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

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Who are the people who make up the MPAA, the movie industry's rating board? And what qualifies them to rate movies? Filmmaker Kirby Dick had the inspired idea not just to ask these questions but to make a movie about them. It's entitled "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," and it has just been released with an NC-17 rating of its own. The answer, by the way, is that the MPAA is mostly made up not of parents, psychologists, etc, but of film-industry people. Dick speaks to C.H.U.D. about his discoveries. In one passage, he clears up a lot of mysteries: This is not a moralistic ratings structure, it's very much bottom-line driven. I think the MPAA, if they had their choice, wouldn't have any ratings at all. But if there is going to be one, they want to control it because they want to make sure their films get out to the widest possible marketplace, and to do that they want to make sure their films get the least restrictive ratings. Which explains why violence gets off so easy -- their target audience right now is adolescents, and violent films appeal to adolescents. That's why they make sure those films get off easy in the rating system. But look at their competition, which is independent films and foreign films -- they tend to make films with more mature themes and more adult sexuality. It's those films that get the NC-17 rating. I wrote a posting about America's embrace of adolescent values here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

A New "Blair Witch Project"?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is star YouTube videoblogger (200,000 views per posting) LonelyGirl15 a real live lonelygirl or just someone's publicity ploy? Doubts have arisen. UPDATE: Doubts have been confirmed. Best, Micahel... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Case Studies in State Formation - Sparta
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- I have recently become intrigued by a division of historical studies that I had not previously been aware of: state formation. Professor Walter Scheidel in a web page for a graduate seminar on Ancient State Formation at Stanford offers the following description of the field: State formation is a major field in world history, and cross-cultural comparative studies flourish among historical sociologists, political scientists, economists, and prehistorians. Their core questions vary. Some ask why humanity moved away from egalitarian communities toward stratified ones; others, why centralized power has taken the particular forms it has in different parts of the world; others still, how individual agency and structural constraints interact in the centralization of power. Every dimension of the human experience is implicated, from evolutionary theory and economics to crosscultural encounters and gender ideologies. State theorists regularly claim that they are explaining the motor of history. That last sentence is obviously not written with an entirely straight face, but I think it is fair to say that people study state formation in order to at least try to answer some of the why questions of history. For example, everybody knows that the ancient Near Eastern empires from the Sumerian to the Persian were big and centralized, while the city states of Classical Greece were tiny and rarely cooperated. Why were they so different? During the Early Modern era the very advanced Italian city-states, despite their wealth, were easy prey for the Spanish monarchy, while the equally dynamic cities of the North Netherlands managed to not only win their independence from the same Hapsburg Empire but also to wrest away its domination of world trade. Why were these confrontations between these two sets of mercantile cities and the same multinational empire so different? Professor Seidel also points out that state formation is not entirely of, um, academic interest: Recent geopolitical trends have heightened public and scholarly interest in imperialism and state formation. In this seminar we aim to explore the ways that developments in the comparative social sciences across the last twenty years can help us understand ancient state formation, and how ancient state formation can shed new light on some of the biggest questions in contemporary social theory. Well, for better or worse I have been pondering many of these issues, especially the links between imperial adventures and domestic politics. I thought I would try to present some things I had learned in the form of some case studies. To begin with, I chose some city states of ancient Greece and Italy. Eventually, perhaps, when I have assembled enough case studies (which will hopefully include some modern examples as well) I will try my hand at suggesting some overarching patterns. But whether you find my eventual theories fascinating or laughable, I think the episodes I am discussing are rather interesting in their own right. So here goes, with a bit of an explanatory forward. Some Background In the eighth century BCE, aristocrats played a key... posted by Friedrich at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (17) comments

DVDs On Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Those who, like me, enjoy snagging bargains on DVDs can treat themselves to good Netflix deals on a few of the movies that I've praised here at the blog: "Red Eye," "Being Julia," and "Overnight." They're currently $5.95 each -- the kind of price that makes my Inner Primal Hunter emit sighs of very deep satisfaction. I wrote about "Red Eye" here; "Being Julia" here; and "Overnight" here. Netflix's sales page is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Classical Art Training
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Exciting news from The Classicist: the arrival of a new new-traditionalist fine arts academy in Manhattan, The Grand Central Academy of Art. The GCAA is the creation of the wonderful ICA&CA (Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America); its operations will be directed and overseen by the brilliant painter Jacob Collins; and its core program will be an intense three-year training period in classical and realist techniques. I'm thrilled to note that the GCAA will also offer weekend and evening classes for amateurs and duffers -- that would include me! James Panero interviews Jacob Collins here. "I have a lot of respect for French academic painting," Collins says daringly. Another nice passage: It seems that, in the twentieth century, a lot of energy went into dismantling traditional art forms. I don't particularly love that. Whether it was good or bad, this spirit has definitely wound down. So much of the energy of Modernism came from the electricity of breaking the pieces of the art object apart. I'm certainly not claiming that there are no pieces, but that now, in Traditionalism, it's about putting the pieces back together. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

The Zaniness of FLW
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Prairie Mary for pointing out this fascinating Christopher Hawthorne article about "The Fellowhip," a new study of Frank Lloyd Wright. The authors did their best to discard the Eternal Genius lens through which Wright is usually seen, and to consider him as a mere mortal, if one with enormous talent. That's something I tried to do myself -- in a much more modest way, of course, and confining myself entirely to his work -- back in this posting, which I wittily entitled "Frank Lloyd Wright Is Not God." It generated some controversy, to say the least. Mary has put up a wonderful posting of her own about how she learned to write. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, September 8, 2006

Weekend Music
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Richard Thompson gives an up-close-and-personal performance of his wild and immortal "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," with its hilarious and moving line, "Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme": I find the song's combo of the sardonic, the grandiose, and the over-the-top passionate pretty thrilling -- pop music at its most cocky-tragic, bizarre, and folk-operatic. And ain't that some nice guitar-picking? The CD the song appears on is a winner too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 8, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Blogging Notes
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This is to announce that I have made an Executive Decision. The MacBook does not go to Europe with us Saturday. At 5.5 pounds, it makes my over-the-shoulder computer bag pretty heavy. Plus it takes up space I'll need for stuffing in a windbreaker or museum store purchases. And my snazz new Verizon Internet connection won't work outside the USA. Not to mention the fear-of-theft factor. So what to do about blogging? I suppose I'll keep my eyes pealed for free internet connections at hotels, or even not-so-free connections. And there are Internet cafes. Still, writing on computers with different national keyboards can range from puzzling to totally frustrating. Given that it takes a minimum of 20-30 minutes for me to compose, proofread, post and further proof an essay, blogging will likely be chancy. But I'll do the best I can. At any rate, I'll be back blogging sometime during the first week in October. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 8, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Real Food -- Or Not?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Pulling together my previous posting reminded me of a couple of recent food-news stories: Could raw milk help those with allergies? Now enhancing your luncheon meats: a virus-carrying spray that apparently fights bacteria. Yum-yum. It also reminded me of a comment Alec made a few weeks ago. He wrote, if I remember right, that he doesn't worry much about how the food he eats comes to be. It doesn't matter to him, in other words, if he's eating beef from a cow raised organically on grass or from one raised on corn and antibiotics in a feed lot. Fine with me, of course. But also a bit surprising. Given my own semi-crunchy predilections, I have a tendency to think that most people would, given a reasonable choice, generally prefer to eat more-natural rather than highly-tweaked foods. But maybe I'm wrong. Would anyone like to volunteer their own preferences? Let's play a game. Say you have two apples in front of you. One is an eye-grabbing, glossy red-green; it's also from a genetically modified species, and was grown a thousand miles away on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. The other apple is visually more gnarly, but it has been raised locally and "organically." The big shiney industrial apple costs a quarter; the irregular natural one costs 30 cents. It's up to you to pick one of them to eat. Which do you go for? And why? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 8, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

"Real Food"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Of the many books about food, eating, and food production that I've read in recent months, my favorite has been Nina Planck's "Real Food." It's a book with a simple message: If a food is traditional, then the odds are it's tasty, satisfying, and nourishing. If a food has been invented or developed in the last hundred years -- if it's what she calls "an industrial food" -- then you'd probably do well to be wary of it. (Hey, that's a good two-line summary of conservatism -- the political philosophy of conservatism, anyway, if not the sorry present-day Republican reality of it. When there's a question, odds are you should trust to experience and not to theory.) No accusations of Luddism, please. A nice passage from a q&a with Planck: Look, I love my ice cream maker. I love electricity. What I don't like is technology that reduces a food's flavor or nutrition. Chicken stock is great. The bouillon cube is an abomination. As I read it, Planck's book exists on two levels. One is the facts-and-arguments level. Here, I found the book extremely helpful and informative. Be warned, though: It isn't for the un-crunchy, let alone for those averse to a little eccentricity. (Those who dislike the book may accuse Planck of being vulnerable to cranks.) Planck doesn't play by the health-tip world's rules or current advice, to say the least. Lard? Most excellent -- "hardly anyone knows that lard is good for you." Tropical fats? Yum-o. Red meat? Dig in, but search out the grass-fed kind. Salt isn't a poison to be avoided; it's a godsend that brings out the flavors of many foods. Unrefined sea salt is best. Search out fermented foods: kefir, sauerkraut. Your gut will thank you for it. Eggs? "A nutritional bonanza." "I don't buy the low-fat version of anything," Planck writes. Planck is especially keen on milk, which she thinks we have become neurotic about. Full-fat milk doesn't just taste loads better than skim, it's also better for you. But make it organic if not raw. Feeling inspired by Planck, I drank my first raw milk last week. It was, as she wrote that it would be, a far more creamy, complex, and rich experience than supermarket milk. Maybe pasteurization and homogenization aren't all they're cracked up to be. To those who respond with shock or surprise to her very unorthodox views and advice, Planck has a -- to me, anyway -- plausible and convincing response. Since the health establishment changes its tune every five minutes -- are eggs good for you this week? -- we'd probably do well, much of the time, to ignore the people in the white lab coats and trust to experience and taste instead. At times the book feels like a concerted attempt to restore the reputation of fat. Planck argues that the more we know about fats, the more complicated the are-fats-good-or-bad-for-you? question becomes. There are many kinds of fats, and... posted by Michael at September 8, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Sound-Effects "Art"
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Public art comes in many forms, noises included. You might have experienced one example if you've ever flown into Seattle's airport and were in either of terminals B or C. And you really would have noticed it if you had operated one of the water fountains. When the water lever is pushed, besides the expected stream of water, out come loud gurgling noises ("glup, GLUMP, gurgle, GLUMP!!). I find the experience so awful that I head for one of the other terminals to slake my thirst. How do I know this is "art?" Because by each sound-effects equipped drinking fountain is a small plaque proclaiming the name of the "artist" (a guy named Jim Green). These noisy fountains have been in place for years and it's hard to believe that no one has ever complained. Apparently the only thing complainers can be sure of is that their complaints carry next to no weight with public authorities. ...How many years did it take to remove the "wall" sculpture by the municipal office building near New York's City Hall?... It'll probably be a long time before SeaTac airport is gurgle-free. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 7, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Visual ravishment aplenty can be had by surfing this collection of Japanese photography links. * Do you find giant puppets as creepy as I do? * Where do you go with your television career once this kind of thing has been made public? (NSFW, that's for sure.) * Steve Sailer thinks that The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell lacks street smarts. * The last surviving Ziegfeld girl recently turned 102 years old. * Terry Teachout praises the act of searching for recorded music in CD-store aisles. Tyler Cowen thinks online searching has a lot to recommend it. * So you think of the Dems as the party of the real people and the Repubs as the party of the rich? Tim Carney thinks it's time to open your eyes. Nice quote: The four largest individual donors in the 2004 election all gave exclusively to Democrats. In 2006, so far, the three most prolific industries -- real estate, securities/investment, and lawyers/lobbies -- have all given more to Hillary Clinton than to any other candidate ... Despite Democrats' "the-people-versus-the-powerful" rhetoric both parties are the parties of big business. Despite Republicans' "government-that-is-best-governs-least" rhetoric, both parties are the parties of big government. Here's another interview with Carney. * Milton Friedman junkies won't want to miss this very recent interview with him. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

"The Legend of Hell House"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The film I enjoyed most in the past few weeks was John Hough's 1973 "The Legend of Hell House." (Amazon, Netflix.) Despite a title that suggests scares for teens, it's a subtle and classy haunted-house movie for grown-ups -- something akin to "The Innocents," or to the recent Nicole Kidman-starring "The Others." Pamela Franklin -- self-possessed yet vulnerable as a dewy, straitlaced medium -- is the standout in a very good cast that also includes Roddy McDowall and Gayle Hunnicutt. The film is a reminder of how adult genre movies could once be: erotically aware (in a discreet yet intense way), psychologically shrewd, and put together with quiet flair and surprising sophistication. Is it really true that even trashy, commercial movies once took it for granted that the audience's antennae would be able to register undertones, hints, and major/minor shifts? I guess so. If the film's climax isn't much more than serviceable, well, the journey getting there provides a lot of chilly-spooky fun. Question for the day: What is it about '70s lighting and design that can be so hypnotic? Here's a look at the films of John Hough, who also directed one of my favorite B road movies from the '70s, "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry." I notice that Pamela Franklin started off as a child actor, appeared in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody," and quit show business in the early 1980s. Here's a small picture gallery of Pamela Franklin in "The Legend of Hell House." Ever-so-slightly NSFW, I guess -- but in 1973, this combo of nudity, intensity, and lusciousness was labeled PG, not NSFW. Different times ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Bouncey Bounce
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have a theory that men need, absolutely need, to spend significant amounts of time perfecting some skill or other, the more useless the better. The drive, as far as I can tell, comes from deep inside: from the genes, the biology, the organism, whatever. Case in point: Part of me watches this video thinking, Is he insane? But another part of me thinks: Hmm, I wonder if, with a little practice, I could ... I suppose blogging might also qualify as one of these useless skills men love applying themselves to, come to think of it. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, September 4, 2006

Separating Artist and Art
Donald Pittenger writes Dear Blowhards -- So Guenter Grass was in the SS in World War 2. Not the part of the SS most people think of, where SSers wore tight-fitting black uniforms and got to wave Lugars around while sneering at members of lesser races. You see, as the war ground along, the SS became a military arm of the National Socialist German Workers Party. There were even SS divisions, which didn't amuse the Wehrmacht generals, I would think. Anyway, Grass was in the military part of the SS. The revelation touched off a fair amount of fuss in both the traditional media and the Blogosphere (see here for info on Grass and here for a report on the controversy). Besides the not-so-trivial matter of Grass' decades of hypocrisy, the issue of separating artist and art came up from time to time. And that perennial issue is what interests me more than Grass who, to my mind, spent his career backing the wrong political horse. Okay, I understand that we are supposed to focus on the quality of the art and not the merits or failings of the artist. Fallen, fallible creature that I am, I don't seem to be able to live up to that standard. If I despise an artist's lifestyle, personality, morality or politics, I can find it hard to like his art. This isn't universal, mind you; my reaction varies by case. Let me focus on politics for now. I am an anti-communist (gasp!!). That makes me seriously unwelcome in many artistic circles, but so be it; "I yam what I yam" as Popeye the Sailor succinctly put it. But I fancy myself a reasonable anti-communist. I tend to give slack to people who fell in love with socialism and communism back in the days when those schemes were theoretical, untried. I give a lot less slack to those who persisted in loving communism after the period of Stalin's trials and the August 1939 pact with Hitler. And I pretty much totally write off anyone who was a communist or sympathizer after the mid-50s uprisings in East Germany, Poland and, especially, Hungary. Now that I've established myself as a vile, closed-minded, imperialist warmonger, let's turn to art. Even if an artist was as red as the "meatball" on the flag of Japan, I can overlook his politics so long as the subject of the art is non-political. Obvious examples are artists who were Abstract Expressionists. Other artists favored political themes. George Grosz is an artist whose art and politics I don't like. Ben Shahn also was a lefty who sometimes dealt with political subjects, but I tend to like his work thanks to his interesting technique. In particular, I was intrigued by his pen-an-ink work back in the 50s when I was a student. Frida Kahlo is an artist whose popularity has inexplicably (to me) risen greatly over the last decade or so. She and her sometime husband Diego Rivera were reds, but a quick... posted by Donald at September 4, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments