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. Gentrification: Good or Evil?
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  3. Discussing Environmentalism
  4. Salingaros on Viseu
  5. Zoom-Zoom?
  6. DVD Journal: "Visitor Q"; "Versus"; "Tokyo Drifter"; "Blind Beast"
  7. "Building a Skyscraper"
  8. Olympics Costs

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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