In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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  1. Elsewhere
  2. Western Faith and Western Reason
  3. Gals at Work
  4. How Much Would You Pay for a Picasso?
  5. Ivy League Cheaters
  6. More Art Metrics
  7. More on Elsewhere
  8. Take That Painkiller ... or Not
  9. Conventions about Everything
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Friday, May 5, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Yahmdallah has been treating himself to a movie orgy. He lists and annotates some must-see movie-history greats, he gives up on Gus Van Sant, and he recommends the TV series "Dead Like Me." Great Yahmdallah line (a propos of "Thumbsucker"): "It's now official. I will never again waste time on a 'small film' about 'the little earthquakes' in our lives." * Tatyana reviews a vacation in Portugal in pix and words. You'll be dreaming of sipping port by the time she's done. She also shows how beautiful spring can be in Brooklyn's Botanical Garden. * Matt McIrvin is a major fan of the Polish sci-fi genius Stanislaw Lem. * So Jen and her good friend Nat walk into this bar, and ... OMG! * Starbucks signs with William Morris. * YouTube is about to surpass CNN in online popularity. Paul Boutin tries to figure out what kind of juju MySpace and YouTube share. * Speaking of YouTube, here's the Jefferson Airplane on Ed Sullivan, doing a rousing version of their grimly ecstatic "White Rabbit." * The delicious and talented Molly Crabapple -- saucy both as a po-mo vaudeville personality and a designer/illustrator -- co-sponsors a hip and happening downtown drawing session. Here's the drawing session's own blog. I'm glad to see that Molly is showing her naughty Victoriana in Phoenix soon. * Chris White, who owns an art gallery in Maine, sometimes stops by 2Blowhards and provides good-humored and brainy counterpoint to our more cranky rants. Please be sure to check out his gallery's website. Chris handles a lot of classy and beautiful art. * Having taken the plunge and devoted herself to writing, Prairie Mary reviews her financial situation. Those who imagine that the writing life is a glamorous and glitzy one will learn much from this posting. Savor that prose too -- Mary is a powerhouse of a writer. * I confess that I have no idea why so many people seem to think that skyrocketing population numbers are a great thing. As Dean Brown writes, "What's the Problem With Less Crowding?" James Kunstler thinks that we ought to be warier than we are when our elites use the word "growth." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 5, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Western Faith and Western Reason
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Over the last week I spent some time with a book I'd long meant to read: C.S. Lewis' 1952 "Mere Christianity." Many people have found the book to be an illuminating defence of orthodox Christianity -- a convincing presentation of the fundamentals that all Christian faiths share. In 2000, the magazine Christianity Today even named "Mere Christianity" the best book of the 20th century. I've written before about how the appeal of Christianity eludes me. Short version: Although I was raised Presbyterian, and although I can follow some of the arguments and be impressed by much of the art and culture, I simply don't imaginatively/ emotionally/ spiritually connect with Christianity. Still, we in the West live in a world that Christianity has played a big role in shaping, so I treat myself to the occasional wrestle with the subject. Though I haven't come close to cracking the nut yet, "Mere Christianity" certainly struck me as a heckuva book. I understand its rep. It's closely argued and beautifully written, and presented in a wonderfully accessible, direct, and informal style. (Lewis originally delivered the material as a series of lectures at Oxford in the mid-1940s, so its tone is very conversational.) Anything but a Bible-thumper, Lewis wants to make a secure, reasonable, and logical intellectual case that the Christian basics -- original sin, the transcendent Creator God, the divinity of Jesus, His bodily resurrection -- are objectively true, and even inevitable. They simply must follow from the nature of life itself. But -- despite the book's combo of modesty and magnificence -- I didn't get very far into it. By mid-book, Lewis was elaborating arguments that sooooo don't-concern me that I couldn't see any reason to go on. I found following Lewis' line of reasoning an odd experience. I felt in close touch with his taking-off point -- roughly, the inevitability of the religious dimension. By page 20, though, I was aware that a gap had opened up between Lewis' concerns and mine. By the time page 70 rolled around, the gap had widened to the point where it was as though C.S. and I were inhabitants of two different universes. On and on his lovely language and his awe-inspiring thinking-powers rolled. Meanwhile, I had about as much idea what he was talking about as I would if I were to sit in on a higher-math seminar. There was no effort that was in my power to make that could have brought me into the conversation that C.S. Lewis was conducting. I don't think I've ever before had such an experience: feeling so close to a book's p-o-v at its outset, and then so completely divorced from it not all that much later. I felt so puzzled by this phenomenon that a few days after I abandoned the book I picked it up and began flipping through the opening pages again. I wasn't able to pinpoint a precise word, or sentence, or agument. But I was... posted by Michael at May 4, 2006 | perma-link | (30) comments

Gals at Work
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There's an interesting column by Jeffrey Zaslow in today's Wall Street Journal. (It doesn't seem to be available online, darn it.) Zaslow's theme is the differences between working American women of different ages. Our work force now harbors four generations of women: women born pre-WWII; Boomers; Xers (born between 1965 and 1980); and, now, Yers (born after 1980). Surprise, surprise: They don't all play together well. 36-year-old Alison Brod, who runs a p-r firm, finds that she has to order her 20something gal employees to cover up their bellybuttons when they meet with clients. She also has to tell them to spellcheck their writing and to be sure to use capitalization too. "Their mindset is completely casual in every single way," Brod says. 60-year-old Nina McLemore, who runs Liz Claiborne Accessories, is struck by the way her younger female employees expect to leave the office at 5 pm. "They've seen their mothers do it, and they don't want that stress," McLemore says. Meanwhile, young women often find older female colleagues a pain. One shocker comes from a survey conducted by Susan Shapiro Barash of 500 working women. It turns out that 70% of them feel that male bosses treat them better than female bosses do. The article also contains a lot of blah-blah about "mentoring" that might interest some but that I certainly can't make sense of. I seem to be genetically unable to understand the fuss that women have made about mentoring. What's the big deal? I never expected to be taken on by a male mentor, and I never was. As for the only woman who ever gave me a little work-guidance, well ... About half her advice was pretty good, while half of it was very bad. I find myself figuring that "mentoring" means a lot to many women for symbolic reasons. I just can't figure out what's being symbolized. Still: a provocative article. I'm dying to know what the partyline feminists will make of these findings, of course. There has got to be some way of blaming this state of affairs on Da Patriarchy. But I'm much more curious to hear about visitors' experiences at work. Do gals find women of other ages hard to take? How and why? Do guys notice that younger and older gals have different attitude-sets? Me, I'm very struck these days by the way a certain old assumption -- that women share a lot in common where work is concerned -- seems to have evaporated. And hallelujah for that. Susan Shapiro Barash has put her findings into a new book, "Tripping the Prom Queen." An archive of Jeffrey Zaslow's columns can be found here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 4, 2006 | perma-link | (26) comments

How Much Would You Pay for a Picasso?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: Today's hottest art news is that Picasso's 1941 portrait of Dora Maar was auctioned at $95 million. Here's what this masterpiece looks like: "Dora Maar with cat" Maar was his mistress when Picasso made the painting. According to a Reuters report, Sotheby's expected it to go for around $40 million. The report does not mention who bought the painting, but notes that another Picasso, "Boy with a pipe" holds the auction record at $104 million. Now for the fun part, art fans. Pretend that the artist wasn't Picasso -- actually, an unknown. Assuming you were rich enough that buying any painting involved pocket change, just how much would you pay to have it hanging on your living room wall? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 4, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Ivy League Cheaters
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Enough with the usual debates: How did the novel by Harvard undergrad/plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan novel actually come into being? (Hint: She didn't just sit in her room and write it.) An article by Slate's Ann Hulbert provides a revealing snapshot of how today's commercial fiction-publishing world sometimes goes about its business. I'd love to know more about Alloy Entertainment, the fiction-packaging outfit that took Viswanathan on. According to Hulbert, they describe themselves as "a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films" with a focus on the teen market. Gotta love it. A John Barlow article about working with a fiction-packager can be read here. What has your reaction to the story been? I'm split. On the one hand, I feel for Kaavya. She has been broadcast nationwide in a negative light -- not fun! And her entire life is likely to be tainted by what seems to be, when you get down to it, overeagerness and misjudgment. (OK, bad misjudgment. But she has received a lot more coverage than many murderers do.) God knows that I'd hate to be held too responsible for a lot of my 18-year-old behavior. I shudder to think of what a fine-tooth-comb run through my college papers and early fiction would turn up. More than a few "borrowings," no doubt. Kids deserve to be cut some slack. And Hulbert's article shows Viswanathan being swept up in the gears of an unappealing machine that is much larger than she is. Don't current fiction-publishing practices deserve much of the blame here? On the other hand: I find it impossible not to enjoy the spectacle of an over-achieving golden-child/grind taking a pie in her face. There's something else that I find pleasing too: The way the affair drags Harvard's name in the mud. I was tickled by the Larry Summers flap for a similar reason. The less-seriously the world takes the Harvard brand, the better off the world will be. Ivy Leaguers, patooie: Many of them are, in my experience, the least spontaneous, least generous, least open, and least-humane people imaginable. God knows that most of them are bright and hard-working. But what a pain they are too -- often unoriginal and plagued by me-too-ism, yet self-congratulatory to the max, annoyingly "entitled," and deeply convinced that they represent the country's best and finest. Still, Kaavya is only 18 ... How have you reacted to the affair? Best, Michael UPDATE: Steve Sailer experiences the thrill of being plagiarized.... posted by Michael at May 3, 2006 | perma-link | (46) comments

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

More Art Metrics
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, yes, I know they don't tell you everything. And they can mislead you. Still, if it's possible, I like to see things reduced to numbers: even arty stuff. Not long ago I wrote a post based on data collected by Charles Murray in which I hypothesized that Murray's citation-ranking of Western artists was a proxy for the views of the Art History Establishment. While I was working up that post I was reading a recent book by University of Chicago economist David W. Galenson that also attempts to quantify art. In Galenson's case, it's the age at which an artist attained peak excellence (he used the word "creativity") along with the related matter of the lifetime quality profile of the artist. The book in question is "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity" (Amazon listing here). A review by Kyle Gann, which gives you the flavor of Galenson's research is here. Galenson has written extensively on his topic; two related books are "Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art" (see here) and "Artistic Capital" (see here). Galenson measures "creativity" by looking auction prices of art, art included in retrospective exhibitions, and art otherwise exhibited by museums. Galenson finds that these alternative measures tend to agree in terms of the age of the artist at the time the highest priced, most frequently displayed works were created. From his data Galenson denotes two types of artists, those who innovate at a comparatively young age and those who slowly improve their skills over their careers. (He used Picasso and Cézanne as prime examples. For instance, paintings Picasso did in his twenties are worth more than those done thereafter, and the price curve falls off steadily with age.) Having set up his classification, Galenson then goes on to enumerate working practices and other characteristics of the artists (some of this analysis is based on the work of art historian Robert Jensen). See Gann's review for more details. The use of exhibited paintings as data is akin to what Murray did. But expressing art in terms of auction prices was something that I though was nifty. Well, Galenson's an economist, for heaven's sake, and reducing things to dollars is what they do. This interests me because, for some time, I've been mulling over the idea of using prices to measure how currently-active artists taking the representational, abstract, and PoMo routes are faring -- espcially when location of the gallery or buyer is taken into account. For instance Carmel, California is loaded with galleries and representational art seems to predominate there. But I see proportionally more PoMo up in San Francisco. It would be nice to quantify this, though I haven't yet looked into just how I might do that. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 2, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

More on Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Thanks to Claire, who mentioned that the Smithsonian acquired the kitchen of Julia Child and has put it on display. (There is some justice in the museum world.) Off Googling thanks to Claire, I notice that the Smithsonian has also done a nice job of making Julia's kitchen (and a lot of Julia lore) available on the web. Be sure to make Claire's own blog a regular destination point. Claire discusses TV, supplies lots of interesting links, and recounts lively and telling anecdotes from her life -- she has the real storyteller's gift. * Thanks also to visitor Steve, who left a couple of informative and interesting comments on my recent posting about slaughterhouses and carrots. Steve's background is a country one, and he had this to say (I've edited his comments just a bit): I grew up on a small family farm in rural Nebraska, and the town 20 miles away had a large industrial meat packing plant. I knew several kids from my class who worked there briefly after high school. I say "briefly" because none of them could stand it for more than 3 months. And I mean literally 3 months -- I remember talking to them in the fall after graduation and they had all quit. These were kids who grew up on a farm like myself, and they were unequivocal: it was the worst job in the world. Dangerous, filthy, degrading, impossible to get the smell of blood and guts out of clothing and hair and nostrils at the end of the day. They all saw several people badly injured on the job, and experienced first-hand the callousness of the plant management to the injuries and appalling work conditions. This was before the industry started recruiting and bussing illegals up from the border, but you could see the direction the industry was going. They didn't want to pay to create a work environment in which non-desperate people would want to work, or pay wages that non-desperate people were willing to work at. It's a vile industry, period. I'm not an expert in industrial design, and I’m not exactly sure what a humane meat processing plant would look like, but I’m confident it does not have to be this way. These were conscious choices made by the people at the top about what they wanted to pay their workforce and how they wanted to design their plants, and they went the inhuman route to maximize profits. (...) I grew up on a livestock farm, where the cattle were grazed in open fields and the hogs were not crated but allowed to wander in open enclosures. And at the end of the day the cattle were "finished" in confinements and all the animals were killed for meat. There's a reasonable way to raise and slaughter animals for food. It's not always pretty, but it's far from the hell of modern industrial livestock farming. Also, I should add that Orwell got... posted by Michael at May 2, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Take That Painkiller ... or Not
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not on the subject of really serious pain, the kind one gets after a major wound or from cancer. I'm thinking of minor stuff and different strategies people take when dealing with actual or anticipated pain. Plus I'm not a pain expert, being pretty fortunate in my life to have avoided (so far) all but one childhood ache in the bone above one ear and some childhood toothache pangs. I should add that as I've aged, I gotten much less sensitive to the sorts of pains that bothered me as a child. Looking back, I think that I was hyper-sensitive to pain in my pre-teen years. For example, I've had a few root canal procedures and even more tooth-bulldozings for crowns, not to mention a tooth implant that involved a lot of demolition of the molar being replaced. Each time, the dentist wrote a prescription for a pain-killer. But I found that I almost never needed them. I did take one pill following the tooth removal for the implant, but that was a borderline case and I might have been able to skip it. Then there is the somewhat related matter of anesthesia when the level is at the option of the patient. Examples include examinations of the colon, esophagus and urinary tract. In each case I opted for the lowest level of anesthesia. The Fiancée, on the other hand, had one of those examinations and insisted on being put completely under. In no way was I trying to be "macho." There are dangers to being totally anesthetized. Plus, knowing that I'm less sensitive to pain than I once was, I figured that I could get by with lesser amounts of the stuff. And I did just fine. Finally there is the case of my father. He claimed that when he went to the dentist, he refused Novocain because he feared the needle more than the drill. Recalling the pain I had felt in childhood from the low-speed drills dentists used then (even having had Novocain), I thought my father was totally nuts. It's possible that he was BS-ing us, but when he kidded us his pattern was to come clean after only a short time. So I'm guessing he was truthful. Do you have any pain/painkiller tales to tell us? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 2, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Monday, May 1, 2006

Conventions about Everything
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Coming soon to Phoenix: the world's biggest thriller (as in book-thriller, not movie-thriller) convention. And soon to take place in the Chicago area: ShibariCon, the convention for those who love the art of Japanese rope bondage. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Steve Sailer asks the hard questions that the mainstream media have been avoiding about the Duke case, and supplies some arresting facts and figures too. Steve also posts a lot of info about the unappetizing man behind the Spanish "Star-Spangled Banner." Quel surprise: He isn't Hispanic. * The Sudoku craze shows no sign of abating. In Britain, sales of pencils are said to have risen 700% as a direct consequence of Sudoku's popularity. * Although my gaydar isn't bad, my lesbian-dar is very weak. Still, I can't say that I was surprised to read this. * Enough with denouncing the absurdities of modernist art: Where to find the good nonmodernist new stuff? Roger Kimball looks at what he considers to be one of the "Bright Spots" in the contemporary art scene. * Shouting Thomas shows what an un-PC movieworld might look like. He also hosts a Big Apple Blog Fest, and moves ambitiously into videoblogging. Hmm: VideoEgg seems to work well as a video-hoster ... * Federal-government pork this year totals $29 billion. * Edward Feser takes a sympathetic/skeptical look at the thoughts of libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard. * Is there a way to merge a book and a website? The latest author to take on this challenge is Robert Frenay, who is making his pop-science book "Pulse" available via RSS feed, and is filling the text-bits with relevant links. Sign up here. * I love it when Mike Hill goes into storytelling mode. Recently Mike recalled the days he spent working in hotels. Hollywood? There's a movie in these adventures, if not a TV series. As usual, I'll settle for a 15% finder's fee. * Anything but a tie-dyed leftist, Rick Darby thinks George Bush has a lot to answer for. Rick also links to a fascinating web-linkage graphic. * I can think of worse ways to spend a work day. (NSFW) * Neil has had it with being a loser. * Let's ditch the sentimentality for a moment. Did earlier waves of immigration into America really work out that well? AFF wonders. * Razib hasn't been able to get his mind off those unusual people, the Finns. * Art history of the most earthy and essential kind. (NSFW) * More necessary cultural history, this time of the underground sort: here, here, here. * Literature be damned: It's romance fiction that continues to prosper, even in these raw and edgy times. The latest estimate is that romances account for 55% of all mass market paperback sales. Thanks to Dave Lull for pointing out this fun Missoula Independent visit with three romance authors. * Those who enjoy gnawing on the "what's up with that?" question about modernism should enjoy Michael Mehaffy's essay on the topic. Mehaffy is a Christopher Alexander fan, and he has collaborated on writing with Nikos Salingaros. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Visit These
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ilkka at Sixteen Volts has a wonderfully droll (and fearless) way of asking difficult questions. Dirk Thruster admires machines, skewers politics, and assaults pretentions with a lot of shrewd brainpower and rowdy good humor. Are there 2Blowhards visitors who haven't discovered Peter's Iron Rails and Iron Weights? Ostensibly a diary of Peter's commutes and workouts, it's also a vehicle for his (often funny and always dry) observations and musings. There's much Beckettian entertainment to be had from following Peter's adventures in the train and at the gym. Citron, a former clergyman, has a generous, dignified, and impish eye that he runs over politics, people, and retirement life in Arizona. I especially loved his recent posting about how modern entertainment has become so loud. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in college, FvB and I giggled a lot over The Furry Freak Brothers -- an underground comic book that was stoner humor of a very high order. Here's a rare interview with the Freaks' creator, Gilbert Shelton. Who, for what it's worth, I value more highly than R. Crumb. You can order up copies of Shelton's immortal work here. Here's a tribute site. A Freaks Bros. movie might soon be made in stop-action, by a team including some of the animators from "Wallace and Grommit." Hey, the Freak Brothers even have their own Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that knows what people are really interested in ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

CDG Terminal 1: Futuristic Gone Sour
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- March, 1974. It was the airport of the future ... today!! Passengers whisked from level to level on moving walkways enclosed within plastic tubes. Underground moving walkways from the central terminal building to seven satellites. The multi-purpose central building with shops, parking, rental cars, check-in counters, luggage pick-up -- everything under one roof save the gates in the satellites. Pride of the nation: its gateway. Symbol of its technical prowess. Its design embodying la logique and l'égalité. I'm talking about the original terminal (Terminal 1) at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG). I hate it. Background First, some links. The Wikipedia entry on the airport is here and its entry on its architect, Paul Andreu, is here. A PDF link with diagrams of what's on various floors of the terminal is here. Another PDF link, here, contains background information written by a Frenchman (Jean-François Onnée) in a term paper for an MIT class; I used it as the source for information on the intent of the airport planners. Paris' first airport was Le Bourget, northeast of the city not far beyond the Périphérique (beltway). It's best known to Americans as the place Lindbergh landed at the end of his famous 1927 New York-to-Paris flight. It still handles traffic including business jets and is where the national air/space museum is located. After the Second World War, the airfield at Orly, south of the city, became the main airport for Paris. But the advent of jet travel and rapidly-increasing numbers of passengers produced trends indicating that yet another airport was needed. The planning requirements of limited distance from central Paris, sparse population and the availability of, or potential for, ground transportation links to the city pretty much determined that the new airport would be located at Roissy. Roissy is roughly on the same axis from central Paris as Le Bourget. Planning for the new airport and design of the terminal were carried out in the early 60s. Construction began in 1966 and the airport opened 8 March 1974. (Air traffic continued to expand to the point where yet another airport was considered. The proposed site was near Amiens, north-northwest of Paris. The most obvious disadvantage of this site is its distance from Paris, a seriously long commute unless a special TGV high-speed train line were built. In any event, a change in the French presidency brought a halt to the scheme.) The MIT article goes into details of the planning of the initial terminal. Alternative schemes were evaluated, and the one chosen (1) concentrated support facilities and (2) "equalized" walking distances for passengers, especially those making flight connections. As can be seen in the linked diagram, the centralization concept forced the terminal to be tall -- the functional areas being stacked rather than spread out as in most air terminals. The main public areas are in the form of stacked rings resulting in a doughnut-shaped structure. The tube-enclosed moving walkways within the structure send passengers between... posted by Donald at May 1, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments