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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  1. Moviegoing: "The Forgotten"; "Twisted"
  2. Morning Babble
  3. Gentrification: Good or Evil?
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  5. Discussing Environmentalism
  6. Salingaros on Viseu
  7. Zoom-Zoom?
  8. DVD Journal: "Visitor Q"; "Versus"; "Tokyo Drifter"; "Blind Beast"
  9. "Building a Skyscraper"
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Thursday, September 30, 2004

Moviegoing: "The Forgotten"; "Twisted"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- How insistent are you that a work of art or entertainment be perfect -- or at least fabulous -- before you'll consent to enjoy it? Back when I was young and still getting the hang of the cultural life, I could be intolerant beyond belief. I wanted something special, something transformative, something that'd ... Well, frankly, I've forgotten what I imagined might follow. But life was going to change for the better somehow. What this insistence boiled down to was largely, I suspect, me trying to define myself via my tastes -- ah, youth -- and me trying to make my way from smalltown rube-itude to someplace that appealed to me a little more. So I made a big fuss out of art things; I was holding my breath 'till I got what I wanted, I guess. These days, I'm a lot more forgiving. I could argue that forgivingness is a better thing than pissiness generally, that's for sure. But what this change in my attitude probably really reflects is age and biochemistry, if not decay. It may also, if only to a small extent, be a function of a couple of other things too. For one: these days, I'm comfy enough as a bigcity culture person. I may be a sadsack and a loser in this world's terms, but I do know my way around. And if I haven't shaken off every last bit of my rube-i-tude, so what? I'm cool with enjoying my Inner Hick instead. For another thing: what do I have left to prove? I'm too old to believe that my tastes can define me, or that they might offer a clue to my inner soul (whatever that might be). And it's not as though, by enjoying or not-enjoying a given work, I'm demonstrating something of significance to anyone. The world isn't exactly awaiting my opinion about anything. These days, the art magic, when it's present, is no less potent a drug than it ever was. The change is in me: I've become much calmer when the magic isn't present. Perhaps because life itself now seems spectacularly magical to me, I find myself no longer making of art any kind of cause. Art will take care of itself -- or maybe it won't. But in either case, it'll do so as a part of life, and ain't that a grand thing? I've also discovered that the culture world itself is made up of actual people, however quirky and even loony they often are. And I've discovered that these actual people have their on days and their off days just like the rest of us. Who knew? Trust-fund narcissists aside, culture people wrestle with the same constraints and the same incentives (money, family, recognition, health, time) that the rest of us do. And they do so as they try to negotiate very uncertain and tricky fields. Hey: the people behind a poem, a painting, a website, a play, or a movie?... posted by Michael at September 30, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Morning Babble
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do all women love to gab first thing in the morning? Or only most? This may of course be nothing but an artifact of my limited experience, but I've been struck over and over by the way many women love starting the day with a long session of the usual female thing -- expressions (and "validations") of feelings, the pulling-apart of relationships, the mulling-over of all kinds of indefinite (to my mind) "issues" ... This whole chewing-over-of-the-emotional-and-relationship-dimension seems to be as much a part of women's desired morning routine as is the usual fussing with foodstuffs, the warming-up of coffee and toast, the gasping at the deliciousness of butter and baked goods. And, as far as I can tell, it's always to be conducted in that in media res way women are so fond of. Amazing, isn't it, how women expect their men to be able to get on board with their thought processes without providing the slightest introduction? Amazing too, how they feel irritated when you ask for a hint or two that might enable you to join in. Sigh. You'd think they'd appreciate the effort we make to tag along; instead, they feel annoyed that we aren't already right there with them. Men: never quite adequate to what women need them to be. What does this need for gab mean? Perhaps just that -- in the same way The Woman needs loving and feeding -- she also needs long episodes of being attended to while she digests and incorporates her experience. How do you guys contend? Much as I adore The Wife, I do sometimes find being plunged into the morning-babble a challenge. (I assume I'm taking note of a standard thing here, by the way; the breakfast-table scene showing the woman gabbing while the hubster hides behind a newspaper has been a cliche of cartoons for decades.) If I'm to be at my best in a conversation of the womanly kind, I need a little preparation; while I enjoy playing a gallant supporting role in The Wife's dramas, giving such a performance is something that requires real effort. And suffice it to say that I don't exactly roll out of bed already deep in the thick of such matters, as The Wife appears to. So, over the years, the two of us have negotiated some half-formal/half-informal agreements about how best to deal with the morning-babble thing. A degree of attentiveness is always required -- there'll be no hiding behind the newspaper for me. But I'm cut a little slack too. It's understood that I get to joke and tease a bit; a man who can't tease his woman is a sad thing. And it's agreed that reprieves from attending to morning babble will be granted on my busier days. Despite the general success of these negotiations, I find I still need to be vigilant. The Wifely love of morning-babble is an impressive force that's always doing its best to have things... posted by Michael at September 29, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Gentrification: Good or Evil?
Francis Morrone writes Dear Blowhards, Do you live in a "gentrified" neighborhood? I do. I live in Park Slope, in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs of New York City. It is, in fact, the most populous of the boroughs. It used to be an independent city, until 1898 when it merged with New York City. At that time, Brooklyn was the fourth largest city in the U.S. (A couple of decades earlier, it had risen to third.) What many people don't know is that if Brooklyn were independent still, it would be the...fourth largest city in the U.S. Brooklyn is more populous than Houston or Philadelphia. Anyway, the City of Brooklyn grew out of the 17th-century County of Kings (geographically coterminous with the present Borough of Brooklyn), which comprised six towns, of which one, the Town of Brooklyn, became the City of Brooklyn in 1834. This is the oldest urbanized part of a county most of the rest of which remained largely rural up to the turn of the 20th century. (For example, there had been farms in Ralph Kramden's neighborhood in The Honeymooners only half a century before that series takes place.) When people talk about the "gentrification" of Brooklyn, it is that area, the old Town of Brooklyn, to which they refer. We also often call it "brownstone Brooklyn." This is a slight misnomer. Yes, there are a lot of brownstone-fronted houses in the area, but also great swaths of red brick and of white limestone. "Row house Brooklyn" is what people really mean. The neighborhoods in old Brooklyn include Brooklyn Heights (one of the handful of the most beautiful urban residential neighborhoods in the United States), Park Slope (not far behind Brooklyn Heights in beauty), Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, among others. (I'd be curious to know how many Blowhards readers live in these neighborhoods, rife as they are with bloggers and blog consumers.) In the 19th century, these neighborhoods were elegant and affluent. Indeed, they contained some of the highest per-capita-income census tracts in the U.S. The housing stock leaves no doubt of this. But the area lost popularity as the 20th century got in gear. Some of the neighborhoods became quite run-down. Some became infamous for social problems and poverty and crime. None retained the "gentry" that had built it in the first place. Actually, Brooklyn Heights retained some of its well-heeled old-timers, and never became a "bad neighborhood," though it certainly traded in its haut bourgeois flavor for one more raffish. Like Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 1920s, Brooklyn Heights began to attract writers and artists. W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, W.E.B. DuBois, and Norman Mailer all lived on the Heights. And like the Village, young professionals began to move to the Heights. The combination of a few well-heeled old-timers, writers, and young lawyers, doctors, and brokers provided a level of articulate advocacy that few neighborhoods ever muster... posted by Francis at September 25, 2004 | perma-link | (24) comments

Friday, September 24, 2004

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Because there can be no such thing as too many interviews with Jane Jacobs ... * Alberto Vargas-Llosa thinks American conservatism has lost its roots. * Gasp! Members of the House and Senate have voted themselves a pay raise. * Will Duquette's software program Notebook enables you to create a kind of personal WorldWide Web for your desktop. It's a seriously nifty program: better than a word processor for organizing your personal info and stray thoughts, yet requiring no database-esque messing-around. I'm surprised Notebook hasn't established a whole new class of software. * Here's a sweet appreciation of the architect Paolo Soleri, who has been building the visionary town of Arcosanti in the Arizona desert for decades. Although I'm rather fond of Whole Earth Catalog-style experiments, Arcosanti left me a little depressed when I visited it a few years back. It seemed like a progressive co-op left over from the '60s. But Soleri's a very gifted designer. The clay bells he makes and sells to fund Arcosanti are things of real beauty. * James Glassman wonders why our government gives so much aid to Saudi Arabia. * You can sure learn about all kinds of fascinating things on the web. * Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau collaborated on the prescient semi-reality-TV series "Tanner '88" a few elections ago. I loved the series, and once interviewed Altman, who told me that he thought he'd done some of his best work in "Tanner." Now Trudeau and Altman have brought the characters back to life, with Michael Murphy and Cynthia Nixon returning as the presidential candidate and his daughter. Sundance broadcasts episode one of the new series on Tuesday, 10-5 at 8 pm. I notice that Criterion is releasing a DVD of "Tanner '88" that day too. * People will apparently collect video clips about any old thing. * John Mullan likes Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," here. I confess I'm not a fan; the book is yet another postwar American literary classic whose charm eludes me. But many people love the novel, which features a lot of Cheever/Updike-style suburban drinking, sex, and angst, as well as heaps of dazzling writin'. * More Sundance: Olivier Assayas' alienated-cyberthriller "Demonlover" will screen this Sunday at midnight. Er, this Monday at midnight. Er, as the clock tolls midnight between Sunday and Monday. Phew. Anyway, I liked the film a lot despite its pretentiousness and its humorlessness, and blogged about it here. Of course, you could buy the film here, or Netflix it here. * Pattie's got an opinion or three about beauty products. * Has a new Desi cultural-confidence landmark been attained? Here's a collection of erotic writings by North American Desis, who are declaring themselves to be sexual creatures -- gangway! I've only spent a half hour with the book, but FWIW here's my impression of it: very creative-writing 101, very Canadian -- but also spicey, fragrant, and colorful. * Downtown New York wants to know: which sexual act... posted by Michael at September 24, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Discussing Environmentalism
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In his latest column, Thomas Sowell portrays environmentalists as vain, self-righteous totalitarians. Sigh: why do righties persist in mocking and putting down many people's concerns about such questions as beauty, nature, and art? Are they, as many on the left would have it, really evil? Or are they simply p-r idiots? In this case, Sowell has written elsewhere about loving photography and about spending time in Yosemite Park, so I'm certain he isn't unresponsive to beauty, art, and nature. And I do understand that part of a columnist's job is to be polemical and provocative. Still, another part of the job is to win people over. And here I think Sowell is doing his argument an injustice. Note: Sowell doesn't contend in this column that environmental concerns are mistaken or overblown. He's simply calling environmentalists spoiled brats. Whoops, there goes the sympathy of anyone who's ever enjoyed walking through a quiet forest, or who has ever recoiled from the sight of a polluted river -- ie., 98% of Americans, I'd imagine. There isn't a single sentence in Sowell's column that allows for how 1) there might be good reasons to fret about ecological matters, or how 2) some eco-people may be sincere and well-informed. No, as Sowell tells the story, the eco-concerned are all do-gooding, greedy idiots. I'm happy to agree that there's much to be mistrustful of where environmentalism goes. Years ago, I spent amateur time out on the eco-fringes, and I met a good number of loonies out there; for some people, environmentalism plays the religion-replacement role that critics accuse it of playing. But for many others, environmentalism is simply a vehicle for an issue they care about -- and are people who are concerned about ecological matters not supposed to try to advance their cause? I met a lot of eco-freaks who were brainy, who knew a lot, whose science seemed to this know-nothing to be solid and modest, whose love of the wild was sincere, who were anything but nature-Nazis, and who weren't fools about politics or economics either. These people have no desire to run anyone's life. They simply respect nature, and think ecosystems are complex and tricky mega-things that need to be treated with respect and care. I got no problem with that point of view. (I got no problem with arguing from beauty and love either. Are people not supposed to care?) But I also got no problem with critiquing the eco-world -- every movement needs scrutiny. And as far as critiques of environmentalism go, I liked Bjorn Lomborg's approach a lot. In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg sifted the studies and the evidence, did his best to cut through alarmism and politics, and finally suggested what he thought were more (rather than less) sensible and effective ways to deal with our most pressing eco-worries. More bang for your buck -- what's not to like? Still, the true eco-believers shrieked; and there's no doubt that Lomborg was violating... posted by Michael at September 24, 2004 | perma-link | (25) comments

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Salingaros on Viseu
It's hard to believe but true: only a handful of architecture schools teach traditional architecture and urbanism -- which means, in other words, that there are only a very few schools in the entire world that teach students how to create the built environments that most people find pleasing and rewarding. I apologize for the blizzard of italics, but: what a strange state of affairs, no? All the other schools are modernist enclaves, devoted to whatever's chic and hot: deconstruction, blobitecture ... Once again, I find myself shaking my head over the bizarre and noxious schemes our elites are determined to put over on the rest of us. So it was heartbreaking to learn that one of the rare trad-architecture outposts was recently toppled. We're pleased, though, that 2Blowhards favorite Nikos Salingaros has taken this opportunity to pull together some information, ideas, insights, and reflections, and has given us permission to run his piece on our blog. Here it is. Aggression and Architectural Education: The "Coup" in Viseu by Nikos A. Salingaros Architecture and Urbanism students beginning the 2004 academic year at the Catholic University of Portugal in Viseu were surprised to find a new director and 13 new professors. Commentators have interpreted this move as a takeover, changing the direction of the school from traditional to modernist. To me, replacing the traditional architecture school in Viseu by a modernist faculty is an event of momentous significance. Of course, I'm affected indirectly because my good friend Lucien Steil was on the faculty, and Jose Cornelio da Silva, whose work I know and respect, was its director. Both have now gone to teach at the University of Notre Dame's Rome program. I would like to try and ignore personal issues here and focus on the long-term meaning of the takeover. If we count the number of places that a student could learn traditional architecture in recent years, we come up with 4 and 1/2. We have Notre Dame, the University of Miami, and, until now, Viseu. Prior to that, the Prince of Wales's Institute, headed for a while by another good friend of mine, Brian Hanson, was operational for several years, and helped to train many young people who are now very much sought-after. It was forced to close down. With the recent change in Viseu, that leaves no other institution in the European Community in which one can train. There are many traditional architects in Europe with whom a student can arrange an apprenticeship, but that now becomes more of an individual effort. The 1/2 remainder is Yale University where, to his great credit, Dean Robert A. M. Stern has always sought to balance traditional architecture with the latest avant-garde. If only that attitude were adopted at other schools! As an aside, I just saw Bob Stern here in San Antonio at the dedication of his new building, Northrup Hall in Trinity University. Stern joked with me that our mutual friend, the great classical architect Leon Krier and I were... posted by Michael at September 23, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Can anyone enlighten me about the thinking behind the recent Mazda "Zoom-zoom" campaign? Sleek and flawless young people participating happily in extreme sports; cell phones chirping impishly; soaring, if friendly, world music; and a chevron of shiney Mazdas racing heedlessly across the usual salt flats. It's all a sparkly rapture of transparency, streamlining, and youth. And then comes a question that seems meant to tie all these elements together: "What's your Zoom-zoom?" Huh? I've seen ads from this series three or four times, and each time I've found them so nonsensical that I thought I'd developed aphasia. Nothing going on around me seemed to make any sense any longer. What are we meant to feel that cell phones, extreme sports, and Mazdas have in common? And what's with "Zoom-zoom"? Hiphop slang I'm unfamiliar with? Some ad-writer's hopeful invention? Is the whole package supposed to convey "lovably goofy, young, and with-it"? Is it meant to suggest silvery Mac-G5-style bliss? (Hmm: I'm reminding myself of my own posting about silver cars. A pity for my thesis that the Mazdas in these ads come in Life Saver colors -- blue, red, etc ...) Are these the elements that are being conjoined, and the values that are being sold? Me, I found the ads' thinking and imagery embarrassing -- so infantile that they made me cringe. I mean, "Zoom-zoom": that's baby-talk, right? I'm tempted to rant a bit about pop culture, These Kids These Days, electronics, and adolescence, but will spare you. Well, OK, but only because you insist: the gist of this rant I'm sparing you would be that the all-pervasiveness (and the effectiveness) of whooshy electronic-pop-media values seems to be making it impossible for kids to imagine what it might be like to grow up -- ie., to adapt to the actual facts of life and thereby become adults. Of course, there's always the possibility that my reaction is nothing but an old-fart sign of how removed from the general zeitgeist I've become these days. A setting-it-in-context, film-history note: did you know that this kind of associative editing -- where you slam previously-unrelated images up next to each other so as to establish a connection between them and thereby spark off a new effect -- was originally devised to help sell the Soviet revolution? That's right: at its origin, it's a Soviet-revolutionary-film stylistic move. One shot was the thesis; the next was the antithesis; and the impact that was made by putting the shots next to each other was the synthesis ... Hegelian filmmaking, Marxian filmmaking -- that was the idea. Sergei Eisenstein worked this angle so resourcefully that he earned a big spot for himself in the film-history reference books. How funny/ironic/paradoxical/pleasing/hilarious/sad that this maneuver has been taken over by the corporate-consumer world, where it has become the standard way ads proceed. Hey, I'm struck by something similar when I visit the new Times Square. When I'm there, I find it impossible not to be... posted by Michael at September 23, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

DVD Journal: "Visitor Q"; "Versus"; "Tokyo Drifter"; "Blind Beast"
From Michael Blowhard: Dear Blowhards -- Between ya'll and me, I've got no interest -- except as a popular-culture anthropologist -- in seeing today's big corporate American entertainments, or in taking in much of the indie drivel either. Life's 'waaaay too short. The movies that appeal to my pleasure centers nowadays tend to be classical narratives, art movies, or the hot 'n' the wild. "Van Helsing"? Puh-leeze. But an autobiographical fantasy by the loony sex-horror heiress Asia Argento? Feminist art-porn by Catherine Breillat? A beyond-solipsistic late Godard reverie? Ultra-violence run backwards? The poetic trash of Jess Franco? Bertolucci's latest X-rated art-thing? An elegiac French gangster movie? The one and only movie Robert Mitchum ever directed? Sinister poolside mindgames? A mood-drenched Wong Kar-Wai tone poem? Anything involving Vincent Gallo? Bring it on. Recently, The Wife and I have been exploring some of the farther reaches of the Japanese cinema. Happy to admit that we've still got lots to learn -- good lord, but there's a lot to the Japanese cinema. But you can't accuse us of not trying. Here are some finds: Visitor Q. The 40ish Takashi Miike is a brilliant maniac who makes four or five movies a year, yet seldom makes more than one movie in the same style. "Audition," his best-known film, suggests a splatterfest as directed by the meditative Yasujiro Ozu; it's one of the most horrifying movies I've ever seen. "Ishi the Killer" is whirling, sadistic gangster gore. I liked it a lot better than John Woo's movies, and its virtuosity and flamboyance make poor Quentin Tarantino look like an overdeliberate wannabe. "The Happiness of the Katakuris" is one of the strangest musicals ever made, an attempt to fuse a dysfunctional-family black-comedy with "The Sound of Music." The elements don't gel, to say the least, but the film is nothing if not daring. Though it isn't in a league with "Audition" or "Ishi," "Visitor Q" is well worth a look. It's a camp comedy about a mysterious stranger who moves in with a screwloose Japanese family. Dad's a washed-up reality-TV show host who's desperate for another hit. Sis turns tricks, Bro is routinely beaten up by his chums, and Mom gets a sexual thrill from having her breasts milked. Bodily fluids play a leading role. Sexual encounters of the strangest kind are lingered over. The film -- which Miike shot on next to no money, in a week, on digital video -- is like one of John Waters' grotesque-family comedies, only far more intense. It's also, at least at first, considerably more bewildering; for the film's opening 30 minutes, The Wife and I felt completely disoriented. (The Wife, a much more devoted Japanese filmbuff than I am, likes to giggle and mutter "Caucasion not understand" during such opaque passages.) But the film's storylines finally sort themselves out, and as they do the action becomes ever more nutty and funny. Here's an interview with Miike. The film is buyable here, Netflixable here. Versus. More youthful Japanese brilliance.... posted by Michael at September 21, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, September 20, 2004

"Building a Skyscraper"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently raved about the four-part Modern Marvels episode, "Building a Skyscraper." Although the History Channel hasn't scheduled the show for re-broadcast, I just noticed that they do offer it for sale. The DVD can be bought here. How much video-buying do you do? I used to pride myself on not buying videos and DVDs, despite being a pretty serious movie buff. (Some of my movie-buff friends have entire bookshelves full of videos and DVDs.) Movies are experiences rather than physical things ... Videos are expensive ... So why not rent 'em instead? ... But in the last year or so, I've found myself being far less Zen and buying a fair number of DVDs. And when I ask myself why, I don't feel bad about the reasons my brain volunteers -- DVDs have come to seem like quite reasonable purchases, in fact. A new DVD may generally be more expensive than a new book. But DVDs offer a lot, too -- production values and visuals, of course. But also ease. A documentary-on-video about a given topic is almost always shorter than a book on the same topic would be. I'm simply not 400 or 600 pages' interested in all that many subjects, where I'm one or two hours' interested in tons of subjects. And DVDs are easier on the eyes than books are -- a consideration that's becoming important to me as I move into my 50s. Part of what can be great about a book is the author's presence: his individual voice, his personal style, his quirky point-of-view, his quicksilver insights. Yet, realistically speaking, how many nonfiction authors are so good that they make it worth the extra trouble it takes to read them instead of watching a documentary about the same subject? The book author is likely to be interviewed in the documentary anyway. (Note to blogsurfers: new Blowhard Francis Morrone is most definitely one of the nonfiction book-writers it's well worth making the effort to read. You'll get a lot from his books you'll never get from a video documentary.) Another big plus is that watching a video doesn't have to be a solitary activity. After the fun of watching a DVD with The Wife -- gabbing and comparing notes all the way through -- reading a book can seem like a lonely affair. As a consequence of all this, I find that I'm far more likely to get through the DVDs I buy than I am to get through the books I buy. I actually put 'em to use. Thirty bucks may buy two books where it buys only one DVD. But thirty bucks spent on one DVD that The Wife and I have a good time watching sure beats thirty bucks spent on two books that do nothing but gather dust on the bookshelf. Speaking of gathering dust, I find that, for some reason, I don't hoard DVDs the way I hoard books. I do like keeping a... posted by Michael at September 20, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Olympics Costs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the many questions I'm sorta interested in but will never get around to making deep sense of is sports financing. I've read enough to feel huffy about the way governments spend tax money on stadiums and sports teams. Why should anyone's tax money be used to help George Steinbrenner amuse himself with the Yankees? And I marvel at the way public money is thrown at high school and college sports. Hey, would sports be quite as big a presence in American life if tax money weren't being used to subsidize them? Just a thought experiment. But I wondered too about the recent Olympics: how were they financed, exactly? Like many people, I have a dim sense that TV pays for a lot. But I'm clueless about such basic questions as: does the country hosting an Olympics make or lose money doing so? Fortunately, I stumbled across some facts and figures about the Athens Olympics in a recent issue of The Economist. The cost of running the recent Games was $2.3 billion. Half has been paid for by broadcasters, half by a combo of ticket sales, sponsporship, and merchanding. Costs ran 50% over the predicted budget. But Greek taxpayers have footed a lot of Olympics-related bills too: $300 million to help run the Games; $1.5 billion to ensure that they were secure; and $7 billion for new construction. This means that Greek citizens -- employed or retired, and infants too -- have coughed up $800 each to pay for the Games. Eight hundred bucks each! I'd be miffed about that -- but apparently the Greeks aren't. Although Greeks were never told that they would be subsidizing the Games to that extent, they turn out to be OK with it. It's fine with them. When they're told about these figures and are then asked for their opinion about the expense, four out of five Greeks say that the money was well spent. Some Greeks argue that the infrastructure improvements made to accomodate the Games help justify the costs. Yet these improvements boil down to a lot of snazzy new sports facilities -- which The Economist says are notorious as longterm money-losers. The Economist also points out that the Greek government is already hugely indebted. Not for the first time, I find myself wishing that economists would spend less time lecturing us about how economically irrational we're being and more time investigating the way in which we choose -- consciously or unconsciously -- to live out our irrationality. Perhaps "being irrational in economic terms" is part of what it is to be human. And perhaps not all economic irrationalities are the same kind of bad; perhaps some are necessary, and even good. Come to think of it, why don't economists spend more time distinguishing between irrationalities -- between the more-sensible and less-sensible, the more-rewarding and less-rewarding? Dare I wonder whether economists might be as confused as the rest of us are about what "sensible" and... posted by Michael at September 19, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Will Middlebrow Ever Return?
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, As Terry Teachout and many others have noted, the fragmentation and proliferation of new media voices correlate with a decline in Middlebrow Culture. The Era of Broadcasting is replaced by the Era of Narrowcasting, as illustrated quite well by the damage to CBS' credibility in l'affaire Rather. But, to use contrasting metaphors, how does one distinguish in a cultural moment whether it is a case of genies escaping bottles or a case of a pendulum reaching the end point of its arc? Under the former metaphor, circumstances prompt a permanent change; under the latter, we are all slaves to human nature, and the fights that we fight have a tendency to move in large, barely perceptible, circles. The current conventional wisdom seems to be that the former metaphor--the genie escaping the bottle--is the correct one. Teachout himself states--ruefully, in a way--the ability to frame a common culture "is now splintered beyond hope of repair." The signs point in that direction, but a contrarian bet in cultural matters if often the correct one, so I wonder. I agree that the tools we have to communicate with one another are influential in shaping what we communicate. But is it the case that the ability to watch a wrestling channel 24/7 will lead permanently to a wrestling caste, cut off from public affairs, Oprah's Book Club and Sibelius? People play with new toys, to be sure, but might it not be the case that they will sooner or later find themselves in need of a new recentering? [temporary diversion to urbanism theme: my dad loved his 900 square foot ranch house and had no need for Main Street--actively avoided it in fact--but new urbanism is not a bad bet for the next several decades. what people yearn for can run in cycles.] A possible signal in this regard: Bill O'Reilly has been taking heat from the Right since the Rather thing blew up. He's been using the "fair and balanced" argument to pontificate against "right-wing talk radio hosts" and "far-right bloggers" in a semi-defense of Dan. That has gotten said hosts and bloggers mad. Laura Ingraham showed up on his show two nights ago, crying "Bill, how could you??!!" And she had an article to this effect in yesterday's New York Sun as well (subscription required). In her view, bloggers have changed everything--it's a utopian moment in which the new media have altered everything forever, and Bill, an old media guy, just doesn't get it. What's going on? I think Bill, a very savvy guy, simply figures that the cultural moment is being recentered. Tussles usually take place on the extremes--Ladies and Jemmin', Michael Moore versus Jerry Falwell in the fight of the century!--but the terrain at stake is usually the last few inches in the center of things. It's not that O'Reilly is looking to "take Rather's place at CBS", as some have speculated. Rather (so to speak), it's a matter of a shift in what constitutes... posted by Fenster at September 18, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, September 17, 2004

Mark Helprin
Francis Morrone writes Dear Blowhards, Have you ever read Mark Helprin? As I survey the fall offerings in the literary realm, the thing that jumps out at me is the new collection of stories by Mark Helprin. It's called The Pacific and Other Stories, and Amazon says it'll be out on October 21. I like Helprin as a novelist, but, in my opinion, short stories are where he really excels. This new volume will have sixteen stories, nine of them never before published. I was already a devotee of Helprin's stories (which appeared mainly in the New Yorker) when his second novel Winter's Tale appeared in 1983. I vividly remember the eagerness with which I began reading it. After the first few pages, I felt convinced that this was going to be one of the great American novels. But after about the hundredth page (out of more than 600), I had to stop. The experience of reading this novel felt exactly analogous to eating a rich pastry. It was utterly delicious, but I knew that if I didn't stop, I'd get sick. Others have told me they have had similar experiences with Helprin's prose. In his stories, the richness never overwhelms--portion control. At novel length, it was a problem, and none of his novels has seemed to me to be quite perfect. Now, I know it's not such a harsh criticism to say of a book that it isn't quite perfect. But Helprin writes so well, you feel he has it in him to write a perfect novel. Or maybe not. Maybe he's destined to be just a writer of perfect short stories. After all, how many writers have been equally great at stories and at novels? Flaubert, Henry James, a few others. All that said, I did, a year later, get around to finishing off Winter's Tale, and boy am I glad I did. It's a very uneven book, a very flawed book in many ways. It's also the best book about New York I've ever read--it's the book that captures the soul of this contradictory city. For then, in an overwhelming confusion, he saw before him all the many rich hours of every age and those to come, an infinitely light and deep universe, his child's innocent eyes, and the broken city of a hundred million lines which, when seen from on high, were as smooth and beautiful as a much-loved painting. All time was compressed, and he and the others were shaken like reeds when they realized fully what had come about, and why. And then they were taken by a wind which arose suddenly and carried them up in full and triumphant faith. As they ascended, in mounting cascades, they saw that the great city about them was infinitely complex, holy, and alive. OK. If that isn't your cup of tea, then nor will any of the book's several thousand other paragraphs be. But if it is, then by reading the novel you'll know the meaning... posted by Francis at September 17, 2004 | perma-link | (25) comments

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Digital Culture
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another week, another perfectly-fine NYTimes Circuits section. David Pogue, who writes about the new Imac, is as helpful, informative, and amusing as ever. Good as it is, though, I always feel depressed when I leaf through the Circuits section -- because there's never any discussion of the impact of digital technology on culture. The latest in robots or cordless phones, sure. But culture more generally? Nada. What a missed opportunity. How are movies changing? What values are books now selling? In what ways is narrative being affected? What's it like to give a performance in front of a blue screen? Not a word about any of it. Now that I type this, it occurs to me that I should admit something flatout, and then ask something. The flatout thing first: I take it for granted that the move from analog to digital is the most significant change in the basis of culture since the invention of the printing press. I mean, this is big. In ten or twenty years, it's likely that 95% of the culture we encounter will be digitally-based and digitally-mediated. Even much "live" culture -- art galleries, music concerts -- will be affected, because many instruments, materials, sound systems, and audience expectations will have gone digital. As a consequence, I can't help believing that -- for the last couple of decades, and for the next who knows how many years -- the most important (and fascinating) story in the arts has been, is, and will be the impact of digital technology on culture. Which is, ahem, why I raise the topic so often around this blog. God knows it can be amusing to compare notes about the latest movie or album -- er, DVD or CD. But aren't such matters just a little dwarfed by such questions as: Where are we going? Where have we been? And how is our experience of culture changing? But I may be assuming agreement where there is none, so I gotta ask: what's your hunch about the importance of the move from analog to digital where culture's concerned? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 16, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * John Massengale has written two wonderful postings -- one on starchitects and one on Munich -- that summarize about half of what anyone really needs to know about architecture and urbanism. * David Sucher -- whose immortal Three Rules summarize the other half of what anyone really needs to know about architecture and urbanism -- links to an on-the-money Douglas Kelbaugh piece, "Seven Fallacies in Architecture Culture." * I'd be curious to hear how you respond to this new Daniel Libeskind building in London. How do you rate its context-sensitivity? And how about the context-sensitivity of Archigram's latest, in Graz? * Design Observer's Michael Bierut (and his commenters) share some interesting thoughts and observations about architectural renderings. * Good lord, something I thought would never happen: big media (namely Time magazine) pays some hard-hitting attention to the Mexican border. Word is now officially out: It's fair to estimate, based on a TIME investigation, that the number of illegal aliens flooding into the U.S. this year will total 3 million—enough to fill 22,000 Boeing 737-700 airliners, or 60 flights every day for a year. It will be the largest wave since 2001 and roughly triple the number of immigrants who will come to the U.S. by legal means. (No one knows how many illegals are living in the U.S., but estimates run as high as 15 million.) * Vdare gets it together and now has a blog. Peter Brimelow comments on the Time magazine cover story. * I enjoyed Forager's taxonomy of movie remakes. * Carpal-tunnel syndrome, guaranteed. * JVC's Jeff wonders why it suddenly seems like New Jersey is everywhere. * Terry Richardson is the badboy fashion photographer parents fear their daughters will meet. Though god know I wouldn't have turned down an invitation to the opening of Richardson's latest show ... (That second link is most definitely NSFW.) * Steve Sailer wonders which Hispanics exactly should benefit from affirmative action. * Here's a graphic that makes vivid some of the bad Bush news. As the headline says: "Under Bush, Federal Spending Increases at Fastest Rate in 30 Years." That's from a rightwing organization, by the way. * Thanks and congrats to Will, Deb, and Craig, who have brought out another issue of their first-rate Ex Libris Reviews. Reviewed authors this time around include Elizabeth George, Colin Dexter, Eusebius, and Nick Sagan. * Walter Olson explains how we arrived at rule-by-lawyers-and-lawsuits. Some perspective: The share of America’s GNP that is devoted to litigation has tripled over 50 years. We spend two to three times more on it, in terms of percentage of GNP, as the other industrial democracies. The figure for how much is spent annually on liability insurance in the U.S. –- a relatively easy thing to measure –- is now $721 per citizen, which comes to over $2,800 per year for a family of four ... In recent years, litigation has evolved into a kind of substitute for politics. * I... posted by Michael at September 16, 2004 | perma-link | (2) comments

YA Fiction
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of months ago, in a posting about the creation of the American teenager, I cited a lot evidence for the idea that teenagerhood as we know it today -- a self-contained, desirable/traumatic period in life that's also an enormous target market -- is, by and large, a post-WWII American creation. Some examples: the word "teenager" didn't appear in dictionaries until 1942; teen magazines, rock and roll (ie., music for teens), and movies for teens all made their first appearance in the 1950s. It turns out that I overlooked another juicy piece of evidence: YA, or "young adult," fiction. Frances Fitzgerald, of all people, has a good essay in the September issue of Harper's magazine about the history and culture of YA fiction. Since the piece isn't online -- curses! -- I'll summarize some of what Fitzgerald says. YA fiction isn't just fiction for young people, of which there's often been a fair amount. It's fiction about teen experience that is portrayed from a teen point of view. It's S.E. Hinton, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier, and not "The Yearling" or "Count of Monte Cristo." YA fiction is largely an American phenomenon. Most of the storylines in YA fiction have taken the form of problem stories. A typical YA book might well have a therapy-esque, coming-of-age narrative that centers on struggling with and overcoming an "issue" -- delinquency, drug addiction, distant parents ... In America, novels for kids began appearing in the mid-19th century: think Horatio Alger, or "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." These books were most often about kids having adventures and then growing up into responsible adults. In the 1920s, a new strain of fiction for kids began appearing: "idealized realism," with childhood portrayed as a happy, protected period. This theme lasted through the early 1960s. "Two decades after 'the teenager' became a distinct species and well after Hollywood had discovered juvenile delinquency ... most novels for teens still clove to the idealist mode of kids growing up in safe, nurturing families to become fine, upstanding members of their close-knit communities," writes Fitzgerald. The appeal of this kind of book began to crumble in the 1950s under the influence of Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Louise ("Harriet the Spy") Fitzhugh. YA fiction's big bang, though, didn't take place until 1967 and 1968, when S.E. Hinton published "The Outsiders," Robert Lipsyte published "The Contender," and Paul Zindel published "The Pigman." A major factor in the success of YA fiction was Title II of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which "poured money into [schools'] empty libraries, permitting publishers to reissue the older classics and to publish a host of new novels for adolescents, almost all of which were in the new realist mode." You might not expect this, but librarians by and large -- and especially librarians who were young in the 1960s -- have always been cheerleaders for YA fiction. They approved of its "relevance" and "subversiveness," and have treated the... posted by Michael at September 16, 2004 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Bonjour les paradoxes
Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, Back in May, Michael posted about Debra Ollivier's Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. Michael suggested that this frothy book offers better insights into the French character than does Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon. In 1955 Preston Sturges made a film called The French They Are a Funny Race. Right now, many Americans have a love-hate relationship with the French. And not just Americans. Anthony Daniels, an Englishman and a prison doctor, is a compulsively readable writer on many subjects, though he is perhaps best known for his dead-pan scathing column in the Spectator, written under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple. He's also very familiar to readers of the New Criterion, City Journal, and other publications. In the Autumn 2002 City Journal, Daniels wrote a terrifying piece called "The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris." Here's how it begins: Everyone knows la douce France: the France of wonderful food and wine, beautiful landscapes, splendid châteaux and cathedrals. More tourists (60 million a year) visit France than any country in the world by far. Indeed, the Germans have a saying, not altogether reassuring for the French: "to live as God in France." Half a million Britons have bought second homes there; many of them bore their friends back home with how they order these things better in France. But there is another growing, and much less reassuring, side to France. I go to Paris about four times a year and thus have a sense of the evolving preoccupations of the French middle classes. A few years ago it was schools: the much vaunted French educational system was falling apart; illiteracy was rising; children were leaving school as ignorant as they entered, and much worse-behaved. For the last couple of years, though, it has been crime: l’insécurité, les violences urbaines, les incivilités. Everyone has a tale to tell, and no dinner party is complete without a horrifying story. Every crime, one senses, means a vote for Le Pen or whoever replaces him. He goes on to detail, as only he can, the horrendous living conditions and pervasive hopelessness among the immigrant population of the housing projects ringing Paris, and the tidal wave of crime and social disorder that has emanated from these projects in recent years. One's immediate reaction to the piece was, OK, I won't be going back there any time soon. Ah, but the French are made for paradoxes. On January 3 of this year, Daniels wrote a Spectator cover story, entitled "Escape from Barbarity." The "barbarity" in question is hooliganish England. The destination of escape is...France. Daniels, in this piece, announced that he was moving to France. Is France in better shape than Britain? Its countryside is emptier, which for someone like me, who has had enough of crowds in general and people in particular to last him a lifetime, is good enough. I know it is a high-tax economy — bureaucratic and sclerotic in many respects — but... posted by Francis at September 14, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

"Home Movies" at TNR
Fenster Moop writes Dear Blowhards: I've been a subsciber to The New Republic since the days when its visual appearance lent it a certain heavy, ponderous gravitas: cheesy paper, all black-and-white text and no ads. Andrew Sullivan, when editor, did his bit to make the place hipper (including more cultural reportage and high quality men's underwear ads on the rear cover), but the TNR brand still retains some vestigial Lippmanesque qualities. As such, the term "The New Republic Online" seems slightly oxymoronic on the face of it. Perhaps I am an old fuddy-duddy, but, while I have no problem getting the news online from Slate or Drudge, I still feel I am supposed to go to a musty old library to read the latest issue of TNR. But lo and behold, TNR Online is a pretty good site. One feature recently added that I have just noticed is entitled Home Movies. The idea is that, with Americans now spending twice as much on home videos as in theaters, the time is right for more DVD reviews. This is not a new concept--TNR would not want to break any new ground, I wouldn't think--but it is welcome nonetheless. Especially by me, since, while I am an old fuddy-duddy, I do have three youngish kids at home and find it hard to locate babysitters as much as I'd like. Therefore, "the movies" is, for me, synonymous with DVD rentals (in my case, Netflix). Here's an interesting column (free registration required). In it, Chris Orr uses the occasion of the release of The Ladykillers on DVD to comment on the careers of the Coens. I think he is spot-on that the best descriptor of their output is "downward trajectory". Indeed to my mind (and I am quite sure some of our readers will not agree with me, but that's the fun part of this site), I don't think Orr is quite harsh enough. He dates the decline "at least" from O Brother Where art Thou?, but I would push it back further, back to . . . maybe . . . um . . . Blood Simple . . . somewhere around there? OK, that was their first film--and a terrific one at that. And I was so excited on seeing it that I determined I was going to see anything new they turned out. Alas, until recently, I did. I don't share Orr's enthusiasm for their second, the overwrought and overdone Raising Arizona. And Miller's Crossing, while consistently interesting, was already pushing the pair's trademark preciousness so much into the foreground that it left room for little else. Ditto Barton Fink, Hudsucker, etc. Some of these films seemed to want to be, in the fashion of Seinfeld, about nothing. But, no, to throw a bunch of negatives together, Seinfeld was never truly about nothing, I don't think. Beneath the sometimes creepy and odd behaviors were real people, in a manner of speaking. By contrast, I find much of the Coens work truly... posted by Fenster at September 14, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, I second Fenster's recommendation of the Atlantic as essential reading, though I am a wee bit worried that it's moving downhill since Michael Kelly left us. I hadn't read the Atlantic in years before Kelly took it over in the late 1990s. He turned it into the most consistently rewarding general magazine in America. Kelly, you'll recall, died tragically in a Jeep accident after he'd gone to Iraq to cover the war. Since then, the magazine published Howell Raines's self-exculpation, which was almost enough to make me cancel my subscription. I couldn't fathom that this excellent magazine had seen fit to devote so much space to Raines when surely there are many worthy writers whose most cherished goal is to be published in the Atlantic. But I'm glad I didn't cancel. (As Fenster pointed out, website access requires that you subscribe to the print magazine. I know some people find that objectionable, and it makes the Atlantic non-bloggable, but just subscribe already. It's not expensive.) Every issue features several pieces I'm glad to have read. Though the magazine has a leftward tilt, it still publishes the two reigning right-wing jesters, P.J. O'Rourke and Mark Steyn. (Actually, it's unfair to call Steyn a "jester." He's hilariously funny, but also writes with moral clarity and moral verve, expressed with laugh-out-loud wit--a very rare ability for a writer to have mastered so well. That's not to say I agree with everything he says. But he's certainly bracing.) The magazine also regularly publishes Christopher Hitchens, the left-wing "apostate" (as the left thinks of him, though he is in fact way left for most right-wing tastes), often on non-political subjects about which he is excellent--as in his piece on Borges in the September issue (full review available here.) (Hitchens also wrote, for the London Review of Books, one of the best-informed reviews of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein that I read anywhere.) But the writer I most look forward to reading in the Atlantic is its book reviewer Benjamin Schwarz. I don't know much about him, other than that he is also a leading left-wing commentator on foreign policy. But he's that odd sort of character: the professional book reviewer who seems ready and able to review just about any book out there. More than that, he's mastered a rare form: the capsule review. Writing book reviews is hard at any length. (Reviewers who don't find it hard are lousy reviewers.) But to do it well at capsule length is hardest of all. In the September Atlantic (I haven't gotten around to the October issue yet), Schwarz reviews four books: Jon Coleman's Savage, a Yale University Press book on Americans' savage treatment of wolves throughout the history of our westward expansion; Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Hell's in It?, on Hollywood actors; Imperial Hubris by that well-known author Anonymous (a supposedly high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism official), on how we should be fighting Islamic terrorists (and how the war in Iraq is a diversion from... posted by Francis at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Michael Blowhard writes Dear Blowhards -- I'm getting used to the term "Desi," which -- if I understand it right -- is a term for anyone of South Asian descent. Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis -- they're all Desis. Corrections appreciated if I've got this wrong, of course, as long as everyone understands that I'm just a passe old man who's doing his valiant best to keep up with a bewildering new world. There's another handy term I like a lot too: Desiblog, which means a blog written by a Desi. There are a ton of them out there, many of them aburst with personality, brains, and humor. Some of the people behind my regular blogstops are Desis -- GNXP's Razib and Godless, for instance, as well as the charming and insightful Neha Bawa. And my litblogger of choice, the droll and sophisticated Kitabhkana, is another Desiblogger. Recently I've been enjoying a few Desiblogs that are new to me too. Sepia Mutiny is nothing if not incisive, and the succinctly named Desiblog posted recently about bhangra aerobics. I've been getting a huge kick out of following Dancing With Dogs' feisty and on-the-ball Shanti. Don't miss Shanti's recent rant about why she doesn't like calling herself a feminist, as well as the fun and uninhibited commentfest that follows. (Thanks to GNXP, where I found many of these links.) Best, Michael UPDATE: Razib has put some more info and thinking about the Desi thing into a GNXP posting.... posted by Michael at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (26) comments

Katarxis #3 Is Now Online
Michael Blowhard writes Dear Blowhards -- Although I've got lots of wonderful books sitting around the apartment clamoring for my attention, the reading I'm most eager to get to right now is Lucien Steil's architecture webzine, Katarxis. Issue number three is fresh out of the oven, and it's a full-of-goodies doozy, with words and thoughts from such brilliant lights as Christopher Alexander, Andres Duany, Nikos Salingaros, and Leon Krier. The issue even does us the favor of reprinting an immortal 1982 debate, a romper-stomper-style smackdown between Pattern Language superhero (bravo! yay!) Chris Alexander and deconstructivist arch-fiend (boo! hiss!) Peter Eisenman. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Michael Blowhard writes Dear Blowhards -- * AgendaBender recently got off a good line (meaning that I agree with it): "Ted Turner may be a sunken-faced philistine, but his Turner Classic Movies is more important to the culture than the last ninety-seven thousand NEA grant recipients combined." * Again and again, the web reminds me that I should have chosen another line of work. * Steve Sailer's writing has been even more heroic than usual, if that's possible. Check out his blog (the right hand column of his main page) for eyeopening stuff about sports, Iraq, Neocon-gate and more. Congrats are due to Steve as well; his piece about cousin marriage in the Near East has been chosen to be included in the prestigious anthology Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004. Quite an honor -- but that was quite an essay. * Meeow! Brit-journalist Lynn Barber writes a barbed profile of her "friend," rival Brit-journalist Julie Burchill. * Yet more proof that karaoke is the most significant art form of the 21st century. Not for slow connections. * My very favorite philosopher is a little-known -- to Americans at least -- Brit who died in 1990, Michael Oakeshott. I find his work perverse, enlightening, poetic, and deep. A characteristic Oakeshott quote: "I'm a conservative in politics because I'm a radical in everything else." Imagine my surprise and delight on learning that new Blowhard Francis Morrone is a Michael Oakeshott fan too. Party time! Luckily, thanks to the Web, newbies can get up to speed fast. Here's the Michael Oakeshott Association. Here's the Oakeshott book to start with. And here's a Telegraph review of a recent book about Oakeshott. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

The World Goes Silver
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What's with all the silver cars? Every second or third car that drives by these days seems to be silver, and silver cars have a near-monopoly in ads and magazines. Not a surprise that silver cars are out there on the usual car-ad salt flats. That's where all cars show up eventually. But that silver-on-salt look does deliver a special, hushed kick, doesn't it? That's one alone car, baby, and that's one dignified car too. Interesting, the way that silver cars seem to feel a kinship with the chic new architecture, isn't it? I've noticed that some silver cars have a taste for moving in ultra-close to the camera lens. Perhaps they like being appreciated for their purely abstract qualities: you certainly don't know what these cars look like, except that they're silvery. The fad is so widespread that even some low-class cars are daring to go silver. Will the other cars let the low-class cars get away with this kind of fashion audacity? Silver may indeed be neutral and dignified. But even so, it's not as though silver cars don't know how to have fun. Silver car go whee!!! Deep down, though, to be silver is to be comfortable and calm with yourself -- even when posing for the cover of a magazine. But being silver is also about being willing to play a supporting role too. Why? Because that's real confidence. Hard to believe, I know, but silver cars were once a rarity. Back when, silver was understood to mean "BMW" or "Mercedes" -- "expensive German engineering," basically: something for people with money, taste, and Euro-pretentions. (Me, I always liked silver on a car: I had the Euro-pretentions if not the money.) But real American cars had colors, dammit. Your Mustang was stop-sign red; your Sting Ray was kandy-flake blue. These days nearly everyone seems to want their car to be silver. How to explain this dramatic change in taste? Has there been a general raising of tone and taste? What with The Gap and Banana Republic being everywhere, your standard American does dress a little better -- and in a more neutral kind of way -- than he/she once did. So can the new silver cars best be understood as symptoms of America's yuppification? My own hunch is a little more ... well, OK, maybe Euro-pretentious. I think that silver these days suggests not just "high-end German engineering," as it always has. I think that silver has become the color of the computer age. Pixels ... Computer models ... Visionary concepts ... Is-it-plastic-or-is-it-metal flowiness ... Swoopy shapes ... Photoshop ... That glowy, depth-and-reflectiveness finish ... Those Dolby sound effects and fireballs ... Ooops, sorry: I got computer-era cars all mixed up with computer-era movies there for a second. But it's all very Darth Vader/DVD/Time-Warner building (here)/G-5 Mac/"T-2," isn't it? It's all about cyber-whooshiness -- the car (or the building or the movie) that wants to be taken more as an "experience"... posted by Michael at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

Rhetoric Watch
Fenster Moop writes Dear Blowhards: I find this odd. Doubtless you remember the line from John F. Kennedy's/Theodore Sorenson's Inaugural Address: Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. Inspiring still, even if a tad out of step with the views of many of today's Democrats, led by alleged JFK2 John Forbes Kerry. Yet JFK2 continues to aspire to the mantle of leadership of JFK1, so you'd think he'd treat any appropriation of rhetoric gingerly and with due care. But here is Kerry in a speech to the National Baptist Convention a few days ago. He is of course critical of the President's handling of Iraq, and says: (B)ecause we went it alone, we are bearing the burden and paying almost any price almost alone. Almost all the casualties are the sons and daughters of America. And 90 percent of the costs are being met by Americans -- the total so far: $200 billion and rising every day. I appreciate the point he is making--that that money could go to pressing domestic initiatives. And his point may be sound from the point of view of policy or politics (though I doubt the wisdom on either count.) What's odd is that JFK2 would so consciously have employed a signature line from his idol to make a point opposite to the original. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

In Memoriam b/w Let's Go Get 'em
Fenster Moop writes Dear Blowhards: On this third anniversary of the (choose descriptor): attack tragedy outrage, what is the proper response as a (choose frame of reference): human being American artist? The above lists, hardly exhaustive, suggest something of the choices we have as a culture in framing a response to an event as monumental as September 11. Some will demand one interpretation; others will recognize the need for discourse and complexity. I tend toward the latter view. I like the debate and, to a degree, the contentiousness. That does not mean, however, that I do not have my own views, and that I do not try to interpret something general about the mix of the particulars. So, my question: what gives, in your opinions, relative to the way artists are dealing with the 9/11 anniversary? In my town, it seems the art view, as evidenced in the day's scheduled events, is all about things like "healing" and not at all about, for want of a better term, killing the enemy. In one event, volunteers will hand out carnations, one for each of the persons brutally murdered (oops, my bias showing), each flower bearing a message asking the recipient to commit an act of kindness in memory of the person who . . . er . . . tragically passed away. Elsewhere, an artist/academic deals with computer viruses and imagery, speculating that "rolling back the tide of imperial politics will require more than simply piquing moral sensibilities". In a basic sense, of course, art is as art does. But that kind of argument reifies art and, ironically, elevates it to a kind of extra-human matter. And as such, this kind of approach is a conversation-stopper: don't ask why I am doing this art--I am an artist! Well, go ahead and take that view, if you want. But I am less an artist than an observer of human behavior, and I can't help notice that "art" seems to be taking a particular side. Why is that? Is it more because of some intrinsic quality of art, or the artistic process? Or is it because artists in this country at this particular point in time have their heads up their asses? Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Thursday, September 9, 2004

Some Documentaries: "Snapped"; "If I Should Fall From Grace With God"; "Building a Skyscraper"; "Lost in La Mancha"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some documentaries that are out there to be enjoyed: Snapped. This Oxygen Network true-crime series about women who have killed their mates is a hoot, though one that the sexes are likely to enjoy in different ways. The show takes the basic "American Justice"/"City Confidential" true-crime template, shrinks it to 30 minutes, and then bathes it in Oxygen, er, estrogen. The graphics are party-colored; the narration is by an offscreen Laura San Giacomo; and the stories are awash in a tide of psychobabble from psychotherapist-experts, all of it aimed at trying to understand the feelings of the woman killers. Not a word about how the hubbies might have felt about being murdered. The Wife watches "Snapped" clucking happily, the way she does when yakking with girlfriends about women and their bad choices. Me, I find the combo of female mate-killers and female p-o-v absolutely, positively terrifying: Can this really be what goes on inside women? It doesn't seem to make any sense at all!!! -- and my experience of total and utter woman-incomprehension scares me far more deeply than the case studies onscreen do. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the shows I've seen so far has been the way all of the killers -- prior to the moment they "snapped" -- had been devotedly "working on their relationships." Do women really think in these terms? The show is broadcast numerous times in the course of the week. You can check out the scedule at Oxygen's "Snapped" page, here. I can't resist copying and pasting this passage from Oxygen's own p-r material: Let's be honest: we've all had at least one moment in which we felt as though we could snap. Even if you're in the "perfect relationship", chances are, you've probably said (or even just fleetingly thought) "I'm going to kill my husband!" So what separates those of us who do, from those who don't? Why can some women cope with the everyday - or even not-so-everyday - stresses of married life without ever resorting to violence, while others "snap" and murder their mates? Oxygen's newest half-hour, true crime series, Snapped, aims to answer this very question: what causes a woman to kill her mate? That's a pretty accurate representation of what the show's like. To which I respond: Eeeeek! Thanks to GNXP's Godless (here), who recently linked to an interesting study showing that female and male brains start to organize themselves differently even before the onset of puberty. If I Should Fall From Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story. I found this documentary about Shane MacGowan, the onetime lead singer for the Irish punk band The Pogues, fascinating and moving despite the fact that, as musicians, Shane and The Pogues never meant much to me. The Pogues made their mark by setting traditional Irish sounds to wildman punk beats; Shane was infamous for being one of the most self-destructive performers ever -- during one long stretch, he was using heroin and drinking a... posted by Michael at September 9, 2004 | perma-link | (10) comments

Whither (or Wither) Illiniwek?
Fenster Moop writes Dear Blowhards: At Fenster's old site, he blogged several times about the controversy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over the school's mascot, one Chief Illiniwek (note: extremely sensitive souls may wish to skip the picture below). Do I have to summarize this for you, dear Blowhards, really? If you don't know the plot line by now, you can probably guess it. It's about as predictable as a Steven Seagall action film. The "Chief" has supporters (athletic types, majority of students, majority of Illinois residents) and detractors (Native American groups, sympathizers with same). My main post on the controversy is here, though you can find more updates at the site. I have my opinions about the symbol. But that was not my main beef. Rather, what I found of interest was the odd interplay of public policy and educational policy that the Chief's presence kicked up. The state legislature has been dragged in and accreditation agencies are up to their necks in it, too. As far as public policy is concerned, I think it is entirely appropriate for public bodies like legislatures to take a position on something like this when a public college is involved. The problem here, of course, is that if such a process were run fair and square, Illiniwek's detractors would almost certainly lose. The Chief is a pretty popular guy. But, as we know, identity politics do not require a majority to prevail, or at least to create gridlock. It's viewed as sufficient to play a trump card on the basis of victim status, irrespective of the votes. The more interesting issue comes in, though, in the somewhat arcane world of college accreditation. As I wrote before: The North Central accreditation agency reviewed the university in 1999--part of its regular 10 year accreditation cycle. Its final report did not hang the institution up on the Illiniwek issue, but it did establish a five-year review, at which time the Illiniwek issue was to be revisited. It hung its concern on the diversity angle, and devoted 8 pages of a 35 page report to the issue. Seemingly a very big deal! These midpoint reviews are not uncommon, though in my experience agencies use such a short leash approach only when quite significant issues are at stake. Does the diversity angle of Illiniwek rise to this level of educational concern under accreditation standards? Or is the educational matter in itself . . . political? In 2003, with the five year review coming up shortly, the commission published a Statement on Diversity. Read it. It's interesting. I still can't tell if it is a brilliant bit of diplomacy, an example of the worst kind of mealy-mouth hypocrisy, or both. I tend toward the latter view. Note that the statment makes clear that it is not policy--but that it is almost policy in that it might inform policy. Hmmm. . . . I don't think a buck stops at that thought. Note also the last paragraph:... posted by Fenster at September 9, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

2Blowhards: The Brand
Fenster Moop writes I've noticed some discussion here, since Michael and Friedrich decided to expand the contributors to Blowhards, about what to do with the logo and brand. I don't know what the proprietors plan to do. Nor do I know what Vanessa and Francis think. But Fenster, he's poaching, and copyright be damned. View image.... posted by Fenster at September 9, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

In The Atlantic
Fenster Moop writes Dear Blowhards: First off, you might think about breaking down and subscribing to The Atlantic, if you don't already. The venerable mag does an awfully nice job, I think, in balancing different viewpoints. Apropos Francis' points about civility and conversation, each issue typically brings some nice contrasts without browbeating. Think of it, if you can visualize such a thing, as a paper version of 2Blowhards. Imagine! Another reason to subscribe: The Atlantic often blocks full web access to some of its better articles, so you might have to shell out some dollars or visit the library to read the articles I am going to comment on here. The most recent issue has two articles about college. The first is an update on the admissions race at selective colleges, by James Fallows & V. V. Ganeshananthan. The second is entitled "Who Needs Harvard?", and it's by Gregg Easterbrook. Both are interesting and informative reads. But reading them back to back you see an interesting contrast that is not obvious on the surface. Fallows and Ganeshananthan take the more conventionally liberal view of various admissions matters, such as the negative impact of increased levels of merit aid on support for lower-income applicants. And in the process, they approvingly cite the work of former Princeton president William Bowen, who worries that the most selective universities have turned into "bastions of privilege" rather than "engines of opportunity." Fair enough, to a point. But when you read Easterbrook, it gets a little clearer that the benefits of an Ivy, or near Ivy, education are not all they are cracked up to be. Seems that when you hold individual apititude constant, the value-added of the best schools may not amount to much. Sure, graduates of the top schools achieve more in life, but that just might be because they self-selected for a prestiege school, not because of any value imparted by the school itself. Smart Kid X may do as well graduating from Tulane or Northeastern as from Yale. Looked at this way, Bowen may well be fretting more over the potential loss of the franchise on the part of dear old Princeton. In this light, the desire on the part of Richie Rich to pay up for Princeton is for the most part a kind of consumption snobbery, akin to paying extra for jewelry that is advertised in The New Yorker. I always kind of thought that the dust kicked up by Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River was suspect for a similar reason: who needs Harvard? The advance of first generation college students up to the middle class is taking place in other venues, ones with a substantial number of open doors. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at September 8, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Moviegoing: "The Brown Bunny"
Michael Blowhard writes Dear Blowhards -- To minimize suspense and tedium, I'm going to skip over the 95% of "The Brown Bunny" that no one cares about and focus directly on the movie's notorious blowjob scene -- which, like any good scene, has its own miniature three-act structure. I'll take them on one at a time. Act One We're in a tacky-Americana hotel room, and we're with Vincent Gallo, megalomaniac writer/director/editor/photographer/star. Gallo is playing a man of few words, a man in pain, a man lost, and yet a man who is yearning too, if inchoately. As he mopes and hopes, Chloe Sevigny -- his long-lost love -- appears. Like Gallo, she's overcome by hopelessness yet a yearner too. Together, they make blundering attempts to re-connect. They wonder why they screwed things up. Did they screw things up? They have needs, resentments, desperations ... They're reaching out, in other words. For much of this stretch, Gallo sits on the hotel-room bed, facing away from us. Chloe stands before him, facing us. She paces nervously; she makes attempts to touch Gallo; she bolts for the bathroom, there to smoke some dope and steady her nerves. The framing and lighting of these images is eccentric, to say the least. The figures are either dead-center or halfway off the screen; the light is beyond deadening -- Gallo the director/cinematographer has been studying the work of some pretty hip photographers. Not much to be said about the dialog in this scene, let alone the delivery; both actors seem to have studied at the Patricia Arquette School of Vocal Nonprojection. They're so tender, self-conscious, and wimpy -- and the semi-lines they semi-utter are such half-formed things -- that I found myself wondering if the movie had been made by an over-sensitive 14 year old. Chloe's an odd movie phenomenon, isn't she? Part Connecticut princess, part Edie-Sedgwick-gone-Warhol, part ... Part what? Those baby eyes ... That fresh, crinkled mouth ... The hurt but sweet boyishness ... That's it: she's also part Tobey Maguire. Too good for life, yet sadly game for whatever comes along too. Chloe's not much of an actress, god knows, and that hunched-over androgyny of hers isn't what a camera usually loves to love. Yet she's something to watch anyway; you keep moving in close to her to find out what's going on, because you want to know. She's got a Garbo-esque appeal, if of a teeny-tiny, indie-film sort. Gallo is something else completely. His face is part hippie-Christ and part Rasputin, while his physique suggests that he's the runt from a family of bricklayers -- he's small-shouldered and scrawny, and he seems short, yet he's got meaty mitts. Yet despite what an odd physical package he is, he's got a ferociously exhibitionistic drive and some real, if annoying, charisma. It's as though he exists in order to command attention and then be beaten up. He's probably been told 'way too many times that he'd be perfect playing Charles Manson. The movie itself... posted by Michael at September 8, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Joining the Conversation
Francis Morrone writes Dear Blowhards, I'm more than delighted that Michael asked me to join the Blowhards. This has been my favorite place on the Web for some time now. I'd go so far as to say that in the last year some of my deepest thoughts (for what that's worth) have been prompted by Michael's and Friedrich's postings, and by the comments left by the uniquely appealing group of men and women drawn to this site's essays in the arts, mores, and culture. I think that one of the most significant things about the Web is how it has liberated a high level of ''amateur'' discussion of such subjects, rescuing them from the often obfuscatory treatment they are accorded by professional critics and academics. Not that I'm not an avid consumer of the writings of professional critics and academics. But in the end, what's valuable to me is discussing how art and culture affect us as individuals coming to terms with our mortality. At a certain level, we are all amateurs of the arts. I also love the civility of this site. Again, that has as much to do with the commenters as the posters. As I begin to post, and use the salutation ''Dear Blowhards,'' I hope readers take that to mean not just Michael and Friedrich and Fenster and Vanessa, but all who leave comments as well. Civility is in short supply these days. I myself have had my moments of high incivility. Michael mentioned that I once ran a blog dedicated to the writings of the architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. I stopped maintaining that blog after 9/11. Odd, considering that's when most bloggers took up the sport. But I had some soul searching to do in those days, when, faced with the precariousness of my life here in New York City, I decided to write less about things I hated, and more about things that pleased me. We all cope in different ways. That said, I wonder, in the wake of Republican week here in New York, how you all deal with the people in your lives whom you disagree with politically. I have no stomach for political debate, but I have a passion for political discussion. Without giving away my own subtly nuanced politics (by which I mean I am inclined and happy to change my opinions as often as I change my socks), I wonder at the mutual hostility of Republicans and Democrats, ''conservatives'' and ''liberals,'' particularly at a time when the categories of ''left'' and ''right'' seem to make so little sense anymore. We have ''paleoconservatives,'' ''neoconservatives,'' ''libertarians,'' ''communitarians,'' ''New Democrats,'' anti-globalization ''anarchists,'' and James Howard Kunstler, to mention just a few political flavors. Nowadays it's all the rage in Manhattan to profess one's hatred for ''neoconservatives.'' Yet, as a current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York reminds us, many of these same haters adored the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Do you remember a book back in the late... posted by Francis at September 7, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Sunday, September 5, 2004

New Blowhard: Francis Morrone
Another break from the usual flow: I'm delighted to announce that the terrific Francis Morrone has agreed to join us as a regular blogger chez les Blowhards. You've probably already run into some of Francis' writing in various commentsfests, and as an occasional poster over at David Sucher's blog (here). But Francis has been developing a case of blogging fever, and I'm thrilled he's decided to do some more carrying-on here. Francis -- who will be blogging under his real name -- is a well-known architecture historian, a lecturer, and a teacher, and is the author of numerous classy architectural guides; you can check a few of them out here, here and here. (In case anyone's in doubt about this, "Fenster Moop," "Vanessa del Blowhard," and "Michael Blowhard" are pseudonyms.) Francis also writes a weekly column for the New York Sun, gives walking tours of NYC neighborhoods, and maintains his own extensive and fun-to-explore website here. He's no stranger to regular blogging either. Back in 2001, he was one of the very earliest bloggers, running a site called (hilariously) "Not Herbert Muschamp"; sadly, it isn't online any longer. I have to say that, when I get around to creating a one-volume anthology of Architecture-Thought Essentials, it'll certainly include an ultra-fab essay that Francis wrote for The New Criterion back in 2002, entitled "Do Architecture Critics Matter?" The essay can be read here; I hereby and heartily proclaim it to be Necessary Reading. I'm of course looking forward to being set straight by Francis on matters architectural, but I'm also hoping that he'll feel free to gab about whatever topics it pleases him to gab about. Movies, food, ads, art shows -- hey, it's all culture. Like Fenster, Francis has the gift for writing -- and writing super-fluently -- about everything in the right (ie., congenial, helpful, open, entertaining) spirit. When we chatted on the phone recently, Francis was quick to make sure I understood that -- despite his prodigious output -- he considers himself not an arts pro but a true arts "amateur" -- that is, someone who, no matter how he gets by, does it out of love. Amen, bro', to that. Please join me in saying hi to Francis.... posted by Michael at September 5, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, September 3, 2004

More "Brown Bunny"
Michael Blowhard writes Dear Blowhards -- I'm looking forward this long weekend to hangin' with The Wife, taking some yoga classes, and seeing Vincent Gallo's movie The Brown Bunny, which has just opened. The film is famous for being hissed at Cannes, and is notorious for depicting a scene of unsimulated oral sex between the director-star and the actress Chloe Sevigny. No prizes for correctly guessing who's doing what to whom. There was an amusing exchange between Vincent Gallo and the film critic Roger Ebert that was reported this way: Roger Ebert called the "The Brown Bunny" "the worst in the history of Cannes" to which Vincent Gallo responded that Ebert was a "fat pig with the physique of a slave trader." Ebert paraphrased a remark of Winston Churchill's and responded that "although I am fat, one day I will be thin, but Mr. Gallo will still have been the director of 'Brown Bunny'." Gallo then put a "hex" on Ebert's colon, to which Ebert responded that "even my colonoscopy was more entertaining than his film." That's as good as the dialog in "All About Eve," IMHO. Chloe Sevigny, who recently saw fit to change agents, has made the following comments to the press: The scene is very tender and it's not gratuitous. He's a great actor and a great filmmaker. I knew it would be well done. I've known him since I was 17. ... We were intimate when I was younger a little bit, so I feel so comfortable with him. I could trust him 100 percent ... There are a lot of misconceptions about the film. Most of the people who have been writing about it haven't even seen the film. When people do see it, they will realize that the sex in the movie is not in any way gratuitous, that is a truly heartbreaking movie. I am proud of it. I found these quotes on the Internet Movie Database, here. More when I've actually seen the film. Oh, and The Wife and I are thinking about visiting the Metropolitan Museum too. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to Jesse M., who found this Chicago Sun-Times talk between Gallo and Ebert, ">here.... posted by Michael at September 3, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Enter Fenster
Thank you, Michael, for designating me a Blowhard, or even a semi-Blowhard. My friends think I am the real thing, and that gives me hope for the future. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in your conclave, along with Friedrich, Vanessa and your many regulars. As you said in your gracious intro, I run a little joint of my own under the sobriquet Fenster Moop. Due to a series of personal issues, including a job change, I'd been slowing down the rate of my postings recently and, frankly, was wondering about the best way to continue blogging. When I got the invite from you, I jumped at the chance. I've been a regular reader of, and occasional poster to, this site for some time. I've always liked several things about it immensely: the conversational tone, the mixture of firm opinions with a willingness to be persuaded, the eclectic melange of topics and the slight bias toward viewing many matters, from politics to aesthetics, through a cultural lens. The latter inclination suits me just fine, as I discussed here. I was at a Six Flags park recently and paid a couple of extra dollars (over and above the exorbitant entry price!) to sit through an alleged "4-D" experience--one of those helmet devices that supposedly puts you into a virtual reality. What a joke. To my mind, 2Blowhards does a far better job simulating a Viennese coffee house than Six Flags did simulating an Arctic roller coaster ride. So, as my nephew puts it, let the games start on! A word first about Fenster, though. As I wrote in one of my first posts, here, Fenster is just a nom de plume, and I blog anonymously. I do so reluctantly, since anonymous kneecapping is all-too-easy. But I work in higher education and a number of my posts have dealt with the zaniness of that august institution (say, here, here and here). And if you know anything about the zaniness of higher education, I think you can appreciate that my desire to blog under my own name might conflict with the urge for self-preservation, and that anonymity represents prudence rather than weasel behavior. If you are not persauded to that view, I invite you to visit some of the sites that I consider role models, such as Critical Mass and University Diaries and J.V.C. Comments. They are excellent. But while I started out with a slant in the direction of academe, I am interested in other topics too (Sharia law?, Cialis?), and have blogged accordingly. My own career is a melange--everything from academia to investment banking to government policy to political campaigning. So I am not afraid to be eclectic myself. Perhaps that's one of the reasons you've invited me to this particular coffee house. As to Fenster his self, he's just a li'l swamp animal. Actually just a very minor character in the old comic strip Pogo. I've always like the name. Not a lot more to it than that. But now... posted by Fenster at September 3, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Being Happy
Dear Blowhards -- I've had a good time recently reading up on what scientists and behavioral economists have learned about happiness. I'm a mere fan of this work and so have got nothing to add to what the pros say -- nothing much beyond, "Hey, it's about time you people looked into this," anyway. But I hope some visitors will enjoy a bouquet of happiness facts, tips, and links. Some of what happiness researchers now think they know: Everyone seems to have a pre-programmed "set point" for happiness -- a level of happiness they're genetically programmed for, and to which they'll always tend to return. There isn't much that can be done to change this set point. Genetics and inheritance seem to be responsible for as much as half your tendency towards happiness or unhappiness. Even huge positive changes in a person's life -- getting married, winning the lottery -- only affect happiness levels for about six months. The rich are certainly happier than the abject poor. But for most people, more money doesn't tend to lead to much additional happiness, at least once basic material needs have been met. Three of the hardest things to cope with emotionally are widowhood (or widowerhood), longterm unemployment, and caring for a sick loved one. The best way to deal with a case of severe, long-lasting unhappiness is to take a mood-boosting pill. In many cases, a six-month course of treatment will effectively jolt the depressed person out of his or her rut. Pursuing sex and status don't make people happy. They're things that we, being human, do -- but they don't necessarily lead to happiness. People who are forever chasing after happiness -- who crave blasts of euphoria -- tend to be much less happy than people who are willing to let life (and their moods) take their own course. Some tips for being happy: If your job isn't especially rewarding, pursue a hobby you love, one that delivers experiences of "flow." Don't focus too much on making money and buying things. Maintain a wide variety of friendships, and don't spend too much time alone. Cultivate gratitude and forgiveness, including forgiveness towards yourself. Don't try to feel great all the time -- that's not the way life works. Hey, why aren't these facts and tips better-known than they are? Geoffrey Miller has a hunch: Popular culture is dominated by advertisements that offer the following promise: buy our good or service, and your subjective well-being will increase. The happiness research demonstrates that most such promises are empty ... Some journalists may have realized that the happiness research challenges the consumerist dream-world upon which their advertising revenues depend — their failure to report on the implications of the research for consumerism is probably no accident. They are in the business of selling readers to advertisers, not telling readers that advertising is irrelevant to their subjective well-being. And a bunch of happiness links to explore: Here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 2, 2004 | perma-link | (24) comments

Dems or Repubs? Feh
Dear Blowhards -- Since I've got zero to contribute where the Bush vs. Kerry foodfight is concerned, the election-season contribution I've decided to make is to suggest thinking about what's become of American politics these days less in terms of Dems vs. Repubs and more in terms of Them (ie., our political class) vs. Us (ie., regular people). How and why did our political class lose its sense of responsibility to the people whose interests it's supposed to be serving? And how can We make Them behave more responsively? Deep thinker that I am, it seems to me that the very first thing that's needed to rectify this state of affairs is for Us to whine, bitch, and complain very loudly about Them. I have trouble understanding why this isn't clear to more people. Is the fun of rooting for the home team so overwhelming that people are willing to forgo griping about how rotten the game has become? Yet how is the political class ever going to hear us if we don't yell real loud? The alternative to yelling would seem to be accepting passively the lousy products -- GWB, Kerry -- the political class serves up. But maybe I've got a finger, if only a small one, on a tiny part of the zeitgeist. Even in the midst of the usual election-season hoopla, it seems that points of view close to mine are beginning to surface. AEI's Karl Zinnsmeister, for instance, has written an op-ed piece for today's WSJ that addresses some of these questions. Ignore his heavy Republican bias and focus for a few secs on some of the information he provides. I couldn't find the piece online, so I've copied and pasted excerpts from an email distribution list. I'm going to indulge myself and boldface passages that I find particularly important. Democrats: the party of the little guy. Republicans: the party of the wealthy. Those images of America's two major political wings have been frozen for generations. The stereotypes were always a little off, incomplete, exaggerated. (Can you say Adlai Stevenson?) But like most stereotypes, they reflected rough truths. No more. Starting in the 1960s and '70s, whole blocs of "little guys" -- ethnics, rural residents, evangelicals, cops, construction workers, homemakers, military veterans -- began moving into the Republican column. And big chunks of America's rich elite -- financiers, academics, heiresses, media barons, software millionaires, entertainers -- drifted into the Democratic Party. The extent to which the parties have flipped positions on the little-guy/rich-guy divide is illustrated by research from the Ipsos-Reid polling firm. Comparing counties that voted strongly for George W. Bush to those that voted strongly for Al Gore in the 2000 election, the study shows that in pro-Bush counties only 7% of voters earned at least $100,000, while 38% had household incomes below $30,000. In the pro-Gore counties, fully 14% pulled in $100,000 or more, while 29% earned less than $30,000 ... The financial pillars for Democrats are now super-rich trial lawyers, Hollywood... posted by Michael at September 2, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

Serena at the Open
Dear Blowhards -- Serena Williams, who's bringing out a line of clothes soon, is showing up for matches at the US Open in tinier and tinier outfits. Her trademark for the tournament: as she warms up, she wears black neoprene knee socks that look like dominatrix boots -- during last night's warm-up session, the stadium loudspeakers played "You Sexy Thing." Wimbledon this ain't! The Dominator Some quotes from Serena: I didn't consider [my outfit today] skimpy. It's really sexy and micro-mini ... I've always considered myself an entertainer. I've never been your normal athlete ... I just think I represent all females who believe in themselves ... It doesn't matter what you look like -- it's all about having confidence in yourself. That's not necessarily having to wear some short shorts or extremely small top. It's just about believing in yourself. I represent women who believe in herself and has confidence in herself to be unique. I love the way Serena resists the term "skimpy" but embraces "sexy and micro-mini." I guess for her the first has negative overtones, while the second has positive overtones. I wonder why. Insights from anyone here? In any case, Serena's hinting that she'll be wearing "a kind of see-through" tennis dress before the tournament's over. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 2, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Moviegoing: "Collateral" and "We Don't Live Here Anymore"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It had been four months since I last went to see a movie in a movie theater -- my longest stretch away from movie theaters since I became a moviegoer, back in the late '60s. Who needs movie theaters these days? DVDs are convenient and adequate, movie-theater audiences no longer know how to behave, corporate multiplexes make me feel like data that's being crunched ... I was feeling pretty smug about staying away from movie theaters, if truth be told. But over the weekend the August heat and humidity KO'd the apartment's air-conditioners, so the time had come: it was off to the multiplexes for The Wife and me, to see Collateral the first evening and We Don't Live Here Anymore the next. And y'know what? It wasn't so bad, really. There was some rude cellphone behavior, but not too much. The theaters' staffs were pleasant. The films themselves were beautifully projected, with sound systems that weren't too, too crushingly loud. The print of "Collateral" was so pristine that I watched it convinced that I was watching a digital projection. Imagine my filmbuff chagrin when I learned I was wrong. The pictures themselves? Well, the air conditioning deserved an Oscar. "Collateral," a Michael Mann thriller, wasn't half-bad ... for a Michael Mann movie. By which I mean that I enjoyed it more as something to analyze than as something to be enjoyed. I'm duty-bound to report that The Wife loved the film, and that the rest of the audience seemed perfectly content with it too. But for me, the movie was a case-study in how a good B-movie premise can be overwhelmed by production values, star power, and heavy-handed directing. Two movie stars, in a cab, acting. I have to admit that I have a problem with Michael Mann, none -- none! -- of whose movies I've liked; some voice in me screams "pretentious TV director" the moment his films begin. Though he's obviously talented and competent, I find his work studied and oppressive; I think of him as Michael "Watch me direct!" Mann. And I find his meanings and his approach as banal as what might be found in a car ad. I should have enjoyed his version of "Last of the Mohicans," for instance: sweeping romance, hurried and breathless sex, well-costumed history, and Madeleine Stowe in a major role. What's not to love? But I had a hard time sitting through it. I did find "Collateral" more bearable than the Michael Mann usual. Much credit goes to a shrewdly conceived and executed B-movie premise that you've probably heard about -- hitman (Tom Cruise) hires nice-guy cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around L.A. on a series of assasination assignments. Credit to the decent performances, too: Cruise did his demonically-charming baddie surprisingly well; he's like a roguish, human version of the Terminator. And Jamie Foxx gets some firstclass warmth and audience rapport going. But that ol' Michael Mann drear had me feeling under... posted by Michael at September 1, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Religion and Science
Michael and Vanessa--er, at this point, all the Blowhards: By a coincidence, just after reading Michael’s posting on The Renaissance, I happened to pick up “For the Glory of God” a book by contemporary sociologist and historian of religion, Rodney Stark. In it, Mr. Stark—a perpetual debunker of received wisdom—debunks a number of notions held about the impact of religion in history. His second chapter, “God’s Handiwork,” takes aim at the notion that science and religion have been in perpetual opposition. Stark stresses the critical role that religion, and particularly Christianity, played in the development of modern science. He points out that only Christianity of the great world religions believed in a supremely rational Creator who governed nature via divine law. He argues that unless a society assumes the existence of divinely instituted 'laws' of nature—as Christian theology did, and according to Mr. Stark, did uniquely—it won’t go looking for such ‘laws.’ While a society without such a belief in 'laws' of nature may develop technology, it won’t develop that mix of empiricism and theory known as science. Hence, Stark is fairly dismissive of the notion that Renaissance Humanism—the ‘rebirth’ of classical learning—had much to teach Europe about science, as Greek and Roman society lacked this fundamental belief and interest in natural ‘law.’ (He also points out that late Medieval Europe was significantly in advance of the Classical world not only in terms of ‘science,’ narrowly defined, but also in terms of technology and general know-how.) But I particularly wanted to share one of his sub-arguments, to wit: that the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the Renaissance (c. 1400 – 1550) and perhaps even more, the Scientific Revolution (c. 1550-1700) have been wildly overstated, chiefly by polemical opponents of religion: In many ways the term “Scientific Revolution” is as misleading as “Dark Ages.” Both were coined to discredit the medieval Church. The notion of a “Scientific Revolution” has been used to claim that science suddenly burst forth when a weakened Christianity could no longer prevent it, and as the recovery of classical learning made it possible. Both claims are as false as those concerning Columbus [and his supposed heroic role in fighting against a Church-imposed theory of a flat earth]. First of all, classical learning did not provide an appropriate model for science. Second, the rise of science was already far along by the sixteenth century, having been carefully nurtured by devout Scholastics in that most Christian invention, the university… Since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution is often dated from the publication of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system, Mr. Stark uses the Copernican example to lay out at length his contention that what has been described as a ‘revolution’ was more like a continuation of trends long in place. The following is largely a paraphrase of his material: 1. Greek speculative philosophy, including that of Aristotle, believed that vacuums were impossible, and that the universe was filled with a transparent substance. Hence, the continuing motion of the stars and... posted by Friedrich at September 1, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Responses and Elaborations
Dear Blowhards -- Although a little anxious that I may be breaking my arm patting my own back, I can't help feeling tickled to notice that some classy bloggers have taken up, responded to, and elaborated on some of my gab. Over at Artsblogging, George Hunka, some readers, and I had a few amiable back-and-forths about that eternal conundrum, government financing for the arts. The exchanges can be read here and here. Here, John Massengale approvingly links to my posting about American highways (which can be read here) -- very flattering, given that John's an established architecture-and-planning pro while I'm a mere fan. He adds crucial information to the interstate-highway story that shouldn't be missed. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 1, 2004 | perma-link | (1) comments

Say Hello to Fenster
A brief break from the usual format to announce that a new blogger will be joining the Blowhards team. You know him already -- or at least I hope you do -- as Fenster Moop, who has been doing terrific blogging for some time at his own place, here. Fenster will be bringing his own freethinking point of view to bear on many different kinds of questions. (He'll also be providing some much-needed variety -- even I can find my own voice tiresome after a while). He's got a wideranging set of interests, an inquisitive and knowledgeable mind, impressive writing chops, and an adventurous background; currently a college adminstrator, he has also worked in politics and finance. I'm awfully pleased that he's agreed to become a regular at 2Blowhards, and I know visitors will enjoy his writing. Please join me in saying "Hi, Fenster." By the way, Fenster tells me that he may or may not continue soloblogging at Fenster Moop. Up to him, of course, though I'm urging him to take as much advantage as possible of 2Blowhards. In any case, please do check out the writing and blogging Fenster has already posted, here. Good stuff. Now, back to our usual programming. And, yo, Fenster-dude: let 'er rip.... posted by Michael at September 1, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments