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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College administrator and arts buff

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Architectural historian and arts buff

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  3. How Virtuous Was Our Virtuous Cycle?
  4. Blogging Note
  5. DVD Journal: "The Comeback"
  6. DarkoV Recommends Some Richard Thompson
  7. The Problem of Simplicity
  8. The Shock of Non-Recognition

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Our Last 50 Referrers

Friday, September 21, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Not what you expect. (Via Charlton Griffin.) * Charlton also sent along a link to a tasty collection of the worst tech ads of all time. * The Communicatrix tipped me off to an amazingly well-done homegrown fight sequence. Gotta love formalized Asian choreography set amidst suburban American backyards. * Speaking of cars and American car-industry troubles, Raymond Pert points out this hilarious Onion story. * This other Onion piece also had me laughing out loud. As did this deadpan Onion video, which you had better wait to watch until you're away from the office. * Claire pulls herself together and goes shopping for a bra. * Get some sleep. * Lexington Green sings the praises of garage-punk legends The Fleshtones. * It's when I read things like this that I realize that -- although I burn through a lot of books -- I must not be a serious book person. And, ah, how good it feels to say that. * Francis Morrone writes a terrific piece that captures many of the sides of the late, great Jane Jacobs. (Link thanks to Dave Lull.) You can read a lot more Francis here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 21, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Website-Making Tools for Non-Geeks
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It becomes easier every year to put yourself up on the web, doesn't it? Where not so long ago the non-gearhead who hoped to join the online party had to hire a pro or rely on bad tools that resulted in trashy-looking websites, today's webcreature-wannabe has a number of appealing options to choose among. It seems fair to me to say that today's website-making-tools-for-the-masses are so good that someone who really wants to have a website no longer has a valid reason not to. A few years ago I recommended the outfit Squarespace, a service that enables you to create a complete and attractive website for yourself entirely online. But, since I'm the type who likes doing research, trying out software, and playing with organizational tools, I've continued poking around the field, and I've run into some other cool and valuable tools. Why not pass them along too? A preliminary note: It seems useful to divide website-making tools into those that operate entirely online and those that are individual-computer-based. In the first group, both the website you make and the website-builder you use to make it are online. All that's needed to accomplish what you'll want to accomplish is a browser and a fast internet connection. Advantages: no programs to buy and manage; you can tinker with your website from any web-connected computer; there's no need to endure the headaches involved in acquiring a domain name and lining up a webhost. Disadvantage: Online tools tend to be less quick and responsive than do ones that live on your hard drive. Tools that belong to the second group are ones that you buy and then install on your own computer. Once you've done that, you use the program to assemble and / or tweak your pages (photo galleries, blogs, freeform pages, whatever). Then you upload your creation to a webhost, where it's made public. Advantage: Some of these programs are terrific, as well as easy and and even fun to use. Disadvantages: You have to attend to all that offputting webspace-making crap (domain names, webhosts, etc). Why can't anyone make those procedures less annoying than they are? Plus you can only mess with your website from the one computer that has the program (and your files) installed on it. Life is indeed all about weighing trade-offs ... To the first group might belong such familiar products as WordPress, Typepad, and Blogger. All three services have their advantages and their partisans. But they also limit you to creating a blog, or at most a blog-with-trimmings. (Some people have recently been using WordPress to create websites that aren't strictly blogs, but no matter what direction you bend it in, WordPress is a tool that wants to make you a blog.) Some tools that I can recommend (or in one case semi-recommend): The online tool that I mainly want to focus on is once again Squarespace, which is even better today than it was when I recommended it... posted by Michael at September 20, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

How Virtuous Was Our Virtuous Cycle?
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, As the captain of a small business boat trying to paddle through today's stormy economic seas, I have been spending a lot of time over the last month or so reading financial news online. This has led to my becoming acquainted with some interesting economic blogs. If you have an interest in such matters, you might find Econobrowser, The Big Picture, Calculated Risk, Alphaville and Naked Capitalism entertaining reads. You would even find some wit, I think; for example, Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture had this to say in the wake of the Fed's recent 50 basis point (0.5% ) rate cut: The Fed now has a third problem to deal with: They have become Wall Street's bitch. They may find that's a difficult condition to wriggle out from . . .[emphasis original] The whole posting was entitled 'Bernanke Blinks' and you can read it here. But mostly I'd like to call your attention to a point that I didn't appreciate about our current economic situation. To wit, that our various economic crises are all closely intertwined. Although from the press coverage one would think that our main problem is a credit crunch caused by loose lending in subprime mortgages, I suspect it would be just as accurate to describe our problem as stemming from our tendency to import a whole lot more than we import, i.e., that we have a large negative current account balance. Okay, okay, I'm sure all you economic sophisticates already knew that, and I am obviously many years late to the party. Better late than never, I hope; I can only say that I woke up abruptly to the interconnectedness of things when I looked at a graph I discovered that compared the increase in mortgage debt outstanding (basically, the amount of new money loaned against real estate) with our trade deficit. Note the similarity in the two trends? You can say all you want about correlation not being causation, but I think it's safe to say that people have been using home equity loans and refinancings to treat their houses as ATM machines, and spending the money they take out of them on goodies, a significant and stable fraction of which are imported. This graph comes to you courtesy of Calculated Risk; you can read the whole posting from March 2005 here. (See what I mean about being years late to the party? Sigh.) The unity of our economic issues is explained quite a bit more eloquently than I could by Calculated Risk in another posting from September 18, 2007 called Fed Funds Rate Cut: Watch Long Rates. The money quote of this insightful piece is as follows: Lower interest rates led to an increase in housing prices. And those higher housing prices led to ever increasing mortgage equity withdrawal (MEW) by homeowners. A large percentage of this equity withdrawal flowed to consumption, increasing both GDP and imports during the boom years. There is a strong correlation... posted by Friedrich at September 20, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Blogging Note
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Nancy and I are off to Italy, leaving early September 20th and returning the afternoon of October 10th. Posting by me will likely be non-existent during that interval and for a day or so afterwards. The main reason is that I'll not be taking a computer on the trip. Were I to bring it, I'd have it in my over-the-neck-and-shoulder computer bag that I use to haul essentials which cannot be entrusted to others. Besides my blood pressure medicine and lesser pills, trip-related documents, camera battery charging connectors and so forth, that bag is useful for carrying street maps, newspapers, stuff I buy that day and even a rolled-up waterproof windbreaker if the weather is iffy. Adding a nearly six-pound laptop computer to this stash makes me feel like I'm hauling a load of bricks. There's a faint chance that I'll stumble across a free or cheap means of Internet access when I have the time to dash off a short post. But don't count on this happening. And be sure to give Michael some slack if he doesn't post every single day; he's amazingly prolific, but I don't want him pushing himself extra hard just because I'm off frolicking. Some readers were curious where I'd be in Italy. Well, we arrive in Rome a couple of days before the start of a tour. The tour group does another two days there before heading south to see Pompeii and Capri. Then to Ovietto and Assisi followed by a day in Florence, after which we loop down to San Gimignano and north to Venice. A day in Venice and on to the lake country, including a short stop in Lugano, Switzerland. The tour concludes at the Milan airport, but we'll catch a train south to the Cinque Terre villages where we'll spend a day. Also a day in Lucca and another in Milan before returning to Seattle. I'm familiar with the part from Tuscany on north, but the southern area will be new, which should make it especially interesting. As for blog fodder, all I'll promise is that I'll bring my camera and will stay on the lookout for interesting items to write about. When I travel I favor learning about today's cities, towns and countryside as opposed to lurking in the museums and palaces favored by other tourists and tour group planners: there are always a few exceptions to this rule, of course. So yes, I'll be seeing some art. But no, I might not write much about it because I haven't studied Renaissance Italian art enough to make things interesting. Moreover, unlike when I was in Finland, Russia, Poland, etc., most of the artists will have names you're familiar with. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 18, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

DVD Journal: "The Comeback"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Inspired by Mike Hill, who wrote the excellent blog Sluggo Needs a Nap until real life demanded his attention, I picked up a copy of HBO's Lisa Kudrow vehicle "The Comeback." Over the weekend The Wife and I opened the package up and dug in. We watched the whole thing too, I'm pleased to report, even though we aren't TV-series fans generally. We didn't make it through out of duty and curiosity, either, as we did with Joss Whedon's "Firefly." We were genuinely held, even though we found it a pretty painful experience, and not entirely in the painful-good way that the show's creators intended. Still, we genuinely loved a lot of things about "The Comeback." For one, we're both big fans of satire, which strikes both of us as one of the ultimate art challenges. (You're aware, aren't you, that Americans are notorious for having a hard time with satire? George S. Kaufman: "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." We're too square to enjoy stylish malice; we're too eager to identify with heroes to want to follow people who are being made fun of. Exceptions allowed for, of course.) And "The Comeback" is nothing if not a stylish high-wire act. But part of what kept us watching was trying to figure out where the show had gone wrong. (It never gained much of an audience, and HBO canceled it after just one season.) That may be a weird reason for finding a show compelling, but there you go. A small aside: This strikes me as an example of one of the kinds of culture-experiences that traditional criticism and reviewing aren't good at dealing with. The pro reviewer has to read or listen to or watch the work under consideration all the way through. We'd throw tomatoes at him if he didn't. Yet a lot of the viewing and reading and listening we do is half-assed, fragmentary, incomplete. Should it be off-limits to compare notes about these experiences? Let alone to treat them with some respect? I can't see why. It strikes me as a legitimate, and certainly a commonplace, part of culture life -- the book we leafed around in at the bookstore, the movie we fast-forwarded through, the music we half-listened to at the gym. Openly acknowledging and discussing this aspect of interacting-with-culture is one of the ways that the blogosophere has enriched the general culture-discussion. For example, Yahmdallah here does a good job of discussing a book he both disliked and felt some enthusiasm for. "Compelling yet boring" -- Yahmdallah's words -- is something certain artworks have struck me as too. Yet how many pro critics have taken such a reaction into account? Anyway. Created by the actress Lisa Kudrow (who stars) and the writer-director Michael Patrick King (well-known for his work on "Sex and the City"), "The Comeback" puts loads of virtuosity, brains, humor, perceptiveness, and talent on display. As well as daring. It's a far more audacious and... posted by Michael at September 18, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

DarkoV Recommends Some Richard Thompson
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I linked to a Richard Thompson performance that I'm fond of. DarkoV -- who knows Richard Thompson's work a lot better than I do (and who blogs here) -- left a recommendation-rich comment on the posting that I can't resist highlighting. Here it is: Mr. Thompson's been a favorite of mine since the early days of Fairport Convention and he only improved once he went on his own with his then wife, Linda. But, though an avid fan for a long, long time I am not a fan of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and as an apostle of Mr. Thompson, I never recommend this song. First couple of times? Great. But after that? Grating. I'd recommend I Misunderstood, Wall of Death, the humor of Tear Stained Letter, or the utterly gut-wrenching Dimming of the Day that he performs here with his ex-wife. But, any plug for any song by Mr. Thompson is a good thing, so thanks very much, Michael, for pushing his cause. He's not only an extraordinary composer and guitar-player; he's an engaging and considerate person when you meet him. So much talent, so little guile. It's a rare combination these days. I'm hoping Whisky Prajer is persuaded by the strength of Mr. Thompson's latest release Sweet Warrior to be completely drawn into the music and words of Richard Thompson. Thanks to the ever-enlightening, resourceful, and entertaining DarkoV, and good listening to all. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 18, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Problem of Simplicity
Donald Pitenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- "%$^**@&%#," I say. That's because my draft of this article in the blog queue disappeared into the Big Black Hole of Lost Blog Posts. So what follows is a stripped-down, less fancily phrased and structured version of what I had written a week or so ago. As I said, "%$^**@&%#." Part of Modernism's rejection of the 19 century was the introduction of a dogma of Simplicity. This did not affect painting to any great degree; a Pollock drip-painting can hardly be called simple. But Simplicity did take hold to a considerable degree for sculpture and triumphed in the fields of Architecture and Industrial Design where ornament was abolished in the former and reduced to "speed strips" in the latter by 1940. The Postmodern era has been slightly more tolerant of ornament. Geometry-based patterns are allowed on occasion as are repeated structural details that can give an ornamented appearance of sorts. Nevertheless, a small set of simplified shapes is expected to comprise the essence of the building or object. I have nothing against simplicity. Industrial-Designed objects, if they have smooth, simple surfaces can be much easier to keep clean than objects with lots of tiny places where dust and dirt can collect. And simple objects can be seem jewel-like if placed in contrasting settings -- for example, the newly-built Lever House building on what was then pre-Modern Park Avenue in New York. Even so, Simplicity -- if it is pervasive -- runs counter to what seems to be deep-seated, perhaps evolutionary, human visual preferences for nature-based forms. Such forms are definitely non-geometrical and tend to the complex as opposed to the simple. (Though contrasts such as rolling fields with copses of trees and background wooded areas might skew towards the simple, yet can be pleasing to view.) Furthermore, non-simple familiar objects probably hold viewer interest longer than greatly simplified or geometrical forms. I'm thinking of human faces and bodies as well as landscape scenes. But even complicated man-built landscapes can qualify. I can imagine myself studying a panorama of Paris for just as long as I might the Grand Canyon. To illustrate what the title of this post -- The Problem of Simplicity -- is about, consider two sculptures: Gallery Bird on Space - Constantin Brancusi - 1923 et. seq. This a one of my favorite sculptures. Despite its subtle forms I can pretty well assimilate visually it in two or three minutes. Monolith - Gustav Vigeland - completed 1943 I've never been to Oslo where a park has been set aside for Vigeland's works. But, because of the large amount of human subject-matter, I imagine that Monolith would hold my interest considerably longer than Bird in Space. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 17, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Shock of Non-Recognition
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Whatever there is that has to be said about high school reunions has almost surely been said already. Good. That means I can write to my heart's content without straining for profundity. So raise those cliché-protection shields and batten down the banality-absorbers -- I just had my 50th high school reunion and I'm here to blather! Does anyone remember an illustration done around 40 year ago in response to the Beatles song "When I'm 64" where the artist tried to project how the Liverpool lads might look when they got that old? There might have been more than one such attempt because the one I turned up via Google doesn't seem familiar. The imagined 64 year-old Beatles were still recognizable, which is more than I can say about most of the 68-ish-year-old attendees at my reunion activities. Not a surprise for many of us: my reunion-happy class has now thrown five or six such events since graduation -- including the 40th and 45th -- so we were getting conditioned to the shock of non-recognition. Fortunately, we had an especially handy visual aid in the form of name tags with a 1.5-times blow-up of our yearbook portraits and names in really large type (see example below). My 50th reunion name tag At the 40th reunion the name tags had actual-size yearbook photos and type so small that our 58-year-old eyes weren't up to the task. There was a lot of leaning close to the wearer's chest to discern the fine print: hope the ladies didn't mind too much. We learned that using yearbook photos was a good idea and that small type wasn't. For the first time, I was involved in reunion committee activities and got an inside look at the process. Plenty of ideas were advanced during the first few years of what, for some of us, was an effort lasting more than five years. When the Big Event got close, new proposals tended to be rejected unless they were refinements of existing plans, and some side-events under consideration were rejected to keep an already busy weekend from fragmenting. Nevertheless, five reunion-related events were held: a Thursday golf tournament (about 20-25 participants); a Friday luncheon for women at the Women's University Club in downtown Seattle (nearly 60 signed up); a Friday evening "ice-breaker" event at a hotel not far from the main reunion site (nearly 200 showed up); a Saturday morning tour of the recently rebuilt Roosevelt High School (between 100 and 200); and the main-event Saturday evening dinner at a 1920s vintage suburban country club (400 attendees including a few surviving teachers). A committee co-chairman informed me that around 240 classmates attended at least one event. This was out of about 530 classmates for whom we have contact information, about two-thirds living within driving distance. It seems that there were a few people whose contact information was discovered but wanted to remain "missing." This is expectable, from a statistical point of view and... posted by Donald at September 16, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments