In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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College administrator and arts buff

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Architectural historian and arts buff

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Entrepreneur and arts buff
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  1. Shopping Questions
  2. Guest Posting -- Mark's Teaching Company Choices
  3. Francis Davis on the Blues
  4. More Elsewheres
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  7. Solomon's Shield
  8. Negativity and Artsyak

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Saturday, December 4, 2004

Shopping Questions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of hours of Xmas browsing leave me wondering about two things. Greasy=sexy. Is anyone else as surprised as I am by how often ads that are meant to flaunt sexiness -- ads for underwear and swimwear, etc -- feature models with greasy hair, and even shiney/greasy skin? Judging from the posters and packaging I saw today, greasy=sexy has become a Standard Cultural Thing. I guess the grease -- often accompanied by pouting lips, "look at me/don't look at me" posture, bulging muscles, lotsa skin, and attitude to burn -- is conveying "sullen," "audacious," "claustrophobically intimate" ... The ads seem to be selling a fantasy of adolescence -- those handful of years when you have the energy and bounce of a kid but also the fullgrown sexual equipment of an adult, as well as too much spare time for your own good. They're selling the idea that adolescence can be a wonderful, decadent party, instead of the mood-swinging, anxious-exhausted, lonely/misunderstood, what-am-I-going-to-turn-out-to-be thing it usually is. The actual greasiness of adolescence, after all, is stinky, dandruffy, shiney-nosed, and pimply. But in current popular culture, teengrease is the musk of orgiastic gods. I trace this glamor-of-seediness fashion back to the early photos of Bruce Weber and the early films of Gus Van Sant. Their work grows out of Warhol, and the pornography Warhol was ripping off, er, inspired by. And before Warhol, there was Tennessee Williams, with his taste for sweaty, sensitive louts. Careful readers will note that Weber, Van Sant, Warhol, and Williams are (or were) all gay. How ... odd that greasy=sexy has managed to move out of the gay underground to have such a long run in the squaresville mainstream. Any hunches about how much longer the mainstream will continue to find teengrease sexy? Does Bose bite? Or am I tone deaf? I happily admit to being no audiophile. I don't subscribe to techie-audio magazines, and I don't have demanding ears; I'm more than pleased with sound quality that's good-enough. All I really want is to be able to follow the music and understand the dialog, dammit. I have no sound-snob qualifications or pretentions, in other words. And since I don't keep up, I may also be ill-informed about contempo audio reputations. But, and FWIW, I've long been under the impression that Bose's audio equipment is considered ... prestigious, or desirable, or something. Well, today I poked my ears in a Bose showroom for the first time, eager to be ravished. But what I heard from Bose's products was sound that seemed designed to wow the rubes. Effects were immensely heightened. The chest-thumpingness of the bass and the tinkles and whooshes in the higher registers were keyed 'way up, as though determined to make you say "Whoa!" As for the sense of the music and the dialogue: it was left far, far behind. Oh, initially the display of audio fireworks was impressive. But it took me only four or five seconds to... posted by Michael at December 4, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Guest Posting -- Mark's Teaching Company Choices
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of our regular commenters, Mark, works as an investor and moneymanager in Maryland. He's also an even bigger fan (and user) of the Teaching Company's products than I am. A few days ago, Mark dropped a comment on the blog that was full of reactions to Teaching Company courses; I found it so helpful that I asked Mark if I could promote it to its own posting. I was pleased he agreed to let me do this. Here's what Mark had to say: Michael -- Like you, I root for the Teaching Company. I will mention, in case it enters someone's mind to ask, that I have no affiliation with them. I order some of the Teaching Company series in the DVD format and others on CD. I watch a lot of the DVD's as I row on my Concept2 rowing machine. The benefit to that is that it makes the rowing go by with less pain; the detriment is that sometimes the fatigue causes the mind to wander. Other times I will sit in front of the TV and watch a lecture or two in lieu of other programming. That is a good alternative for when I'm too tired to read but not yet ready to sleep. In terms of the CD's I will listen in the car, and also on my stereo system at home, where I will crank-up the volume while I fold clothes, shave etc. Also, I have recorded several to my hard drive and transferred them to my Ipod-like device, which is great for walks. As for the courses themselves, here are some thoughts and reactions. Their course on American History, taught by three professors, was very interesting and well done. Patrick Allit you mentioned before as being very good; the other two are strong as well. I was a History major and I wish more of my professors were as interesting as these guys are. I am very impressed by Professor Robinson's courses on Philosophy and Psychology. His level of erudition and apparent breadth and depth of knowledge were very impressive. I Googled him once and found a review of one of these courses which was quite positive but mentioned that his manner or voice was somewhat pedantic. I didn't find him that way at all. I thought he was likeable, very interesting and obviously very, very intelligent. I love Professor Fears' courses on the History of Freedom as well as Famous Greeks and Romans. He is a very dynamic and theatrical lecturer, and the courses were very interesting. He does a good job of relating past events and personalities to our contemporary era. He made an interesting point, in the "History of Freedom" course, about how our Founders' model was the Rome of the Republic but how what we have become instead is the Rome of the Caesars. Like them, he said, we want to be entertained, to enjoy the prosperity, and to leave the governing... posted by Michael at December 4, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

Friday, December 3, 2004

Francis Davis on the Blues
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of months ago I took The Wife to a blues festival in the Mississippi Delta town of Helena, Arkansas. Its official name is the King Biscuit Blues Festival, but locals and veteran festivalgoers refer to it in fond shorthand. They say things like, "Hey, are you headin' over to the Biscuit?" and "The weather's even worse than it was at last year's Biscuit!" Well, The Wife and I headed over to the Biscuit despite the rain, and we had ourselves a great time. We'd had our first encounter with the Delta two years ago, passing quickly through it during our first spin ever through the (non-New Orleans) South. Though we both fell in love with more or less the entire south, we tumbled hard for the Delta. Have you ever been? It's a mysteriously wonderful place -- unremarkable in most ways, flat, and dirt poor. When you're driving along and first awake to the fact that you're now in "the Delta," you may wonder what the fuss is all about. But the place seeps into you. (It seeps into many people, in any case.) I'm anything but a superstitious or woo-woo guy, yet it didn't take long -- as in a half an hour -- before funny and marvelous things started happening to my thought processes. My time-sense shifted, and various guardians that normally supervise my brain's workings dissolved in the hot air. My thoughts were swimming. The world seemed like an endlessly braiding and unbraiding quilt of interwoven stories and songs. I had the feeling that if I went out into the middle of any of those nondescript cotton fields and turned over any old rock, ghosts would emerge and would start singing songs and telling stories. Everything seemed to mingle in fragrant, beguiling, sexy, and somewhat frightening ways. The Wife felt the intoxication as strongly as I did, and we decided then and there that we wanted more Delta in our lives. Which is why I arranged for us to head to the Biscuit. The festival was about as fun as could be. Well, I shouldn't be so cowardly: I found it not just fun but entrancing -- easygoing, rewarding, and deep. Doing the Biscuit isn't just about the music, not by any means. It was a total gestalt -- the people, the food, the pace, the vibes, and more: the whole easygoing, drunk-on-soulfulness thang of it. The food, by the way, is almost all fried. Delicious -- but it took us a couple of weeks to recover from it. The Wife and I stayed at a beautiful b&b in Clarksdale, a onetime cotton town of around 20 thousand people that's often referred to as the home of the blues. Given the number of blues greats who were born or who lived there, or who (in Bessie Smith's case) died there, Clarksdale is sometimes said to be the birthplace of the blues. Clarksdale-ites include Son House, T-Model Ford, Pinetop Perkins,... posted by Michael at December 3, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

More Elsewheres
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, * Michael B. (Blowhard) recently linked to an interesting favorite films list. Here's another, a Brit version from the other Michael B. (Brooke). * More on intellectual diversity here, here and here. Granted these articles are in rightish publications (Economist, WSJ and New Criterion), but there is a drumbeat out there. I wonder when people in the academy will notice? I work in one and find it a little odd that the subject has never come up. Well, that's not quite true. When the other day counsel remarked that the new Provost's Diversity Fund for Faculty Hiring needed to be managed carefully so as not to be race-exclusive (or viewed as such), I remarked that perhaps it might be employed to bring in a Southern Baptist, an evangelical or a Republican for the sake of intellectual diversity. That was met with a mixture of cold stares and a few giggles. So it does appear people in higher education are vaguely aware of the discussion. It's just that they're not actually . . . discussing it. Yet. * Is representation on the way back in? Can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theater really dead? (Thanks for tip: ALD). * Tom Wolfe must have been interested in Stoicism a few years back since he chose to weave, or shove, its tenets into the plot of A Man in Full. His latest intellectual-interest-resulting-in-plot-contrivance is the science of the brain. If you are reading Charlotte Simmons (I've just started it) and missed Wolfe's article of a few years back on the subject, and his fascination with it, here it is ("Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died"). Worth reading. * A scary tale about an easily-overlooked security vulnerability, from the most recent City Journal. By the way, CJ is one of those journals that lets it all hang out, publishing itself for free on the web in its entirety. Maybe this is a strategy. I've been feeling guilty and just sent in a check to subscribe. * If you've evuh thought it would be satisfying to be royalty, drop by from time to time at the Prince of Wales's Diary, his daily schedule of events. That'll cure you right quick of any such lordly aspirations. It's downright stultifyin'. As Steve Miller of the Bohemian Grove once sang, Somebody give me a cheeseburger! Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at December 3, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Press Freedom and Confidentiality of Sources
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, I'm suspicious of the press when it reports on instances of "journalistic privilege"--the idea that freedom the press implies an absolute right to keep sources confidential, even if the source committed a crime in the transmission of information. I've felt that there's a conflict of interest not too far under the surface here that leads the press to conflate the notion of freedom to publish with insulation from the operation of the law. The issue has had currency recently, what with the Valerie Plame affair and, now, the case of Jim Taricani, a television reporter in Providence, RI. Taricani has been in trouble with the law over his refusal to turn over to federal prosecutors the identity of a source who, the feds say, illegally passed along a tape dealiing with corruption in city hall. Does the press sometimes see this from its own point of view? Here's the way the president of NBC News recently framed the issue: Veteran reporter Jim Taricani, who works for NBC's TV station in Providence, R.I., will be tried tomorrow in federal court on criminal contempt charges. He has a very good chance of being sentenced to jail. His crime: doing his job. A confidential source gave Jim a videotape of a city politician accepting a bribe. The station broadcast it. Ever since, the heavy hand of the federal government has been squeezing Jim in an effort to get him to reveal his source. Jim, like any professional journalist, is loath to do so. For one thing, he gave his source his pledge of confidentiality. For another, Jim broke no law in accepting the tape, and the station did nothing wrong in airing it. On the contrary, this is precisely what news organizations are supposed to do. The footage gave the citizens of Providence information they deserved to have about city officials who, since the story broke, have been charged, tried and convicted for criminal activity. I dunno. To me, this seems a little . . . partisan and self-pleading. That's OK, I suppose. Why shouldn't the press be able to get on a soapbox, the same as Colgate-Palmolive, and argue for things that are good for business? Still, while self-serving bromides are acceptable, clear-thinking analysis is better, and one such was served up today by the prominent blogger Eugene Volokh in the pages of The New York Times. His article on journalistic privilege can be found here. Volokh does a great job in dissecting the concept of journalistic privilege in legal terms. Basically, the idea is a lot more vaporous than you'd suppose if you relied on, say, the president of NBC News. True, there exists some weak staturory back-up in some states, and there's an emanation from a penumbra on the issue at the U.S. Supreme Court level. But the concept is predominantly a rhetorical device, useful to trot out when rallying the troops, but otherwise more or less flaccid. Volokh's argument then takes the next logical... posted by Fenster at December 2, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Pattie and her beloved Kman have had a bad scare, the result of lots of Texas sun meeting fair Irish skin. Things are looking good, but why not stop by and offer best wishes? * Brian's been thinking about Le Corbusier. Frank Gehry's buildings -- surprise, surprise -- tend to leak, and to make neighbors uncomfortable. * I loved Paul Moses' Village Voice article about how much money the NYTimes extorted recently from NYCity. All it took was a threat to leave town, and the tax breaks came tumbling. My eyes glaze over when deals are analyzed, but I gather from Moses' article that our beloved liberal newspaper of record is essentially screwing city taxpayers out of tens of millions of dollars. But how gratifying it is to learn that the design for the Times' new building is cutting-edge. My favorite detail from Moses' piece: as part of the deal, the state condemned a building on land the Times coveted, forcing its owners to sell. * Thanks to Cronaca for pointing out this hilarious Guardian story about how a Wal-Mart heiress went through college. Gasp: a rich person used her money to make life easy for herself! Fab detail: "She was a very demanding, expect-the-best boss," Ms Martinez said. "I rarely got a bad grade, but if I did, she'd say, 'This was horrible.' She was pretty picky." * Forager has been catching up with some mystery classics, and reports that Earle Stanley Gardner was pretty darn good. Crime-fiction fans should also enjoy this q&a with James ("L.A. Confidential") Ellroy. * James Russell has been listing his favorite films from various decades. (Start here.) James has done a lot of movie-watching, and has developed an impressive taste-set. * For years, it's been hard to find copies of one of my own fave '70s movies, Robert Altman's "California Split." I ran across a videocassette version some years back, but it was so horribly done that it completely destroyed the film's smokey magic. So I was thrilled to learn the other day that a new DVD of the movie is now available. I hit the One-Click button feeling no guilt whatsoever. The film (which stars Elliott Gould and George Segal, and is from a script by Joseph Walsh) is a gambling picture and a buddy movie both, but in terms of its tone and its humor, it's one of a kind: a bleary, free-associating, hazey ride -- something like "The Sting" as re-written by Charles Bukowski, if I can be forgiven for crosswiring artforms. Those who don't know who Charles Bukowski was can play catchup here. * Speaking of one-of-a-kinds ... Have you ever run across Ruth Draper? She worked professionally from the 1920s into the 1950s, and was an amazing figure in American arts history. A writer, an eccentric, and a performer, she was what we might today call a performance artist but what was then called a monologuist -- a one-woman showperson. She... posted by Michael at December 2, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Solomon's Shield
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, You probably have heard the news that the Third Circuit has, for the time being, found the Solomon Amendment unconstitutional. That's the federal law that requires colleges and universities to permit military recruiters, with the price of non-compliance being the loss of federal funding. There's lots about it on-line, but if you want the best intro, with good links, try John Rosenberg. The Court's reasoning was based on the notion of "expressive association"--the same notion that permits the Boy Scouts to exclude gays. In this case, though, the "association expressed" by Yale Law School was against anti-gay discrimination: its policies included a ban on recruitment if the prospective employer permitted such anti-gay discrimination. The Court's reasoning has been criticized and some commentators feel the ruling will be overturned. The argument here: that the Third Circuit is mixing up the freedom Yale School has to expressively associate with a separate matter entirely--the freedom the federal government ought to enjoy in gaining recruitment access to institutions taking its money. In other words, it can be argued that Yale is quite free to deny access to military recruiters . . . as long as it is willing to pay the price. Colleges play that game with the feds all the time, and it's hard to see why it's much different here. But let's say that, even if the case has been wrongly decided, it stands and colleges are free to expressively associate as they see fit. Well then, what will they do? The prestiege elites like Harvard Law and Yale Law will doubtless bar recruiters, loudly and proudly. But what about others? I'll bet a lot of places have been only too happy to have Solomon in place--it allowed them to permit recruitment while blaming a bad federal law. A political win-win. Absent Solomon's shield, lots of places will be forced to make a true existential decision as to how they wish to express themselves on this score. And if it ends up being a hard decision, that will be a good and bracing thing. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at December 1, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Negativity and Artsyak
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- How do you guys feel about negativity and reviewing? Not about being panned yourself -- that's always got to be painful -- but about the proper use of negativity when discussing the arts? My own thoughts about the use of negativity in professional outlets -- magazines, TV, etc -- are fairly clear-cut, and grow out of a feeling that a reviewer's main responsibility is to his readers. A reviewer ought to be (among other things) honest and trustworthy. Readers never have to agree, god knows, but they deserve to have a clear sense of who they're comparing notes with, and to know that this person is being straight with them. Complicating the reviewer-reader relationship as a practical matter is the fact that reviewers aren't employed by readers, except very indirectly. Reviewers' immediate bosses are editors and producers, who have their own preferences about what reviewers should be doing. Editors, producers, and advertisers like enthusiasm and pep; after all, they're selling a sense that something noteworthy is happening every day. (How else can they grab your attention?) Yet four out of five novels (or movies, or art shows, or ...) aren't worth paying much attention to; and, despite the current convention of the weekly "theme piece," substantial artsthemes don't exactly come along on a weekly basis. But if a reviewer alienates too many advertisers with his lack of enthusiasm, chances are he won't be around for long, no matter how popular he is with readers. So, a question every professional reviewer winds up struggling with is, How to be truthful about what he's encountering while not doing too much damage to his employment status? It never hurts to remember that, to a large extent, culture reviewing is a service business. The reviewer is covering a field's output, and is serving as a consumer guide. But he may also be trying to make some useful observations, to do a little writin', and to provoke a few thoughts. (I'm leaving aside the whole "a reviewer has his own career goals" side of the discussion ...) To an extent that isn't often mentioned, a reviewer is also trying to keep his own spirits up. This is one of those open secrets: one reason reviewers sometimes make their fields sound like more-happenin' places than they really are is because the reviewer has to keep his own interest level jigged up. After all, after seeing something and writing a review about it, the regular reviewer has to go back out and do it all over again. Phew. As a music reviewer once said to me: "Free CDs, yippie! What could be better? The trouble is, you gotta listen to them." As for negativity ... If what's under review is a big, impersonal entertainment, and a reviewer thinks it's awful -- well, why not open fire, and with both barrels? Corporate-entertainment ventures seem to me like nothing if not fair game for ridicule, and having the freedom and license to make... posted by Michael at December 1, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments