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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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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College administrator and arts buff

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Entrepreneur and arts buff
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Friday, January 27, 2006

G and the Arts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Agnostic has written a couple of extensive, provocative, and informative postings about race, sex, brainpower, and success in the high-fashion world. (Here and here.) I'm not sure I fully understand them or even have the G to keep up, but I certainly enjoyed having myself a wrestle with his arguments. My main problem with much speculation about G/IQ and the arts is that most of what's asserted doesn't jibe with my experience. For the IQ-is-everything crowd, nothing explains success in the arts better than G. For me, nothing -- nothing -- has been more basic to my experience of the arts over the course of three decades than the fact that many talented and successful creative-types simply aren't very smart, and that many supersmart people who would like to be creative in the artistic sense simply don't have the creativity knack. This isn't what I expected to find when I went into the arts, by the way. Like many Smart Kids, I'd been led by profs (and my own gullibility) to expect that brainpower was always and everywhere a good thing. That being so, and all other things being equal, Smart Kids would do better creatively in the arts than not-so-Smart Kids. Wrong-o. Anything but. I write as no G/IQ skeptic. I'm happy to agree that there's such a thing as cognitive horsepower, and that it tends to make a big difference in a person's life. But the arts seem to be a bit of an exception to many of the G/IQ-fundamentalist crowd's rules. This isn't some theory I'm imposing. It's how I've found the arts to be. Creative artists certainly need to have the wherewithal to be semi-functional human beings. The severely mentally-defective generally aren't going to be creative artists, though the exceptions are certainly fascinating. But past a low level of acceptability, cognitive horsepower may or may not play a positive role in a given artist's life and work. As far as I've been able to tell, there's no hard and fast rule about this. A few practical questions that need wrestling with: How to define success in the arts? Answering this question is harder than it may look. Do you define success by comparing salaries? (But can Sly Stallone be called a better actor than many of the people he out-earns?) By asking profs to supply the rankings and make the judgment calls? (But profs ... Well, patooie on them.) And how about such basic questions as, How to compare across genres within a given art form? Was Mozart more or less successful than Robert Johnson? Mozart was a gift from the gods, of course. But Robert Johnson ... Well, he played a big role in establishing the Delta blues. That's a pretty divine thing too. My own solution to this dilemma: Mozart was a Very Big Deal, and so was Robert Johnson. Elegant! But it doesn't help sort the ranking question out much, does it? There's the subjective factor, which... posted by Michael at January 27, 2006 | perma-link | (42) comments

Same Old, Same Old
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- You can read here a New York Times review by Roberta Smith of yet another Cezanne show. (Requires registration.) The show is “Cezanne in Provence” and is being mounted at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. starting January 29, 2006. Reading reviews like this, I feel like I'm stuck in a movie theater with the same film playing over and over. Not that there's anything wrong with Cezanne, I like his paintings a lot, but it’s not exactly like he’s an underexposed or neglected talent. What is it today with museums and the founding (French) fathers of Modern Art? Why do we get show after show of art that is 100+ years old and yet are still publicized with this annoyingly proselytizing tone? Why is it necessary, on the occasion of the 500th or 5000th Cezanne show, to play the schoolmaster and lecture us on the fact that his art is important because "it effectively destabilized centuries of representation to reach a deeper, fuller, nearly hallucinatory kind of realism"? I doubt that in the 1930s the art-loving public got nonstop shows of Delacroix and the Barbizon painters (i.e., the “School of 1830”), or that in the 1890s the public got nonstop shows of J. L. David and the Neoclassicists (also 100 years past their glory days). And I doubt that when Delacroix or J. L. David were shown a century after their deaths, that the curators found it necessary to hector the public about the incredible breakthroughs made by those artists, or how their art-making methods amounted to a complete overthrow of the previous artistic practice. (Despite the fact that in many respects they were as revolutionary as Cezanne.) It’s kind of amazing how nostalgic and backward looking Dogmatic Modernism has really turned out to be. Modernism, forever fixated on its long-since digested “breakthroughs” reminds me of nothing so much as listening to an aging hippy talking about being at Woodstock or at Kent State. Apparently, some kinds of revolutions are, like diamonds, forever... Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at January 27, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Boy Crisis?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Nearly 60% of the kids graduating from college these days are girls. Do we have ourselves a genuine Boy Crisis? Steve Burton links to a Newsweek story about the development, and ventures some down-to-earth opinions of his own. Long ago, FvB interviewed a big-city math teacher about what it's like to teach today's kids (Part One, Part Two). My own semi-mischievously-intended contribution: Sure, PC upbringings have done a number on boys. I see evidence of this nearly every day. But loving school and doing well in school was always a chick thing anyway ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 27, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Low-Tech Sci-Fi
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Let's say you're a well-known Science Fiction writer and you decide to knock out a handful of thousand-page novels -- a series, actually. You spend a little time scratching your head and staring at the wall till you've got a sense of the concept, plot and major characters. Now it's time to start writing. So you grab a sheet of paper and a fountain pen and get cracking. What?!? Paper? Fountain pen? Well, if you are Neal Stephenson and you are writing the "Baroque Cycle" ("Quicksilver," "The Confusion" and "The System of the World"), paper and fountain pen it is. Given that the series takes place around the year 1700, I suppose some sort of case could be made that writing with pen and ink might get you in the proper mood. But to be authentically authentic, that would mean using a quill pen, right? Actually Stephenson make no such mood-claim. He says in interviews that he thought he could draft and correct the books better using pen and ink rather than a computer. And he does use a computer, eventually transcribing his handwriting while making further corrections and changes. Stephenson has a picture of the trilogy manuscript on his website (it's a GIF image and 2Blowhards is a JPEG shop, so you'll just have to click to see it). I saw the MS in person recently. As I mentioned in my last post, I took in Paul Allen's Science Fiction Museum . One of the displays was a Stephenson manuscript. This interests me in a perverse sort of way. When personal computers with word-processing software came on the scene in the early 1980s, a number of writers leaped into print declaring their contempt for the newfangled technology. Some swore by their prehistoric Underwood or Smith-Corona manual typewriters. Others would rather die than part with a beloved IBM Selectric. And a few insisted that a pen and a legal pad were all a writer really needed (I wonder how many of these never even learned to type). As for me, I thought they were nuts. I used to write newspaper copy on typewriters. I wrote my book using one. I also drafted letters by hand. (At the office the boss' policy was that we would draft using every other line, using the in-between lines for corrections.) And time and time again I would find myself launched on a sentence and then having to twist phraseology to the breaking point to make suddenly thought-of changes without smearing on correction fluid or retyping the page. This practice leads to really awful writing. Computers were a godsend for me and the quality of my writing. I find it almost impossible to imagine how anyone can think handwriting or typewriters beat computers. But Stephenson is no fool, so who knows? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 26, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Video Blogging
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The digital tsunami has rolled over the print, music, and still-imagery businesses. Now -- what with fast connections and the video iPod -- it has reached the video and movies businesses. These two articles in Business Week seem to me to do a good job of sketching out the state of the web-video thang. Interesting times for the media-middleman world, no? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 26, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Apologies for being missing in action. I'm down and out with my third flu of the season -- a new record for me. I blame my luck on having done the recommended thing, and getting a flu shot. In any case: bad tummy, aches and pains, and a headache that prevents me from looking at the computer screen for more than a minute. Back as soon as I can arise from my bed of pain. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 26, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Painting that Launched Spaceships
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sometimes art has consequences. Rather than attempt a survey of paintings or posters that might have inspired this revolution or that architectural style, I want to focus on a painting reputed to have struck a chord with folks including some who became involved with space exploration. Certainly the painting struck a chord with me. Not long ago I posted on what I considered to be silly-looking Seattle buildings, one of which was the Experience Music Project (EMP). Besides a rock music museum, the building contains a science fiction museum. After posting the article, I remembered that I had been meaning to visit the Sci Fi museum, but hadn't gotten around to it. So I went. I have nothing to say about the interior of the building at this point except that, aside from exhibition decor, it struck me as being stark and haphazard. Sorry if those terms aren't helpful. Below is a picture of an exhibit, which doesn't quite give one a sense of the interior spaces, but it's the best I can come up with. [Note to self: Once I've sold my children into slavery to pay this year's income tax, set aside a few bucks and buy a digital camera to take pix for the blog.] Exhibit in Science Fiction Museum. The museum also has a Science Fiction Hall of Fame exhibit. One of the 2005 Hall of Fame inductees was Chesley Bonestell (pronounced bon-es-tell; born 1888, died 1986 aged 98) who painted conjectural views of the solar system and space exploration that were widely seen in the 1950s. Bonestell received architectural training and found work as a delineator. During the Depression he went to one economic bright-spot, Hollywood, and became a matte painter. In the 1940s he produced a series of paintings of planets as viewed from their moons. Some of these were published in Life magazine and later appeared in the 1949 book The Conquest of Space, illustrated by Bonestell and with text by science writer Willy Ley. The outstanding painting of the series was one of Saturn as seen from its moon Titan. Titan was thought to have an atmosphere (since confirmed by space probes) so Bonestell showed the planet and rings as sunlit highlights with shadows merged into the blue sky of the moon. Here it is: Saturn Seen From Titan by Chesley Bonestell. (Downloadable image copyright Bonestell Space Art.) This link has a good article about Bonestell and the Saturn painting can be found by scrolling down. A site with a lot of Bonestell material is here -- click on the blue button labeled "Gallery" and then to "Next Gallery Page" three times. This puts you on the fourth gallery page, which includes the Saturn painting; keep exploring because there is a lot of good stuff to be seen. The sites assert that the Saturn painting influenced people to either become interested in space exploration or even make space-related fields career choices. The painting hit me hard... posted by Donald at January 25, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Super Bowl Obsession
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Latest sports news: Despite defeating the Seattle Seahawks in the final week of regular play, my beloved Green Bay Packers will not play in the Super Bowl. It'll be those darn Hawks. After 30 years' existence, the Seattle Seahawks finally figured how to get to the Super Bowl. But I plan to watch the game anyway, Seattle boy that I am. Which leads me to confess my obsessive Super Bowl related behavior. I, uh [clears throat] confess to having watched at least a tiny bit of each and every Super Bowl (on TV). That's right. All the way from I through XXXIX -- including XII, XXVIII and even XXXIV. Actually, of late I seldom sit through an entire game. Some years, if have no interest in the teams, I might watch a couple plays just to keep my string alive. I can't even explain why I keep watching. Maybe the process has become a goal instead of a means to an end. Oh well, sports do make guys kinda nutty sometimes. My little obsession isn't all-encompassing: I run from the room when the halftime show comes on. Yes, I missed Janet Jackson's "accidental" defense of "free expression" but somehow survived. And college football halftime shows with the band formations and all that strike as being pretty ho-hum. But Super Bowl halftimes, like the televised version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (might as well do the thing in a TV studio) have, in my opinion, evolved into pure chick-feed to keep the eyeball-counts up. Enough ranting. Just one parting comment: Go Seahawks!!! Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 24, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, January 23, 2006

Pundits, Then and Now
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Walter Lippmann wasn't the first newspaper columnist, but he arguably was the man who created the mold of newspaper pundit -- a wise man who analyses and comments on current political and socio-cultural events. (The term pundit comes from India, and can be spelled "pandit" as in Pandit Nehru.) Lippmann became a columnist at the New York World in 1920 and later at the Herald Tribune. How does one become a pundit? Lippmann was a Harvard graduate who had written some books, was a key player in the founding of The New Republic and had experience in government before becoming a columnist. Working from memory, this seems to cover most of the career paths to punditry -- and Lippmann, intellectual ubermensch that he was, pulled off the hat-trick. George Will is a current pundit with a combination of elite education, legislative staff experience and journalistic practice. James "Scotty" (he was born in Scotland) Reston on the other hand, came up through the reporting ranks, eventually combining his duties as The New York Times' Washington bureau chief with punditry. This path seems to be the most heavily trodden: John Tierney one of the NTY's newest columnists spent 15 years as a reporter at the paper (though he also was a Yale man and free-lance journalist before coming to the Times). No doubt personal or social factors come into play when one enters pundithood. I can't demonstrate this, but I think it's likely that being a pal or protégé of the publisher, editor or editorial page editor gives the skids a nice greasing. But landing a columnist's job is not enough. One needs to deliver the goods, especially if one becomes a syndicated columnist. Cronyship might retain a job at a single newspaper, but a syndicated pundit needs to pull in enough eyeballs to justify the syndication fee a paper must pay. Okay, what I just said is an ideal-world case. In practice, it's hard to measure with any precision how much any given columnist increases, maintains or decreases a paper's circulation. In ancient times, letters to the editor or publisher was about the only mechanism. In recent decades, survey research can be used to evaluate pundit pull. Times are changing, because of the Internet. Success on the Web is now a path to syndication, a good example being Jonah Goldberg. Although Goldberg's father happened to have been an executive with a syndication firm, Jonah had to win his spurs by writing posts on National Review's Web page that proved to be very popular, attracting attention to his skills and leading to television appearances and column syndication. Thanks to blogging, it's possible to become a self-anointed pundit. Self-anointment does not lead to real pundit status, however: that requires an audience. And a number of bloggers have indeed attained pundit status, in my judgment. Here are a few examples from the part of the Blogosphere I'm most familiar with: Steve Den Beste, who no longer blogs on... posted by Donald at January 23, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hotels (2): Fancy Places
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- My previous post on hotels dealt with places ranging from moderately-priced traveling salesman motels to pretty dumpy downtown hotels. Been there, done that – I tend to be a cheap traveler, especially when on my own. I've also stayed in nicer places. Not quite the level of the Crillon off the Place de la Concorde, but above average for sure. Probably most of times I've stayed in above-average hotels were due to attending professional association annual meetings, the association arranging for halfway-decent room rates. These were large hotels that cater to the convention trade such as the Hiltons in San Francisco and Washington. (I was in the latter a few weeks before Reagan was shot; I actually looked out a window at the setting, which made it easier to follow the TV coverage of the event.) Sometimes a client would put me up at a nice spot. I stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria when doing some media demographics consulting in the late 70s and at Boston's Copley on the square (on weekends) in 1982 when on a project for the John Hancock. The Waldorf room was not spacious, which surprised me at first. But then I remembered that the hotel was built about 1931 and that hotel rooms in those days tended to be smaller than what we are used to today. For example, in the early 70s a demography meeting was held at the old Commodore Hotel (site of the present Grand Hyatt) by New York's Grand Central Terminal and my wife and I stayed in a seriously small room by an air shaft on the northern side of the building. It took some fancy maneuvering to get from the door past the bed to the window, snaking around a couple items of furniture. But that was the way they built hotels in 1920. And between last Christmas and New Year's Day, the Fiancée and I stayed at the Moana (formally, the Sheraton Moana Surfrider) in Waikiki, one of the two classic hotels from the steamship-travel era (the other is the famous pink-colored Royal Hawaiian, a couple doors up the beach). The central part dates to 1901. Bookend wings (where we stayed) were added around 1918 and other parts around 1950 and 1970. Our room seemed roughly comparable in size to the Waldorf room, suggesting that it was pretty large by 1918 standards. As I type this I realize that all the rooms just mentioned probably were functionally larger when they were new than they are today because beds tended to be smaller. Rather than having a twin or maybe queen-size bed, that cramped Commodore room likely began service with a single, meaning that there was more free floor space than we had 50 years later. And some photos of the Royal Hawaiian taken near the time it opened (1927) show a room with two "single" beds; today that room would likely have a king-sized bed. Besides having larger rooms to accommodate larger beds... posted by Donald at January 22, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments