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, July 1, 2006

Looking Through The New Yorker
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- After about six months of never once looking at it, I just spent a couple of hours grazing my way through a half a dozen recent issues of The New Yorker. How remote, underlit, unpressing, and unnecesary the magazine felt. Whether you loved or hated The New Yorker of previous decades, it was a distinctive (and maybe great) American-culture achievement. Under Harold Ross and his successor William Shawn, The New Yorker was sui generis, as well as genuinely eccentric and unpredictable. A bizarre combo of the sophisticated and the completely out-of-it, it was unlike any other magazine, and its arrival in the mailbox every week was a genuine cultural event. The magazine these days seems to me completely skippable. Why? It seems to me that two key things have changed since the old days. One has to do with the magazine itself. The old guard -- the people who really created The New Yorker -- is now almost completely gone. The magazine today, edited by David Remnick, is now populated by pro journalists, Boomers and Xers, many of them ambitious Ivy League brats of the "we must occupy the offices of the people we grew up admiring" sort. Smart and talented though many of them are, they're anything but originals. They don't even offer much of an alternative to the cast and voices at Slate and The New Republic. The other Thing That Has Changed has to do with media life outside the magazine -- and that, of course, is the advent of the web. Back in the days before online publishing, magazines, books, and writers often served as intellectual friends. Although you could of course hang out with, write letters to, and yak on the phone with your actual friends, what could you do about your cultural and intellectual interests? And how could you expand your horizons? For such functions, you often turned to writers. You looked forward to visits with them. You carried on long conversations with them in your mind. With the web, you no longer have no choice but to commune with writers in your head. Online, you can find kindred spirits and really commune with them, and in near-real time. People online are speaking about things they've noticed, and things that matter to them. They're bringing expertise and life-experience to bear. They're finding subjects months before the mainstream media do, and they're yakking about them in more open, freewheeling, and honest ways than pro journalists often can. Bloggers get too much credit for this, it seems to me; as far as I can tell, our most important function is as conversation-starters. In any case, the ongoing conversations are the point -- and links, commenters, and interview subjects all play important roles in keeping these conversations alive and rolling. In the to-and-fro of comparing notes and making connections, who has time to care about mere "articles," let alone bigshot magazine writers? Even so far as journalism goes, online journalism (and... posted by Michael at July 1, 2006 | perma-link | (33) comments

Friday, June 30, 2006

Roger Scruton and Oikophobia
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards Thanks to Right Reason's Steve Burton for calling attention to this brilliant Roger Scruton speech. Scruton explores the touchiness of our ruling elites where the topics of immigration and integration are concerned: For a long time now the European political class has been in denial about the problems posed by the large-scale immigration of people who do not enter into our European way of life. It has turned angrily on those who have warned against the disruption that might follow, or who have affirmed the right of indigenous communities to refuse admission to people who cannot or will not assimilate. And one of the weapons that the elite has used, in order to ensure that it is never troubled by the truths that it denies, is to accuse those who wish to discuss the problem of 'racism and xenophobia'. Scruton discusses what it means to belong to a society: Every society depends on an experience of membership: a sense of who 'we' are, why we belong together, and what we share. This experience is pre-political: it precedes all political institutions, and provides our reason for accepting them. It unites left and right, blue-collar and white-collar, man and woman, parent and child. To threaten this 'first-person plural' is to open the way to atomisation, as people cease to recognize any general duty to their neighbours, and set out to pillage the accumulated resources while they can. Scruton also invents a nifty new word -- "oikophobia" -- to fight back against those who use terms like "racism" and "xenophobia" to stifle legitimate discussion of important matters. Here's how he defines "oikophobia": Its symptoms are instantly recognized: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with 'them' against 'us', and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably 'ours'. I call the attitude okophobia -- the aversion to home -- by way of emphasizing its deep relation to xenophobia, of which it is the mirror image. Oikophobia is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. Here's a Salon interview with Roger Scruton. Best, Michael UPDATE: Lexington Green (via Helen Szamuely) is reminded of an article on a similar theme by Kenneth Minogue.... posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (31) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Why doesn't America treat itself to festivals like this one? Don't skip the slide show. (NSFW link thanks to the NSFW DazeReader.) * The modernist dream lost its spell over me long ago. But if I did still follow modernist architecture, I'd follow the kind of modernist architecure that John Hill follows. * Say hello to the new-style racial tension. It's something that -- thanks to our idiotic immigration policies -- we'll be seeing a lot more of. * Tosy and Cosh thinks that "Titanic" was a lot better than it's often made out to be. * Most Dutch now believe Islam is incompatible with modern Western society. * Thanks to GNXP's Coffee Mug, who points out that many episodes of "The Charlie Rose Show" can now be watched on Google Video. * A quarter of a million people in China commit suicide every year. * Here's a hilarious posting entitled Top Ten Stock Photography Cliches. You didn't know you knew these cliches, but you do. (Link thanks to Lynn.) * Dean Baker thinks we needn't be too awfully concerned about doctors' earnings. * Chelsea Girl makes the act she describes as much a literary as a sexual event. (No pix, but a lot of very evocative NSFW words.) * Why do some logos hold the public's attention? Why do some brand identities work and never let go? Michael Bierut speculates. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sudoku Triumphant
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In terms of popularity, Sudoku is blowing crossword puzzles out of the water. 40 of the top 50 books in the adult "games" category are now Sudoku books, and puzzle traditionalists aren't pleased. (Source.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Technical Time Out
Thanks to everyone who wrote in earlier to let me know that the blog seemed to have been hijacked. Scary! In fact, a domain name renewal wasn't executed as smoothly as it should have been. A few back-and-forths with our registrar, a couple of hours out of my life, and all was back to normal. Not that I'm bitter about those lost hours or anything ... Now, back to our usual programming.... posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Hoops
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yet another party that I'm very late to ... Did you know that Hula Hoops are once again cool? Actually, they seem to have gone beyond cool into downright edgy, even punk. Fitness, attitude, sex, daring -- you got it. * Here's a cute fire-hoop routine. * Miss Saturn starts her saucy burlesque hoop act at about minute four in this video. * Yoga hooping. * Fairy hooping. * Hoop therapy. * Arty hooping. * Naked hooping. * Even -- gadzooks -- virtuosic middle-aged hooping. Fun to see that a movie documentary about the New Hooping is in production. Hooping.Org seems to be media central for the hooping craze. NPR offers an audio report. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 29, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- * My copy of the July-August Commentary arrived yesterday and what did I see on the inside-back cover but an ad for a journal titled The Objective Standard. Objective? Well, the headline said "At Last! A rational, principled alternative to the disastrous ideas of liberalism and conservatism." Hmm. So I hopped on the web and looked at their site. Turns out the Ayn Rand crowd is behind it. So they really ought to have named it The Objectivist Standard. 'Cause it sure ain't objective, if the web site's contents takeouts are any guide. * That same Commentary issue has a Terry Teachout article I found interesting. Heck, I find almost anything Teachout writes interesting. Rather than his usual music commentary, Terry riffs on a new biography of the late art critic Clement Greenberg by Florence Rubenfeld ("Clement Greenberg: A Life"). Greenberg famously championed the New York School of Abstract Expressionism and did much to launch the career of Jackson Pollock. Greenberg failed to appreciate the profound wonder and significance of most post-AE art and his career as critic sputtered to a crawl by the end of the sixties. To my way of thinking, Greenberg's most dangerous notion (assuming Teachout got it right) was that there was an historical determinism in art that inevitably led to AE. This is the garbage I was fed in art history classes back in 1958-59. So now I have a better idea where my instructor got it from. (Note to self: Suck in your gut and read more about art criticism of the 1940s and 50s. Yes I was alive then, but too young to read more than Time magazine's art coverage -- though they did regularly print color reproductions of what was hot in NYC at the time.) Right now you'll have to buy the magazine to read the article. But try to remember to check their web site later this summer to see if they post it. * And what have I been up to lately? Getting rid of books. That's what. Not to mention other stuff including file cabinets full of demographic data I Xeroxed over the years at considerable time and expense. Plus piles of really old (40-50 years old) issues of Time, Newsweek and car mags such as Motor Trend. And almost every issue of Road & Track from 1956 to 1990. (I haven't actually gotten rid of the magazines yet, but need to come up with some solution that doesn't involve keeping them.) Last weekend I hauled a pile of books to Powell's in Portland and got a couple hundred dollars, selling all but four. I figure I'll need to make two more trips in July to get rid of the rest of the saleable ones. And at the end of the road, I'll still have a ton of books. As attentive 2Blowhards readers know, I got married last month. Now I'm cleaning out my apartment so that I can move in with... posted by Donald at June 28, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Kids Forever
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Steve notices an article about a study concluding that immaturity is on the rise. A long-ago posting of mine entitled "Adolescent Nation" might be of interest to those who suspect (as I do) that there's something to the claim. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 28, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Four Facts About Neil Diamond
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * As a kid, Neil Diamond sang in a choir with Barbra Streisand. * Neil Diamond is now 65. * Neil Diamond wrote "I'm a Believer." * It took Neil Diamond four years of Freudian analysis to wake up to the fact that his song "Solitary Man" -- "I’ll be what I am. A solitary man" -- was about him. Here's his official site. Here's Wikipedia's entry on him. Neil Diamond is on MySpace! Here's the video for Smash Mouth's amusingly hardhitting version of "I'm a Believer." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 28, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Magazines are experimenting with new kinds of digital platforms, reports USA Today's Laura Petrecca. Which makes sense: As more and more advertising action moves online, magazine managers are following the money. The fact I found most interesting in Petrucca's very interesting piece (emphasis mine): U.S. Internet advertising will boom 27% this year to $14.5 billion, while spending in consumer print magazines will grow 3% to $13.2 billion, Merrill Lynch forecasts. It would be the first time that Web ad spending beat magazines. Merrill sees Internet ad spending at $17.7 billion next year, and magazines nearly flat at $13.4 billion. Interesting -- and make that interesting-scary -- times in the mediabiz! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 27, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Razib Interviews Adam Webb
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I enjoyed Razib's 10 Questions with traditionalist Adam Webb, whose take on modern liberalism reminds me some of John Gray's and Stephen Toulmin's. (Word of caution: "modern liberalism" in these discussions doesn't mean "America's current Democrats." It means the modern world in a more general sense, as in "post-Enlightenment Western society.") GNXP commenters applaud and cavil; Webb responds. Here's Webb's book. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 27, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, June 26, 2006

Local Voting
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's a well-known paradox of the American political system. In theory, voters were supposed to be most knowledgeable regarding local conditions and local candidates as opposed to state and national issues and personalities. That explains the original notion that voters elected electoral college representatives rather than a presidential aspirant. (Technically, this is still the case.) And it's why senators for many years were appointed by state legislatures rather than holding office as the outcome of a direct popular vote. This kind of voter was just possibly the reality in the 1780s when the Constitution was framed. Communication was slow in those days; the fastest means of spreading news was via dispatch riders. Newspapers were largely a city thing, not part of the daily lives of rural residents. Those times and conditions are long gone. In general, voters are more familiar with national issues and candidates then with local affairs. It's certainly true for me now and has been my entire life. Now, I happen to think I'm a pretty good citizen. Not perfect, mind you, but maybe a teensy bit above average. I used to vote in every election that cropped up. And for every office and ballot issue to boot. So there. No longer. Over the years I became increasingly uncomfortable with the thought that I didn't know anything about most candidates for really local offices such as Port Commissioner, Coroner, School Board Member, and so forth. This wasn't quite so serious where candidates ran as political party members, because party affiliation served as a rough filtering mechanism. But here in Washington state, most local offices are non-partisan. And voting without knowledge was simply contributing random noise to election returns. Worse, I realized that I might well be voting for people whose positions were antithetical to mine. Nowadays I don't vote if I happen to be totally ignorant regarding candidates or issues. This means I sometimes don't vote at all in some local, off-year elections. I'm even less motivated to vote on local offices because, even though offices are technically non-partisan, the candidates who tend to get elected around here are in fact partisans of the party I oppose. That is, my vote doesn't affect the outcome, and I normally don't like the outcome anyway. All the same, I do vote on a number of offices. So, aside from paid political messages, how do I inform myself? Out here there are voter's pamphlets that display a picture of each candidate (though some don't submit a picture) along with a brief statement from the candidate. The statements can be helpful, but sometimes you have to work to tease out useful information. Usually all candidates claim to be in favor of children, a clean environment, honest government, etc., etc. Not helpful. So then I look for other clues. The fact that a candidate had once been a Peace Corps volunteer tells you one thing, 20 years service as a military officer or policeman might say... posted by Donald at June 26, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, June 25, 2006

When the Mountain Exploded
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- There are five volcanoes here in Washington and another just across the Columbia River in Oregon. Not to mention a number of others to the south, extending to California's Lassen Peak which last erupted less than 100 years ago. When I was young, the Lassen eruptions seemed a long time ago -- far away in time and place, nothing to worry about. Besides, my father, a man with scientific training, once said regarding our local volcanoes, "Aw, nothing to worry about -- they're extinct." My dad's training was not in Geology, I should add. As many of you know, Mount St. Helens (scroll down for lots of info) came to life again in the spring of 1980, adding another source of disaster to the earthquakes I wrote about here. Washington residents weren't much taken by surprise when puffs of steam started appearing atop St. Helens. Less than five years before, there was a steam episode on Mount Baker up north near the Canadian border. At the time, geologists had Baker pegged as the most likely volcano in the state to go off. So whatever surprise there was had to do with the fact that yet another volcano was acting up. As the steam spewed and ash began to darken the ice near the summit, local news media turned geologists into stars. We soon learned that rather than being "extinct" as my father thought, most of the state's volcanoes had been active in recent geological times -- even in historical times. The St. Helens link above provides a summary of known eruptive periods, and the most recent one was 1800-1857 when white men were exploring and settling the nearby lower Columbia River area. Why were eruptions taking place as late as 1857 forgotten by 20th century residents? I'm not sure, but suspect the fact that those eruptions were never photographed had something to do with it. Strato-volcanoes such as St. Helens are comparatively soft. When glaciers form, it doesn't take long (geologically) before the lava and ash layers become sculpted. Mount McLaughlin in southern Oregon looks almost perfectly conical from the direction of Medford. But from other angles, one sees that a huge chunk of its northern (shaded) side has been scooped away. Mount Hood seen from nearby Portland also shows a northerly scoop effect. But Mount St. Helens, being recently (40,000 years) created, was nearly conical all the way around and likened to Japan's Fujiyama. My mother grew up about 25 miles southwest of St. Helens and later was a schoolteacher in Longview, a late-1920s "new town" 35 miles west of the peak. She and her friends occasionally went on outings to St. Helens, picnicking by Spirit Lake at its base. Due to my laziness that made the slow drive from Interstate 5 to the mountain a good excuse not to go there, I didn't get around to visiting St. Helens until 1978 -- two years before the eruption. On a whim, I packed... posted by Donald at June 25, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments