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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Our Last 50 Referrers

Saturday, November 6, 2004

Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, I run hot and cold (well, mostly cold) on Susan Sontag. For hifalutin highbrow know-it-all richly allusive essay-writing I'll take Guy Davenport or Hugh Kenner most any day. But I do admire Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation," which appeared back in the sixties in Evergreen Review (remember that?). In this essay, she champions criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber's film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent's essay "The Dickens World: A View from Todgers'," Randall Jarrell's essay on Walt Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it. Hear, hear! I love Manny Farber; I adore Randall Jarrell. I like to think I've learned more from Jarrell than from any other writer. If that's so far unevident in my several hundred pieces of published writing, put it down to the fact that Jarrell was a genius and I am--as Johnny Damon likes to say of himself--an idiot. In architecture, there is one critic who could have been on Sontag's list. That's Ian Nairn. Not too many Americans of today know the name. Nairn died in 1983, at the tender age of 53. He was British. His writings appeared in Architectural Review and--what made him briefly famous--in the Daily Telegraph, the Observer, and the Sunday Times, for each of which in turn he served as architecture critic. Like many of the best commentators on architecture and urbanism, he had no formal background in the subject. He was trained neither as an architect nor as an architectural historian. Rather, like our man Nikos Salingaros, he was a mathematician. He also flew airplanes, both for the R.A.F. and for fun. The bio on one of his books says "By temperament he is much happier among working journalists than professional men, and lists flying and pubs--the only kind of building he would like to design--among his hobbies." I did not hear of Nairn until a year after he died. It was 1984, and my wife and I were in London. We stayed in the home of friends--he an architect, she a bookseller--who handed us a copy of a 1966 guidebook called Nairn's London. I began to read; rapture ensued. And London came to life. Nairn was a Modernist. So don't think I fell in love with him because he echoed my own sometimes fogeyish views. I have never cared for critics whom I agree with. No, it was Nairn's way of going at things--the way, as Sontag might have put it, he could "reveal the sensuous surface" of things. Nairn's London is a quirky guidebook to London buildings. It is utterly useless for getting around the city. It contains no maps, but rather keys its entries to the A to Z--which makes for some cumbersome touring. (The best practical and comprehensive... posted by Francis at November 6, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, November 5, 2004

"Isherwood" and Book Publishing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Coming soon to a bookstore near you: a major new biography of the English writer Christopher Isherwood. Do you care for Isherwood's work? I'm a fan. I've read four of his books -- not enough, but still -- and I've loved them all. To be honest, I'm a very, very big admirer. Though Isherwood's certainly a respected writer, he's also generally considered something like "awfully good, but second tier, at least next to the true greats." Me, I'm betting that one day soon Isherwood will be recognized as a giant. His work is very enjoyable in its own right -- a model of easy-seeming, relaxed sophistication. But it has also been super-influential; it helped set the pattern for much modern gay writing, and for much modern nongay writing too. The whole intimate-but-without-crowding-you, casual-and-amusing-without-being-slight, it-reads-like-a-letter-from-a-friend thing -- as far as I've been able to tell, much of this comes out of Isherwood. It seems to me that his approach and tone have been as influential as Chekhov's and Hemingway's -- as influential, that is, as the most influential of modern writing. Despite his easy, Hockney-esque surfaces, Isherwood was incisive too. And like Hockney and some other gay artists (Cole Porter, W.H. Auden), Isherwood made art that has tough and strong roots. (As a faghag friend of mine used to say: "There's no one as tough as some of these faggy gay guys.") I could be wrong, of course, but I'm betting that Isherwood will go on being read and being influential long after most of James Joyce's books have been consigned to the dustiest of shelves. I like much of Joyce but -- given the way the culture is going -- I find it hard to imagine that in 50 years "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" will be understandable to more than a very, very few people. Isherwood, on the other hand? If people are still reading longform prose, Isherwood's likely to be experienced with pleasure still. It's impossible to make these points without spoiling the breezy-though-substantial "minor" pleasures Isherwood offers. The last thing I'd want to do is inflate Isherwood's importance, or to oversell the pleasures of his work, fabulous though they are. So it's probably best to forget that I ever wrote the above few paragraphs. By the way, Isherwood's companion of many years, Don Bachardy, is a superb visual artist. Still alive -- Isherwood died in 1986 -- Bachardy's a portraitist who works from life, often using friends and acquaintances as subjects. He works in "minor" modes, mainly in pen or pencil on paper. He's an amateur sketch artist, in other words. But what an amateur, and what a sketch artist. Not only does he have the rare gift of being able to -- seemingly effortlessly -- "get" a likeness, he's as shrewd, witty and economical a visual guy as Isherwoord was a writer. (I imagine that artfans who love the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Cadmus, and Wayne Thiebaud would enjoy Bachardy... posted by Michael at November 5, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

First time tragedy, second farce . . . whatever
Fenster Moop Writes: Dear Blowhards: "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis, regarding George H. W. Bush "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot." John Kerry, as John Kerry, regarding George W. Bush "I can't believe he said I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot." Fenster Moop Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at November 5, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

We Post, You Decide
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, I think blogs are just about the neatest thing, but I don't get all utopian about it. I show my social science background when I admit I think of such things in system terms. You can't consider the part without considering the engine it fits into; you can't consider the figure without the ground. In turn, the question is not whether blogs are good and mainstream media bad. Rather, the question is: how have blogs changed the system, the pattern of interactions, the nature of reciprocity? And is the whole schmear on balance better or worse, or just more complicated? In my mind, Rathergate showed how blogs could function well within a news system of which they were just a part. Sometimes they opposed MSM, sometimes the baton was passed back and forth. Generally speaking, though, blogs were deemed the heroes, as they were with the Lott affair. But yesterday showed it cuts both ways. The mainstream media had enough self-restraint not to dump unvarnished exit poll data onto the public. And bully for them for that. No such restraint from the blogs, however. It's all grist for the mill. As one blogger said "I didn't have any real compunction about putting it (polling data) up there. I didn't struggle with the decision, because I knew it was going to become a global news item within about 30 seconds. Our approach is: We post, you decide." There's a certain exhilaration to being able to do whatever one damn pleases. Workable institutions sometimes require more than a rush. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at November 3, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Fenster Predicts the Past
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Fenster is feeling down. With the Blowhards site down at a critical moment in the campaign, ol' Fens missed his opportunity to make his predictions for the future and now can only predict the past. So here goes: Bush with around 51% of the popular vote and mebbe 280 plus or minus in the electoral vote. I don't see what's so hard about this pundit stuff. It's pretty clear from down here in the swamp. I'll also say this: despite the "Ohio is the new Florida" mantra emanating from the media, I think the current situation is quite different. Florida was about a tiny margin separating Bush and Gore, and the possibility that voting irregularities--and the uncertaianties embedded in the voting process itself--would be greater than that margin. A very Derridian situation. There's a little of that uncertainty here, especially in regard to the fuzziness surrounding how provisional ballots will be treated under law. But at heart, Ohio is a much more straightforward situation: a pretty healthy spread (51-48, same as the national spread), some uncounted ballots, and the probabilities that arise therefrom. Holding aside the legal fuzziness above, the uncounted ballots ought to be able to be subject to the same kind of statistical review that networks undertake all the time, when they call elections with only a small percentage of precincts reporting. Indeed, I'll wager that NBC and Fox, the two main outlets announcing a Bush win in Ohio, did just that. This suggests a possible out for Kerry, but one he's unlikely to want to take. Why not announce a concession as provisional as the ballots in dispute? Call off the attorneys on the grounds that there is no real case for a flawed process and let the counters count. I am not certain what the legal nature of a concession speech is anyway. If Ohio were to count the provisionals and find Kerry the winner, wouldn't they certify him as such, with the consequence that its electors would put him over the top irrespective of what he says today? Obviously (to Fenster anyway), this is not an acceptable route for Kerry since he probably believes that the only way he can really win is through some combination of bland counting of provisional and absentee ballots along with aggresive legal challenges all along the way. I think that would be a political mistake for Kerry and the Dems. They'd still lose the election and they'd lose even more respect in the eyes of the Fed Up, including yours truly. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at November 3, 2004 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Joseph Spence
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've been listening to and loving this CD by the amazing Bahamian guitarist-singer Joseph Spence. His music is full of funky front-porch fingerpicking; the kinds of odd harmonies and microtones you hear in the rawest gospel; and the most original vocalizing I've heard since I treated myself to Asie Payton. Spence seems to love diving heedlessly into muddy rhythmic predicaments; he emerges victorious every time. His sound is as lowdown as the Delta blues, but it's set to joyful island beats -- the sacred and the profane, the light and the dark, all of it borne along on a current of rum and laughter. My mind struggles with the mixture, but my ears couldn't be happier. Spence is known for his giant but laid-back personality; his unself-consciously dazzling, contrapuntal guitar work (Ry Cooder's a fan); and for being one of the oddest, most wonderful vocalists ever. (Van Morrison's a fan too.) What a stylist! He's as off on his own asymetrical-cubist planet as Thelonious Monk. There are passages when his vocal line seems to be made up entirely of gargles, chortles, yelps, and growls; there are times when you wonder if conventional "singing" is playing a role at all. Spence mutters to himself; he coughs; he's as incomprehensible as Popeye ... Yet his singing works: it swings, and it moves you. (Or moves me.) He may be the most eccentric great vocalist I've ever listened to. Here's a loving website devoted to Joseph Spence; here's another. Here's an Amazon list of Spence recordings. You can sample a lot of Spence's tracks at this Amazon page -- click on "Listen to all." I can't resist copying-and-pasting this exchange between Joseph Spence and one of his admirers: Young Folklorist: Mr Spence, I couldn't help noticing that you play all of your songs in the same tuning, dropped-D tuning, and the same key, D major. Why is that? Spence: I used to know all them keys! I knew 'em all: A, and B, and D, and F, and H...I used to know all them keys! YF: Well, Mr Spence, if that's true, then why do you play everything in the same key of D? Why don't you use any of those other keys? Spence: I got tired of 'em! He's not just a living work of folk art; he's a sage! I hereby nominate Joseph Spence for immortality. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 2, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * John Massengale took a break from RedSox-blogging to wonder what the economy will look like if oil prices keep rising, and to reprint an Andres Duany critique of the New Urbanist town Celebration. * David Sucher asks one of those obvious-but-seldom-posed questions: do people really use the vast green spaces between office buildings? * Fred Bernstein reports for the NYTimes that, all over America, buildings erected in the 1960s are being demolished. Is this because the Boomers who grew up in the '60s are taking their petty revenge? Or is it because the '60s was one of the lousiest eras ever in architecture history? I'm not weeping about the loss of these buildings myself. * Peg Tyre reports for Newsweek that some retirees have begun to settle not in the usual retirement places but in attractive downtowns instead. * Business Week's Christopher Palmeri reports that a couple of big suburban-building firms are beginning to train their sights on urban downtowns. An excerpt from his interesting article: Both have spent decades trying to lure folks out of the city. Now, faced with a land scarcity in the 'burbs that threatens to crimp their growth, those same companies are suddenly making a reverse commute of their own by gobbling up urban properties at a fevered pace ... To be sure, the downtown market is fraught with challenges for the suburban builders -- including strict zoning requirements and environmental cleanups of some industrial properties, as well as land and construction costs that are far higher than what they're used to in the suburbs. What's more, builders accustomed to having carte blanche in the exurbs often find themselves in protracted negotiations with zoning officials and preservationists who demand that each project be tailored to the community. "It's higher-profile, so many people have opinions," says Karatz. For suburban builders who get it right, however, the urban market can yield profits every bit as fat as what they make in suburbia. * Do many Americans really want to live in walkable neighborhoods? Laurence Aurbach thinks the answer is yes. * Rob Asumendi's website Simply Building is a Christopher Alexander-influenced gem, full of sensible thinking and handy tips about buildings and living spaces. I especially enjoyed Rob's short article asking why architectural drawings don't pay more attention to the human figures in them, and this back and forth about Japanese baths. * James Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month is, as always, a giggle-and-outrage-inducer. * DadTalk explains why he finds life in suburbia -- specifically L.A.'s Inland Empire -- hellish. DadTalk also reports that he's on a diet that works for him. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 2, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Women, Men, Cellphones
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- On my walk to work this morning, I found myself thinking about something. I've long had the impression that women use cell phones more than men do -- good lord but a lot of women seem to spend the day gabbing into cell phones. Yakyakyak. But was I being fair? Since I enjoy looking at women more than I do at men, perhaps the only thing my impression represents is the fact that I spend so much more time observing women than I do taking note of men. So I decided to run an experiment. I resolved to spend the rest of my walk (35 blocks through midtown Manhattan) keeping track of cellphone use. The results: I noticed 37 men using cellphones, and 52 women. Thanks to this scientifically-controlled, peer-reviewed experiment, I now feel confident that it's safe to assume that women are a bit more likely than men to use cell phones. A couple of other things my experiment revealed: when using cell phones in public (at least at midday, in midtown), men are far more likely than women to be engaged in work conversations. Many of the men I watched were making points, barking commands, and taking marching orders -- while many of the women were weaving about, gesturing expressively, and making emotional faces, apparently involved in personal conversations. Although I suppose that all this might really indicate is that men and women have different behavior styles generally ... In any case, when I was walking through business districts, there'd be more men than women on cell phones. When I was walking through shopping districts, there'd be more women than men on cell phones. And, for no reason I can hazard a guess at, I noticed that a remarkable number of the guys who were using cell phones were Orthodox Jewish men. The reverse seemed to hold true too; of the Orthodox Jewish men I noticed, a flabbergasting number were talking into cell phones. What patterns do you guys notice in cell phone usage? Do you have the impression that women are more likely than men to use 'em? And can you venture any speculations about the mutual attraction between cell phones and Orthodox Jewish guys? Best, Michael UPDATE: A little Googling turned up this Cingular study. Conclusions: men actually spend a little more time on cellphones than women do; women spend more time on personal conversations than men do; Americans spend on average seven hours a month yakking on their cell phones. According to a New York Times article, "men are using their mobile phones as peacocks use their immobilizing feathers and male bullfrogs use their immoderate croaks: To advertise to females their worth, status, and desirability." But this undergrad newspaper article from Houston indicates that many people think women use cellphones more than men do. This poll of Long Island cellphone use has a lot of interesting infobits. For example: women are likely to say that they purchased their cell... posted by Michael at November 2, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, November 1, 2004

Site Wipeout
Apologies to all for the blank screen that was appearing today. Impossible-to-comprehend tech difficulties were to blame, but impossible-to-understand tech tweaks finally prevailed. Welcome back.... posted by Michael at November 1, 2004 | perma-link | (0) comments