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Friday, April 22, 2005

Architecture Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * John Massengale reports on an absurdly anti-urban new proposal for New York's West Side. Note that the proposal comes from a former Chairman of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard School of Design. I often find myself dreaming about what a happier and more pleasant place America would be if only Harvard disappeared off the face of the planet ... * Richard Meier is one of the starchitects whose sparkly new buildings are defacing Manhattan's beautiful old Greenwich Village. What a pleasure to learn that his glassy cages are poorly constructed, and leak. * At City Comforts recently, Laurence Aurbach blogged about a perfectly hideous Thom Mayne proposal for a new Alaska capitol building. Good news: plans to build the new capitol have been put on hold. Finances seem to be the main reason -- but public dislike of the proposal also played a role. Moral: let's keep rooting, louder and louder, against bad buildings and bad urbanism. * Catesby Leigh is a first-class architecture-and-urbanism critic, especially trustworthy and enlightening on the topic of the various new traditionalisms. His new piece is -- typically for Leigh -- a little prissy but 100% right as well. I hope there isn't a connection between prissy and right ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 22, 2005 | perma-link | (28) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * City Journal's Brian Anderson is always a lively and resourceful observer and commentator. I'm looking forward to his new book about how nonstandard p-o-v's are making themselves heard in the mediaverse. Here's a TechCentralStation appreciation of the book. A new issue of City Journal has just appeared online. * Even when she was at her most overexposed, I never tired of Camille Paglia. She seems as lively and brilliant as ever in this CBC interview with her about her new book. * One of the great things about the cultureblog-overse is the way people talk appreciatively and honestly about the art they really enjoy. Graham Lester reads Pearl Buck and finds her excellent. Deal with it, world. * Another great thing about cultureblogging is the way people are honest and funny about the art-things they don't enjoy too. Take-no-guff librarian Rachel of Tinkertytonk most emphatically does not enjoy herself at a new documentary about the world of wine. * England these days seems to be anything but the genteel place of Merchant-Ivory fantasies. Crime rates are high, and England's white working-class population is notoriously ill behaved. Steve Sailer puzzles out the whys and wherefores; Randall Parker contributes some thinking too. * Alex Tabarrok doesn't dispute that there are far more lefties than righties in academia, but he suspects this isn't because of discrimination. Steve Burton thinks David Horowitz's Intellectual Bill of Rights is exactly the wrong thing for righties to cheer for. * Business Week thinks blogs are big -- as in Gutenberg-big -- and makes blogging its cover story. The magazine has just started its own blog-tracking blog, called Blogspotting. * Thanks to visitor Philopundit, who points out this amazing story about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a hoard of Greek and Roman writing that new technology is permitting to be read for the first time. Philopundit also reports that he's currently enjoying this Teaching Company course about the Foundations of Western Civ. At his own blog, Philopundit reviews a heart-stopping new McDonald's sandwich, and considers Libya's scheme to mine for water. * News flash: kids are swearing more than they used to. (Link thanks to SYAffolee.) * Women like Kodak; men prefer Canon. * Until a few minutes ago, I had no idea that Amazon sells lingerie. Good golly: 984 different styles of thong to choose from. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 22, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Movie Descriptions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was flipping through the discount DVD bin at a local video parlor. Clatter clatter clatter -- and I'd pull a movie out and give it a closer look-see. Then I'd repeat the sequence. What caught my attention was less the question of why some discs caught my attention than the question of how it was that I knew to give so many discs an instant pass. Flipping through the losers, I was moving much too fast to be making conscious decisions. Yet ignore them I did. What enabled me to do this? (And what an interesting state of mind you enter -- OK, I enter -- when flipping through possible-purchase books, CDs, and movies, no? Glazed-over but interested; purposeful yet daydreaming ...) I've got nothing interesting to report: sometimes the cover art puts me off, sometimes a general gestalt does. Usually the whole feel of a DVD package is what makes the decision for me. Funny/adorable suburban-papa comedies? (Bright colors, "hilarious" expressions -- Steve Martin in "Cheaper by the Dozen.") I don't have to think about it, I've got no interest. Goofy teens on a comic rampage? (Bright colors, "hilarious" expressions -- "Dodgeball.") On to the next disc. For all I know, my unconscious's rules of thumb may be making me overlook movies I'd enjoy. Maybe there's one dorky-dad comedy that would really speak to me. Perhaps there's a misbehaving mall-teen picaresque that would crack me up. I guess I'm OK living with that possbility. After observing myself at the DVD bin for a few more minutes, I came up with the one DVD-package element that turns me off a disc most conclusively. It's when the descriptive text on the back of the DVD box starts this way: "Four generations of the eccentric Baxter clan gather in Maine to bury their patriarch, and long-concealed resentments and unexpected family secrets begin to -- " Oh god, no, my unconscious seems to think: two hours of hashing-out-emotions! Plus tears, hugs, and moody walks on the beach! No, no: anything but that! The prospect of watching such a movie makes me want to plunge into a bath of utter sleaze. (Don't ask me why I'd be reading the back-cover copy of such a movie in the first place ...) I start to feel the need to buy entire stacks of sexy '60s splatter-exploitation movies. Wait, it occurs to me there's another flip-by-it-fast contender: the DVD package that goes with "middle-aged Boomer love story" -- plaid shirts, Lifetime-TV photography, autumnal colors, biking and walking ... Which DVD-package elements turn you off most quickly? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 22, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Donald Pittenger on Sociology 2
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Forgive me for keeping everyone in suspense about the continuation of Donald Pittenger's memories and reflections about sociology. I was enjoying a computer-free couple of days out of town. But I'm back in the Movable Type cockpit, refreshed and eager. Today, Donald concludes his memoir about studying sociology in the '60s, and takes a look at what has become of what was once his field. *** Sociology (cont.) By Donald Pittenger When I arrived at Dear Old Penn I had the chance to go into the new Ph.D. program in demography. A demography faculty member sat me by his desk and posed it this way: If you are interested in becoming a government statistician then get the demography Ph.D., but if you want an academic job then sociology is the better choice. I figured that teaching would be more fun than working for some government, so I opted to stay in the sociology program. The irony is that I never taught full-time and instead became a government statistician. Demography was my area of concentration, so I took a lot of demography courses. My first year there, almost all the students were foreigners. They formed a tight little group that I made no effort to join. For one thing, I had (and still have) serious problems understanding people with thick accents. (This goes for native English-speakers too. Yorkshire and certain Midlands accents can be very difficult for me to crack. There were several times in England when my then-wife had to interpret for me when I was attempting something as simple as ordering coffee and pastries for breakfast. Domestically, I have the most trouble with Arkansas accents.) My experience with thick accents is that whereas I can pick out most verbs and adjectives, nouns usually drop to the floor. All-in-all, conversing with most foreign students was a tedious task, and I finally simply kept pretty much to myself during seminar coffee breaks. We had one Israeli student (Moshe Sicron, who later headed Israel's census operations) and an Egyptian. In the fall of 1967, a few months after the Six Day War, they warily eyed each other during seminar sessions and almost never directly spoke to one another. Then there was an Iranian woman who dressed in drab-gray native attire. I bumped into her about 20 years later at a demography convention where she was dressed in western clothing and was trying to keep tabs on a couple of teen-aged daughters who seemed utterly American. By the way (sexism alert!!), it turns out that this Iranian woman had a pretty nifty figure: I never wudda guessed. My second year at Dear Old Penn the guard changed in the demography group -- a number of American students joined the program, some of them very attractive and interesting women from Seven Sisters colleges. Oh, did I mention that one reason I had for going to grad school after the army was to meet women? Besides demography, the other... posted by Michael at April 21, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Delta Documentary
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Best music in the world," I muttered happily as Mandy Stein's Delta blues documentary "You See Me Laughin'" began. While I have no desire to stand by that as a considered critical judgment, I do really, really love the Delta, and I do really, really love the Delta blues. Earthy, rhapsodic, trance-inducing, full of myths and legends, mud and whisky ... It's music that makes me want to sit in a mildewed sofa on a sagging porch, drink moonshine, watch dawgs and children whose names I can't remember run around, and spend a few lifetimes swapping stories and jokes. This is just a brief posting to alert anyone who might be interested in (or curious about) the Delta blues that Stein's 2002 documentary -- which I hadn't been aware of until I Tivo'd it off the Independent Film Channel -- is a good one. Stein appears to have spent years visiting the Delta and getting to know such homegrown giants as Johnny Farmer, Asie Payton, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside -- all of them artists who make me want to say: Anybody who claims that American art is short on genuine greatness can KISS MY ASS. (Incidentally, not a considered critical judgment either, just a direct expression of how this music makes me feel.) Stein assembles her movie from performances, archives, interviews, and just letting the camera run while she hangs around. Much of what she includes is priceless -- early footage of Burnside when he was a slim, handsome, sly dude with beautiful teeth; an informal solo performance by that exuberant oddball, Asie Payton; T-Model's matter-of-fact, you'd-have-done-it-too account of how he came to kill a man. Stein uses old footage, image processing, and some comic-book effects to give her film a homespun, sensual quality, but she does so in a way that doesn't overshadow her subject matter. Stein keeps the proceedings laid-back, rough-hewn, and casual -- and, given the ultra-organic nature of her material, this was a wise and appropriate choice. What a collection of titanic talents, each one with his own sound, and each one's sound capable of creating a distinctive emotional-acoustic universe. Newbies to the Delta, or to the Delta blues, can find it shocking how much a world unto itself the Delta is, how rich and fragrant Delta culture is, and how powerful a spell Delta life can cast. The accents, for one small example, can get unbelievably thick -- how is this possible in modern-day, TV-and-pop-culture-saturated America? Yet there it is: a living, poetic dialect that makes you want to whip out a Sony and hit the "record" button. Stein occasionally resorts to subtitles to make her interviewees comprehensible to those of us who don't speak Delta; I found myself wishing she'd used subtitles more often. Only an hour and a half from Memphis, the Delta seems like a world out of time, if with antennae, pickup trucks, and other bits and pieces of the... posted by Michael at April 19, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments