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Thursday, December 7, 2006

I'm Home
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In an email exchange, Friedrich von Blowhard and I found ourselves comparing notes about places where we've felt really at home. Not just comfy, but physically / spiritually in synch with the place and, via the place, with Larger Things more generally. FvB volunteered Venice, California, which he enjoys (and perhaps identifies with) partly for its tattiness -- Friedrich's a funky man! The soul of FvB He added this too: I enjoyed living in London, although that was largely because I wasn't "at home" in any sense. It was like being Caspar the Friendly Ghost, just passin' through other people's serious lives. I feel quite "at home" for no reason I can cite in Florence. I love the food, people seem nice enough, the physical environment is pretty much perfect. The sense of the past pervading everything is quite groovy. (Although I can imagine that kids raised there might find it oppressive.) Italy generally is pretty cool. The real exception is Venice, oddly enough; the inhabitants are like carnies, and to them outsiders are all pretty much marks. Actually, what's funny is you know deep down that there are people who would just hate anyplace you really like. And they wouldn't be kidding, or superficial. There isn't one world, there are millions of them, stacked side-by-side. I put on my thinking cap and came up with this far-wordier, far-shallower response: Although I live here, I certainly don't feel "at home" in New York City. But where then? Not even Western NY either, though it's certainly home in fact -- or maybe it's more like "me" in fact. Though, come to think of it, the Finger Lakes always feel right somehow. One of the few times I ever had that click! experience -- "this is for me!" -- was during a couple of weeks I spent in the south of France back in '71. I loved the glitz and the ritzy frou-frou, to be sure. But my bliss really came from a combo of elements: the weather (I was there in May, and the air was spring/summer gorgeous, and since I hadn't yet been to California the whole Mediterranean-clime thing was brand-new to me); the Cannes and Monte Carlo classy / tacky glamor (it was still the era of Vadim and Bardot); and the way the glitz contrasted with the old Pagnol / Renoir towns inland, with the aqueducts and Roman ruins and the bread stores and the old men playing boules. Or did they call it petanque? Anyway, the food was a revelation too. It was the first time I'd eaten regularly from that Mediterranean menu of fish and tomatoes and capers and olive oil and all that. Never felt better or more at home in my life. Why I didn't quit school on the spot and find a way to make a life there, I don't know. OK, I do know: lack of resourcefulness, and plain ol' cowardice. Where MB left a piece... posted by Michael at December 7, 2006 | perma-link | (26) comments

More Vid Nuttiness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * May a thousand YouTubes flower: here's China's premiere video-sharing site. * YouTube diva Emmalina has been struggling since making her recent return to the YouTube stage. She came back from retirement after vowing to the b.f. that she'll never pole-dance or do yoga onscreen again. But what else does a girl have to offer? There's always the winks and squinches, of course, as well as the haircuts and the adorable Tazzy (ie., Tasmanian) accent ... Still, how does a girl keep everyone's attention when she's being held back from doing what she does best? In a recent effort, Emmalina takes the radical step of cutting away from herself for a few seconds. It's like watching the cinema be reinvented! I notice that, during her own minutes onscreen, Emmalina manages to sneak in a few wriggles and head-shakes, so maybe there's hope for those of us who enjoy her is-it-lewd-or-not dancing; maybe she's won some concessions from the b.f. I notice as well that, after pulling all her early vids from YouTube, Emmalina has begun sneaking a few of them back online. For views of classic Emmalina, click here and here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 7, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Get out the snark-repellant! We're off to Seattle Saturday for a four-week experiment to see how well Nancy can tolerate the cool, cloudy, wet winter there (she hated it as a child but managed three winters in nearby Portland just fine as an adult). So I've been busy stockpiling posts to cover the period I'll be behind the wheel and unable to write. I'm taking a break from that to gift you with some grumbles in the best Bah! Humbug!! tradition -- it being the season for that. * * * * * * Did I just write gifted you? Lord, I hate that phrase! For me, its Grating Index is right up there with the beloved "let me share with you ..." * Vienna is one of my favorite European cities, so it pains me that there's one itsy bitsy local practice that sets my teeth to grinding. It seems that when Johann Strauss, Sr.'s Radetzky March is played at a concert, the audience lustily claps in unison when the chorus is played. Apparently it's a local tradition dating to when the work was first played, according to this account. The Radetzky is a cute little march we used to play (badly) in Junior High band, and I'd like to hear it instead of having it drowned out by all that traditional clapping. * While on the subject of Europe I might as well vent about what I consider to be the lousiest major airport terminal on the continent. Keep in mind that I've only flown to/from seven European airports. Nevertheless, I'll nominate Terminal 1 at Frankfurt. I deeply regret that I didn't think to snap a few pictures of the passenger waiting area used by American Airlines -- I was too wrapped up with departure details. The exterior photo, above, is the best I could crib from the Web. The departure area is dark -- low ceiling, black rubber-like flooring. There are no decent eating places that I could find: only a stand-up snack bar. News stands were sketchy and expensive -- we spent around $50 for five magazines (admittedly non-German ones). Airport officials ought to take a quick trip to, say, Copenhagen to discover what's missing at Frankfurt. And then act on their findings. * * * * * There. Got it off my chest. I feel much better. Cheerful, even. But I'm not so sure I improved your dispositions. Peeves can be contagious, you know, and I neglected to warn you of that at the top of the post. Tee hee. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 7, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Graham Nickson
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Graham Nickson is an interesting figure: an English-born painter deeply committed to figurative painting, yet attached as well to many of the values of modernism. The New Criterion's David Yezzi interviews Nickson, who's articulate, thoughtful, and cheerfully contrarian. Nickson also directs the New York Studio School, a fab (if ever-so-slightly cult-like) downtown art school where I've taken a couple of intro-to-drawing classes. The NYSS is legendary for their "Drawing Marathons," intense sessions of eyeballing, scribbling, and erasing -- and, believe me, the NYSS is very big on erasing and doing-it-over -- that leave artists feeling exhausted and exhilarated. I've always wanted to participate in a Studio School Marathon but haven't yet gotten around to it. A couple of Nickson's own paintings can be eyeballed here. They make me think a bit of the work of another Brit who was into heavily-pondered, on-the-verge-of-abstraction representationalism, Euan Uglow. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 7, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Tim Worstall responds to my "Blogging and Economics" posting. It's all about the utility, argues Tim. * NZ Conservative reports that high immigration rates are causing problems not just in big modern countries but in small non-democratic states too: Tonga, for instance, where riots by native Tongans resulted in the deaths of a number of ethnic Chinese. * The Rake catches Dave Eggers being a little ... devious or something. * 101 Reasons to Stop Writing interviews NaNoWriMo veteran S.Y. Affolee. * Is Social Security really in trouble? And, if the retirement age is lifted, what kinds of jobs will oldies be doing? Dean Baker and commenters trade ideas. I have a recurring nightmare in which I pay heavy Social Security taxes for decades, get nothing out of the system for The Wife and myself, and spend my declining years stocking shelves at Wal-Mart, all so the system can be "fixed." * Quiet Bubble points out that a recent issue of The High Hat was devoted to Robert Altman. * A Washington D.C. nurse reports that illegal immigrants aren't shy about helping themselves to American-quality health care at the American taxpayer's expense. * The ten most-watched YouTube videos. (Link thanks to Tyler Cowen.) * How to compare notes and make discoveries in the digital age? Brian has a tip. He writes, "I've discovered more good pop music through Hype Machine in the last six months than through all the friends I've ever had in my entire life." * The Fat Guy speaks up for lard, butter, and steaks. * Gallery of the Absurd shows one inspired way to have fun with celebrities. (Link found thanks to Rachel.) * "From a global perspective, if you have net worth of more than $61,000, you are rich," writes Greg Mankiw. * "I wish I hadn't read that" sentence of the day: "Hospital-acquired infections are estimated to affect about 2 million patients annually and cause an estimated 100,000 deaths." * In her latest column, The Communicatrix lays out the five worst reasons for being an actor. * Daniel Libeskind wins two "Eyesore of the Month" awards in a row from James Kunstler. Never has a more deserving architect etc etc.... * Bratz dolls: innocent toys, or the end of civilization as we know it? * I always found '60s movie musicals real horror shows. Now I've been vindicated. * Matt Mullenix evokes a visit with nature writer Steve Bodio, and pulls together an eloquent slide show about the visit too. * I wonder if the sensible people who object to irresponsible architectural experimentation are growing more sure of themselves. I certainly hope so. How are the depradations going to be stopped if not by our ridicule and outrage? John Massengale reports on a couple of heartening people-vs-the-pros incidents. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 7, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Where's My iPod Shuffle?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Did I leave it at the gym? In the office? Are there jacket pockets I haven't been through yet? And why on earth didn't I put it on the ledge where I usually keep it? ... Miniaturization is such a great thing, isn't it? At least until you misplace the teeny-tiny object. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 7, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Annals of Illegibility 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the widely-noted effects of the digitization of the media is that writing has been knocked off its perch as the premier, culture-defining medium. After all, when everything has been turned into pixels, why not treat yourself to color, images, movement, and sounds too? In the electronic world, it seems that the natural mode of expression is multimedia. Confining yourself to mere writing can seem perverse. Although I'm a happy reader and writer myself, this is a trend I applaud. Lordy, the way the word-thang used to be held above everyone. And, double Lordy, the way writers used to carry on! A PBS documentary about Gore Vidal that I recently watched was full of footage from the '50s and '60s. Were those writers ever puffed-up and pompous things. And why not? They were celebrated as giants not just by their own egos but by the culture generally. Why did anyone ever think that writers had a privileged kind of insight into life? And what's so special about writing anyway? So I'm thrilled that writing has taken its place among the rest of the media, no more or less important than any other. At the same time ... Well, I'm not so keen on it when the other media make power grabs at the expense of reading, writing, and comprehensibility either. Designers, for example. By comparison to what they once were, magazines today are certainly far more colorful and visually-interesting (or at least dazzling) things. That's thanks to a long-overdue shift in the status of designers. But isn't what's being said in a verbal sense all too often being overwhelmed by design ambitions? A few examples from a recent issue of the American Airlines magazine: Fun-looking pages! But ... In the first example: Are you even tempted to try to read the text that's been presented as a disk of horizontal lines? I look at that page and I feel for the writer, none of whose words will be consumed or enjoyed by anyone. In the second example: How about that for a great idea -- floating info-text over a herringbone pattern? Boingggggggggg go the eyeballs. "Huh?" goes the inquiring mind. FWIW, I've hung around designers and watched them evaluate magazines. They consume them in exactly the way you might expect: leafing through pages one after another, evaluating how visually poppy and visually tied-together the package is. I don't think I've ever seen one pause to sink into the text, which they seem to consider it their professional duty to view as rivers of dull gray stuff badly in need of visual redemption. Do you have the impression that magazines today are more quickly-gone-through things than they once were? Perhaps that's because that's what designers think a magazine ought to be: something you flip through in the quest for eyeball-highs. Designers today: Has their new-found power gone to their heads? Or are they talented innocents who simply don't know what it is to read?... posted by Michael at December 6, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

More on Kid-Centricity
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've noted a few times before my impression that the U.S. is amazingly kid-centric. Although (at least where middle-class people are concerned) some of our big cities are places where narcissistic singles indulge in endless rounds of Ecstasy-gobbling self-pleasure, the rest of the country amazes me by the degree to which life there is arranged around children. Choices in housing and activities, recreation, and travel are often dictated by the kids, or by what the parents imagine would be good for the kids. Schools, playdates (whatever "playdates" are), and coaching sessions take precedence over adult activities and pursuits. To this big-city boy, Life Out There often looks like one big day-care center. My own experience with other countries and cultures is modest, and visitors have informed me that India is at least as kid-centric as the U.S. is. So I guess I can't say that the U.S. is "uniquely" kid-centric. Still, the degree to which many here arrange their lives around their kids is striking. How far back in time does this let-the-kids-show-the-way tendency go? I'm no history buff, to say the least. But I've suspected Americans of kid-centricity for at least a few decades. When I spent a teenaged year in France in the early '70s, for instance, I was shocked by how non-kid-centric France was. Most people raised children, of course, and perpetuating the population was generally thought to be a good thing. But it wouldn't have occurred to the adults I encountered to organize their lives around their kids. Kids were instead expected to fit into adults' lives. No one went on vacation to any place like Disneyland, and camps, soccer leagues, and music lessons didn't dictate family decisions for anyone. Kids may have had their own entertainments -- their own books, music, and tv. But parents made no effort to share them. Come to think of it, French parents didn't show any urge whatsoever to use their kids as vehicles for re-living their own childhoods. Childhood, once lived through, was left behind. Kids weren't seen as the be-all and end-all of life, in other words, as they often are in much of America. Kids also weren't felt to be a boundless source of deep wisdom, let alone the redemption of anything. Adult life had its own allures, and adults treated themselves to the food, travel, and art that suited them. They did this even during their kids' infant years, a time when many American parents seem to consider it a sacred obligation to set aside all personal pleasure. Still, historical perspective that relies on evidence rather than dim impressions is appreciated too. I discussed an Edward Shorter book about medieval European attitudes towards children here. But how about America's long-term history with kids? Were our attitudes always as distinctive as they are today? Recently, I scribbled down an a propos passage from an excellent Patrick Allitt American history lecture series from the Teaching Company. Here it is: European visitors to... posted by Michael at December 6, 2006 | perma-link | (23) comments

When Did U.S. Music Peak?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I confess to being a failed clarinet player and barely having the capability of working the on/off switch of a CD player. Hardly stratospheric cred for writing about music, but we Blowhards are eternal amateurs (it says so in the left-hand panel), so I take that as license for the following blast of hot air. Just when did U.S. music peak? (Does anyone out there think it's still improving in quality? -- please comment.) I say the 1930s, defined in practice as the period roughly from the mid-20s to early in World War 2. Classical music? There was Aaron Copland, and nowadays George Gershwin CDs are found in the Classical sections of music stores. Popular music? I haven't done a statistical study, but I'd be willing to bet the Blowhards slush fund's entire 37 cents that most listings of "standards" would be disproportionately represented by songs that originated 1925-42, often from Broadway shows. See Mark Steyn's book about Broadway shows here for plenty of examples. And Jazz-related music? From the mid-30s into the war it was the era of big-band Swing. Think Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Gene Krupa, not to mention Ziggy Ellman doin' the Schoener Maedel riff on trumpet. Since then, a good deal of fine American music has been created, but my take is that standards, pure jazz and classical music have been weakening, leaving an unbalanced current musical scene. Better-informed people are more than welcome to set me straight in Comments. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 6, 2006 | perma-link | (23) comments

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Archaic Football
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- [Warning!! non-USA/Canada readers strongly urged to skip this post. Otherwise extreme irritation over the "f-word" or (especially for females of all nationalities) terminal boredom might ensue.] The 2006 football season is over, aside from the bowl games. A few bowls feature teams with 6-6 seasons, but I'll spare you my rant about that. Anyway, it's just about my last last excuse this year to clue you in on my dirty little passion: single-wing football. What is that? The "single-wing" is a type of formation used by a football team playing offense. It was especially popular during the 1920s and 30s, but rapidly fell out of favor in the 40s. College and professional teams today tend to use variations on the classic "T" formation, though a kind of "double-wing" (the "shotgun") is used in certain tactical situations. The Wikipedia entry is here, and is useful because it contains a diagram of one single-wing formation. In essence, the single-wing features an "unbalanced line" (more line-players are to one side of the center than the other) and the "tailback" (quarterback) stands a few yards behind the center and must have the ball "hiked" (tossed rearward from between the center's legs) to set the play in motion. Advantages of the single-wing include (1) comparative ease of deception and (2) placing a lot of power in one locale. A major disadvantage is that a running play normally takes longer to develop than in a T-type formation where the quarterback can grab the ball from the center, pivot quickly and hand the ball to a back already on his way towards the line. A few major colleges were still using the single-wing when I was an undergraduate. It was either my Junior year (1959) or when I was a Senior that I saw UCLA, a single-wing team at the time, play Washington. Both teams were good that season -- Washington went on the win the Rose Bowl. Between the 20-yard line markers, the Bruins were almost impossible to stop, having an especially effective power sweep (putting a lot of blockers ahead of the ball carrier). But within the 20s, their offense bogged down, another defect of the single-wing related to speed of play development and the relatively small amount of real estate defenders had to deal with. So the Huskies won that afternoon, but it was a tense time for the fans. The Oregon State Beavers also played single-wing football in those days and made it to the Rose Bowl in 1962. Both UCLA and Oregon State abandoned the single-wing before the 60s were out. Princeton played single-wing for many years. While at Dear Old Penn I made a point of driving up to Palmer Stadium to watch the Tigers play the Quakers and enjoy what was then obviously the last gasp of single-wing football at major colleges. Dear Old Penn was seriously lacking that year (1967, I think it was) -- its quarterback being bigger than most of his... posted by Donald at December 5, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

Monday, December 4, 2006

Houses: On Hills or Flats?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- In rapidly-populating agricultural areas, which should get top priority: housing or farming? This can be a local election issue (indirectly via candidates for office or directly via propositions or initiatives) or a matter for current officeholders or planning staffs. I'm writing this in an agricultural area of California that could be in line for massive population growth. From what I gather, many locals are upset about the prospect of the excellent agricultural land in the valley being turned into housing subdivisions. I also gather that many locals (perhaps a lot of the same ones) become furious when they see large, new houses sprouting on the sides and tops of oak-covered hills. Let me toss out some ideas. You can pile on in Comments. The restriction here is that housing growth is assumed to be inevitable -- turning the clock back to the days of Father Serra (or before) isn't allowed in this playpen. I suppose diehard markets-uber-alles types might argue that a kind of stability will occur when enough farmland is depleted that remaining agricultural land will become too valuable for housing. Efficiency-oriented observers could contend that it's cheaper to build housing on flat land, so the greatest good will be obtained if developers and individuals avoided hill locations. Marginal farmers wanting to cash-out also would favor building on the flats. So might aesthetically-inclined folks who cringe at the sight of housing on those lovely hills. But. Is that really the way to go? Once upon a time and place, people tended to live on hills. I'm thinking of Korea, much of which is mountainous. I often saw villages positioned on the lower slopes of hillsides, freeing as much flat land as possible for agriculture. (Remaining agricultural land was in the form of terraces on those same or nearby hillsides.) Then there are the hill-towns of Italy. Again, flatter terrain could be reserved for agriculture though hills also have the advantage of being easier to defend than flatlands -- a double benefit. So, even though it sez over on the panel to the left that I'm an arts buff, I find the idea of putting as much housing as possible on hillsides appealing despite aesthetic disadvantages. A good case can be made for keeping hill tops dwelling-free, restricting building to lower-to-middle slopes. Flat land might be restricted to industry and retail commerce where hillside locations are impractical. If nothing else, my "solution" would help defuse the "versus" problem spelled out in the first sentence, above. Glad to be of service. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 4, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Blogging and Economics
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- How helpful is economics so far as explaining the blogosphere goes? Here's a flourishing, socially-significant field of activity that's undertaken by most of its participants without any expectation of remuneration. Many of them do their blogging and commenting under, ahem, fake names, thereby making not just money scarce but real-life recognition nonexistent. The question isn't just, "Where's the money?" It's also, "Where's the self-interest?" and "What are the incentives?" (Incidentally, and for what little it's worth: I think economists might very well be able to give an interesting economic account of blogging, I just have my doubts about how well that account would stand up as an explanation.) These questions occured to me yet again on reading this LATimes piece about how some economist-bloggers are becoming blogosphere stars. You'd think that this phenomenon -- economists becoming stars in a field that's anything but money-driven -- would have at least a few of them taking fresh looks at some of their pet theories, wouldn't you? "Good lord! What to make of this!" -- why aren't more of them asking themselves this question? A nicely relevant passage from Steve Sailer: "A common theme here at iSteve is how intellectually Aspergery so many economists are. The thinking of a lot of famous economists seems to be vaguely autistic in the sense that they seem disconnected from so many obvious facts about human nature." Such as, I'd suggest, the pleasures of self-expression, connecting with other people, and perpetrating some completely-useless mischief. I won't speak for other blog-denizens, but when I write postings or cruise other blogs, I'm pitching in because it's fun and rewarding to meet interesting people and to take part in freewheeling conversations. Part of the fun, I'd argue, comes from the fact that it's all so defiantly un-sensible in economic terms. I suppose I like to think that I'm doing my little bit for opening the general culture-conversation up and providing a place where culture-hounds can hang out and compare notes. But mainly I prowl the blog-world because I find it fun and rewarding. And I find it fun and rewarding because ... Well, I don't know really. It just is. So there. Another point about blogging: What does the blogging-thang say about how much we love our jobs? According to usage and stats tables, approximately 150% of blogging activity takes place during what are usually considered to be "work hours." Which a non-economist might take to suggest a few things, such as 1) A lot of people are underemployed, 2) A lot of people feel that they aren't able to contribute much of what they have to offer at the workplace, and 3) A lot of people find blogging more rewarding than job-style working. I know that standard economic theory doesn't exactly say that the way things shake out money-and-job-wise is perfect -- just that markets do a pretty good job of suiting people and products to prices and availability, etc. But maybe we... posted by Michael at December 4, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments