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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Media flunky and arts buff

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  1. New Graphics Language
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Our Last 50 Referrers

Saturday, May 28, 2005

New Graphics Language
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I spend so much time immersed in the media world that I sometimes forget that some visitors may not pay as much attention to it as I do. Are civilians generally aware that the world of graphic design has been revolutionized in the last 20 years? I'm going to assume that a few people might not be aware of this and might be interested in hearing a bit about it. Those who know better than I do will excuse my feeble effort at sketching out an introduction. Short version: because of electronics and computers, the structure of knowledge has been changing. Many people have run into a lot of biz-chat about "disaggregation" and "horizontal hierarchies" and "connecting with customers." It may be jargon, but it represents efforts to discuss many real challenges and changes. The same changes are happening in the cultureworld as in the bizworld. Previously welded-together elements are falling apart; vertical ways of organizing information and thinking are flattening out; and new links and channels are riddling established structures, making them permeable in ways they've never been before. These developments have found reflection in visual design: in magazines, in ads, in TV, in movie production design, and in much else. Twenty years ago, the traditional media were pretty stable, the product of many decades (or even centuries) of evolution. The basic media categories were discrete and well-understood: movies, theater, music, art ... Books were often thought of as being at the peak of the culture mountain. Book editors behaved loftily, as though they ran the admissions board at Harvard. Authors were looked to for opinions and for deep thoughts. And knowledge generally was organized according to principles adapted from this kind of book-centric hierarchy. Thanks to computers, we've moved into a very different world. In it, the various media blend into and out of each other. Since the digital media all boil down to zeroes and ones, why not? Your cell phone's also a camera and a voice recorder; you might email someone a note that includes a photo or an MP3 track. Few people would pretend any longer that books stand atop the culture heap; in many ways, books now represent the low-end of the media world, the place where losers who can't make it in the snazzier media fields wind up. The ways we organize information and knowledge have changed dramatically too. Where books and the Dewey Decimal system once ruled, our central organizing technology today is the searchable (and often interactive) database. One consequence of these changes are herds of bewildered middle-aged and old people. Show a little pity for the aged, who feel as though everything they ever learned -- as well as every skill they ever mastered -- have been rendered useless. But another consequence of these changes has been the revolution in design that I'm long-windedly getting around to discussing. Once upon a time, books and magazines were mainly meant to be read, not just scanned... posted by Michael at May 28, 2005 | perma-link | (23) comments

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Middlebrow, again
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, In the current edition of Commentary--not yet posted to the web--Terry Teachout returns once again to an issue that obviously intrigues him: whether the common culture of his youth, or anything approximating it, will ever return. I wrote about this question, referencing Teachout, previously. In this article, Teachout goes deeper, but remains ambivalent on the subject. He dredges up an old quote of his in which appeared to be pining for the emergence of a cultural version of Ronald Reagan, someone who might bring us together again, probably in sepia. He ruefully acknowledges his more current view that, in the era of blogs, things are probably fragmented for good. But by the end of the article, a little of the earlier sentiment seeps back in. Maybe, he concludes, things like the internet will enable new versions of a common culture, even if that does not entail raising Alistair Cook from the dead, digitally, in a resurrected Omnibus. I sympathize with Teachout's ambivalence. Having read his memoirs (which I recommend) I can see that we are near-contemporaries--close enough in age and outlook to fondly remember the common culture of the era, which for me was comprised of things like Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts and the aforementioned Omnibus. Like Teachout, I grew up in a town, longed to escape some day to Some Other Place, and saw a path in the middlebrow culture of the day. So if you are looking for an answer from me, sorry. I am probably as conflicted as Teachout. Who knows whether the longing for a recentering is evanescent, simple nostalgia, or whether it signifies something more significant? At the moment I lean toward the latter view. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, including the walls between red and blue, between right and left, between secular and religious, that are now deemed permanently a part of the new order of things. (For instance, I just can't buy into David Gelernter's argument that we should just chuck the whole idea of public schools. If culture is fragmented, it doesn't necessarily follow that schools should follow suit. It might be that the fragmentation of the culture is the problem, and the last thing you want to do is throw the last life preservers over the side.) By the way, Teachout couches his culture ruminations in an anjoyable little essay on his own experiences blogging, and the effects of blogging on the arts and culture. And Michael, you'll be happy to note his reference to this site, 2Blowhards, and that it beat his own culture blog to the punch by a year or two. Prescient of you! Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at May 26, 2005 | perma-link | (19) comments

Building Boom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- America's current orgy of neomodernist-style building may be the largest since modernism itself laid waste to our cities and suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. (This is strictly my impression and not anything official, by the way.) How well is this building boom likely to work out? My bet is that we'll live to regret it as much as we now regret what we did to ourselves in the post-WWII years. A sad/enraging fact is how much of this activity is being paid for by you and me. The New York Times sees fit to call the aggressive and difficult Thom Mayne "the U.S. government's favorite architect," for instance. And Mayne was recently given an award by the federal government's General Services Administration's Design Excellence program. The what? The GSA's Design Excellence program, that's what. Since 1994, the GSA has been awarding a lot of government work to edgy architecture firms. This is a large and deliberate program that was the brainchild of Edward A. Feiner; it's full of review boards (aka, well-connected experts handing commissions to each other); it's spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money; and it's meant to class up government buildings -- or rather to make them shiney and contemporary. As you might imagine, the architecture establishment loves the Design Excellence program. I wonder whether taxpayers -- ie., you and me -- appreciate the results, though. The guidelines the GSA is following were established in 1964, not exactly a great time in architecture history. Two of these guidelines: Producing facilities that reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the Federal Government, emphasizing designs that embody the finest contemporary architectural thought. Avoiding an official style. Hmmm .... But on to the visuals. Let's compare a couple of traditional federal courthouses to a couple of twinkly Design Excellence showpieces. Traditional first. This is Milwaukee's federal courthouse, built originally in the 1890s and then expanded in 1930. Here's Butte, Montana's federal courthouse, built in 1903: These are, in other words, the kinds of buildings our government used to build. Both are -- at the very least -- solid and attractive. They look like they're here for the longterm. They're also anything but disorienting. They're instantly comprehensible; they look like the kind of thing you expect courthouses to look like. And both contribute to the urban fabric; you don't take a glimpse at them and start making plans to flee to the suburbs. Both buildings also -- IMHO -- do a good job of living up to some of the GSA's guidelines. They express an easy-to-grasp dignity of a kind many people would like to feel their government possesses. And neither building could be said to impose an official style. They're in quite dramatically different styles, in fact. The Milwaukee courthouse's style is neo-Richardsonian/neo-romanesque while the Butte building's style is Renaissance-revival. Over to the Design Excellence courthouses. Here's a Thom Mayne courthouse for Eugene, Oregon. What strikes me instantly about this building is... posted by Michael at May 26, 2005 | perma-link | (48) comments

Gehry Costs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Interesting to learn from the WashPost's Bob Thompson and Jacqueline Trescott about imbroglios at Washington D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art, where the musueum's director is resigning. In recent years, attendance at the Corcoran has been flat, and losses have piled up. Gehry's proposed Corcoran addition What fascinates me most about the story, though, is the way that the mess is partly a consequence of the Corcoran's having fallen for the Bilbao dream -- the hope that a signature piece of flossy new architecture might solve all its problems. In 1999, the museum commissioned a Frank Gehry addition. But funding has stalled for a number of reasons: The dot-com bust vaporized a lot of pledges, for one. Oopsie. For another, estimates for the cost of the Gehry addition have risen from an initial $60 million to a current $200 million. Double oopsie. Small question? How eager is the public really to make yet another pilgramage to yet another Gehry titanium ribbons-and-bows showpiece? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 26, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * New research suggests that taking the Pill might permanently lower the libido of some women. * How Asperger-y are you? Take a quiz and find out. Although I scored a very low 36, The Wife insists that I'm a lot more Aspie than that. * Let it never be said that a woman can't be as opinionated about men's underwear as many men are about women's underthings. * Blowhard Francis Morrone's review of Fred Siegel's new book about New York City and Rudy Giuliani is another piece of first-rate Morrone -- a terrific book review, as well as a quick and solid way for readers to acquire a lot of perspective on American urban history. It's great to see that the scrappy and provocative New York Sun is making more of its content available online too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 26, 2005 | perma-link | (19) comments

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Magazines About Everything
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Noticed during my latest visit to the nearby magazine stand. Retrogamer (for those who like to play old computer games) YM Your Prom Homeopathy Today Autism Spectrum Quarterly With a neighborhood magazine stand like this, who needs the Web? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 25, 2005 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Screwy Comments
Apologies to any and all who have tried to leave comments in the last hour or so. I just learned that the blog has decided to inform all would-be commenters that they aren't allowed to do so. Why it has decided to do this is beyond me. But it's a blog-glitch -- you haven't been banned. With luck the comments will be working again in a short time. Thanks for your patience. UPDATE: Comments are working again.... posted by Michael at May 24, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Trump U, Too
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, It's not enough that he's rich, famous, obnoxious and all over the media, including a hit series and a biopic. In his neverending quest for something, The Donald has now opened his own university. In case there was any doubt, it's called Trump University. What would you think if I told you the following was from the Presidential Message section of his website?: "We are a new institution, and yet our mission, to advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge, will keep the University young. We strive to create an academic environment in which outstanding students and scholars from around the world are continually challenged and inspired to do their best possible work. I am pleased to welcome you here. I hope that you will find your stay both enlightening and enjoyable." You'd probably say that doesn't sound like Trump. And you'd be right. That quote was cribbed, and slightly edited, from Larry Summers' Presidential Message on the Harvard site. When you visit Trump, here's Trumps' first presidential communication, in the form of a blog posting: My greatest respect is for people who have experienced adversity and then come back. I was one of those people, in the early nineties. I went through a tough period and learned a lot about myself, and then came back bigger and better and stronger. It wasnít unlike what happened to Frank Sinatra in the early fifties. Like me, he lost focus. He took his eye off the ball and he made some bad decisions. (Also like me, it was the fairer sex that had a little something to do with his troubles, but thatís another story for another time.) Thereís a wonderful story in Sammy Davis, Jr.ís Yes I Can, where Sammy, whoís on the way up (due in no small part to Sinatraís patronage), sees Frank walking down Broadway all by himself, looking utterly dejected. At the time, Frank was on the skids, having gone from being the biggest singer ever known to a laughingstock, reduced to singing novelty songs. Itís a familiar scenario to me, because one night at 3am, when I was more than $9 billion in debt, I was summoned to Citibank for a conference call with a bevy of international bankers to whom I owed money. It was pouring rain and I couldnít get a cab, so I had to walk to the bank, 15 blocks from Trump Tower. By the time I got there I was soaked. I felt then like I had reached my lowest point. But we worked things out, and the rest, as they say is history. They also say itís darkest before the dawn. You know what I say: Never ever give up. Posted by Donald Trump on 2005-05-13 The Trump ego and the academy make for an odd match, no doubt. Over at University Diaries, UD seems to find the whole thing amusing, but is somewhat less apoplectic than I would have thought, given that she tilts... posted by Fenster at May 24, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Monday, May 23, 2005

Weird Netflix Recs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm a completely contented Netflix subscriber. What's not to like? A wide selection ... Prompt service ... A demento suggestions engine ... Recently The Wife and I have been watching Japanese horror, '60s and '70s erotica, and blues and C&W music documentaries. Based on our rental patterns, here's what Netflix thinks we might want to watch next: "Anne of Green Gables" "Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie" "Agent Cody Banks" Question: if you knew that a buddy of yours was into Takashi Miike, Merle Haggard, and Radley Metzger, would you cheerily suggest that he give "Agent Cody Banks" a try? Hmm. I wonder if Netflix is trying to tell us something ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 23, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Tinkertytonk wonders how it can be that -- in this multicolored, multicultural age of ours -- the covergirls all look alike? * The Fat Guy's faith in zydeco music has been renewed. * Has feminism encouraged women to become alcoholics? * Steve Sailer covers a lot of interesting ground in his review of Thomas Sowell's new book, notices that most Asian-Americans aren't voting Republican, watches a foreign movie with the sound off, and fields some sensible advice about publishing a book. * Alex has the key to a good marriage: selective forgetfulness. Tyler confesses to five important books he hasn't yet read. * Razib muses about the women-and-chess thang in the context of the Larry Summers mess. There still aren't many super-high-level female chess players around. Will there ever be? * Is it a put-on? An art-thing? Some combo of the two? Whatever it is, "Karl Merleau-Marcuse"'s blog made me laugh out loud. Sample blogposting: It's a sad day when you wake up and realize that somewhere deep down in your subconscious you're basically a Habermassian. This makes me want to go draw moustaches on all your billboards. OK, maybe this kind of thing represents a very special taste in humor ... * Bixblog feels like she's recovering her inner sensualist. I can't say I find that a surprise. * Evan Kirchhoff takes a ride to the Paris airport with an unstereotypical French cabdriver. * Kodak has been hit by the digital-imaging revolution hard, shedding tens of thousands of employees in recent years. But maybe the corner has been turned. In terms of digital-camera sales in the U.S., Kodak is now #1. * Those little-wisp glamor dresses stars wear to awards events? French actress Sophie Marceau shows just how wispy they are. By the way, have I ever mentioned that I enjoyed "Telling Lies," Sophie Marceau's novel? Short, spare, chic -- yet absurdly overripe and narcissistic too. Whew: a combo I often find irresisitable. The Wife refers to this genre of book as "Moi, Actrice." * What style of thinker are you: visual, musical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, or verbal? Take a test based on Howard Gardner's notion of seven kinds of intelligence. My own style is "interpersonal." Me and Mother Theresa, apparently. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 23, 2005 | perma-link | (26) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Teaching Company has moved into a new on-sale cycle. Some of the packages that are currently cheap are lecture series that I've loved. Maybe some visitors will enjoy them too. It's hard to imagine a better overview of the Western classical-music tradition than Robert Greenberg's "How to Listen To and Understand Great Music." Greenberg does a great job both of setting the music in historical and biographical context, and of explaining how the music works and what you're meant to be hearing. As a lecturer and presenter, Greenberg's an inspired performer himself. He uses beaucoup musical examples and he never lets the energy or enthusiasm level sag -- this is a man who loves his subject matter, and who loves teaching too. If the package seems expensive at $149, remember what you get for the money: 48 lectures, each one of them 45 engrossing minutes long. This is as good a Music-History 101 class as you'll find at the best colleges. Non-math types who are curious about economics should find Timothy Taylor's "Legacies of Great Economists" a terrific way to get started. This is philosophy via -- thank god -- human interest; Taylor uses history and biography as ways to introduce and explore the thinking of his chosen economists: Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, Friedman, others. Taylor is an enthusiastic and clear presenter with a rare knack for explaining difficult concepts in accessible English. He's also likably modest where economics' claims are concerned. He isn't one of those arrogant technocrats who wants you to believe that econ offers the key to understanding all phenomena. Taylor has the knowledge and the passion, but he has perspective too. For $15.95, this is a very accessible way to begin enjoying the conversation about economics. Alan Charles Kors' "The Birth of the Modern Mind" is first-class intellectual history: an introduction to the thinkers and thoughts of the European 17th and 18th centuries. To my taste, Kors skimps on the ultra-wonderful Scottish Enlightenment -- he's a bit Continent-besotted. But that's a minor failing. As a survey of the era and of many of its major thinkers -- Locke, Hume, Descartes, Voltaire, etc -- this series is a gem. Learn where many of our "modern" ways of conceiving of and discussing the world come from. Kors is an inspired lecturer who manages to be both fiery and level-headed. David Zarefsky's "Argumentation" isn't the how-to-win-debates treatise you might expect from its title. Instead, it's a beautifully organized presentation of a fascinating and much-underrecognized philosophical topic, namely informal reasoning. We're used to thinking of formal reasoning -- science, physics, math, logic, law -- as something worthy of respect and study. But what about the rest of the thinking-methods we use to get by? Rules of thumb. Common sense. Established habits. Experience. Having-a-feeling-for-it. Blundering our way through. These are all examples of how we manage to make good-enough decisions under conditions of imperfect information -- examples of real-life, on-the-job-type thinking, in other words.... posted by Michael at May 23, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments