now, at the ripe old age of 12, doing well in medical school. His IQ, which has been measured at "over 200," is... posted by Michael at August 26, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Six Packs
Dear Vanessa -- Does this ad take you as aback as it does me? If I read this ad right, it's directed at women, who are presumed to be thinking about gifts they might give to their fellas, who in turn are being conceived of as wanting to possess -- more than just about anything else in the world, apparently -- a six-pack set of abs. Men's Fitness is selling itself as the key to those abs. Where "the guy" in this equation is concerned, the people behind this ad are assuming (or at least trying to get us to assume) that he really, really wants a fab-looking tummy. This is a guy who's more concerned about the appearance of his naked tummy than he is about getting a new football, or a car, or a remote-control videogame gizmo. Having a six-pack really, really means something to him. Which would seem to mean that he's someone who spends a lot of time dwelling on media images of guy desirability, and looking in the mirror, evaluating his own guy desirability, if not maybe getting turned on a bit by it himself. How about where "the girl" in the equation is concerned? As far as I can tell, she's presumed to be 1) accepting of this ... well, shall we call it "narcisissm" on her guy's part, and 2) willing to cater to it, and perhaps even 3) likely to find it pretty sexy herself. Am I 'way off here? Assuming I'm not, I'm a little taken aback. Younger dudes may not realize how startling we geezers find these kinds of advertising pitches. Back in the day, gramps here would have found such an ad a 100% guarantee that the people involved -- both as creators and audience -- were gay. The ad's main image is a sexily-photographed male ab, with classical-statuary overtones -- wink wink and nudge nudge. It wasn't often that a Real Guy looking at a photograph was asked to imagine himself as the glamorous person in the photograph. Imagining yourself as the glamorous person -- especially the naked and glamorous person -- in an ad or photo layout was thought to be a female thing; think of women flipping through fashion mags, fantasizing about having fun and being found desirable. They're imagining themselves as the gals in the pix. Or, of course, it was thought to be a gay-male thing. Projecting yourself into a picture for the sake of enjoying the fantasy of yourself as physically desirable smacked of spending too damn much time looking at yourself in the mirror, something gay or Euro men might be allowed to do but that was no part of a real-American-guy's no-nonsense behavior. Red-blooded American Guys might imagine themselves to be the hubby in an ad, sitting on the lawn tractor; they might idolize heroic physical guys, and might make some efforts to keep from getting too flabby or disgusting themselves. But dwelling in any way on the hunky, beautiful, Greek-statue... posted by Michael at August 25, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments

Leaf-Blowers and Economism
Dear Vanessa -- Economics depends on measurement -- yet doesn't confining yourself to what's measurable necessarily bias what's being discussed? And can't it also warp the values the discussion is based on? Lost in a forest of graphs and numbers, we can lose track of what the point of our activity is. One reason economic discussions need enhancement and correction -- from, among others, aesthetics-centric people -- is the simple fact that people who are into measurement might well be overdiscussing what's measurable and underdiscussing what's unmeasurable, or even just going unmeasured. Here's an example. I was walking past a park this morning on the way to work. A park worker was using a leaf-blower to clean things up. I remember that some months ago, this same cleanup was done by a small team of people with brooms. Today? One guy with a very loud and messy machine. Now, what's getting (and has gotten) measured here is no doubt certain cost-savings on the books of the park service; and from that point of view progress has been made. But from the point of view of everyone walking past that stretch of park at that moment, the quality of life had without question been reduced. It wasn't just a matter of the noise, but of dust and other crap (given that this is NYC, possibly literal crap) too, not to mention irritation and annoyance. It was a genuinely unpleasant moment. It's pretty certain that the only number that was ever going to be put to that moment was a positive, cost-savings one. Yet there's also no question that if you could put a number to the quality of life of that moment -- park, passersby, worker, dust, etc -- it'd be lower than it was a few weeks ago. The moment was tangibly, palpably worse for many people than a similar moment was several weeks before; even their moods were affected. (How to measure the costs of increased irritation for several dozen passersby? And, even if you could, will such a measurement ever be made?) The only concrete number-style measurement says "improvement," yet the experience says "this stinks." There are some things that numbers aren't appropriate to, or that numbers can even do a disservice to. Evaluating your mate's moods might be an example. It's also a simple matter of practical fact that there will always be a lot of situations that, realistically speaking, no one's ever going to get around to modeling mathematically. (God bless all discoveries in behavioral economics, of course, as well as all improvements in measuring happiness and satisfaction.) So we can't always -- we can't often -- look to numbers to give us answers. Yet we have to attend to these moments, phenomena, and things. We have to make decisions about many matters without having good numbers to put to them. If we aren't able to assert taste and judgment -- to use brains and instinct -- despite numerical uncertainty, we can find ourselves in an... posted by Michael at August 25, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Gals and Art
Dear Vanessa For fear of feminist wrath, I've never before ventured these thoughts in public, so they may be a lot less bulletproof than are many of the observations I venture here. (Oddball though my p-o-v may often appear, I generally take my ideas out for many spins before I set them before a rowdy crowd.) Still, I'm curious to hear what you think. I've always thought that the female contribution to culture was 'way undervalued. Even if women often don't have the same drive men do to build monuments to themselves and their egos, they still often provide goals, purposes, desirability and more. They keep the whole project of culture focused on human needs and desires. It's been argued by many, for instance, that the awfulness of so much modernist architecture and urbanism can be attributed to the unalloyed maleness of it -- it's all engineering, math, and abstractions, "machines for living." It's often women who take responsibility for insistence on the "livable" thing. At its worst, this insistence is all about pleasing them specifically, and can be a pain; god knows that the princessy, self-centered, please-me woman is someone we know all too well. But generally, the culture benefits. Without the keep-it-real energy women bring to bear, male tinkering and competition would run shapelessly riot and would lead to nothing of value, unless your idea of a worthwhile life is the Wild West. Which reminds me of a day I spent at Microsoft long ago. The place was swarming with brilliant geeks, but what became clear to me in minutes was that these were people with no feeling for what a normal person might want from software. They had no "audience sense" -- that's how we'd put it in the arts, anyway -- and no instinct for what's pleasing and what's not. They were smart and aggressive-enough businessguys to know that qualities like "pleasing" and "usable" are important to customers, so they studied people -- but it was a comical spectacle, like watching Martians try to puzzle out humans. And isn't that autistic-ish quality part of what drives many people nuts about Microsoft's software? Ie., that feeling that it was made by instinct-less committees of robots? It seems to me that what people find pleasing about Apple's work is less a matter of specific solutions or ideas than a general sense that Apple really does know, on a gut level, what people want, like, and find enjoyable. You connect with their work on a human and instinctual level. On an instinctive level, what Microsoft software feels like is frantic cluelessness and aggression; it leaves you feeling muscled-around. Now, given that (in terms of usability and attractiveness, anyway) Microsoft has always been chasing Apple, that means that Apple (much more "feminine," much more look-and-feel) is much more the innovator here than Microsoft (geeky-males-galore) is, doesn't it? So doesn't that mean that the "feminine" side of things can drive innovation? It may be that an important part of being a... posted by Michael at August 25, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

Middle Age
Dear Vanessa -- What's news out your way? The Wife and I have been somehow kicking back and keeping busy at the same time. I seem to have figured out that life is better -- at our age and in our circumstances, anyway -- if we limit ourselves to going out with friends twice a week, no more than that. As a rough rule of thumb, this schedule seems to allow for a fun, urban social life; for work, work-exhaustion, and work-recuperation; and for kickin' back and lazin' around -- the most fun of these three categories, to be honest. How slowly some of us learn, eh? Maybe it's turning 50. You set your sights lower, and you start to enjoy the passing moment more -- a lot more -- than the excitement of "getting somewhere" and/or "keeping up." You start realizing that what to do and what to enjoy is really all up to you. After all, who are you trying to impress? And you stop trying to pound stuff out of yourself -- even where exercise is concerned. These days, I'm perfectly happy mixing up walking, yoga, and Pilates. Beginning yoga and beginning Pilates -- and I may never graduate from beginning classes. Why should I? It's not as though I'm in training for the 2008 Olympics. This walking-yoga-Pilates mixture seems to suit my current energy level, and it certainly leaves me happy and cheerful. What more am I loooking for? In younger days, the main reason I exercised was to blow off energy; I didn't feel sane unless I'd discharged a ton of excess steam. These days, though, my standard, day-to-day state is happy and calm; I've barely got enough steam in me to make it through the day. So I exercise for different reasons altogether: to forstall decay, in order to feel better than I would otherwise, and -- oh, yeah -- for health reasons. I know that I should do a little swimming and a little elliptical-ing for the sake of cardio wellbeing -- but, y'know, I'm just not gonna beat up on myself about it. All this probably does nothing but make me complacent and boring. On the other hand, what a surprise to realize that "boringness" and "enjoying life" aren't necessarily enemies. Have you been doing any reading recently? I read a lot, but I confess that I don't get much straight-through-it book-reading done these days except when we're on vacation. The only books I do seem to make it through from beginning to end are the ones I go through on audiobook. Otherwise, my day-to-day reading is nearly all a matter of browsing and grazing, and sampling a bit of this 'n' that. As far as fiction fixes go, I do pretty well anyway. There seem to be two considerations here. For one thing, middle age (as I'm a long way from being the first to discover) seems to leave you less hungry for fiction experiences. Life itself -- what it is,... posted by Michael at August 25, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

"Paving America"
Dear Vanessa -- Recently I've been enjoying a History Channel series called Modern Marvels. Have you run across it? Unfancily-presented hour-long shows on topics like "The World's Biggest Machines," or "Domed Stadiums" -- wonders-of-engineering stuff that arty ol' me knows nothing about. All the shows have been good; they've also presented just about as much info on their topics as, truthfully speaking, I'm interested in learning. This seems to confirm a hunch I occasionally give voice to here: I suspect I'm like many people in the sense of being a one-hour-documentary's-worth interested in a ton of subjects, but a 600-page-book's-worth interested in very few. Take that, book publishing. A striking recent episode of Modern Marvels was entitled Paving America, and was about the creation of the country's automobile highways. I was probably more struck by it than by some other episodes because of the role that road-making and highway-making have played in shaping the aesthetic qualities (for better or worse) of America. Artsies will and do talk about the supposedly-immense importance of this art movement or that art style. But how many art styles can compare in terms of aesthetic impact on the country to the creation of the Interstate Highway System? Roads, highways, cars ... As David Sucher has written on his blog here, the main difference between towns and neighborhoods that are much-loved and those that are less-loved is that the ones we're fondest of weren't created specifically to suit automobiles. The paving of America has had many huge impacts -- on the country's economy, of course, and on its health record as well: millions of Americans have died and been injured in traffic accidents. In fact, "no other phenomenon has so influenced our lives as the paving of America," says the show's voice-over. Is this hype or true? What about mass innoculation, or the creation of effective sewage systems? But no matter how you judge "influencing our lives," the paving of American has certainly got to be up there near the top of the list. It's astounding how thoroughly the country has been transformed by paved roads. Here's how a few road-related things were in America before we began large-scale paving. Even in 1907, fewer than half of New York City's streets were paved. Nearly all of the country's non-city roads were dirt, and often mud, roads. Many of the nation's roads and streets were unmarked. What road signs existed were often faulty or misleading. Maps of the country's roads were (more or less) nonexistent. When roads were paved, the "paving" was likely to be a matter of cobblestone, wooden planks, or even logs laid side by side ("corrugated roads"). Interesting to learn that early paved-road building in America was largely sparked and sponsored by private groups and by local governments. The result was a patchwork of scattered, paved miles. Many of the country's roads remained dirt and mud for decades. In 1912, an engineer named Carl Fisher, who'd just built the Indianapolis 500 Speedway, announced plans... posted by Michael at August 24, 2004 | perma-link | (26) comments