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  1. Hunger, Premature Death and the American Revolution
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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Hunger, Premature Death and the American Revolution
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards— Back in junior high school, when they were teaching you about the American Revolution, did you ever get the feeling that the Americans of the late 18th century must have been incredibly touchy people? They had a set of grievances, to be sure, with their British political overlords, but the grievances didn’t seem (to me, anyway) sufficient to incite large numbers of people to outright rebellion. Lots and lots of people throughout history—in fact, most people throughout history—have had a much longer list of grievances than the American colonists did, and the vast majority of 'em in most times and places just went about their business without feeling obligated to organize insurrections. It was unpatriotic to say so out loud, but I always suspected that at least some of my teachers circa 1968 privately thought that the American revolutionaries were a bunch of fractious adolescent punks, like, well, me and my fellow students. Just to check if things are still being presented in the same light, I picked up my daughter’s history textbook the other day. At least based on what I read in “The American Journey: Building a Nation—California Edition” (McGraw-Hill, 2000, by Joyce Appleby, Ph.D., Alan Brinkley, Ph.D. and James M. McPherson, Ph.D.) I found eight chief provocations for American Revolution: 1. The British prohibition of 1763 on colonists moving west of the Appalachian Mountains 2. The stationing of 10,000 British troops in colonies and on frontiers 3. Stricter enforcement Britain’s mercantilist trade laws, including new legal measures, including writs of assistance, to search for contraband goods 4. Special courts established for smugglers which abolished trial by jury 5. The Stamp Act, which taxed all printed materials in the colonies 6. Assertion of a Parliamentary right to tax colonists directly, without consulting colonial legislatures 7. New tariffs on imported goods—glass, tea, paper, lead 8. Friction between colonists and British troops in Boston I dimly remembered most of this stuff. The revolutionaries still come off looking a bit like wild men who went to war over a far lower level of governmental interference in their affairs than contemporary Americans experience daily. However, I read a very interesting book recently that puts the American grievances into a rather more understandable context. The book is Robert William Fogel’s “The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100.” (You can buy it here.) Fogel is a Nobel prize-winning economist and socio-economic historian whose work incorporates biometric data (like people’s heights, weights, lifespans, etc.) to supplement the more narrow financial metrics of traditional economics. This too-slim book covers a number of fascinating topics including contemporary health care and welfare-state finance, but the part I want to highlight here is material from the first chapter. According to Fogel’s table 1.1., “Life Expectancy At Birth in Seven Nations, 1725-2100,” Americans had an interpolated life expectancy in 1775 of 53.5 years. Citizens of “England or UK” had an interpolated life expectancy in 1775 of 36.5 years. That’s a seventeen year advantage... posted by Friedrich at January 14, 2006 | perma-link | (35) comments

Friday, January 13, 2006

Feeling a Little Crowded In Here?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Unwelcome, if not unexpected, news for those of us who think the country's too crowded already, thank you very much: Sometime this year, the U.S.'s population will pass 300 million. When I was born, there were around 150 million people in the country; as recently as 1967, the population was only 200 million. Some estimates have us passing 400 million by 2040, and won't that be fun? Interesting comparison: in 1970, the country was 4.5% Hispanic; this year it's 14.5% Hispanic. The main cause for these ballooning numbers? According to a Roper study, "immigration is the driving force behind population growth in the U.S." Interesting to learn from the same study that 3/4ths of current Americans think immigration rates should be slowed. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 13, 2006 | perma-link | (31) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Mary Scriver is crazy about Madison Smartt Bell's how-to-write book, "Narrative Design." I'm not surprised to learn that Mary has taken acting classes. More writers should, IMHO. There's a lot more to writing than just moving words around on the page -- for instance, connecting emotionally with your material and bringing your characters to life. These are skills many writers don't have, and that good acting classes teach. * It's Robert Kuttner vs. Milton Friedman. (Link thanks to Econlog) * Searchie enjoys a special bond with her niece. * Yahmdallah reports on his latest reading and viewing, explaining what's wrong with "King Kong," what's right with "40 Year Old Virgin," and wondering why the nonreligious don't get believers. * Lynn isn't sure she wants to be handling a certain book owned by Brown University. (UPDATE/CORRECTION: In fact, Lynn's a curious soul, and would very much like to go see and touch this book.) * It's always fun to run the eyeballs over a list of last year's bestsellers. * What's with that kinky Wachowski brother anyway? Rolling Stone explains. (Link thanks to Anne Thompson) * Mike Hill tries to make himself look bad and fails. * I've been getting a lot out of exploring the very striking photojournalism of Esther Bubley, which was pointed out to me by Dave Lull. * What color is the editorial side of New York's glossy-magazine world? Lizzy Ratner's answer: "ivory, bone, mist." Great quote: "Of the 203 staffers and contributors listed on the Vanity Fair masthead, six—or less than 3 percent—are people of color." This in a city that is 65% nonwhite. (Link thanks to Steve Sailer) * The New Urbanism's Rick Cole did a spectacular job reviving Pasadena's downtown. Now he's trying to do the same for Ventura. John Massengale reprints the story. * Are too many conservatives proud of being blockheads? Mark Gavreau Judge thinks so. Judge calls himself a "metrosexual conservative." A "metrocon"? Lordy but life does seem to be passing me by. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 13, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Townes Van Zandt
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The price we pay for art? Or what a lot of hard living will do? I was expecting to be annoyed by "Be Here to Love Me," Margaret Brown's new movie about the late Texas folk/country troubador Townes Van Zandt. I had read that the movie wasn't meant to be anything so banal as a straightforward documentary, and that had gotten my hackles up. What could possibly be wrong with simply telling the Townes story, introducing Townes' people, and including a lot of performance footage? Just the facts -- and the music -- ma'am. God damn arty filmmakers, always trying to put themselves between me and the information I want ... As it turned out, I experienced the annoyance I was anticipating only a couple of times, and then only fleetingly. I spent most of the movie feeling blissed-out, in a hurts-so-bad-it's-good kind of way. Is "Be Here to Love Me" the downbeat, elliptical, artily hard-to-categorize movie I was expecting? Sure. Does Margaret Brown leave big parts of the Townes story blurry and unaccounted for, just as I feared? Yup. But, as it turned out, this was all fine by me. Enough of the information comes across; enough of the key people make substantial appearances; enough of Townes' music is heard. Margaret Brown didn't try to make the definitive Townes Van Zandt biography; she's leaving room for others to do that. What she made instead is a glancing and touching mood piece -- a movie that's half about Townes Van Zandt and half about how his music can make you feel. This dreamy, half-story/half-mood approach makes sense given how powerfully Townes Van Zandt's music -- given, in fact, how powerfully the whole Townes Van Zandt thang -- can hit a person. Van Zandt, who died in 1997, was an underground legend. He was a songwriter's songwriter: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, the Black Crowes, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, the Cowboy Junkies, and Gillian Welch have all spoken about his brilliance as a songwriter. He was also a charismatic and low-key performer. And, although he never had a hit of his own, he was loved for the purity and beauty of his records too. "Townes doesn't have non-obsessive fans,'' Margaret Brown said to one interviewer. Count me among them. I stumbled across his music in the early '80s and have been hooked ever since. I've played his music more than any other artist's, and it's a big regret of mine that I saw Townes perform live only once. But what a beautiful show it was. Townes was on a double bill with his buddy and fellow Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. Both men performed solo, Guy first then Townes, walking out alone, telling their stories and jokes, singing their songs while playing guitar. On stage, Guy Clark was solid, craftsmanlike, companionable, and down-to-earth -- an old shoe, but one with a lot of grit and soul. I love Guy Clark's music, by the way.... posted by Michael at January 13, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Dormitory Boys
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have y'all caught up with the oeuvre of The Dormitory Boys? In the very competitive webcam-karaoke field, they seem to be the guys to beat. (UPDATE: make that "webcam/lip-synching field." Thanks to Robert for the correction.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 12, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Podcast Finds
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you dipped a toe yet in the podcast waters? I'm a podcast-listening babe and newbie myself -- hey, I guess we all are. And, being incapable of handling too much in the way of technical complications, I've decided to limit my podcast adventures strictly to That Which Is Easily Located at the iTunes Store. Even so, I've turned up some finds. Violet Blue is a funny, sweet, and resourceful alt-erotica entrepreneur: writer, editor, web presence, and now podcaster. She's rowdy and good-natured; she seems to like arousal and naughtiness for their own lovely sake; and in the episodes of her podcast that I've listened to, she has never once gone political. Radio Economics is run by James Reese, a professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate. A Radio Economics show consists of Reese phoning and chatting with one prominent economist for 20 or 30 minutes. So far I've enjoyed chats with Paul Krugman (who is much more even-handed and affable than you'd guess from his notorious NYTimes op-ed column), Tim ("Undercover Economist") Harford, and George Mason U. department chief Donald Boudreaux. Interesting talks all, with plenty of oddball digressions. Boudreaux, who co-does the excellent econblog Cafe Hayek, talks about the importance of reaching the public in intelligible terms, and he rightly heaps praise on the work of one of my own favorite blogging teams, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution. JivaDiva is the charming and likable Alanna, a Colorado yoga teacher in the Jivamukti tradition. Alanna gives five-minute talks that are helpful and EZ intros to yoga philosophy. In a one-off show that isn't part of a series, Tom Wolfe interviews the brain scientist Michael Gazzaniga, the author of "The Ethical Brain," about how new discoveries in neuroscience are likely to affect thinking about ethics. Wolfe is likably, if surprisingly, scatterbrained and excitable, while Gazzanga is amused, patient, and substantial. Though I don't know of any way to link directly to these podcasts, finding and downloading them is simple enough. Open up iTunes; go to the iTunes store; click on "podcasts." Then type a word or two -- "Radio Economics" or "JivaDiva," for instance -- into the search box. Podcasts on iTunes are almost all free. If you click on them they'll download into the iTunes collection you have on your own computer. Sooner than you know it, you'll be strolling around enjoying podcasts on your iPod. What I'm lovin' about podcasts is what I love about the blog-o-sphere: the garage-band enthusiasm and energy, and the real-people, do-it-yourself atmosphere. (Podcasts are to radio what blogs are to newspapers and magazines.) The shows I've liked best have often been anything but slick and professional. They're loose, they're idiosyncratic, and they're often very rough around the edges. But the sound of real human beings comes through much more clearly than it does on most professional radio. Eager to hear from others about their podcast finds too. God knows there's a lot of... posted by Michael at January 12, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Short-Fiction Audio Bliss
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As I walked to work listening to this collection of short stories, I was smiling mirthfully when I wasn't bursting into malicious laughter. I'd forgotten how brilliant and funny a writer Guy de Maupassant can be. Born in 1850, Maupassant is usually thought of as one of the creators of the modern short story, along with Poe, Chekhov, and the Brothers Grimm. As for his bio, well, apologies: I have no idea how to characterize the class he came from. In any case, he grew up in Normandy the adoring son of a literature-lovin' mom. During years spent toiling as a clerk in Paris, he began writing seriously and started to find his way in the literary world, becoming friendly with the likes of Flaubert, Henry James, and Turgenev. His first published story was a sensation, and his fame and success only grew. Writing came easily and he had a good business sense; the stories and novels poured out, and the money poured in. (In the 1880s, he finished six novels and 300 short stories, as well as mucho incidental writing.) He traveled extensively and enjoyed owning a yacht. He was quite the late-19th century writing/publishing phenomenon. But when he died of complications from spyhillis, he was paranoid, insane, and only 43 years old. Although Maupassant is considered one of the early masters of the modern short story, almost no stories that are written today show his influence. (Glad to be corrected on this if I'm wrong, by the way.) Today's short fiction is largely divided between genre stuff (horror, mystery, sci-fi) and arty stuff (writing workshop/New Yorker fiction). Poe is the granddaddy of the genre tradition, while Chekhov set the pattern for much of the highbrow short fiction. Despite his fame and success, Maupassant no longer seems to be looked-to for much. His stories generally aren't Poe-ish. Though he wrote some ghost and horror stories, most of his fiction isn't plot-driven, it doesn't make use of verbal music, and it doesn't rely on sensationalism or spookiness. The characters and the actions in most Maupassant are as plausible and recognizable -- as "realistic" -- as anything in Zola. The language is crystal clear and to the point. But his stories aren't Chekhovian -- ie., casual-seeming, deceptively slight, and epiphany-heavy -- either. Things really happen. Maupassant's people confront predicaments, take actions, and struggle to get what they want and where they want to go. He isn't trying to capture the ethereal in a net of words. Maupassant was famous for the witty ways he "turned" his stories -- for his twists, his knottings-and-unknottings, and his kickers. Come to think of it, this may help explain why Maupassant's influence is so hard to detect nowadays. One of his disciples was that lover-of-trick-endings O. Henry. And if there's anyone a contempo short story writer is strictly forbidden to imitate, it's O. Henry -- gimmicky, you know. As though the contempo workshop short story isn't equally as gimmicky,... posted by Michael at January 11, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Maybe the Sky Really is Falling
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems as though the ground beneath the traditional movie and TV businesses is turning to sand, doesn't it? Two recent, telling announcements: * Google will be competing with iTunes in delivering video. * And a witty idea: The newest film festival in town limits submissions to films that are playable on an iPod. Fans of fiction set in the traditional movie world shouldn't miss Anne Thompson's posting about her favorite Hollywood fiction-books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 10, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

The Steve Jobs Show
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- You can watch a video of Steve Jobs' MacWorld presentation here. In Quicktime format, needless to say. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to Dave Lull, who alerted me to this good text summary of the announcements and goings-on at Macworld.... posted by Michael at January 10, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

Exercise (1)
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Suppose you're an expert, even an authority figure. Let's say you're the medical establishment! As you'd expect, everyday people come to you in good faith looking for useful and trustworthy advice. Perhaps they want to be fit and healthy, and to feel physically better! Let's say you give them your field's best advice. And let's say it turns out that almost no one is able to follow it. How would you explain this result? Would you wonder if something's amiss with your advice? Or would you conclude that everyday people are hopeless, disgraceful failures? It seems to me that, when reality proves balky, all too many experts put the blame on reality. Experts do seem to love looking at their studies, consulting with their peers, and laying their logically-deduced and inescapable advice on the rest of us. When we protest against it, dodge it, or drop out entirely, their response is to wash their hands contemptuously of us. After all, we aren't experts -- thus we must be losers. So it's a thing to be cherished and applauded when the experts show evidence of questioning their own role in this dynamic. Maybe impossible-to-follow advice contributes to making the original problem -- the one the expert advice was supposed to solve -- worse. Perhaps inhuman attitudes make many people rebel. Radical thought: Perhaps the experts' job isn't to boss us civilians around; perhaps it's to serve us. If the experts are handing out advice that 95% of us are unable to make use of, perhaps that isn't evidence of our inadequacy. Perhaps it's a sign that the experts have failed. Testy though I probably sound, these are in fact grateful reflections prompted by time spent with an excellent new how-to-be-healthy book, Dr. Harvey Simon's "The No Sweat Exercise Plan." Simon is a Harvard Med School doc who has taken note not just of the familiar fact that many Americans are leading sluggish, TV-addled, movement-free lives. (Interesting figure: the average American spends 101 minutes of the average day sitting in a car.) He has also taken note of the fact that most people haven't proven to be capable of being regular cardio-aerobic exercisers. This is no "You're outta shape, now get your sorry ass to the gym!" book, in other words. After all, as well-established as is the fact that many Americans are in sloppily-bad shape, so is the fact that very few people are capable of being regular gym maniacs. Although I'm as un-expert as a person can be, I still don't find this remotely surprising, do you? The prospect of exercising, sheesh ... You grit your way through a grueling cardio routine, you follow it up by pushing around a few weights -- and then you have to do it again tomorrow. And so on, unto eternity. Aches, pains, injuries ... What's appealing about this prescription? Isn't it enough to slog through the commute, stay awake at work, tend to the house, keep the... posted by Michael at January 10, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Monday, January 9, 2006

Art & The Middle Class
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards— I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and social class. It all started when I went to a rather fancy movie house, the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood. The Arclight Cinema makes movie-going a surprisingly upscale experience. They have the highest ticket prices I’ve ever laid eyes on. The Arclight people sell assigned-seat tickets like a legitimate theater—there’s no hand-to-hand combat trying to get two seats together at this joint. There’s a restaurant in the lobby that is actually worth patronizing. The concession stand even features gourmet sausages and chocolates. I hope you get the picture. While the Arclight shows all the big commercial films, the bulk of its offerings are on the arty side. This approach seemed mirrored by the theater’s customers. On my way to the john I plowed through polite crowds of obviously monied adult cineastes…not a screaming kid or horny teenager in sight. Just outside the bathroom I casually glanced over and spotted the only discordant note in the whole complex: an old-fashioned, pulpy-lurid movie poster from the 1930s. I don’t think it actually featured a monster carrying off a scantily dressed maiden, but the poster had that brash, pop-y feeling to it. And suddenly it hit me what I was finding so surreal about the whole Arclight scene. It was the sight of all these middle-class people looking for an aristocratic high art experience from the movies, traditionally a working class entertainment medium. Pondering this paradox, I sat down and waited for the movie to start, only to overhear a girl in the row behind me talking about her recent decision to begin serious voice training in a conservatory. Apparently she had been conflicted about pursuing an arts career during an earlier bout of higher education, but now, in her mid-twenties: “I know that this is really what I want to do with my life.” Meanwhile I’m sitting there thinking: How many paying jobs are there in opera in this country? A couple hundred? And aren’t you a little long in the tooth to be beginning such a difficult and problematic career path? Is the necessity of ever earning a living not a consideration here? But as I continued to shamelessly eavesdrop, the girl was working hard to make her decision sound “professional.” She was talking as if she was going to spend her parent’s money on law school or she was on the verge of a lucrative career in medicine or accountancy or civil engineering or something. With my mental receiver tuned to the issue of social class, what I was hearing was a weird jumble of conflicting signals: (1) an aristocratic sense of entitlement about pursuing a “noble goal,” with an aristocrat’s indifference to the highly uncertain financial payoff, (2) a middle-class sense of values that needed to justify such a decision by making it seem as if she was taking up a respectable “profession,” when in fact (3) the shoot for the stars life strategy she... posted by Friedrich at January 9, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Steve Jobs Presents
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- With mere hours until MacWorld opens in San Francisco, Mac fans are burning to learn what new delights the Apple geniuses have cooked up. (I wouldn't mind an iPhoto that doesn't crash quite so often.) Steve Jobs' address is, of course, the slick, mock-turtle/rock-star highlight of these events. But what the advent of MacWorld has this media and showbizzy kinda guy really wondering about is: What goes into these high-tech dog-and-pony shows anyway? So I was tickled to run across this Mike Evangelist account of just that. Involved in the development of iDVD and Final Cut Pro, Evangelist once helped prepare the video segment of a Jobs MacWorld presentation. Excerpt: I had worked on my five-minute Final Cut Pro demo for weeks, selecting just the right sample material and honing (I thought) my delivery to a fine edge. My boss and his boss were there for moral support. Steve, as was his custom, sat in the audience. I was very nervous, and having Steve's laser-like attention concentrated on me didn't help. About a minute into the demo, Steve stopped me, saying impatiently, "you gotta get this together or we're going to have to pull this demo from the keynote." Is Steve Jobs the closest equivalent we have these days to an old-time movie-studio boss? Wikipedia explains where the expression "dog and pony show" comes from. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 8, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Girls, Bitches, Sluts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few bookjackets noticed during recent visits to Amazon: It wasn't so long ago that people lived in fear of referring to human females older than the age of 12 as anything but "women." What changed? And when? Me, I think we owe Monica Lewinsky a big debt of gratitude. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 8, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments