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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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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Architectural historian and arts buff

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Entrepreneur and arts buff
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Media flunky and arts buff

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  1. Optional Touring
  2. Skill and the Arts
  3. Narrative Book-Fiction for Grownups: "What the Dead Men Say" and "Gates of Fire"
  4. Excellent Neighbor
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  6. Age, Exercise, and the Soul
  7. Sunglasses Follies
  8. Life in a Politically Driven Economy

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Optional Touring
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The packet of materials arrived yesterday from the tour company. Now we have our marching orders. (Nancy is a big tour-group fan. I am not -- at least where western Europe is involved. But this year we're doing it her way, meaning that we do the tour. And once it ends in Milan we'll be heading south to Cinque Terre and Lucca, doing this by train rather than by my preferred method, the automobile.) One item of major interest in the packet is the itinerary booklet. For each day, it tells where the group as a whole will be going and which meals will be furnished. For example, I now know that I have an entire day to knock around Florence on my own or with Nancy. That's because I've been there twice already and have seen most of the sites the tour group will be visiting. Another part of the itinerary gets scary: it's the section dealing with Optional Excursions. What's scary is how much extra money these activities can chew up. For example, our Italian tour averages one Optional Excursion per each of the 11 days available for sightseeing. If one were to sign up for all of them (and some people do just that), the total cost per person would be 482 Euros or $656 at an exchange rate of 135 cents per Euro. Cheap me, I'd take not a single Optional Excursion. But Nancy likes to do stuff and will probably sign on for several of them and shame me into taking a few with her. At this point, we might take the "Fountains by Night and Dinner" excursion in Rome for 59 Euros ($80) apiece. I can halfway justify the price because we'd otherwise have to eat out anyway. The other excursion on my horizon is the "Gondola & Serenade" in Venice, costing 32 Euros ($43) a head. I meekly mentioned to Nancy that we already did the gondola / serenade thing at the Venetian casino in Vegas. But she has this strange concept that doing it in Venice will be more authentic or more romantic or more something. More expensive, that's for sure. There. I've vented and am feeling better already. What's your take on Optional Excursions for tours that cost a lot in the first place? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 25, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Skill and the Arts
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do opera-lovers dress up, fight traffic and pay seriously high ticket prices to hear singers of the calibre found in the average locker room shower stall? Of course not. Would fans of Olympic figure skating competitions tolerate a performer doing nothing but circle the rink like teenagers at the Rockefeller Center ice rink? Never. What about art museum-goers -- do you think they would plunk down the better part of 20 bucks and jostle the crowd to gaze at the works of somebody who can't convincingly paint a human face? Uh. Um. Well, it seems that they actually do. So the question before the 2Blowhards readership today is Why is lack of skill tolerated in the graphic arts, but seldom elsewhere in the arts realm? Okay, okay. There are exceptions. The main example that comes to my mind is that, for decades, pop music singers have been allowed by their audiences to possess average (or worse!) singing voices. That's provided said voice was distinctive or that it conveyed emotional overtones listeners found enjoyable. Nevertheless, in general, rare skill tends to be rewarded in the arts: think instrumental soloists, ballet dancers, actors, and so forth. People are seldom willing to go out of their way to witness things that they themselves can do or surpass. Maybe that's why I tend to be impressed by representational painters who have superb technical skills. But I'll admit that technical skill isn't everything when it comes to graphic arts. An outstanding artist will deliver more than a technically excellent, yet lifeless, image. A great artist needs to "set his stage" compellingly and create an emotional aura to his painting if it is to be recognized as great. Wait!! you say: back up a bit. That opera singer can be seen as being just a puppet of the composer and director -- those are the folks who do the heavy creative lifting. And semi-ditto for a Heifetz or a Yo-Yo Ma and their ilk: although they have some interpretive elbow-room, they remain subservient to composer's creativity. The ballet dancer is a tool of the composer and choreographer. The creator of the work is king, in other words. I don't think so. For example, the composer's work exists only in his mind and on paper until it is performed. And if the performance sounds lousy, it doesn't matter how great the composition is. So composed music is really an unavoidable partnership between performer(s) and whoever writes the music and (if singing is involved) words. A sculptor might have to rely on technicians to help realize the final object. But painters are responsible for the whole shot; besides coming up with the concept, they necessarily do the execution. (Yes, in the classical studio system, the master had students and assistants. But that's seldom the case today, and it doesn't affect the discussion.) Some will argue that innovation in art is important -- perhaps the most important thing. I disagree. If a great... posted by Donald at August 23, 2007 | perma-link | (50) comments

Narrative Book-Fiction for Grownups: "What the Dead Men Say" and "Gates of Fire"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems to me that an assumption many sophisticated American fiction readers make is that narrative fiction -- ie., fiction whose energies are mostly invested in the creation and "selling" of characters, situations, and storylines -- is, when you come right down to it, for kids. Stories are felt to be like Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes -- supereasy, overbright, fizzy-poppy. Adults are supposed to have graduated to something more complex and substantial -- with complexity and substance understood to imply "literary fiction," ie., fiction whose energies are mainly invested in fashionable themes; fancy language; and writerly, linguistic, conceptual, and structural games. Oh, realistically speaking, we all know that many educated adults enjoy spending occasional time with a thriller or a mystery novel -- but we agree to call that mere recreational reading. "Real reading," as we all know, is a more challenging, if not an actual slogging, kind of pursuit. I think I know where this assumption comes from: from our English-lit educations. And I think I know how it's reinforced: through colleges, foundations, and virtually all the respectable bookchat outlets. Needless to say, I think this assumption is wrong, wrong, 100% wrong. I also think that it does a disservice to readers, to writers, to literature, and to pleasure more generally. I lay out most of my reasons and my evidence for this position in a series of postings about the New York Times Book Review Section and the way it shuns popular fiction: here, here, here, here, and here. Lit-fict people who are curious about popular fiction will sometimes give it a try -- and good for them, of course. Typically, though, they don't make it very far. Flying without a map, they tend to sample titles from the bestseller lists. And, unsurprisingly, they often find that these books are every bit as bad as the enforcers of Lit-Fict Correctness say they are. Disappointed, our adventurers return to the lit-fict fold, resigned to the apparent fact that contemporary narrative fiction is written only for in-transit businesspeople. It's really remarkable how many lit-fict people, even the open-minded among them, are convinced that contempo book-fiction divides up into only two camps: lit-fict, and top-ten bestsellers (and wannabes). If that were the case, I'd probably be a lit-fict addict myself. Happily, it's anything but the case. As with movies and music, there are plenty of gifted people out there creating first-class work in popular and accessible forms. You just have to know where and how to find it. Hey, in the last couple of weeks I've turned up a couple of narrative book-fiction gems myself. Ed Gorman's "What The Dead Men Say." I've long relished Ed Gorman's work as a short story writer and an anthologist; the man has done more for the cause of short fiction and miscellanies (two forms I adore) than anyone else I know of. More recently I've been a fan of his blog. But -- to my shame --... posted by Michael at August 23, 2007 | perma-link | (46) comments

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Excellent Neighbor
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards --- Last Sunday we attended the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance classic automobile display where entrants come from as far as Seattle, the East Coast and, in the case of Nicola Bulgari's Packard, from Rome, Italy. I took a lot of photos and plan to use them as grist for future blog posts. For starters, I''ll show you a car that fascinates me: the 1931 Voisin C20 V-12 Simoun Demi-Berline. The photos are only so-so because the car was displayed in front of a tent and right beside a large, circular sculpture. Furthermore, it was in the middle of the pathway between the spectator bus arrival zone and the entrance to the show, so there were many passers-by when I was trying to get my shots. Voisin, by the way, is French for "neighbor" -- hence my tortured title to this post. The car's creator, Gabriel Voisin, started out building airplanes but switched to automobiles after the Great War. His cars were expensive and unusual; not many were made and few exist today. Voisin lost control of his company in the mid-1930s, but lived into his 90s. I might devote a post to him and some his most interesting creations later. (I wonder if, were Voisin alive today, the brash car press in the USA and Britain would dub him "Gabe Nabe.") Gallery The Simoun Demi-Berline is racy-looking despite the fact that it is in no way streamlined -- note the flat, vertical windshield, vertical radiator cover and the box beside the hood. Its élan is due to its height, which was extremely low for its day. The car was low because it had what was called an "underslung" chassis, that rode below the wheel axles, the springs being mounted above, rather than below it. The high placement of the headlights serves to enhance the appearance of being low; had they been lower, the car would have seemed taller. This Voisin is basically in three distinct sections: (1) the front "power package" area incorporating the motor, front wheels and stowage boxes; (2) the passenger compartment; and (3) a rear area where the trunk, spare tire and rear wheels are located. The styling thrust of the 1930s and 40s was to integrate the body into an envelope covering formerly discrete functional details. This shows the front detail in profile. The car has fenders that wrap around the tires closely, somewhat like motorcycle fenders do. However, they are not pure "cycle fenders" because they are fixed and do not pivot with the wheels when they turn. The right-side box is clearly seen. These boxes are located in the position where other cars -- usually luxury cars with long hoods and long S-shaped (ogive) front fenders -- often had spare tires; this adds to the Voisin's unique appearance. Note again that the windshield is flat and vertical -- no, it seems to lean very slightly forward at the top. Also of interest is the passenger compartment. Besides the virtually... posted by Donald at August 22, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Kids need fat. * The one time I saw Elvis perform -- in Vegas, about a year before his death -- he was awful: porky, dripping with drug-addict sweat, and so zonked that he couldn't remember the words to his biggest hits. Add about a million sweat-drops, and this is how he was. * Cowtown Pattie's mom has been struggling with some serious health challenges. Drop by and send some love. * Agnostic has a small nit to pick with Paul Fussell's "Class." * Happy fourth birthday to the ever-lively, ever-resourceful, and ever-enlightening Marginal Revolution. * Yahmdallah celebrates the voyeuristic pleasures that the Web offers. * Darby Shaw takes a hilarious look at the architecture of the building that houses the Portland Oregonian. * Should people on their way to see the new "Bourne" movie take some Dramamine first? (Link thanks to David Chute.) * Soon to be coming to your neighborhood too ... * E-book enthusiast Robert Nagle turns up some provocative e-book links. * The heads of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico have been meeting, and Allan Wall is convinced that they've been up to no good. * Alias Clio sizes up two famous waif-neurotics, and disses Neil Strauss' how-to-pick-up-chicks epic "The Game." * Steve Sailer awards a failing grade to Karl Rove. Hard to imagine anyone taking issue with that evaluation. * MBlowhard Rewind: I marveled at how truly strange and bizarre many people in the cultureworld are. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 21, 2007 | perma-link | (25) comments

Age, Exercise, and the Soul
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A long weekend at the beach with old friends turned out to mean more physical activity than I've had in a long time ... Swimming, tennis ... Even a few hours of beach volleyball, a first for me. What a rush volleyball in the sand is. I crouched, jumped, scrambled, and managed a couple of diving, twisting, face-planting saves. Who da Man? I haven't treated myself to that much athletic excitement in a long time. For a few minutes again I was (or at least I felt like) a young bull. Yoga, walking, and Gyrotonics, my current preferred physical activities, are wonderful -- I owe them much and recommend them highly. But it's also true that they don't deliver primal energy-blasts. (Learn about the "Gyrotonic Expansion System" here and here.) After our beach volleyball marathon, I plunged into a cold pool, did some vigorous lap-swimming, and emerged feeling like a swaggering alpha-male, seven feet tall, all-powerful, and ready to rumble. It's interesting the way that sports can make you feel, isn't it? Exertion crossed with a spirit of play -- the laughs, the competitive effort, the occasional feats of prowess -- can deliver some serious adrenaline-surges, as well as a high that stays with you for a while. A few days later, and I'm still enjoying the buzz. I wonder if retirement is especially hard for professional athletes. Are they ever able to experience such highs again? My weekend adventures reminded me of a couple of observations and reflections that I've been chewing on for a while on the topic of the body, exercise, aging, and (brace yourself) the soul. I wrote back here about how going through some fairly serious surgery six years ago affected my experience of my body. Short version: Before surgery, my challenge had been how to manage having too much energy. At 47, I felt physically young still; I felt like a 25 year old who had a few more aches and pains than most 25 year olds do. Since the surgery, though, things have been much different. My energy levels never returned to their pre-op state, so my challenge since has been contending with having too little energy. In other words, I had the funny -- bewildering, upsetting, interesting -- experience of going into surgery feeling like a young adult and emerging from it as someone in the midst of late middle age. Subjectively speaking, my body aged overnight from 25 to 55. Took some getting used to. What I've recently found myself thinking about has to do with the developments I've just finished describing. It goes like this: When you're young, you tend to identify with your body. Impulses translate into action near-instantaneously. You think, it does; when your body is tired, you go to sleep. When you're young, injuries to your body affect your very nature, and physical triumphs can convince you that there's something special about you. When you're young, there's such a small gap... posted by Michael at August 21, 2007 | perma-link | (41) comments

Sunglasses Follies
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- We just returned from four days in dry, sunny California. Ah, yes. Sun. And glare. Which made me think about sunglasses -- the currently available variations. I'm pondering because I'll be getting my eyes checked in a few weeks and need to consider what I should do once I get the inevitable prescription-change. My wife is having her eyes checked the same day, being overdue for new glasses. She likes sun protection for her eyes, but doesn't like regular sunglasses. Instead, she opts for those lenses that darken in strong light, and will probably get another set of those. Three or four years ago she persuaded me to try them out, so I spent a lot of money for new frames and those fancy non-lines bifocals with the tint feature. Hated them. Here in the soggy Pacific Northwest we get a lot of overcast days. Often the overcast isn't terribly thick and the amount of light can be greater than one might think. I found my glasses darkening when I'd leave the office building to grab some lunch on such days. Besides feeling a speck foolish, the situation was complicated by the fact that my eyes were bothered because what I was seeing through the lenses was too dark. No more self-tinting glasses for me. Truth is, I've even had issues with conventional sunglasses for years. By "conventional," I mean those sunglasses with frames like everyday eyeglasses. I once ordered prescription sunglasses and discovered that my eyes were bothered most of the time; so I didn't use them much. They didn't bother me when I was driving, and this provides a clue as to why they caused me trouble. You see, when I was driving, the roof of the car prevented sunlight from coming over the tops of the lenses. And if I had been into wearing baseball caps then, a cap bill would have provided the same service. The fundamental problem with sunglasses of any kind that use normal frames is that sunlight can strike the eye from over the top of the lenses, and sometimes from the sides. This means that the irises have trouble adjusting: directly in front, things are darkened, but strong glare is coming from the periphery. So what to do? Relax in adjustment to the light coming through then tinted lenses or contract in reaction to the bright light of the sunshine coming from above? The solution is wrap-around sunglass lenses. When I was young, the closest one could get to this ideal was aviator glasses; these look really nice, provided one had the correctly-shaped face -- which I lack. Last year I bought some sunglasses that went a little beyond aviator-style. But I don't wear contact lenses, so I can't see things perfectly when wearing them. I have an artificial lens in my right eye, and my other eye is starting to edge back towards near-sightedness after a period of going the other direction. I suppose the... posted by Donald at August 21, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, August 20, 2007

Life in a Politically Driven Economy
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, It feels good to realize that I'm not the only person who is closely parsing the words of the Federal Reserve (as I did in my recent posting Information, Please). In the L.A. Times of August 18 I read a front page article, "Fed Gets Message, Lowers Key Rate," by Peter G. Gosselin which makes it clear that interpreting Fed-speak is a hobby of many on Wall Street: The central bank used uncharacteristically unambiguous language, saying a credit crunch stemming from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown "appreciably" increased the risk of a further slowdown in the economy. "In Fed-speak, things are either 'slightly' or 'somewhat,' " said Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist with investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc. "Saying that the risks have increased 'appreciably' is a pretty strong statement for them." In fact, Wall Street is as interested in what the Fed doesn't say as in what it does say, as the same article makes clear: And in some artful wording, Fed officials did not completely throw in the towel on their concern about inflation or fully concede that financial market trouble actually was slowing growth...It simply didn't mention its concern about inflation and only discussed the possibility that financial market turmoil could cause a slowdown. "It was an unusually skillful commentary," said Allen Sinai of Decision Economics. The only analog I could think of to this rapt attention paid to both spoken and omitted language was back when U.S. Kremlinologists used to microscopically parse the utterances of the leaders of the Soviet Union. Pondering the similarities, it struck me: the Fed has become, over the past few decades, the Politburo of the U.S. economy. Which in turn highlights a few home truths that appear in sharp relief in the middle of crises like this one: First home truth: Despite its Olympian stance, the Fed's decisions are political, not merely technocratic. The Fed may not be elected, but it sho'nuff allocates pain and profit via its influence over debt markets, and there are real-world winners and losers from any change in Fed policy. (By some strange coincidence, many of those winners work on Wall Street, where they make very substantial campaign contributions and hire lots and lots of lobbyists.) Lest we forget, the U.S. economy is not, or at least is not primarily, a capitalist economy; it is a mixed economy, as they used to say in my freshman economics textbook. (If this euphemistic term doesn't appeal, you could call it a fascist economy or a corporatist economy, but let's not get bogged down in petty details.) What that means is that while we have a fair amount of capitalism going on around the edges, the center of our economy is politically driven, not market driven. Certainly, the palpable longing of Wall Street to be rescued by the Federal Reserve, made explicit in television pundit Jim Cramer's recent, um, demand that the Fed take action, leaves one in no doubt about who the... posted by Friedrich at August 20, 2007 | perma-link | (21) comments