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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Thursday, January 5, 2006

Online Lit
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Thanks to Tatyana, who wrote me the following note: The best, uncensored, least commercialized, newest and most talented authors in Russia are now online, and have been for the last decade. There are also online competitions, literary awards and subsequent publishing of works (most popular - short stories, but there is poetry and novels, too) on paper; I have some books presented by authors whom I know thru Live Journal communication; some of the stories in the books I've read first online. Tatyana points us all to a posting at Language Hat where LH and she supply the key links. Those who haven't already run across it will enjoy (and learn a lot from) a Guest Posting Tatyana did for 2Blowhards about the Russian Bard scene in the U.S. * That inspired linker Bluewyvern has turned up some webcomix that sound tempting. (She also supplies a link to this adorably-drawn Flash card-toss game.) * Sepia Mutiny sponsors a regular "nanofiction" festival -- inviting readers to submit prose fiction pieces of no more than 55 words in length. I found SM's latest collection of nanofiction a lot of fun, with mucho on display in the way of ingenuity, wit, and sweet emotion. The festival includes an enchanting, rule-bending contribution from MD that's like a piece of narrative haiku. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 5, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

New E-Book Readers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Sucher brings news of a promising new Dutch e-book reader. And Sony introduces their own impressive e-reading machine. I ventured a few thoughts about e-books here. Short version: the "book" in "e-book" is something we shouldn't get too hung up about. (We get 'way too hung up about the "book" thing generally, IMHO.) What's more important is the development of e-reading and e-writing -- and we're already a long ways down that road. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 5, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Hotels (1): Cheap Digs
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ever stay in a really ratty hotel or motel? I suspect many Blowhards readers have stayed in cheap ones at one time or another, and some were probably ratty. I know I have. Tightwad that I sometimes am, I hate paying more for meals and lodging than necessary. And "necessary" is a function of available money. For example, when I was an Army private stationed at Fort Slocum (closed since about 1965) I used to come into New York City every weekend. Sometimes I sponged lodging at my college fraternity's chapter across the Hudson at Stevens Tech in Hoboken. Other times I had to find a room in the city. In those days adequate (clean but not at all fancy) rooms sometimes could be found at hotels having special rates for armed forces members. The one that I liked best was called (I think) The Pickwick or maybe Pickwick Arms located (as best I recall) in the lower east 50s. I also stayed at the Sloan House YMCA as well as some fairly seedy hotels. If I'd had more money, I would have selected something better. When I moved to Albany in 1970 I had to wait a few weeks for a paycheck as well as for a brand-new apartment to become available. So I stayed in a shabby joint part-way up the hill from where I worked on Broadway, a block or so south of State Street. This hotel had the feature I like least -- the down-the-hall-bathroom. I could mention more such hotels, but you are probably getting the idea by now. My mental attitude when staying in such places was a combination of (1) disgust at myself for having to do so and (2) a stoic "ya gotta do what ya gotta do" attempt to blank-out what I was experiencing. The former no doubt reflects my middle-class background, for which I make no apologies. Perhaps people from other backgrounds or who were born in different generations might have another reaction, but I have no way of telling without conducting a research project. During 1980-95 when I had my own business I again had to be careful of lodging costs when I was on the road making sales calls. I never sought the absolute cheapest motel, but I looked for inexpensive ones that seemed reasonably safe and clean. For example, I used to drive down to California four or five times a year. Along Interstate 5 or related freeways, when more than about 30 miles from cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose or the Los Angeles complex, I tended to stay at Motel 6. Closer-in, I steered clear of Motel 6s because they seemed seedier and I usually didn't like their locations. A better close-in bet was the more expensive Super 8 chain (get it?, nudge, nudge ... super-RATE!). And there were other chains that were a notch up from Motel 6, but below expense-account-level motels. And when I got... posted by Donald at January 4, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Prairie Mary
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've been enjoying the words and thoughts of Mary Scriver, who started visiting and leaving comments at 2Blowhards a few weeks back. To my shame, though, I only started catching up with Mary's own blogging last night. Dumbo that I can be, I'd assumed that her name in our Comments only linked to an email address. In fact, she's a serious (and seriously entertaining) writer and blogger. Mary introduces herself here. She introduces the prairie in "Prairie Mary" here. Mary has spent considerable time with the Blackfeet tribe; she makes them sound like a fascinating people. Great quote: In a tribe, family loyalty is an absolute rule -- it trumps any legal requirement, it cannot be put down without resigning membership, and it saves many a scalawag. It works great if the people involved are in a fairly stable environment and are pretty much the same kind of people. Rule of law becomes necessary as soon as the people involved are from different places, different customs, and have no genetic or affectional families present, which is the case with many reservation residents now. Here's another music-to-my-ears passage, from a posting about a regional writer whose work she likes named Jack Holterman: Some people sneer at “local” and “regional” writers or writing. What they really mean is that the writing is not dominated by New York. It's “out there in the provinces.” In other words, of no matter to such aristocrats as we in the center of the world. But I relish the idiosyncratic and often authoritative -- to say nothing of relevant -- writing of locals. Mary clearly lives a full life, and as a writer she's able to get a lot of it down very evocatively on the page and screen. How I love the combo of the ornery, the rhapsodic, and the expansive that she conveys in her words. It takes me right out West. I'm eager to know what Mary thinks of the work of Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams. I'm also glad to learn that Mary keeps two other blogs as well -- this one about writing (and about teaching writing), and this one about her late husband, the Western sculptor Robert Scriver. Mary, how about putting together a meta-posting, where you link to a nice sampling of your own favorite postings? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 4, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

The New Yorker Wants Me
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The New Yorker really, really wants me to become a subscriber: If they're willing to knock almost 90% off the usual cost, then why shouldn't they be willing to give me the magazine outright? Come to think of it: If they want me that badly, then why don't they pay me to take their magazine? Or would I then no longer qualify as a subscriber? Donald riffed here on the theme of subscribing to magazines. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 4, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Although kids love shiney things, does it automatically follow that adults should too? In any case, mainstream architects never seem to outgrow the taste: For them, too much shine-iness is never enough. I wrote here about the bizarre passion architects have for angles, abstractions, and glass. We recognize "noise pollution" as something disagreeable, and as something worth minimizing. Why are we so much more reluctant to denounce visual offenses? I don't have synaesthesia, but when I round a corner and encounter this kind of thing -- -- it hits me just like a loud, obnoxious noise. But why stop with cold, flat, and reflective? Why not coat the ensemble with silver? Instead of relieving the pain, why not heighten it instead? Works in S&M dungeons, or so I hear. Here's a zigzagging, twinkly thing going up near where I work. Glad to haveya in the neighborhood, he said, shielding his eyes. Click on that photograph to see a larger, and far-more-eye-searing, version. Taking that photograph nearly burned out the sensor in my Kodak digicam. Here's a taste of what could have been in each one of these cases: A little easier on the eyes, no? Although there's bright sun on that brick surface, you can walk by without needing to don dark glasses. Despite appearances, this brick building is a brand-new one. Small lesson: There is no pressing reason why new buildings have to wear skins made of glass-and-metal. By the way, do you find that many of these chic-tin-can buildings look like bad furniture left over from the '80s, the kinds of once-fashionable/now-silly artifacts you giggle over at lawn sales? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 4, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Architecture "Worth a Journey"
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Would you ever take a major trip to visit just one particular architectural site? I did once (as I'll explain), but that was when I was young. Nowadays a building I wish to see might weigh when planning a trip to Europe, but it would never be the focus of that trip. I'll take detours to visit a site holding particular interest, but that's the most I'll do. And if a site happens to be in a city I was visiting anyway, I'll make certain to take it in. (By the way, that "Worth a Journey" phrase in the title comes from those Michelin Green Guides -- their travel guides, not to be confused with their Red Guides dealing with food and lodging. The Green Guides have a star system that's usually summarized in fold-out map pages at the front of the books. The top category is "worth a journey" at three stars. Two stars is "worth a detour" and one star means "interesting".) Here are some architectural sites I've made sure to visit on various journeys: Glasgow School of Art. This is a Charles Rennie Macintosh masterpiece. Glasgow is a city often ignored by tourists, but I included it in a Scottish itinerary because I'd wanted to see that building in person since high school days. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. This gripped my imagination since I first came across pictures of it in a book I read when I was ten. As it happened, Istanbul was included in a 2004 tour of the region and Hagia Sophia was one of the stops. But I would have played hooky from the tour group to have seen it. Helsinki Main Railroad Station designed by Eliel Saarinen. Another must-see from high school days. When I finally visited Helsinki last fall it was my first stop. Maginot Line fortress -- surface observation post and artillery turret. The Maginot Line might be classed more as engineering than architecture, but it has fascinated me since childhood. I tried to visit a fortress on my first trip to Europe, but arrived in Thionville too late in the day to track one down. I succeeded the next trip. (I plan a post on the propaganda Maginot Line and the real one.) Ryoanji temple, Kyoto. Back in high school I did an (extremely brief) exploration of Zen Buddhism and one of the books I bought had a photo of Ryoanji's famous rock-gravel garden. It fascinated me so much that, seven or eight years later when stationed in Korea, I took a week's leave to visit Japan and included a special journey from Tokyo to Kyoto to visit Ryoanji. Below are a couple sites that have intrigued me since grammar-school days. I would definitely visit them if I were nearby. But I'm not likely to ever see them in person because I'm not very motivated to travel to the counties where they're located. Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Ankgor Wat in Cambodia. Finally, just... posted by Donald at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (20) comments

The Blooker Prize
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you heard yet of that new form, the "blook"? A blook is a book made out of material that first showed up on a blog. The publish-it-yourself outfit -- whose service I hear good reports about, by the way -- is sponsoring a new prize for the best blook of 2005. But hurry: entries for the Blooker Prize have to be submitted no later than January 30. Best, Michael UPDATE: Lulu has also sponsored a study of what makes for a good bestselling-book title. The results are amusing, with John ("Spy Who Came in from the Cold") Le Carre recognized as the master of the bestseller-title. You can see how well your own book's title fares here. The title of the novel The Wife and I just published scores better than "The Da Vinci Code"!... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Whither Movies?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Will 2005 go down as the beginning of the end of movie history as we once knew it? Anne Thompson takes a look back. Budd Schulberg takes the long view. I notice that a revised musical-theater version of Schulberg's wonderful novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" opens in NYC on January 16. I consider "Sammy" a masterpiece of modern on-the-page narrative fiction, and wrote a few words about it here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Rachel's best-of-TinkertyTonk is one whipsmart and funny collection. (Rachel also links to a Stephen Pollard posting about a book by Anthony Browne ... Well, the money-fact is that a spike in HIV cases in Britain has been caused not by unsafe sex, as the PC establishment would like to believe, but by immigration from Africa. Here's a good Anthony Browne piece asking why England should admit many immigrants at all.) * GNXP's highlights-of-the-year should get your thought-processes racing. * I've seen a grand total of none of the movies on Steve Sailer's best-of '05 list. * Chelsea Girl's very racy best-of collection will definitely make your mouse-hand break a sweat. * Colleen records "100 Things I learned in 2005" (a 2-parter, here and here), and establishes herself as the master of the-list-as-performance art. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

The Natural
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's a fun digital-retouching/glamor-photography webpage. The retouched photos are so very perfect, aren't they? The creatures portrayed make me think of James Cameron creations more than actual people. No pores, no scars, no ripply fat, no scratch marks. No interesting personal idiosyncrasies either. Although the digital artist behind the site obviously does excellent work, I find the original photos a lot sexier than his retouched variants on them. So shoot me for preferring real women to my cyber-fantasies about them. Come to think of it, I don't have cyber-fantasies about women. I don't have cyber-fantasies period. Which I guess makes me mighty Old School ... Hey, in this era of thongs-as-standard-apparel, dictatorial p-r handlers, Photoshop flawlessness, and severe pubic styling, who's going to make the case for something a little more personal, maybe even a little more natural? Soft-porn exloitation star (and proud Jersey girl) Misty Mundae, that's who. Here she is, interviewed by the online-porn king Mr. Skin: Mr. Skin: In our present world of bare-down-below starlets, you've opted to pretty much keep the nether-hairstyling of the '70s alive ... Is this an actual decision on your part and, if so, is it aesthetic or just a matter of comfort? Misty Mundae: Both. Aesthetically I feel that the 70's had it right with regards to more than just pubic hair. And besides I am lazy and I have more important things to do than remove hair from every inch of my body every damn day. That shit is time-consuming. My morning routine consists of washing my hair, getting dressed and putting sun block on my face. Ladies, where do you find the patience? In some things, retro definitely rules. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Evo-Bio and the Arts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Edge asks a lot of tiptop brainiacs "What's your dangerous idea?" Denis Dutton responds with a snappy intro to the promise evolutionary biology holds out to reinvogorate thinking about the arts. Writing for TCS, Nick Gillespie visits the Modern Language Association's recent get-together and returns with a report about the ways some arty academic scholars are beginning to make use of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. It's about time. After 30 years spent turning narcissistic, Frenchified pirouettes, arts-scholars really do owe it to the rest of us to start contributing a little something of substance to the conversation. I've been a big fan of these developments since the '80s: Darwinism and neuroscience hold out the possibility of mutual respect between high-level academic thinking and our everyday experience of culture. On the other hand, well, honestly: I sometimes wonder why we worry about academics, academic criticism, and academic scholarship at all. Do the arts derive much benefit from the attentions of academic intellectuals? With every passing year I'm less convinced they do. Perhaps those of us who get a lot out of the culture-thang would do better to ignore academia entirely. Let 'em play their stupid games, and let's get on with life. Still, it can be awfully nice when brainy people say helpful things. So if anyone's curious and wants to dip a toe in the evo-bio/neuroscience/arts waters, let me suggest a few resources. Ellen Dissanayake's "Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why" is a fabulous blend of anthropology and Darwinism: down-to-earth (Dissanayake has done a lot of field work), open-minded (she's an independent scholar, not a brown-noser out for tenure), and put together with an exciting fervor. Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner's "Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose" is every bit as mind-blowing. It's a how-to-write-well book that's also a discussion of the connections between neuroscience and classicism. Like the Dissanayake, it's a fun and accessible read. The best web-freebie resource I'm aware of for this kind of material is Denis Dutton's own website, where he makes available a lot of his essays, all of them brilliant brain-openers, and all of them written with Dutton's brand of 18th-century-ish cheerful vigor and humane good sense. Here's Dutton on Dissanayake, and Dutton on Mark Turner. Dutton also guides the interested to many other books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, January 2, 2006

Resubscribe ... or Not?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't subscribe to many magazines these days, but boy do I get a lot of subscription-renewal mailings. Maybe I should keep better track of these things, but my impression is that some magazines start coming after me six months or more before the current subscription expires. Michael is in a better position to explain this, but let me toss out a few plausible reasons anyway. Even in our fast-paced, computer-driven business world, subscriptions seem to take a long time to get processed. For example, after mailing a renewal check maybe a month before my subscription ran out, I found the next few issues arriving in the mail a couple of weeks after they appeared on news stands. (Normally these appearances would be less than a week apart.) In fact, once in a while I'll buy a magazine from a stand fearing the Postal Service lost my magazine, only to have it turn up in my box a few days later. On the other hand, it's possible that I actually re-subscribed so late that it was processed as if it were a new subscription, thus accounting for the delay. If you examine the mailing tag on a magazine or your address block on the renewal form (these are the same, or nearly so, in most cases) you'll find the final issue is indicated: for instance, "SEP 06." So I might take it that I can wait until August before sending my check. But this would probably be running things too close because the "September 2006" date on the magazine is there to tell news stands to remove that issue come September. Better that I should mail my check in July. But what's in it for me to re-subscribe to a SEP 06 bingo-date magazine in February, when the first notice darkens my post office box? In theory, the $19.95 I'd be sending them represents a loss to me of untold wealth to gained by investing it until the last possible re-subscription moment. And it would be the magazine company, not me, that would be reaping that rich reward. In addition to front-loading revenue, an early renewal would lower marketing costs in that further solicitations would be unnecessary. Again, I haven't made a tally, but it seems that I can get as many as four or five notices -- especially if I fail to renew. These notices each probably cost between 50 cents and a dollar to send; this can amount to 15-20% or more of the amount of that renewal check they're trying to pry loose. I should add that it's no secret that large-circulation magazines push heavily-discounted subscriptions in order to attract advertising dollars, their real source of any profits given that subscription and news stand sales income do not cover operating costs. Media buyers (who a friend of mine in the media data trade characterized as having "the intellect of a peanut") tend to use circulation counts and advertising costs per thousand... posted by Donald at January 2, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Sunday, January 1, 2006

It's a Book
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few weeks before Christmas, a package arrived with a return address neither The Wife nor I recognized. We tore the box open ... and there they were: the "author's copies" (around 20) of the novel the two of us wrote together a year ago. An Amazon page for the book had appeared a couple of months ago, so we knew publication-time was near. But we were still a little taken by surprise. The publisher (as is typical) hadn't exactly been in close touch. Still, there our words were, between OK covers, on pretty-nice paper, and presented in -- thank god -- a readable typeface. Phew! Needless to say, I've been strutting around feeling smug for the last few weeks -- that's "Mr. Author" to you, peons! Or "Mr. Half-an-Author," anyway. The truth is, though, that our novel (the first one for both of us) isn't likely to be a candidate for next year's high-brow prizes. It's no piece of painful self-expression let alone any attempt at "literature," whatever that might be. Instead, it's a commercial piece of light entertainment -- a sexed-up potboiler. The project didn't even originate with the two of us. It came as a commission. An agent asked The Wife -- who has written a lot of different kinds of fiction -- if she could produce a raunchy pop novel in two months; a publisher promoting a line of such books needed a new title in a hurry. The Wife eyeballed the contract and -- pro that she is -- said, "No problem." Then she came home and asked Lovin' Hubby if he was in the mood to co-write a novel with her. And we were off. What a busy two months we had. For the sake of efficiency, we made a decision to pull the book together as though we were producing a movie -- to dream up situations, characters, story, and actions before moving on to the writing-writing phase. Many "real writers" make a point of discovering their novel in the course of writing it. They're proud of taking this tack; they think of it as The Artistic Way. Well, that certainly wasn't going to be our way! In other words, we first developed a blueprint rather like a treatment for a film, and only when our blueprint was in good shape did we turn to directing our movie -- er, to writing our novel. It was a good policy choice, I think. In any case, it seemed to minimize misunderstandings and streamline the workflow. Once the blueprint was solid, we never had a moment when we didn't know what our characters needed to do or where our story needed to turn. And lemme tellya, writing a scene goes a lot faster when you don't have to blunder your way blindly through it. When it came time to write-write, we were able to work on well-defined sections. We'd discuss what needed to happen in a given chapter, and... posted by Michael at January 1, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments