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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Saturday, July 14, 2007

John Derbyshire Recommends ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the reasons I'm wary of attributing too much significance to aptitude tests has to do with my own experience of math aptitude tests. As a student I always did well on them despite the fact that I have never had any actual aptitude for doing math. Year after year, I'd score well on a math aptitude test; I'd be assigned to a fast math class; I'd squirm out of it in two or three weeks; I'd just barely manage to squeak by in a slowish class ... And then I'd do well on another math aptitude test, and start the following year in a fast math class once again. This cycle repeated itself over and over until the authorities finally allowed me to ditch math entirely. (I can't tell you how many little pep talks I endured about how I wasn't living up to my math potential. Earth to authorities: I had no math potential, I just wanted out.) So I was left wondering: Given my complete lack of any actual math gift -- and I'm not being coy about this, let alone asking to be contradicted or reassured -- what on earth were these tests measuring? Still, despite my inability to do math, it seemed like an interesting field. All those brilliant mathematicians must have been up to something fascinating, no? What was it? I mean, roughly speaking. The many hours that I spent snoozing through conventional math classes I might well have spent happily indeed listening to someone talk about the history of math: what it was good for, how it worked, what the basic fields were, what the Larger Questions it raised were ... Why didn't anyone want to tell me about any of this? I mean, without requiring any actual math of me? But this line of thought may reflect a failing of mine: I was born with a deep-seated conviction that anything, no matter how complicated, can be turned into plain and vivid English. Further, I have the ego to be convinced that if I'm not following a line of discussion it isn't because I'm dim, it's because whoever is doing the presenting is falling down on the job. He / she isn't turning the material into accessible and enjoyable English. Is it in fact true that anything can be turned into plain and fun English? I've run into specialists who claim that this isn't the case. The argument seems to be that, past a certain level of complexity, abstraction, and technicality, there's simply no way plain English can suffice. Yet I've also read histories of thought that did what seemed to me to be bang-up jobs of presenting far-out ideas. I've lunched with philosophy profs who have made their interests and their fields of study clear and understandable to me. Hey: I once spent an afternoon with a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who explained his black-holish, string-theory-ish studies and findings in ways that I... posted by Michael at July 14, 2007 | perma-link | (28) comments

Friday, July 13, 2007

What If You Don't Taste What I Taste?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a fascinating series for Slate, wine critic Mike Steinberger looks into the biology of taste. It turns out that people are wildly different in their abilities to sense aromas and perceive tastes. You might be able to detect flavors that I'm unable to pick up. Not only that: People also differ in how the aromas and flavors that they do perceive affect them. What's repulsive to one person might be experienced by someone else as deeply satisfying. I may adore shaving a little Parmesan cheese onto my salad while the thought of doing such a thing makes you gag. (And for good reason: The main chemical contributing to the aroma of Parmesan cheese -- butyric acid -- is the same chemical that dominates the aroma of puke.) The series is interesting for the info it conveys as well as for the questions it raises. One example: How valid is food or wine criticism as an activity if each of us has a different makeup where our built-in -- ie., biologically-set -- capabilities and predilections go? Is there any way a wine or a dish can be declared "good" if it's a simple fact of life that different people experience it differently? Another: What to make of criticism more generally if this same kind of thing turns out to hold true where reading, watching, and listening go? I wouldn't be surprised if it does; people seem to have many built-in preferences and rhythms. An example: Some people find narrative suspense to be a pleasant heightener. (That group includes me. I love suspense, and I'm fascinated by the mechanics and psychology of it.) But for others, suspense is anything but enjoyable. I have one relative who finds narrative tension so unpleasant that she gets up and leaves the room whenever a movie's twists and surprises start to make the blood-pressure level go up. One dimension that I'm sorry Steinberger doesn't touch on is time -- ie., how our biological abilities and makeups change with age. My body certainly isn't the same thing it was when I was 15 or 20, and because of that I no longer crave the same kinds of experiences that I craved when I was that age. (Younger people have systems that fire off much more avidly than older people do.) I've learned from many people in the arts bits of folk wisdom about how older and younger people tend to react to stimuli and events. Sound engineers have told me, for example, that how a person experiences loudness depends on age and sex. Boys and young men find loud noises exciting; young women and girls find loudness OK, but far less immediately pleasurable. What teen girls and young women mainly like is having boyfriends. So if the boys like loud music and loud movies, well then, that's OK with the girls. Once past the age of 30 or 35, though, nearly all people find loud noises first annoying and then... posted by Michael at July 13, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Big Cities for Strolling
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- When encountering a large city that's new to me I try to learn it, provided I have the time. The first thing I do is get ahold of a street map ("plan" if on the Continent) and study the general layout -- locating the major streets, water features (if any), parks, government zones, museum / cultural areas and so forth. If I'm on-site, I'll locate myself and note where I am in relation to various landmarks. Then I'll set off exploring. Spread-out, automobile-age places such as the Los Angeles region, the Detroit area and Houston I usually explore by car. In the case of LA and Detroit I sometimes select a long street that cuts across a variety of neighborhoods so that I'm forced to see places I might otherwise avoid or neglect. (Just for the record, I drove 10 Mile Road in the Detroit area and Rosecrans Avenue -- if I remember correctly -- in the LA area.) Most often I do my exploring on foot and focus on the central area and sites that I think I'll find interesting. Usually I'll seek out the main shopping areas because I enjoy window-shopping and enjoy people-watching (shopping streets serve up a lot of grist for the people-watching mill). I make it a point to seek out sites of architectural importance. I'll visit museums with collections that interest me, but that's an indoor activity. I've been to only a few of the world's major cities, so what follows is limited. If any of you have your own favorites or blast me for misperception or bad taste, feel free to comment. What big city do I like best for exploring and for general strolling-around? Why Paris, of course. The curving Seine offers constantly changing views and viewpoints. The major boulevards and landmarks such as the Ile de la Cité, Louvre, Tour d'Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe make navigation fairly easy. And the tourist area (along the river roughly from the Eiffel Tower to the Gare d'Austerlitz) is not unwalkably large for a normal adult. People-watching -- be it of locals or tourists -- is fun and so is the window-shopping. I even enjoy reading shop names and other signs as a means of soaking in the French language. Other big cities? New York scores well in the window-shopping, people-watching and architectural departments. But I find the grid street pattern in the main part of Manhattan convenient, yet rather dull. London with the Thames has a curving central river like Paris does. This is a plus, but London doesn't exploit this resource as effectively. London has enough architectural sites to avoid embarrassment. It's also a great people and window shopping place. It's main problems, in my judgment, are (1) it's street system can let you drift off course unless you keep referring to your map, and (2) it's too big to take in by walking in one go -- it's best to cover a smallish area on... posted by Donald at July 13, 2007 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Crime Fiction Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Logical Meme thinks that "The Sopranos" embodied a lot of conservative values. * Alias Clio continues the conversation about loose women and Bohemia, and rhapsodizes about the brilliant British crime-fiction author Ruth Rendell. * Fred Blosser, a correspondent of Ed Gorman's, is a longtime reader of crime fiction. In a note to Ed, he lays out a lot of crime fiction's recent trends. * Vince Keenan praises noir-movie screenwriter Roy Huggins as "one of the stealth giants of popular culture." * MB Rewind: I expressed my enthusiasm for my favorite genre, psychological suspense, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 12, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Anne Thompson links to a collection of irresistable musical numbers. Kate Marie does some patriotic YouTube linking. * Doctors prefer Camels. * Do judges have dreams of ruling on cases like this one? Or nightmares? * The film director Joe Dante started off working for Roger Corman, hit a commercial peak with the "Gremlins" series, and has been getting by ever since. In this interview, he offers a lot of perspective on recent American film history. * Colin Stewart's "Arts of Innovation" blog is full of provocations and inspirations for those who enjoy the act of creating. * Yahmdallah's Top Ten Novels list includes a bunch of books I really should catch up with. * Time to check in once again with The Manualist. * What's the best way to use Whole Foods? * Tyler Cowen suspects that iPod-listening encourages "fun" music experiences more than deep ones. * Check out the new addition to the Akron Art Museum. I hope the people of Akron are pleased. * Are American men now making less than their dads did? * Robert Fulford sings the praises of Arts & Letters Daily. Here's a Salon interview with ALD's gutsy and brilliant founder, Denis Dutton. It's hard to recall how narrow the public conversation about culture, ideas, and art was not so very long ago. For my money, Dutton deserves more credit than anyone else for the way the culture-conversation has opened up over the last decade. * Has anyone ever been able to say "Unh!" and "Yow!" quite as convincingly as James Brown did? * The best sentence of the day comes from David Chute: "Once a wimp always a wimp, and never more so than when you are over-compensating for the deep-seated suspicion that you might be one." * How many ingredients does a fast-food manufacturer use to make a strawberry milkshake? * Theater prof Paul Kuritz talks about what it's like to be a Christian theater artist. * James Kunstler has fun mocking the clothing preferences of today's young males. * Can GWBush manage to become even more disliked than Richard Nixon, the most-disliked President ever? He's coming close. (Link thanks to Randall Parker.) * Do you ever worry about the techies who fix your computer? All those personal files on your hard drive, lying there so open and vulnerable ... It turns out you're right to worry. * Is belief in the everywhere-and-always goodness of "diversity" -- the official religion of the U.S. -- finally beginning to crumble? * MB Rewind: I praised the architecture of a small Mexican restaurant. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 12, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

California Update
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * California's government expects the state's population to hit 60 million by 2050, reports the LATimes. Experts also say that Hispanics will become a majority in Cailfornia in 2042 -- in fact, 60-80% of all growth in California over the next three decades is expected to be Hispanic. One USC prof says it could all work out for the best, provided only that the California government spend many billions and do a bang-up job with its responsibilities. Otherwise, she says, the result of all this growth will be a state divided between the super-well-off and the barely-getting-by. Which is pretty much what Steve Sailer has been predicting for a while now, not that anyone is offering Steve a cushy position at USC. A handful of figures to give these developments some context: In 1970, when I began visiting California, the state's inhabitants numbered not quite 20 million, and Hispanics were 12% of that total. Have I mentioned that some prosperous Californians I know are making plans to move to Mexico? After all, what with all those Mexicans moving to California, life will soon be not just cheaper, but also more spacious and less disruptive in Mexico than it will be in California. Sometimes I wonder why Mexico's population and the U.S.'s don't just swap geographical locations and be done with it. * California is awash in lawyers but suffers from a shortage of nurses. So what does the state's legislature vote to do? Why, create a new law school, what else? Yup: Now that's a government that addresses its challenges head-on. * Meanwhile, in New York City, parking spots in covered garages are going for $225,000. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 11, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Painting Frustrations
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, I know. To be a good artist (painter version), it's generally a Good Thing that you have a passion for painting and paint and paint and paint in order to approach on the canvas what your intention is. "Practice makes perfect" therefore is as true in painting as it is in music, athletics, surgery and other activities demand high skill. Talent is also useful. That's what I read, anyway. And it seems reasonable. Poor me. [Assumes fetal position, whimpering] Now that I'm retired from a career of committing demography, I'm trying to become a decent painter, focusing initially on portraits. I have talent at the second or third rate level. I lack burning passion to paint. At least now that we've gotten pretty well settled in Seattle, I have a few hours a day to devote to the activity -- not paint, paint and paint, just paint a little. Plus I don't have a studio. I work out of a small bedroom. Not much room to store partly-completed canvases. No sink in there, but I'm only a few steps from a bathroom with a sink for cleanup work. The question becomes one of what kind of paints to use. Not watercolor: hate it. Probably not regular oil paints: long drying time and the need for messy solvents. I've used Alkyd oil paints that are nice because they dry in a few days. Their downside is that they too require solvents. I'm presently using water-based oil paints. The advantage is that water is used for thinning and cleanup. The disadvantage is that drying time is comparable to that of regular oils. Which brings me to the subject of acrylics. Acrylics are water-based and dry within the (half?) hour. I sometimes use acrylics for underpainting before switching to oils. I've also tried to use acrylics to paint entire paintings, but the results have been unsatisfactory. The problem is that acrylics dry so fast that it's often difficult to "work" or blend colors. Yes, there are retarding media that slow drying somewhat, but that helps only a little. I know that acrylics are popular, and I understand their practical advantages. But how can I get decent results? Change to more of a poster-like style with lots of areas of flat color? Actually break down and use my brain to plan the painting better? Or should I stick to what I'm doing, eternal amateur arts buff that I am. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 11, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Links by Charlton and Dave
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- More linkage from those virtuoso websurfers Charlton Griffin and Dave Lull. From Charlton: * Imagine having this beat for a job. * What if the entire crew of "Star Trek" were Scottish? * Now that's a powerful zoom lens. * Some artists make some very strange things. * TV ought to provide this kind of running tab on everyone who appears on the tube. * Here's some modern animation that has some of the spirit and pace of the legendary old Warner Bros. cartoons. * Gotta love those classic game-show bloopers. From Dave: * Get to know Britain's biggest-selling female novelist. * Nathan Glazer does a good job of summing up the history (and failures, and conundrums) of architectural modernism. * Seth and Tyler wonder what the literary antecedents of blogs might be. * For the first time in history, more than half the world's people live in cities. Stewart ("How Buildings Learn") Brand explores what this development might mean for all of us. He also wonders about the aesthetics of "squatter cities." One-sixth of humanity now lives in squatter cities. * Slow Food, Slow Leadership, and now Slow Libraries. * Is the Texan writer Elmer Kelton one of America's best underknown novelists? * Bill Kauffman reviews a couple of memoirs about growing up in Iowa, and wonders if we might not be due for an Iowa renaissance. * Michael Allen, aka the Grumpy Old Bookman dismantles the snooties' contempt for romantic fiction. Let me second Dave's enthusiasm for Michael Allen -- if you've enjoyed my tussles with the publishing world and its pretentions, then you'll really enjoy reading Michael's blog. (He has made his no-holds-barred book "The Truth About Writing" available as a free PDF download. Read it, and save yourself a lot of heartache.) Fun to see that GOB admires the thinking of publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin as much as I do. And a funny / sad link that I'm proud to have turned up myself: * Let's hope none of us meet our end this way. Best, with many thanks to Charlton and Dave, Michael... posted by Michael at July 11, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

2B Is 5
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A quick pause to raise a glass: It was five years ago today that this blog was born. Here's my first posting; here's FvB's. We certainly had a case of Stanley Kubrick on the brain! Note the complete absence of comments on both postings -- we blogged for months with almost no visitors at all. We weren't by any means the first of the cultureblogs. My impression is that Alexandra may deserve the title of First Cultureblogger. But we certainly came along early enough that the idea of a "cultureblog" was completely fresh in most people's minds. In fact, in mid-2002 the existence of something called "the blogosphere" was still a hard-to-get-used-to novelty. Blogs first came into existence in 1999, as far as I can tell. But as the chart in this David Sifry posting shows, even by mid-2003, a full year after 2Blowhards opened for business, there were still fewer than a half-million blogs in the world. The total these days: more than 35 million. I'd like to say that FvB and I started this blog with great ambitions, and with a fully-formed agenda in mind. I don't think that was the case, though. Instead, we looked at this newfangled blogging thang and thought, "Hey, that looks like an easy way to make publicly available something that we're already doing -- namely yakking with each other about what's on our minds." Blogging seemed like it might be cheap and easy -- why not give it a try? Maybe a few other people would stumble by and feel provoked, and/or want to join in. "Lazy is good," we thought. Since we were already doing our culture-yakking via email -- in other words, we were already doing a lot of writing about culture -- it should be a simple matter to copy and paste the more-interesting parts of those emails into postings and call the results a blog. Using an epistolary (ie., letters-to-each-other) format made sense for a couple of reasons. Group blogs weren't common at the time -- readers weren't yet used to visiting one blog where they'd read multiple writers. So the "Dear Blowhards" convention that we still use today seemed not only like a way of minimizing the editing we'd need to do to our emails, but also like a sensible way of keeping our voices straight. OK, I lied: We did have some big ambitions. It can be hard to remember, but only five years ago the public conversation about culture was a very narrow thing. Who got into print -- and, far more important, which thoughts, topics, and observations got into print -- were rigidly controlled: bottlenecks to the left of you, gatekeepers to the right. FvB and I wanted to do what we could to knock these barriers down, and to help the culture-conversation open up and flow, baby, flow. We also had a lot that we plain needed to get off our chests. We'd both grown interested in... posted by Michael at July 10, 2007 | perma-link | (48) comments

Monday, July 9, 2007

Whither Highbrow?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Today Terry Teachout muses about the state of high culture these days, a piece triggered by the recent death of opera singer Beverly Sills. Among Teachout's musings are: If we want to see a revival of anything remotely resembling the middlebrow culture of the pre-Vietnam era, in which most middle-class people who were not immersed in the fine arts were nonetheless aware and respectful of them and made an effort to engage with them, then artists will have to shake off what I have called their "entitlement mentality" and go where the audiences are. Should they? There's a serious case to be made for not doing so, the case for elitism in the arts, and I don't need to restate it here. Clement Greenberg put it best when he claimed that "it is middlebrow, not lowbrow, culture that does most nowadays to cut the social ground from under high culture." True enough--but if you care about the continuing fate of museums, symphony orchestras, ballet, opera, and theater companies, and all the other big-money institutions that were the pillars of American high culture in the twentieth century, you're going to have to accept the fact that these elitist enterprises cannot survive without the wholehearted support of a non-elite public that believes in their importance. I remember that middlebrow culture, and it was nice. An especially memorable instance was CBS's Omnibus television program hosted by Alistair Cook that aired Sunday afternoons in the mid-1950s. Among the many interesting topics on the program was a re-staging of bits of Shakespearian plays illustrating the hypothesis that, under Cromwell's rule, continuity of performance was lost. As best I can remember from 50 yearas ago, the "reconstituted" performances were peppier than what we had been trained to expect. High culture struggles on, a zombie-like "living dead" creature in this age of irony, disrespect and autopilot bourgeoisie-bashing by "artists" in the sundry "arts." Will it return to its former power and glory? Assuming no disasters such as losing the war against radical Islam, I think high culture will eventually return. Of course it won't be what it was in 1850, 1900 or 1950; history never repeats itself exactly. But there are historical cycles and cultural pendulum-swings. The libertine post-Revolutionary Terror era in Europe where women dressed revealingly was replaced by Victorianism. Periods of atheism and "free thinking" alternate with religious revivals. Eventually crudeness in the form of Rap, Concept Art, mindless action movies and the rest of current popular culture will become boring because it will have been around too long. Not to mention the practical consideration that shock-based entertainment cannot be sustained when the pool of potentially shocking material has been depleted. Like it or not, the pendulum will swing. Eventually. Your thoughts? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 9, 2007 | perma-link | (49) comments

Sunday, July 8, 2007

At Right Reason
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Max Goss has arranged for some tantalizing midsummer guest postings at Right Reason. Click on over and enjoy. * The excellent Philip Bess has just completed an ambitious 4-part series in which he makes a very personal case for the New Urbanism: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four. Philip uses a lot of well-chosen visuals to illustrate his points. He recently contributed a guest posting about G.K.Chesterton to 2Blowhards, which you can read here. * Rod Dreher delivers the text of a speech he made a while back on the subject of Crunchy Conservatism. Part One is here; Part Two is soon to come. Whether or not you approve of the CC phenomenon, there's no denying that it's something that's in the air. Max Goss reviews Rod's book on the topic here. Eye-opening, thought-provoking cultural thinking from the minds of conservatives ... Prior to the web, who'd have known that such a thing was even possible? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Support Steve
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't know of any journalist who is doing more than Steve Sailer to get some urgently-in-need-of-recognition-and-discussion topics and stories into play. Given that this is anything but a surefire pathway to success in the journalism game, Steve's activities are bringing him far more notoriety and fans than remuneration. So if you value Steve's contributions and want to see them go on, why not join me in taking part in Steve's current fundraising drive. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments