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.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. The Long View: Religion and Politics
  2. Internet Fame
  3. Elsewhere
  4. Gals and Fashion Magazines
  5. Barbarians
  6. Taking "The Gates" Seriously
  7. More, More on Summers
  8. More, More, More on Summers

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Long View: Religion and Politics
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: The more history I read, the more it strikes me that religion often functions as a sort of shadow politics. While the mixing of theological and political issues can be a very messy business, religious ‘politics’ often seems to offer a voice to points of view that would otherwise lack one. If you’re going to keep religion ‘out of politics’ as many have advocated since the Enlightenment, you should at least acknowledge that the first group you’re benefiting is the current political establishment. Let’s look at two examples, which—described in purely ‘theological’ terms—probably strike most people as much ado about very little and prime examples of how ‘irrational’ religious passions can distract governments from rational activity. The first example is the iconoclast controversy of Byzantium in the 700s. What, you may ask, led the Byzantine Empire during a period of military and political stress to devote its energies to removing religious pictures from its churches and public buildings? Oh, those religious zanies and their odd enthusiasms! Well, perhaps not quite so odd. Throughout the seventh and during the early eighth centuries, two trends were very visible in the Byzantine Empire. The first trend was that militant Islam was kicking the empire’s tail, rapidly conquering many of its wealthiest and most populous territories. Eventually—in the late seventh century—Moslem armies and raiding parties came to threaten the empire’s heartland in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The second trend was the ever-growing prestige of ‘icons’ (i.e., religious pictures) throughout all levels of Byzantine society. As Judith Herrin notes in her book, “The Formation of Christendom”: The growth of icon veneration was stimulated by their “official” use as military ensigns and protective devices, during the 626 siege [of Constantinople] for example, and by a widespread popular faith in their intercessory powers… The Byzantine Empire was a profoundly autocratic state, run by a tiny elite and—like the Roman Empire (of which it was an offshoot), extremely susceptible to military coups. A long-lasting, if ultimately rather impotent dynasty (under which Egypt, Palestine and Syria were lost to the Moslems) was brought to an end by the deposition of Justinian II in 695. A series of soldier-emperors, each of whom overthrew his predecessor, held office in quick succession for the next two decades. As Ms. Herrin describes it: This persistent change of ruler reflected dissatisfaction with central government and frustration at repeated military defeats. But it was accompanied by a striking aimlessness and lack of preparation [for the omnipresent Moslem threat]. Although an Arab siege of Constantinople itself failed in 716-718, this piece of good Byzantine fortune did nothing to create stronger frontier defense. In the era following this siege, Moslem raiding into the Empire escalated into an annual event. The results for the rural population of the Empire were disastrous, with the rural population streaming to those fortified castles and Imperial garrison centers that were out of the path of the Arab invasion routes, abandoning their crops and homes and driving... posted by Friedrich at February 26, 2005 | perma-link | (24) comments

Internet Fame
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As the world becomes ever more Web-ified, is the nature of fame changing? That's one of the many fun questions raised by Alan Feuer and Jason George in this piece. Their subject is Gary Brolsma, a 19-year-old from New Jersey who posted to the Web a videoclip of himself singing (badly) and dancing (awkwardly) to a Romanian pop song. In a short time, the clip became a Web sensation. Rather sweetly, Brolsma -- who most of the time is an outgoing prankster -- has found that he can't handle his newfound notoriety. He's now hiding from the press. Are there lessons to be drawn from the episode? It seems likely to me that kids growing up with the Web are going be wrestling with at least one stark choice: does it 1) make more sense to maintain total control over your photographs and videotapes? Or is it 2) more economical (and entertaining) to say "What the hell," put it all out there, and enjoy whatever consequences ensue? And why do I suspect that we'll be seeing a lot of people opting for Choice Number Two? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 26, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The most original and reflective response that I've run across to Christo's Central Park "Gates" comes from Searchblog. * John Emerson writes that Michael Meyer is, along with Stephen Toulmin, his favorite contempo philosopher. I confess that I'm completely unfamiliar with Meyer's work, but John has certainly put Meyer on my radar screen. * Luke Lea has written a moving personal-history posting. * Gerard Van Der Leun's "Law of the Blogger" gives Kipling a run for his money. Plus, what it says is oh-so-true. Hunter S. Thompson's suicide prompts Gerard to recall an evening spent in the great man's not-so-great company. * Razib points out that, sometimes, agriculturalist populations revert to hunting-and-gathering. * Steve takes a look at state-by-state imprisonment rates, and notices some interesting patterns. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 24, 2005 | perma-link | (40) comments

Gals and Fashion Magazines
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Why are the women in women's-fashion magazines tall and slim -- and not just tall and slim, but soooo tall and soooo slim? If the evo-bio drive of women is to attract males (so as to be able to let those Selfish Genes have their way), then how to explain the bony legs, the androgynous jawlines, the flat chests? Fashion models are often odd-looking creatures, as stylized as Grayhounds and Afghans. Yet the women who enjoy fashion magazines seem to enjoy looking at them. Why? A typical response to this question attributes a lot of responsiblity to the gay-male presence in fashion. There's certainly a lot to this. But my own impression is that, while gay tastes are part of the equation, they don't explain everything. The women buying these magazines and ordering from these catalogs are, after all, getting some pleasure out of looking at the images they contain. So I think elements in addition to the gay-thing must play a role too. Tall, slim girls do show clothes off beautifully. Jawlines and cheekbones do supply beautiful canvases for makeup artists, and do take light beautifully. I find it telling that no fashion magazine has been able to make a commercial go of it by showcasing women with "normal" figures. The occasional break from tall-and-skinny seems to work well with readers, but a constant diet of normal figures means commercial death. There's a long foodchain of audiences and producers that need to be taken into account when fashion is being discussed. This isn't a simple market of producers and consumers. It's a Rubik's Cube of a market, involving many, many layers of producers and consumers. Clothes designers, magazine and catalog editors, retail buyers, finance people, subordinates, magazines and catalog art directors, advertisers -- as well as, finally, the gal on the street who chooses one fashion magazine rather than another. It can be hard to pick out from this bazaar a single factor that's driving the field. It seems to me safest to assume that they're all contributing factors. My own modest theory is that fashion magazines are to women what magazines about computers (and porno) are to guys -- they're fantasy books. It's just that women's fantasies -- many women's fantasies, anyway -- concern being photographed (ie., desired) and looking glamorous (ie., desirable). Where guys seem to enjoy imagining what they'd do to and with what's in the picture, women seem prone to imagine being what's pictured. There's an additional fantasy element too, which is autonomy. Part of what women fashion-magazine fans seem to enjoy imagining is the fantasy of being found glamorous purely for its own sake. They seem to want to forget about the pleasing-guys element. There's a little defiance in the fantasy -- and you can see the defiance in many of the kicky poses and attitudes the models strike. Perhaps something that helps explain the appeal of these images is that not only do many women enjoy imagining... posted by Michael at February 24, 2005 | perma-link | (26) comments

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A question for you. Here’s the first half of my question’s given. Over the last 40 years or so, the range of cultural material that’s taken note of in the mainstream press has grown much broader. If you look at TV shows or magazines of 40 or 60 years ago, the narrowness of what was discussable can come as a shock. Was jazz worthy of the attention of respectable people? Were movies? Cultural arbiters puffed sombrely on pipes, brushed tobacco off tweedy sleeves, and expressed the gravest reservations. These days, the culture-sphere is a giant supermarket-bazaar. Almost everything is allowed notice: pop music, TV shows, web phenomena, porn. FWIW, I take this development to be a Generally Good Thing. A ton of cultural material is being produced, and of uncountably many kinds. For an individual, this means that it can take mucho effort to find work that you resonate to, let alone to clear away the space to relax with and experience your finds. (That's a good discussion-topic too: in a clamorous marketplace, how do we manage to find what we enjoy? And what's the process of searching, sifting, and enjoying like?) But for those who follow and discuss cultural matters professionally: Why pretend that all this material isn’t out there? Why behave as though it doesn't have an audience? And why make believe that there isn’t talent at work in all these fields? There are other elements to be taken into account, too -- cultural significance, for instance. You may despise ads, or argue that they shouldn’t be considered serious art. But how can anyone claim that advertising art and graphic design have no cultural significance? They’re big business; they influence fashions and trends; they reflect tastes; the people who make them are often very gifted. Why not discuss the field? Here’s the second half of my question’s given: at the same time that the range of what's acknowledged has opened up, the level of discussion about cultural matters has gone down. I have no desire to make the claim that, long ago, we inhabited a paradise where civilized gentlemen carried on noble discussions. At the same time, it’s undeniably true that mainstream discussions of the arts were once surprisingly substantial. V.S Naipaul, for example, appeared on the covers of wide-circulation magazines. That's inconceivable today. The attitude towards the goodies -- the gossip, the showbiz, the money -- was completely different than it is now. These days the goodies are often all you get. Mainstream cultural coverage is driven by popularity, box office, personalities, career-scorecarding, political controversies, release dates, exclusives, and cutesy conceptual ideas. Editors and producers form a daisy chain, trying to outguess each other as to what’s going to be hot and smart five minutes from now. Back in the day, the goodies were seen as the the spices that helped sell the meal. Today, once the sell is over the show shuts down. The meal never arrives. Arts coverage now... posted by Michael at February 22, 2005 | perma-link | (24) comments

Monday, February 21, 2005

Taking "The Gates" Seriously
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Much ink, digital and otherwise, has been spilt over the burning issue: how seriously should one take Christo and Jean-Claude's The Gates? Now, here is someone who seems to take it quite seriously. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at February 21, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

More, More on Summers
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, I know some of you must be getting tired of the Larry Summers imbroglio. To me, though, the story is just getting interesting. It's just at the point of morphing from an interesting, faintly humorous, metaphor/curiosity into a story of some real heft and consequence. It's seemingly no longer about Larry Summers and some angry academics at a conference--it threatens to become a much larger story about the Harvard faculty and the perception of higher education by a wider public. That's because tomorrow night the Harvard faculty will meet and there is a possibility it will vote no confidence in Summer's leadership. That may or may not happen. It's not clear from published reports whether the matter will be placed on the agenda. And if it is on the agenda, it may be defeated. And even if it is passed, the game is not over since the President, formally speaking, serves at the pleasure of the Corporation, not the faculty. And the Corporation seems behind him, for the moment. But consider the consequences of a successful no confidence vote, followed, after suitable hand-wringing and political twists and turns, by a Summers' departure. It could well be very damaging to Harvard's reputation and to elite higher education generally. No, no, you may argue, the no confidence vote will not be about Summers' gender comments but about his fundamental unsuitability for the presidency of Harvard, or of any college. And that, viewed in such a light, a faculty no confidence view can be viewed as appropriate, pure even. True, it can be argued with some credibility that Summers is simply too arrogant, too high-handed, too top down for a college presidency. "Collegiality" can mean obsequiousness and flaccid leadership, but you can't run a great university as a dictator. But--even if the man is hard to like--has Summers' done actually done that, in terms of the actual substance of his presidential leadership? This article suggests not. Summers as a personality seems to leave something to be desired. Indeed, he seems to come across a little like Jabba the Hutt. Nonetheless, the article suggests that Summers actual actions do not warrant a no confidence vote--at least one brought for reasons other than political anger over his MIT comments and the departure of Cornel West. So my guess is that if the story continues on this highly negative trajectory, the faculty will have a lot of explaining to do in the court of public opinion, especially in an era not so dominated by elite organs of opinion. It has become something of an open secret that elite education is not all that it is cracked up to be, but the power of the brand in an era of heightened class consciousness and rising wealth has effectively insulated the elites from market pressures. Lots of knowledgeable observers and college guides point out that equal or better undergradutate education can be had elsewhere, but in this world reputation is all, and the... posted by Fenster at February 21, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

More, More, More on Summers
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, The Summers affair is threatening to morph into something bigger than his gender comments (see associated post). But the details of that matter remain interesting. Here are Summers' actual comments and here is the reaction of William Saletan at Slate to them. Saletan's views are close to my own, so I'll more or less incorporate them by reference. In summary, Saletan concludes that: 1. Summers has received a bum rap overall. Most of his critics misunderstood, misquoted or misrepresented what amounted to a relatively balanced and nuanced view. 2. Nonetheless, Summers seems to have gone beyond his self-appointed role as provocateur, and to have arrrived at firm conclusions, without much in the way of back-up. It is one thing to say that genetics may play a role--it is another to conclude, as Summers seemingly did, that the two other factors worthy of consideration are less important in terms of explanation. That may be true, but if he wanted to go as far as the weighting of relevant factors, he probably ought to have cited research findings. As it is, he comes across as embodying his own hunches as science. I don't agree with Saletan, however, that the latter conclusion evidences a lack of heart. I continue to think that Summers was completely aware of his surroundings--that he knew he was in the midst of a crowd with a severe philosophical and political bias in favor of discrimination and upbringing as the only explanations of note. I think he chose to mount an assault on closed-mindedness, and opted for what he considered an appropriate and clever strategy: say all the right things, but hang tough on the need to be skeptical about the too-easy recourse to environmental and political variables. It was clever all right--too clever by half for poor Larry. He may have misjudged his audience, his cleverness or the effect of his statements. But surely it is not a bad thing to chellenge people when they require a challenge. Best, Fenster UPDATE: Here is an article from the Washington Post by three academics taking Summers to task. I keep waiting for a really strong argument to be mounted by the anti-Summers crowd--any good debate needs two good sides--but I don't think this is it. Actually, this article does present in theory the best rebuttal of Summers: that his scientific speculation is just plumb wrong, and that everyone knows that environment is all. If that is true, point and match to Summers' opponents. But, while I am not trained in this or any other scientific field, I think I have enough of an amateur's appreciation of the issue to recognize that Summers' "speculations" are nowhere as out of line as the author's suggest here. It may be, per my post above, that he went a step too far in weighting genetics more heavilty than other variables--but is it really correct to conclude, as the authors do, that there is nothing at all to the genetic... posted by Fenster at February 21, 2005 | perma-link | (3) comments