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  1. End of Civilization? Episode 2
  2. Attack of the Soul-Destroying Video Screens
  3. The Century of Maximum Change
  4. Mike Slack's Polaroids
  5. Elsewhere
  6. Bracket-Mania [Update]
  7. Vacation Destinations
  8. Neanderthals: Hawt or Not?
  9. Immigration Policy History
  10. Bagatelles

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

End of Civilization? Episode 2
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My sneaky and never-quite-frankly-admited-to Larger Question in a recent posting about upscale book-jackets was this: Are we undergoing a cultural collapse into a value-set that is self-absorbed, masturbatory, and adolescent? Are the technological shifts that we're experiencing helping to promote this development? A few more pieces of evidence. First up, a home-made rock video by a 22-year-old woman. Just to get a few things out of the way: Cute! Talented! Better than I could ever do! Nice job! Still: Interesting, isn't it, what EZ new technologies can lead to? Give a girl the tools to make what she wants to make and the freedom (and wherewithal) to make it as she sees fit, and it turns out that she'll make ... a rock video starring herself. Why? Presumably because she can. Next up, a long (and very NSFW) sample clip from the website Beautiful Agony. Just to get a few things out of the way: Clever idea! Riveting performance! Beautiful imagery, if of a hyper-decadent sort! Still: Interesting, isn't it, what some people will do when you give them the means to, er, express themselves? They'll broadcast their self-enraptured narcissism to the entire world. (BTW, I'm not condemning this. It's hot, it's fun, it's probably harmless, and why not? I'm just raising my eyebrows at some general cultural trends.) My small-t theory is that there's something about the put-it-together-for-yourself convenience of digital media that caters to the desire many people seem to have to be adolescents forever. Not to put too fine a point on it: I'm getting the strong impression that digital tools lend themselves more to spiritual/ psychological/ aesthetic masturbation than they do to going out and interacting with the world. Is this a bad or a good thing? I'm not entirely sure, and I'm probably not competent to say. Kids raised on the digi-media will undoubtedly be able to amuse themselves and to express themselves like no kids ever before. And, as long as you're burning up with life, why not broadcast the fact? Are these bad things? I do find myself worrying about one question, though: What happens when the adolescent, self-pleasing, burn-it-all-up energy runs out? While interacting with the traditional media is often frustrating and infuriating, it can also deepen a person, develop his resources, and lead him out, away from the self and into the world. It can leave him able to set aside ego, and to dig down deep when the crunch comes. But, when the crunch does come, what are the digi-kids going to have to fall back on, or to draw from? I guess we'll see in due course. And perhaps I'm rationalizing anyway. Perhaps all those pre-digital trials 'n' tribulations were pointless, and had no soul-developing effects at all. Has there ever been a culture as infatuated with adolescence as we are? Adolescence is short, and it's boring, even if it can be good for a few sexy memories. But the tendency so many... posted by Michael at April 13, 2006 | perma-link | (28) comments

Attack of the Soul-Destroying Video Screens
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ah, the wonders of technology ... of progress ... of innovative financing ... Still, is this something that many people really want? Let alone that anybody needs? In case my snapshot is too murky: That's an image of a TV broadcasting the news in a public elevator. Gasp sputter fume rage ... Are there people who are so unable to stand quietly during an elevator ride that they simply must be supplied with electronic distraction? People whose boredom and restlessness is so important an issue that the rest of us should be given no choice but to endure the presence of electronic twitchiness and noise where there once was no such thing? (And yes, that elevator-TV's sound was on.) Cellphone-yakking has destroyed what used to be quiet periods in waiting rooms, and on trains and buses. Now video screens are chewing up some of life's restful moments too. In airports, it has become hard to find a place to sit and kill time without being surrounded by flickering, yammering TVs. In NY City, some poster-style public ad spots have been replaced by large video screens -- so very much better at snagging your attention and yanking you away from your own thoughts. I've even taken rides in cabs that had video screens doing their distracting thing in the passenger compartment. I suppose these developments might be seen and experienced by some as welcome; not by me. I suppose someone could even go back to first principles and argue that my dislike of these invasions constitutes an attack on his "right" to have and enjoy them. On the other hand, doesn't it sometimes seem that the main effect of certain innovations is to blow holes in what were once very pleasant and humane (if informal, underappreciated and underrecognized) social arrangements? This Andy Rooney moment has been brought to you by Michael Blowhard... posted by Michael at April 13, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Century of Maximum Change
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: Sharpen your swords, history fans. I'm about to stick my neck out. From time to time I stumble across articles by technology-oriented writers claiming that we're living in an era of profound, unprecedented technological change. And their claim usually hinges on the emergence of the computer. Gimme a break. I'll concede that in certain areas such as biology and medicine, changes over the past few decades have been more profound than at any time in history. And true, computers have made important changes in details of our daily lives. But in those daily life terms, the greatest changes happened quite a while ago. Take my grandfather (1869-1963). When he was growing up there were no airplanes or automobiles, no radio, no television. Intercity travel was by steam train. Telegraph was the main medium of rapid communication over long distances. Yet in the year or two before he died he was in front of a TV set watching astronauts being launched into space. And taking it all in stride. (He was not highly-educated by today's standards, having made it through the eighth grade -- a fairly common attainment in the 1880s. Yet he adjusted to the introduction of cars, telephones, radio, TV and so forth. So I'm skeptical when pundits suggest that common folk are flummoxed by change.) But my grandfather got in on only part of the era of greatest quotidian change. When was that? Let me play the round-numbers game and propose a century as our measurement unit. Not a calendar century, but a 100-year period. I propose 1825-1925 as the century where everyday life changed the most. The year 1825 is my starting point because that was when the first true railroad began service, in England, using George Stephenson's steam locomotive. Railroads revolutionized intercity travel, which previously was limited to the speed of a horse. About 20 years later the telegraph entered service, raising the speed of long-distance communication well in the direction of the speed of light. Before 1825, travel on land was usually by horse or horse-drawn vehicles: otherwise, one walked. The most rapid form of communication was by semaphore systems, and these were government operations in only a few places; nearly everyone had to rely on mail carried by express rider, on stage coaches or on ships. Houses were lit by flame lamps. Cooking was done using flame. If there was refrigeration at all, cooling was done using blocks of ice cut during wintertime and preserved in ice-houses. In 1925 one might travel via subway, railroad, streetcar, automobile, airplane or steamships driven by turbine engines. Means of rapid communication were the telegraph, telephone and radio; television was still in its early experimental stage. Houses were lit by electric lights and refrigerators were coming into general use as were kitchen appliances. Urban American lifestyle in 1925 was much closer to that of 2005 than of 1825. Can you name a 100-year period where daily life changed more? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at April 12, 2006 | perma-link | (29) comments

Mike Slack's Polaroids
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The web continues to divulge terrific visual talents. I recently loved spending time with the Polaroid photographs of a young, L.A.-based photographer, Mike Slack. Mike is a fan of Tarkovsky, Lynch, and Herzog, and it shows. But his work has its own distinctive qualities too. His shots are weird and disconcerting, but they're also approachable and open. And what a fab eye for color he has. (I also like the title of a book he made of the photographs: "OK OK OK.") Mike presents his photographs very cleverly here. Here's an interview with him, along with another large selection of his Polaroids. Nice passage: Limitations are good. The 680 [Polaroid] camera, for example, forces me to pay closer attention to what immediately surrounds me, even if it's totally nondescript. I get into this headspace sometimes when even the most familiar, mundane objects seem utterly profound, and I think my best pictures capture that weird profoundness. It's almost like the camera has taught me how to look at things in this way... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 12, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Women notoriously had a hard time getting their hubbies and b.f.'s out to see "Brokeback Mountain." I suspect they won't encounter anything like the same kind of resistance when the sequel opens. (Link thanks to ChicagoBoyz' James Rummell.) * Make your own kaleidescope -- one of the niftier online toys I've run across recently. * J. Cassian points out an especially tasteless concept for a computer game. * Is this the original of the famous Numa-Numa song/video? * Pyrex: It's right for a different kind of cooking too. (NSFW) * So maybe it's true, what they say about hyper-macho guys? * I guess it is! * What an amazing thing to stare at. (Link thanks to Bluewyvern, a wonderful web bloodhound.) * Why not have the pleasure without all the damn effort? (NSFW) * African-style sex slavery has taken root in Paris. * Derek Lowe reveals how hard it is to keep up with the flow of new info in the sciences. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 12, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Bracket-Mania [Update]
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Nonsense-brackets continue to captivate graphic designers. Texas Monthly sees fit to use brackets on its cover, putting the title of one the articles it's featuring between gray parenthesis marks. Cute, the way the designer has made the gray of the parentheses match the gray type used in the word "at"! Meanwhile, book titles are beginning to appear framed by brackets. The title seems muffled, like the two characters in the cover image. Cute! To the 20th century, logocentric guy that I usually am, a gesture like this one raises a question: Do brackets used this way become part of the book's title? After all, brackets are generally taken to be typographic symbols. (The period at the end of this sentence is understood to be part of the sentence. And the parentheses around these two sentences are understood to contribute to their meaning.) Do we take the title of the book above to be "The Way We Are," or "{The Way We Are}"? (I wonder how the author would answer this question.) Or do we understand brackets flanking a book title as "groovy decorative visuals" and nothing but? What the two examples above suggest to me is that the brackets-thang has become such a standard move that it's threatening to transcend its original coolness and attain complete and utter squaresvillehood. As far as I can tell, brackets could attain squareness any day now. Initially, brackets-as-visuals were used to give a layout an off-center, deadpan/ironic quality. We were being signaled: "This isn't some flat-out, dumb statement. No, it's indirect -- an offhand, muttered aside. It's a comment on something, and not the statement itself." It also evoked chic post-modern philosophizing. Remember when wannabe-swinging academics were giving their indecipherable papers titles like "Coming of Age: [Mis]Representing Womyn's Writing"? Brackets used as visuals meant: deconstructed, unstable, zigzaggy, subversive. These days, the brackets-move has become almost as much of a staple instrument in the graphics toolkit as the basic headline-subhead-text hierarchy. And now it has begun to lose its progressive flavor. It has begun to look as square as what it replaced (boxes, mainly). Looking at the images above, for example: I take the book jacket to be aiming for a modern, distanced, hip/sad note. (Doug Sundseth will no doubt come up with a more evocative and precise way of describing the tone.) But I take the Texas Monthly brackets to be mere highlighting -- to be new-style dumbass neon. Your own impression may vary, of course. Small question for the day: How long will it take brackets to evolve one more step in this direction, and to take on overtones of "giving dignity to the content they enclose" -- creating a set-in-marble feeling, the exact opposite of what the move initially conveyed? It seems to me that, as they're being used now, brackets are starting to suggest this kind of squarest-of-the-square gestalt: Things move fast these days, don't they? What graphics-gesture is likely to replace the brackets-thang as... posted by Michael at April 12, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments

Vacation Destinations
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm writing this as the "spring break" (i.e., Easter Vacation) season is about to wind down. Time to start thinking about summer vacations. For most folks, summer vacation is a time-money equation. Perhaps you can afford a decent vacation but only get ten days a year vacation time from the job. Or (more likely) you have enough time for a vacation but not enough cash to take a really flashy one that will draw envious scowls around the office water cooler in the fall. Some people simply like taking the time off from work and are content to putter around the house and yard even if they could afford to do something more adventuresome. That is not my idea of a vacation. I like to go someplace besides home. Back in the 60s when I lived in Philadelphia one could still hear of the age-old dilemma "mountains or seashore?" This made a lot of sense in the Philly context. The Jersey Shore was only about 50 miles away at its closest point, so getting there was easy if you had a car. And if you didn't, my hazy recollection is that there was passenger train service to Atlantic City back then, if that pre-casino town was your cuppa tea. Or you could head for the Pocono "mountains" (where I come from, anything much shorter than Mt. Washington NH qualifies as a hill), about a 100-mile drive to the north. New Yorkers had a larger range of choices. Beach-wise there was the northern Jersey Shore (Barnegat to Sandy Hook) or any number of places along the southern shore of Lon G’island. As for "mountains," besides the aforementioned Poconos there were the Catskills and the Berkshires at comparatively short range and the more distant Adirondacks in New York State and the various ranges in Vermont and New Hampshire. Bostonians had Cape Cod for seashore vacations and the New England hills/mountains as a convenient alternative. Sorry, but still not my cuppa. Maybe I just might barely kinda almost be able to tolerate a shore/mountain holiday as I age towards The Big Recycling Bin in the Sky. But when I was younger, the idea of going someplace for a week or two and doing almost nothing was incomprehensible. I figured I would get stir-crazy. Go nuts. As a starving grad student, I didn't really take a vacation except one summer when I drove out to Seattle to visit my family. I went to the Jersey Shore to get away from my non-airconditioned apartment, but that was just day-tripping. When I worked in Albany I'd use my vacation time for drives to Seattle and California. Oh, and one trip to Ottawa, Montréal and Québec. Later, when I had kids and an economically precarious consulting business, I'd manage to send the rest of the family to my wife's family farm in the western Catskills for a month. Since I did a fair amount of sales-call traveling anyhow, I simply kept... posted by Donald at April 12, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Neanderthals: Hawt or Not?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love it when the postings-and-commentsfests at GNXP careen almost out of control, don't you? It's a wonderful chance to glimpse what's really on the minds of evo-bio brainiacs. Do Neanderthal genes still stir among us? Why are women and men so different? Is there anything special about blondeness? And -- crucially -- what's the best strategy for getting dates with hot chicks? Geeks, eh? More highly-evolved than the rest of us? Or just a little puzzled by this whole being-human thing? In any case, my congrats and thanks to Razib and company for sponsoring such a good party. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 11, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Immigration Policy History
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In my amateurish way, I started nosing around the subject of immigration history some years ago. It hooked me. I had one of those lights-clicking-on moments: My god, this is really something! Duh, of course. Still, I'm often surprised by how many otherwise well-informed people seem completely unfamiliar with immigration history (and immigration policy) as a topic. They seem to take our current mess as a given, and as inevitable. This is just the way things have to be, they think. There is nothing that can be done. They may be familiar with the changes wrought by Vietnam, by the Civil Rights era, by the Great Society initiatives, perhaps even by the GI Bill -- events and movements that played big roles in shaping present-day America. But they often know nothing about the Hart-Celler Immigration Bill of 1965: nothing about its impact, or even its existence. (They could also afford to be a little more aware of the importance of the 1956 Highway Act, IMHO...) Where immigration policy -- and, because of it, the size and makeup of our population -- is concerned, the pre-1965 U.S. was a different place than it is now. In the years since, we have become something very different than what we once were: more populous than we'd otherwise be, and with a dramatically different ethnic makeup. Before 1965, immigration averaged around 300,000 people per year. For the entire decade of the 1930s, immigration totaled about 500,000. These days, legal immigration averages around a million people a year, and estimates for illegal immigration range from a half a million to over a million. The 1990s represent the era of the highest immigration numbers ever in American history; the U.S. currently takes about half of all emigrants in the world. Largely as a consquence of Hart-Celler, we're likely to hit a population of 400 million people by 2050. 100 million of them will be of Hispanic descent. Whether or not you think these are desirable developments, the nation-changing impact of Hart-Celler becomes hard to dispute once you take a look at the facts. Previous standards and requirements were thrown out and replaced by '60s-ish ideals and goals. Did anyone really anticipate what would ensue? A few examples of bad law gone awry: "Family reunification" as a basis for policy must have sounded warm and cuddly to many ears -- but in practice it has become a way for extended families to keep reeling in more and more members. One of the explicit goals of the act was to stop favoring one country or region over another. (Pre-1965 immigration policy favored immigrants from Europe.) Fair was finally going to be fair. Yet today nearly half of immigrants are from Latin America. What's fair about that? In 1965, Ted Kennedy, Mr. Trustworthy himself and a sponsor of the 1965 immigration act, said, "No immigrant visa will be issued to a person who is likely to become a public charge." Reality check: Today,... posted by Michael at April 11, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, April 10, 2006

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- * More than once I've come across Terry Teachout mentioning that he doesn't much like going to classical music concerts and sees little future in them. Here's his most recent post dealing with the matter. I agree with Terry. Concertgoing in Seattle or San Francisco -- the cities I'm most familiar with in this respect -- involves (1) spending a significant chunk of money for tickets, (2) dressing up, (3) driving to the concert hall, (4) spending money to park the car, (5) spending money for drinks while hanging out in the lobby, and (6) driving home afterwards. And this does not take into account sitting in the hall watching ... what? The conductor gesturing, string-instrument players bowing and other players moving their instruments into or out of playing position. Now each and every bit of this can be a treasured experience (especially examining the credit card receipt at the end of the month). In most cases, I can do without the entire thing. I like classical music. And when I'm in the mood for a particular version of a particular piece, then all I need to do is pop the appropriate CD into a player and listen. What's so awful about doing that instead of going to a live performance? * It dawns on me that some of you might not know how my last name is pronounced. One says -- PITT-n-ger -- where the "g" is the soft French "g" and not the hard German "g". I'm not much into genealogy, but the consensus of a few Web pages I looked at is that the name comes from the Rhine River area -- possibly downstream in the Netherlands, but more likely someplace along the river towards where it forms the French-German border. In Germany the name would just as likely be spelled with a "B" and the e's and i's might be mixed up a bit. The "g" would be hard, as I noted. Let's say a German might say BETT-Inger, BETT-Enger, BITTING-er or some other permutation. And it seems some spelling variations of the p's and b'e and i's and e's are found in the U.S. The soft-G American pronunciation might well have evolved after members of the family arrived here. But it's also possible that the family was Alsatian -- coming from the mixed French-German west bank of the Rhine -- and that the French-G came via that source. * I'm clueless about Manga, the Japanese comic book/graphic novel/Anime (animation) cartoon art. I have a nephew who got so hooked on the stuff while in college at UC San Diego that he moved to Japan to be nearer to the source. For the purposes of this Bagatelle, let's set aside plot, characterization, dramatic pacing of the panels, cinema-influenced staging, etc. and focus on the depiction of people. Although there are variations between artists, there also seems to be a large amount of Manga so uniform in appearance that it might... posted by Donald at April 10, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Fab Faux Forties Food
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Attention CONSPIRACY THEORISTS: Have you ever seen Michael Blowhard and Donald Pittenger in the same room at the same time? In the same town, even? I thought not. Take the month of March, for example. Early in the month Michael and The Wife were in California, perhaps in Santa Barbara, where he has been known to visit. At the end of the month Pittenger and The Fiancée were in Santa Barbara! What do you make of that?!? AND ... has anyone ever seen The Wife and The Fiancée together in the same room or town? QED. Where was I? About to talk about retro restaurants, of course. Why else would I have gone to the trouble of concocting that odd title to this post. I am one of the world's fussiest eaters. I forget my ranking, but a couple months ago I might have been number seven or eight. But this doesn't prevent us from dining out a fair amount. Lord knows we travel a lot, so that virtually mandates restaurant dining. Probably the nicest Santa Barbara place where we ate was the El Encanto Hotel, on the hill not far from the mission. We met friends from Malibu for lunch and sat next to the window where we had a fine view of the city, the channel, the islands and the Pacific. The evening before, we weren't so choosey. It's a long grind from The Fiancée's Northern California place, so once we stashed our stuff in our beach-area motel room we parked the car in an underground garage by Macy's and checked out State Street, the main shopping drag. After a few blocks' worth of menu-inspecting we decided to head back to the Nuevo Paseo, Santa Barbara's downtown mall -- one of those uncovered, streetscape shopping centers with a couple large stores (Macy's and Nordstrom) to anchor things. Last year we had had dinner there in a retro-1940s restaurant called Ruby's Diner and survived, so we went back. Ruby's is tucked away at the edge of the Nuevo Paseo in a food ghetto next to an Oriental food place and across from a pizza restaurant. All three places were pretty busy, indicating that Santa Barbara isn't totally a hook-the-little-finger-when-drinking town. Ruby's (check their Web page here) was founded in the Los Angeles area in the early 80s and has expanded to other parts of California and to a few other states. It features a white interior with red cushions on counter stools and booth seating. The walls are adorned with Coca-Cola posters from the 30s into the 50s, as best I can judge. They claim to be a 1940s place, but have fudged things a bit including the menu which has ethnic and vegetarian items not found in most cafes of 60 years ago. The menu was so large and diverse that it troubled me a little. Being a fussy eater, I like menus to be large enough to include at least one... posted by Donald at April 9, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments