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

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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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  1. Irrefutable Proof that Civilization Declined Between 1964 and 1970
  2. Mags for Millennials
  3. You Tube-ishness
  4. "The Conservative Nanny State"
  5. More Than Once
  6. Elsewhere
  7. The Singing Nun
  8. DVD Journal: "School of the Holy Beast"
  9. To Live Near Your Work
  10. Why Can't the Dems Win?

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Irrefutable Proof that Civilization Declined Between 1964 and 1970
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Via YouTube, two dynamite performances by the great Bo Diddley. 1964: 1970: Both are full of throb, sweat, humor, and power. Man, did Bo Diddley ever have a lot of confidence and force! Watching him in action reminds me of looking at some of Picasso's more exultant bulls. But compare the audiences. The 1964 crowd is in a state of happy, shrieking frenzy -- good times! The 1970 crowd is a sluggish sea of solemn kids. Barely a one of them moves; they seem weighed down by something far more important than mere pleasure. Now: Which crowd would you rather be a member of? What happened between '64 and '70? Did the decade that had kicked off with such cheery, wriggling gusto collapse into a heap of introverted self-importance? That's what it sometimes felt like at the time. I'm pleased that, if we accomplished nothing else, my own, barely-post-'60s cohort (class of '76) at least brought energetic dancing back, and with a vengeance. We can die proud. BTW, when I grow up I want to be able to wear a suit as snazzily as Bo Diddley does. I'd love to be able to dance like Bo Diddley does too -- look at that footwork! But I know that's asking 'way too much. Related: I blabbed here about what it was like being a younger-than-hippie-age Boomer, and about the 1970s. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2006 | perma-link | (29) comments

Mags for Millennials
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The "Millennials": They're between 14 and 30, and there are as many of them as there are Boomers -- which of course makes them prime targets for the advertising and publishing businesses. So what have these businesses learned about them? In brief, they want things their own way and they have stars in their eyes. According to Myrna Blyth, traditional women's magazines hold little appeal for Millennial females. The only kind of magazine that has been a wild success with this crowd is celebrity weeklies. Bonnie Fuller, an editor who has recently had a magic commerical touch, says that young women today are "practically obsessed" with celebrities and all aspects of their lives. "Nowadays there is a fine line between real life and being the star of a reality show," says Fuller. Another nice passage comes from mag-biz analyst Samir Husni: "Young women talk about celebrities like they are members of their family ... There is nothing iconic about celebrities anymore. They went from the big screen to television, and now we hold them on our laps in a magazine. Young women can laugh about them. They even feel they can bully them." One distinctive characteristic of the new Millennial-targeted celeb mags is that they offer no traditional advice columns. "Frankly, young women today don't want that much advice," says one pollster, who also notices that "this generation has a split-second attention span." Let's see: no patience ... strong preferences ... full of themselves ... living in their fantasies ... May I be permitted to say Eek! and Yikes!? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

You Tube-ishness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Lex turns up a Ronettes video that's somehow funky and darling at the same time. He annotates it touchingly too. * God is in the house -- Art Tatum himself, making his grand piano look like Linus' (Correction: Schroeder's) toy keyboard: * What business model? Ilkka's predicting that YouTube will last for another year, tops. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"The Conservative Nanny State"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just finished Dean Baker's new book, "The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer," and recommend it enthusiastically. It's full of well-informed analyses of dubious government programs and policies and well-presented challenges to them. (My only quarrel is with Dean's use of the word "conservative" when what he's really talking about is a certain class of fat-cat Republicans. Hey, world: There's nothing conservative about a lot of Republicans.) Whether you're of a right-ish or a left-ish persuasion, you'll find plenty in the book to work up a good head of indignant steam about. Generously, Dean makes the book available as a free download. Let's see more of that kind of publishing. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

More Than Once
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Chute makes a list of the books that he has read more than once. I like many of the books David likes, but I'm not much of a re-reader myself. My own version of such a list would be very short: "The Charterhouse of Parma," and that's about it. (Read this translation.) Oh, and "Candy." And "The Long Goodbye." OK, and "Winnie the Pooh." But that's about it. How long would your own list be? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (32) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Investment banker turned escort Olympia gives the lowdown on what an escort's life is really like. Sounds like a challenging line of work. * Corbusier shakes his head over what the architecture establishment dreams of foisting on New Orleans. * Mickey Spillane may no longer be with us, but at least we have his novels to hold dear. Bookgasm's Bruce Grossman reads Mickey's final two Mike Hammer thrillers and reports that they aren't half bad. * Fred has the goods on how to become a great composer. * Whisky Prajer's Top 15 Films list climaxes in a real surprise. * Jon Hastings gives the once-eminent novelist William Dean Howells a try and likes what he finds. * I wrote a little blog-hymn to Western New York's Finger Lakes region back here. (I grew up nearby and love the place dearly.) What fun to discover a good and verve-y blog devoted to the area's wines. * And yet more, new-to-me eco and food blogs that I've been lovin' too: here, here, here, and here. (Thanks to Brian, and to Steve Bodio.) * James Bowman explains to Christina Hoff Sommers what has become of honor. * Pug bowling! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

The Singing Nun
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The things you run across when you research a topic! Nuns, for instance. Remember the Singing Nun, aka Soeur Sourire? "Dominique-nique-nique," etc? The song was not only the #1 pop hit in 1964, it prevented "Louie Louie" from getting to #1. It was also the only Belgian pop tune ever to make it to #1 in America. In 1965, Debbie Reynolds portrayed Soeur Sourire in a popular movie, "The Singing Nun." Swingin' Chicks calls Soeur Sourire "the unlikeliest pop star ever." I can't say that I'd given Soeur Sourire a thought in decades. But now I know her life story: Art school, then the convent. Urged on by fellow nuns, she recorded "Dominique." She left the convent and shacked up with a girlfriend -- there's apparently some controversy about whether the two women were sexually involved. Her record contract was canceled after the Singing Nun novelty-thing wore off. She started and ran a school for autistic kids. And -- when the Belgian government pursued her for taxes they said were owed on her Singing Nun earnings -- she and her girlfriend committed suicide. Here's the bio. Here's Wikipedia. Here's a site devoted to her. Here's an interview with a fan and author. Here's a YouTube video of Soeur Sourire in action. Here she sings her big hit to a disco beat. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

DVD Journal: "School of the Holy Beast"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the reasons that becoming a movie buff is appealing is that it's so easy. Especially these DVD days, watching movies doesn't involve the hard work of plowing through books, let alone making pilgrimages to museums or concert halls. Another appealing factor is that movie history is finite. With an artform like music: Well, who knows where it starts and ends? But movies have only been around for a little over a hundred years. It's a manageable field; it can be done. A couple of years of intense movie-watching enhanced by wrestles with a dozen-ish books of history and criticism, and you emerge a fully certified cinephile. Yet even an artform as recent as movie history has its oddball nooks and crannies, and even as longterm a moviebuff as I am can still encounter the unexpected -- even an entirely unfamiliar genre. The other night, tipped-off by a young friend who loves stylish movie schlock above all things, the Wife (also a longterm moviebuff -- talk about a marriage made in heaven!) and I watched Norifumi Suzuki's 1974 "School of the Holy Beast." (Amazon, Netflix.) Together The Wife and I have put in over 60 years of regular filmgoing, yet "School of the Holy Beast" was an entirely new one on us: our very first exposure to a trash genre known as "nunsploitation." As the name suggests, nunsploitation films focus -- in (it's hoped and expected) reprehensible ways -- on convents, novices, mothers superior, crucifixes, wimples, spiritual agonies ... corruption ... lesbianism ... flagellations ... horny priests ... pits of hell ... Yeah, baby! Gotta love those oversexed, exhibitionistic, and self-torturing Catholics. Where would movies be without 'em? Given my near-total inexperience with the genre, I'll refrain from generalizing any more about it. The curious can find out more here and here. "School of the Holy Beast" is cherished by nunsploitation aficionados -- ain't it great that such a thing as a "nunsploitation aficionado" exists? -- as one of the most extreme examples of the genre ever, and The Wife and I had a wonderful time watching it. Mainly we were experiencing camp/schlock bliss: The movie is nothing if not a straightfaced, overheated, peculiar, unselfconsciously zany piece of outrageousness. Its story involves a swingin' 1970s chick who enters a convent in order to discover the secret of her background. Nasty secrets are unearthed, believe you me. Part of the film's zaniness is a function of the 1970s: the fashions, the hairstyles, the attitudes ... The zooms, the lighting, the jumpcuts ... Is there a piece of '70s exploitation cinema that doesn't make you exclaim, "Hey, I bet Tarantino was ripping this off when he made 'Kill Bill'!" Another contributor to the zaniness is the film's Japanese-ness. The Wife and I stared at the Sony thinking, "A Japanese convent? A Japanese mother superior? What can Catholicism mean to the Japanese?" It turns out that there was a fairly successful Catholic movement in Japan beginning... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

To Live Near Your Work
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- People ought to live near to where they work. So say planners, university professors and other folks who are far more intelligent and better-informed than I. (When I get around to it, I really must let such people dictate every detail of my life: it's the right thing to do.) This notion was kicking around the Seattle area recently, as Sound Politics, an indispensable blog for Puget Sound region political junkies, relates here and here. Blog honcho Stefan Sharkansky ("The Shark") slyly mentions that some of those urging us to live near work do not live very close to where they work. In the abstract, it indeed would be a good thing (in most cases) if people lived not far from their jobs. I happen to live less than two air miles from work, but the drive is closer to three or four miles. Yet I must confess that when I selected my apartment I was more concerned about safety and the quality of fellow residents than I was with commute distance. (Apartment-hunting tip: try to avoid places that have ratty cars.) In olden times as well as not-so-olden times in large cities such as New York, many shopkeepers lived behind or above their shops. Margaret Thatcher lived above her greengrocer father's store in Grantham; when I saw the place, the grocery had been replaced by a real estate office. My main problem with the notion that people should live near their jobs is that it often simply isn't practical. Buying a house and moving (or even renting a new apartment and moving) are not trivial tasks. Many folks, once settled into a house and neighborhood, are not very interested in moving again until life-cycle events demand it. Also, nowadays people tend to change jobs several times over their working career, unlike in the days when one might spend his entire career with one firm. Even when working for one company, job locations can change. In the Puget Sound area, a Boeing employee might find himself being transferred from Everett to Kent to Renton to Boeing Field and then back to Everett over a few decades. And he or his wife or his kids might strongly resist moving each time his place of work changes. What this boils down to is that planners, professors and editorial board writers seem to have a naive view of how we poor working slobs tend to deal with our lives in this era of fluid careers. As is so often the case, the theory is wonderful and gets ruined by all that nasty reality. Nevertheless, I wouldn't be totally surprised if one day someone tries to legislate commuting distance. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 26, 2006 | perma-link | (20) comments

Why Can't the Dems Win?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Given what a loopily-incompetent bunch the current Republican administration has shown itself to be, why haven't the Democrats done better? Come to think of it, given what an unpromising candidate GWBush was in both recent presidential elections, why couldn't the Democrats defeat him? My preferred explanation: Most everyday Americans simply don't think of the Dems as being on their side. Further, most everyday American just don't like the Dems. Why not? The usual Democratic explanation is that everyday Americans are stupid, or else they're racist, or probably both. After all, the Dems are right about so many things -- why are so many Americans so incapable of seeing this? It can only come down to racism and stupidity. My own preferred explanation: The Dems don't actually want to be liked by a majority of everyday Americans. (They also seem incapable of understanding that there's a big difference between winning an argument and winning an election.) Proof: If the Dems did want to be liked by most everyday Americans, they'd quit accusing them of stupidity and racism. How exactly is blasting the people whose affection you need going to win you their votes? And the Dems call everyone else stupid ... In the new American Conservative, Steve Sailer goes considerably deeper into the "Why haven't the Dems done better?" question than I do. Nice passage: Imagine two cousins, one with a graduate degree making $50,000 per year in a creative industry, living alone in a small apartment in a "vibrant" (i.e., dangerous and expensive) metropolis. The other with a bachelor's degree earns the same income in an unglamorous business and lives with a spouse and children in a home on a quarter acre lot in a "boring" (i.e., safe and moderately-priced) suburb. Which one is more likely to vote Democratic? James Pinkerton adds some thoughts. Bill Kauffman contributes historical perspective. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 26, 2006 | perma-link | (67) comments

10 for Charles Murray
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- GNXP's Matt McIntosh interviews the social scientist and libertarian Charles Murray. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 26, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Girl-Watching Notes: Tattoos
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'll be a much happier girl-watcher once the vogue for tattoos has passed. Despite the fact that today's girls and young women are unquestionably awe-inspiring physical specimens (big, rambunctious, healthy, etc.), and although they seem to feel driven to show off ever more skin-acreage, the presence on so many of them of tattoos means that all -- well, nearly all -- of my girl-watching pleasure is spoiled. (A few pre-emptive concessions: Who cares what turns me on? Young women certainly aren't performing for the likes of me. But who stops looking just because he -- or she -- is no longer in his 20s? And isn't having a reaction an important part of looking? As Debknits once wrote in a comment on this blog, more or less: "I'm middle-aged and married, I'm not dead.") It occurs to me to wonder, though: Will the vogue for girl-tattoos pass? As the years go by, tattoos have begun to seem less like a fleeting thing and more like a standard fashion requirement. Perhaps a corner has been turned; perhaps there's no going back. God knows that the tattoos themselves aren't about to be put on a closet shelf like last season's baseball cap. Why did respectable girls start thinking of tattoos as cool in the first place? The fact that respectable girls and young women now choose to wear permanent marks in their flesh has been one of the bigger, as well as one of the more surprising, culture changes that I've ever witnessed. I suppose that, among middle-class girls, tattoos started out as tribal markers of funky sexiness -- as a make-believe way of aligning themselves with the downtrodden. Interesting the way that "sex" and "the downtrodden" have become near-synonymous, isn't it? What's that about? And what does wearing a tattoo mean for the girls themselves? Er, the young women? I assume it means something along the lines of, "I'm doing what all the kids who are eager to be participants in the mating-and-dating thing are doing." But I might well be wrong. I have a general culture-gestalt theory too: The advent of girl-tattoos is directly related to the computer-ification of everything. The computer screen (unlike the movie screen) is changeable, malleable, permeable, interactive. The acts of tattooing and piercing make the body's flesh become changeable and permeable in a similar way. The person wearing tattoos and piercings is saying, in effect, "I am a CPU, and my body is my personal computer screen." Behold YouTube's catch-line: "Broadcast Yourself." The eternal feminine imperative to self-adorn is hard to underestimate. As the female body becomes ever more exposed, body-parts that were once considered intimate and private have gone public. These days, it seems, every square inch of a girl's body needs to be maintained in a state of camera-readiness. Yet, even in the face of these developments, girls are going to find some way to adorn themselves. If a girl can no longer adorn herself by covering... posted by Michael at July 26, 2006 | perma-link | (40) comments

A Ton of Books
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have a ton of books to pack. Literally. One ton. Two thousand pounds. Plus. Well, I'm fibbing just a little. They're nearly all packed already. Boxed, actually. Boxed in U-Haul's finest "small boxes [that] are ideal for heavy items" that are 16 inches by 12 by 12. In order to stack the boxed books, I've had to fill each box to the top so that the folded top flaps don't sag. These filled boxes are brick-like. For the hell of it I weighed one and it came to 55 pounds. As of last night, I've filled 40 boxes with books. So if each box is 50-ish pounds, that means the pile of boxes in the middle of the apartment's living room floor must weigh a ton. So there. This ton of books represents roughly two-thirds of the books I had when I got married a couple months ago. Some books went to the dumpster. Census data books I "willed" to the office where I work. Others I was able to sell to Powell's book store in Portland for just under $700 total. Still to pack are lots of magazines. Some are 50-year-old issues of Time and Newsweek. Others are car mags such as Road & Track, Motor Trend, and various defunct titles. I also have quite a few aviation magazines and some early personal computer mags. A gal at the office suggested I try consigning them to an antique store. I won't even speak about the 24 or so file cabinet drawers, many filled with census data for the USA and other countries that I Xeroxed over the years. In case anyone is curious, I'll be retiring from work (but not from blogging unless Michael fires me) at the end of August. Most of my stuff will go to my wife's Seattle house, where we plan to live part of the time. And part of the time we'll live in her California house, so a few books will wind up there. Aside from all those books I don't have many possessions, so that aspect of the move should be pretty simple. Michael says he has no trouble tossing out books. I envy him. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 26, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- * When I was young -- call it high school or college age -- and read biographies, I wasn't much interested in the material leading up to the point where the subject got to doing what he became famous for. And by the time I reached my mid forties, say, I became a lot more interested in the subject's formative years. Nowadays I suspect it was a big mistake to have sloughed off the early bits when I was of an age where some of the information might have done me some good. [Sigh] * Last weekend I spied a young fellow wearing a Mohawk haircut of the greased-spike variety. I've been seeing the occasional Mohawk since I was a kid, so the act of getting one can't be termed an act of creativity. My take has been that it's a way of showing off or perhaps rebelling against adulthood or something. But I can't be sure. You see, I've never had a friend or acquaintance who ever wore a Mohawk, so haven't been able to ask with the expectation of getting an honest answer. * Before we went to Russia last year, Nancy read some Tolstoy to get in the mood. First she read Anna Karenina and later dug into War and Peace, finally finishing it a few months ago. Come September we'll be off to Poland, Budapest and Prague, amongst other places, and she's hoping to find equivalent reading material. So far, she hasn't had much luck. I've been of no help, that's for sure. Unlike Michael, I'm not a lit guy. But I suspect that even lit folks might have a little trouble coming up with a good read or two related to the places just mentioned. Oh, and Kafka doesn't count! Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 25, 2006 | perma-link | (29) comments

Monday, July 24, 2006

Styles of Thought: Personal Evolution
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Blowhards think differently. From one another, that is. I suspect you already know that if you are a halfway regular reader. Take Michael. I'd characterize him as inquisitive. He's curious about all sorts of things. And, as one reader once pointed out, something he's really curious about is how his own mind operates. As for Friedrich, he strikes me as systematic and inclined to look for broad cultural forces as primary factors for explaining art-historical details. But he throws us off-balance from time to time by tossing in humorous or nyekulturny bits. Me? I find it difficult to peg myself. One reason why is that I've changed big chunks of my thought-style since, oh, high school days. I'd better explain. I don't have anything close to a "photographic memory," but nevertheless was able to get okay (but not great) grades in high school by "winging it." I was -- and am -- impatient and hate having to buckle down and master a subject by brute study. Matter of fact, I'm not sure that I ever consciously did such a thing. Except once, as I'll mention below. "Winging" began to wane as I progressed through college. By my sophomore year it had dawned on me that the key to survival in introductory and near-introductory courses was vocabulary-memorization. That is, if I knew a field's terms/jargon, I had a good shot at pulling at least a B. Variations on this strategy plus a good deal of luck got me through grad school. But I remained an unsystematic, undisciplined thinker who largely relied on "muddling through," as the English put it. Things began to change again once I got my first real job, at New York State's planning agency (the Office of Planning Coordination, now defunct). This was back before personal computers. To do research I found myself copying data and writing calculation results on analysis pad paper (the kind with blue-lined rows and maybe 10 or 12 columns separated by red lines) and drawing graphs on various kinds of graph paper (log, semi-log, lognormal, etc.) After a few months of this I realized that I'd generated so much stuff that I couldn't remember what work was recent or old, a serious matter in some cases. So then I made it a point to date everything. And thereby became a tad systematic. But the big change came when I bought my first personal computer, an early IBM PC, and had to learn to program it. The first thing I had to do was seriously study and master a programming language. Now, computer programs, when run, can spew out all manner of junk due to flawed design or faulty input. But before they can reach that happy state they must be able to run in the first place. Putting this another way, programs either run or they don't, so you have to keep working on the program until it runs all the way through. So the programmer's first... posted by Donald at July 24, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments