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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Saturday, June 3, 2006

American Cities
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In his interview with Michael Phillips, Bernard Frieden conveys a lot of essential social history in a very short space. Cities, suburbs, "urban renewal," shopping, the interest in history, food ... It's a trustworthy and compact picture of what America has made of its cities since World War II. Key passage: In the course of knocking things down to try to rebuild the cities, the planners and the public officials were also very careless about other people's interests. They tore down a tremendous amount of housing, booted out hundreds of thousands of families around the country, evicted at least tens of thousands of small businesses, many of which never recovered from the move, and, in an effort to cure the city, many of these programs really made cities worse. They kicked out the people who would have stayed longer and the businesses that might have stayed longer, in order to create the makings of that clean slate. That's the way it was in the '50s. Frieden is the author of "Downtown, Inc.," which I've just put on my Amazon Wish List. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 3, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, June 2, 2006

Movie Reviewing and the Web
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm tickled pink to find that my name, er, pseudonym got a mention in Anne Thompson's latest Hollywood Reporter column. Her topic is film reviewing in the age of the internet, and it's an excellent piece. Which I say partly out of peacock pride and groveling gratitude, of course. But the truth is also that I've followed Anne Thompson's reporting enthusiastically for several decades now. She both delivers the goods and sets them in context. She's the rare business reporter whose movie-buffery is the equal of any critic's. She isn't just good at finding out what's happening, she's also terrific at puzzling out what it might mean. Movie-business reporting doesn't get any snappier, smarter, or better-informed. Anne Thompson expands on her piece a bit and provides a nice bouquet of links at her blog -- itself a real treat for film buffs and movie fans. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 2, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Provincial Gallery Scene (1): Kal Gajoum
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- There are parallel universes in the art market. For example, there is the tourist market. I've seen this along the Seine in Paris, in St. Petersburg in Russia and on Greek islands such as Mykonos. The artist (or someone representing himself as an artist) sells (often unframed) oils, watercolors or engravings directly to passing tourists. Then there are artists who motorhome around the country, flitting from shopping mall to shopping mall where a group of them will clutter the main aisle offering everything from hyper-realistic depictions of waves crashing on a beach to portraits of Elvis on black velvet. At the opposite extreme price-wise, if not necessarily in terms of artistic quality, are the ultra-fashionable galleries in New York and a few other cities where works are sold for prices in the six-and-up-digit dollar range. The "Provincial Gallery Scene" in the title of this post refers to none of what I just mentioned. My "parallel universe" of interest is the gallery that caters to clients willing to drop, let's say, five-digit dollar amounts for a painting. Such clients are probably fairly well-educated, though I'm not sure what proportion buys art based on their personal taste as opposed to relying on consultants, art critics or gallery staff to advise on purchasing. By "provincial" I mean that these galleries tend to be located away from New York. I have seen them in places such as Carmel, California, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Scottsdale, Arizona. My plan is to report from time to time on artists whose work I find in such galleries. This is art flying below the radar of the publicity/investment-driven gallery world noted above. But not far below. I consider this art to be more in tune with the tastes of educated Americans in general. Moreover, some of it might prove to be more enduring than what's currently hot in New York. This series differs slightly from my Popular Artists series in that these artists are less well-known. I need to add that I won't necessarily enthuse over what I'll write about, as you will see below. My self-appointed task is to report art that I find interesting, if not something I would buy. * * * * * Paintings by the subject of the present post were seen at a gallery in Whistler -- British Columbia's posh ski resort area that will be the site of outdoor events in the 2010 Winter Olympics. The blurb on a handout I grabbed at the gallery states: Born in Tripoli, Kal Gajoum lived for extended periods of time in Malta, England and Paris, France before moving to Vancouver, British Columbia. During these periods Kal earnestly studied fine art at the knee of some of the greatest teachers in Europe where he fell in love with the postimpressionist style. Painting in a style reminiscent of the postimpressionists, the master, Kal Gajoum paints with a passion. His unique and graceful style is refreshing. It embraces a warmth and... posted by Donald at June 2, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Puzzle for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- According to happiness guru Richard Layard, research shows that a belief in God is one of the six factors most closely linked to happiness. People who believe in God are far more likely to be happy than people who don't. (Layard is a progressive social democrat, by the way -- anything but a theocrat or a fundamentalist.) It also seems pretty well-established that the more ethnically diverse a neighborhood or region is, the less trusting and more tense it's likely to be. Yet doesn't it seem that one of the main thrusts of liberal society is to get its members to give up their belief in God and invest their hopes in diversity instead? I assume that's done in the interest of liberation. But liberation from what? Happiness? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 1, 2006 | perma-link | (36) comments

Diet Books
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Eager to lose ten pounds, I've recently been spending time with diet books. (It's soooo much more satisfying to read and make plans than it is to take action, don't you think?) I've leafed through a bunch of them, and I've spent serious time with three. As someone who once followed the book-publishing industry closely, I enjoyed exploring these books as much for their characteristics as books as for their content. My general reaction: What an over-edited, by-the-numbers genre diet books have become! Start with a description of the crisis ... Devote 'way too many pages to the "science" of whatever your angle is ... Keep ringing and then re-ringing the alarm bells ... Finally volunteer the eating advice you've been withholding (it's usually worth about a dozen pages) ... Then finish with a small collection of recipes. Decorate the whole with bullet points, boxes, multiple fonts, quotes from authority figures, and bossy language ... Hey, isn't it strange how the business memo has become a model for books? In fact, isn't it strange how central the business memo has become as an organizing metaphor in American life? Note to self: Write heavily bullet-pointed blogposting about the business-memo form. And the length of diet books: Have there been many that really needed more than 100 pages? Yet few clock in at less than 350 pages. Why are books that are meant to guide us into living more elegantly themselves so overstuffed? Sad fact: Americans are impulse-buyers who love quantity, not quality. In the bookbiz this is widely felt to be the case anyway. Publishing efforts are forever being made to make books (especially pop and/or "bestseller"-style books) look thicker than they really should be. Check out how big the margins of thrillers are, and how very many chapters they're divided into. Publishers want the saps who buy their reading material from bins at discount stores to think, "Wow, for only $11.95 I can have myself a hardcover copy of a novel by someone whose name I've heard of! And it's really long! Now that's getting value for my money!" Hey, Americans: Grow up! Quit letting yourselves be taken advantage of by cynical big-city media operators who look down on you! Come to think of it, our preference for quantity over quality might be one of the main reasons we're so fat in the first place ... Some brief notes on the three books I looked at closely. Here come the bullet points! Although Joel Fuhrman's "Eat to Live" was my least-favorite of these books, I couldn't tear myself away from it. I found it transfixing in a gruesome kind of way. Fuhrman hits the ground running with a "You're gonna die if you don't take action now!" tone, and then cranks it up to a pitch of pure hysteria. And many of the recipes he supplies are recognizable by even a tyro foodie like me as awful. To be fair, there's probably some substance... posted by Michael at June 1, 2006 | perma-link | (20) comments

More Immigration
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The Washington Post's Robert Samuelson notices that only 17% of Americans want legal immigration rates increased, and that the Senate just crafted a bill that would take current immigration rates and double them. Then Samuelson asks why the mainstream media aren't doing a better job of letting the public know how brazenly their preferences are being defied. Why indeed? Some interesting facts: No one can contend that the United States needs expanded immigration to prevent the population from shrinking. Our population is aging but not shrinking. With present immigration policies, the Census Bureau projects a U.S. population of 420 million in 2050, up from 296 million in 2005. Under the Senate bill, the figure for 2050 would expand by many millions. Another dubious argument is that much higher immigration would dramatically improve economic growth. From 2007 to 2016, the Senate bill might increase the economy's growth rate by about 0.1 percentage point annually, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. That's tiny; it's a rounding error. So much for the idea that we need more immigrants ... * Thomas Sowell argues that the Senate's bill will give illegals more rights than everyday Americans have. So much for the idea that the Senate's bill has anything to do with fairness ... * Labor Party loyalist David Goodhart thinks that sensible people need to recognize that governments should look out for their own citizens first. (Link thanks to Faute de Pire.) The interests of British citizens, of all colours and creeds, must come first. This may seem obvious, but it often conflicts with the assumptions of the internationalist left, the business elite, and the xenophobic right ... We may have obligations to all humanity but we have a much more special relationship with fellow citizens. We need borders to protect that specialness. So much for the idea that stances vis a vis immigration policy have much to do with traditional left/right divisions ... * Steve Sailer summarizes the policies of the Bush administration very effectively in only eleven words: - Invade the world - Invite the world - In hock to the world So much for the idea that the Bushies represent the real America ... Best, Michael UPDATE: John Derbyshire's reaction to the Senate bill strikes me as exactly what the bill deserves.... posted by Michael at June 1, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Visual Delights
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Edmund Leveckis' near-monochrome photographs are moody, evocative wonders, with a kind of dense, slow-you-down presence that's rare in photography. In any visual art, come to think of it ... (Thanks to Howard Linton for the link.) * I linked before to Hugh Symonds' remarkably rich cellphone photographs. Who'd have thought that cellphone lenses could generate such a lot of otherwordly beauty? I was happy to notice that Hugh recently put up some new photographs. Check out this gorgeous micro-triptych for a quick example. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 1, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wind-Farm Aesthetics
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ecology, modernism, aesthetics, and energy: How to resist a series of musings on these themes? Justin Good sorts through the ins and outs of people's reponses to wind farms at Design Observer. Savor the thinking and the writing, then join the DO crew at the Delancey Bar & Nightclub for some celebratory barbecue on June 13th. (The invite/announcement is currently the second posting from the top.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 1, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Generational vs. Life-Cycle Effects
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: This is a never-ending topic among marketing researchers, product planners and others trying to align company wares with those demographics moving through time at their stately pace. And it might well be a subject we'll revisit here at 2Blowhards because, Lord knows, what follows comes up far short of being definitive, though it might be fun. Once upon a time (the early 70s), a computer programmer who worked with me mentioned that if she knew someone's age, she could make a pretty good guess as to his taste in furniture. Her theory was that people's furniture tastes are formed around age 20 and her example was her early-40s boyfriend who went for Danish Modern. I mulled this over, deciding that it was a cute idea. But I was 32 and I too liked Danish Modern. If I were less lazy I'd undertake a research project on Danish Modern sales data relative to other styles to see if a decade age-gap between me and her boyfriend still fell within the apogee of Danish Modern's popularity trajectory. My guess is that it did. Matter of fact, I still like clean-lined, fairly simple furniture -- but with a smidgen of decoration such as one finds in the Arts & Crafts style. My wife, on the other hand, likes that curved, heavily-carved baroque stuff. And she's only four weeks younger than I am. Pretty small generation gap, that. This is not to say that my tastes are sunk in concrete. I'm not sure that I'd buy a Danish Modern piece in preference to another style were I furniture shopping today. But I would lean towards furniture with a clean, rather than fussy look. Okay, score one for Generation when it comes to me and furniture. Let's move to another product category. How about car types? At age 20 (well, make that ages 15-35) my desired car type was the sports car. I only was able to buy one (a Porsche 914), but I at least tried to buy sporty cars when a sports car wasn't in the fiscal cards (examples include a VW Karmann-Ghia coupe and a yellow VW Dasher with a splashy decal on each side). Moreover, the thought of willingly buying a large, American four-door sedan never entered my head when I was in my sports car phase. The large, four-door American sedan was exactly what was to be avoided at all costs. That being then and this being now, I was pleased indeed to buy a large American sedan (Chrysler 300) last year, as reported here. I'm not sure that I'd buy a sports car now even if I had the money to do so. Well, that would be true if I could only own one car. Many of today's sedans offer a driving experience not far removed from that of sports cars, whereas in 1953 there was a world of difference between an MG TD and a Buick. So I don't lose much by not... posted by Donald at May 31, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Angry Eyeglass Frames
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here are some YouTubes for all you fans of classic angry geekrock: Elvis Costello, still young and hungry, doing "Oliver's Army," "Pump it Up," and "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding." Here's an odd one: "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," complete with subtitles. I had no idea those were the song's lyrics ... Dweeby, surly, obnoxious, and kickass -- a combo that sometimes still suits me just fine. I love the low-fi/ Super-8 quality of the filmmaking too. Hey, here's Elvis in what's apparently his first TV appearance, doing a very confident "Alison." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 31, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thanks to Sluggo
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was sorry to see that, after three years of inspired blogging, Mike Hill is giving it up. He has a life that needs attending-to and a novel that wants to be written. Besides, three years of blogging is a long and terrific run. Although Mike has always been one of the blogosphere's most engaging storytellers, he also deserves a lot of credit for wit, earthiness, and generosity -- he tosses off perceptions and wisecracks at an amazing rate while never ceasing to be relaxed and friendly in his manner. I'll miss Mike's blogging a lot, but I'm looking forward to his novel, and I'm hoping he won't fall out of touch completely. Here's a wonderful and characteristic passage from a recent Mike posting: I'm on a week's vacation and it looks like I'll miss my goal, as usual, of putting aside two complete days with nothing to do. It's the single most difficult thing in the world for the Goddess to understand ... She'll say 'What are you going to do today?' I'll say 'absolutely nothing' and she'll look at me for a moment and ask 'What are you going to do today?' Will not penetrate. Her head would explode fifteen minutes into my ideal day. This afternoon we're taking off for a long weekend in Lake George. I'm thinking Adirondack chair on the lawn, beer in my hand, watching the Hudson roll past. She's thinking -- I don't even want to think about what she's thinking, it'll wear me out. That tells me more about men, women, and marriage than entire Updike novels have. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 31, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards * The Communicatrix has some sensible -- and, as always, saltily-phrased -- advice for gals sans boyfriends. * Fred Reed nails much of what it's like to be a guy. I imagine guys all over the country asking their gals to read Fred's short essay: "Sorry, honey, but that's just the way it is." * The Patriarch got me giggling by self-identifying as "a commuter," then made me laugh out loud with this brief posting. * Game Theory is certainily clever -- but does anyone actually use it? * Susie Bright asks a Playboy editor how he went about compiling a list of the sexiest novels ever written. * In which we learn that surprises are not good for the health. * Crunchy Con, meet Radical Reactionary. Rod Dreher likes Bill Kauffman's new book, "Look Homeward, America." And here's a blog that should make the Crunchy-haters happy. Rod Dreher is blogging here. * Evo-bio-freak alert: Here's a collection of interviews with some of the field's biggees -- Trivers, Dawkins, Hrdy ... And here's a long Salon interview with E.O. Wilson. * Photoshop and real life sometimes merge in NSFW ways. * Mistress Matisse wants you to be a good boy. * Somehow it doesn't come as a complete surprise to learn that Marie Osmond's daughters have been acting out a little too freely on their MySpace pages. * Did your foxy 8th grade teacher ever send you videos like this one? Mine neither, darn it. How I wish I were still getting over that kind of trauma! * This is certainly one of the most elaborate pranks I've ever run across. * Dean Baker wonders why nurses are being picked on. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 31, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- You say that you're horrified by the idea of getting tougher about guarding our border with a certain poorer country to the south? That's funny, because Mexico is plenty tough about defending its own southern border. A nice passage from Newsweek's Joseph Contreras: There's ample precedent in Mexico for just about everything the United States is -- or isn't -- doing. Calling out the military? Mexicans may hate the new U.S. plan to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops on the border, but five years ago they cheered President Vicente Fox for sending thousands of Mexican soldiers to crack down on their southern frontier. Tougher laws? Hispanic-rights groups are enraged over U.S. efforts to criminalize undocumented aliens -- yet since 1974, sneaking into Mexico has been punishable by up to two years in prison. Foot-dragging on amnesty? Fox has spent the past five years urging the United States to upgrade the status of millions of illegals from Mexico. Meanwhile, his own government has given legal status to only 15,000 foreigners without papers. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 31, 2006 | perma-link | (23) comments

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Movie Reviewing: Job? Career? Calling?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of lifetimes ago I might have become a movie reviewer. I was well-positioned to make a stab at it, anyway. I had movie-reviewer friends, I'd published writing about movies in a variety of legit publications, and I knew some of the arts-and-entertainment editors. During a few stretches I'd worked as a regular movie reviewer for small publications. (Big bucks, lemme tellya -- $50 a column.) So I was on all the screening lists and I was friendly with the publicists. I attended or at least was invited to many of the promising-young-writers-about-the-arts parties. Back then, you didn't just need energy and a Blogger account to start yapping in public about the arts. You needed access. Almost despite myself -- I never intended to become a reviewer, I just happened to stumble into these circles (a long story) -- I found myself with access. The time was right, the moment had come, and friends and colleagues were urging me on. So I scrunched my face up into a tight little ball and made a few attempts at putting myself on the market. My energy flagged almost instantly. Yikes! Where was my enthusiasm? What could be holding me back? Like Tom Cruise at the beginning of the third act, I confronted myself in the psychic mirror. Unlike Tom Cruise, after a few seconds I shook my head, said "Fuhgeddabout it," and abandoned the attempt. What I admitted to myself was that I not only didn't want to win the ballgame, I didn't even want to be in it. As the years went on, I wrote and published pieces about movies as the muse and opportunities presented themselves. I seemed to have a knack for moviechat; once in a while it was fun to let it rip in venues the public might run across. But I never gave another thought to taking part in the pro movie-reviewing game. A recent posting by the movie critic Dave Kehr has me revisiting this particular micro-drama. In his posting, Kehr bemoans the recent semi-firing of the New York Post's movie reviewer Jami Bernard. (CORRECTION: Whoops, make that the Daily News, not the Post.) Kehr wrote an interesting follow-up posting too. At the time, I wasn't entirely clear about the reasons why I bailed. It simply felt right. I gave one of those sighs of relief whose hugeness indicates that you've made a decision that's a good one for you. Now, though, a couple of decades later, the reasons why my decision felt right have become semi-clear to me. There were a number of things about "being a movie reviewer" that didn't suit me. One is that that there are no objective standards in the field. What might be a reasonable set of qualifications, beyond "being able to turn in peppy copy on time"? There are no even semi-objective standards. What makes one person a better movie reviewer than another? I know what I think is worthwhile and who... posted by Michael at May 30, 2006 | perma-link | (29) comments

Bagatelles (Visual Version)
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- * I just crawled back from a four-day trip to Canada with my bride, Nancy. I suppose I should call it a honeymoon, but at the office we are in the midst of our annual Big Push to produce some mandated demographic data, so I had to put in a few days at work twixt wedding and trip. Taking a cue from newspapers and magazines whose production takes place over holidays and such, today I offer you a few rabbits I stuffed in my hat a couple weeks ago. Serious blogging resumes tomorrow. * I'm slowly, slowly trying to work up to speed (competence, actually) on my new (first, actually) digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix S5 (incredibly stupid name, actually ... "Coolpix"). (Hmm. Looks like I'm still over-using the word "actually.") The weekend that I'm assembling this post is having lovely spring weather. So I went up to Seattle to take some photos for another post. But I couldn't restrain myself and snapped some other subjects as well. And here they are, Seattle fans. Seattle Gallery Northern Life Tower. Well, that's the name it had when I was growing up (it's now the "Seattle Tower"). Built at the end of the 1920s, it remained one of the tallest buildings in Seattle for 30 years. As you see, it's almost entirely surrounded by taller towers. It remains my architectural favorite. Waterfront -- Pier 55. The waterfront piers were working piers when I was a kid. Cargo is now processed elsewhere, so the old piers now house restaurants, gift shops and other tourist-related activities. Aside from not having a docked steamer, this is how things looked back in the 1920s, give or take a few decades. Statue of Ivar Haglund. This sits near the Fish Bar part of his Pier 54 restaurant. Ivar was a master of public relations back in the 1940s-1960s when newspapers ruled the local media roost. He was continually pulling off successful publicity stunts that kept us entertained and happy to grab a bite at his restaurants from time to time. Ivar is gone, but we still make a point of eating at "Ivar's Acres of Clams." The Very First Starbucks. Here we are in the Seattle Public Market neighborhood, and behold! the first Starbucks store. Note that it retains the old brown-and-white logo. The early Starbucks stores, before Howard Schultz took over, were mostly sellers of beans and brewing equipment. Sun and Snow. Not far north of Starbucks is a little park overlooking Puget Sound. A nice day for working on one's future skin cancer. Note the snow-clad Olympic Mountains in the background. I see that image quality is not very good. My camera has 6 megapixel capability, but I took these pictures using the lowest possible resolution in order to keep file sizes small. I need to experiment more. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 30, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Sunday, May 28, 2006

What Are You On, Anyway?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This endless photograph reminds me of bleary, long-ago hours with foreign chemicals goosing my brain. Is there any way the traditional arts can compete with this spacey cyberenvironment, at least on its own druggy terms? Did you know that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both took LSD trips>? And doesn't this just blow your mind? Conlon Nancarrow, look out. (Sample some of Nancarrow's music here.) Long ago, I ventured the thought that a good way to think of the contrast between post-'60s American art and earlier American art is in terms of the intoxicant that was currently in vogue. Much post-'60s American art -- with its emphasis on conceptual hijinks and wipe-me-out sensory overload -- is basically trying to recreate a drug experience, while a lot of earlier American art (cocky/depressive, fizzy/grandiose, gallant/pugnacious) reflects the influence of booze. John Markoff's book about how the counterculture influenced and shaped the computer revolution can be bought here. Here's a list of well-known people who have spoken publically about taking LSD. Here's an interview in which Gates pointedly doesn't deny taking LSD. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 28, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments