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Friday, January 19, 2007

Tracked to My Lair
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I suppose this is old news to some of you. And should have been to me as well; alas, I pay only passing attention to most news items related to Internet-related technology. But it came as a surprise when I was scrolling the Instapundit site and noticed something oddly familiar in the advertising & links column at the right of the page. It was an advertisement showing five or so thumbnail covers of books by and about artist James McNeill Whistler. So?... Well, the last time I accessed Amazon's site was a few days ago to find a link to put in my recent post about a Whistler book that I'd just finished reading. This is no coincidence, thinks I, so I clicked on a privacy statement link and up popped an explanation from Amazon telling me that, yes, their computer got into my cookie jar but, no, it was all harmless. I just went back to Instapundit and the same PajamasMedia panel is showing other ads (with no special relationship to my surfing practices), so it's some sort of ad-rotation that sometimes comes up snake-eyes in my personal-space zone. Aha!! I found it again; click here if you're curious about the disclaimer. True, I'm a big Instapundit fan. Moreover, I been an Amazon customer for years. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with informing me about stuff I might be interested in buying -- Lord knows I get a lot of invited e-mails dealing with that. Capitalist tool that I am, I'm nevertheless not happy about my friends making this kind of use of my MacBook's hard drive. (Yes, I know cookie checking is necessary for operation of the Internet.) I am over-reacting? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 19, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Time Running Out?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Wither Time magazine? And Newsweek and U.S. News. Last May I wrote a post titled Saving Time that used the hook of the magazine getting a new editor to mention why I used to like it and to offer some advice to the new hand on the helm. Eight months later it's beginning to look like the helm with the new hand is attached to a sinking ship. Today (I'm writing this on 18 January) Time Inc. announced that it was axing 289 positions, more than half in the editorial domain and 40 of those in Time magazine itself. Bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta are to be closed, according the the Advertising Age link above. Although Time has a ways to go before finally folding, I think it might be interesting to re-evaluate prospects for the weekly newsmagazine segment. Before offering my feeble advice to the new editor in the May post, I stated These admittedly personal observations lead me to suspect that Time is doomed no matter what Stengel tries in his rejuvenation effort. My "personal" position was that of a news-junkie growing up in the (comparative) sticks who gradually needed newsmagazines less and less as new media proliferated. Let me add that even at the height of my Time-adoration, I tended to pay more attention to the (cultural) back of the book than to the (hard news) front. Okay, one justification for newsmags is that they provide a useful service for folks too busy during the week to keep up with the daily press and TV news. And there are lots of people in that position today, just as there were when Time was gleaming in the eyes of Harry Luce and Britt Hadden. How well are the newsmags serving this sort of customer? Not as well as they once did, judging by their addiction to feature articles. My "solution" was a return to serious news-summarizing at the cost of a big circulation-drop. But, truth is, a Web-based summary system likely would do that job better than print. If that's so, then is there any commercially viable role for a weekly general-news publication? I can't think of one. Can you? UPDATE: For Jeff Jarvis' take, click here. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 18, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I noted some similarities between an expensive blender the Wife and I had just bought and a trendy new building. Wittily, or so I hoped, I proposed referring to this new style of building as "high-end kitchen-appliance architecture." Out for a walk in the East Village the other day, I noticed this godawful thing under construction: Glass ... Steel ... Grids .... The East Village ... In other words, stack-it-up Modernism is what contemporary architecture sees fit to contribute to the lowrise neighborhood whose hominess, eccentricity, human scale, and living texture were celebrated by the great Jane Jacobs. Yet, bizarrely, the architecture profession regularly claims to have learned Jane Jacobs' lessons. Hmm. A bit of info for those who haven't yet stumbled across it: Modernism is on the offensive once again. Oh, perhaps you thought that the style had finally received its well-deserved stake in the heart? No such luck. These days, glassy cubey things barely distinguishable from the U.N. are going up all over New York City. How about our well-founded worries that this kind of building will have the same alienating and destructive effects that it had the last time around? Y'know, like in the '50s and '60s, when neighborhoods went to hell and people left cities in droves. Not to worry! The New Modernism isn't the same authoritarian thing at all! No, this time around it's cool, it's fun. Why, don't you know that the chic people now consider Modernism to be nothing but a kicky retro historical style in its own right? Which means that it isn't a disaster and a landmine. No, now it's a toy! We get to play with it and mix and match it just as we do every other style! Whee! Now let's get on with destroying another neighborhood! Er, I meant, Now let's get on with celebrating diversity! You can call me a sourpus, but I'm not joining this party. Hearing these sales pitches, er, rationales is something I find analogous to listening to some New Marxists arguing, "Dude, chill, it's just in fun! What's the big deal? What's the point in getting worked-up about it?" Er, fellas: Not that long ago we gave Modernism a serious try. It didn't work out real well. In fact, Modernism may have been the single most misguided and destructive movement in the history of architecture and urbanism. Modernism's champions have been so successful in re-branding their beloved style that they have even persuaded the National Trust for Historic Preservation to get on board their bandwagon. Now, I think it's safe to say that the National Trust is an outfit that many people join quite specifically as a way of protesting Modernism and what Modernism has done to our towns, cities, and landscapes. Nonetheless, recent articles in Preservation, the Trust's generally good magazine, have approvingly celebrated dreary old glass boxes, and even such widely-loathed Modernist horrors as Brutalism. The people behind the New Modernism are the... posted by Michael at January 18, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Murray on Education
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I found Charles Murray's three-parter (one, two, three) for the WSJ about America and education realistic, sensible, and humane. Of course this may simply mean that I agree with him and I like his writing style. (Link thanks to ALD.) In any case ... Murray 1) reminds us gently that half of all children will always be of below-average intelligence; 2) contends that we fetishize college, and that too many American kids are in college with no good reason for being there; and 3) argues that our especially-gifted kids need to learn humility and wisdom. I can't disagree with him on any of that. My favorite passage from the series: Like it or not, g exists, is grounded in the architecture and neural functioning of the brain, and is the raw material for academic performance. If you do not have a lot of g when you enter kindergarten, you are never going to have a lot of it. No change in the educational system will change that hard fact. That says nothing about the quality of the lives that should be open to everyone across the range of ability. I am among the most emphatic of those who think that the importance of IQ in living a good life is vastly overrated. No, wait, maybe my favorite passage is this one instead: The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason -- the list goes on and on -- is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction? Though god knows that I'm grateful for my cozy white-collar job, I've often wished that I'd developed a hands-on, sellable craft instead ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 18, 2007 | perma-link | (35) comments

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Know the Toe
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's my nominee for droll and off-color site of the day. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 17, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

iPhone Skeptic
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The backlash has begun. And what's become of iLife '07 anyway? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 17, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 4: Literary Fiction and Class
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- At the risk of being over-exhaustive, not to say boring, I'm going to venture a few more postings about the New York Times Book Review Section and its attitudes towards fiction. Maybe they'll be of interest to a few visitors. You can catch up with the first installment here, the second here, and the third here. Today's topic: Literary fiction and class. * How about poor, beleaguered literature? Doesn't art already come under too much attack in this crass commercial country of ours? Shouldn't we cut literary fiction (and serious fiction of the heavy-on-the-"issues" type) not just a lot of slack but offer it much in the way of charity? Shouldn't we root for the media to pay attention to literary writing? The popular writer, after all, already has the market on her side -- Nonononono! Oh, please God, no!!! Let's blast this one out of the water as quickly as possible. The literary-fiction / prestige-fiction / "issues"-fiction / NYTBR-fiction world is anything but an oppressed, orphaned, crippled little street urchin. The fact that it has managed to plant such an image of itself in the minds of many intelligent people is a p-r triumph of major proportions. It's instead an upper-middle-class, ritzy-schools, clubby world. Trust funds aren't in short supply. Parents and other relatives often help out not just at first but forever. Degrees from fancy schools may not be mandatory but are certainly plentiful. Marriages to connected and prosperous people aren't unusual. Institutional support isn't in short supply either. Important connections have often been forged before the first novel is finished. I'm not talking about individual writers, by the way. Many lit-fict authors squeak by in fringe ways on tiny amounts of dough. They often spend their lives bouncing from crappy creative-writing-teaching job to crappy creative-writing-teaching job. Part of the difficulty of this life, by the way, is watching as the people working in the offices at the universities and foundations make better and more secure money (and needless to say have better pension and health-care plans) than do the writers -- the people whose work is supposedly the raison d'etre for the institutions. Not an easy irony to put up with! So let's make a distinction between the individual lit-fict author and the lit-fict world. I'm talking about the latter. The people at the publishing houses who publish most of the fiction that the NYTBR section counts as serious are usually from upper-middle-class backgrouns and ritzy schools, and usually do OK for themselves. The profs, critics, and arts administrators who people the institutions that support the lit-fict thing do OK for themselves. Come to think of it, the people at the NYTBR section itself do OK for themselves too. If and when you should spend a few minutes in the NYTBR section's version of the lit-fict world, you'll find yourself in a world where many of the inhabitants know each other, where people award each other grants and prizes, and where... posted by Michael at January 17, 2007 | perma-link | (30) comments

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Speaking of artsyak that's broad-minded, resourceful, and helpful ... January magazine has brought out its Best of 2006 lists. January magazine is one of the best outlets for bookchat that isn't stuck in the NYTBR rut. * Robert Nagle's Best-Of-2006 list is certainly the most original one I've run across. I especially liked the detail about the girlfriend who ditched Robert and made off with his boxed set of Kieslowski's "Decalogue." That musta hurt! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 16, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Visuals Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * ChicagoBoyz blogger Jonathan Gewirtz is also a very gifted and accomplished photographer. You can explore his images here. Part of what I like about Jonathan's photos is his responsiveness to what he encounters. Why be dictatorial about style? Jonathan's as open to jokes and whimsical observations as he is to light, color, and form. * The evolution of the speech balloon. (Link thanks to Michael Bierut.) * Thanks to Tatyana, who discovered this maker of groovy and free e-cards. Check out this weird Flash effect. * Why not submit your work to the iPod Film Festival? * Here's a wonderful collection of images: Japanese illustrated children's novels from the 1920s. (Link thanks to Tom Hart.) * Jean-Claude seems to have let himself get a little worked-up during this performance ... * Some of the stranger photos of 2006. * Merkley's a funny guy in a San Francisco-wildman kind of way, and he's a gifted photogrpher in a Lucas Samaras kind of way too. * Has Martina Hingis begun a sideline career? (NSFW) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 16, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I understood maybe one one-hundredth of what was said in this interview, but I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway. The topic: the relationship between physics and math, and the relationship both of them might or might not have with anything we might think of as reality. If math is embedded in the nature of things, how and why did it get there? A nice line from Greg Chaitin: "Deep philosophical questions are never resolved, you just get tired of discussing them." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 16, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Nasty Artist
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- As an ex-skiier on a skiing vacation, I have plenty of time on my hands. One use I'm making of that time is catching up on my reading. I just finished this biography of painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). The book had been laying around half-read for a number of months, and it was my first crack at learning about Whistler's life. My sluggish process of acquisition and reading likely stems from an ambivalent take on his art: I don't really dislike it, but I'm not really enthusiastic about it either. But I'll save that matter for another time. What the book repeatedly had to deal with was Whistler's tendency to turn on friends and associates, surprisingly often in the form of litigation. By his lights he was often simply defending the rights of an artist as he saw them. Among those he turned on were: Sir Francis Haden, husband of Whistler's half-sister; one-time studio assistants Walter Greaves and Walter Sickert; author and playwright Oscar Wilde; and Thomas Way, his long-time lithographer. And he sued art theorist John Ruskin, who was not in his circle. Some of Whistler's spitefulness would simply take the form of a cry of "betrayal!" regarding some greater or lesser slight, followed by ostracizing the wretch who crossed him. At the other extreme were the lawsuits. In the middle range were public squabbles in the form of letters to newspapers, journals and other publications. Over the course of his 69 years and one week of life, only a few failed to enter Whistler's sh*t list. Those included French writer Stéphane Mallarmée, painter Claude Monet, collector Charles Lang Freer and various members of his wife's family (sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip became his heir and executrix). No doubt a few instances of Whistler's public touchiness might have been related to self-publicity in the new age of mass-media. But his flare-ups were so continual it's hard not to believe that his personality was fundamentally testy. The book didn't mention other important artists who were as nasty as Whistler, and I haven't attempted to do the research. Perhaps Friedrich and art history buff readers can offer pre-20th century candidates. I do know that other important English-based artists of his era were comparatively mild-mannered, examples being John Singer Sargent, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadama, Sir John Millais, Lord Leighton and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. If the book is any guide, Whistler's temperament did him more harm than good. But there are lots of books about him, and some of them might lead the reader to the opposite conclusion. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 16, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 1991: 5,200. Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 2005: 1,702. Source: "Chain Reaction: Do bookstores have a future?" by Paul Collins in the Village Voice. Collins' article is a good one generally, by the way. He explains clearly two of the main reasons why American publishing and bookselling are in the state they're in: the "returns" boondoggle (bookstores can return unsold merchandise, er, books for full credit -- is there another industry where retailers can do likewise?); and the 1979 Thor Power Tool Supreme Court ruling, which changed inventory accounting rules and was thus responsible for the explosion of the "remainders" market. And should the bookselling chains be allowed to become book publishers themselves? Best, Michael UPDATE: The Written Nerd reports from the frontlines of the indie-bookstore scene. Bookseller Chick delivers the news that the bookstore where she has been working is closing.... posted by Michael at January 16, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dining Out Alone
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do you like dining alone in a restaurant? James Lileks touches on this in his 12 January Bleat. (When I wrote this, I couldn't directly link to it, so you might have to check his Archives to read the whole post -- which mostly deals with other subjects.) He writes: He [an older man] was replaced [at a Wendy's] by a younger version, a fellow in his 40s with the same glasses and the same shade of jeans and the same white shoes, except that this fellow had a New Republic magazine. I sympathized. O the meals I've eaten alone with magazines for company. Did I ever mind? Once, twice, perhaps a few times over the years, particularly in the great Lonely Times of the 20s, but in general, no: a fresh cup of coffee, a table to myself, a hamburger on the way, a fresh-struck smoke in the clean square ashtray, a stack of newspapers and magazines: the best of friends. I've never pitied anyone who eats alone in restaurants – only those who don't come prepared. That's me, too. Breakfast is my favorite dining-out meal. Before I got married I usually bought a Wall Street Journal and read the most interesting bits as I went through the wait-order-wait-arrival-eat-wait-billing-leave cycle. Total time: about 40-45 minutes. Weekends I'd bring along a copy of Commentary or Automobile or Car & Driver to keep me company, the Saturday WSJ not being worth the buck-fifty they want for it. Evening meals are another matter. Unless I have company I almost never eat out then. But if I do, I'll usually gravitate to the simplest, cheapest fast-food restaurant. And bring reading material. I well remember one instance where I pretty much had to eat alone at a fancy restaurant. I was starting my consulting stint with General Motors and they put me up at the St. Regis Hotel, across the street from their then West Grand Boulevard headquarters. It was dark and the neighborhood struck me as iffy, so I passed on the McDonalds a few blocks away and ate at the hotel's restaurant. It was fancy and the process lasted more than an hour. The food was good, but I was alone and had no one to talk with to speed the time. And of course I didn't dare whip out reading material. Not fun. At all. As I write this I can't shake the notion that I might have dealt with this topic before. Yet our fab search engine has turned up zilch. So feel free to toss your two cents in Comments even if you've commented on something like this before. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 15, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Donald Pittenger writes: Only one item today, so it's Bagatelle, singular. I was examining a cylindrical tin of "Luxury Wafers" someone brought to the Lake Tahoe condo where we're spending the week. The product line is Royal Dansk ("Quality Since 1966") -- from Kelsen, a Danish company that has a U.S. branch. Here's part of their product line, as snitched from their Web page: I haven't sampled those wafers "with delicious chocolate crème filling" because I'm watching my weight. But I did idly examine the tin. And discovered that this Danish delicacy was made in ... Indonesia!! Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 14, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Time Sharing
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm blogging at around 7,500 feet above sea level. Out the large window to my left I see part of the mountain where I'm perched. It's covered by a pine forest and three feet of snow. Below the mountain, about a thousand feet down, stretches a plain with snow-covered agricultural fields and a couple of growing towns. Beyond are more mountains, but I can't see them just now due to low clouds. If I walked out the door and over to a window opposite the elevator bank, I'd probably catch a glimpse of Lake Tahoe. I am at a time-share condo complex called The Ridge near the Heavenly ski area, a few miles south of the lake. We're here because my wife likes to ski and also is an admitted borderline time-share junkie. Some folks are true junkies: I've met a few. Me? I'm a time-share skeptic. I suppose that's because resorts in general and time-share condos in particular are a poor fit for my tastes and circumstances. But they are very popular because they do fit other people's tastes and circumstances -- or seem to at the time they get reeled in during a sales hotbox. In the course of things, I've had the "opportunity" to sit in on a few time-share sales sessions. Often the first thing thrown at you is a video. I hate such videos. They waste my time and make me feel so controlled. The videos typically play up a glamourous resort lifestyle. The actors are good looking, the skies are sunny. Pools are lounged by. Exercise machines are operated by smiling, hard-bodied, perspiration-free mid-thirtysomethings. The voiceover croons that you could be here, doing this, doing that. Then the lights come up. Perhaps you might be shown architectural models of the forthcoming project. Or for an existing place, you would get to walk through some model units. Then comes the sales session where you experience one-on-one or one-on-a-few interactions with a sales rep. Let me be clear. Time-share resort-style condos are just fine for some folks. What kind of folks? People who like resorts People who really enjoy being in a specific area People under 50 who buy The first item requires no additional explanation. If resorts are your vacation switch-flipper, you're in. And there are folks who vacation in the same area every year. Fifty years ago this might have been the Catskills or Poconos. Now the list is longer -- maybe Las Vegas, Los Cabos or Hawaii. Perhaps the building where they stay varies, but By God the area is where they're goin'. My wife has a Vegas time-share as well as the one here at Tahoe, so that's where we go for one week each every year. True, condos can be "traded," but that takes at least a little effort and she's happy with her two Nevada sites. In any case, we go to lots of other places as well. The under-50 factor has to do... posted by Donald at January 14, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In 1900, more American women were interested in the temperance drive than in getting the vote. (Source: Patrick Allitt's excellent lecture series "The American Identity.") Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 14, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments