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Friday, July 8, 2005

Afropop and Cuban Music
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I loved reading this Stephen Brown essay about Cuban music. (Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for the link.) It's a review of a new book by Ned Sublette, and it makes a number of wonderful points very concisely. Here's one example: Sublette is saying that [Cuban] music is organized in a way that is fundamentally different from traditional Western music. If you look for adventurous harmonies or difficult melodies you will be looking for complexity in the wrong places. Here, complexity resides in the layers of rhythm. That flat-out statement would have helped me a lot back when I first became interested in Latin and African music. I loved much of what I was hearing, and on all kinds of levels. But most of those levels were physical and emotional. It took unfortunately long for the essential lightbulb to go off in my slow-movin' conscious brain. Finally, though, it did: "Hey, this is as deep and polyphonic as Bach, only the polyphony is in the rhythms!" In terms of knowledge and experience, though, I remain forever stuck at the World Music 101 (or maybe 102) stage: a few King Sunny Ade concerts, a few evenings moving the hips to Ruben Blades, a stack of CDs, a copy of The Rough Guide to World Music that I haven't spent enough time with ... So my taste isn't to be trusted. Despite this, I can't stop myself from recommending the music of the exuberant soukous vocalist and bandleader Kanda Bongo Man, especially those discs of his that feature his godlike onetime guitar player, Diblo Dibala. These guys made zesty, sparkling music that can put you in a sweet, funky trance and keep you there for many happy hours. But time is limited, life's short, etc. -- I'll never be a worldmusic expert, darn it. Still, I was thrilled to stumble across this Public Radio site devoted to Afro-Pop and Cuban music. There's lots of good free listenin' to be had here. I may never become a worldmusic scholar, but at least I now have the chance to fill in a few holes in my knowledge. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Foie Gras
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I can't resist passing along a couple of passages from an interview with Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin, New York City's legendary French seafood restaurant. To set things up: Le Bernardin features fish prepared with French technique but often with Asian ingredients. Sample dish: Chinese spiced black bass in a Peking duck bouillon with Maitake and Enoki Mushrooms. The philosophical emphasis of the restaurant, believe it or not, isn't on dazzle or brio. It's on making a wonderful piece of fish the star of plate, and using all other elements to "elevate the fish." Here's Eric Ripert: The search is for balance and a harmony of flavors in our cooking. And that, I'm sure, is characteristic of every advanced culture ... [In Asian cooking] There's a lot of ritual and a great respect for the ingredient, as with the French. Tuna or Kobe beef in Japan are treated like gold, just as a farm-raised chicken in Bresse, France, is cared for like a baby. They're two different cultures, but very similar. Everything has a reason, and rituals help to elevate the product to the next level. Today there is opposition to serving foie gras. But 30-40 years ago, foie gras was a love story between the goose or duck and the farmer who massaged its throat as he fed it by hand. Of course, at the end of the day, the animal is killed and we eat it. But it was a celebration of life. Ah, the French: precision and cruelty in the service of voluptuous, near-religious rapture. Eric Ripert's comments remind me of something: I've often marveled at the way French and Japanese cultures have their similarities. Let me rephrase that, given my actual inexperience of Japan: The appeal French and Japanese cultures have for Americans seems awfully similar, don't they? Both cultures are hierarchical and ritualized, with an infinite number of prescribed ways to do things. Stuffy! Yet both seem to deliver mind-bendingly intense rewards. It seems key to me that both cultures also seem hyper-aware of the spiritual-erotic-aesthetic dimension. That seems to me the real reason so many Americans have flipped for French art and Japanese art. Neither the French nor the Japanese quarrel over the existence of the aesthetic dimension, or of aesthetic experience. It's always there, available. And, when they want to, they simply enter right into it. I wonder sometimes: Perhaps what drives some Americans around the bend is our native tendency to ignore, repress, or deny the aesthetic dimension of life. We debate it. We politicize it. We get literal-minded and pretend not to know what's being talked about. Being a gung-ho, hard-charging people, we sometimes exploit the aesthetic dimension. We often seem to want to use the promise of satisfaction and/or transcendence to spur ourselves on. We often prefer not-quite-attaining satisfaction to the actual experience of satisfaction. We take our legitimate yearnings and channel them into self-help, into new products that promise to solve... posted by Michael at July 8, 2005 | perma-link | (24) comments

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * An intriguing moral dilemma: Do we prosecute the teachers, or congratulate the student? * Dell has just introduced a $99 black and white laser printer. 99 bucks! The Wife and I had to lay out $399 for a basic b&w laser printer only five years ago. * The recent war in Congo may be the most destructive war the world has seen since World War II. Since fighting broke out in 1998, roughly 3.8 million Congolese have died out of a population of about 28 million. It has been a hard-to-understand and nightmarish mess, involving six national armies and dozens of rebel groups and militias, all them doing their best to plunder the country of its mineral wealth. Rape and cannibalism have accompanied some of the battles, and the effect of the war on the country's economy has been devastating. Average annual per capita income in Congo now runs at about $100 a year. The Christian Science Monitor asks why the world's press has made so little of the war in Congo. * Dave Munger writes about how being a blogger has affected his reading habits. He also provides a snapshot of what it's like to work an entry-level job in the publishing business. In another posting, he asks the question many have asked on opening a delivery from Amazon. * Hiromi and Brett try a Japanese love hotel on for size. I'm still readjusting my eyeglasses after reading their well-illustrated posting about booty-shaking. (Probably NSFW.) * Liberal Holland? The country's Immigration and Integration Minister has ordered three Imams who have been preaching anti-Western dogma to leave the country. * Thanks to Claire, who sent in this thoughtful comment about my recent posting about cellphones: Though most people use a cell phone as a way to always be reached, I've found great liberation in turning it off in a way I probably wouldn't turn off a land line. If I want to make a call, I can, but if I'm enjoying dinner or conversation with friends, I turn it off. Other people's tactless cell usage continues to irk me. As for film production, your observations are apt. When less technical skill is required for production, the end product can really suffer. Planning ahead is exchanged for a "we'll fix in post" attitude that's often more expensive than shooting on film would have been. I was also pleased to catch up with Claire's blog. She writes about "Blink" and her fear of snakes, and -- being resourceful and young -- has put her talents to audioblogging too. * Thanks to Eddie Thomas, who turned up this dismaying videotape of an Islamic sermon. The sermon's theme: Everything bad in the world is the fault of the Jews. * Another landmark passed in the demise of traditional photography: Kodak has stopped making black and white photo paper. * I enjoyed playing with this impossible-to-describe Flash whatsis. Click and drag on the main character, and you can... posted by Michael at July 7, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

Evan Hunter
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was very sorry to see that the crime novelist Evan Hunter -- who was probably better-known as Ed McBain -- died of cancer on Wednesday, at the age of 78. I've only read four or five of Hunter's many, many books, but I'm completely convinced that he was a giant. His fiction has a distinctive tone -- a combo of thuggish brutality and sophisticated, melancholy courtliness. His stories are street-wise and soulful, canny and exciting, both hardboiled and operatic. And they're full of living, breathing characters. Hunter had an amazing career that lasted more than 50 years. He was born Salvatore Lombino in New York City and changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. He wrote under the names Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, and under many other pseudonyms too. He was nothing if not a workhorse. He wrote ten hours a day, seven days a week; he tried to average eight finished pages a day. He published his first novels in the early 1950s, while he was still in his 20s, and kept it up until very near the end; a new Ed McBain novel is scheduled to be published in September of this year. One estimate of how popular Evan Hunter was puts total worldwide sales of his books at around 100 million copies. Hunter is probably best-known for his many Ed McBain novels set in and around one Chicago police precinct; they're known as the 87th Precinct series. [CORRECTION: James M. points out that I goofed here; the 87th Precinct novels are set in a fictionalized version of New York City. Yet one more example of Why Not to Trust a Middle-Aged Memory.] But he published well over a hundred books, novels as well as collections of stories. His work was the basis for some memorable films, including "Blackboard Jungle" and Kurosawa's "High and Low." He worked on around 75 screenplays, and even did screenwriting for Hitchcock on "The Birds." Hunter/McBain was an important fiction innovator. He was an early writer of what are known as "police procedurals" -- crime stories that are less about criminals vs. heroes than they are simply about how police-people do their jobs. Hunter liked to explain that, in his mind, he wasn't writing mysteries or genre fiction. Instead, he was writing realistic novels about cops. He's also sometimes credited with inventing the storytelling format that would eventually surface on TV in "Hill Street Blues," and later with "NYPD Blue" and many other series: the ongoing soap-opera cop dramady -- a matter of multiple storylines, ensemble casts, and many arcs weaving through many episodes. Hunter -- who wasn't short on ego, and who wasn't shy about proclaiming his own status either -- sometimes growled that he couldn't understand why he wasn't paid royalties from "Hill Street Blues." Whether or not you take Evan Hunter as a major artist -- I certainly do -- probably depends on your attitude towards literature. Is it the lofty,... posted by Michael at July 7, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Outer Life on Choice
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently enjoyed swapping emails with the blogger who calls himself OuterLife. Are there visitors to 2Blowhards who haven't yet discovered the pleasures of reading OuterLife? He's a phenomenon, to say the least -- one of the quirkiest and most original bloggers I've run across. No need to take my word for how good he is: Searchblog and Our Girl in Chicago are big fans of OuterLife's blogging too. Here's a passage I cobbled together from a couple of his emails. OuterLife gave me permission to post the passage here: Your "Choices" post is so issue-rich I didn't know where to begin. Here are a few more observations, FWIW: 1. Too much policy-oriented writing, whether left or right or libertarian or whatever, is too abstract. Icy cold ideas clash miles over our heads, almost completely disconnected from life as it's actually lived. I don't think the free marketeers are any different than the rest. I was a young politico once, and after developing a perma-bruise on my forehead from beating it against the same wall over and over, trying to convince you to see it my way, I learned that people pretty much see things the way they want to see them regardless of the logic and force of my arguments. The whole enterprise was more about self-affirmation, surrounding oneself with like-minded head nodders, a massive exercise in group think. I was never one to sit in the stands and cheer for the home team, so I drifted away. 2. I never enjoyed music as much as when I could only afford to buy one record a month. I had to love that record, whatever it was, so I intensely researched each purchase, spending hours at our small local record store poring over albums, cadging a listen from the clerks, trying to get a sense for what I'd like from their limited stock. Even so, sometimes I never got into it, but by and large I managed through repeated and determined listenings to learn to love nearly everything I bought in those stingy days. I had to. Then one day I was employed and an adult and I had enough money to buy multiple albums at a time, and Tower Records built a superstore near me. Woo-hoo! I went wild, buying records like they were going out of style (which, come to think of it, they were). When in doubt, ring it up! And, of course, my enjoyment decreased. I no longer researched what I bought as assiduously. I spent less time getting to know what I listened to, flitting about like a bee from album to album. And my tastes changed, subtly, as I lost patience with difficult works and gravitated towards easier-listening melodic immediately-catchy stuff. Eventually I stopped listening to much music at all. Then a few years ago a friend introduced me to a piece and I put it in my car stereo and it lived there for three months. My... posted by Michael at July 7, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Comments Are Screwy
A few people have written in to let me know that they haven't been able to post comments on the blog recently. Thanks to all for the info. My goof, of course, though I'm not sure what the goof was. I'll do what I can as soon as I can to get the comments working again. -- Michael Blowhard UPDATE: Comments seem to be functioning again. Thanks for your patience, and allow me a moment of intense self-admiration. Yeehah! It ain't often I solve a computer problem ...... posted by Michael at July 7, 2005 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

American Foreign Aid
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I often scratch my head over the facts and figures the media cough up. In what sense are they intended? And from which points of view are they true? It often seems that the closer you look, the more slippery the facts and figures appear. I know nothin' about nothin' of course. But I can use as an example one field I do know well, the arty-intellectual-cultural world. It's often said, for instance, that America has a tightfisted attitude towards the arts. Proof comes from how small the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is. The NEA's budget is undeniably tiny. And yet, and yet ... Americans spend tons of dough on TV, music, clothes, movies, food, houses, and cars. State and national governments spend hugely on buildings (architecture) and roads (landscape architecture, anyone?). The American creativity biz is a giant one, employing tens of thousands of people. That's not evidence of support for the arts? Even so far as a narrower definition of the arts goes: Why do the complainers never factor in the kinds of help many families give their arty kids? Heaps of private money is spent every year on teaching, coaching, schools, and training. And there's mucho private money spent helping out the kids once they grow up too. I know many, many grownup writers, artists, dancers, and actors who receive help from home. It used to be joked, for instance, that the publishing industry was completely dependent on the generosity of the parents who helped their publishing-biz kids survive despite minuscule salaries. And how long would the gallery-art world and the literary-writing world survive if trust funds were to suddenly evaporate? Are the facts and figures as misleading in other fields? An example: Are Americans really as pennypinching as they're often made out to be when it comes to foreign aid? The usual rap is that we help poor countries out far less than do other rich countries. But this assertion is based on direct government-aid figures alone. (Why-oh-why do people denouncing American tightfistedness so often rely on government figures alone?) John Ray points out an article in The Scotsman reporting on how the foreign-aid scene looks from a more inclusive point of view. Some eye-opening facts: "Private American citizens donated almost 15 times more to the developing world than their European counterparts." "American churches, synagogues and mosques alone gave $7.5bn in 2003 -- a figure which exceeds the government totals for France ($7.2bn) and Britain ($6.3bn)." So perhaps -- as with the arts -- the Euros like to leave many decisions to their governments, while Americans prefer to address matters as individuals. Ain't it nice that there's variety in the world? In any case, as the Scotsman notes, such facts and figures "deal a blow to those who claim moral superiority over the US on aid." Best, Michael UPDATE: The very un-PC John Ray struck me as smart and funny on the topic of women's friendships.... posted by Michael at July 6, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Fat Mexico
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Economist reports that obesity and diabetes are on the rise in Mexico -- and dramatically so, with figures for both problems almost doubling in the last 15 years. Amazing fact (subscription and registration required): In 1968 ... [diabetes] was in 35th place as a direct cause of mortality in Mexico, but now it occupies first place, above both cancer and heart disease. With about 6.5m diabetics out of a population of 100m, Mexico now has a higher rate than any other large country in the world. Contributing factors: Urbanization, crap food, and lack of exercise. Pollution and crime are also thought to play roles, as they keep city people from making active use of streets and sidewalks. One conclusion: Walking and rural-style manual labor keep people fit. And, of course, there's always the simple fact of how tempting it is to chow down. I once asked my yoga teacher what I might do, yoga-wise, to get my expanding belly under control. I was hoping for some arcane (but easy!) exercises and postures. She didn't comply. Instead, she said, "Have you ever considered eating less?" Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * A fascinating, wide-ranging posting comes from WhiskyPrajer, partly about what it's like to be a pastor's kid. * Arnold Kling provokes a fun commentsfest with this sentence: "For many college students, the first thing they discover upon graduation is how low-paying and low-skill the job market is for them." * George Hunka muses about the differences between seeing a play performed and reading its text. * John Massengale has put up some terrific postings recently. Here he wonders why the well-being of New York City should be in the hands of auto drivers and traffic engineers. "We've gone too far in accommodating the car, and all it's gotten us is traffic jams, honking horns, road rage and pollution," John writes. Agree or not, it's a well-made case. Here John shows that the NYTimes' current ludicrous-architecture critic is as blind a victim of ideology as their last ludicrous-architecture critic was. * Daze Reader points out this informative Slate history of the vibrator. Teresa Riordan writes: "Since its introduction in the 1880s, the device has, by the most conservative estimates, mechanically induced billions of orgasms." I think the earth just shook. * Dave Eggers wants teachers to be paid more. Fabio Rojas thinks Eggers doesn't know what he's talking about. Tyler Cowen visits El Paso and lists some of what makes Texas great. "I am surprised that the weight of achievement is so unbalanced toward music and food," Tyler writes. Music and food -- I'm on my way now! * Steve Sailer shares some Sailer-esque, un-PC thoughts about sperm banks and bisexuality. * Yahmdallah thinks that many chicklit heroines could use some therapy. * I'd lost track of recovering grad-student Rose Nunez, who I'd thought had abandoned blogging. In fact, she's now at a new address, and is being as rogue-ishly smart as ever. Nice passage: I think that academics in the aggregate, relatively insulated as they are from the normal workings of market forces, are just beginning to realize the dimensions of the public relations problem they've got ... I don't think a 'We're smarter and more open-minded than you provincial hicks' attitude is the best choice, not just because it's condescending, but because it's not too hard to pick apart. Now it may be that Ward Churchill is an extremist rarity among humanities professors (although in my own experience he's not very far from typical), but it's also possible he'll turn out to be their Hindenburg, or at least their Yugo. So if y'all are so smart, professors, you'd better get better fast at defending your guaranteed paychecks. * Rick Poynor wonders why designers tend to make such lousy editors. * Older and perhaps even wiser than he once was, Neil Kramer suspects that he'll let that menage-a-trois fantasy remain a fantasy. * What's your worldview? I'm equally an "idealist" and a "cultural creative." Time to go shopping for interesting eyeglasses. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Cell Phoned
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wrote a long while back about being the last hold-out in a cellphoned universe. (Here's a posting about women, men, and cellphone usage. I wrote here about the annoyances of life in a cellphone-beleaguered world.) What I don't like about the devices boils down to two things: They shoot holes in pleasant social arrangements. People yakking on cellphones while walking on the sidewalk talk loudly and wave their arms about. Formerly quiet doctors'-waiting-rooms are now buzzing with inane one-sided gab. Drivers on cellphones really ought to pay more attention to the traffic around them. People dining with you in restaurants feel free to answer calls and talk on their phones for minutes at a time while you sit opposite them. People generally seem less prone to make arrangments and then stick to 'em, and more prone to arrange everything on the fly. Upside: flexibility. Downside: mess. The cellphone may often be a convenience, but it seems to serve just as often as inducement to behave childishly. Cellphones keep you always connected. Ignoring for the moment the advantages of this, heck, I like having stretches when I can't be reached. And I like the way traditional technology shores up some traditional boundaries. The lines between work and nonwork have certainly grown blurrier for many people thanks to cellphones. Is this always an advantage? Not in my book. Well, my days as a principled old-school square are now over. The other day, The Wife brought home a cellphone, gave it to me, and ordered me to start using it. I brought this on myself, darn it. I'd become such an email addict that I'd gotten to the point where I barely use the phone at all in a conventional sense. I use phones these days mainly as answering machines -- a habit The Wife found frustrating. Why shouldn't she be able to call The Hubster and expect him to pick up? So now I have a cellphone, and an agreement with The Wife that anytime the cellphone rings, I'll answer it. I find myself much humbled -- no longer large, proud, and heroic in my principled objection to Stupid New Trends, but instead struggling with the basics of 21st century life. Funny what you find out in such situations. I've discovered, for instance, that I'm really, really bad at talking on a cellphone while walking on the sidewalk. Some people are sidewalk-cellphone naturals, walking about as though they were born with a cellphone wired into their systems. Me, I feel unnerved, like I've awakened into one of those bad dreams where you lift off the ground and begin to fly. As a consequence, when I do need to talk on the cellphone while out on the sidewalk, I find myself a nook or a doorway and stand there to chat, facing the wall. I probably look like a bum who's gone there to take a leak. Humbling. Equally humbling is my discovery that if I... posted by Michael at July 6, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments