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Friday, July 27, 2007

Closed Open Minds
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- What I'm about to say probably isn't one bit original; if I were a good scholar, I'd provide lots of citations and links to what others have written on the subject. Alas, I'm too lazy to be scholarly. Besides, I wanna vent, and scholarship gets in the way of that. My subject is people who claim that other folks are "closed-minded" and people who urge others to be "open-minded." The two groups undoubtedly overlap considerably because the assertions are implicitly two sides of the same coin. Truth is, most "mindedness" issues are subjective. In such cases evidence is contradictory, not overwhelmingly on one side of a matter. This means that taking one side and rejecting others can be intellectually defensible regardless of which side is taken. My gripe is that most of the times when someone says "Be open-minded about X" or "Don't be closed-minded regarding X," what they are doing is faulting others for not agreeing with the speaker's position. Simply put, it's a form a intellectual bullying. The irony is that the person who is "open-minded" -- favorably disposed to case-X -- is probably "closed-minded" to case contra-X. Here's a trivial example to illustrate my point (I'll be cowardly and avoid hot topics such as homosexual marriage, abortion, etc. to keep Comments calm). Joe and Susie were in Central Park when the 2005 Christo assemblage The Gates was on view. Susie expresses the thought that The Gates isn't really art. Shocked, Joe says "C'mon Sue, it is art. Be open-minded." Joe, it seems, might be "closed-minded" to the idea that The Gates is not art. So what Joe was really saying was: "My position regarding The Gates is obviously right and you, Suzie, are simply wrong. Get with the program and change your mind." The real issue here is how "art" is defined, and the definition of "art" is hardly a settled matter. If Suzie had never considered the possibility that The Gates might be art, then the "closed-minded" label might have justification. But if she had given the matter of the definition of art some thought and still rejected the idea the The Gates was art, then she wasn't being "closed-minded" at all: she was simply making an honest disagreement. People who accuse others of being "closed-minded" seldom seem to have considered the possibility that their targets have given a matter any thought at all. Nor do they bother to ask. As I said, they're basically bullies. I think a proper approach would be to say "I take position Y on issue X. If you haven't given the matter some thought, then please do so. Perhaps you might then come to agree with me." Sigh: probably wishful thinking in this bumper-sticker age. So when I hear or read someone assert "Be open-minded," my reaction often is: "Closed-minded bastard!" C'est la vie. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 27, 2007 | perma-link | (21) comments

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Yoga wants you to forget the six-pack. * Lester Hunt shares some enthusiasm for (and some smart reservations about) "Ratatouille." * Yahmdallah imparts a little too much wisdom to his 2 1/2 year old daughter. * Josh Oakhurst prefers to wait for the DVD. * The cat who can predict when people will die. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) * Do you need to know anything more than this about acting? * I heart ultra-slow motion. * Well, it sure beats pumping iron and organizing gang fights. (Link thanks to the Communicatrix.) * Katie Hutchison wonders what it is that makes a small building charming. You can ask Katie for architectural advice here. * Sylvia Kristel, who starred in the pioneer classy-soft-core movie "Emmanuelle," talks to the Telegraph about her roller coaster of a life. * Vince Keenan has some words of praise for Glenn Ford. * Jewish Atheist recalls what it was like to grow up Orthodox. "What I experienced was not a community courageously combining modernity with its sacred beliefs, but one threatened by reality," he writes. * Get to know Tyler Cowen a little bit better. Maybe he'll even customize a podcast just for you. Buy Tyler's new book here. * Steve Sailer wonders if the lefties who love immigrants know how macho Latinos can be. * David Pogue looks over his first AT&T bill for his iPhone and feels the bile rise. * Roger Scruton makes the case for a conservative environmentalism. * Thanks to Peter Winkler for pointing out this very amusing Joe Dante-sponsored "Trailers from Hell" website. * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote an introduction to the wonderful Mediterranean Revival architect and promoter Addison Mizner here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 26, 2007 | perma-link | (27) comments

DVD Journal: "Sansho the Bailiff"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wrote recently about a new Criterion DVD of several previously hard-to-find Chris Marker movies. Another new Criterion disc is worth paying attention to as well: Kenzo Mizoguchi's 1954 "Sansho the Bailiff." By contrast to the informal, handmade "Sans Soleil," "Sansho" is a lush, full-dress, fictional period tale. Part magical fable and part popular epic, it's enchanted yet harsh, and not in the least cartoony. It's rather like a late Shakespeare play, only coming out of that strange folklore-and-abstraction Japanese tradition. A quick context-setting note: In the old days of Great Movies, Mizoguchi was known as one of the Three Geniuses of the Japanese cinema. Kurosawa was extraversion and action; Ozu was Zen stillness; and Mizoguchi made transcendent women's pictures. That still isn't a bad way to characterize the work of these guys. Though I took instantly to Kurosawa and caught on quickly to Ozu, when I treated myself to a Mizoguchi bender I found many of his movies hard to take. Despite the beauties of his lighting, his actresses, and his tracking shots, Mizoguchi was drawn to sad stories of female degradation that I often found tedious. The masochism and weepiness in many of his pictures can get mighty thick. But, but ... then there's "Ugetsu" and "Sansho," for my money two of the most moving of all films. "Ugetsu" -- also available on Criterion -- is set during some medieval civil wars, and concerns a pair of brothers whose ambitions cause havoc: It's part war epic, part ghost story, and pure magic. "Sansho" tells the tale of a family that has been arbitrarily broken-up. As in "Ugetsu," Mizoguchi gives the medium the kind of complete workout that such other masters as Hitchcock and Welles do, but with his own distinctive delicate / magnificent touch. It has been many years since I've watched "Ugetsu" and "Sansho," so I won't embarrass myself by trying to be too specific in my praise. But I'm going to treat myself to this little one-sentence rhapsody: These two films -- both poetic and operatic -- can park themselves in your brain like dreams you're unable to forget. Hmmm: Pre-digital cinema history itself is starting to feel like a beautiful, hard-to-shake dream, isn't it? What a lovely world it would be if only Criterion would charge a reasonable price for their discs, no? Maybe that's why God created Netflix. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 26, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Architecture and Happiness: Bricks and Shadows
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Enough with the negativity and mockery. The Communicatrix, Chelsea Girl, and Raymond Pert have shown me the way: Blog about something positive from time to time, damn it. Good for the mental health, and probably a ray of sunshine for visitors too. (Listen to an interview with Chelsea Girl by Susie Bright here.) Besides, it takes more guts to open up about what moves you than it does to scorn things. For my first act of blogging-positivity, I'm kicking off a series of postings on architecture and happiness. To set this particular posting up, let me begin with -- OK, sure, admittedly -- some negativity, a few examples of the kind of thing I dislike. In the following photo, the shiney blue-green mass on the left is the Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed Avenue of the Americas Plaza, in New York's West 50s. What aesthetic qualities is this building selling? Let me suggest a few answers: Blue-green silveriness, reflectiveness, grid-iness, the shock of one large funny angle ... In other words: expert play with chic geometry. Are you surprised to learn that Edward Larrabee Barnes was once a student of Walter Gropius, one of the Very Bad Guys in Tom Wolfe's essential "From Bauhaus to Our House"? How about this next building? This is the backside of the Musem of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. What's it selling? Hmm, let's see. Right angles. Grid-iness. An unexpected big square hole. And a marked contrast in textures, between the matte of the black, the frostiness of one set of glass panes, and the reflectiveness of the other, larger set of glass panes. Expert play with chic geometry, in other words. Funnily enough, Taniguchi once worked for Walter Gropius. Since my digicam-finger was twitchy last week, let me present another example: This is one of New York City's new bus stops, designed by Duncan Jackson of Grimshaw Architects. (Architecture and urbanism buffs refer to such things as street lamps, bus stops, kiosks, etc., as "street furniture.") Let's see: Glassiness, steeliness, angles ... In other words: Yet more expert play with chic geometry. I'm sorry to report that I can't turn up any direct connection between Duncan Jackson and Walter Gropius. Still: Are you surprised to learn that the architecture and design establishment loves these new bus stops? All the structures in the pix above are about lines, planes, glint, surfaces, volumes, and angles. The language of traditional architecture -- which might include columns, pediments, vases, temples, shadows, arches, and stone ribbons -- is nowhere to be found. No porches, no arcades ... Sigh: I do love porches and arcades. For me, looking at the structures above is a little like leafing through stylish algebra and geometry textbooks -- dry, abstract, and mathematical, however chic. What's with that? To what are a civilian's emotions supposed to attach themselves? Back in a previous blogging lifetime, Alice Bachini did a hilarious riff ridiculing architects' obsession with clean lines and precise planes.... posted by Michael at July 25, 2007 | perma-link | (41) comments

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Stealth New-Product Announcements
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm drafting this article on 19 July. Two days ago I spotted a 2008 Mercury Sable rental car on Interstate 5. I knew it was a 2008 model because the 2007 guise of the same car had the name Mercury Montego. What I didn't know was that 2008 Mercurys had been announced and were on the road. So I checked the Web a few minutes ago and found this link to 2008 Mercury Sables and this link to its near-twin, the 2008 Ford Taurus. By golly, 2008 model Fords and Mercurys are here! Had I spotted a new Ford Taurus I would have known that it too was a 2008 model. That's because until now it was called the Ford 500. Ford Motor Company's new CEO Alan Mulally ditched the alliterative model names that FoMoCo's previous management was so (mistakenly, I think) enamored of and revived better-known model names that lapsed recently (a better idea, but not necessarily optimal). What's important here is the fact that I didn't know that the Ford 2008 model year cars had been launched. I'm interested in cars, but not to the point that I regularly read car-buff blogs to get the very latest fuzzy spy-photos of prototypes, industry rumors and press releases. I subscribe to Autoweek magazine but missed any reference to the 2008s had they existed. I don't recall seeing newspaper advertising heralding the resurrection of the Taurus and Sable. As for television, I almost never watch it any more, so didn't have a chance for a commercial roll past me. Am I that totally out of it? Or did Ford not even bother with more than a half-hearted publicity campaign? I suspect it's the latter. That's because car companies have gradually de-emphasized model year changes over the past 30 or 40 or more years. Time was, an automobile manufacturer would have been embarrassed if it had offered too-modest a styling face-lift for a new model year. Nowadays it can be almost impossible to distinguish a model's year simply by looking; my 2005 Chrysler 300 is virtually identical on the outside to 2006 and 2007 versions. Excitement was the order of the announcement day back in the 1940s and 50s. I remember when the 1949 Fords debuted. Searchlights at dealerships probed the night sky. There was a radio broadcast featuring the event (Seattle's first TV station wasn't yet on the air). I remember the thrill of seeing some uncovered 1956 Fords on a truck on their way to a dealer a few days before the release date. Back then, styling of the next-year models was a tightly kept secret, so those 56s I spotted should have been under canvas. By keeping styling secret, manufacturers whetted the curiosity of potential buyers. Car-buff magazines played along with this by printing "sneak-preview" articles containing suggestive, but not informative photos of different bits of forthcoming models. (Nowadays, pretty detailed views of cars a year or two from production are commonly seen... posted by Donald at July 24, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Not-So Central Stations
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't worship passenger railroads. Don't hate 'em either. Maybe I'm delusional, but I fancy myself pragmatic on the matter. There are some folks out there who think that inter-city passenger trains can cure a lot of America's transportation ills. They'll start off by asserting that if only those suckers who drive cars or fly between cities wised up and took trains, then highways would become less crowded, airports less noisy, fuel would be saved and the air would be less polluted. Then they would likely tear up in nostalgia for the transportation world of 1912 before pounding the table and claiming that our betters the Europeans know how to do things right. It's true that Europe's intercity passenger railroad system is far superior to what we have in the States. There are many reasons for this, including: slower population growth and less pressure to suburbanize; much later mass adoption of the automobile; and longer-term government ownership of railroads. While Europe now has a highly-developed intercity freeway system and recently has been getting low-fare airlines, many people continue to rely on railroads for traveling from city to city. Consider the Eurostar, known on the street as the "Chunnel" train. One terminus is the Gare du Nord in Paris, the other is Waterloo Station in London. Originally the trip took three hours, thanks to the French TGV (high-speed train) system. In 2003 a stretch of TVG-style track was opened in England, cutting the journey by 20 minutes. In November, the final English section is scheduled to open, the terminus being relocated to St. Pancras Station on the north side of central London. The result will be an even quicker trip. I like the Chunnel train. Whenever I travel between London and Paris I take it because it's faster and seems to involve less hassle than the alternatives -- flying or driving and taking a cross-Channel ferry. I've even taken intercity trains in the USA. As a kid I traveled several times between Seattle and Spokane and once from Seattle to Chicago and then on to Detroit. While in the Army I went from Washington, DC to New York City and from New York City to Baltimore when I was changing posts. Then when I worked in Albany I occasionally took the train when I had business in Washington. So I'm not utterly ignorant of the subject. One advantage claimed for trains is that they get into your destination city. Really? Sometimes they do, as is the case of New York City's Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station -- the former being reasonably close to many Midtown hotels and offices, the latter a little more peripheral. But New York might be exceptional. Let's assume one is traveling fairly light, perhaps with a briefcase and a wheeled piece of luggage about the size stowable in an airliner's overhead bin or a little larger. Further assume the weather is favorable and the traveler reasonably fit: fit enough to... posted by Donald at July 24, 2007 | perma-link | (23) comments

Monday, July 23, 2007

Childraising Universals?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Arts and Letters Daily links to a fascinating article about the devotion that many middle-class and upper-middle-class American parents have to playing with their children. Is it always and everywhere a good thing? It turns out that in most cultures throughout most of history, parents haven't played with their kids. Kids played, of course, but parents didn't get involved. "American-style parent-child play is a distinct feature of wealthy developed countries -- a recent byproduct of the pressure to get kids ready for the information-age economy," writes Christopher Shea. A funny passage from Shea's good piece: One inspiration for the article, Lancey [the study's article] says, was that he kept coming across accounts of parents who felt guilty that they did not enjoy playing with their children. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger, both at Princeton, have found that parents routinely claim that playing with their kids is among their favorite activities, but when you ask them to record their state of mind, hour by hour, they rate time spent with their children as being about as much fun as housework. And here's an arresting article from the Telegraph about how the French raise their kids. (Sorry, I forget who alerted me to this piece. Was it Dave Lull? Thanks Dave!) While Americans fuss anxiously about their kids' feelings and always put the kids' needs and desires at the center of family decision-making, French parents treat the kids as little animals in bad need of civilizing, and make them conform to an adult-centric life. Janine di Giovanni writes: One of the toughest things I have had to get used to in an otherwise idyllic Paris is the huge gap between Anglo-Saxon (or Italian American in my case) parenting and parenting French style. The French are certainly stricter. They shout more. They slap more. And they enforce manners. But as a result, you find beautifully brought up children, and many of my French friends who are parents will argue endlessly that instilling discipline and setting boundaries is the way of showing the utmost love. Dr Caroline Thompson, a French child psychologist and family therapist, ... points out that in Anglo-Saxon cultures, certainly in American culture, children are generally thought of as being the centre of the world, whereas in France, they are most certainly not. My point in this posting isn't to endorse the French way. While I love a lot of French cultural creations, I'm not crazy about France or the French generally. But the fact that the French get under the skin of Americans is fascinating, non? As well as worth poking-around in. What I want to do here is to play anthropologist -- to highlight the fact that the usual cluster of American assumptions about how to raise and interact with kids is specific to America. For example: Many Americans assume that it's imperative to vacation someplace where the kids will be happy or "enriched." Traveling someplace the parents want... posted by Michael at July 23, 2007 | perma-link | (47) comments