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  1. Dream Cars Like Jets
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Friday, June 15, 2007

Dream Cars Like Jets
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- A tenet of industrial design theory is that the shape of an object ought to reflect the object's function. A purist might hold that there is a Platonic ideal form lurking out there that designers should strive to discover. But changing technology in terms of engineering and means of production can make such an ideal elusive -- if it exists, which I tend to doubt. Even if ideals are hard to attain, rough approximations usually aren't. Consider the automobile. Just what expresses "automobile?" A car normally has four wheels, the front ones steerable. So it might be a good idea if the front wheels were fully exposed (or nearly so) on the sides of the car to ensure a decent turning radius. Exposing the rear wheels is more a matter of aesthetics, though there are the practical considerations of ease of changing tires or chaining-up for snow and ice. A wide wheel track (placing the wheels near the sides of the vehicle) is helpful for preventing rollover, and this also suggests that exposed wheels are part of the nature of a car. Cars carry a driver and passengers, all of whom need to enter and exit the vehicle, ideally with some ease. The driver needs to be in a position to control the car, and so requires windows or some other nearly 360-degree vision system. Human sizes and shapes and the need for a certain amount of seating comfort dictate in part the size and form of the passenger compartment. The type, size, position (fore, mid or aft) and cooling needs of the motor as well as other requirements (such as carrying luggage) affect the look of a car, but this doesn't mean that cars need to look alike -- though they theoretically should look "car-like." But there was a time when cars began to look a lot less car-like. This was the mid-late 1950s when cars began to resemble jet fighters and sci-fi spaceships. And this tendency was most pronounced in the case of dream cars. By 1950 it was clear to automobile company management that style was a major factor in sales. So stylists, having proven themselves, were encouraged to cut loose and create things to excite potential buyers. By coincidence, this happened just as evolution in the appearance of cars essentially ended (see my essay on this topic here). With no place to go trend-wise, stylists thrashed around in search a new trends or themes. One such theme was aviation or space, already successfully tested by Harley Earl at General Motors. I'm thinking of a series of futuristic scale models that yielded the famous 1948 Cadillac tail fins. The success of Cadillac led stylists to go pretty wild exploring that theme -- wild to the point where dream cars (and to a lesser degree some production models) looked less and less like cars. As will be seen below, Ford stylists were the wildest of all. I recall a TV documentary in... posted by Donald at June 15, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * One generation's nightmare becomes another generation's desirable address, I guess: Ilkka confesses that he has always wanted to live in the city portrayed in the movie "Blade Runner." I find huge glassy skyscrapers horrifying myself -- who would want to live or work in one, let alone walk around the base of one? But Ilkka finds the building boom that's happening in Dubai thrilling. * The lesbian Hot List differs in some interesting ways from the typical het-male hot list. * Here's a delicious Tory Atlas of the World. (Link thanks to Andrew Sullivan.) * Phearless philosopher Lester Hunt considers the case of a new movie on the theme of sexual relations between humans and horses. Lester contributes my candidate for the Best Sentence of the Week: "The anus was his, not the stallion's." * Laurie Churchman surveys the history of "boat graphics." (PDF alert. Link thanks to Michael Bierut.) * Use this well-done interactive map to find out how many illegal immigrants live in your state. (Link thanks to GNXP.) * If you can bear to revisit the event, this computer-graphic analysis of what happened when that jet hit the WTC tower makes the impact very vivid. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) * Is your favorite soft drink harming your DNA? *Cowtown Pattie expresses a feeling many of us experience regularly these days: Damn! Why didn't I bring my digicam? * Architect Philip Bess makes his bow at Right Reason. Nice line: "I think both individual liberty and communal belonging are great and essential human goods, and often in tension." * Roissy's "Quick and Dirty Dating Guide to Foreign Girls" is certainly a fun, if very rude, read. It sounds like Estonian girls have a lot to recommend them. Roissy also links to a hilarious column by Fred Reed -- or did Shouting Thomas ghost that one for him? * Shouting Thomas writes that he has learned from -- and taken heart from -- the work of men's movement guru Warren Farrell. * 2B Rewind: Let Michael Blowhard introduce you to the underknown philosopher Stephen Toulmin. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 15, 2007 | perma-link | (27) comments

Hot Buttons by the Dozen
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- When Nancy and I go grocery shopping she pushes the cart and looks for items for which she has definite criteria in mind. Me, I zip around the store shagging stuff I need or that she sends me off to fetch, returning to the cart periodically to unload my stash. This morning she dispatched me to get a dozen eggs. When I got to the dairy section I was confronted with so many alternatives that it took me a couple of minutes to find what I wanted -- a box of 12 plain ol' white eggs. Not very many years ago the selection might have been brown versus white, and then the white eggs by size. No longer. I could get eggs packaged in groups of 18 or 24, besides the standard dozen. Stores catering to single-person households sometimes sell packages of only six eggs. What snagged my attention were eco-variations. For instance: Organic eggs Eggs from vegetarian-fed chickens No hormones eggs Eggs from cage-free chickens Eggs from "free-range" chickens (same thing?) As a market-loving capitalist tool, I can't complain much about such product extensions. But I was amused, once I got over the annoyance of looking for what I wanted. Which I found, by the way, on the bottom shelf: the "green" eggs were at eye-level, as one might expect at a store serving a university community. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 15, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, June 14, 2007

DVD Journal: Chris Marker
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I see that Criterion is about to release a disc containing two of my favorite movies: Chris Marker's 1962 "La Jetee," and his 1982 "Sans Soleil." I adore both of these films, which also happen to be two of the most distinctive movies in all of film history. "La Jetee" -- the only fiction film Marker ever made -- is a 20 minute-long, no-budget, time-traveling, Moebius-strip narrative told almost entirely via still photos and voice-over. "La Jetee" was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's not-bad feature-length "12 Monkeys," which co-starred Madeleine Stowe at her most gorgeous. "Sans Soleil" is a feature-length .... well, what descriptive label to give it? "Documentary" sort of fits, as does "travelogue." But neither word really does the film justice. It's part diary, part blog-before-the-fact, part essay, part poem, part sci-fi fantasy. It's mainly personal musings that ricochet off of many, many subjects: our move into an electronic media universe; the connections between dreams, memories, and movies; Tokyo as a 21st century city; the many forms that our fantasies of utopia take; the enduring fascination of "Vertigo"; revolution in Africa; our relationship to the animal world ... In one sense it's nothing but a big bag of loopy free associations. In action, though, Marker makes it all make a kind of swirling poetic sense. A little note here, as well as fair warning: Chris Marker's work is nothing if not complicated, as well as modernist / post-modernist -- "Sans Soleil" in particular is as four-dimensional and dense with allusions and connections as "Ulysses." His work also comes out of a froggy-lefty intellectual matrix. But I urge even the most froggy-averse and modernist-averse to give the disc a try. Despite the complications, watching a Marker movie is anything but heavy going; he's also the rare lefty of his generation who woke up out of the dream, er, delusion, er, whatever. His tone is mainly light and poetic: amazement, melancholy, playfulness, surprise, lyricism, and heartbreak abound. And he moves fast. His films offer all the complexity and lyricism of Jean-luc Godard's movies, minus the snottiness and the pissiness. (I blogged about a Godard movie here, and provided some Godard linkage here.) It's interesting that, while an infinite number of brain-splitting volumes have been penned about Godard, the intellectuals and academics have never made much of Marker. I'm not entirely sure why. I suspect that it may be because his work isn't primarily intellectual, let alone scolding or strict. Though he's mainly a diarist and an essayist, Marker works via intuition and imagination: His movies make me think of a cross between the philosopher Montaigne and the surrealist poet Charles Simic. But who knows: Perhaps the intellectuals don't make much of him simply because he has moved on from his early leftism. Marker, who is now well into his '80s, is a cat-like, elusive creature himself -- one of the more unclassifiable figures from film history. Although he's often associated with the New Wave... posted by Michael at June 14, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Victoria, 2007
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This is in response to popular demand for pictures of Victoria, BC in comments to my previous post. Well, in response to Michael's comment -- hereabouts, that is popular demand. Victoria Gallery This is the view from our window on our 10-12 June visit to Victoria. At the end of Victoria's Inner Harbour is the Empress Hotel, opened in 1908. It still pretty much sets the architectural tone for the harbor area. It was one of the Canadian Pacific's marvelous hotels sited from Quebec to Victoria. The part with the Ivy is the original section, to the right is the first major addition. The newest part is barely visible at the left. The Empress is now part of the Fairmont chain. The interior of the oldest part contains plenty of dark, varnished wood, reflecting the hotel's Victorian / Edwardian origins. A popular attraction is afternoon High Tea. This is the harborside across the street from the Empress. Street performers are in action on the wide sidewalk during the high tourist season. Not far from the previous scene is where passenger-service float plane terminals are found. Water-based aircraft arrive and depart frequently during the day. Inner Harbour moorages are busy too. Many of the visiting boats are non-trivial, as the photo shows. The background building framed by the boats is the newest wing of the Empress. Kitty-corner from the Empress is the Pariament or Legislative building. This picture was taken during a Royal Canadian Legion ceremony. Canada once had a significant military that was allowed to decline to an empty shell in the Trudeuapian era. Parliament dome is to the left and to the right is the Grand Pacific Hotel, a fairly new building that echoes the Empress' architecture in a modern vein. Across the Inner Harbour is the Delta Resort, which also offers a modernized take on the Empress. Note the stylized domelet that pays homage (in a small way) to Parliament. The boat in the foreground is a harbor taxi. Not all of Victoria's newer buildings are Victorian. This picture shows condominiums or apartments farther out the harbor area. The buildings in the foreground have traditional touches, but the larger structures behind them, besides destroying the scale of the neighborhood, are in the dull, modernist style. Nor are all tourist attractions architectural. Around 20 miles north of town is the famous Butchart Gardens. In 1900 the area pictured was a quarry. Also on the grounds are Japanese, Italian, Rose and other themed gardens. My wife is a huge fan and almost never misses Butchart when she visits Victoria. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 13, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My current favorite TV show: a British import that's broadcast on Animal Planet called "It's Me or the Dog." (Actually, my real-real favorite TV show is the History Channel's great "Modern Marvels." I've spent more hours watching "Modern Marvels" than any other TV show ever. These are clear, straightforward documentaries about down-to-earth subjects like bridges, pumps, and water, done mostly from an engineering point of view. I don't bother with the numerous military-hardware shows myself; my own favorite episodes have concerned topics like tea, concrete, coffee, bricks, ice, nuts, and bathroom technology. How the people behind the show keep the quality as high as they do while being as productive as they are I can't begin to imagine. In any case, since "Modern Marvels" rates as my all-time favorite TV show, I've unofficially made it hors de concours.) "It's Me or the Dog" is dog-training reality-TV -- is this a popular genre generally? This being a British show, it's crisp, fast, and amusing in a way that makes much American TV look overproduced, pushy, and bathetic by comparison. Another dog mastered Each 30-minute episode features a family having trouble controlling the family dog or dogs. To the rescue comes dog-trainer Victoria Stilwell. Victoria spends a couple of days with the family, first diagnosing problems, then helping the family members grasp the basics of living-sensibly-and-rewardingly-with-dogs. Often, she returns a few weeks later to see how everyone's faring. I enjoy the show for any number of reasons. First is the spectacle of how flat-out clueless some folks are about living with dogs. You'd think that people signing up for 15 years with an animal would first learn a thing or two about what might be involved. You'd also think that they'd take care with their dogs if not out of respect for themselves then out of consideration for neighbors and friends. But noooooo. Dogs are cute, people want love, so self-restraint flies out the window. And in no time at all, the mess, the noise, the relationships, and in some cases even the neighborhood are outta control. The glimpses of family life that the show affords often transfix. The sociological details are fascinating: the carpets, the fashions, the accents, the kitchens ... The glimpses of psychology and family dynamics can fascinate as well. It's amazing how self-centered and crazy some otherwise-presentable people can be, isn't it? A common case seems to be the mum whose kids are growing older yet who wants still to be the sun around which all love revolves. And if this love entails slobber and wagging tails, well, so much the better. In one episode, a woman living with her family in a small suburban house had acquired six dogs -- she was clearly using the dogs to immerse herself in love and fuss. Given how badly behaved the dogs were -- the household was a hurricane of barking, fur, and agitation -- she might also have been using them as a... posted by Michael at June 13, 2007 | perma-link | (24) comments

Island Travel
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm writing this on a southbound voyage of the Victoria Clipper, a passenger catamaran that runs between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia on Vancouver Island. We were in Victoria for two nights with some of Nancy's relatives. The trip takes 15 minutes less than three hours and offers the convenience of having origin / destination downtown at both ends of the trip. The captain announced that our speed was 32.5 knots -- that's about as fast as the speedy inter-war fleet carriers Lexington and Saratoga were supposed to attain. When I was growing up, the Seattle-Victoria passage was via a Canadian Pacific "Princess" liner, and took perhaps four hours (I forget). I think faster is better, but you have to pay the price -- around $130 a head for a round trip. Off-season fares are a little less, so we might do more Victoria trips then. There are other travel options. One can drive from Seattle to Port Angeles (on the southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, due south of Victoria) via Tacoma and a cross-Puget Sound bridge. Or get to Port Angeles driving part-way and taking a cross-Sound ferry en route to cut the mileage (but risk possible long delays during busy summer weekends). Once at Port Angeles, a passenger-only or a car-passenger ferry can get you across the strait to Victoria. Doing a walk-on for the final leg keeps the overall cost significantly less than the Clipper. Another alternative is to take a Washington government-run ferry from the mainland through the San Juan Islands to Vancouver Island, but the dock is more than 15 miles from downtown Victoria. Or you could drive north up Interstate 5 into Canada and then catch a British Columbia ferry that docks even farther from town. With these options, it's probably better to take a car all the way. Passenger jet service is available, but Victoria's airport is near where the Washington ferry arrives. More convenient air service is by float plane. Small one and two motor turboprop passenger planes arrive in Victoria's Inner Harbour with astonishing frequency. But you have to be willing to fly in such small craft. I'm a little lerry about them in the first place. Then there's the fact that landing on water is generally considered trickier than landing on airfields. Even if there is no debris in the water. [Pause while I dash out on deck to watch a Trident missile submarine make its way north out of Puget Sound.] Victoria is a very pleasant place to visit. It's probably a fine place to live. But, being on an Island (albeit a large one), it takes time, money and effort to get to the mainland. The travel options mentioned above are the main ones. Others are private boat and plane. Many people are quite happy with the semi-isolation of Vancouver Island. Me, I'd prefer the mainland ... though Victoria is certainly tempting. Would you be happy in smallish,... posted by Donald at June 13, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

To Aid? Or Not to Aid?
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Kenyan economist James Shikwati wishes that rich countries would stop sending aid to Africa. (Link thanks to David Fleck.) "Why do we get these mountains of [donated] clothes?" Shikwati asks. "No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products." I have no first-hand knowledge here, so I'll shut up except to recall a woman I know who spent a few years working for an aid organization in Africa. Although she's about as earnest-lefty as can be, she returned from her time there convinced that Western aid does Africa more harm than good. "They lose their ability to take care of themselves," she said to me. "They stop raising crops and looking after goats. Instead, their lives start to revolve around waiting for the aid truck to make a delivery." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 12, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Not that I even want to see the movie, but Quiet Bubble's reflections on "Knocked Up" were awfully smart and fun to read. * Visiting Mexico City, Corbusier shows how a sensitive, sane, and amusing architecture buff responds to what's before him. * Anne Thompson has zero interest in "torture porn." * Jim Kalb offers advice to a recent Haverford grad. * Prairie Mary lists her favorite blogs. * Unlike some of us, John Emerson has fond memories of the free-jazz and fusion-jazz eras. He volunteers some listening recommendations too. * Mencius' reasons for arguing that there's no such thing as liberal-media-bias aren't the usual ones, that's for sure. * Paul Boutin buys a classic '63 Avanti and writes an article sub-headed: "Thank god they don't make 'em like that any more." * Dept. of Hardly-Seems-Possible: Rachel turns up a ladies' undergarment that's even smaller than a g-string. And no, it's not (as we used to joke in Boy Scouts) a cork. * Fred links to some gorgeous "weather porn." * Why on earth is GWBush so devoted to his nutty -- and unpopular -- immigration schemes? Mickey Kaus thinks it's all of a piece with what has led Bush to embroil us in Iraq. George Borjas has some insights too. * That brainy and civilized filmgeek Girish rhapsodizes about South Indian food. He also links to a touching interview with Thiru Kumar, a guy who runs a vegan South Indian food cart in a park two blocks from where I live. I'll be checking Thiru's work out soon! * Bill Crider and his wife receive some unhappy news. Visit and send love. * Here's a very helpful list of overlooked crime novels. (Link thanks to Petrona.) Meanwhile, Maxine has archived her own (excellent) book reviews here. * Jon and Steve gab brainily about that notion of "transcending the genre." What does it really mean? Anything at all? * Alice offers some hilarious observations about men and clothes. One funny passage: Men are pretty good at being confident in the face of ignorance- all it takes is a little extra ignorance, ie. ignorance about your own ignorance, and everything seems fine! (I am not being men-ist here. This quality actually makes me quite jealous.) * Vince Keenan takes a look at the re-cut "Payback" and ... likes it pretty well. * Susan enjoys a wrestle with John Updike's "Rabbit, Run." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 12, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, June 11, 2007

1000 Words -- Ina Ray Hutton
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another installment in my very-occasional series about moments and topics in cultural history that deserve to be better-known than they are. Previous installments: the American painter John La Farge; the ups and downs of the reputation of the Italian painter Piero della Francesca; J. Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla," sometimes said to the first vampire novel; the glories of coffee-house culture; the golden era that was Gold Medal Books. Among the many Swing bands that crisscrossed the U.S. during the 1930s were a number of what were known as "all-girl" bands. (I don't know as much about the general subject as I'd like to. Here's what's apparently the definitive book on the topic, which I haven't read.) The best-known of them was led by a singer/dancer and former showgirl with the priceless name Ina Ray Hutton. Ina Ray was born in Chicago; started out in show business as a child tap dancer; performed in the Ziegfeld Follies; and was then, in 1934, given a chance to lead an all-girl swing band. Singing, dancing, and snapping a conducting-baton around in the style of such singin'-dancin' bandleaders as Cab Calloway, Ina Ray became a national sensation. She and da girlz appeared in movies, made musical featurettes, and toured the country's nightclubs and dance halls successfully. Ina Ray continued leading bands (not all of them all-girl) right into the 1950s. She died in 1984. Thanks to some knowledgeable and enterprising YouTube uploaders, we can now get a look at and an earful of Ina Ray Hutton's work. She was quite a performer -- known not just as a musical phenomenon but as a charismatic sexpot too. I don't know about you but I find Ina Ray enchanting. She's uninhibited and athletic, but she's also seductive, charming, and likable -- part saucy golddigger and part entrepreneurial dynamo. She's as all-American and hearty as James Cagney or Gene Kelly, yet she's never unfeminine. I'm struck by her performing confidence, as well as by her easy sexual self-awareness. Wait a minute -- American women weren't supposed to have acquired any of these qualities until after the 1970s. Wasn't "the patriarchy" supposed to have made enjoyment, flamboyance, and expressiveness (not to mention money-making) impossible for pre-feminist women? Oh well, another political myth bites the dust. She's a sweetheart -- daring yet matter-of-fact, playful in a childlike way yet all woman too: a frisky, bold thing carried away by sexy fun. She has a lot more in the way of twinkle and zing than many of the earnest, clunky showgirls of the era do -- she's downhome yet sophisticated too, at least in terms of her wit and her emotional quickness. For me, Ina Ray has a vividness, an ease, and a spirit that cut right through the usual "period" distancing that makes so many people in old film clips seem to belong to a different species than we do. Despite the period costumes and the period styles, Ina Ray seems as alive to... posted by Michael at June 11, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments