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  1. Peripheral Explanation
  2. More Immigration Links
  3. Another Graphic Detournement
  4. Peripheral Artists (5): Mikhail Vrubel
  5. Illegal Update
  6. Beloved Museum Shops
  7. Swanky!
  8. Ugly Box(-like) Cars
  9. Support Steve
  10. Products in Fiction

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Peripheral Explanation
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This is part of a comment-reply to this recent post. I decided to elevate it to post status because the same issues keep popping up in Comments. I (foolishly?) hope I can avoid endlessly repeating myself in comment replies by giving my position more prominance. Here goes: One reason I'm doing this "Peripheral Artists" series and gave it that name is because I got what was probably a typical late-1950s American art history education. Huge chunks of late-19th and early 20th century painting were ingnored if they weren't held up to ridicule. In recent years I've been coming across some of that work and realize that it can be very good indeed. Had I only known! That's the problem. I didn't know because no one taught me. And I suspect that a lot of art history courses since my time haven't been a lot better regarding representational art. So I've launched this little educational project here at 2Blowhards highlighting artists I used to know nothing about, yet on discovery are worthy of appreciation and study. The word "peripheral" (as I keep trying to make clear) is sort of a pun. Artists mentioned are peripheral to the history of painting as I (and others) received it in college. And it happens that these same artists (so far) come from what might be seen as Europe's geographical periphery. This does not mean that I regard them as lesser artists: in nearly all cases, quite the opposite. The artists I've dealt with thus far are famous in their home countries for good reason. Some were well-known elsewhere in Europe when they were alive, before Modernism in its various guises made its march from Paranoid Victimhood to Paranoid Establishment. I don't regard this as some sort of "national character" issue: it's really more of a power politics thing within the art world. Still, the fame of the Russian artists I've been featuring undoubtedly was held back by the Cold War. Many Americans were leery of all things Russian and the Soviet Union kept itself pretty well sealed off from Westerners and foreigners of all kinds save Party members and prominant fellow-travelers. (Yes I know there were plenty of exceptions to that sweeping statement. But the gist is true: think Intourist.) Nor do I think it fair to fall back on a kneejerk notion of "American insularity" to explain our relative ingnorance of the likes of Gallen or Vrubel. In fine arts, Americans strike me as being quite the opposite of insular. In fact, for much of our history, we've had a self-image of being second (or worse) rate in all forms of culture. I don't have any statistics to back this up, but let me assert that, for almost any museum, shows featuring Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and Rembrandt will draw larger crowds than shows featuring home-grown Pollock, Motherwell or Warhol. As I said, the problem lies in the art world itself. Its history had become... posted by Donald at March 10, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, March 9, 2006

More Immigration Links
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Illegal immigration may be making it onto mainstream radar screens. Gary Becker suspects that "illegal immigration will constitute perhaps the major American Dilemma during the coming decade." Richard Posner's opinion is that "It is not at all clear that illegal immigration is on balance a bad thing for the nation. The only real concern is that if it continues at its present rate (which Becker estimates at 500,000 a year) we will soon reach a point at which the net benefits turn negative." Robert Samuelson thinks we oughta build a fence. Best, and very happy to see the issue beginning to receive some of the attention and discussion it deserves, Michael... posted by Michael at March 9, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Another Graphic Detournement
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've written before about the way graphic designers have appropriated parenthesis marks and brackets for themselves. Short version: Graphic designers have taken a typographical symbol (the parenthesis/bracket mark), and have turned it into a purely visual device. Once upon a time, the parenthesis and the bracket served the interests of those making use of words -- people for whom a page is primarily about making verbal sense, or about providing word-based entertainment. These days, parentheses and brackets often serve the interests and purposes of those who like visual jazziness -- people for whom the main thing about a page is that it should look snazzy. Design Observer's Michael Bierut explained the history of this development in a comment on my posting. You've seen a lot of play-with-brackets in recent years. Designers all over the place have been using parentheses and brackets not to indicate pauses or asides, but to provide visual kapow. Here's a typical example, from Fitness magazine. Click on the images in this posting for larger versions: Whatever it is those brackets are doing, it has nothing to do with serving a written-grammar/written-meaning kind of purpose. Whether or not you like the look, this appropriation of one field's symbol by another field is a classic case of what the Situationists called detournement. It's a matter of one group (visual people) taking a device that another group (writers) evolved for one purpose, and putting it to use for their own ends. The fad hasn't captured just the art directors of silly pop magazines, by the way. Here's part of a page from the sober (if glossy) publication Scientific American Mind: What in the world are parentheses doing around that pullquote? And why do they surround the rubric on the Further Reading box? (Scientific American Mind -- after some early trouble finding its bearings -- has become a very good magazine: substantial yet accessible, sophisticated yet clear. A 2Blowhards intellectual hero, V.S. Ramachandran, sits on the magazine's advisory board, and much of the publication seems to reflect his approach and his characteristically thoughtful tone.) In terms of designers making visual-impact use of brackets and pullquotes, we may in fact be entering a late phase. Things have gotten mighty baroque in recent months. Here, the art director of Fitness gets jiggy: But Scientific American Mind isn't to be outdone: Y'know: Why not flip brackets 90 degrees and stack them vertically? Why not use only one parenthesis mark? "Meaning" is so passe anyway. All of which prompts a question: Which typographical symbol are designers going to claim for themselves next? I have a feeling that the most likely candidate is quotation marks. (I sometimes picture designers as being like a pack of hyenas separating a gazelle out from its herd ...) Already we're seeing a lot of this kind of thing: OKOKOK, that's an ad. But part of what happens when digital tech sweeps through a media field is that the wall between editorial and advertising... posted by Michael at March 9, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Peripheral Artists (5): Mikhail Vrubel
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Far from Paris, far from the mainstream art history narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries are what I call Peripheral Artists who, I think, deserve recognition beyond their native lands. Last September I was in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and found a large, purpose-built room containing striking romantic-expressionist paintings and panels/murals by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910). Vrubel was born in Omsk, Siberia to an army legal officer and himself completed law training at St. Petersburg University in 1880. After that, he went over to the Imperial Academy of Arts where he studied under Pavel Tchistyakov. He was commissioned to paint murals and do icon-related work for the St. Cyril Church in Kiev and visited Venice to study early church art as part of the project. His mural designs for Kiev's St. Volodymir Cathedral suffered rejection, however. During his Kiev stay he became interested in Mikhail Lermentov's poem, Demon, for which he began working up illustrations. Vrubel returned to Moscow in 1890, completing "Seated Demon," one of his most famous works. Although it raised controversy, the painting led to a commission from Savva Mamontov to decorate buildings. He also designed ceramic objects and was involved in stage design. Vrubel met and married opera singer Nadezhda Zabela in 1896 and they had a child who died in 1903, an event that further destabilized his mind which had been tormented by childhood deaths of a brother and sister (he was briefly institutionalized in 1902). But he continued painting until 1906 when he was losing his eyesight. According to one source, he finally became so depressed that he stood before an open window so as to catch a cold that evolved into the pneumonia that killed him. Gallery Mikhail Vrubel. "Demon Seated in a Garden" 1890. "Swan Princess" 1900. "Seraphim" 1904 Commentary Vrubel allowed himself to be caught up in the romanticist and spiritual/religious thinking that were current in his times, possibly excessively so if his mental state is any indication. Thanks probably to his study of mosaics and Christian art in Venice his paintings sometimes had a mosaic-like quality where paint was applied in different-shaped blocks varying in size by a factor of about two Ė- the background work in the Seated Demon painting contains a good deal of this. Like many artists who moved in the direction of Expressionism he wasnít afraid to sacrifice accurate representation for effect. Note that the eyes of the Swan Princess are anatomically too large. Thanks to the large scale in which he often worked coupled with dramatic composition and stylized surface treatment, Vrubelís paintings strike me as compelling to view, yet slightly disturbing Ė- perhaps a true reflection of his mindís condition. In sum, an artist hard to forget once his work has been seen. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 8, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Illegal Update
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The illegal-immigrant population of the U.S. is growing by at least 500,000 per year, according to a new study by the (liberal) Pew Hispanic Center. As recently as 2000, there were only 8.4 million illegals in the country. Today there are almost certainly more than 12 million -- accounting for roughly 1/3 of the foreign-born population in the States. Steve Sailer and some of his correspondents ponder the figures. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 8, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Beloved Museum Shops
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I confess. I confess I put the word "beloved" in the title to hook you -- a writerly deceit I'm not above using. Truth is, I don't find any museum shop "beloved," though I really do like some of them. Which ones? Lemme see ... generally the ones with the most book titles, books being my intellectual drug-of-choice. Some of you might use prints, reproductions, calendars or other items as the yardstick. Herewith is a top o' the head listing of museum shops I liked as of the time I last visited. They are not in order of preference. Louvre, Paris. This is on two floors and has lotsa stuff which seems appropriate for a museum that has lotsa stuff. Yes the books are pretty much in French, but that's okay with me because I like to be forced to keep up my French. The shop in the Museť d'Orsay across the river is much smaller because it focuses on a limited period in art history. The last time I was there I wasn't studying Impressionism as seriously as I am now, so I might like it better than I did if I gave it another visit. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Not as large as the Louvre's shop, but plenty of books and other items. The Met also has a shop in Rockefeller Center as well as one at the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas and two in Thailand (32 stores in all, 13 overseas), but the satellites I've visited don't have large book selections. Getty Museum, Los Angeles. A good selection of books, especially (as might be expected) publications by the Getty research staff. But if your thing is art-related books and you're in the Los Angeles area, the place to go is the Hennessey + Ingalls bookstore on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, a block or so from the bluff overlooking the ocean. A nice little store with a tight focus is in the Mucha Museum in Prague, featuring (who else?) Alphonse Mucha, king of the Art Nouveau poster.. I like aviation, and the top shop for me is in the Air Force Museum by Dayton, Ohio. Second-best is in the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum on the Mall in Washington. Pretty-good is the shop in the Museum of Flight at Seattle's Boeing Field. My criterion for aviation books is the presence of specialized books not normally found in regular bookstores. But the store that tops my aviation heap isn't a museum shop: it's La Maison du Livre d'Aviation in Paris at 75 Boulevard Malesherbes in the 8th Arrondissement. As you might guess by the volume of posts on the subject, I'm also a car fan. But I can't remember any automobile museum shops that had a book selection that impressed me. This might be because my tastes are becoming highly specialized whereas the museum shops I've visited recently don't seem to have a lot more to offer than regular... posted by Donald at March 7, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I are once again visiting California. We flew out from New York City Business Class. The last time we flew out we flew Business too. The time before as well. Ain't we fancy. In fact, we're scrounging, just-getting-by, middle-class people who have to watch the bottom line more closely than we'd like to. But we're typical of middle-class people in another way too. Over the years, we have managed to pile up hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. What to do with them? As far as I can tell, every U.S. airline company is going to go out of business sometimes within the next 12 months; we wouldn't want to simply lose our miles. Yet whenever we have tried to use our miles to pay for tickets, we've been completely stymied. Oh, sure, we can use our miles to buy plane tickets to places we want to visit -- provided only that we let the plane company pick which one, that we're willing to commit to an intinerary three years ahead of time, that we don't mind flying on Thursday afternoon, and that we aren't put off by the idea of taking prop planes that make seven stops to get from Cleveland to Chicago. Our solution to this dilemma is to use our miles for upgrades. We book our usual flights, then tell the agent to use our miles to put us in Business. This isn't a perfect solution. We still need to book well ahead of time. And we've sometimes had to take a slightly earlier or later flight than we'd have preferred. But we're at least getting some utility out of our miles. Not the least of the pleasures of flying Business is the entertainment factor. I'm not talking about the in-flight movies, which are as bad in Business as what's shown to the losers back in Economy. Though, come to think of it, Business passengers are at least spared "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- reason enough to spring for an upgrade. For me, what's most entertaining about flying Business is the way language changes. Shell out a certain amount of money (or at least miles), and you enter a realm where sentences and phrases that might be simple and to-the-point become hushed, circumlocutious, and elaborately discreet. I have one well-off acquaintance who refers -- straight-facedly-- to rich people as "high net-worth individuals." That's the kind of language-thing that is forever going on in Business, which does its best to mimic the kind of snobby country club you'd be crazy to want to belong to -- the kind of place where you wouldn't be surprised to hear a drive in a car referred to as "a motoring experience," or a pen as a "writing instrument." Here's how the menu on our most recent flight described one of the breakfast dishes on offer: Cheese and Vegetable Omelette Seasonal Fruit Appetizer Cheese Omelette filled with Vegetables, enhanced by a fire-roasted Pepper... posted by Michael at March 7, 2006 | perma-link | (26) comments

Monday, March 6, 2006

Ugly Box(-like) Cars
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Maybe there's such a thing as too much functionality ... in car styling, anyhow. I know, I know. If "form follows function" a designer would have to be a knucklehead if he tried to express function and not end up with a Platonic Ideal of beauty. Well, that's what I used to read in books about Industrial Design and Architecture when I was in high school and college. And then there was a saying back in those days to the effect that "a car stylist can do good Industrial Design, but an industrial designer is hopeless at car styling." How true. One of the projects the Industrial Design class worked on when I was an undergraduate (I had switched from ID to commercial art by that time) was to design a taxicab. After completion, some of the plans and renderings ended up on hallway display boards. What was revealed was a tall, stubby, ugly thing lacking any of the grace of even a London taxi. But boy, was it functional: space-efficient, short turning radius, chair-high seating and whatever else was in the design spec handed down by Frank Del Giudice (or maybe dreamed up by the students themselves). I can't show you that taxicab design, but vehicles in the same spirit are probably cruising a street near you right now. I wouldn't be surprised if ID-school grads didn't sneak into car styling studios under a flag of convenience to wreak aesthetic damage and play strange mind-games to induce good citizens to spend actual money for the results of their functionality-mongering. One such car (for lack of a better term -- my examples are more van-like station wagons) is the Honda Element. Honda Element. As you can see, the Element is, er, pretty vertical. And it's covered with lots of matte-finish panels that, if nothing else, minimize scratches and other damage from flying rocks and other cars: not a bad thing. The overall impression is that this vehicle isn't comfortable moving at any but the slowest speeds. But maybe that's the way they're actually driven. Another gift to NPR listeners from the land of the rising sun is the Scion xB from Toyota (Scion is a brand Toyota introduced to appeal to a younger clientele than aging buyers of Toyotas). Scion xB. The xB is cut from pretty much the same cloth as the Element. Only it's smaller and perhaps even less aerodynamic. Since aerodynamic efficiency is a factor in increasing fuel efficiency, does this bother enviro-friendly potential buyers? Unless you've been to Europe in recent years you have been spared from seeing what might be the ugliest of the lot -- the Fiat Multipla. Here are some examples. Gallery: Fiat Multipla Multipla 600. This came out in the late 50s. It had a rear-mounted engine and the front seat positioned well to the front. If there was any justice in this world Ralph Nader would have begun his anti-car jihad with this one instead... posted by Donald at March 6, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Support Steve
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't know of any writer working today who does a better job of opening up dicey but pressing topics in humane and informed ways than Steve Sailer. Year after year, Steve has been bravely playing the role of the guy who's the first to bring up and examine loaded subjects -- subjects that I have a strong hunch we'll be hearing much more about in coming years. It's a heroic performance he has been putting on. (Steve's latest column is a topnotch example of his hefty and daring work.) Needless to say, it's also an approach to a writing career that is probably pretty thankless in financial terms. Meanwhile, the cautious corporate journalists who take up the subjects Steve initially raised are doing very well for themselves indeed, thank you very much. Which makes it all the more important that those who value Steve's work show their appreciation. Steve is running one of his occasional fund-raising drives right now. If you enjoy and learn from Steve's writing, and especially if you're grateful that he's out there taking the big risks, please visit his website, click on the PayPal button, and send him a donation. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 6, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Products in Fiction
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not much into fiction, but osmosis or delusion tells me that some writers drop product names into their books. I'll assume formal "product placement" hasn't yet made the jump from Hollywood and TV to Fifth Avenue and environs. Rather, my guess is that writers are simply trying to establish a "sense of place" or perhaps a sense of time and place -- usually "today." This is okay by me so long as the novel becomes fishwrap within five years. But what if the writer wants his precious effort to be "immortal"? Seems to me that immortality and naming things don't easily go together. Consider this passage: He gave his open luggage one last scan. What else might be needed on the Continent? Oh yes. He made a pass through the room, tossed in a few boxes of Pear's, Lucifers and Navy Cuts, closed the luggage, shut off the lights and headed downstairs to hail a cab for Waterloo. Did you get all that? Exactly what was added to the luggage at the last moment? And just where was the character heading via the cab? Given the quality of 2Blowhards readership, I'll assume a perfect "4." Just in case, here's a translated version of the nano-drama I concocted: He gave his open luggage one last scan. What else might be needed on the Continent? Oh yes. He made a pass through the room, tossed in a few boxes of soap, matches and cigarettes, closed the luggage, shut off the lights and headed downstairs to hail a cab for the train station. As you probably guessed, the scene was in the London of nearly 100 years ago. "Lucifer" was not a product, but a term used in England at the time for what we would call a "kitchen match." Pear's was a popular scented hand soap. Navy Cut was part of Player's cigarette product line. I suspect most younger Americans, even if college-educated, do not know these details; their inclusion in the first passage would only mystify. Even "Waterloo" could pose a problem to a reader who had never been to London and perhaps even to casual tourists who enter and leave England only by air. True, it was the most likely station to start a journey to France, but this detail adds nothing important to the first narrative, The second version suffices because the reader can assume the unnamed character would be taking the most convenient route unless that wasn't the case, which would then be a plot element. Using product names is dangerous because, over the span of decades, product lines can be abandoned and companies can go out of business (so much for the notion of all-powerful corporations). This is true for brands that seem unassailable. For instance, a Gatsby-like story set in a ritzy 1920s exurb might mention a character owning or being driven up in a Packard automobile. How many younger readers know that, in the 20s, Packards were at... posted by Donald at March 5, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Moviegoing Note
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Donald's recent posting about how he barely bothers with movies these days has got me thinking about my own movie-watching habits. I think it's natural for movie-watching rates to decline with passing years. Energy flags, for one thing. Plus, many people find that they lose some of their appetite for fiction experiences as time passes. My theory about this: To some extent, fiction is play -- it's both fun and rehearsal for life. The love of fiction is also, to some extent, a function of self-exploration. With age and experience, "fun" per se becomes less important, the rehearsal period comes to an end, and the self recedes in importance. Real life becomes more pressing, as well as more fascinating. Result: a lot of older people reading history and watching nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel. Still, even allowing for age-related changes, the advent of digi-tech is having a dramatic impact on my movie-watching life. Back in fizzy youthful celluloid years, FvB and I were college-buddy movienuts, in love with the medium, gobbling up its history as quickly as we could -- absorbing "the movies" the way a 3 year-old kid absorbs language. Most weeks we managed to see 5 to 7 movies; it wasn't unusual for us to take in two or even three movies in a day. (And this in pre-video days! We both owe a lot to college film societies.) During my young/mid-adult years, I was on screening lists, was buddies with film critics and journalists, and continued to make it to two or three movies a week. These days I'm in a different phase entirely. I love movies, but not in the old ravished-by-the-experience way. I'm curious and comfy where I was once passionate and headstrong. I'm off screening lists, and I'm barely in touch with the filmbuff world. The velocity of my moviewatching has declined a little. But the bigger difference is in where and how I watch. I barely go to movie theaters at all -- probably fewer than a half a dozen times a year. Instead, I rely on the DVR, on Netflix, and on finds from the bargain-DVD bins at Amazon, Blockbuster, and Virgin. (Once the price of a DVD I'm curious about sinks to lower than 10 bucks, I have a hard time resisting the purchase.) God bless big screens. If you're a devoted film-nut, a high-quality TV isn't a luxury, it's an investment. Donald's posting and the comments on it woke me up to a consequence of my new movie-watching habits. It's this: Because I no longer bother with seeing movies at theaters, I no longer follow movie coverage in the newspapers or in the magazines. Picking a movie to watch for me has become a matter of scanning suggestions, links, sales, and IFC schedules. I don't take my lead from what's being released. Instead, I follow my tastes, my interests, and my whims, and I pull the movies I might want to watch from... posted by Michael at March 5, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments