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Friday, October 21, 2005

Graphics [Fads]
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A halfway-decent rule about fads seems to be that the moment a fad crests is the exact moment when it also begins to run out of steam. Take baseball caps. Only a few years ago, they were so common that I was sure they were on their way to becoming an enduring everyday fashion item. Then -- overnight, as far as I could tell -- they vanished. Even balding guys stopped wearing them. The only people I see in baseball caps these days are people who are actually on their way to the ballpark. Although I'm a broken-down old embarassment, I still enjoy tracking -- however half-consciously -- the fortunes of various contempo fads. One that has fascinated me for a while is a graphic-design trope: the use of what I think of as "nonsense brackets." Here's a typical example. As always, forgive the rotten scanning: Why are colored brackets surrounding this page's subhead? The meaning of brackets is generally taken by writers to be something like, "The editor has a comment here, and he doesn't want anyone to mistake it for a parenthetical remark. Pay attention to what I'm saying, but DO NOT include this passage in the final printed copy." The brackets above, in other words, have no meaning in a traditional sense. Do they have any significance in any other sense? There's no question that they give the subhead more visual pop than it would otherwise have -- so a meaning-set is being expressed: Poppiness is good! Do they convey anything else? They certainly signify, "The art director of this magazine has been looking at what the art directors of other magazines are doing." At the moment, there's something about nonsense brackets that says, "I'm up-to-date." Which makes me wonder: What relationship does attitude-signifying have to "meaning"? Here's a similar but slightly different use: Why the pointy brackets, for one thing? Although I'm a semi-professional media-and-words guy myself, I don't have any idea what pointy brackets are doing on my computer's keyboard, and I have never made use of them. And how odd that the pointy brackets are picking out the words that they're picking out. It would be just as plausible/unplausible for them to pick out all three words, or a different set of words. Perhaps we react to this arbitrariness by thinking: "Wow, how kookily arresting!" To my eye, one thing that highlighting the words "over $500" accomplishes is to make those words look like an item on a menu. Bracketed together, they look like something that you might move your cursor over. They invoke a computer screen, in other words -- something dancing and eager, and something more malleable and twitchy than a mere piece of paper. When I first noticed nonsense brackets -- about a decade ago? -- I was annoyed by them. These days I'm tolerant, weary, semi-amused. Still ... Even as decorative ornaments they strike me as so much clutter. I also dislike the way... posted by Michael at October 21, 2005 | perma-link | (29) comments

Ultra-Slick Magazines (The Covers)
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Just yesterday I casually tossed a magazine on the hassock -- and it kept sliding until it dropped onto the floor. Grrr. This isn't breaking news because they've been around for a number of years: ultra-shiny, slippery magazine covers. Super-slick covers were probably introduced because they look bright and inviting on the news rack as compared to those other magazines printed on slightly duller stock. And perhaps the surface might allow finer screening for cover art. (Any thoughts about these points, Michael? Are there other, more important reasons for ultra-slicks?) Whatever marketing advantages that existed when the first shiny covers were introduced have long since been negated by the fact that most mass-circulation magazines now sport such covers. All that's left, for me anyway, is the annoyance factor. The plain truth is, it's very hard to stack slippery magazines and to keep the stack intact. Another bothersome point for me is that I can't come up with a practical way to fight this evil scourge. The best way should be via the market. But because most magazines have slippery covers, I can't easily switch to a competing magazine with traditional cover stock. Besides, I buy magazines for their content and not how they're packaged. Although slippery covers are annoying, the annoyance isn't enough to prevent me from making the purchase. And presence of a traditional cover is not enough of an incentive for me to buy a magazine with inferior content. Some things you just gotta live with, I suppose. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 21, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Inside New Urbanism
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- DesignObserver's Michael Bierut was on the team that created the Disney-sponsored New Urbanist town of Celebration, Florida. (A decent page of photos is here.) He writes a fascinating posting about the experience -- and about his reactions to Celebration -- here. Good passage: Authenticity is a slippery thing. I live in a 1909 house that the realtor said was Victorian but I'd more accurately call Craftsman Style. Far from "authentic," to me it looks like it was built by someone who had seen some pictures of Greene and Greene houses and thought one might look good in Westchester County. It's surrounded by equally inauthentic hundred-year-old houses, all of which look swell today because they're so old. Interesting how many of the commenters on Bierut's posting find Celebration creepy. Some of them murmur ominously about Big Brother; a few even tiptoe up close to the "r" (ie., racism) word, as though the act of paying attention to sidewalks and porches will inevitably hurtle us all back to Selma circa 1950. Sigh: designers can be such hysterics and sillies. It never seems to have occurred to many of them that no one is forcing anyone to live in Celebration. Best, Michael UPDATE: Fred Himebaugh writes -- from onscene, first-hand knowledge! -- about Celebration here.... posted by Michael at October 20, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Those in the mood for a best-of book-list to quarrel with or applaud have a new one: Time's ranking of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. * All the rebuilding being done in the wake of Katrina must be a boon for local workers, right? Randall Parker writes that, in fact, many post-Katrina construction jobs are being handed out to illegal Hispanic immigrants. * No matter what degree of perversity your erotic imagination is capable of achieving, the Web reveals that there's always someone with a kink that makes yours look square. (NSFW, of course.) * Witold Rybczynski's annotated slide show about America's megachurches is a civilized and open-minded treat -- as well as a nice demonstration of how words and images can enhance each other. * Did Miramax make money for Disney? Edward Jay Epstein shows how complicated these questions can be. He also shows how that shrewd monster, Harvey Weinstein, screwed Disney out of millions. * Neil Kramer wonders if Heaven is really where he wants to wind up. * Up-to-date lit fans with a taste for the irreverent shouldn't fail to sample the fiction being published by the Contemporary Press, a feisty young house. Check out the company's motto too. It's one that -- 90% of the time, anyway -- I can get behind myself. * Our poor, oppressed girls now make up 57% of America's college students, reports USA Today. One analyst elaborates: "Not only do national statistics forecast a continued decline in the percentage of males on college campuses, but the drops are seen in all races, income groups and fields of study." Attaway to go, social engineers. * Freed from crippling traditional shackles, a couple of girls show what they're capable of. * Reason's Veronique de Rugy and Nick Gillespie conclude -- a bit tardily, as far as I'm concerned, but let's be grateful for any and all signs of sanity -- that "the GOP has forfeited its credibility when it comes to spending restraint." Good passage: When it comes to spending, Bush is no Reagan. Alas, he is also no Clinton and not even Nixon. The recent president he most resembles is in fact fellow Texan and legendary spendthrift Lyndon Baines Johnson—except that Bush is in many ways even more profligate with the public till ... Perhaps not coincidentally, Bush and LBJ ... shared control of the federal purse with congressional majorities from their own political parties. Which only makes Bush's performance more troubling. Like a lax parent who can't or won't discipline his self-centered toddler, he has exercised virtually no control whatsoever over Congress ... Bush has shown no leadership on spending reform—and Republicans have rebuffed even the mildest criticisms of their spendthrift ways. It seems incontestable that we should conclude that the country's purse is worse off when Republicans are in power. * Here's a collection of interviews with people who work in the porn business. What an interesting field to learn a... posted by Michael at October 20, 2005 | perma-link | (23) comments

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Going to Hawaii to Jump the Shark
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Michael really ought to be writing this because he's the Main Media Maven here at 2Blowhards. On the other hand, as I've been known to remark, what's the point of having ignorance if you don't give it the chance to shine? Ever read/hear the phrase "jumped the shark"? I first came across it a couple years ago on National Review's Corner blog when Jonah Goldberg started using it. It refers to the point at which a television series demonstrates that it has passed its peak and is now on the skids. And it can be generalized to such points in the real world. The phrase was inspired by an episode of the Happy Days sit-com where the Fonzie (Harry Winkler) character is water skiing and leaps over a shark. The television aspect has its very own Web page which you can visit here. For more background, check the Wikipedia entry here. Wikipedia mentions that the phrase has been around since the 90s and provides examples of shows' changes in, among other things, Premise Setting Cast/star Main characters Production Also noted are the introduction of special, issue-oriented episodes, the appearance of celebrity guests who play themselves, and a miscellaneous category of changes. I got burned out on television ages ago -- haven't regularly followed a series since the late-80s. But I do remember shark-jumping moments back before the term was coined. Back then my tip-off that a series had been drained of its creative juices was when an episode was set in Hawaii. I think I saw this happen a couple times, but I can't remember what shows were involved. Hawaii episodes embody the break-from-the-past shark-jumping characteristic because the physical setting is far removed from that of regular episodes. If a show has made use of running gags tied to a setting (as opposed to character traits), these are disrupted. Further, unless characters possess strong traits, the change in venue might leave characters characterless, if you get my drift. The Hawaii episode, at its core, is a crutch for the writers. It offers a cliché-rich environment for the show's characters: have a beach scene, a hula scene, a surfing scene, a luau scene, a Don Ho type guest appearance, etc., etc. And of course a Hawaii episode means a great junket for the cast and production staff. The only loss is the future of the show. But then, everyone was probably suspecting that the jig was up anyway. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 19, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

The Weight Loss Industry
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to visitor (and weight-and-diet expert) PeggyNature, who called my attention to Paul Campos' "The Obesity Myth." Campos' book is a lot more than just provocative. Spiked Online runs a substantial excerpt here. Eye-opening passage: We should be encouraging Americans to be physically active, to eat well, and to provide reasonable access to medical care for those among us who lack it. What we should not be doing is telling Americans that they will improve their health by trying to lose weight. There is very little evidence that attempts to achieve weight loss will improve the health of most people who undertake them, and a great deal of evidence that such attempts do more harm than good. Perhaps the time has come to throw those diet books away. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2005 | perma-link | (13) comments

Bird Flu or Not?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since we're in the mood to worry about the future: Hey, how about that bird flu, eh? I have nothing to add to the discussion, of course. But it is within my tiny powers to link to GNXP's ScottM, who argues that worries about bird flu are overdone, and to Tyler Cowen, who thinks that we're in for some real challenges. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Dried Plums?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you tried shopping for prunes recently? In NYC grocery stores these days, containers full of dark dried fruits that resemble prunes are all labeled "dried plums." How did that happen? Why has that happened? FailureMag's Jason Zasky explains that the prune industry is trying to appeal to a more youthful audience. Evidently the word "prune" sounds so very Grandma, while the term "dried plum" just rocks out. Another interesting cultural note from Zasky's article: The dried plum industry limited the name change to the United States. After all, in most European nations—especially France, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia—the prune is very much a part of consumer diets. "Outside of the U.S. the prune has a very positive image," notes [industry spokesman] Peterson. "In Japan many people refer to it as the miracle fruit because of its health attributes. The only place we had a problem was the United States, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom." Pressing question for the day: What is it about the U.S. and the U.K. that looks askance at the word "prune"? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2005 | perma-link | (22) comments

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Avoiding Demographic Doomsday
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Recently Friedrich von Blowhard listed some potential causes of disruption to American (and world) society. One source was demographic: - The ‘demographic crisis’ caused by the retirement of the baby boom (and its attendant demolition job on public finances). This will, of course strike the rest of the ‘rich’ world even harder than it will the U.S., but I doubt it will be pretty anywhere The United States experienced a post-World War 2 surge in numbers of births and rates of birth for females of childbearing age; the popular label for this is the Baby Boom. Other industrialized countries experienced baby booms, but these tended to be of different timing, generally shorter duration, and less intensive. By definition, the end of a baby boom (the Baby Bust) means fewer births and lower birth rates. In all cases, birth rates eventually dropped to levels that, in the long run, would result in population loss (due to there being fewer daughters than mothers, generation-to-generation) absent replacement from outside sources via migration. The "short-run" (roughly 2010-40) problem for industrialized countries is dealing with the surge of boomers as they pass into retirement age and eventually die off. A longer-term problem, barring return of birth rates to population-growth levels, is that counties will be stuck with large proportions of elderly people while their overall populations (and economies?) shrink. The recent and future debates over modifying the Social Security system in the United States result from these looming demographic pressures. European countries, with social programs more generous than the USA's and very low birth rates (as low as 0.65 daughters per mother in some cases), are facing the prospect of drastic (and politically unpopular) welfare-system changes or perhaps morally undesirable alternatives such as mandatory euthanasia of the elderly. Social and political disruption could be severe, especially if remedies are postponed. Some people believe depopulation is desirable for reasons ranging from misanthropy to concern for the environment. I prefer to live in a country where population is increasing at a slow, steady rate. Although near-term disruptions linked to the phasing-out of the baby boom generation are not changeable through practical demographic means, long-term national survival requires (in my opinion) higher birth rates. Actually, the USA is close to sustainable birth rate levels thanks to immigration of high-fertility populations, mostly from Mexico (though rates might fall as Mexicans assimilate). The European situation is dire, and might well have unfortunate spin-off consequences for the United States. Reviews of European demographic trends and pro-natalist policies are here and here. A short-lived, draconian set of pro-natalist policies of the Romanian government in the mid-late 60s is described here. So far, pro-natalist policies have not succeeded. Aside from the Romanian experiment, pro-natalist policies have focused on making child-rearing slightly less expensive (via tax breaks, etc.) and slightly more convenient (through maternal leave and childcare centers and the like). In my opinion, these marginal solutions don't work well because a compelling psychological or economic need to... posted by Donald at October 18, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

TV Alert
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I notice that some good viewin' is nearly upon us. * The Trio network is re-running a four-hour, four-part documentary called "Lost Highway: The History of American Country." It's an English production narrated by Lyle Lovett, and it's intelligently informative, stylish in a non-obtrusive way, and helpfully organized. It's as full of vintage footage, sincere interviews, and heart-rending, real-people music as you could hope. Bluegrass, singing cowboys, big hair, honky-tonk, hippie-outlaws -- all are present and all are very well-accounted-for. Is there a better video overview of country music than "Lost Highway" available? I'm not aware of one. The first episode of "Lost Highway" will be broadcast on Trio tonight, Tuesday, from 9-10 pm EST, and later at midnight. The subsequent episodes follow on the following evenings: episode two on Wednesday; episode three on Thursday; and episode four on Friday. * This Wednesday evening, TCM celebrates the film producer Val Lewton by broadcasting some of the horror pictures Lewton is famous for. Working in the 1940s with tiny budgets and on short shooting schedules, Lewton became a legend for creating quiet, small movies that got their scares via suggestion and mood. A few shadows ... Some well-chosen rustling noises ... And chills run up and down your spine. If you don't know Lewton's movie work, I urge you to give a couple of these films a try. As far as I'm concerned, "Cat People" and "I Walked with a Zombie" -- both of them directed by the sophisticated Jacques Tourneur -- aren't just neato scare movies; they're eerie and erotic poetic gems, as stylized, exciting, and altered-state-inducing as expressionist operas, or the best silent movies. "Cat People" will be broadcast on TCM Wednesday, from 8:00-9:15 pm EST. "I Walked with a Zombie" screens Wednesday from 10:30-11:45 pm EST. Here's a good website devoted to Val Lewton. I notice that Warner has just released a boxed DVD set of all of Lewton's horror movies. * I wrote enthusiastically about the 1957 Elmore Leonard/Delmar Daves western "3:10 to Yuma" here. Short version of a long posting: I found the film very enjoyable -- tense and turbulent, fast and brilliant. If these judgments were up to me, I'd call "3:10 to Yuma" a classic. TCM broadcasts "3:10 to Yuma" Saturday, from 2:30-4:30 pm EST. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, October 17, 2005

On the DVR
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wonder if people who haven't yet sprung for a digital video recorder -- a Tivo, or maybe a box that your cable company will rent you -- understand how dramatically using one can change your experience of television. Being able to zap commercials is of course a wonderful thing. And watching sports via DVR is quite nice too. During the recent U.S. Open tennis championship, for example, I learned a lot by rewinding back through interesting points and studying them in slow motion. But for me what's been most wonderful is the way the DVR -- essentially some software and a hard drive -- becomes the TV equivalent of your book or CD library. When The Wife and I settle in to do a little tube-watching, we don't see "what's on television." Instead, we check out what's waiting for us on the hard drive. You can accumulate an amazing collection of shows with only a minimal amount of programming effort. It used to be common to say that TV was the enemy of true culture. These days ... Well, if you use your DVR wisely, watching TV can become a rewarding part of a classy cultural life. For an example, here's what's waiting for The Wife and me on our DVR's hard drive right now: A look at Hindu art and architecture A documentary about Hitler's family An episode of "What the Victorians Did for Us" A documentary about the early women of rockabilly A show about the engineering challenges involved in constructing a Frank Gehry building A couple of Alton Brown's "Good Eats" programs from the Food Network A number of "Modern Marvels" episodes from the History Channel: one about axes, swords, and knives; one about paint; and one about sewers. Laugh if you will about the apparent banality of these subjects -- but the "Modern Marvels" episodes that I've watched about plumbing, basements, and bathroom technology have all been really interesting. An episode of Melvyn Bragg's history of the English language A documentary about the French filmmaker Claude Chabrol A tour of the South of France A look at ancient Japan A Mario Bava thriller A documentary about three small, independent record companies A show about airships. Sigh: blimps and dirigibles put such a smile on my face ... A documentary about Art Deco buildings A history of San Francisco A biography of the genius choreographer George Balanchine The award-winning French film "To Be and to Have" And, at the moment, our hard drive is only 67% full. Our DVR costs us a mere 10 bucks over and above what we normally spend on cable. The Wife and I have become so hooked on the DVR that -- who would think this would ever happen! -- our Netflix-watching has suffered. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

For the Times They Are A-Changin'
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: In today’s L.A. Times there’s an interesting story with the headline “France’s Economic Model Showing Signs of Stress” which you can read here . The headline seems more portentous than the actual incident the story describes, which is the French government’s attempts to pressure Hewlett Packard into not cutting 1,240 jobs in that country over the next three years. Still, it resonated with me at the breakfast table. For as long as I can remember—going back to the mid-1960s, when I was roughly 10 years old—the basic rules of the ‘social contract’ have been pretty much the same in this country and throughout much of the rich world. Oh, sure, things changed a bit around the edges in that time. While Western Europe built itself an ever-plusher social welfare state and watched its unemployment rate march into double digits, the U.S. got into and then rather awkwardly out of Vietnam; we introduced a volunteer army in place of a draft and spent a lot of time gassing about affirmative action; Europe and America both have fiddled with their tax rates, just about everybody got themselves a website and a blog. But for all that, my ‘adult’ lifespan has seen far more continuity than disruption. On the international scene the implosion of the old Soviet Union and the slump of Japan during the 1990s both seemed kind of dramatic at the time but oddly neither seemed to have had much of an impact on my day-to-day life, let alone on the defense budget or the balance of trade. But it strikes me the relative stasis that has prevailed during my day is coming to a rather rapid end. Why? Well, the following trends strike me as likely to result in my children living in quite a different world than their father: -The rise of China and possibly India to the first rank of economic players, and the effects that this shift will have on the global ‘balance of power’ -The ‘demographic crisis’ caused by the retirement of the baby boom (and its attendant demolition job on public finances). This will, of course strike the rest of the ‘rich’ world even harder than it will the U.S., but I doubt it will be pretty anywhere -The possibility that peaking oil production and global warming will combine to create an era of far more expensive energy -The apparent likelihood of a sort of ‘cold war’ with at least some elements of the Islamic world Heck, the list could go on and on, and you’re certainly free to choose different trends (and, quite possibly, more important trends). But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re in for an era of rather more radical changes in how societies, or at least rich societies, work than what we’ve been used to. I would guess that the next 50 years may see changes more like the tumultuous first half of the 20th century rather than the relatively serene second half. Do... posted by Friedrich at October 17, 2005 | perma-link | (21) comments

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Tourist Snapshot Styles
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I never used to include myself in travel snapshots. Instead, I took pictures of things I saw. There were a couple reasons for this. One was that I'm not handsome and I hated being reminded of that while gazing at snapshots. Another reason was that I used to use pretty fancy camera equipment (a brace of Nikon Fs with three or four extra lenses dangling around my neck) and I didn't want to ask a stranger to take my picture and then hand over a bunch of expensive gear. Actually I'm fudging a bit here, as some of you might have guessed. I'm mostly referring to my practices from the 1960s, especially my time in Korea and Japan when photography was my main hobby. And unlike Kodak Brownies, Nikon Fs were professional-grade gear, not exclusively snapshot-takers. Moreover, I was shooting with black & white negative film or colored slides. (The latter proved to be a mistake, long-term. Now I have boxes of slides and no slide projector. Plus I'm told that digitizing slides is costly. Sigh.) Still, it's true that of the hundreds of slides I brought home from overseas, less than a dozen had my mug in them. I was trying to capture Korea and Japan for family and friends back home. This was in 1963-64, when Korea was poor and un-westernized. So I was greatly interested one day when I found out that a Korean student who had visited the U.S. would be at the USO club showing slides he took on his trip. I automatically assumed he would be trying to capture America just as I was trying to capture Korea. Oh boy, was I mistaken. Instead of insights, we got an hour and a half of "Here I am in front of Golden Gate Bridge," "Here I am at Disneyland entrance," and on and on. About the only slides not starring Himself were a few blurry front-windshield shots of some LA freeways. This guy was my photographic antithesis. Here's an example of a "Here I am"/"Here we are" snapshot: "Here we are in front of ... " St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg. In foreground are unidentified tourist and Fiancée. I would think that the average tourist snaps a mix of scenes and personal verifications. My guess is that about 85-90 percent of the pictures from my latest trip were of scenes. Another class of tourist snapshot is the Our Crowd picture. This is usually taken at restaurants or bars, where several tour group members are shown in states of giddy excitement regarding the next round/course/entertainment. I suppose I've sounded a little snooty or even snotty here, but I tried not to. In recent years I've mellowed quite a bit. Tourist snapshots aren't High Art. Likely they aren't art at all. They're simply fun. What sorts of photos do you take while traveling? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 16, 2005 | perma-link | (22) comments