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  8. The Future of Movies 1
  9. Jack Vettriano
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Saturday, April 8, 2006

Trivia for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A not-bad A&E documentary about Napoleon left me with a flicker of curiosity, so I've spent some recent commuting hours going through Paul Johnson's very short 2002 biography of Napoleon. (Ah, the wonders of audiobooks!) It's a little lazy, but it's also rowdy and informative fun in that sonorous and entertaining way that Johnson has made his own. My hyper-informed and scholarly main impression: Good lord, but 19th-century Europe spent an awful lot of time at war with itself, didn't it? Gollygosh! A&E presented Napoleon in a "balanced" way -- as a terrifying warrior but also quite a marvelous phenomenon, perhaps even an admirable one. Johnson's take on his subject is far harsher. In Johnson's view, Napoleon was -- however brilliant, driven, and lucky -- a megalomaniac opportunist who cared about nothing but his own advancement. Johnson doesn't shy from calling Napoleon a precursor of Hitler and Stalin. I'm having no trouble going along with this judgment. Bonaparte was evidently so short-tempered that he all but wore a t-shirt spelling out "sociopath." When displeased with how orders were being carried out, for example, he often slapped his own generals. When one girl was brought to his room to service his sexual appetites, Napoleon raged at the terrified teenager until she fainted. Then he raped her. The human cost of Napoleon's adventures was of course appalling. Napoleon's own troops averaged 50,000 dead per year during his era. Now that's drive and ruthlessness! Meanwhile Wellington averaged 5000 a year dead. But the cost on other creatures was just as awful. One of the characteristics that made Napoleon such a battle-winner was the speed at which he steered his armies about. Hmm: No engines or autos means that .... That's right: Napoleon was hell on horses. Millions of horses died in combat, as you might imagine. But it turns out that a ton of them died simply from being driven too hard. That's right: Napoleon (a notorious horse-whipper himself) and his troops literally rode hundreds of thousands of horses to death. Late in the day this became a substantial problem for the French army, which simply didn't have many top-quality horses left. I'm a serious non-history buff, so I have little context for judging Johnson's take on Napoleon. Buffs: Do you think Johnson's Hitler-Stalin view of Napoleon is plausible? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 8, 2006 | perma-link | (40) comments

Upscale Book Jackets
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back when upscale fiction took the form of minimalist stories and novellas, the factor about a fiction-book that signaled "literary" most unmistakably was usually the title. It sometimes seemed as though the titles of all these books featured pleading variations on the word "I": "Why Do I Ever." "What Was Mine." "Where I'm Coming From." When you read titles like these, you felt pretty certain that you weren't looking at the Thriller shelf. These days, it seems that the standard way for a book to announce its literary bona fides is with its jacket art. I'm overstating matters, of course. A lot of elements go into creating a book's aura: the typefaces, the paper quality, the blurbs, the jacket copy, the title, even the amount of white space on a typical page. Even so, a contempo literary book's aura often seems to be mostly created by its bookjacket. Makes sense: We live in a hyper-visual, make-an-instant-impact era. Literary-book-jacketwise, something that has caught my attention -- as in "amused and annoyed me" -- is a tonal thing. An awful lot of literary book jackets seem to want to hit the same tone these days, don't they? Let me offer some examples of what I'm thinking about. Whatever the differences between these jackets, they all hit the same emotional note -- an off-center, almost-discarded-snapshot tone. Looking at these designs, I'm reminded especially of today's girl folk-rock singers: all those tough-cute chix with girlish-gargling voices -- half-bawling, half-teasing, sorrowful-sexy descendents of Rickie Lee Jones and Liz Phair. These bookjackets radiate: I'm recessive yet exhibitionistic. I'm far too classy (not to mention too wrapped-up-in-myself) to extend myself for your sake, let alone belt out a melody or dance the boogaloo. I'm expressive, but reluctantly expressive. I'm expressive because ... well, being expressive is my sad-sexy fate. Thinking of all these bookjackets as one great big group, I find myself noticing two main subgenres. The minor one shares a theme: "Horsing-around in someone's backyard, though I can't remember exactly when or where." But the main subgenre -- by a huge, huge margin -- is "bits and pieces of girls." A few examples: What do these bookjackets say to you? I mean, besides "I'm fashionable." My own take runs along these lines: "My fiction is a little piece of me, and I give it to you compulsively if reluctantly. I'm part Tori Amos, part Hemingway." Thwarted-desire, falling-off-the-table-ness has become such a standard-issue motif (or visual strategy, or something) that even the brassier cover muchachas are often presented in lopped-off ways. Book-jacket designers really don't know where to stop, do they? They've even taken to chopping up children. Call the cops! Quark-violence is being inflicted on the underaged! The question arises: Why stop with just one off-center image? Why indeed? Here's the book jacket that strikes me as the ne plus ultra of the moment. You know how you can sometimes look at a provocative, s&m-themed fashion image and wonder, "What... posted by Michael at April 8, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

End of Civilization 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the coverlines on the current issue of the kicky-young-women's magazine Jane: "Sex Tips So Good, Your Boyfriend Will Want to Pay You." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 8, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, April 6, 2006

William Whyte
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A while back I wrote an intro to the great Jane Jacobs. Another giant figure in the field of thinking-about-cities-and-towns who deserves similar treatment is William Whyte. Best-known for the classic volume of '50s sociology "The Organization Man," Whyte (who died in 1999) spent years observing and recording the ways people interact with the spaces around them. How do people behave at crosswalks? Why do some parks work while others don't? He asked sensible, basic, humane questions -- and then did his best to find out the answers to them. Why do I suspect that few of today's starchitects are familiar with his work? I'm sorry that I don't have the time or wherewithal at the moment to pull together something elaborate about Whyte. Still, why not pass along a few links? Here's an interview with Whyte. The best look at his life and work that I've found online is this Project for Public Spaces bio of him. You can dive deeper into Whytes ideas and observations about urban life by reading his mega-wonderful book "City: Rediscovering the Center." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 6, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Otto Preminger's first movie, "Laura," was probably the best one he ever made. It's pure noir poetry, and as witty and concise as can be. It can now be bought on DVD for $7.47. * Prairie Mary regrets -- evocatively and touchingly -- that she can no longer go barefoot. * Tibetan Buddhist Internet Radio. * Here's one blog that the more red-blooded among you may want to bookmark. (NSFW) * She has made one of the odder career choices, but it's nice to see that she pursues it with real gusto. (NSFW) * Rachel asks one of the key questions of the age: "Do I really need a land line?" * It's his to do with as he pleases, of course. But still ... (NSFW) * First the Village People, then "Brokeback Mountain" and now this. What remains of the American cowboy? * Many thanks to visitor Ron, who pointed out that DVDs published by the top-of-the-line outfit Criterion can be bought here at up to a third off. * Max Goss asks if Crunchy Conservatism can be nailed down. Lydia McGrew thinks the Crunchies ought to have more respect for material wealth. * Robert Nagles reports on the madness that is SXSW. * Best-known for "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the author Patricia Highsmith grew up in Texas, settled in Switzerland, and was a brilliantly malicious novelist and story-writer. She was also widely-felt to be one of the most unpleasant authors ever. Here's a Swiss intro to her life and work. * Silly Europop bliss. I want one of those sweaters! * Once upon a time we relied on TV Guide. Nowadays we can look to Podguide TV instead. * Steve Bodio has been making risotto for almost 50 years. While he loves the dish and has his opinions about how risotto ought to be made, Steve thinks the foodies ought to knock off the "rice fetishism." * Hey, what do you say we climb Etna in mid-eruption? OK, it's a little dangerous. But it should sure make for some dramatic photographs. * Everybody's getting it out there, I tellya. (NSFW) * Ain't it a bitch the way some American girls will perform for Europeans in ways they won't for Americans? (NSFW) * Eva Herzigova fans should prepare to die and go to heaven. (Elegant, but still NSFW) * If you have a couple of minutes, watch this short video all the way through. In the final section we get to watch "painting with movement," and it's really freaky. There goes all of art history. * Here's a not-to-be-missed pop-culture resource. * Yo, dude: It's the Web! Why should a photograph be a still photograph? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 6, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Photographic References in Painting
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Friedrich's recent post on photography and its use by painters raises some interesting points. Enough interesting stuff that I decided to forego commenting to write this post on the matter. I want to consider use of photographic references from the point of view of the artist. To my way of thinking, the important thing is the resulting painting. The goal of the artist is to produce the painting and how he goes about it is his business. Actually, things aren't so simple. For example, there are certain expectations that affect the marketing of the art; a commissioned portrait normally is "understood" to be done in oils and not to include, say, collage elements (unless negotiated by artist and client before work begins). Then there informal expectations. I can't say where it came from, but as an art student I absorbed the idea that use of a live model as reference was good and basing the work on photos was bad -- cheating, really. And I can't be alone on this because I've come across many instances of artists trying to avoid going on record as users of photography or making elaborate justifications when found out. Nevertheless, I now happen to think using photos is just fine in many cases if not all. A few words about camera lenses What the artist needs to understand is how camera lenses influence the look of the photograph. If I remember my photography lore in the 35 millimeter world, a moderate telephoto lens (105mm for my Nikon F, for instance) is considered best for portraits. Telephoto lenses tend to "flatten" depth. When an activist wants to campaign against cluttered streetscapes, he'll dig out a photo taken with a 200mm or stronger lens sighted down a commercial strip with lots of signs. The photo will show nothing but a huge gaggle of signs and this will horrify voters, hopefully for him. A "portrait lens" also flattens the face of the subject, but to a lesser degree. The nose is shortened, for one thing. Telephoto lenses also have a smaller depth range ("depth of field" is the term of art) for sharp focus than a "normal" or a wide-angle lens (extreme wide-angle lenses show nearly everything in focus). So the portrait lens has the added virtue of blurring the background (and possibly some foreground) while leaving the subject sharply defined. A portrait painter, knowing this, might choose to compensate by having the nose stand out just a little more than the photo indicates. For the record, a "normal" lens for a Nikon F is about 50mm and a moderate wide-angle is 35mm. How artists have used photography This is unprovable, but I believe that most pre-photography masters would have jumped at the opportunity to use photographs, had they been available. They had to make a living by pleasing the clients they managed to scare up and by cranking out as much art as possible as quickly as they could without... posted by Donald at April 6, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Vettriano Redux--Art & Photography
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: Donald's posting on the painter Jack Vettriano, who works exclusively from photographic reference, got me thinking about the whole topic of the respective roles of photography and art. This relationship has been somewhat fraught since photography was invented, but it seems trickier to me today as we are in the midst of an attempt to revive representational painting as a serious approach to art making. In the 19th century the situation was somewhat less unstable, because painting was the inheritor of an many-centuries-old high art tradition and photography was a modern 'mechanical trick', so the use of photographs by Degas or Delacroix or Courbet in creating art was viewed as not very different from using other such aids, such as the camera obscura or a visual grid or the lay figure (a dummy on which clothes were draped so they could be painted), all of which had a pedigree stretching back to the Renaissance. (All pictures are of course pop-ups.) Muybridge, E., Animal Locomotion: Horse and Rider At Full Speed, 1887 Degas, E., Horse with Jockey, 1890s Today, however, that tradition can no longer be taken for granted, as it was broken by many decades of art-making during which only abstract/aggressively stylized representation could claim the mantle of high art. In those same decades, meanwhile, photography got the upper hand over 'handwork' in mass media commercial art (advertising and illustration). This gradual rise of the prestige value of photography tainted representation in painting as something intended for a middle or lower brow audience. Rockwell,N., Freedom From Want, 1943 Beyond the questions of high and low in art (which, granted are really class tensions, but whoever said that art doesn't swim in the waters of social class?)there is also the simple fact that most 'realistic' art today has clearly been mediated through photography. Mary Scriver in a comment to Donald's posting brought up Western art. This reminded me of a visit I paid to a show of Western art (containing the work of 40-50 artists) a couple years ago; I was dumbfounded at how ubiquitously the art was based on photographs rather than live models. I bet less than 10% of the art in that show was painted or sculpted directly from life. The idea that art-making involves photography somewhere along the way was an absolute cultural given at that show. The same is true of contemporary animal art, especially that which uses 'tight' hair-by-hair rendering; it is likewise overwhelmingly dependant on the use of photographic intermediation. To round out this survey, I doubt if even 10% of even high-end contemporary portraiture is painted exclusively from life; at least from what I see on the Internet as well as what I've heard from working portrait painters, nobody today has time for the ten or twenty 3-5 hour sittings that John Singer Sargentís portrait subjects routinely endured. (Lucien Freud has built his whole ouvre, in a sense, by obstinately fighting this trend, which I suspect is... posted by Friedrich at April 5, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

The Future of Movies 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Despite the title of this posting, I have to report that "Basic Instinct 2" almost certainly doesn't represent the future of movies. It's in fact such a glum thing that it probably represents the present of movies all too well. Catherine Trammell's confrontational style You may have read reports about what a disastrous first weekend the movie had, despite Sharon Stone's heroic p.r. efforts on the film's behalf. Bad first-weekend business indicates that moviegoers haven't given a film a chance. Big fans of the first "Basic Instinct" movie and of the erotic-thriller genre generally, The Wife and I headed to the local theater in the hopes of discovering that the American public had made a mistake. But the American public was right this time; the movie is a downer. Set in London and directed by Michael Caton-Jones, it's proficient and chic in a heavy-spirited way. It has the somber, silver/blue, glossy/translucent look of high-end car ads. But despite its stylishness, it has none of the shameless and lewd, semi-porno joyousness of the first movie. (Here's a posting I wrote about the prevalence of silver in recent car ads. Here's a re-visit to the same topic. Here's a piece I wrote about Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont's commentary track on the DVD of "Basic Instinct.") For the first 2/3 of the movie I thought the script -- by Leora Barish and Henry Bean -- was a decent try at reviving Catherine Trammell. During the film's last third, though, the sly and tense doublecrosses piled up so high that I was left wishing that the filmmakers had taken a "Scary Movie 3" approach to their project -- doing a Mad magazine version of the first movie instead of keeping a straight face and aiming for hotsy-totsy intensity. The film's worst flaw, from this filmgoer's p-o-v anyway, was how unsexy it is. It's seriously unsexy in even the most literal-minded ways. It's hard to believe that the filmmakers didn't know that more screentime should have been devoted to depicting sex acts. Ah, the web ... Here's a threesome scene that was cut from the film. It's much sexier than anything that remains in the film. On a slightly less-dumb level, the film's look-and-feel is unsexy. The cinematography is over-rich, and the set design, while impressive, lacks sparkle. And all those hyper-competent, lowkey British actors ... There's nothing provocative about what's onscreen, or even about what comes from the speakers: Jerry Goldsmith's great score from the first movie is simply recycled here, in an uninspired way. The film isn't a lush and over-the-top fever dream. It's a dignified and under-the-top episode of quality TV. In any case, the film is far kinder to its production design -- to its interior decoration and its architecture -- than it is to its performers. (The film dwells a lot on Norman Foster's phallus-shaped "Gherkin" building.) While the glass and steel look fabulous, "flaws" doesn't begin to describe what it finds... posted by Michael at April 5, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Jack Vettriano
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I failed. I just could not come up with a title for this post that was wry, catchy, ironic, revealing or any of the other tricks I'm so fond of. No doubt it's because Scottish painter Jack Vettriano is a sometimes elusive, complicated and controversial subject. The Art Establishment in Britain (Scotland, especially) seems to alternatively hate him and ignore him -- museums are last in line to buy his paintings. On the other hand, his iconic "The Singing Butler" was sold for £744,500 (nicely more than a million dollars) at an auction in 2004 whereas in 1992 it was rejected for a Royal Academy show. It's estimated that he annually earns around £500,000 in royalties from print sales. Then he creates original paintings that can go for around $60-75,000 each. Oh, and he was awarded the OBE and also picked up an honorary doctorate from Scotland's St. Andrews University. Resources What follows is largely based on information from the following links which should be consulted by interested readers. The most recent book about him can be found here. This is a fairly recent New York Times article (registration required) about Vettriano. Edinburgh's newspaper The Scotsman has an art critic who states here that Vettrianos' "pictures very often look grotesque. Just like the prices they command." An Irish defense of his work and a discussion of the criticism can be found here. Then there's last fall's controversy about the source for the dancing couple image in "The Singing Butler" (more on that below). Here is The Scotsman's take just after the story broke. To get a better taste of Jack himself, read the Q&A here. Narrative Vettriano was born Jack Hoggan near Kirkaldy in Fife, Scotland in 1951. His father worked in mines as did Jack as an apprentice before moving on to other working-class jobs. As a child he became interested in drawing and kept at it. When he was 20 he encountered Ruth McIntosh who saw enough promise in his work that she bought him a watercolor set. This modest encouragement gave him enough confidence to begin to study painting from how-to books and museum visits. He ended up in Edinburgh with a white-collar job, a wife and a mortgage, but the weekend painting continued. In 1988, by then in his later thirties, he had two paintings in a Royal Scottish Academy show -- and both sold. Around this time Vettriano, for professional reasons, dropped his last name (Hoggan) and adopted his mother's maiden name. (Maybe "adapted" might be a better term -- one source says her name was actually "Vettrino.") Finding demand for his work, Vettriano contacted some dealers who exhibited his paintings to indifferent results. His breakthrough came in the form of his contact with Tom Hewlett's Portland Gallery in London, a specialist in Scottish art. Hewlett's promotional efforts led to a rapid commercial rise for Vettriano which he repaid by remaining loyal to Hewlett: Portland Gallery is his exclusive... posted by Donald at April 4, 2006 | perma-link | (17) comments

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- -- At a bookstore I recently saw a table piled with books and sporting a sign saying something about "banned books." Seems to me this is an annual thing, promoting books that have been banned at some time and place. I see nothing wrong with this sort of promotion even though it never gives me a burning desire to buy any of those books; if I choose to read them, it will be for other reasons. However, every time I see such displays I have to fight the urge to go to the customer service desk and ask if they have a copy of "Little Black Sambo." My hunch is that some "independent" bookstores in liberal neighborhoods never carry it and would lamely tell me that they would (reluctantly?) special-order a copy. At least it's still in print (I just checked Amazon) so the fuss raised against it a few years back didn't intimidate some publishers. -- Speaking of books, did you ever notice that not all countries follow the American practice of printing the words on the spine so that they are readable when the book is laying flat with the front cover showing? (Yes, really thick books can have the spine title oriented so that it's readable when the book is upright; here I'm discussing the alternative case of comparatively narrow books.) The French, for instance, have the spine readable when the back cover is uppermost. That strikes me as being, well, logical. Yes, sometimes the French manage that. What's the logic? The American practice is redundant. When the book is laying face-up, one can read the title from the spine and from the front cover. But when the book is face-down, its title is essentially unavailable. Under the French system if a book is face-down, the title can still be read. Voila! I should add that this cross-national inconsistency makes it harder to scan titles when books are shelved upright and there is a mix of American and French books. I find my head twisting back and forth trying to orient it to read titles from the spines. -- The 2006 baseball season just got underway. For some reason this brought back a distant memory of the 1962 season, the first for the New York Mets. I happened to be in the New York area at the time and the news media were overflowing with Met-this and Mets-that every news cycle starting with spring training. The hysteria quickly reached the point where a couple Army buddies of mine from the Pacific Northwest proclaimed themselves Mets fans even before the team had played its first game of the season. It was all too much!! I've disliked and rooted against the Mets ever since. Hmm. After this, I probably won't ever be allowed to set foot in New York again. Maybe I should change my name -- I'm waiting for New York readers to suggest Benedict Arnold Blowhard. Or something more damning. Later,... posted by Donald at April 4, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Monday, April 3, 2006

Coupe (Marketing) Runneth Overboard
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Last year Mercedes-Benz introduced a swoopily-styled four-door sedan, model CLS, that company marketers insisted was a coupe! A four-door coupe, as a matter of fact. And the first of its kind no less, according to accounts in automobile magazines. Mercedes is being silly. A coupe traditionally is a two-door car with "close-coupled" seating if it has front and rear seats (Detroit also used to market "business coupes" that had only a front seat). Coupes were less roomy and had sportier styling than two-door sedans. The Mercedes CLS 500 Coupe -- the official name for one variant -- has four doors and its only coupe-like attribute is a low roofline to the rear that gives the passenger compartment a cramped, but sporty, look. Moreover it's not even the first of its kind, from my perspective. Let's look at some evidence: Gallery Mercedes-Benz CLS 500 Coupe. This four-door sedan is supposed to be a "coupe." Dodge Charger show car at 1999 Detroit Auto Show. This car also has four doors, a low roofline to the rear and it considerably pre-dates the CLS. The Charger with its doors opened. Pontiac Grand Prix, 2004. This car also has a low roof and four doors. Plus, it beat the CLS to production by a few years. Commantary So the whole thing's a marketing ploy that makes the longstanding car-term "coupe" meaningless should Mercedes succeed in getting everyday folks to call the CLS a coupe. The car itself was controversial because of its styling when introduced, but on the street it has proved to be an eye-grabber. I haven't given the styling a great deal of thought, but my impressions have been favorable -- except for that criminally misguided name. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at April 3, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Listening to New York
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, yes, not all 2Blowhards readers are New Yorkers, though many are. Blowhards Friedrich and I are West Coasters, but Michael and Francis live in New York (I'm not sure about Fenster ... hmm, secretive lot, aren't we). Despite our feeble attempt at geographical diversity, this blog sometimes gets pretty New York-centric. And I'm guilty myself. I never lived in New York City, but I spent about nine years within striking distance of it, mostly during the period 1962-74, and visited often. My first wife hailed from the Bay Ridge-Fort Hamilton part of Brooklyn. Anyway, Benjamin Hemric (our Comments Łber-maven on things New York City) and I recently got into some comment-flinging on New Yorky talk here, and that inspired me to write this post. Here goes.... *** I was citing places where I used to buy newspapers and mentioned the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This sparked the memory that once in a while I'd encountered New Yorkers who called it the Port of Authority terminal. I'm certain I heard it because I recall my reaction whenever I did -- "Why do they add that word??". But Benjamin doesn't remember hearing it at all. Perhaps it's because he's from Queens and I might have had more of a Brooklyn orientation (see above). Does anyone besides me remember hearing that "of"? *** Brooklynites are reputed to refer to Greenpoint as GreenPERNT, but Benjamin heard only one person using that form -- a neighbor who originally was from Greepernt. *** Back in 1962 when I was stationed in the Army not far from the city (Fort Slocum on David's Island off New Rochelle). I used to come to New York every weekend. Back in those days there was more military presence in the city than now. There was Governor's Island (headquarters for First Army), the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Fort Slocum, Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth not to mention facilities farther away such as Fort Monmouth, Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Every weekend lots of soldiers and sailors and some airmen descended on the city and New York reciprocated by offering services for military personnel. These included a USO office near Times Square that passed out free theater tickets and the Sloan House YMCA on West 34th Street that hosted dances from time to time. And then there was the Cardinal Spellman Servicemenís Club on Park Avenue near 58th Street which offered weekend spaghetti feeds and dancing with volunteer gals, some of whom were pretty neat. The point I'm edging toward is that I kept my ears opened and got a feel for the geographical distribution of the famous New York accent as it was in 1962. I'm no 'enry 'iggins, so I make no claim that I could identify whether someone was from the west or east side of the Grand Concourse. But I could detect the intensity of the accent and correlate that with location. My highly scientific finding was... posted by Donald at April 3, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments