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, August 11, 2007

A Parallel Universe
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Harry Potter books depict a kind of dual-universe Britain. There is the Britain we are familiar with. And then there is a hidden Britain, populated by wizards and witches, where technology is magic-driven. I recently discovered that there is something similar going on right here in the USA. Not witches, wizards and magic. What I found was a parallel universe -- namely, Whole Foods Market. Okay, I've actually been poking my nose into Whole Foods for a few years, in the form of their Monterey, CA store next to the Del Monte mall. But the parallel-ness didn't really hit home until yesterday when we did some shopping at their Roosevelt neighborhood store in Seattle. Up one aisle and down another we pushed the cart. We gazed at row after row of jars, cans, boxes, etc. Almost none of the brands were familiar to me. And there was that word ORGANIC. It was on almost every item. I didn't check, but it wouldn't have surprised me if the zip-lock baggies were labeled ORGANIC. At one point I gave a sigh of relief to see some French's mustard on a shelf -- next to mustard of an ORGANIC brand I'd never seen before. I suppose it's yet another character failing of mine, but I am not of the ORGANIC faith. I find Whole Foods weird, creepy. It was comforting half an hour later to be in a conventional supermarket looking for items Whole Foods didn't carry. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 11, 2007 | perma-link | (31) comments

Friday, August 10, 2007

Forces of Nature
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Albert King was born under a bad sign. Aretha wants you to think it over some. Son House never loved but four women in his life. Koko Taylor's gonna keep doin' it all night long. Ray Charles just wants to know. Booker T gives the go-go girls a reason to shimmy. Guitar Shorty takes it to the Santa Monica sidewalks. Suck on that, European concert-hall tradition. Who says America is short on worship-worthy art-giants? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 10, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Some Rich 'n' Yummy Geek Fodder
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do you love airplanes? Do you like data? Are you curious about how things work? I say Yes to all three questions. And that's why I spent much of yesterday evening engrossed reading Ray Whitford's book Evolution of the Airliner. The material in the book seems to be based on articles written for a popular aviation magazine, which means that some chapters' most recent data are for the 1990s and not the present decade: but that's a fairly minor quibble, given the slowing pace of airliner product launches. I'm a visually-oriented guy and like the many pictures and, especially, the many graphs depicting various trends. Two photo quibbles: (1) there were no photos of the Convair 880/990 jetliners; and (2) no photos of American planes in the chapter on flying boats. (Whitford is British and otherwise plays fair with the modest Yankee contributions to commercial aviation history. But Really! -- none of the various Sikorsky flying boats Pan American few? No Martin model 130? No Boeing 314? Shame!, I say.) Some graphs I found interesting: NYC-LA flight times for various airliners from the Ford Timotor to the 707. Cruising speed plotted against year of first flight, 1919-1970 (when airliner speeds topped out ). Wing loading plotted against year of service entry, 1936-1993. Fuel efficiency in terms of seat-miles per US gallon against date of service entry, 1953-1993. And there are diagrams. One I liked illustrated flying boat metacentric height as formed by the center of gravity and the center of buoyancy. Another illustrated wing pressure interactions for biplanes, showing inefficiencies compared to monoplane wings. Wow! If this isn't insanely great (to quote Steve Jobs), then I don't know what is. Go geeks, go!! Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 10, 2007 | perma-link | (0) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Ed Gorman has some recommendations. * WhiskyPrajer wonders why the screenwriter and pulp-fiction author Leigh Brackett isn't better-known. * Scott Chaffin thinks that some people miss the whole damn point of blogging. * Alice found the "Transformers" movie a wow. * Derek Lowe takes issue with a review of a book about the drug industry. * Thursday counts three ways a value judgment can go wrong. * Cineris revisits "The Hobbit." * Berkeley's great Alice Waters sings the praises of farmers' markets and Slow Food. But local-foods advocate James McWilliams has begun to wonder if eating local is really the most eco-sound thing to do. (Link thanks to Reid Farmer.) * Now that's one smart greyhound. * Steve Bodio shows off a clip of an eagle o'er-mastering a deer, and shares some observations about Kazakhs. They sound like a seriously interesting and impressive people. * Kimberly recalls some of her more intense relationships. (NSFW) * MBlowhard Rewind: I stirred up a blogospherian tempest when I suggested that Frank Lloyd Wright might not have been God. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 10, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Video Notes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Shouting Thomas takes his videocam for a walk around Woodstock's beautiful Cooper Lake. * Learn about the not-rare phenomenon of "Lesbian Bed Death" direct from the source. I enjoyed both of these videos and salute their makers. Nice work! They've also got me thinking about a couple of things. It seems to me that the advent of cheap videocams, computer video editing, and the web has rendered about half of the old film avant garde's program obsolete. Among the many things that film avant gardists hoped to do was to use film in as personal and direct a way as a writer uses a quill, er, a keyboard, or as a painter uses a brush. The thinking behind this dream was that the industrial-scale processes -- crews, equipment, financing -- required by narrative feature movies meant that the final results were often impersonal. Wouldn't it be great if such a beautiful and exciting medium could be made to yield works as suffused with personality, mind, and point of view as the traditional arts? In the old days of celluloid, Moviolas, and repertory theaters, there was no way to accomplish this simply. Equipment was cumbersome, fragile, and expensive, and distribution was next-to-impossible. All the more reason to celebrate the artists who did manage to use film in a super-personal way, of course. I've blogged enthusiastically about a few of them: Kenneth Anger and Chris Marker. These days, by contrast ... Hit the "On" button, tweak a bit in iMovie, upload, and voila: Direct personal expression via audiovisual-through-time means. What has come as a surprise is that this work has almost no kinship with traditional movies at all. It's naked of the rest of the film avant garde's program; it's more like email than it is like Cocteau, or even oldtime home movies. "What's become of the poetry?" is a question that can arise. And while I'm often quite the whiner where that kind of thing goes, for some reason in the case of the new amateur-video-makers I'm not even tempted. Instead, I'm thrilled. I find myself fascinated by the new techniques, genres, and conventions that are emerging: teengirl webcam-karaoke-dancing, for instance, or "owned" vids, or the jump cuts some videobloggers use to hop over the dull parts of their rants, or video responses to other videos, or "unboxing" vids, or the titles that vloggers superimpose to comment on what they're already saying. We're witnessing the birth of a whole new audio-visual-through-time language. Not just that: It's all happening unconsciously. There's no art-program, let alone school-program, behind this activity at all. People are finding their way on their own, fumbling, experimenting, doing what they can, and then (often) moving on. Which (if I'm on to anything here) makes this a funny time artwise, because what's being done spontaneously and unconsciously by amateurs is far more interesting than what the pros are doing, even though the amateurs have no aesthetic goals whatsoever. It's like the early... posted by Michael at August 9, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Unusual Author Site
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is the website that author Miranda July made for her new book refreshing and creative, or is it the twee-est, most over-whimsical thing ever committed to pixels? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 8, 2007 | perma-link | (28) comments

Idle Thoughts
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that said "Equal Rights for All Species." Um. Even cockroaches? Speaking of species and such, am I alone in finding monkeys not amusing? I hear tell that there are people out there who think government bureaucrats know how to run our lives better than we do. I used to be a government bureaucrat of sorts, but now am retired. Does that mean I knew how to run my life better then than I do now? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 8, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * No one's more surgically precise about the failings of liberalism than traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb. Incidentally, "liberalism" in this context doesn't have anything to do with the U.S.'s Democrats; in poli-sci terms, Republicans ("market liberals") are as liberal as Democrats ("welfare liberals"). We did an interview with Jim long ago: Intro, Part One, Part Two, Part Three. * Major-league "Simpsons" fan John Williams is only lukewarm on the new "Simpsons" movie. * Stuart Buck has found a lot of classic sports footage on YouTube. * Here's a self-defense skill for PC owners: How to rid your computer of what I guess is now officially called "crapware." * Seems to run in the family ... * Shouting Thomas notices that it's the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love and responds with appropriate rue. "What the hell was it?" he wonders. "A political movement? Mass psychosis?" * Searchie takes a walk through a magnificent Polish cemetary to pay her respects to filmmaking giant Krzysztof Kieslowski. * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote an introduction to the Canadian painter David Milne here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 8, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What's Your A.Q. (Aspie Quotient)?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Don't ask me why, but I can never pass up a "How Aspie are you?" quiz. I scored a very low 11 on this one. I evidently don't have much of a future before me as an Aspie -- my love of parties dooms that ambition every time. Best, Michael UPDATE: Steve Sailer has put up some interesting postings about nerds and nerdishness: here and here.... posted by Michael at August 7, 2007 | perma-link | (33) comments

Inside the Beltway Humor
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just read an article in the New York Times which caused me to laugh so hard that I fell off the couch. It's on the new lobbying rules, which are attempts to stem the flood tide of organized corruption that passes as governance in this country. Fat chance of course, but the spectacle of politicians trying to persuade the rest of us that they are reforming themselves is always amusing. The best line was the following: "All those people who grew up in the system - who arent evil-doers, just good people - used to be able to entertain and have fun," lamented Jim Ervin, a veteran military industry lobbyist. As if a veteran military industry lobbyist could distinguish between good and evil! What a knee slapper! You can read the rest of this article, which really outshines anything in The Onion, here. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at August 7, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Annals of Illegibility 2 -- TOCs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As far as I'm concerned, the way that computers have altered the balance of power between words and visuals is usually for the better. Still, there are times when the egos and values of the design crowd get a wee bit out of hand -- and ain't it fun to take note of these times. An earlier entry in this series is here. In today's installment, I revisit a topic I originally looked at back here: the Tables of Contents of magazines. Have you been following the evolution of TOCs? It's remarkable how different they are these days than what one might think of as the classic TOC. In the pre-digital days, a Table of Contents was generally a straightforward guide to the contents of a magazine. It was nearly always presented in a linear way -- from beginning to end. (In other words, the magazine in hand was conceived-of as something with a beginning, a middle, and an end.) Visuals were subdued, except perhaps in flashy publications like fashion mags. In any case, the general understanding was that a TOC should present essential help and information in an easy-to-understand way. The new TOC is a very different experience. For one thing: Visuals! Color! Graphics! Pop goes the layout. For another, the front-to-back way of organizing information (subject matter, page number, authors' names, etc) has in many cases been thrown out entirely. The new basis for organizing the TOC is thematic and / or conceptual. The new pattern is that the big, long articles ("Features") are grouped together; the magazine's regular columns and such are grouped together, often under the rubric "Departments"; and the junkfoody stuff that usually runs at the front and the back of the magazine is grouped together in one way or another. Another thing that's remarkable about the new TOC is how settled a form it has become. That has been the big change since the last time I visited the topic four years ago: Nearly all magazines are now using close variations on what I'm describing. In my earlier posting about TOCs, I was taking a snapshot of a form in the process of being born. These days, the new TOC is simply what a TOC has become. Funny, isn't it, the way that what a magazine is can seem like a completely settled thing? During a period when nearly all magazines feature celebs on the cover, it can seem like a god-given fact that a magazine is a publication that has a celeb on the cover. Publications seem to cohere around certain templates. Then something comes along -- an innovation, a change in technology -- and it's all up for grabs. Everyone scrambles and experiments furiously, and then everyone settles on a new template. By the way: As far as I've been able to tell, this is often done without any reference to the customers or audience at all. (Where TOCs are concerned: Were readers consulted about how... posted by Michael at August 7, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Monday, August 6, 2007

James Bama: Better Than Photography
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- One can argue -- and many have, over the last 150+ years -- that photography has eliminated the need for representational painting. In return, others have contended that skilled representational artists can offer images that photography cannot. Both viewpoints are right, of course. Supporting the first contention, there is little question that photography pretty well eliminated the need for artists to make "record" type images -- pictures of cityscapes of the Canaletto variety, for example. And the collapse of representational illustration in the 1960s is well known to people such as myself who were in, aspired to be in, or are interested in that branch of commercial art. Supporting the second contention is former illustrator and present Western painter James Bama. Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy biography here. Another non-cursory article that's worth reading can be found here. And if you want to see lots and lots of Bama's work, there's a 2006 book about him that's probably still in print. The publisher's Web site deals with it here and the Amazon link is here. In a nutshell, Bama was born in 1926 and raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Much of his early commercial work was done while associated with the Charles E. Cooper Studio, home to well-known illustrators such as Jon Whitcomb, Coby Whitmore and Al Parker from the mid 30s into the 1960s. For many years, in addition to magazine illustration, Bama was a top paperback book cover artist. Unfortunately, I can't locate some of the best examples of Bama's illustration work on the Web. As I just mentioned, the recent book is the best source. But you might try the following link to a back issue of Illustration magazine that had two articles about Bama. It contains thumbnail images of pages that might be of a little help. Scroll down: the Bama stuff is in the top 40 percent or so of the Web page. By the mid 1960s Bama had married and felt the need to switch from illustration to painting. Western painting, to be precise. So off the Bamas went, moving to the Cody, Wyoming area -- quite a change from New York. Since then, Bama phased out his illustration work and makes his living selling original paintings and Giclée images of those paintings. Bama has relied heavily on photographs for much of his career. But, like Alphonse Mucha, for instance, most of his paintings are not slavish copies of the photos. Most of Bama's illustrations and Western paintings seem to have been done on gesso-coated panels rather than canvas or even linen. The hard, smooth surfaces allow a painter to paint in great detail, should he so choose. In Bama's case, favorite details include cloth and skin textures including wrinkles -- all done with slightly impressionistic fidelity. The examples shown below offer no real clue as to how his art has evolved over time. Let me suggest that Bama "peaked" about the time he was... posted by Donald at August 6, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

More Lulu Wonderfulness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've written before about the wonderful print-on-demand outfit For one lengthy example, see here. Short version: Lulu is to traditional book publishing what blogging is to traditional magazine publishing. One of the great things about Lulu is that you can use the service as you see fit. Publish a book meant only for your family or friends. Make a photo book, or a comic book. Alter and revise whenever the mood strikes you. A couple of other excellent uses of Lulu have just come to my attention: * Use Lulu to bring out of print books back into print. Dave Lull points out that the Mises Institute is using Lulu to make a lot of their harder-to-find publications available in attractive paperback editions. Catch up with some of the giants of free-market theory. * Use Lulu to create an anthology of your own brain. Blogger / commenter / webcreature John Emerson has edited and expanded a lot of the writing available on his website, and has turned the results into a Lulu book. I haven't yet had the chance to make it through every last word of John's book, but I've spent enough time with it to be dazzled by its cabinet-of-wonders quality. Though basically a collection of quirky mini-essays on topics from Freud to Parmenides to Bob Dylan, it also has its own Borges-like, Calvino-like character. John is a perfect person to be using Lulu -- he's a freelance intellectual with his own way of making sense of the world, and his own distinctive way of piecing things together. His book is both a stimulating browse and an act of intellectual pointillism that coheres into something larger. * Small, a-propos-of-nothing rant: John's book reminds me that one of my favorite book-forms is what's known as the "miscellany" -- a ragbag that can be entered and enjoyed from any number of angles. Why on earth don't miscellanies get more respect than they do? (The NY trade-book industry seldom publishes miscellanies these days, and reviews of such books are even rarer.) But why should the thing we generally expect from a book be a work that is meant to be read from page one through to the end? Nothing against this particular kind of book, of course. But it seems to me that we have our expectations ass-end up. It seems to me far more natural that most books should be ragbags, miscellanies, and collections -- books that we pick up, put down, and put-together for ourselves, at our own choosing. After all, why should any of us be expected to serve someone else's ideal of "the book"? Why isn't it the expected thing instead that books should serve us? Best, Michael UPDATE: Conrad Roth reviews John Emerson's book here.... posted by Michael at August 6, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Migration Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Chinese immigration to Italy -- much of it illegal -- is causing tensions. So it isn't just Americans who dislike badly-run border policies ... * High levels of Mexican immigration to the U.S. are creating tensions between Latinos and blacks, reports The Economist. Now who could have forseen that? Many blacks think Latinos are taking jobs and neighborhoods from them; South L.A.'s Compton, for instance, is now 58% Latino. Many Latinos meanwhile view blacks contemptuously. Stresses are of course worst in the poorest neighborhoods -- as if our worst-off countrymen need more stresses to contend with. "Fifteen years ago such prejudices hardly existed," The Economist writes. That's quite an admission to come from one of the most fervently open-borders publications around. * Another consequence of our nutty immigration policies: American courts are encountering difficulties in finding translators for defendants who not only don't speak English but don't speak the commoner foreign languages. In some cases, immigrants accused of serious crimes have had their cases dismissed simply because translators of micro-languages couldn't be located. I suppose the more-bureaucracy-is-always-better crowd must think that the problem should be addressed by creating a bigger translator class. Me, I look at this kind of problem and wonder why we let it arise in the first place. * At the reunion I recently attended, I ran into an old chum who now works as a doc at a large Houston hospital. According to him, 80% of the kids delivered at that hospital are born to illegal-immigrant parents. Of course, every single one of those kids (10,000 a year, he told me) automatically becomes an American citizen, thanks to our awful birthright-citizen (ie., "anchor-baby") law. Allan Wall writes a good introduction to the "anchor baby" mess here. * Steve Sailer asks one of those so-basic-it's-brilliant questions he has such a gift for. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 6, 2007 | perma-link | (23) comments

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Damnedest Thing
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- We went to Seattle's annual unlimited hydroplane race yesterday to catch the first "heat" and the air show by the Navy's Blue Angels aerobatic demonstration team. This brought back memories of one of the damnedest things I've ever seen -- something that took place at the same Lake Washington venue 7 August 1955. There was an airshow that afternoon between race heats, just as now. I think the Blue Angels performed that day also, though I won't bet my life on it. But that's not what I'm talking about. Approaching the race course, heading north over the center of the lake, came Boeing's 707 airliner prototype, the famous Dash-80 -- then about a year old. When it got to the race area it seemingly started to bank, but didn't. Instead it did a stately barrel roll, a sort of corkscrew maneouver, not a tight Blue Angels type roll. This was completely unexpected and those of us in the audience had a profound What In Hell Is Going On Here reaction. I won't swear it was the damnedest thing I ever saw, but it ranks highly. Below is a photo taken from the aircraft when it was upside-down. Piloting the Dash-80 was colorful test pilot "Tex" Johnston (who actually came from Kansas). An account of the incident is here. And here is a link to a YouTube video showing a not-very-clear film of the barrel roll and Johnston (who died in 1998) explaining what happened. Johnston maintained that what he did was perfectly safe: the stress on the airplane's wings was one "G," the same as in normal level flight. So it seemed pretty hairy, but really wasn't. Nevertheless, there were no other 707s (technically, the prototype wasn't one either -- it was simply Boeing design number 367-80) and if it were destroyed, Boeing would have suffered greatly. So as Tex explains in the video, Boeing chief Bill Allen gently told him never to repeat the stunt. Johnston never did. Me? I'm glad I was there to witness it. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 5, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments