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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Our Last 50 Referrers

Friday, June 16, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anne Thompson tips us off to "Young American Bodies" -- a new (and popular, and NSFW) example of the latest audiovisual-through-time storytelling form: the ongoing webshort video series. I didn't love "YAB" myself, but it did leave me convinced that the webshort-series is a super-promising new format. Looking into the official Blowhards crystal ball, I see much ferment and excitement in the field, and I predict that great things will come of it. I was much happier watching Neal Medlyn's zany and sweet "Land of Make Believe," a free-associating, eerily-comic performance-art jamboree. Medlyn's imagination is something to behold; his show (also an ongoing webshort series) is like "PeeWee Herman's Playhouse," but on a billionth the budget and with the perversity worn on its sleeve -- and proudly so. Kinky! Bizarre! Fun! Speaking of web-video ... I continue to spend far too much time digging up old music-performance clips from YouTube. One of my favorite recent finds: the tough (look at that plaid shirt), hard-rockin' Big Mama Thornton doing her formidably funky/swampy version of "Hound Dog." You don't mess with Big Mama! -- who, by the way, recorded the song three years before Elvis Presley did. I notice that surfing for and watching video on the web is already beginning to seem natural to me, while the ritual of sitting down before the TV has begun to feel staid and archaic. I wonder if the suits at the networks are terrified of what YouTube represents. Here's Wikipedia's entry on Big Mama Thornton. Best, Michael UPDATE: Agnostic has been prowling YouTube too. You can enjoy what he's turned up here, here, and here. Don't miss this one, which pretty much embodies all of today's visual / conceptual language. It has everything: lip-synching, thong-flashing, mugging for the camera, cute Japanimation eyes, MTV cutting, with all the ingredients Cuisinarted together on iMovie ... It's a bedroom-webcam aesthetic. It's also a whole new world, one that doesn't belong to anyone over the age of 25. To be fair, the clip is also amusing, cute, and well-done. Small discovery for today: As far as I've been able to tell, the song that has been lip-synched more often than any other is "Hey, Mickey." I wrote a little item about Toni Basil here.... posted by Michael at June 16, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

They've Said What I Think I'm Thinking, I Think
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's always pleasing to run across people who have done a far better job than you could yourself of putting your thoughts and hunches (or something close to them) into words. It saves so much effort. I didn't find John Gray's thoughts about Iraq and Kosovo (in this interview with Jonathan Derbyshire) very interesting: current events, feh. But his analysis of the difficulties naive liberals often have with the persistence of religion was awfully sharp, and his presentation of his own kind of "naturalism" was fearless and helpful. Fun excerpt: I think the spirit of naturalism goes against secular theories of progress and hope. Yes, knowledge grows, technology develops. But the key insight of naturalism is that the analogy or metaphor, the undoubted fact of progress in science is extended by the positivists to ethics and politcs, the insight of naturalism is that that metaphor or analogy is misguided. The analogy between scientific progress and ethics and politics whereby there is a convergence on values just as, in science, there is convergence on a true picture of the world, is a myth we inherit from the positivists. I guess that I'm a "naturalist" myself, at least on some days of the week, and at least of the Gray-ian sort. John Gray is an interesting figure: a kind of neo-Oakeshottian conservative/liberal of a sort I often find simpatico, at least intellectually-speaking. (I've enjoyed the couple of books of his that I've read. They're super-smart, open-minded, and very accessible. Here's a Guardian profile of John Gray. Here's Wikipedia's entry on him.) As far as I'm concerned, he's also one of those eerie cases; when I check in on his work and his thought, I often discover that his brain has been gnawing on some of what my brain has been gnawing on. Fun, if also a little freaky. Here's a looooong piece by Gray about F.A. Hayek. How I wish that John Gray sometimes devoted his brainpower to the arts. God knows that the arts discussion could use some of his sui generis incisiveness and provocation. I just ran across some of that, though. This interview with the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz struck me as the best general (and short, and readable) piece of arts BigThink that I've read since Denis Dutton's last piece. Grosz combines a little Darwin, some French theory, a pleasing dash of empiricism, and some cultural anthropology. Nifty passage: I take it that all forms of art are a kind of excessive affection of the body, or an intensification of the body of the kind which is also generated in sexuality. So it's something really fundamentally sexual about art, about all of the arts, even though they're very sublimated. What art is about is about the constriction of the materials, so the materials then become aestheticised or pleasurable. The pleasure of those materials has to do with the intensification of the body. So this impulse to art is to not make oneself seductive... posted by Michael at June 16, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Immigration Visuals
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the puzzles of the immigration debate is this: Where are the voices of the mainstream environmental groups? It wasn't so long ago that population growth was a major concern of the enviro set. Our current policies are on course to increase our population dramatically -- already, two-thirds of U.S. population growth is due to immigration. And a "reform" that's anything like the recently-passed Senate atrocity will make our population skyrocket. Yet the major environmental groups seem silent on the topic. Might this have something to do with the fact that many of them share bedspace with the Democrats, who like all those new, Dem-voting immigrants? Or perhaps it's a function of the power of the foundations that provide a lot of the enviros' funding? Brenda Walker reveals how one immigration-lovin', big-pocketed donor co-opted the Sierra Club in 1996. Eco-immortal David Brower resigned from the Sierra Club in 2000 specifically over the issue of population growth. "Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us, and immigration is part of the problem. It has to be addressed," he said. FAIR surveyed 20 of the country's major enviro groups and found that only six of them dare to make much of the immigration issue. Population growth is one of the reasons that the immigration question concerns me as much as it does. It seems clear that we can sustain a larger population than the one we currently have. But is there any reason we should want to do so? We're a rich country; we get to choose. As far as I'm concerned, population density that's twice what it was in 1970 -- and this is what we're likely to have by 2050 -- is a prospect that I find very unappealing. For one reason, all those new immigrants aren't going to be filling up the wide-open plains of North Dakota and Kansas. No, they'll be moving to where the crowds already are -- namely, to where you and I probably live. Do expressways and schools in your neck of the woods seem crowded now? Is sprawl eating up the cornfields? You ain't seen nothing yet. This morning I noticed an article in the NYTimes about how violent crime in many Northeastern cities is on the upswing. (I couldn't find this report online.) The cause: "the spread of gangs to smaller cities and suburbs." Any bets about whether gang problems are likely to become more or less severe as cities' immigrant populations continue to grow? For those who (like me) find that a few visuals can enhance their comprehension, here's an informative video clip presented by Roy Beck of NumbersUSA. You'll see simple graphics illustrating how current immigration rates look compared to rates from the period 1925-1965. (Takeaway lesson: There's nothing normal or inevitable about current policies.) And you'll see how the country's population future looks under a variety of scenarios. Good line from Roy Beck (paraphrased): Do we really want the rest of the country... posted by Michael at June 15, 2006 | perma-link | (43) comments

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hey Miike
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Over the weekend, the Wife and I were dazzled and amazed by Takashi Miike's beyond-brilliant, beyond-edgy yakuza thriller "Dead or Alive." If your experience of extreme cinema has been limited to the relatively-mainstream likes of "Natural Born Killers" and "Pulp Fiction," you owe it to yourself to sample Miike's best work, which makes Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino look like kids playing make-believe with nursery toys. Miike, by comparison, knows how to make a movie sting. The Wife and I are big fans of "Dead or Alive," "Audition," and especially "Ichi the Killer," which has to be one of the most galvanizing yet hard-to-take movies ever made. Friends who are even bigger filmgeeks than we are tell us that Miike has made more than his fair share of stinkers. (He tends to direct four to even eight movies a year.) But these are all buckle-your-seatbelt performances that are likely to leave you gasping. I wrote about other extreme movies here and here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 14, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Heading South
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Susie Bright points out a Washington Post article claiming that many college-aged men are having trouble getting it up. Assuming that there's something to the article's substance, how to explain this phenomenon? My own attempt at a possible account goes this way. We're living in a pumped-up, lascivious, sex-saturated culture. Our erotic centers are being massaged, indeed attacked, almost constantly -- so relentlessly that we're left feeling that if we aren't spending every instant of the day on the verge of orgasm then there's something amiss. Lacking sexual desire, in other words, has become a taboo. And -- as will often happen with taboos -- some young men are becoming obsessed with this one. Also, difficult though it can be to believe when you're 18, it's only human to spend the occasional nanosecond not thinking about sex, and not desiring sex. What happens to a young guy's psychology if he's made to feel that there's something wrong when he experiences these nanoseconds of nondesire? He might develop a complex. And complexes can indeed lead to droopiness. As for the female role in all this ... Yeah, I guess I do wonder if the gung-ho, ultra-aggressive, and completely unmysterious young women that we have been cultivating in recent decades might be a factor in the equation. An environment consisting of Maxim clones, thong straps, Spring Break, bellybuttons, take-charge gals, and online porno supermarkets might not be an erotic paradise after all. Instead it might be completely unmanning. As The Wife enjoys saying: Men like to have hurdles to leap over. So how do you explain the new non-stiffy? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 14, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Steve Kapsinow attends that rare thing: a public presentation where snapshots triumphed over fancy computer graphics. * Here's a young man who knows how to savor his food. * For those who can never get too much sexy album-cover art ... * Women in Western countries can now pursue whatever career they choose to. Have the consequences of this development been all to the good? Alison Wolf -- a leftist and a progressive -- thinks not. She responds to critics here. * Also in the Prospect, David Goodhart makes a level-headed argument that the left needs to stop ridiculing those concerned about immigration issues, and to take these issues seriously. He cites factors that visitors to 2Blowhards will be familiar with: declining levels of trust and national cohesion, pressures on the least well-educated sectors of society, and the fact that stances on these issues don't divide up along predictable left/right axes. Nice passage: In economics and sociology the left embraces the idea of group interests and affinities. But when it comes to culture or national sentiment, the left switches to a rhetoric of individualism, implicitly seeing society -- or at least the dominant culture -- as no more than a collection of individuals with no special ties towards each other. This "blank sheet" individualism often employs the language of internationalism and universalism, increasingly the preferred discourse of elites (of both left and right) in contrast to the economic and cultural communitarianism of most ordinary people. Critics respond here. Steve Sailer takes some of Goodhart's points and runs with them. * Let it not be said that Steve Sailer lacks guts: Here's a posting where Steve dares to ask whether Jews are doing themselves a favor by shielding themselves from objective criticism in the media. I think Steve makes a very good point. How could such a strategy result in anything but self-delusion, and lots of backed-up resentment? * Jay Manifold finally catches up with David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America" and -- as his fellow ChicagoBoyz have done before him -- raves about the book. * Once again the porn business is out there ahead of the mainstream. Which reminds me of a question I've often wondered about: In America, is the porn business our real avant-garde? * Mentos plus Diet Coke equals a very good show. * Fans of tacky and colorful vintage paperback bookjackets ("She was every inch a hellcat!") should enjoy this page. * Grandma! Grandpa! Say it ain't so! (NSFW) * Those curious about Heather Mills' softcore past can eyeball examples of her work here. (NSFW) * Here's a helpful (and brief) discussion of megalomania and narcissism. I'm reminded of more than a few people I've known ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 14, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Women and Men, The Definitive Statement
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Brilliant and hilarious. As for whether it's true about why women put men through the endless, agonizing commitment-testing that they do ... Well, it's certainly one of the more entertaining shots at an explanation that I've ever heard. I was led to the page by a posting at Marginal Revolution. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 14, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Equilibrium vs. Jiggle
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Where economics is concerned, I'm incapable of doing anything but dog-paddling around the shallow end. (I have a strong aversion to charts and graphs as well as a, er, small problem with any math that ventures beyond adding and subtracting ...) I'm not about to let my disabilities stop me from having strong opinions about the field, though. "Equilibrium," for instance: What in the world is that obsession about? (Wikipedia tries to explain.) Why would anyone think that it's in the nature of a market to tend towards an equilibrium? The preoccupation with equilibrium strikes me as such an odd thing that I find myself suspecting all of academic economics of being a species of mass self-delusion. My killer argument? Well, goshdarnit, life just doesn't seem to work that way. I have a hard time, in fact, thinking of anything in life that I'd be comfortable describing as tending towards equilibrium. Marriage? Nope. Health? Nope. Ideas? Feelings? Nope and nope. Life seems to me to be something that we sometimes lead, that sometimes happens to us, and whose nature is semi-decently characterized as being in a semi-constant, ever-evolving, highly-unpredictable state of disarray. Except when it isn't, of course. Steve Keen, one of the most articulate of the Post-Autistic Economics gang, gets in some digs at the equilibrium-obsession in this interview with the Yale Economics Review. He gets in digs at many other academic-economics assumptions too, but they're all over my head. (Thanks once again to Jimbo for introducing me to the Post-Autistics.) Keen may have a political agenda for all I know, and one that's worth being wary of. If so, I don't know what it is. I do like the one agenda-bit that's clear from the Yale interview, though: Keen would like to see economists become less arrogant. Let's hear it for that. A nice quote: "Economists meddle with the economy in a way that ecologists do not meddle with an ecology. Neoclassical economists -- and for that matter Keynesian economists before them -- act as if they not only understand this most complex of systems, but also know how to make it function better: just make it look more like the textbook models." Keen isn't shy about taking on the whole neoclassical-economics tradition: "[Adam] Smith put forward the notion that the market established a "natural order": in place of the rigid hierarchy of feudalism we would have the beneficent equilibrium of the market. This has been the organizing vision of mainstream economists ever since -- whether of Classical or Neoclassical bent. Only the Classical malcontents (Hobson, Marx, etc.), the Austrians, Schumpeter, and to some extent the Post Keynesians, have pushed the perspective that capitalist society is unstable; and only Schumpeter and the Austrians have seen this instability as a good thing. There has been a strong desire to prove preconceived notions of stability, optimality, equilibrium, welfare maximization, etc., and this has perverted the theory whenever it has transpired -- as it almost... posted by Michael at June 13, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: * Michael posted here about architectural awards, including one for the restoration of the interior of Washington State's Legislative (capitol) Building. The restoration was done in conjunction with repairs and structural upgrading in response to the 28 February 2001 earthquake I mentioned here. Said building lies but a couple hundred yards from where I work. It isn't new, construction being underway 80 years ago. I suppose I'm biased, but I consider it perhaps the best-designed of the state capitol buildings, most of which seem to sport rather anemic-looking domes. Here are two views of the outside. The first view is from the northeast, then second is from the south. * It seems to be World Cup time again. That means Certain People are in white-faced panic at the thought of Englishmen at "football" matches carrying/waving/flaunting the Flag of St. George. You see, it's all so ... nationalistic and that's, well, eeeevil!! Flag of St George This is the flag of England itself, and is incorporated in the more familiar Union Flag or Union Jack (its best-known, but unofficial name). Hope I didn't terrify you by showing it. * Now for a quick Bleg. Nancy and I plan to be in Germany in September. I've pretty well nailed down lodging for the non-tour group part of the trip. However, I'd like to spend a night in the vicinity of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Schwaebisch Hall or perhaps a tad west. These places are a bit small for big-chain hotels, so I'm wondering if any readers know of nice hotels there that might cost 100 Euros a night or less. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 13, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Aesthetic Ivy
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I am very, very sorry. We Blowhards (Michael, Friedrich and I, at least) are wretched non-egalitarians if for no other reason than several years of our dark pasts were spent in ... in ... Lousy Ivy Universities. One small way for me to atone for this sin is to initiate a Comments Pile-On. Subject for today is Ivy League campuses. For those suffering the damnation of getting an elite education, who is drawing, so to speak, the long and short straws? I'll start things off in a sec -- but first a (not necessarily representative, given what I could find via Google) set of pictures, one per school. Ivy Gallery Brown Columbia Cornell Dartmouth Harvard Penn Princeton Yale As for setting, I'd say Cornell's is most spectacular, being "high above Cayuga's waters" and all. Next would be Dartmouth, nestled next to not-very-large Hanover in the New Hampshire hills. Then comes Princeton, partly in the town, yet facing a greenbelt to the east that gives it some separation from the U.S. 1 commercial/office strip that has been a'building since the 1960s. The other Ivies are in cities, and that limits possibilities. Columbia in New York City fares worst, being crammed into its site with little expansion prospect except upwards. Yale does reasonably well in an urban context because its campus forms a sort of transition zone between downtown New Haven and a residential area. Penn wards off its city surroundings by virtue of having lots and lots of trees; the place strikes me as being lush twixt early April and the end of October. Architecturally I say Yale wins, hands-down. The quadrangles and their (mostly) Collegiate Gothic architecture using similar stone provide both structure and visual unity. Princeton comes close if you consider only its dormitory area and perhaps the Firestone Library, but the rest of the campus is a hodge-podge of shapes and styles. Penn has a variety of architectural styles, but imposes some unity by having many buildings faced with wine-colored brick and grey stone or concrete accents. Dartmouth, like all colleges built over a span of many decades, has more than one style, yet manages the aura of a New England town. Cornell has a number of nice buildings enhanced by a park-like setting. Otherwise, I say Columbia is the least-distinguished Ivy from an architectural standpoint. Harvard, having been through centuries of development, strikes me as non-descript. I'll withhold comment on Brown. I gave it a look-see back in 1965 when I was considering going there, but haven't visited since. Overall I rate Yale, Dartmouth and perhaps Cornell tops for a student seeking an aesthetic Ivy experience. Then come Princeton, Penn and Harvard (in that order) to form the middle range. Columbia rates last on all counts and Brown, as just mentioned, cannot be fairly rated by me. I have spoken. Now Pile On. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 13, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Monday, June 12, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards - Have a look at what the American Institute of Architects deems the top buildings of the year. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 12, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Funny (Automobile) Faces
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The prime purpose of automobile styling is to sell cars. No doubt some stylists and academic design-groupies make the "art for art's sake" pitch, but in my book such talk would be public relations or wishful thinking from the respective sources. One sales-related aspect of car styling is brand image. Some brands feature well-established styling cues that carry over from model to model and year to year. Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz and Packard (all luxury makes) are/were notable examples. General Motors had strong brand cues in the 1950s, but failed to follow-up subsequently as I noted in a post dealing with Buick's "portholes." Other makes do little in the way of long-term cues. Ford, for example, has tried many styling themes over the past 70 years, but never stuck with one for very long. About the most consistent cue over the last 20 years is the blue oval with the word "Ford" in script, a trademark borrowed from the 1920s. A recent, and to me strange and ugly attempt to establish a styling cue comes from Volkswagen and its Audi subsidiary. A styling cue gone wrong, in my opinion. Let's take a look. Gallery This is a scene from a race in the late 1930s. The lead car is an Auto Union, followed by what appear to be two Mercedes and an Alfa Romeo. Auto Union was a company formed from previously independent makes including Horch. After World War 2 the Horch was revived as the Audi brand -- "horch" and "audi" being German and Latin forms of the word "harken." The Auto Union race cars were designed by Ferdinand Porsche's engineering firm, which also designed the Volkswagen. Volkswagen eventually absorbed Audi. This is a closer view of the grille of an Audi race car -- not the car pictured above. The grille shown here is supposedly the inspiration for the styling cue under discussion. To establish a benchmark, here is an Audi A4 from a few years ago. Note the conventional grille that Audi stylists decided to juice up. This is a current Audi. The rennwagen (race car) inspired grill splashes over the nose, engulfing the bumper. A functional-purist stylist or an academic critic might contend that this design does not express the functionality of the bumper. This is true. Functionality aside, the "face" presented by the car has crossed vertical-horizontal elements that are nearly-enough visually balanced so as to create a confused impression. Worse, the Audi styling cue has recently been passed down to Volkswagen whose connection to Auto Union is far more tenuous and harder to justify. Further, it blurs the distinction between the two brands -- likely an intentional result, but hard to explain from a marketing standpoint. Another car with a prominant grille is the Chrysler 300. The bumper is nearly invisible (worrysome to me and perhaps to my insurance company), but the vertical-horizontal conflict mentioned above is eliminated; the theme is more coherent. The dominant-subordinate grille bar theme, by the... posted by Donald at June 12, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, June 11, 2006

How I Helped Build an "Atomic Bomb"
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: Nowadays, nuclear weapons proliferate and our Opinion Elite shrugs. Between 1949, when the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device, and 1991 when the Soviet Union expired, the Opinion Elite was worried sick about nuclear war. During that period, American armed forces included nuclear warfare as part of training activities and I got a whiff of it in Basic Training. I joined the Army a couple months after the Berlin Wall was started. During training, the Soviets set off one of the largest hydrogen bombs ever detonated. The world situation was tense and there was a more-than-academic possibility that we trainees would have to fight on a battlefield with atomic bombs or even hydrogen bombs exploding. Whether we would have to fight in a nuclear environment depended upon (1) the chance that the USA and USSR would be at war, and (2) the chance that nuclear weapons would be used in that war. This was grist for Herman Kahn, too abstract and unknowable for me to bother with. So, in spite of the Berlin crisis and Khrushchev's H-bomb rattling, I wasn't really worried about an outbreak of World War III -- that fear became stronger less than a year later when the Cuban missile crisis hit, me being stationed not far outside prime-target Washington, DC at that time. Crises aside, I never worried about nuclear war back in the 50s and early 60s . Yet if you read some of the articles I sometimes come across, the country was supposedly living in terror of death and destruction. Moreover, I don't remember any of my friends being terror-stricken either even though we lived in a town where B-52 bombers were being built. But some people felt that way; I guess I never traveled in those circles. (By "worry" I mean obsessively stew over the matter. By the age of 10 or 11, I was quite aware of the destructive potential of nuclear war, and I assume most of my friends were too. But we didn't become permanently terrified, figuring there was nothing much we could do about the problem. So we went on with life, doing the mature thing for once.) And as for the nuclear battlefield, I (and for all I know, the rest of the trainees) weren't very concerned. No doubt if a war was underway we would have worried a lot. But we would have known that, in combat, there are many ways to get killed and that atomic weapons were only one means out of many that could accomplish that. One way nukes were looked at militarily was that they were simply very large explosives that killed or wounded you -- or didn't. Aside from "wounding radiation," a result of close exposure to a blast, radiation was not a combat factor. It might kill you years or decades later, but the main thing was to get the war won first. Sometimes one has to examine things in cold blood. Let me modify... posted by Donald at June 11, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments