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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  1. Risk, Reward and the New Class
  2. Manualism: A Short History
  3. Guerilla Filmmaking
  4. Migration Linkage
  5. Elsewhere
  6. Is Porn Scarce?
  7. "Shoes!" And More
  8. Enviro-Condos 4 Sale
  9. Real Beauty?
  10. Taste and Aesthetics: Gay or Not-Gay?

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Risk, Reward and the New Class
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- As you know, I am a small businessman. As a result of what I do I spend time talking with investment bankers and bankruptcy lawyers. In the process I have learned a little (okay, very little) about finance. I want to talk about one of the concepts I stumbled across in finance that seems to make a lot of sense. That is the notion of a general and positive correlation between risk and reward. This is a pretty basic concept; the Wikipedia article on risk (which you can read here ) puts it this way: A fundamental idea in finance is the relationship between risk and return. The greater the amount of risk that an investor is willing to take on, the greater the potential return. The reason for this is that investors need to be compensated for taking on additional risk. This certainly resonated with my personal experience. As the owner of (and sole investor in) a small business, I had the potential to make more money than I had in a previous career as a salaried employee, but I had to take considerably more risk to get it. And this seems true of small businesses as a class. It appears from reasonably careful studies (such as those quoted in this story) that around half of all small businesses close in the first five years of operation. That implies a roughly a 13% annual failure rate. That number apparently rises to two-thirds in a decade, which would imply that in the second five years the failure rate drops to around 7% annually. Although the story implies, no doubt accurately, that some business closures are not complete crash-and-burns, I know from personal experience that the vast majority of such terminations are fraught with emotional and financial loses. Pondering the notion that increased risk ought to imply increased reward, I was struck by the notion that society might see a lot more entrepreneurship if it adjusted income taxes for the downside risk associated with a given level of earnings. It seemed unfair to tax a small businessman who earned a $100,000 profit by betting his own money exactly as if he was collecting a $100,000 salary from an employer who was absorbing the associated downside risks. After all, if the skill or luck of a small businessman turns bad, he might make no money at all the next year, or more to the point, he might not just lose his livelihood, but his savings and his house as well. I can remember in my first decade in business the peculiar sensation of being required to personally guarantee the debts of my business, something I do not remember ever being required to do as an employee. The Risk-Reward Curve and Its Outliers Playing with this notion, I even constructed a rough risk-reward curve for society as a whole. Well, the axes lacked numbers, but as I recall the same was true of the graphs in my... posted by Friedrich at February 16, 2007 | perma-link | (45) comments

Manualism: A Short History
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- And here I thought that YouTube's Manualist was one of a kind ... Manualist is a 46 year old guy named Gerry Phillips who's able to deliver renditions of songs by squeezing the palms of his hands together. The action makes squirty-farty-tooty sounds, yet they're rhythmic, they're pretty much on pitch, and the results can be hard to resist. Here he plays a resonant "'Till There Was You." Here's his soulful version of "Maybe I'm Amazed": I do believe I like it better than the original. Interesting to see that Phillips has been practicing manualism since the age of 9, and that he has had to learn some bitter lessons along the way: having started so young i have been used and lied to by everyone from letterman to leno shows. they have left such a bad taste in my mouth that i now have no desire to ever be on television. so, please don't ask! i'm happy making videos and featuring them on youtube where people like you can see them! God bless YouTube. Still, I just now discovered that Phillips is in fact working within a tradition, if a small one. According to this page, someone named Cecil Dill was the first manualist to have his work recorded, 'way back in 1914. Another well-known manualist was a lawyer named John Twomey, who made several appearances on the Johnny Carson Show in the '70s and '80s. Here's my favorite: Wikipedia has an entry on John Twomey, but I've been unable to discover what's become of him since the late '90s. The work of a few other well-known, relatively speaking, manualists can also be enjoyed thanks to YouTube. Bruce Gaston amazes by introducing a a tremolo into his manualizing version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy": And Gaston shares a rock duet with Jim Rotondo: Manualism: an artform unto itself. Links abound on all these pages for the those interested in further research. Somewhat related: Here's a posting I wrote about the 19th century French music-hall star Joseph Pujol, aka "Le Petomane" or The Fartiste. Here's Wikipedia on Pujol. I do love a good novelty act. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 16, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Guerilla Filmmaking
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have I mentioned that The Wife and I are shooting a film? Well, we are and we aren't. In fact, a super-talented dynamo of a young director-friend is. But it's a kind of collaboration between the three of us nonetheless. The three of us co-wrote the script, and we all contributed cash to our movie's epic budget. Please don't ignore the ironic tone. That's "epic" as in "mid four figures." We're actually in production right now, midway through a two-week shoot. And we're really in production too. We have call sheets, a rented van, lights, production assistants (four), performers, and everything. These days, thanks to video and computers, it's amazing what you can do for next to no money -- provided, of course, that you're able to bum apartments, offices, and props, and that you can find talented crew-people and performers who'll work for free. In any case, expect the occasional bulletin from me over the next ten days about what I'm finding guerilla filmmaking to be like. First point: I've learned that what we're making isn't in fact a "low-budget" movie. One of our production assistants has informed me that the term "low-budget" these days means a movie that costs from 500 grand to ten million dollars. Our pocket-change production is more accurately referred to as a "micro-budget" movie. My main reaction to the adventure so far has been: Wow, what an exhausting lot of work it is to make a movie! Thank god our young director is such a well-focused powerhouse. Even for something as small-scale as our movie project, there's a tremendous amount of labor to do: making arrangements, getting people to show up, wheedling and cajoling, etc. Not to mention the physical work of laying down cables, moving lights and cameras from place to place, and covering every available surface with gaffer's tape. Thank god for ambitious young people. Without 'em, would we have movies as an art form at all? Although the film is by now 110% in the hands of our director, The Wife is fully involved with the filmmaking too. She helps hash out details and arrangements, and she contributes to the production by playing caterer as well as producer. "Good food is key to a happy set," one of our more experienced actors told me on our first day of shooting. Since The Wife is an excellent cook and a firm believer in large servings and ever-present and plentiful grazing matter, our sets have been very cheerful ones. Me, I show up when my work schedule permits. When present, I mainly try not to trip over cables. When the time seems right, I haul something from here to there. I've made a few bottled-water runs. In between these crucial contributions, I hang with the actors and the crew and do what I can to help people feel cheery and loved. It isn't hard, given how appreciative I genuinely am of their efforts and talents. Here's hoping... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Migration Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Hispanic public-school enrollment in Texas is up 46.5% to over 2 million in just the past decade. Hispanics now make up 45.3% of students in Texas public schools. * All those Eastern Europeans who have migrated to France and Britain to work as plumbers and construction workers? Eastern European countries now wish they'd come home. It's evidently hard to live without your workmen and service people. "If you want some repairs in your apartment, you can't find anyone," says one Lithuanian. "It's ridiculous. Lines in the grocery stores are longer. When I used to need a taxi, it was always three minutes. Now it's 'In an hour'." Why do I suspect that the response of the Open Borders crowd to these developments will be, "Open the borders yet more!" Ain't that often the way political people work? Create a problem; then, in order to cure what you've caused, prescribe more of the same ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Alice thinks that the time has come for people in marriages to pay better attention to each other. * What on earth is going on in Austria? * Alan Sullivan has never understood the fuss people make about blonde bombshells. * Allan Mott fondly remembers some books that defy movie adaptation. * Maxwell Goss recommends Russell Kirk's collection of ghost stories, "Ancestral Shadows." * Searchie goes into business for herself and has her first-ever meeting with a CPA. * Ross Douthat wonders if "The Wire" is peddling any anti-Semitism. * Ootje Oxenaar talks about what it was like designing the Netherlands' very beautiful currency. Ootje is a man who has enjoyed his work: "You're making something that lasts for decades and is in everyone's pockets, every shop; it's a fantastic feeling." * Lynn Sislo has some advice for those Treasury Dept. types who are hoping to make dollar coins a going thing. * Batons! Flames! Burlesque! Why not hire Fire Groove to liven up your next party? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Is Porn Scarce?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Revealing an unexpected streak of wholesomeness, Tyler Cowen asks "Why is porn scarce?" Not a question that -- in this age of "type anything you want into Google Images" -- would have occurred to me. Since I find the general pornification of culture that we're living through fascinating, I dropped this comment on his posting: Pornography is scarce? I feel like I must be missing something, or maybe misunderstanding something. Because what the web has done is make porn -- which historically had always been scarce -- available in endless easy ways. Where porn's concerned we've gone from a situation of scarcity to one of superabundance. Which is interesting in a psychological/sociological and maybe even an economic sense. Shifting from conditions of scarcity to conditions of ease and superabundance creates whole new parameters, vectors, and puzzles for us to contend with. Once upon a time you cherished and protected your porn stash. These days there's no reason to, since, if you're ever bored, all you need to do is a fast web-sweep in order to turn up tons of free and new material. This seems to mean that where in the past people protected and nourished their tastes and fetishes, people these days are more whimsical. You try stuff out, you're curious, you look into things. Maybe you stumble into something that you find alluring that you'd had no idea about before. ("Waterbondage" -- who knew?) Your relationship with your own erotic being changes. Since you're no longer keeping anything under lock and key, nothing builds up. The erotic quest is no longer like following a complicated treasure map written in runes. Instead, you're like someone with a remote control connected to the most extensive cable system ever. You no longer delve into mysterious regions of Self and Being. Instead, you channel surf to check out what's being brought your way. I suspect the analogy to food is a useful one. In the past the challenge for most people was finding enough to eat. Plus we're biologically programmed to search out sweets, salt, and fat, and to gorge when we get the chance. We're biologically programmed to contend with circumstances of scarcity. When that changes -- when we're in a world of cheap superabundance instead -- it's great in many ways. But many people also find our new situation bewildering. For one big thing, we aren't biologically equipped to deal with it. We'll gorge, we'll search out sweets, and we'll do it over and over again -- and then wonder what's going wrong as we bloat up and become unhealthy. We learn that we can't trust our instincts any longer. So we start to tangle up. Instead of applying ourselves to the direct task of finding adequate nourishment, we find ourselves stuck applying our energies to the task of managing and defying our instincts. And that's almost impossible. Same with porn, I suspect. Guys seem to be programmed to sniff around for arousing material.... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

"Shoes!" And More
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Judging by the numbers on YouTube, I'm the 10, 942, 402nd person to discover "Shoes!" So you may well be ahead of me on this. But what a brilliant bit of high-camp silliness "Shoes!" is. Gotta love that apocalyptic finale. The video is the creation of Liam Sullivan, an L.A.-based comic actor. Here's his website, where he shows off a bunch of other comic videos too. I got an especially big kick out of "Text-Message Breakup." You just don't do that! The visuals on these vids aren't NSFW, but the soundtracks certainly are. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Enviro-Condos 4 Sale
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Now for something a little different -- a photo-essay about a building I spied while running an errand in downtown Seattle recently. Approaching the crest of 5th Avenue. That's the (in)famous Rem Koolhaas Seattle Public Library occupying most of the right-center of the picture. The tall, pinkish building is the Bank of California building (well, that's the name I know it by) that occupies the site of the building where my father used to work. Behind it is the Bank of America building, originally the Columbia Center -- one of the tallest buildings on the West Coast. Immediately behind the library is a new tower under construction. I'm nearing the intersection of 5th Avenue and Madison Street. Once upon a time cable cars ran along Madison. Hmm. There's a large sign at the base of the new building ... wonder what it says. Condominiums. With a conscience! And there's info on a Web site which (lucky you) can be accessed here. For what it's worth, the site proclaims that the structure complies with a bunch of standards that ensure absolutely wonderful results. This picture was shot from near the corner of 4th Avenue and Madison, looking up at the new eco-marvel. I see a lot of glass and concrete and not much nature. That tree, by the way, is across the street from the condos, next to the library. Actually, it's the library that provides the sensitive ecosystem to the neighborhood (though some foliage is planned for the tiny plaza between the condo building and the Bank of California). This picture shows the 4th Avenue side of the library about a hundred feet or so away from where the previous picture was taken. The grass to the left is a curious-looking long-leaf (6-8 inches, roughly) variety. Well, I'm calling it "grass" though I'm not sure what it really is. So we have an apparent ecological guilt-trip being laid on prospective buyers. Fine with me, since this isn't the heavy hand of government. Lord knows, Seattle is crawling with affluent folks where this sort of sales appeal hits all the targeted buttons. But as you can see from the tone of my comments, the marketing strategy brings out the cynic in me ... especially the use of the word "conscience." Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 14, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Real Beauty?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What to make of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty"? Virginia Postrel writes in the Atlantic that we shouldn't be afaid of, or lie about, beauty. She expands on her article at her blog. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 14, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Taste and Aesthetics: Gay or Not-Gay?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Steve and some others have me thinking about a perennial puzzler: Why do so many American males consider arty and aesthetic matters to be faggy? To get something quickly out of the way: Of course there are in fact a lot of gayguys in the artier fields. I suppose this is a bit of a disincentive for straightguys. But how much does this really explain about the vehemence with which many American males dodge aesthetic questions? Despite the gifts many gay men have shown where aesthetics are concerned, a talent for questions of taste, style, and expression obviously doesn't depend on straightness or gayness. After all, in many other cultures straight guys don't make it a principle to avoid aesthetic matters. Many straight Italian men love (and have a flair for) opera, food, fabrics, and design. Straight Russian men don't consider ballet -- let alone emotionality and expressiveness more generally -- to be strictly for the pansies. Straight Frenchmen are as particular as can be about questions of taste: as La Coquette once wrote, only in France would you overhear five year old boys explaining to their grandma how she should really be preparing the asparagus. Even in the States: Many straight black men are virtuosos of style, dancing, flirtation, and seduction. And let's face it: There are strong reasons why straight men ought to engage with aesthetic matters. One: It's fun and rewarding. Two: Chicks dig guys who show some appreciation for beauty, pleasure, and taste. My theory about this: Chicks feel that the man who demonstrates some knowledge of, receptivity to, and enthusiasm for arty matters is someone who's likely to appreciate the full range of what a woman can be. Art=Woman, sorta. I agree with this view myself, btw. If you can cook or play music -- even if you can merely discuss movies, books, and paintings articulately -- scoring with the ladies becomes much easier. Scoring in fact follows almost as a matter of course: Some shared arty pleasure ... Some flirtatious-appreciative flirtation / discussion ... Some connecting on aesthetic grounds ... And before you know it you're all tangled up with each other in the most delightful way. In cases like this one, what would be the point of distinguishing the aesthetic from the sexual rewards? It's about giving as well as taking, and it's all terrific. As one of Steve's correspondents wrote, it's pretty rich the way American guys consider dance, museums, and design -- all of them activities where many great gals will be found, as well as activities that make men more attractive to gals -- to be for da fags, while we consider hanging out with other guys while watching muscular dudes in tight clothes bash into each other and slap each others' butts (ie., watching sports with our buds) to be the essence of brawny straightness. Where does this aversion to aesthetics come from, historically speaking? My hunch is that it has less to... posted by Michael at February 14, 2007 | perma-link | (31) comments

Our Changing Federal Budget
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a good column, the WashPost's Robert Samuelson drives home how dramatically the makeup of the Federal budget has changed in the last 50 years. In 1956, defense spending and interest on the federal debt made up 67% of the budget, while Social Security accounted for 22%. Today, payouts to individuals (ie., Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) and interest on the federal debt together make up 68.5% of Federal spending, while defense spending now accounts for 20%. We've done a total 180. A nicely-balanced passage from Samuelson: The welfare state has made budgeting an exercise in futility. Both liberals and conservatives, in their own ways, peddle phony solutions. Cut waste, say conservatives. Well, network news reports of $20 million federal programs that don't work may seem -- and be -- scandalous, but like Amtrak they're usually mere blips in the total budget. For its 2008 budget, the Bush administration brags it would end or sharply reduce 141 programs. But most are microscopic; total savings would be $12 billion, or 0.4 percent of spending. Worse, Congress has previously rejected some of these cuts. Liberals have their own cures. Cut defense, some say. Okay. In 2006, military spending (including the war in Iraq) totaled $520 billion, slightly less than Social Security. If it had been halved, the savings would have just covered the deficit ($248 billion). Little would be left for new programs. Raise taxes on the richest 1 percent, say some. Okay. The richest 1 percent pay about a quarter of all federal taxes. In 2006, that was about $600 billion. To cover the deficit would require about a 40 percent tax increase. Needless to say, neither proposal is politically plausible. Annual budget debates are sterile -- long on rhetoric, short on action -- because each side blames the other for a situation that neither chooses to change. To cut spending significantly, conservatives would have to go after popular welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare. To raise taxes significantly, liberals would have to go after the upper middle class, a constituency they covet (two-thirds of all federal taxes come from the richest fifth). Deficits persist, because neither side risks its popularity, and, indeed, both sides pursue popularity with new spending programs and tax breaks. Samuelson isn't cheery about the possibility of this logjam breaking up either. Mark Thoma criticizes Samuelson for wanting us to call Social Security and such "welfare" programs. For Mark, these are "insurance" programs. Mark also sees a nefarious rightwing agenda in Samuelson's column that I fail utterly to discern. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 14, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Emerging Tastes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As power continues to slip from the hands of the media-and-art taste-dictators, what will emerge to take its place? An ever-expanding database of self-pleasing niche tastes? A roiling miasma of impossible-to-wade-through, glitzy crapola? A more flexible and service-oriented hierarchy than the absurd house of cards that's been imposed on us through recent decades? Or perhaps all that and more? Me, I'm making the safe bet and gambling on the last possibility. My mind was sent off on this little joyride by a Brook Mason piece for the New York Sun. Mason reports that one of the hottest art genres in the auction-house world is dog art. Paintings, porcelains, and sculptures depicting pooches are hotter than ever; catalogues and books featuring the stuff are being published; and serious collectors of dog art have emerged. A couple of interesting info-kibbles from Mason's good piece: According to one dealer, "portrayals of pointers, setters, and pugs command the highest prices"; and commissions for new portraits of pet dogs can run as high as $35,000. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 14, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, February 12, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Geeks: memorize this list of fashion faux-pas and you may dramatically increase your chances of finding a girlfriend. * The Manualist outdoes himself. * David Chute's well-done profile of the Hong Kong identical-twin movie directors the Pang Brothers supplies a lot of info about the current state of Asian moviemaking too. Short version: Hong Kong down, South Korea and Thailand up. * Need to mess with digital photos but don't want to spring for Photoshop? There are now a number of free online photo editors you can use instead. SmileyCat compares and contrasts the offerings. * I don't know about this ruling ... *Jeremy Gilbert celebrates Edmund Arnold, the father of modern newspaper design, who died a few days ago. * Jenny Sinclair thinks that writing workshops should be banned. Nice quote: "Writing is not a good in itself that everyone should be encouraged to attempt, such as cycling to work or eating more broccoli. It's a specialised art that if practised, only adds to billions of existing published words." * Robert Stein looks at the announcements about layoffs at Time magazine and recalls an amusing exchange he once had with Henry Luce. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 12, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Recent Presidential Portraits Are Mediocre?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some people think the United States has been going to hell since Washington's time. That's nothing new. But now there's a new wrinkle. Not long ago in the Wall Street Journal, Catesby Leigh penned this article asserting that the same thing has been happening regarding presidential portraits. Leigh noticed that following President Ford's death, the Washington Post used Everett Raymond Kinstler's portrait as its illustration. Think of presidential portraits and the first that comes to mind is most likely Gilbert Stuart's iconic George Washington, possibly followed by John Singer Sargent's very differently conceived Theodore Roosevelt. Though technically at least as competent as the general run of portraits of postwar presidents in the gallery and the White House, this work by Mr. Kinstler--painted in 1987, a decade after the artist's prominently displayed White House portrait of the same president--is a far cry from Stuart's or Sargent's achievements. Leigh then goes on to compare Kinstler's painting to "a touched-up photograph." It operates at the factual, prosaic level. Absent are poetic evocations of character, such as the virtues required to shoulder the burdens of the presidential office, let alone any symbolic indications of the ties that link Ford to the nation's ideals and destiny. Mr. Kinstler's Ford is just a likeable, smiling, aging hunk of a guy standing next to a table. Gilbert Stuart's 1796 "Landsdowne" portrait of Washington, on the other hand, is richly symbolic, harkening to classical times. The Landsdowne Washington is situated in a pictorially and symbolically complex setting. He is situated, in other words, within the grand tradition of European portraiture. Behind him columns--emblems of order--are arranged on a diagonal, as are a chair and draped table. Symbols of republican principles and ideals, ranging from leather-bound tomes to an exposed table leg in the form of the Roman fasces, abound. Washington loosely grasps the sword of victory in his left hand while beckoning with his right, creating a certain visual tension as he turns slightly to align himself with the dominant diagonal. He beckons not to us but to the future, to an era of promise opened by the constitutional covenant, itself evoked by the rainbow in the background. Hanging folds of rich fabric intensify the aura of grandeur. Sargent's TR has an essentially blank background, but the absence of symbolism is compensated by the portrayal of the sitter's character. Leigh goes on to lament about the quality of Presidential portraits of recent decades. What should be done? Presidential portraiture should bind the national leaders of our time and of times to come to their predecessors, rather than forcing a chasm between past and present. A presidential portrait need not remind you of George Washington--after all, a variety of character types have shown themselves equal to the office--but it should be an inspiring image. Accordingly, the portraitist should also consider incorporating his subject into a pictorially and symbolically complex setting that evokes an enduring national heritage of liberty. This did not sit well... posted by Donald at February 12, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The Man Who Is Thursday finds the distinction between the creative and the interpretive artist helpful. I seldom do myself, but I enjoyed the case he makes. * James Kunstler's "Eyesore of the Month" is a grim pleasure. What I'm worrying about today, though, is whether Kunstler's Sad New World will arrive before or after my own demise. * Andrew Cusack tells the tale of Manhattan's 71st Regiment armory, a glorious pile now replaced by a blankfaced Modernist atrocity. * Emily Yoffe tells what it's like to go on the live-forever calorie-restriction diet. * The American Society of Magazine Editors picks the 40 best magazine covers of the last 40 years. There are certainly some classics among them. * So maybe some snowflakes are alike after all?? * Is that how Denise has managed to keep her figure? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 11, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments