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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  7. Another Holiday Gift Suggestion
  8. More Cameraphone Hijinks
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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Latest Immigration Figures
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some highlights from the Center For Immigration Studies' latest report: 35.2 million immigrants (legal and illegal) now live in the U.S. That's the highest number ever recorded. Between 2000 and 2005, eight million new immigrants settled in the U.S., the highest five-year total in American history. Illegals accounted for about half of that total. Immigrants and their U.S.-born children account for almost three-fourths of the increase since 1989 of the population that has no health insurance. Immigration accounts for virtually all of the last couple of decades' increase in public school enrollment. Of adult immigrants, 31 percent haven't completed high school. Since 1990, immigration has increased the number of such workers by 25 percent. Immigrants now account for 12.1 percent of the country's total population, the highest percentage in eight decades. Thanks to current immigration policies, we have a poorer, more crowded, more welfare-dependent, and less-well-educated country than we'd have otherwise. Good work, lawmakers! The CIS study is summarized here. Randall Parker brings additional perspective here. Don't neglect to explore Randall's links. Best, Michael UPDATE: And here's an eye-opener from the National Center for Education Statistics. 11 million U.S. adults are incapable of reading a newspaper; many of them can't even converse in English. Yet over the last decade literacy levels among Asian-Ams, Cauco-Ams, and African-Ams have either stayed even or gone up. Meanwhile, literacy among Hispanic-Americans has declined 18 percent ... UPDATE 2: Please remember that no one around here is anti-Hispanic, anti-Mexican, or anti-immigrant. Bless 'em all, a few psychopaths and sociopaths excepted. The target here isn't people. It's destructive immigration policies.... posted by Michael at December 17, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

To iTunes, or Not to iTunes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Wayne Bremser wonders if the iTuning of all recordings will have a good or a bad effect on the fortunes of jazz. (Link thanks to Design Observer's Michael Bierut.) Alan Little is exasperated with the way iTunes handles -- or doesn't handle -- classical music. I complained recently about what using an iPod Shuffle does to my experience of listening to music. Alan points out a fascinating article about the joys of high-end audio. Great passage: The difference between typical high-end audio imaging and the musical presence of a single-ended amp is the difference between listening to somebody type a manuscript and listening to them read what they've written. Still: iTunes and iPods are damned convenient, no? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 17, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

More Scruton
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A week or so ago, Right Reason's Max Goss did a two-part q&a with the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, here and here. Now Scruton returns to elaborate on some of the topics that commenters raised: authority, and town planning. A certain M. Blowhard gets a little carried away in one of the commentsfests ... More Scruton resources and recommendations here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 17, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, December 16, 2005

Auto Yak
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study has found that, at any given moment, 10% of drivers on the road are talking on a cellphone. One British study suggests that a driver using a cellphone is four times more likely than usual to get involved in a serious accident. Interesting to learn too that female drivers are almost twice as likely as male drivers to be using a cellphone; that kids 24 and under are the cellphone-usingest group of drivers; and that, in safety terms, it makes no difference at all whether you clamp a cellphone to your ear or use a hands-free device. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 16, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

The Mona Lisa Algorithm
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Woman of no more mystery? Scientists at the University of Amsterdam had the inspired idea of scanning the Mona Lisa, and feeding the resulting file into cutting-edge "emotion-recognition" software. The computer made sense of her legendarily hard-to-interpret expression in this way, reports AP: 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful and 2 percent angry. She was less than 1 percent neutral, and not at all surprised. How long until a "Mona Lisa" Photoshop plug-in goes on the market? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 16, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Holiday Tug o' Wars
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Does it matter where you go to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other family-centric holidays? Does it matter who shows up if you're doing the hosting? According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, holiday visiting can be crisis-inducing. Husbands and wives fight over whose family is being favored or slighted. Others fret over feelings of the various hosts if children or grandchildren go elsewhere. This aspect of holiday stress is probably widespread. But, due to a set of historical accidents, I've pretty well dodged that bullet most of my life. What about you? 2Blowhards has lots of smart, aware readers with interesting life-experiences. I'm pretty sure you can come up with eye-popping anecdotes and shrewd analyses. To start the conversation (if any -- this will be posted right before the last pre-Christmas shopping weekend), let me tell why I managed to escape the tug-of-war scene. There were no problems when I was a child because my mom's parents were dead before my first birthday. My dad's parents were still alive, but lived in Spokane, nearly 300 miles to the east of Seattle. World War 2 and then the combination of age and distance meant that few Christmases were shared. On Christmas afternoon, either we drove across town to visit an aunt, uncle and cousins or they drove to our house. Thanksgivngs were nuclear-family only. After my children were born, we went to my parents' house in Seattle for Christmas; their other grandparents lived on the western edge of the Catskills in New York and were visited only in summertime. Thanksgivings were divvied up amongst us, my sister, my parents and, later, my sister's oldest daughter the Boeing engineer. After my parents moved to an "assisted living" apartment, my sister took over Christmas hosting and my parents dropped out of the Thanksgiving loop. Nowadays, I'm entering the tug-of-war gravitational pull via The Fiancée. She has a son with a family in the Bay Area and another son in the Puget Sound area who is married, but has no children. Causing more complications is the fact that the Bay Area son's wife is extremely tight with her nearby parents. In a nutshell: TF first has to choose whether to travel to Washington or stay in California. If she stays in California there is the question of where in California Christmas will be celebrated -- (a) at her house, (b) at her son's in-law's house, or (c) at her son's place. (If TF does not host at her house Christmas Day due to one of the other options prevailing or by going to Washington, she'll have her son's family and maybe the in-laws down to her house a week or so early. That's what's happening this year.) No real pattern here, but the grandchildren tend to weight Christmas to California rather than Washington. And Thanksgiving? Since we've been dating, TF and I have gone to her Las Vegas timeshare for that week. This year we celebrated with... posted by Donald at December 15, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Another Holiday Gift Suggestion
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In her memoir "I'm With the Band," Pamela Des Barres recalls the adventures she had back in the '60s, playing groupie with the likes of Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. When it was first published in 1987, the book was widely-loved both for its X-rated tales and for Des Barres' voice, which is a charming mixture of the frank and the hilarious. She's a dirty-innocent flower-child -- so credulous, unembarassed, and full of blissed-out delight as to be a camp hoot, yet wised-up and insightful too, if in a very dizzy way. An example: the book's first chapter is entitled "Let Me Put It In, It Feels All Right." If that doesn't jolt you out of your drowsiness and make you want to start reading ... well, then you were probably one of those kids in my English class who got better grades than I did, and the hell with you. The book, which I'm tempted to call a pop classic, has recently been reissued. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 15, 2005 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

More Cameraphone Hijinks
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of UPenn kids have sex in a dorm up against a window. A passing student takes a digi-photo of the action and posts it on his website. Punchline: The girl who was in the photo feels upset and runs to the Dean to complain. Here's a news report, complete with one of the NSFW photos. Happily, FIRE stepped in and the kid who took the photo -- an engineering junior, we learn -- didn't get whacked. Still: the funny quandaries the new media make possible, eh? 30% of me thinks: Sheesh, imagine having sex all exposed to the public like that, then being so upset that someone took your photo and put it on the web that you go to the Dean to weep and wail. And 10% of me thinks, Well, maybe she wanted her fun to be visible only to passersby and not to the entire world. But most of me thinks: Pretty hot, and pretty funny! Where do your sympathies in this case lie? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 14, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Holiday Suggestions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * There aren't many musicians more purely Modernist -- as in difficult and austere -- than France's Pierre Boulez. That's no reason to shun him, though. A wildly-gifted conductor, he's also an ear-opening composer who puts to use one of music's most ravishing sonic pallettes. Why not give him a try? You may feel confused, you may fall asleep, you may listen once and never again. But my bet is that, no matter how you react, you won't regret giving yourself the experience. (Hint: precision plus lushness is a French speciality. Think of high-end French food. Now think of its equivalent in modernist-music terms ...) Besides, this first-class collection is just too cheap not to buy. * If Boulez sounds like a little much despite my praise, why not treat yourself (or a friend) to a different kind of out-of-the-ordinary music? I semi-recently recommended the work of a couple of downhome titans: the Bahamian genius Joseph Spence, and the Texas roadhouse giant Delbert McClinton. * You've seen a little David Cronenberg and a little David Lynch, and you think you know movie-creepy? You think you know movie-surrealist? Sorry: Amazing as Cronenberg and Lynch can be, you don't really know movie-creepy and movie-surrealist until you've watched the films of the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. I think his short movies are his best, and many of them are collected in this DVD. Attention: this is handmade, ultra-low-budget work, more akin to Claymation or to ancient dolls and puppets than to Pixar's slick latest. It's very un-cool. If you can get past that and synch up with Svankmajer's imagination and craft, though, watching his films can be like slipping into Western civ's very own icky dream world. * What's more book-fun than flipping around a good collection of quotations, enjoying the shafts of wit and savoring the fragments of wisdom? William Sauer's new "Hip Pocket Guide to Offbeat Wisdom" is my favorite quotation-collection yet because it has a personality of its own. It isn't just a reference book or a collection with a theme, though the quotations here -- from a surprisingly eclectic group of sources -- are plenty terrific. There's also a funky brain and a creative taste-set at work behind the scenes in the collecting and the arranging of the quotes -- in the actual making of the book. This isn't just another quotation-collection in other words. It's a quirky and intriguing work in its own right. * I wrote here about how much I loved Mike Snider's short poetry collection "44 Sonnets." At three bucks a pop, it's a perfect stocking-stuffer for lit-lovers. (It's also -- like "The Hip-Pocket Guide" -- an inspiring example for self-publishers). Go to Mike's blogpage and look in the upper-right corner. You'll see a "buy now" button. Click it. * Those who argue that the US today lacks a truly major literary artist may not have encountered the phenomenon that is Frederick Turner. As an essayist, he fuses cultural... posted by Michael at December 14, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Whither cameraphones? Poynter Online's Steve Outing learns from some hard-at-work-on-it engineers what will going on the market within a couple of years: 8 megapixel cameraphones that use SD cards and take good-quality video. * Give teens a place to make their own and what kind of results would you expect? The Boston Globe's Matt Viser reports that MySpace is awash in titillation, semi-truths, and bad behavior. * Tyler Cowen lists his favorite North Carolina culture-things. Visitors volunteer a lot of suggestions in the commenstfest too. Tyler then risks alienating all North Carolinians by dissing Lexington barbecue. * Pia Zadora and her hubby Meshulam Riklis have sold the legendary house they were living in -- Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks' Pickfair -- for $20 million. How could I missed this item when it was fresh back in May? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 14, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's common to picture "progress" as the consequence of a long-running battle: reason and science slowly defeating religion and superstition, thus freeing us of our chains of ignorance, and rewarding us with freedom and goodies. The nothing-if-not-provocative historian Rodney Stark sees this story differently. For him, the West didn't arrive at science, democracy, and the free market despite religion. Instead, the West was able to develop science etc. thanks to Christianity -- which in Stark's view was unique among religions in encouraging the cultivation of reason. Sample passage: At least in principle, if not always in fact, Christian doctrines could always be modified in the name of progress, as demonstrated by reason. Encouraged by the scholastics and embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in the power of reason infused Western culture, stimulating the pursuit of science and the evolution of democratic theory and practice. The rise of capitalism also was a victory for church-inspired reason, since capitalism is, in essence, the systematic and sustained application of reason to commerce — something that first took place within the great monastic estates. The piece is excerpted from Stark's new book. Link found thanks to Arts and Letters Daily. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 14, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Dueling Light-Painters
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Envy is not a family value." Hmm. That sentence sounds almost like a familiar bumper-sticker -- might make a bumper-sticker itself. I can't prove this, but I strongly suspect that people in the art scene who have a "Hate is Not a Family Value" bumper-sticker on their car (or would have one if they weren't car-less in New York City) turn deep shades of green at the mention of almost any artist who manages to earn big bucks from his trade. Consider Thomas Kinkade. Or even speak his name at the next Po-Mo gallery opening cocktail party you attend: I hope you get out alive. For any Blowhards readers who never venture west of the Hudson, north of Spuyten Duyvil or east of Flushing, there are Thomas Kinkade galleries or galleries featuring Kinkade's paintings and reproductions in upscale, semi-arty malls and shopping areas all across the country. I wouldn't be much shocked to learn that sales of Kinkade keep some of the smaller independent galleries afloat. Kinkade styles himself "Painter of Light," claiming kinship to the 19th Century American landscape painters whose work was labeled "Luminism" by historians (see here and here for more information). He was born in 1958 in Placerville, California, studied art at the University of California, Berkeley and graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After a stint doing animation backgrounds at Ralph Bakshi Sudios he began selling paintings via galleries and became astonishingly successful. On the personal level, Kinkade married his childhood sweetheart and fathered four daughters. He is deeply religious and has used his art for charitable fund-raising. For artsy-intellectoids, what's not to hate? Here are some examples of his work: Gallery of Kinkade's art "Cobblestone Bridge" "Quiet Evening" "New York, Fifth Avenue" The best-known works are the twilight village scenes with glowing windows but, as can be seen above, he also paints occasional city scenes. And he does landscapes. Of the paintings shown, I prefer the New York scene. In the art business, as in any other business, success breeds competition and imitation. One painter of glowing windows to emerge on the scene is Russian artist Alexei Butirskiy, born in Moscow in 1974 whose work I've seen in Carmel-by-the-Sea. His paintings include: Gallery of Butirskiy's art "A New Day" "Cafe Luminar" "Evening Lights" I happen to prefer Butirskiy's art to Kinkade's. This is because Butirskiy's images are sharper and I've never liked paintings made from a series of dabs as is the case of Kinkade or, for that matter, many Impressionists. Discussion What interests me here is the problem of evaluating any popular artist. I don't like the reflexive negative reaction of the Art Establishment to popular, financially-successful artists such as Kinkade, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell. So far as I'm concerned, nearly all Establishment-anointed Post-Modern art is pretentious or silly, if it can be called art at all (more on this in future posts). This means I don't take Establishment criticism seriously. But... posted by Donald at December 13, 2005 | perma-link | (41) comments

Monday, December 12, 2005

Small Aircraft, Small Airports
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's possible to view air travel in a Harry Potter-esque way. Instead of the Wizards and the Muggles, the parallel universe is that of larger airports populated by jet aircraft of major airlines and smaller airports served by turboprop aircraft of regional airlines. In my case, all but two of the 375 commercial flights I've made have been to larger airports, and all but six of those flights have been on standard-sized jet airliners. (Yes, I maintain an air travel database.) Many times, waiting for a flight, I find myself staring idly out a terminal window watching the activity. And I sometimes notice the small-fry. At Seattle's airport these are planes flown by Horizon, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines. Horizon has 19 Bombardier CRJ-700 aircraft (a twin-jet regional airliner carrying 70 passengers), 28 Bombardier Q200s (a turboprop that carries 37 passengers) and 18 Bombardier Q400s (a turboprop like the Q200 that has a stretched fuselage like the CJR-700 with passenger capacity of 74). Horizon Bombardier (formerly de Havilland) Q200 at Portland, Oregon airport. Bombardier CRJ-700. All of Horizon's planes have cabins with a single aisle and two narrow seats on either side. The aircraft sit close to the ground and boarding is done via a door with integral stairs that opens vertically. No jetway needed: you walk out to the plane and climb the steps on the inside of the opened door. Viewed from the terminal are passengers walking to or from these small airliners unlike the comparative hordes queueing in the jetways to board the usual 737s, 747s and 777s. And the smaller aircraft are different when they take off, especially the turboprop-powered ones. Although they cruise at slower speeds than pure-jet liners, turboprops are faster off the mark in short drag-races. They become airborne in less distance and climb faster, at least for the first few thousand feet. Then there are the places they fly to. Instead of Chicago, New York, London, and San Francisco, Horizon's planes head for Wenatchee, Pasco and Yakima. The passengers even seem a bit different. Actually, they probably are different from those flying to major airports. Flights between major airports seem to carry a larger proportion of business travelers -- or passengers in business dress, anyway. Folks flying to small cities seem to favor casual clothing almost exclusively. Small cities and small aircraft don't mean small fares. Regional airlines often charge surprisingly high fares for short flights where they have no airline competition. The "competition" for short-haul airlines is the automobile; a too-high fare will lead potential customers to say "Hell!: for that kind of money I'd rather drive!" Last weekend, after decades of flying big jets, I finally entered that parallel world of regional air travel. Due to a family matter, The Fiancée and I had occasion to round-trip between Seattle and Yakima. Yakima is over in dry, cold (at this time of year) eastern Washington. It's 103 air-miles from Seattle and the cost of our... posted by Donald at December 12, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Twist or Press?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do I push it or pull it? Does it go to the left or the right? Perhaps it's meant to be pressed, or maybe lifted. If it's spring-loaded, will it give me enough time to wash and rinse? Perhaps this is one that needs to be pushed and twisted. Is there any way to adjust the ratio of hot to cold? Or will the water come out scalding no matter what I do? Do we celebrate the dynamism and inventiveness of America's plumbing-supply industry? Or do we find having to puzzle the code out anew every time we confront an unfamiliar faucet a pain in the neck? Best Michael... posted by Michael at December 12, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Holiday Birthdays
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Not long ago in a comment, Michael mentioned that he had a birthday coming up "in a couple of weeks" which, if my math is halfway correct, means his birthday must be pretty close to Christmas. My sister is a similar case, having been born December 28th. My parents made sure her birthday was properly celebrated, but there was nothing they could do to have it be anything other than an also-ran occasion. In adulthood I annually run a serious risk of forgetting to make sure she gets a birthday card from me: There are distractions having to do with thinking to buy it in the first place and further distractions related to getting it mailed in time. Then there is The Fiancée's birthday, which falls on or about Thanksgiving Day. And possibly worst of all is my own birthday, October 31st -- better-known as Halloween. The upside is that the day is easy to remember. The downside was mostly a childhood thing. Besides tiresome jokes about being a "ghost" or "pumpkin" and such, there was the problem of my birthday party. Unless it was on a weekend, my party had to be squeezed in between school dismissal time and trick-or-treating, which usually meant that my pals would bail from the party as soon as the cake and ice cream were eaten. [Sigh.] Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 11, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments