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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  1. Some Katie Opinions
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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Some Katie Opinions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Katie Hutchison celebrates a picket fence, but thinks that the aluminum siding has got to go. She also visits the house that Modernist hero-titan Walter Gropius designed for his own family, and gets a case of the giggles. The Wife and I reacted similarly when we toured Frank Lloyd Wright's legendary Fallingwater. I wrote about our visit here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 29, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, September 28, 2007

Jan's New Site
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a recent posting about website-making software I made quick mention of a wonderful culture-intellectual website known as Jahsonic. Word now comes that Jan, the inspired brain behind the site, is building a wiki version of Jahsonic. Go here and lose yourself in supersmart yet accessible pieces on irresistable topics like sex, film, art, and Camille Paglia. A reference book with a point of view -- as Rachael Ray might say, What's not great about that? Jan has already posted over 12,000 articles (many derived from Wikipedia) and is still at work. I'd love to see more people with powerful brains, info, and thinking to share build online wikis of what they have to say. (Friedrich von Blowhard, are you listening?) I think that my own version of an ideal website would be a cross between a blog and a wiki ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 28, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Where are Cheech & Chong When You Need Them?
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This news story just sort of demands being turned into a "Up In Smoke"-esque movie, doesn't it? Or maybe a "Harold and Kumar" sequel? BTW, did I ever mention that I think Kal Penn ("Kumar") may be the best younger actor currently working in the cinema? The man is a genius: he is fearless and apparently utterly without inhibition. I would nominate him as the Rip Torn of the current generation. Penn was even great in the very modest vehicle of "National Lampoon's Van Wilder," where he plays Van Wilder's repressed but limitlessly horny assistant, Taj. Of course, I guess that means I can't ignore the original Rip Torn, who is also clearly a genius, as a million roles have proven. His producer in "The Larry Sanders Show" was a classic; and I will freely admit that I worship Mr. Torn for his role as the coach in "Dodgeball." Of course, comedic actors never get much recognition. I find that Mr. Torn has won an Emmy, a Cable Ace, an American Comedy Award, and a Bronze Wrangler award given out by Western Heritage. I guess, that is something in the way of recognition, but not exactly proportionate to his vast accomplishments over a very busy 50-year career. So far, it appears that Mr. Penn has had to content himself with a 2007 AZN Asian Excellence Award. Michael Blowhard has a fair amount to say about acting, but I've noticed that even he doesn't spend much time talking about comic acting. I would love to see a discussion of how comic and dramatic acting are similar and different from anyone who has some real knowledge of the subject. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at September 28, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Cochran on Iraq
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Those who enjoyed wrestling with our recent two-part interview with Gregory Cochran about the U.S.'s mideast adventures (here and here) won't want to miss Cochran's cover story in the current American Conservative about how we should leave Iraq. (Answer: Quickly.) It's as bold and smart as you could want a piece to be. History prof. Paul Schroeder's accompanying essay offers a lot of perspective. Nice passage from Schroeder: "The war never went wrong; it always was wrong, in specific, basic ways." Gary "War Nerd" Brecher does a pretty funny demolition job on a new biography of Dick Cheney. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 28, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Some Publishing Phenomena
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Talk about a professional! Western and mystery writer James Reasoner has published 200 books and is still going strong -- giants apparently do still roam the earth. Reasoner blogs very generously here; Saddlebums interviews him here. Ed Gorman says that Reasoner's recent southern-noir novel "Dust Devils" is a corker. * One of the more surprising publishing events of 1986 was a volume entitled "White Trash Cooking," by Ernest Matthew Mickler. It really was what it seemed to be -- a cookbook featuring recipes for dishes like Icebox Cake and Potato Chip Sandwiches. But it was more than that too. Full of humor, perceptiveness, and pride, it was touching and funny -- a poetic piece of popular anthropology: a genuine, if oddball, work of art, in other words. Though the book was controversial -- the term "white trash" was just not used at the time -- it also struck a happy nerve, and it went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The Oxford American's John T. Edge recalls the book, as well as Ernest Mickler. * 50 years ago, Grace Metalious was a hard-drinking, poor New Hampshire mother with a feverish yen to be a writer. One of the novels she submitted to that strange and distant place, the New York publishing world, was accepted, was given a new title, and was then set loose on the world. "Peyton Place" became one of the publishing sensations of the 1950s. It sold skillions of copies, helped set the pattern for generations of soap operas to come, and scandalized Americans from many different walks of life. Within six years, Metalious -- a loose cannon on the best of days -- had spent all her newfound money, and had drunk herself to death. She was only 38. Michael Callahan profiles the case for Vanity Fair. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 27, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Modern Yoga's Fountainhead
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Although the physical practices of yoga have a reputation as something ancient, even timeless, the historical fact seems to be that nearly all modern yoga stems from one man: Krishnamacharya, who lived from 1899 to 1989. Krishnamacharya not only brought together and revived what was around of yoga at the time of his youth, he developed most of the practices -- the postures and the sequences -- that people in yoga classes are executing today. Fernando Pages Ruiz does his best to sort out fact from legend. Best, Michael UPDATE: Alan Little, a real scholar of yoga history, offers a lot of helpful info and interpretation in the comments on this posting, and in this posting at his own website.... posted by Michael at September 26, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Prodigiously polished young fogey Andrew Cusack makes suave fun of Renzo Piano's cheap-looking addition to New York's otherwise-beautiful Morgan Library. * Colleen and the b.f. discover that they've put on a few pounds. * David Chute's oddball buddy Tulkinghorn dodges the Toronto Film Festival and wonders if the British crime writer Derek Raymond is worth the effort. * Cineris points out a hilarious Garfield comic-strip randomizer. Now that's one inspired and well-executed piece of conceptual art. * John Williams revisits Ithaca, New York, and finds the town as pretty as ever. Ithaca -- set on the hilly shores of Cayuga Lake -- always reminds me of a miniature San Francisco. * Nate's ready for food pills. * The Sydney Morning Herald's Sam de Brito thinks that using prostitutes is often more honest than trying to talk a non-pro into the sack. (Some mostly outraged responses here.) * Searchie has awakened out of her depression. * The raw-milk debate reaches the pages of The New York Times. * Michael Bierut shares some work from his finding-his-way years: Snazzy designs, as well as commentary that's a fun way to learn about some of the major visual trends of the last few decades. * Lester Hunt points out that anti-slavery hero William Wilberforce was about as conservative as a politician can be. * Lester also takes a re-look at Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" (here and here), and concludes that it's one modern novel that deserves to be considered a classic. * I'm glad they found each other. * Thursday shares some shrewd thoughts about David Cronenberg. * Smokin'! * Country legend Guy Clark entertains some friends. * Growing brain-dead raising her young children, HaggisChick picked up a camera. She's certainly expressing herself now! * MBlowhard Rewind: I considered the cases of Carla Gugino, Nicole Kidman, and James Spader. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 26, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Trad Meets New Kid
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Newsweek points out that the hip, fun, and innovative traditional publisher Chronicle Books has forged an interesting deal with the newish POD (print-on-demand) outfit Blurb. MBlowhard tip: Expect to see lots more of this kind of thing -- trad publishers using POD publishers as farm teams -- as we move into the next phase of book publishing. We do live in awfully interesting times, don't we? Incidentally, I don't think it's a coincidence that both Chronicle and Blurb are west-coast outfits. It's a sad but solid fact that east coast publishers are stuck in deeper ruts than are west coast publishers, who tend to be far more open-minded and forward-looking. By the way, those interested in publishing their own books owe it to themselves to take a look at Blurb, which is a heck of a service. Blurb turns out beautiful books, gives away its well-designed and rock-solid book-making software for free, and has quickly developed a classy reputation among self-publishers. The one downside in Blurb's model that I can see: It's difficult or impossible to sell a Blurb-produced book on Amazon. But if your main goal in creating your book is to give it away or to sell it to friends and family, Blurb is hard to beat. Semi-related: I've blogged a lot about the self-publishing outfit Lulu, most recently here. And it's worth noticing that Amazon has entered the field with its own outfit, CreateSpace. Small musing: Blurb, Lulu, and CreateSpace may be to traditional book publishing what blogging software is to traditional journalism -- an acid corroding the very foundations ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 26, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Mystery Quote for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Care to venture a guess as to who wrote the following passage? "The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertions, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment." No Googling, please. I'll supply the answer in a couple of hours. It may come as a surprise. Well, I'm hoping it will anyway. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 26, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Exercise and Weight
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Gary Taubes discloses an unnerving fact about exercise and weight control. (Link thanks to Arts and Letters Daily.) So far as they show anything, the studies that have been done on the topic suggest that exercise -- whatever its other virtues -- does nothing to control weight. For most people, the harder they exercise the more they'll eat. Exercisers may wind up with a toned body, they may enjoy peace and relaxation, they may get a kick out of being active for its own sake. But few of them will lose weight. My personal experience only semi-confirms Taubes' argument. For example: When he was his late 40s, my dad was told by doctors that he had only a few years to live unless he reformed his sedentary, beer-guzzling ways. Scared into long-overdue action, Dad took up jogging. When he first started up, he could barely walk a quarter of a mile. But within a couple of years he was jogging a mile and a half a day and had lost 25 pounds. He also cut 'way back on the beer, which was no doubt a big factor in the weight-loss. But did he drink less beer because he'd resolved to live more healthily, or because (thanks to jogging) he no longer needed to? In my own case, as a car-free Manhattanite who prefers to avoid cabs and public transportation, I spend around six hours a week walking. When I moved for a summer to Los Angeles, where walking opportunities are hard to come by, I put on ten pounds. Once I was back in Manhattan and once again walking nearly everywhere, the ten pounds came right off. So, in my book anyway, activity does tend to equal weight loss -- or at least a little weight loss. Or at least contributes to a little weight loss. Still, I take Taubes' larger point, which is that the health-and-eating-and-exercise industry has probably done more to mislead us than to enlighten us. In this essay for the New York Times, Michael Pollan goes even farther; he argues that the very existence of a nutrition-tips industry has made us fatter. Long ago, after I wrote something about health and eating here at the blog, I enjoyed an email exchange with a doctor who had read the posting. The point he wanted to stress to me was that medical people don't know nearly enough to be giving us the kind of -- and the volume of -- specific eating-and-exercise instructions that they and their journalistic p-r people do. He was really indignant about the way the health-tips industry is forever coming up with new discoveries and new regimens. ("Green Tea For Your Joints," etc.) Are eggs bad for you? Or was that last week? "Maybe in ten or twenty years they'll know enough to be handing out lots of advice," he wrote me. "But not now. At the moment they really don't know nearly as much as they claim... posted by Michael at September 25, 2007 | perma-link | (21) comments

Moviegoing: "Eastern Promises"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My first time to a movie theater in months and it's a dud: David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises." Set in a grimy present-day London, it's a crime melodrama about an earnest blonde midwife (Naomi Watts) who stumbles into an underworld of violent yet mysteriously attractive Russian (and Chechen, and Ukrainian, etc) thugs, played by Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassell, Armin Mueller-Stahl, etc. Viggo, Naomi: To trust, or not to trust ... The film's main purpose seems to be to showcase this seedy underworld -- to lift up the boulder of respectability and inspect the squirmy and slimy cosmos that thrives beneath it. To that extent -- as a piece of pop anthropology -- the film has its fascination. These dangerous and ambitious immigrants have their own rituals, their own pleasures, and their own business networks. Musings about globalization and its consequences are definitely being encouraged here. The film's main problem is its turgid and ponderous tone. In the creepy-crawly, trippy-erotic horror films that Cronenberg is best-known for -- "Videodrome," "Crash," "eXistenZ", etc -- the clinical, slow-motion, metaphysical-dread thing that is his specialty can hypnotize and horrify. Something appalling yet alluring always seems to be on the verge of being disclosed. Existence itself seems to be in the process of cracking open; the true horror that lies beyond pop horror will be there for us to inspect. Here, though, Cronenberg's tone just seems clunky, pretentious, and perverse. Although the material being presented (needy girls sold into prostitution, ancient vendettas between mysterious ethnic groups, etc) is certainly dark and scary, the script (by Steve "Dirty Pretty Things" Knight) doesn't have anything like the imagination or resonance it would need to justify the turgidity with which it's presented. The immigrant gangsters are sleekly repulsive / attractive -- Mortensen and Cassel have worked out a bizarre and sinister rapport, that's for sure. And Cronenberg and his art director are pretty effective at conveying the allure of tribal food and "ethnic"-style family rituals. But the film's only real bit of freshness is limited to one scene: a fight-in-a-Turkish-bath scene. The choreography, camera, and editing are effective at conveying the mass and weight of flesh and bone, the pain inflicted by knives and fists, and the unwillingness of bodies to die. The power and vulnerability of all this are heightened immensely by the genuinely brilliant idea of having Mortensen play the scene completely nude. But that's it for "memorable." The film generally is such a ponderous and earnest drag that I sat there getting ever more irreverent. "What is the big, dread-provoking deal anyway?" I kept wondering. (I also kept wondering: "Wow, can you think of a less-enticing way of using the wonderful Naomi Watts?") My guess is that the film's message -- because the film certainly feels like a solemn message-movie -- is intended to be something like "The children will pay for our sins," or maybe "Sexual slavery is a bad thing." Not exactly shocking news on either count. But... posted by Michael at September 25, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments