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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Our Last 50 Referrers

Saturday, February 25, 2006

French Notes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Tyler Cowen and commenters recommend the Best of Paris. Time to book a table at Pierre Gagnaire. * Here's yet more on the French Paradox -- ie., how do they eat such rich food yet stay so slim? The key facts: The French eat smaller amounts than we do while making a bigger deal out of eating-rituals. Portion control plays a major role in the equation. Nearly every serving of every food-substance is larger in America than it is in Paris, and sometimes remarkably larger: "A supermarket soft drink in the US was 52 per cent larger, a hotdog 63 per cent larger, a carton of yoghurt 82 per cent larger." A croissant in America is likely to be twice the size of a French croissant. Plus, the French are vain, and they hardly ever snack. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 25, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Hot New Restaurant
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Julienned dog penis, anyone? (Link thanks to DazeReader). Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 25, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Nice casting! BTW, I hear that this book about Dusty Springfield is heaven for fans of celeb bios, even those without much of an interest in Dusty. Haven't read it yet myself, but I do have a copy. * The good life, the Forbes way: The biz mag recommends the world's best topless beaches. Razib kicks off a GNXP-style discussion about the good life here. * Why have there been so few Whit Stillman movies? Whit Stillman himself wants to know. * WhiskyPrajer reviews and evokes ten songs that mean a lot to him. Start here. * Yahmdallah is flippin' for Temple Grandin's latest book. * On hearing that Literary Theory is in crisis, Oran Kelley asks a sensible question: Who cares? * Alice wonders why women shouldn't give as well as receive romantic presents on Valentine's Day. * DarkoV confesses that he can't stand the singing of Emmylou Harris. Cowtown Pattie thinks that DarkoV ought to come to his senses. * Breakdancing from the raised-on-Pixar generation. Wait for the guy in the orange shirt. * Beach vollyball is obviously the greatest sport ever invented, or at least the most photogenic. * Alan Little kicks off a personal photo-a-week project with a beautiful view of a room where some yoga giants studied and taught. * Sex-bloggin' Jill examines her motivations. * I say, Give 'em all a trophy. (Link thanks to Tyler Cowen) * Louisville's going to regret it. Check out the architect's academic training: Ivy, with a specialization in philosophy. Which pretty much explains the building he has designed. Cool effects on the video, though. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 23, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Bill Kauffman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Dave Lull for tipping me off to Bill Kauffman, a writer whose work I've been having a very good time catching up with. Kauffman is one of those impossible-to-categorize one-of-a-kinds (like Edward Abbey and Fred Reed) whose brains, observations, and spirits I often find muy simpatico -- people for whom truth to personal experience and truth to personal vision tramples party cheerleading. Kauffman himself is part conservative and part radical, part liberal and part curmudgeon. (The fun thing is, you never know which part it's going to be.) He writes for both The American Conservative and for Counterpunch. Wikipedia gives it the old college try, describing Kauffman as "the progressive conscience of the broader paleocon movement." Kauffman himself has a book coming out soon that's an appreciation of America's "reactionary radicals." In any case, it's a pleasure to read someone who's so very talented and so very much his own man. Here Kauffman reports sympathetically about a gathering of Vermonters who want to secede from the USA. Here he writes an appreciation -- for Republicans! -- of George McGovern. Here he pens a smokin' yet conservative denunciation of George W. Bush. I haven't read Kauffman's best-known book yet. It's an account of the decline of the small town where Kauffman grew up -- a small town in Western New York State not far from the small town where I grew up. I wonder if there's something in the water up there ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 23, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Happiness Wars
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's fun to take note of how strongly people in the economics world feel about happiness research. Why should such a subject create such a firestorm? (My hunch: Because it raises a fundamental question, namely, "What's the real point of doing economics anyway?") Should happiness research be mistrusted? Are the people behind it honest or politically-motivated? Should happiness research be turned to for policy guidance? The theme of the current Forbes magazine cover package is money, and the issue's lead section is about money and happiness. One of the package's writers takes the tack that the rage for happiness research is, like, so yesterday. Over at EconLog, Arnold Kling wonders whether happiness researchers are measuring anything at all, while Bryan Caplan thinks they may be on to at least a little something. Will Wilkinson devotes an entire ongoing blog to his thoughts about and critiques of happiness research. I posted on happiness here and supplied a bunch of links. FvB is less intrigued by happiness research than I am, and he raises a lot of objections to it here. Here's an interview with the economist and happiness enthusiast Richard Layard. I've read Layard's book. Quick verdict: The first part, in which he surveys and summarizes happiness research, is terrifically informative, and a robust and accessible read to boot. (The field's basic finding: "Comparing countries confirms what history also shows -- that above $20,000 per head, higher average income is no guarantee of greater happiness.") In the book's second part, though, Layard attempts to translate happiness findings into political policies, and the result is a lot of sweet but naive social-engineering fantasies. How can someone as worldly and tough as Richard Layard also be such a starry-eyed do-gooding dope? But I'm still glad I spent time with his book. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 23, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Incredible Disappearing Airline Meal
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- For eons, it seemed, everyone was complaining about meals served on airliners. By "everyone" I mean those ink- or mayonnaise-stained wretches on newspaper staffs with nothing much else to write about. Or maybe aging gourmets (gourmands?) who got their first taste of airline food in 1934 flying on a leisurely three-hour Imperial Airways' Handley Page 42 biplane trip from Croyden to LeBourget. Handley Page 42 over Croyden. Imperial Airways Silver Wing Service, 1927. Actually, aside from a few luxury routes, most airline meals weren't worth a Michelin rating. In some cases, the meal would be cold chicken and a roll. I was issued such a meal once when I flew on a DC-4 from Korea to Japan on Air America, an airline operated by the CIA. All of my commercial flying experience was during the Jet Age, so I can't comment on 1946-1960 food service. But the meals I got in pre-deregulation days seemed okay. For example, on long-distance dinner-hour flights, American Airlines from time to time offered small steaks. Granted, the food wasn't what could be found in better restaurants, but what should one expect at 34,000 feet? -- I found it hard to take the criticism seriously. I liked airline meals because, in those days, I was a nervous flyer and focusing on the meal for 30 minutes or so kept my attention from those flapping wingtips visible out the window. One reason why those regulation-era meals could include steaks was that when ticket prices were fixed and the aircraft were pretty similar, food, booze, skimpy stew outfits and other amenities were the main tools airlines could use to entice passengers from competitors. As deregulation took hold, airlines realized that price of the flight was more important to most passengers than quality of food and drink. Thus began the shift from eating in planes to eating in air terminals. I first noticed this in the early 1980s at the Minneapolis airport when a McDonalds magically appeared. Neato! I could get a quick, predictable snack instead of paying significantly more money at a "captive" coffee house operated by Host International or somesuch firm. Nowadays most larger airports have many food outlets where travelers can get their fill before or after their trip. Last year Seattle-Tacoma International completed a major terminal renovation and its centerpiece is a large food court featuring a huge window with views of the runway and (weather and daylight permitting) the Olympic Mountains. Seattle-Tacoma's new food court. In that general area can be found fast-food burgers from Wendy's, two seafood bars, take-out Mexican, Pizza, a Starbucks, a table-service seafood restaurant and a couple other take-out places. Close by are a Sbarro outlet and a microbrew bar & grill. And there's more when you head out the gate-wings. The main problem I encounter is finding a place to sit (I usually travel when the airport is pretty busy). So terminals offer more and more dining choices while airlines offer less and... posted by Donald at February 22, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Arts Connoisseur? Or Dirty Old Man?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I recently watched the straight-to-DVD problem drama "Havoc." Have you caught it? It's a strange one to have gone straight to video. The film had been widely anticipated for a variety of reasons, two of which were its classy writer and director: script by Steve "Traffic" Gaghan and direction by the well-known documentarian Barbara Kopple. As a nonfiction-filmmaker, Barbara Kopple is very talented if relentlessly earnest. I liked "Harlan County USA," her account of an Appalachian miners' strike, and I loved "Fallen Champ," her nuanced and thoughtful film about Mike Tyson. Given Kopple's NPR/Nation orientation, she's surprisingly easy to take. She doesn't make agitprop and she doesn't sermonize. She's also consistently open-minded. Despite being political, her first loyalty seems to be to what she encounters while filming. She's also alert to moods and feelings in ways that too few documentarians are. Hey, fact-oriented filmmakers: Moods and feelings are as much facts of life as numbers and actions are. Directing her first fiction film -- she has directed some episodes for fiction-TV series -- Kopple shows a a talent for texture, both of the audiovisual kind and of the texture-of-characters'-lives kind. Unfortunately, she also shows a heavy spirit and zero flair. Although it's set in L.A., "Havoc" is a primo example of what I think of as the School of Upper West Side Concerned Filmmaking. [A small break here for those unfamiliar with New York City. New York's Upper West Side is its own peculiar timezone and mind-zone. With Lincoln Center on the south and Columbia University on the north, it's the favorite neighborhood of prosperous New Yorkers with cultural interests. Book and magazine-publishing people like the UWS, for instance. It can also be a very dull caricature of itself: Woody Allen-ville, only minus the satire. Academic credentials count for a lot, and people seem to enjoy imagining that their personal sufferings are emblematic of something much larger. Think "Live from Lincoln Center"; think PBS; think the NYTimes' Arts and Leisure Section, and you've got the Upper West Side in a nutshell. The Wife and I enjoy our visits to the UWS. We have some good friends who live there, and many of the blocks are beautiful. But when we run home at the end of the night, we feel very pleased to be Greenwich Village people. ] "Havoc" is a small indie problem drama. It's the film equivalent of one of those lifestyle-section stories that feature well-off kids wasting their lives, black and white photographs, and teens looking with hurt and accusing expressions at the camera. Obviously, these teen screwups are indictments of us! In "Havoc," too-rich-for-their-own-good, snarkily-ironic Pacific Palisades kids act out rapper and gang-banger fantasies. What else have they got to do with themselves? But what would happen if they encountered the real street thing? Parents: You're too self-absorbed! Your kids are out of control! And America -- an uncaring society of haves and have-nots -- is finally to... posted by Michael at February 22, 2006 | perma-link | (26) comments

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Roundabouts Come 'Round Again
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- New Jersey was killing them off, and I thought I was safe. But No! They started sprouting right here in my neck of the woods at the sound end of Puget Sound. I'm talking traffic circles or roundabouts or rond-points or whatever the local term is. I had never seen such things until I lived Back East -- first when I was in the Army and a little later when I was at Dear Old Penn. A little mousing around the Web reveals that traffic circles date as far back as 1905 in this country, but that they got a big boost in New Jersey. Nearly 70 were built there, most between 1925 and 1940. The traffic circles I remember best in the 1960s were those east of Camden, NJ on U.S. routes 30 and 130. They were awful, especially around rush hour. It was gridlock minus the grid. Cars already in the circle would be creeping along, turn-indicators flashing as they tried to change lanes. Other cars would be queued at the entry points waiting for a tiny break in the flow so that, with the aid of some burning rubber, entry could be effected. Traffic circles are fine, in theory. Normal street or road intersections require some form of traffic control where cars are often forced to come to a complete halt before making a turn or continuing straight ahead. But a traffic circle, if traffic is very light, allows a car to keep rolling into the circle and around to its exit point. In theory (again), this can mean no wasted time and fuel while waiting for a stoplight to change -- this supposed ecological plus might explain why traffic circles seem to be making a comeback in the U.S. Here are views of some traffic circles. Gallery Traffic circle near Camden, NJ airport, 1931. Traffic circle on Black Horse Pike, Cardiff, NJ, 1998. Aerial photo taken before reconstruction of intersection. Circle in Provo, UT. Example of small, recent American traffic circle. English roundabout. This one is actually round (many aren't). L'Étoille, Paris. France's most famous rond-point. The Arc de Triomphe is at the center. Traffic circles -- rond-points -- are common in France, especially in the countryside or newer suburbs. (Putting them in older, built-up places would be expensive, so few are found there.) French circles are almost always geometrically pure. This is not the case in Britain where roundabouts (the term used there) are often polygons of one shape or another rather than being round. I'm not sure whether this difference is due to England's greater population density and comparative lack of available land or the character of the nations' peoples and political systems. Regardless of location, all are subject to the Iron Law of Traffic Circles: heavy traffic will bring them to their knees. I've noticed in England that some roundabouts in congested areas now have traffic signals, so entry to the circle is in pulses controlled by... posted by Donald at February 21, 2006 | perma-link | (26) comments

What Sergei Eisenstein's Dad Did
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Are you a cinema buff and an architecture buff? Then this post's for you. Art Nouveau architecture (roughly 1885-1910) can be seen as part of the transition from eclectic Classicism to International Style Modernism. There are different flavors of Art Nouveau as well as alternative names such as "Jugendstil." Some Art Nouveau architecture is ornate, replacing Baroque decoration with tendrils and other plant motifs. Other buildings have more geometric decor as practiced by Charles Rennie Macintosh, Otto Wagner and Frank Lloyd Wright. If you want to view Art Nouveau in person, Europe is a happier hunting ground than America. You can find excellent examples scattered about Paris, Brussels and Vienna. But if you want to see large concentrations of Art Nouveau buildings, I suggest you head for Prague and some of the larger cities in the Baltic region -- Prague and Riga (in Latvia) especially. The reason why Prague and Riga have entire neighborhoods dominated by Art Nouveau buildings has to do with timing (which, as we all know, is "everything"). In Prague's case, an old part of town was razed and redeveloped about the time Art Nouveau was fashionable. (I'll be back to Prague this September and will try to work up material for a post.) Riga had a city wall until the mid-1800s and all buildings beyond the wall (before it came down) had to be built of wood for military reasons. Around 1900 Riga was a rapidly-growing city (by the end of the Russian Empire, it was its fifth-largest city) and much of this growth took place in the area beyond the former wall in the form of apartment buildings. In Riga you can find entire block fronts almost entirely comprised of Art Nouveau style buildings. Examples are Vilandes Iela (street), Rupniecibas Iela and Alberta Iela. Below is a view of Alberta Iela. Riga's Alberta Iela. Downloadable image copyright Latvia University Press Centre. Around 20 buildings in Riga are attributed to Mikhail Eisenstein (1867-1921) a civil engineer and architect who was the father of famed Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). Sergei's critically acclaimed films included Ivan the Terrible (parts I and II), Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky. The younger Eisenstein died shortly after his 50th birthday and his father died in Germany before reaching 55. For a photo of young Sergei and his parents, click here. Here are some examples of Eisenstein's buildings. Gallery Elizabetes Iela 10b, 1903. Elizabete Iela 33. Alberta Iela 2a, 1906. This was a childhood home of philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin. Commentary Mikhail Eisenstein's style strikes me as over-decorated. I respect it, but am ambivalent even though I'm a fan of Art Nouveau. I prefer Art Nouveau buildings with comparatively large plain surfaces that are set off by well-placed bits or concentrations of ornament or sculpture. Such contrasts of surfaces also can be seen in Spanish Colonial Revival buildings in Southern California and other parts of the American Southwest. Moreover, I'd like to see more use... posted by Donald at February 21, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, February 20, 2006

Fond Memories of Hell Week
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Actually, I don't have "fond memories" of my college fraternity's initiation rites, but I find catchy article titles hard to resist. Colleges and Greek-letter National organizations have spent decades trying to clamp down on initiation hazing by local chapters. My impression is that these efforts have been reasonably, but not entirely, successful. Moreover, I doubt that initiation rites can be totally eliminated: it seems to be a human-nature thing. Maybe make that a male-nature thing, but I'll leave it to readers who took Anthropology (I never did, for some reason) to fill in the rite-of-passage details. If I'm correct that frat house hazing has been toned down, then it makes sense to get on the record what Hell Week was like back in the days when hazing was really hazing. Obviously hazing practices varied from college to college, frat house to frat house; some were more severe than mine, others easier. All I can tell you is what I experienced. So here goes. I was initiated into the Upsilon Chapter of Theta Xi Fraternity at the University of Washington in January, 1958 during my Freshman year. My impression at the time was that Hell Week was tamer than previously, but that it certainly was still nothing to sneeze at. (By the late 80s, Hell Week had been detoxed into "help week," but not entirely. Around 1990 good old Upsilon Chapter got kicked off campus for several years due to an unfortunate incident involving a sheep in the rec room that made the national press.) The drill starts by "pledging" the fraternity. In my case this happened during Rush Week just before the start of the fall academic term. Pledgeship is a trial or probation period. On Monday evenings when initiated members were attending chapter meeting, pledges met with the Pledge Trainer, an active member who gave instruction on chapter and National fraternity lore and other matters. Some things we had to learn included the Greek alphabet, names of all fraternities and sororities at Washington, the names of national and local founders and the history of the fraternity. We also had to do chores around the house for our first year, initiated or not. The most important requirement was to "make our grades." At the time, this meant we had to get at least a C average before we could be initiated. At the start of the post-Christmas term, those of us who hadn't partied ourselves into a flunk-out trajectory were eligible for Hell Week. Hell Week was a two-part deal. First was the Monday-Friday part which was intended to set us up for Hell Night itself (the second part) on Saturday. We didn't get much sleep during Hell Week because we'd be awakened during the night to do a chore or calisthenics or some other activity that would insure we truly were awake. After five nights of this we were approaching zombie mode. Then there was the rule that if we laughed, we had... posted by Donald at February 20, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments