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  1. Case Studies in State Formation, Part II: Athens
  2. Literacy: Normal? Natural? Desirable?
  3. Meeting Girls
  4. Elsewhere
  5. The Gap Defaces Movie History
  6. A New Head Architect
  7. Photo Find of the Day
  8. Wabi Sabi
  9. More DVD Bargains
  10. TV Alert -- "Sunrise"

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Case Studies in State Formation, Part II: Athens
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, As I mentioned in a previous post, I have become interested in the topic of state formation. I have been putting together a series of case studies on the topic; this is the second. (You can read the first, on Sparta, here.) According to tradition, in 753 BCE Attica, the territory of the city-state Athens, replaced its line of kings with a power-sharing coalition of some sixty aristocratic clans. The heads of these clans jointly selected three magistrates, or archons. Each archon, after their one-year term of office, joined a council that took overall responsibility for affairs of state. This Council was known as the Areopagus, after the hill on which it met in Athens. However, despite their monopoly on public affairs, the Areopagian clan-leaders of the archaic period were not a particularly powerful aristocracy. Stanford professor Ian Morris, in his paper "Military and political participation in archaic-classical Greece" (which you can read here) contrasts them with the elites of other ancient civilizations: Iron Age Near Eastern rulers claimed to have special access to the gods (or, in Egypt, to be gods), controlled vast financial resources, and led armed forces with expensive cavalry, chariots, and fortifications. Archaic Greek aristocrats failed to master any of these sources of power. The separation between secular and sacred authority in Greece was remarkable... While the Athenian aristocrats could not claim religious sanction for their leadership, did not lead vast high-tech armies and were not even outlandishly rich, they were able to utilize their position in government and their relative wealth to oppress their fellow citizens. Apparently the very poor could fall into such a degree of debt to their betters that they could end up as slaves and be sold abroad. Even more prosperous commoners were obligated to make a yearly payment to the local clan boss in return for protection, presumably in the Mafia sense. As Charles Freeman points out in his book "Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean," this protection payment was deeply resented. Economic pressures resulting from very rapid population growth doubtlessly stoked this resentment. Although by Greek standards Attica was an enormous city state (it was the size of Rhode Island, some 2,500 sq. kilometers), its agricultural resources were hard put to sustain what archeological studies suggest was a 10-fold increase in population between 800 and 400 BCE. Modern estimates of the carrying capacity of ancient Attica suggest it could support no more than 42 people per square kilometer (or a total population of 105,000). If this is true, Athens likely outgrew its internal food production capacity as early as 600 BCE. This estimate correlates well with the date that Athens began founding colonies around the Black Sea, an excellent region for growing cereal grains. As the Attic population continued to grow, reaching a peak of perhaps 350,000 in 430 BCE, the city state became increasingly dependent on grain imports from the Black Sea region and elsewhere. Eventually, Athens imported a... posted by Friedrich at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Literacy: Normal? Natural? Desirable?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Alec makes an important point in response to some interesting comments from Rachel: It's funny. We think that reading is (and should be) the norm, and that books have been around forever, but literacy has been rare throughout human history. For most of human existence, people have been illiterate and used pictures and symbols (graphic arts), and of course speech, to convey and interpret information. For example, according to a Wikipedia article, as late as 1840, 33% of men and 44% of women in England signed marriage certificates with a mark because they were unable to read. The irony is that the post-industrial age, dominated by video and audio stuff without a need for text, is allowing large numbers of people to be comfortably illiterate. I'm not certain how widespread it is, but I am always amazed at how easily Jay Leno is able to find young adults -- even many with college degrees -- who profess that they never read novels and who are increasingly ignorant of anything but pop culture, but who nonetheless are immensely pleased with themselves. I'm not sure how this will develop in the future, since the Internet is actually encouraging a continued literacy (blogging, individual fiction) even as audio-visual culture intensifies (MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, etc.) We oldies may take written-word-centricity for granted, but there's nothing natural about literacy of the "addicted to plowing through long gray rivers of text" sort. And a book-based culture -- however familiar it may feel to some of us -- is, historically speaking, an anomoly. One consequence of the electronics revolution seems to be that we're turning into -- or turning back into -- an image-and-sound-and-presentation-based culture. Is this good? Is it desirable? And does the kind of playing-with-graphics- images- text blocks-sound-and-motion that seems to be becoming the standard thing represent a new, or different, or maybe even better kind of literacy? Best, Michael UPDATE: Tyler Cowen asks, "When should we consume culture in small, sequential bits?"... posted by Michael at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Meeting Girls
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Taking off from the LonelyGirl15 kerfuffle, Steve riffs entertainingly about how idiotic many American guys are about how to connect with women. Don't miss his impression of -- almost a standup routine about -- what goes on in an Asian girl's mind as she sizes up a prospective geek boyfriend. I'll second Steve's observation about American-male cluelessness. Whenever I've made the suggestion on this blog that lonelyguys in search of female company attend yoga classes, reading clubs, cooking classes, ballroom-dance or improv-acting workshops, etc., some singleguy commenters always respond, "But that's not the kind of thing we het dudes enjoy, or can even be good at!" Hey there, brilliant whiner/dimwits: The point isn't for you to excel, or express yourself, or rock out, or indulge your bravado, or even to feel good. The point is that, if you want to meet girls, it makes practical sense to go where the girls are. Make the effort! (You'll get props just for showing up.) Then relax, enjoy the company, take your eyes off their tits, let go of the ego, admit that you don't know everything and aren't always in masterly control of everything, and show some patience and curiosity. 1) You'll survive. 2) You'll learn a thing or two. 3) Hanging out with chicks is enlightening, enchanting, and rewarding in its own right. 4) At some point, nature will almost certainly take her course. Best, Michael UPDATE: Liz Phair wonders "Whatever happened to a boyfriend?"... posted by Michael at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (47) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Alicatte delivers a convincing pan of the new covers on Penguin's Classics Deluxe Editions. * Derek Lowe suspects that a drug researcher in search of respect probably shouldn't be working on a cure for obesity. * Science nerd SYAffolee reports that she got as much discouragement about going into science from her female teachers as she did from her male profs. * La Coquette reveals a few secrets of the Frenchwoman. I blabbed a bit about Frenchwomen here. * How much sense does it make to import thousands of immigrants who don't even know how to use a doorknob? * Susan has her misgivings about Michael Joyce's famous hypertext fiction, "Afternoon, A Story." * David Chute is lovin' "The Wire" but feeling suspicious of its point of view. Quiet Bubble is a fan of the series too. * She wants attention? She's got attention. Send 'em home happy, girl! (NSFW) * Matt Mullenix senses that brawny-backed Chicago is going soft on us. * Did you know that 60-70% of YouTube's traffic comes from MySpace? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

The Gap Defaces Movie History
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sheigh thinks that The Gap ought to be ashamed of itself for what it has done to the work of Audrey Hepburn, Hubert de Givenchy, and Stanley Donen. Paramount, who leased the rights to use "Funny Face" in this way, ought to be double-ashamed, IMHO. With a score (mostly) by the Gershwins and a story said to be inspired by the career of Richard Avedon, "Funny Face" is stylish, touching fluff, and one of the most charming of the big splashy '50s musicals. The DVD version of the film can be bought for $9.95. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to Ken Hirsch, who points out a good and informative obituary of the film's screenwriter, Leonard Gershe.... posted by Michael at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

A New Head Architect
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- John Massengale relays the announcement that new-Classicist Thomas Gordon Smith has been named chief architect of the General Services Adminstration. The appointment seems a virtual guarantee that official US building programs will be taking a more traditional turn. Given how bizarrely chic, spikey, and soon-to-be-embarrassing recent government projects have become -- "Design Excellence," my ass -- this is a very pleasing development. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Photo Find of the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Has there ever been an airplane cooler than the Flying Wing? How did that thing stay aloft? Here's Wikipedia on the Northrop YB-49. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 14, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wabi Sabi
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A Fred link to a good Wikipedia entry on the Japanese aesthetic known as Wabi Sabi has reminded me that I've long wanted to pass along ... Er, dammit, where are those notes? ... OK, got 'em. Anyhoo, I was struck by a conversation between a couple of Japanese art curators, Shiji Kohmoto and Fumio Nanji. Sorry to supply it source-less: I copied this passage out and set it aside a couple of years ago, and I no longer recall where I found it. Still! Shinji Kohmoto: The Western concept of art, based on notions of individualism, was introduced to Japan only a hundred years ago ... [Japanese] art works operate as elements which create a particular space and mood -- they were not personal artistic statements and they were not a method of defining meaning and ideas. Our main concern was not to produce or have objects, but to experience daily the different stages of the mind. Fumio Nanji: We didn't have the concept of art in a modern western sense; we had craft, the main concern of which had to do with techniques, materials, and decoration in relation to space, architecture, and lifestyle. SK: All (pots, chairs, scrolls) were elements equally capable of giving people an opportunity to reflect on or feel something else behind the visible. FN: To talk about identity you need someone else -- to make you think objectively about yourself, of your identity. But we in Japan never had that chance. SK: The Japanese language is very suggestive rather than reductive. Japanese is a verb-dominated language while English is noun-dominated. Japanese has a limited vocabulary of adjectives; it is not analytical in nature ... If the essential character of the post-modern condition can be defined as an awareness of pluralism and relativism, I think Japan has been ready to accept that condition. Wabi Sabi: It's all about the appreciation of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness. Yeah, baby! I don't know about you, but Asian art theory often stirs me far more than Western art theory does. I enjoyed and learned from this book on Wabi Sabi. Wikipedia links to this good article about the Wabi Sabi aesthetic. Fred has recently put some music he has composed online. It's rousing stuff -- equal parts eerie and rollicking. Fred clearly isn't a stranger to the magic of empty spaces, suggestion, the marks the hand (and the soul) make, and mood either. * Related: I blogged -- cluelessly, heedlessly, enthusiastically -- about Hindu aesthetics here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 14, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

More DVD Bargains
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- OK, so I spend more time than is healthy browsing the online bargain bins. Still, I turn up some finds. Why not pass 'em along? "Vanya on 42nd Street" is Louis Malle and Andre Gregory's informal-yet-spellbinding version of the great Chekhov play: $8.47. Michael Tolkin's "The Rapture," a quietly freaky, one-of-a-kind little picture about sex and redemption: $7.97. Andrew Fleming's "Threesome" has been described (approvingly! by me!) as "'Jules and Jim' meets 'Porky's'": $8.47. Anh Hung Tran's Vietnamese family drama "The Vertical Ray of the Sun" may be too exquisitely poetic for its own good, but its perfume-ad gorgeousness still casts a sensual spell: $8.47. Those are some fine movies, and some goooooooood prices. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 14, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

TV Alert -- "Sunrise"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- F.W. Murnau's silent movie "Sunrise" will be shown on TCM on September 17 at 12:00 a.m. Set the DVR: Though it has been an influential movie, and though it has often been proclaimed one of the best-evers, "Sunrise" has for many years been one of the hardest-to-find-and-see of all the great movies. Quick film-appreciation lesson: Murnau (who worked in Germany, came to America, and died young) was worshipped for the eloquence and virtuosity of his tracking shots, for the soulful beauty of his use of light and shade, and for the way he tied all the elements of film together -- at a very early stage in the medium's history -- into a pulsing artistic unity. This is a rare chance to catch a genuinely legendary movie. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 14, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The Patriarch writes a funny and moving stream-of-consciousness blog posting on the theme of, Y'know, all things considered, turning 38 may not be such a bad thing after all. * Here's a vehicle that makes a Hummer look like a Wussmobile. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) * Chronic anger and hostility appear to be bad for the health of your lungs. Maybe there's more to the old "take a deep breath" advice than we knew ... * Sighthound and ancient-breed enthusiast Steve Bodio posts some sweet photos of these goofily beautiful dogs. "Goofily beautiful" -- that's not a bad way of describing my elegant and mischievous Wife, who I sometimes tease about looking like a Saluki. * More people commit suicide in New York City than are murdered. * Stuart has started a blog about issues and experiences of interest to the heavyset. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 14, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From Nina Planck
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a recent posting I raved about Nina Planck's new book "Real Food." One quality the book has that I neglected to emphasize enough is that -- unlike many books on food, eating, and food-production -- Planck's is undogmatic. Her attitude seems to be: "It's probably possible to do better than you're doing, and to do it without becoming a neurotic pain in the neck. Why not give this a try and see if you experience some real satisfaction? You might! Many do! Here's some information. And here are some suggestions and sources." I see that Nina Planck herself dropped by the posting. The comment she left gives a taste of her enthusiasm, her brains, and her attitudes: "I grew up poor on real food. My mother's simple approach was to eat around the edges of the supermarket, where the real food is: meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, produce. We didn't eat from the middle, where the highly processed, low-nutrition, high profit-margin foods are. Vegans and most vegetarians (unless they are extremely careful about nutrition) and any American who eats industrial food, junk food, and fake foods (I'm referring to corn oil, corn syrup, white flour, and various fake soy 'burgers' and 'milk') would be healthier eating real food from the supermarket perimeter EVEN IF the food is not grass-fed, raw, organic, and artisinal. If you can find and afford the best real food - grass-fed beef, pastured poultry - great. But eat real food first, and delete industrial foods." Nina Planck's very generous website -- where she makes available numerous recipes, articles, and links -- is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Sucked In
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Recently I got drawn into commentsfests prompted by Tyler Cowen on food, Dean Baker on inequality, Rod Dreher on radical nutjobs, and Michael Bierut on the design process. I was fascinated as well by Steve Sailer's discussion of GWBush's kooky deal with the King of Saudi Arabia to bring 15,000 young Saudi men to the States to study, but there was no way to leave a comment. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Looking through the cover story in a recent issue of British Esquire, it seemed to me that an important line has been crossed. See if you can guess what it is from these scans. First, the issue's cover: Now, the story itself: Tick, tick, tick ... Time's up. Answers please. Here's what struck me, at least once I was over my initial "Wow, that Gretchen Mol sure is a honey, isn't she?" response: Where's the story? This Esquire package consists entirely -- entirely! -- of photos, graphics, boxes, bits 'n' bytes. The few words that play a role have been punched up with colors and font-games; they seem more about visual punctuation and rhythm than they do about meaning and sense. In any case: I don't know that I've ever before run across a non-tabloid, glossy-magazine cover story that didn't include, as part of the package, an actual article. Is this a good or a bad development? As usual, I'm of several minds. On the one hand: Who really needs yet another actress profile? And how many writers really bring a little something extra to the task? If it's all going to be junk and crap anyway -- sexy and dazzling browsing material -- better that it should be straightforwardly what it is, no? Why pretend to be selling something of substance when all you're doing is throwing around confetti and tinsel? On the other hand: What do editors these days have against the traditional reading experience? And -- while I adore visuals and think that the text-thing can certainly be overdone -- a magazine package like this one can seem like going out for dinner and being served nothing but appetizers and snacks. Where's the meal? Some more general questions: Doesn't it sometimes seem as though media people are determined to turn everything they touch (and peddle, of course) into a highlight? And what becomes of life when everything in it has been pushed to the top -- when everything is clamoring aggressively for attention, and nothing is held in reserve? Don't our quieter, less-pumped-up experiences merit some appreciation too? (I'd love to think that one of the things that 2Blowhards offers is some attention to our shared cultural backdrops ...) * Related: I yakked a bit here about how traditional, old-media, long-flowing-rivers-of-text are being chunked up into grab-bags of headlines, graphics, visuals, and boxes -- and about how this is becoming common practice even in the books world. Is everything being turned into a reference-source / catalogue to be browed and grazed? BTW, British Esquire is a snazzy and enjoyable -- and, despite all the cyber-jazz, literate -- publication. Spending a few hours with it is like attending a fun party: Lots of carefree style and larkiness, minus the stress and franticness that poison so many commercial American magazines. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * What's it like when illegals move into the neighborhood? * Lynn turns up a well-done online Maj-jongg game. * Colleen is now a columnist! In her first installment, she offers a lot of good advice for actors. * Dr. Weevil enjoys a sly joke from Yasujiro Ozu's "Early Summer." * Jerry Flint thinks that Chrysler shouldn't mess with the PT Cruiser. (Link thanks to Virginia Postrel.) A nice line from Flint: "It is no secret that designers hate retro. They think that borrowing from the past is an insult to their sensitive talents." Too true. * It's interesting how few gals take part in projects like this one, isn't it? * Anne Thompson says that the new Brian De Palma / James Ellroy film "The Black Dahlia" is "dark, sexy, brooding, nasty. The L.A. noir mystery boasts several fabulous cinematic set pieces for cineastes to froth over." That's my kind of picture! Well, one of them anyway. * Robert Samuelson thinks that we don't give enough recognition to that informal thing that he calls "the American learning system": "community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books." (Link thanks to Joanne Jacobs.) * Interesting to see that Spain -- or rather the country's socialist government -- is getting tougher on illegal immigration. It's time to put an end to the idea that the debate on immigration sorts itself out according the usual left / right categories. * Here's another absurd male physical-prowess display. * Rod Dreher recalls how waking up from the leftist dream hit him. * Lex thinks highly of Jackie DeShannon. * Neil Kramer lets his penis do the talking. * David Chute has parked a lot of his postings about and reviews of Bollywood movies here. * I love the drawings at this very touching website. * A great line from Alice: "The world is full of people who think they are being ground breaking when they're just being daft." Note to self: start using the word "daft." * Someone has put a few thousand of Pauline Kael's short movie reviews up on the web. Can this be legal? (Thanks to Dave Lull.) * Tyler Cowen comes up with a list of real-life experiences a budding economist should have. * Wristwatch sales are declining as more people check the time by consulting their cellphones. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 12, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

T-Bone Walker
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Texas-born bluesman T-Bone Walker (1910-1975) was one of the founding giants of modern American popular music. Electrifying a hollow-body guitar and using it as a lead blues instrument? That was a T-Bone innovation. Acting out a sweetly-insinuating, sexy-gentleman number onstage? T-Bone may not have invented the persona, but he certainly moved the game forward a number of steps. Playing the guitar behind his back, and dancing across the stage while soloing -- moves many of us associate with Chuck Berry? T-Bone got there first. "They Call It Stormy Monday (but Tuesday's Just as Bad)"? That's a T-Bone song. If, listening to T-Bone, a lot of the licks seem familiar via many other guitarists,well, there's a very good chance that T-Bone was the man who laid them down first. He was a kind of music-history hub through which scores of influences entered and exited. T-Bone himself learned from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Christian. At a later date, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix picked up a lot from T-Bone. Aside from his importance and his large influence, I simply love his music: the quiet sophistication of it; the humor and confidence that are worn so lightly; the sinking-into-it love of dirt, juice, and grit. Though T-Bone spent much of his life in California, he grew up near Dallas and he never seems to have lost a Texan's heartiness, directness, physicality, warmth, and approachability. He was an after-hours kind of gent and dude, but he was always a downhome one. And his bursts of gung-ho humor and libido, his canny, effortless-seeming, mellow vocal stylings, and his hilariously lusty and witty mood shifts all help give his performances zing and color. I've been thinking about T-Bone Walker mainly because of a superb little performance video that I ran across on YouTube: Cool yet hot, funny yet moving, smooth yet gritty -- my word! I have a hard time imagining how popular music can be more lovable than this. * Here's the All-Music Guide's entry on T-Bone Walker. This inexpensive Rhino compilation CD is a good place to start exploring T-Bone's music. * More blues: I wrote about visiting the Mississippi Delta and loving the Delta blues here and here. * Only semi-related but what the heck: I wrote about another earthy genius, the ultra-quirky Bahamian guitarist-singer Joseph Spence, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 12, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments