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March 09, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Thanks to Chris, who in a comment on the previous posting left a link to a map showing single-gal/single-guy ratios by county. Ladies? Where you want to be is DeKalb County, Missouri -- or maybe northwestern Nevada.

* Cameraphones are getting serious. I find the merge-y/blendy way gizmos are evolving quite disconcerting. For example, here's a voice-recorder/camera -- will anyone buy such a thing? Me, I like to keep my gizmos separate. Of course, I'm an old fart with a 20th-century mind.

* While Italians are "ethnics" and Filipinos are another kind of "ethnics," we blando, pinky-vanilla, northern-Euro mutts are often seen as not-ethnics. We're the people without a cultural/racial identity. Which means, in this identify-with-your-group era, that the time has come to stake our own claim. Here's a quick intro to one of the pinky-vanilla world's least well-known major groups, the Scots-Irish. Think Andrew Carnegie; think moonshine and country music; think NASCAR. Yessiree, them's my people. Or some of them, anyway.

* Cowtown Pattie seems to have an even bigger thing for turning up amusing video clips than I do. She's found a few gems from the Steve Harvey Show.

* Alex Singleton points out that government troops and rebels in the Congo have raped tens of thousands of women and girls since 1998. I've been getting a lot out of following the Globalization Institute's blog, where Alex posted his piece.

* America's black men aren't doing very well, according to Reuters. Some sad figures: they live 7 fewer years than men of other ethnic groups; they contract HIV at a much higher rate; there are now twice as many black women in college as black men; and "black men in their early 30s [are] nearly twice as likely to have prison records than bachelors degrees." Hard to see how this makes much of a case for the racial policies our country has pursued for the last few decades.

* Giants do too still roam the earth: the brilliant Donald Westlake, who never finished college, has published 90ish books. There hasn't been a dud in the fifteen I've read, and I'm looking forward to reading many more. I'd be happy to argue that Westlake's among the half-a-dozen best American fiction-book-writers alive. But that would plunge us into lit-writing-vs-genre-writing waters, and I'm in no mood for that.

* Digital technology has set off skirmishes a-plenty about what, if anything, needs to be done about intellectual-property rights. I have no good ideas myself, do you? On the one hand, corporate landgrabs offend me, the digital universe offers hard-to-resist opportunities for sharing knowledge, and how not to root for the little guy? On the other hand: private property, the hard work of the creator, etc. I'll be scratching my chin over this one for a long time to come. Thanks to visitor Alice Dong for alerting me to a good article by Dan Hunter in Legal Affairs about Lawrence Lessig, an attorney who has become famous for arguing that the advent of digital tech means that copyright should be pulled back, not extended.

* From the Department of 'Way Over My Head But Interesting Anyway, here's a thoughtful posting by Derek Lowe about whether or not it's necessary to teach people math if they're going to learn science. A lively commentsfest follows. My own minute contribution: Couldn't do math, and that's why I dropped out of science. Well, that and discovering how sexy French art can be.

* Bob Sardi studies some maps and realizes that disease and crime tend to be at their highest where illegal immigrants settle.

* "Star Wars" fanatics: strange or not? (Thanks to Carabinieri for linking to this.)



posted by Michael at March 9, 2005


San Francisco County: 104 men/100 women. Uh-huh.

I too like Donald Westlake, very much.

Posted by: missgrundy on March 9, 2005 7:44 PM

The map showing the single men/single women ratios is interesting, but keep in mind that many of the single women are likely to be elderly widows, not Sex in the City types.

Posted by: Peter on March 9, 2005 11:57 PM

I like Westlake, the writer. Top thirty, for sure. I once attended at murder mystery weekend at Mohonk that he and Will Shortz hosted. Very nice guy.

Posted by: Mike Hill on March 10, 2005 12:10 AM

I started reading Westlake's Richard Stark/Parker novels last month and have now read six of them. Each one that I have picked up I have finshed in one sitting.

I decided to take a break and space out the Parker books for awhile or else I'll be done with them all in a few weeks and will have nothing to look forward to.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on March 10, 2005 4:41 AM

It's a continuing source of embarrassment to me as a person of Scottish descent that my ancestors were responsible for the invention of country music and thereby created the possibility of some absolutely terrible music being made.

Posted by: James Russell on March 10, 2005 7:06 AM

If you think bad country artists made terrible music, try listening to today's hip-hop (I think that's what it is - it's on practically every radio station that isn't country, oldies, classical, or Tejano). Not a Scot or Irish in the bunch, and the worst assault on your ears since disco.

Or my ears, at least - lots of people seem to like it. Although I can't for the life of me figure out why.

The best thing to do about copyright, as far as I can tell, is to shorten it to about 15-20 years and enforce the living hell out of it. A century is way too long for anything to remain under copyright - the whole point is to entice people to produce intellectual property, and the prospect that their great-grandchildren will still be collecting royalties in 2125 isn't enough of an inducement to be worth the trouble.

Posted by: Ken on March 10, 2005 9:14 AM

You're right... math and science can't hold a candle to French art when it comes to being sexy. I suppose the whole 'art' of it comes from a fundamental understanding of those mathematical concepts which govern the scenes... expressed in painting, not formulas. But I suppose some are drawn to the sexy curves of a parabola. To each his own?

Posted by: Emily on March 10, 2005 10:07 AM

I recently read the Hot Rock after Micheal B's praise and liked it very much.

Posted by: JT on March 10, 2005 10:24 AM

Missgrundy -- I'm surprised it's only 104/100. SF has to be one of the places where it's hardest to be a single gal, at least a straight one who wouldn't mind a relationship. Fun to learn you're a Westlake fan too. Got any faves?

Peter -- Excellent point, tks. Whew, statistics (damned lies) can be endlessly massaged and picked over. Always nice when they confirm your prejudices and hunches, though.

Mike -- Westlake is such a dynamo. You get a sense of that a bit in the interview I link to -- he's just full of rowdy, trouble-causin' energy. I once attended a Mystery Writers Association award dinner where he was getting a Grand Master (or something). And his table was the loudest, most riotous one in the hall. I wonder if he's one of those guys who enjoys having a circle of fellow carousers around, at least when he isn't working.

Pat -- You've got the Westlake bug! The Parkers are pretty fab, aren't they? They work as snappy entertainment, and you can also see what the French see in great American pulp -- the austere, primal thing. Which doesn't make them any less funny or companionable. Westlake sometimes loses a bit of his grip on me when he's just being amusing (the Dortmunders don't hook me quite the way they hook some people, though I'm certainly amused). But Parker seems to give him license to show a little ferocity too. How many more Parkers do you have left? I seem to remember there are around 8 of them, but I'm probably off.

James -- You don't go for any country music? I really love what I think of as "the good stuff," but that's just my personal taste. Country people's blues and soul music -- that's how it hits me. And I like the slyness and frankness of a lot of it. Oh, OK: I like a lot of the dumb rhymes too, as well as the focus on love-gone-bad, a theme that almost always perks up my interest. What popular music are you enjoying these days?

Ken -- Where copyright's concerned, when I'm feeling a little more solid than usual I lean in your direction: shorten it, tighten it. Give the creator a chance to reap a lot of benefits, then set it free, as it will inevitably be anyway. It's an imperfect solution. What about the writer whose book doesn't catch on and sell millions until a few decades have passed? She'll get zero. But all possible solutions are imperfect, and this one seems a little more sensible and workable than many others.

Emily -- To be a little more straightfaced, when I was having my "do I continue in the sciences" moment as a teen, I did find myself thinking things like, "Gosh, what I really like is that sense of making contact with big things, that mind-expanding sensation, that feeling I get looking at maps of the solar system, and thinking about deep underlying structures, and the way they open up over and over again. And science can clearly confer such experiences. But it looks like it's going to take a couple of decades of labor-heavy work to get there. With art, the road seems much more direct." Of course the "can I really face all this math" loomed large too. But good point about French art: that combo of the luscious, the amoral, and the very, very strict is ... well, pretty sexy. Did you have a teen French-art moment of your own?

JT -- Glad you enjoyed "Hot Rock." I like some other Westlakes better -- the Parker novels are hard to beat. And I guess my one tip where Westlake's concerned is not to judge him on the basis of any one book. What's miraculous about the guy, his talent, and his output is the way it keeps streaming out of him. In the time it took Joyce to write "Ulysses," Westlake wrote probably a couple of dozen novels -- so a fair comparison would be between "Ulysses" and a couple of dozen Westlakes. Not that such comparisons have to be made of course. But I think his work is maybe best thought of as the equivalent of a TV series, or a movie series -- not a complete-unto-itslef Single Self-Contained, World-Containing thing, but a checking-in with the amazing, ongoing imagination and humor that is the Westlake mind. Hey, kind of like a fiction blogger, come to think of it. Please let me know how you react if you try further Westlakes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 10, 2005 11:11 AM

Alaska is supposed to be a good place to meet men. But the saying goes---"The odds are better, but the better are odd." :)

Posted by: annette on March 10, 2005 11:48 AM

re: the Scots-Irish (or the Ulster-Scots, as they're known!)

hey, that parade article reads almost exactly like the "special advertising feature" in the feb. issue of US airways' attaché mag i conveniently have sitting nearby :D

Bound by Heritage by Billy Kennedy
America owes much of its culture and tradition to the Irish. From Presidents and inventors to musicians and astronauts, many of our nation's finest trace their roots to Ireland.

The Irish presence in the United States is an integral part of America, deeply engrained in the enormous landscape from the Atlantic to the Pacific...

after quickly establishing that the irish "derive from two very distinct religious and cultural traditions," making short shrift of starving catholics, it dives into the hardy constitution of tenacious ulster presbyterians:

During the 18th century, a quarter million of them sailed across the Atlantic in the most arduous conditions to start a new life. They were among the first settlers on the American frontier. With dogged determination and an upstanding work ethic, they surmounted formidable challenges and helped forge a civilization out of a wilderness and create a nation.

The Scots-Irish were well prepared for the American frontier. For a century, they had endured in difficult situations in the countryside of Northern Ireland. By the time they reached America, they were tough and resolute survivors. They were a people undeterred by the dangers of their new environment. Indeed, many Scots-Irish helped shape the cities and towns along the American frontier. With close identification to church, school, and home, they laid foundations for a civilized society, which, on their terms, placed strong emphasis on a belief in God and in the liberty of conscience and democracy.

The independent-spirited Scots-Irish have been described as clannish, contentious, and set in their ways. If that's true, it must also be said that they have an endearing, welcoming streak, and their huge stake in America has been achieved through enterprising initiative and stamina. These influences are most pronounced today, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, the Midwest, and in many Southern states.

then there's the sedulous yeomanly recititation of prominent scots-irish (not unlike adam sandler's ode to jews in hanukkah song :), their contribution to the folk, country and bluegrass "musical traditions" of america (they're a "dominant influence") and a straight-faced claim to "the art of making moonshine," oh and, like parade mentions, they invented stock-car racing, too! (during prohibition :) before concluding with the clannish observation:

Compare the personal characteristics of Scots-Irish communities in the Appalachian region today with those back in Northern Ireland and you'll find that the resemblances are striking, even uncanny. Cousins divided by an ocean, the Scots-Irish and Ulster-Scots, are a unique people.

all in all, an informative article, and an interesting look between the lines :D


p.s. also btw, from the CSM: Debate Over Southern Culture Growing Deeper! - "Beneath the ceaseless skirmishes over Southern symbols lurks a deeper debate over the potency and potential of a region shaped by Scots-Irish settlers who wanted a small, God-fearing government that stayed out of their lives."

Posted by: carabinieri on March 10, 2005 1:28 PM


I think there are 22 Parker books, at this point, and the character also appears in the Dortmunder novel "Jimmy the Kid". Like most of Westlake's book, the bulk of the Parkers are out of print, but you can order a lot of them used (online), but they run anywhere from 10-50 bucks a piece. Hopefully, Mysterious Press will redo the whole series eventually.


Posted by: J.W. Hastings on March 10, 2005 2:22 PM

A moonshine! A moonshine, you say!
My deep respect and everlasting love towards Irish-Scots aside , but
I'd many a chance to partake of a 1st class moonshine in places where they don't even know of Irish existence; tiny Udmurt village,f.ex., where they didn't have an electricity, only kerosine lamps - but they had an original moonshine recipe! (Looked like a good dense cognac, amber-colored and bear-strong, potato-based)

Happy St.P's day, it's all I'm saying

Posted by: Tatyana on March 10, 2005 2:32 PM

I have some Scotts-Irish ancestors myself. I thought the best description of them was coined around the time of the American Revolution:

The Scotts-Irish keep the commandments of the Lord and anything else they can get their hands on.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 10, 2005 10:47 PM

Sorry, forgot something. In addition to inventing country music, they also invented squatting. (In the sense of not paying for land, not in the sense of hunkering down.) I believe William Penn recruited a number of them to serve as a buffer between the Indians and his pacifist Quakers. This worked fine, until he tried to get them to pay him for the land they were farming. His agents were met by large groups of armed men who replied to the demand for payment with the words: "The Proprietor [i.e., Penn] advertised for settlers, and here we are."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 10, 2005 10:52 PM

And to think I used to like Darth Vader....

Posted by: Neha on March 11, 2005 4:42 PM

Viz the Scots-Irish (or, as I say, "us hayseeds") -- be sure to read James Webb's book, Born Fighting. It's short and to the point, an excellent & fun read.

For moonshine, slide down to the Texas summer festival scene, and you'll find some. I blame my rapidly failing eyesight on surreptitious sipping over the last 5 years (not aging.)

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on March 11, 2005 6:23 PM

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