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 8, 2006

Men's Singles
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For the first time in decades I find myself more interested in men's tennis than in the women's game. That's because two great and attractive players, lots of drama, a galvanizing new rivalry, and a surprising amount of class are currently on display. The two greats are Switzerland's Roger Federer and Spain's Rafael Nadal, and the rivalry is between the two of them; they meet in tomorrow's Wimbledon final. Nifty fact: Though Federer is easily the world's #1, he has lost to #2 Nadal in six out of their seven matches. Hot stuff! Since, by god, if there's one thing I know about in this world it's how to watch tennis, I'm going to blab for a bit about it. The lowkey, dark-haired Federer isn't just a class act, he's an almost superhuman act. He seems to have descended to earth from another dimension where reactions, skills, perceptions, and wit are routinely 50% better than what we're familiar with here. When Federer is on -- and he's on almost all the time -- he makes amazing athletes look like lead-footed hacks. Check out, for example, this brief set of highlights of a match during which Federer dismembered the very gifted James Blake. He's such a wizard that he seems to observe his own triumphs and talents with a certain amount of dispassionate amazement. For all his prowess, though, Federer is a player of the cool-technician school -- which may mean, as a practical audience matter, that he's hard for anyone who hasn't played tennis him/herself to love. Unless you can tune into what he's up to in tennis-playing terms, what's to cheer for, except the occasional stunt-shot? The immediate question for Federer -- sometimes described as the greatest tennis player ever, and, in any case, in the midst of a four-year reign as king of the hill -- is: How will he do when he's tested? You can never know how a godlike winner will perform under serious stress until the actual moment comes along. (Some years back, when Martina Hingis had the run of women's tennis, it looked like she would go on to have a career as iron-clad as Steffi Graf's. But when the other women started rising to her level, she fell apart.) With Nadal turning up the heat, will Federer be able to retain his sang-froid? Perhaps he'll get even better. But perhaps he can only play well when he's challenged yet able to remain relatively unruffled. Being-above-it-all and operating-on-another-plane can look unbeatable. But it can also be a weakness. The man who is currently challenging Federer is the 20 year old Spaniard Rafael Nadal. While the 24 year old Federer is aiming for his fourth Wimbledon title in a row, Nadal has emerged as a force only in the last year and a half. Nadal is one hot piece of manhood: muscled, earthy, lithe, explosively athletic -- he's like a glam male equivalent of a Williams sister, making up... posted by Michael at July 8, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Breaking, Skipping, Killing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The very smart and savvy Anne Thompson breaks down the thinking (and the numbers) behind the new "Superman": thinks that she'll skip "Pirates 2,"; and notes that, in his new film, M. Night Shyamalan kills off a film critic named Farber. Hmmm: Would that be Stephen or Manny? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Faith and Politics
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Rod Dreher was much-struck by a recent Barack Obama speech about faith. Obama was apparently intelligent and respectful. He seemed sincere. Might he prove to be the politician who will mend the left/right wound over religion and politics? Rod wrote a touching and thoughtful posting about Obama; many visitors pitched in with thoughtful comments of their own. I didn't see, hear, or read the speech, but I couldn't resist popping up in the commentsfest with the following: I dunno, I take a different view of the politics thing than the bunch of you do, I guess. Probably a more facile-y cynical one, but it works for me. It goes this way. They're all (all the pols, all the parties) gaming us. They're all basically driven by a love of power -- why else would they politicians? (Let us not be children about this!) And 90%-110% of what they do consists of gratifying their own egos, putting the screws to us, and sewing up their own careers and statures. Nonetheless, they're constrained by the knowledge that every now and then enough of us get riled up about their misbehavior and abuse to throw 'em out of office. And that keeps them in a little better line than they'd stay in otherwise. Their well-rewarded job is to run or pretend to run the political side of our country, and so long as they don't mess it up too bad, we tend to let them get away with a lot. After all, we have lives to lead. It seems to me childish to spend too much time on the search for that one true sincere earnest politician who really isn't like that. I mean, how much heartbreak can you take? And how long can you cling to your naivete, no matter how sweet? It's important to remember that every now and then a worthwhile political person or two comes along and a worthwhile political thing or two happens. But they're soooooo much the exception to the rule that living day to day in the hope of them is like wasting all your energy *trying* to be happy instead of just living your life and relishing the happiness when it does come along. It's self-defeating. Chase happiness and you'll seldom catch it. Stop worrying about happiness, lead life pretty fully, and happiness will likely happen along from time to time. JFK: power-driven megalomaniac. Cuomo: power-driven megalomaniac. Bush family: I don't know what, exactly, but I don't like them any better. Maybe Obama is the real thing, maybe not. But why spend too much psychic energy hoping for the best? Even if he's a "good man," the system's liable to crush that out of him anyway. Maybe not! But meanwhile I'll choose to get on with life. Politics is a kind of fun spectacle to check in on from time to time -- but why waste energy cheering one would-be "hero" after another? Unless that amuses you, of course... posted by Michael at July 8, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

Friday, July 7, 2006

Long Life, and Quality of Life
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Brits may be living a decently long time, but they're also suffering more years of ill-health than the citizens of most other EU countries. The average British male now lives for over 76 years -- but he's healthy for only 61 of them. Meanwhile, Italian men spend, on average, almost 72 years in good health. An Italian journalist gives the Brits some tips. Some of his recommendations: Take it easy. Avoid jogging. Don't agonize so much about work. Eat your pasta al dente. Drink a little red wine. Have a nap after lunch. Take a little walk after dinner. And live in a nice climate, for heaven's sake. (Links thanks to NewEconomist.) Best, Michael Blowhard... posted by Michael at July 7, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhard s-- * Spengler laughs at the idea that "primitive" societies were the Rousseau-ian idylls of sentimental myth. * Alan Sullivan unlocks some of his feelings about friendships. * Comics fans will want to check out Heidi MacDonald's new blog. * Well, a girl's gotta take a break from her studies sometime, doesn't she? * Quiet Bubble squares off with the hottest hot sauce he's ever faced. * You might be an engineer if ... * Watching a major design project go for free, Michael Bierut is concerned about the future of his profession. * What was Stanley Kubrick like on the set of "The Shining"? Now you know. * Scott Chaffin gives the press some Texas what-for. * David Chute meditates entertainingly on "Krrish," a movie said by some to be Bollywood's first superhero epic. * Does prohibition always generate big sales? * Stanley Alcorn and Ben Solarz take a Post-Autistics (ie., disparaging) look at neoclassical economics. * Steve wonders if a coinflip is as good as a mogul. * Derek Lowe has some advice for chem grad students: Get outta the lab for a few minutes. * Cowtown Pattie spotted some beauties in Waxahachie not too long ago. * I've enthused about The New Yorker's art critic Peter Schjeldahl several times. Here's a good, lengthy interview with him. His vision of art and his vision of criticism are ones that I find very simpatico. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 7, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

GNXP Interviews Steven Pinker
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- GNXP's Darth Quixote interviews Steven Pinker. Pinker's "The Blank Slate" has a chapter that's the best intro I know of to the way evo-bio and brain science affect thinking about the arts. Culturefans can also learn a lot in a very short time from Denis Dutton's brilliant essay "Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 7, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

More YouTube Finds
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Graham Lester discovers YouTube and turns up some beauties: a whole passel of gorgeous violin performances, and a bizarrely moving video that sets fragments of Japanese anime to Leonard Cohen's mournfully romantic "Suzanne." (Do we call such a creation a "remix"? A "mashup"?) Lexington Green unearths a montage of stills of Chet Baker accompanied by Baker's boyishly sexy and gentle "Let's Get Lost." BigTent points out some zanily endearing Bollywood funk, 'fro and all. 2Blowhards visitor Onetwothree volunteers a wonderfully zigzaggy performance by Thelonious Monk, while Brian zeroes in on the ultra-raw, old-time blugrass giant Roscoe Holcolmb, the man whose music inspired the term "a high, lonesome sound." If, after touring these sights and sounds, your ears, eyes, and brain aren't doing flipflops of pleasure, then the time has come to dial 911. Surfing YouTube (and swapping YouTube links with others) makes me feel giddy. It makes me feel like I felt when I first started to explore the web itself. Lex writes, "Let me be the nine-millionth person to praise the infinite awesomeness of YouTube." Let me be the nine-million and oneth. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 7, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, July 6, 2006

New-Style Video Stardom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As the video universe moves onto the web, we're seeing a new kind of video stardom emerge. Amanda Congdon and Rocketboom may have parted ways but, with more than 400,000 hits so far, YouTube cutiepie Emmalina is taking up some of that slack. Much-loved for her sweetly goofy overbite, her Tasmanian accent, her sincere Christian belief, and her tendency to "dance like a strippa," Emmalina posts a new videoblog around once a week. In my favorite so far she expresses her reservations about looking at pornography and confesses that amateur porn suits her tastes the best. I can't make sense out of MySpace pages -- they hurt my eyes -- but, fwiw, here's Emmalina's. I have no idea what this is about -- a dating site maybe? -- but there it is. (Does Emmalina's b.f. know about it?) Emmalina wants the whole world to understand that, appearances to the contrary, "I'm naturally a private person." On her LiveJournal blog, Emmalina confides a piquant fantasy that ran through her mind the other day ... I notice that Wikipedia has immortalized Emmalina, and that the Washington Post has covered the Emmalina phenomenon too. Self-described "YouTube loser" LazyDork made a hilarious rap video about Emmalina. He also sings an ode to "Emmalina time" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Duke or The Count?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Terry Teachout for linking to this ultra-suave Duke Ellington Orchestra performance of "Satin Doll": I confess that, where swing bands are concerned, I was always more of Count Basie fan myself: funkier, harder-hitting. Just see if you can sit still through this hoppin' small-combo version of "One O'Clock Jump." Does music get much steamier than this?: As the wise man often said, though: Why not enjoy both? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Cheeta at 74
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Did you realize that Cheeta, the chimpanzee star of many "Tarzan" movies of the '30s and '40s, is still with us? Having given up beer and cigars, Cheeta recently turned a distinguished 74. He's living (as all retired movie stars should) in Palm Springs, and -- under the care of Dan Westfall -- is doing well. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Cheeta as the world's oldest living chimp. The real attraction, with a couple of co-stars Art lovers can buy paintings by Cheeta at the Cheeta website. (I'm ordering one myself.) Here's a National Geographic article about Cheeta. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Corn Eating: Typewriter or Lathe?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- [Slaps forehead] It's upon us, and I almost forgot! Corn on the cob season is getting underway. I ate my first ear of 2006 on July 4th (it was grown in California). By August, locally grown sweet corn will be available nearly everywhere in the U.S. (For readers outside Anglophone America, I'm talking about Maize and not the grains you call corn.) Some folks can be pretty fussy about corn. I know a woman who grew up on a farm where they'd plant a couple rows of sweet corn next to the fence of a field of feed corn. When they wanted corn they simply plucked some ears off the stalks and plopped 'em right into the pot of boiling water. So to her, even two-day-old supermarket corn was impossibly old. Me, I don't even care if the corn is more starchy than sweet -- an interesting point of view from the world's seventh most fussy eater (I moved up a few places since the last time I reported my ranking). While munching that tasty ear on the Fourth, I happened to notice the eating techniques of those of us at the table. The two men ate the corn from side-to-side, about three rows at a time. I'll call this "typewriter style." The two women, on the other hand, ate around the cob, only moving along it once a circuit was completed. This I'll term "lathe style." Questions to readers: Are these eating styles sex-based tendencies as my n=4 sample suggests? Are you a lathe or a typewriter? And what about your friends and relatives? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Political Divisions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Citing Christopher Lasch, Caleb Stegall wonders if the key political division these days is really between Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps instead it's between "our self-interested and arrogant elites" and "the rest of us." I'm on board with that. It's the main reason why, in fact, I'm such a monomaniac about featuring the immigration issue on this blog -- it throws the "elites vs. us" question into dramatic relief. Link thanks to Rod Dreher. Caleb Stegall edits The New Pantagruel. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Two-Piece Landmark
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Finally, cultural news of real import: Yesterday, the bikini turned 60. Wikipedia supplies much-appreciated (and well-illustrated) background. The CBC asks, "What would pop culture be without the bikini?" Sometimes even hetero boys pay attention to fashion. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

A Boy Problem at School?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- An interesting Rizurkhen posting at GNXP prompted a few lines from me that I'm feeling pleased about. The topic was, "Is there really a boy problem in education today?", because, y'know, girls -- although in PC myth supposedly discriminated-against -- are outperforming boys in nearly every sense in schools these days. If vulgar language makes you turn your nose up, then I suggest you skip the following. Anyway, my response: I always thought school was for girls anyway (and I'm an oldie, so I'm going back to the pre-feminist '50s and '60s for my grammar school and junior high memories). School wasn't easy for boys. Sit still ... Behave well ... Be quiet ... Pay attention ... Read boring, well-meaning books ... Do homework ... Turn it in on time ... This was all stuff girls seemed by nature to do well, while boys loved being physical, irreverent, and flashy, and (of course) crashing into walls and going down in flames. Imagine my surprise when the feminists came along and announced that school was a conspiracy against girls! If anything in life seemed to me to favor girls, it was school. Feminizing school yet further seemed like the last thing anyone really needed. I still think the feminists were nuts on this point. I also think that if we were to be serious about providing good schooling for boys, it would include 1) lots more male teachers, 2) lots more opportunities to be physical, 3) lots more in the way of reading and media material of the kind boys tend to prefer (why not more comic books, for example?), 3) and lots more opportunities to build shit and blow shit up. As an old fart who's been working in the same field for far too long, and who has seen the generations come and go, I can report that the current youngsters are a special breed. By contrast to the politicize-everything Boomer-divas and the spiteful Xers, they're very sweet, nice, and untroubled. (They also seem to be completely uneducated, except in computers and careerizing. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss!) But the young women are sooooo much more cocksure and confident than the guys ... It's really striking. They're dynamos: bright, competent, fit, pulled-together, going places, always with keys, waterbottle, and cellphone in hand. The guys by contrast look hangdog. They wear their shirttails out, are physically slack (or overbulked-up in a stupid-gym-rat way), have bedhead, and specialize in sheepish expressions and bitchy asides. I get the impression of a generation of dudes who have had the "guy" knocked out of them, who have no idea how to be men, who assume that the gals are automatically the stars, and who lurk around the sidelines hoping they'll score some nooky every now and then because -- after all and thank god -- most chicks still want boyfriends. School: Did it strike you as suiting girls or boys better? And what do today's 23-year-olds seem like... posted by Michael at July 6, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Modern vs. Modernist
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- John Massengale shows off a hilarious (and fast) Paris Hilton slideshow -- how much time do you suppose that girl spends rehearsing herself in the mirror? Then he points out that the Institute for Classical Architecture has begun its own blog. Don't miss this gorgeous posting about the fabulous American architect Arthur Brown Jr. A little Michael Blowhard input here: Feast your eyes on Brown's buildings (as well as others by such underknown giants as Paul Cret, Bertram Goodhue, and Bernard Maybeck), then remind yourself that these structures were all built in the 20th century. Where architecture-history is concerned, the establishment wants us to think of the 20th century as the era of glass, steel, concrete, and geometry; as far as they're concerned, anything else simply isn't modern architecture. Yet Brown, Cret, Goodhue, and Maybeck didn't do steel and geometry. Instead of glass boxes, these architects gave us what high-end architects have always given us, at least until the modernists (patooie) came along: pillars, domes, clocktowers, arches and arcades, etc., as well as ornaments galore. That's glorious -- as well as likable, comprehensible, and accessible -- stuff. Takeaway lesson: There's an important difference between "modern" and "modernist." Modern means nothing more than "current or recent." Modernist means "buying into the ideology of modernism." In the foreground, modern architecture (Goodhue's 1919 St. Bartholomew's); to the left, modernist architecture (who cares?) Do you need to know the theory behind it to be wowed and moved by Goodhue's modern church in the pic above? Yet what kind of sense does modernist architecture make -- except as Darth Vader-ugly -- if you aren't familiar with the justifications its apologists and propagandists have dreamed up for it? In any case, say hello to the kind of "modern architecture" that the schools and the critics don't want you to know about. Why? Because if too many of us woke up to the fact that we have the choice -- that we're under no obligation to love cold surfaces and sharp edges -- we wouldn't put up with modernism. Thought for the day: Traditional architecture is like tonal music -- instantly comprehensible and accessible to everyone. (And, yeah, sure, as with tonal music there's a lot of crap traditional architecture around.) Meanwhile modernist (and modernist-derived) architecture is the equivalent of atonal music. Each work is supposedly unique, each one is a closed system, and each one demands to be decoded on its own terms. Because they're all partaking of the same open language, pieces of traditional architecture tend to come together in harmonious, interrelated, and organic wholes -- ie, neighborhoods, blocks, towns. Because they speak only to themselves and/or insiders, when pieces of modernist architecture cluster, they almost always result in spikey chaos. The Classicist also points out a wonderful -- a typically wonderful -- Christopher Gray article about an architect completely new to me: Gaetan (sometimes Gaetano) Ajello, a Sicilian immigrant who designed many New York City apartment buildings. (Christopher Gray's... posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Collaborate, Resist or ...
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- If you had been a Frenchman during the period June 1940 (when France fell to Germany) and June 1944 (the Normandy invasion), what would you have done with respect to the Germans and their Occupation? For many years following the end of World War 2 the French were cast (much of the time by their intellectual elite) into a cartoonish dichotomy. On the one hand were the noble, fearless members of the Resistance. On the other were evil collaborationists. The rest of the population was shrugged off, perhaps being sadly regarded as morally lacking for failing to be in the Resistance. During the weeks and months following the Liberation, many collaborationists were publicly humiliated (women fraternizing with German soldiers were stripped naked, had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets) or were tried and, in some cases, executed. Some of this was pure public reaction. But both the Communists and the Gaullists had a large stake in claiming Resistance credibility in the early post-Liberation days as part of their maneuvering for power. So I wonder how much the anti-collaborationist spasm was political theatre. In reality, the French people formed a continuum. At the Resistance extreme were those who participated in guerilla warfare, blowing up German equipment or assassinating officers. Others didn't fight, but provided various kinds of support. Albert Camus, for example, edited the underground newspaper Combat while continuing his regular writing. Jean-Paul Sartre, after release from a German PoW camp, spent the war in Paris' literary circles though he did write articles for Combat in amongst his book-writing and teaching activities. The most extreme collaborationists were members of fascist organizations dedicated to the support of the Occupation. Not far removed were citizens who ratted on Jews. And then there were Frenchwomen who had German lovers. I'm not sure one can call this "collaboration" if nothing was done to materially support the Occupation. Coco Chanel falls into this group. She was spared public humiliation because she "had friends in high places" and moved to Switzerland for several years to lower her profile. As for the prostitutes who entertained German troops, I have to assume their interest was largely monetary. The extremes probably represented a small part of the population. The bulk of the French mostly hunkered down and coped as best they could. Robert Gildea wrote a book titled "Marianne in Chains" a few years ago that featured residents of the Loire Valley and their ways of dealing with the Occupation. I bought a copy of the book because I was interested in the subject. But I found it tedious reading and set it aside. Absent Gildea, I'll just have to resort to speculation based on what I've read elsewhere plus my take on human psychology. Resistance members who did physical harm to the Occupation tended to be young and idealistic. Many were committed Communists who followed Moscow's dictates; before Russia was invaded, the Occupation was tolerated, and thereafter force was necessary.... posted by Donald at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments

300 Million
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 2006 is the year the U.S.'s population will reach 300 million -- with population growth due almost entirely to Hispanic immigration. A couple of amazing/sad (by my lights, anyway) facts: "In 1967, there were fewer than 10 million people in the U.S. who were born in other countries; that was not even one in 20. Today, there are 36 million immigrants, about one in eight." Since the original Earth Day, our population has increased by nearly 50%. I marveled here about the way most major environmental groups are dodging the immigration question, as well as avoiding the sheer-numbers issue. Hey, say hello to the new racial politics. I won't be surprised if we see a lot more of this kind of thing too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Relax, Honey
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Maybe nobody's doing anything wrong. Maybe it's just in your genes. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Kenneth Harl on the Ancient Near East
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A while ago I wrote about how much I'd enjoyed a Teaching Company lecture series by Kenneth Harl entitled "Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor." I recently finished another Harl lecture series -- "Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations" -- and I enjoyed it just as much. It's one of the Teaching Company's shorter programs -- twelve 30-minute lectures -- and it's clearly meant to serve as an introductory survey. It covers a huge amount of ground: around 3000 years, from the beginnings of settlements in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the Persian Empire. So it's a very speedy overview of the world out of which the old familiars (Egypt, Greece, Rome) grew. I can't say that I now carry around a vivid picture of these nations and tribes: among them, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Sumerians, and the Assyrians. But I've wanted to find out a bit about these peoples for ages, and I'm grateful that I now have a general, eagle-eye impression of them. (Back here I wrote about how much I love 101-style introductions to subjects.) With these two series, Harl has become one of my favorite audio presenters. His speaking voice is a long way from being the silken, clear, calm-yet-impassioned instrument that Charlton Griffin's is. (For my money, Charlton -- who I'm thrilled to say visits 2Blowhards occasionally -- is the best reader of audiobooks ever. You can explore the ultra-classy and mega-satisfying audiobooks that Charlton produces and presents here.) But Harl has lots of virtues of his own. He tempers scholarly zeal with a sense of perspective; his knack for doling out information in appropriately-scaled ways is really impressive. He respects the fact that, for many of us, he's delivering what's likely to be our one and only jaunt through the material; although he keeps the information coming at a cracking pace, he doesn't lose track of the larger movements and sweeps. He's modest about how much can be known about eras so very distant to ours, and -- for all his proficient-academic smarts -- he's down-to-earth about and even amused by how the real world works. (Bless him, he has no apparent political agenda.) And, unlike some profs, Harl seems to have no trouble with the idea that his listeners are grownups with busy lives. Instead, he seems to be thrilled that we're there, and that we're interested. In the Teaching Company's lineup, Harl seems to be the go-to guy for the-stuff-in-between-the-usual-ancient-stuff. (It's a sign of how smart and decent the Teaching Company is that they have such a go-to guy on their team.) Harl doesn't do Egypt, Greece, or Rome at great length. Instead, he discusses all those other tribes and peoples. In addition to the series that I linked to above, he also presents the barbarians who duked it out with Rome, Byzantium, and the Vikings. Interesting topics! -- as well as ones that my college history profs skipped entirely. A while back... posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Belts and Suspenders
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: What ever became of suspenders? A few years ago, they had a mini-revival. But it seems to have flopped. Larry King has been wearing suspenders probably since Franklin Roosevelt was elected for the first time. Plus, suspenders are his trademark, so he doesn't really count. But Dan Rather wore suspenders for a while, and what good did they do him? In theory, suspenders should be functionally superior to belts and therefore belts would be expected to be the rarity. Suspenders, provided they don't become detached, can be adjusted just so in order to keep trousers at a desired position. The crease is maintained and there is no piling up of the legs atop one's shoes as can happen wearing a belt that can work its way down an inch or two during the day. This is why men's formal clothes are worn with suspenders and not belts. My grandfather (1869-1963) wore suspenders. My father (1908-93) wore them with suits perhaps through the 1940s. My mother made me wear suspenders until I was seven or eight years old. I hated suspenders. Still do. For me, transitioning from suspenders to a belt was a milestone on the road to adulthood. Similar to the short-pants to long-pants transition for boys before, say, the 1930s. The suspenders I wore had clips with teeth to attach them to the front side of my trousers; I can't remember whether the backside attachment was a similar clip or a button-loop. In any case, those clips were troublesome -- sometimes being hard to attach and other times becoming detached without warning. Since childhood, the only time I've worn suspenders was when I rented formal wear. Not being used to them, they had an odd feel. The oddest thing was that the elastic allowed the trousers to do a mini-bungee jump with each step I took. My overall impression was one of insecurity: were my clothes about to fall off? I'd like to wrap up this post with a profound sociological observation, but can't quite do so. The best I can come up with is to observe that the fall of suspenders and the rise of the belt roughly coincided with the start of the transition from males being relatively formally dressed to relatively casually dressed. And belts triumphed about the same time that men abandoned hats (baseball caps excepted). Let me add that belts were commonly worn with casual clothing even when suspenders were pretty standard for suits. I suspect men perferred the apparently greater security of a belt and gradually stopped bothering with suspenders. A final quick observation. Between 1950 and 1980 (approximately) waistlines on men's clothing have dropped. Higher beltlines are suspenders-friendly, lower beltlines are belt-simpatico. I'm pretty sure that the switch from suspenders to belts was a causal factor in the beltline change. There was a lag, however. Although I and all the other guys in high school wore belts (this was the late 50s), waistlines were still about belly-button... posted by Donald at July 4, 2006 | perma-link | (17) comments

Sunday, July 2, 2006

The Disappearing Middle?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Middle-class neighborhoods in urban and even suburban areas are shrinking at a very rapid rate. A Brookings Instition study "found that as a share of all urban and suburban neighborhoods, middle-income neighborhoods in the nation's 100 largest metro areas have declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000." More and more, neighborhoods are tipping either rich or poor. The most hollowed-out metro region in the country is Los Angeles, where "the share of poor neighborhoods is up 10 percent, rich neighborhoods are up 14 percent and middle-income areas are down by 24 percent." (Source.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 2, 2006 | perma-link | (27) comments