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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  1. Forseeable Disasters
  2. Shangri-La Update
  3. Separating Art and Artist
  4. From Visitors 1: WWI Recommendations
  5. How Not to Create an Airliner
  6. Blogging Note
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  8. Bad Health Advice
  9. Rose-Colored Glasses and Economists
  10. 1000 Words: Francis Iles' "Before the Fact"

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Forseeable Disasters
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Oh dear. (Link thanks to FvBlowhard.) Better to buy that made-in-China flat-panel TV now than to wait, I guess. Sigh: What have we done to ourselves? It's not as if many people haven't seen most of our current travails coming. Even shortsighted me: I've been following the immigration thing since the '70s. Seemed obvious to me in France in '71 (as a dumb kid!) that Europe would soon be running into trouble. And yup. Back in the States, I read up on immigration history, learned about the US's 1965 Immigration Act, and thought, Drat, trouble ahead for us too. And trouble there has indeed been. Which current train-wreck-in-the-making have you most clearly seen coming? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 12, 2007 | perma-link | (27) comments

Shangri-La Update
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Not to turn 2Blowhards into a diet-blog or anything but ... Well ... (Blush) ... I continue to stick to the Shangri-La Diet, and I continue to lose weight on it too. (I wrote back here about what it was like to begin the Shangri-La Diet.) No big deal: Only about a pound a week is coming off. Still, the weeks do go by ... I'm finding the experience not just pleasing from a losing-weight point of view but interesting in a variety of ways. For me, the most amazing thing about the Shangri-La Diet hasn't been that it works so far as losing weight goes. It's that it has been almost no trouble at all to follow. It's as simple as can be. That's why Seth Roberts, the Berkeley psychology prof who dreamed the diet up, gave it that "Shangri-La" name: This diet is almost too good, or at least too easy, to be true. (Roberts' website is here.) I won't go into the details of the diet; you can buy the book if you want those. But I will spill the central discipline of the Shangri-La routine: It involves ingesting some flavorless calories (in the form of oil or sugarwater) several times a day. And that's it. No carb-watching, no fat-forgoing, no vegetarianism, no tofu, no endless rows of grapefruit to consume. You ingest your flavorless calories three or four times a day; otherwise, you eat as you see fit. The fact is that -- for whatever reason -- you wind up eating less than you usually do. The theory behind why this should be has to do with how we evolved to flourish in Paleolithic conditions of scarcity instead of today's state of abundance and convenience; and about a calories-taste connection that gets forged, makes us fat, and needs to be broken. Much more important than the theory, though, is the fact that the diet is easy and it works. Perhaps I've taken to eating like a caveman. Perhaps some flavor-calories connection in me is being broken. I have no idea. I do know, though, that after five weeks of going to very little trouble I've dropped five pounds. From a dieter's point of view, I've found a number of things about the experience to be striking. One is the fact that the diet requires no willpower -- zero. You aren't put in the position of having to overcome your appetites and your instincts. Instead, the flavorless-calories routine changes your appetite, and soon after that your actual eating habits. You begin to want less food, and to feel full and satisfied sooner than usual. Yes, you do eat less -- but not because you're trying to eat less. You eat less because you feel like eating less. What's double-fascinating is that this process is largely involuntary and unconscious. When I'm eating a meal, at a certain moment -- ie., when I'm full -- I simply put my fork down. That's it,... posted by Michael at October 12, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Separating Art and Artist
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Can a work of art be evaluated without reference to the personal qualities of the artist who created it? Should a work of art be evaluated without reference to the personal qualities of the artist who created it? I'm only a casual reader of art criticism, but it strikes me that these are perennial questions that seem to pop up whenever an artist is "controversial." The idealistic response, if I understand the issue correctly, is that a work of art both can and should be evaluated independently of the artist. And as surely as the New York City sun rises over the East River and sets over the Hudson, this ideal is honored in the breach. I don't keep statistics on this, so I'm just guessing when I say that qualities of the artist tend to enter the scene when the critic does not like those qualities. This approach can be difficult for the critic if the artist has produced works that, by consensus, are considered great or even significant. That is, the critic might agonize, as Michael did (very mildly) here over film-maker and Hitler groupie Leni Riefenstahl. Poet Ezra Pound was another problematical case from the age of Fascism as was, to a much lesser degree, Herbert von Karajan. And it's my impression (correct me if I'm wrong) that current academic critics are quick to veer from the art to dwell on the hated racist/patriarchal/capitalist/whatever social milieu that spawned the item being evaluated. It's less common, but occasionally artist qualities the critic approves of or finds worthy can enter into the evaluation. To me, the prime example is Frida Kahlo whose wretched/tragic life seems to outshine her art. Let's see ... she was female, crippled, married to famous artist Diego Rivera, died young, and was a Communist or fellow traveler. At any rate, when I see references to her, it's the biography that's stressed, not so much her paintings. Perhaps that's because, down deep, the critics realize that her art was banal and repetitive -- not top-grade stuff. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 12, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, October 11, 2007

From Visitors 1: WWI Recommendations
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in this posting, I asked for recommendations for sources about World War One. Given how much erudite advice came flooding in, I thought I'd be missing the chance to do a real public service if I didn't take the tips and put them into a posting of their own. Charlton Griffin points out that Wikipedia's entry on the war is very well done. Charlton himself has produced an audiobook of Garrett and Godfrey's "Europe Since 1815," and he says it's a good introduction to the era. (I do love a good introduction ...) "Mud, Blood, and Poppycock" by Gordon Corrigan gets thumbs-up from Alex, Dearieme, and others. Lexington Green recommends "The Swordbearers" by Correlli Barnett; Lex has also written some substantial postings himself about the War: here, here, here. Alex and tschafer put in a good word for the military historian John Terraine; Tschafer and Narr think Niall Ferguson's "The Pity of War" has a lot going for it; Narr also likes John Mosier's "The Myth of the Great War." William Suddeth is a fan of G.J. Meyer's "A World Undone: The Story of the Great War" (a mere 800 pages), and Ned recommends Sir Basil Liddell Hart's "The Real War." That ought to keep me in reading material for the next quarter-century or so. Many thanks to all. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 11, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

How Not to Create an Airliner
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- It helps me to fall asleep if I read a book with lots of break-points that enable me to set it aside when my eyelids get heavy. Potted items about cars, ships and planes work well for me. Not long ago I was, for the umpteenth time, paging through Back to the Drawing Board by Bill Gunston, my favorite airplane writer. This 1996 book has around 80 short essays (with photos) about aircraft that either (1) failed to fly, (2) had dangerously poor flying characteristics, or (3) fell far short of performance or other expectations. One case interested me in particular -- that of the Avro Tudor, a British Airliner of the immediate post-World War 2 era. Not only did the aircraft have prolonged developmental problems, its specification was seriously flawed. Avro Tudor Gunston asserts (p. 123): From fifty years on it is hard to believe that, at the end of World War II, we British thought we were world leaders in aviation. In fact, this merely betrayed our ignorance. At the same time, we fully recognised that for the moment we could not compete against properly designed American commercial transports, such as the DC-4 and the Constellation, with converted bombers such as the Halton and Lancastrian. Not to worry. Coming along fast were our own properly designed airliners, led by the Avro Tudor. Tudor happens to be my middle name, and so I particularly wanted this to be a really fine aircraft, worthy of its great forebear, the Lancaster. Avro's design team, led by Roy Chadwick, could surely be relied upon to produce a real winner? But when the Tudor prototype appeared towards the end of the war, flying on 14 June 1945, I was not especially impressed. Two giant main wheels and a tailwheel smacked of 1935 rather than 1945, especially as it meant that passengers had to board a fuselage tilted like the side of a hill. And for a big 7,000 hp aircraft to be equipped to carry just twelve passengers seemed to suggest that the tickets would be expensive. In fact the whole procurement set-up was ludicrous. The customer was the Ministry of Aircraft Production, which did not actually operate aircraft and knew nothing whatsoever about civil aviation. The airline, BOAC, was a government instrument which knew nothing about competition, or even whether its services were competitively priced. It carried mailbags for the Post Office, and government VIP and Service passengers whose tickets were paid for. Fare-paying passengers were a rare species. Thus, the Tudor was designed to carry twelve passengers in sumptuous comfort non-stop across the North Atlantic But this book is not greatly concerned with economics. The Tudor gets in on much more certain grounds. To be frank, not only was it not in the same class as its transatlantic rivals, but the makers made the proverbial 'pig's ear' of it. The third paragraph is particularly interesting as a cautionary tale regarding government trying to do things... posted by Donald at October 11, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Blogging Note
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm back from Italy. And I've been awake for [checks watch, tries to do calculation] 24 hours minus a five-minute catnap. Awoke at a hotel near Milan's Malpensa airport around 4:50 a.m. and, as I type this, it's just after 7:45 p.m. here in Seattle, nine time-zones away. I left a post or two in the queue and will start with that tomorrow after scrolling through what Michael has posted since September 20th. (Thank you, Michael, for taking up the slack.) While traveling, I made notes for potential articles and will get going on those. By the way, despite my skepticism, I did find yet another can of little-known (outside Italy) late-19th century painters to open up and write about. Gotta collect what's left of my wits. More later. Ciao! Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 10, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * There's a website for everything. * Give yourself a little time to savor this one: Curious Expeditions has posted a lot of photos of beautiful library interiors. Now that's some amazin' architecture, and some heroic blogging too. (Link thanks to the Classicist.) * Steve Sailer takes note of this year's Nobels and comes up with a great line: "White males (six out of six in this case) continue to oppress the rest of humanity by discovering and inventing stuff." * Chimps are more patient than people are. Not only that, chimps resemble economics' idealized homo economicus more than people do. * The Manhattan Institute's Julia Vitullo-Martin brings Jane Jacobs up to date. * The Right Rev. James Bailey has a damn lot on his mind. * Alicatte thinks that New York magazine has come up with both the best and the worst of recent magazine covers. * Yahmdallah clicks onto Amazon's new MP3 store and winds up doing some major downloading. * By the way, you can now post reader-reviews in video form on Amazon. Weird. Can there be such a thing as Too Much Video? * DVD Spin Doctor reports that "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." will finally be appearing on DVD. Lordy, when I was a kid, did I ever love that show. * TGGP wonders what was so bad about Charles Lindbergh. David Boaz notes that FDR once praised Mussolini. * Hey, I've got a great idea! Let's bring a "hidden population" "out into the open"! * Jim Kalb is skeptical about the hundred-dollar-laptop initiative. * The Patriarch points out this hilarious bouquet of passages from reviews written by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is especially funny on "Finnegans Wake" and "Citizen Kane." * Even San Franciscans can get fed up with the homeless. (Link thanks to LlamaButchers.) A great quote comes from one local: "Maybe there has been an epiphany," says David Latterman, president of Fall Line Analytics, a local market research firm. "People have realized they can hate George Bush but still not want people crapping in their doorway." * Richard S. Wheeler has a question about porno novels. Ed Gorman confesses that he has written a few porno-Westerns. * Piercing as a lifestyle. * Did you know that a clitoral-hood piercing can be either vertical or horizontal? * Culturebargain: Angelina Jolie made her reputation playing a junkie-model in Michael Cristofer's "Gia," and it's no challenge to see what startled people about her work. She's both go-for-broke and perfectly-collected. She's also, at least in the unrated version of the film, frequently naked in expressive -- as in bold, vulnerable, proud, and touching -- ways. The film, based on a true story, is worth seeing for many other reasons too, among them Jay McInerney's shrewd script and Elizabeth Mitchell's daring performance as Gia's sometime girlfriend. $9.95. * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about Jack Kelly's terrific private-eye novel "Mobtown" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 10, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Bad Health Advice
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wrote back here wondering what might be done about it when public-health types, docs, and other health officials hand out bad advice. After all, when bad health advice comes from trustworthy-seeming -- and especially official and scientific -- sources, it can prove anything but harmless. People develop worse health than they'd otherwise have had; some people may even die. In The New York Times, John Tierney visits with Gary Taubes, the author whose new book about the low-fat craze set my own musings off. Tierney doesn't attempt an answer to my question, but he does a first-class job of showing both how flagrantly the public-health sector screwed up in this case, and of how that screwup came to be. Fact of the matter #1: No reputable study has ever shown that diets high in fat cause heart disease. Fact of the matter #2: For almost 50 years, the American health establishment touted low-fat diets as a good way to fight heart disease. It's like watching dominos knock each other over. Basing their judgment on a single, poorly-done study from the early 1950s, the American Heart Association announced in 1960 that people at risk for heart disease should eat a low-fat diet. Time magazine featured the researcher behind the lousy study on its cover. In the 1970s, a committee led by Sen. George McGovern urged Americans to eat low-fat. By 1980, the Dept. of Agriculture had adopted the advice and incorporated it into the Food Pyramid. Let me repeat that in a condensed version for emphasis: By 1980, the American Heart Association, Time magazine, a Senate Committee, and the U.S.D.A. were urging Americans to fight heart disease by eating a low-fat diet. Meanwhile, zero good scientific evidence supported their advice. But how were Mr. and Ms. Routine American to know that? And it didn't stop there. The "scientific" and public-health consensus continued to snowball. The National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society endorsed low-fat eating. Although the truth of the matter appears to be that fat in the diet has no significant impact on mortality whatsoever, the U.S. Surgeon General himself announced in 1988 that fat in the American diet was a health concern on a par with tobacco-smoking. Meanwhile, millions of Mr. and Ms. Americans were abandoning fat, were gobbling down carbs like they were going out of style, and were packing on weight at a rate never before seen. Aesthete that I am, I feel the moment may have come to remind visitors of what every good cook knows: "Fat is flavor." Our waistlines were expanding, our life-pleasure was on the decline -- and it was all for nothing. Gary Taubes of course deserves a lot of credit for his research. And John Tierney does an excellent job of describing how this mistaken public-health consensus cascaded into something that may well have done real damage to American health. If you're a sly, inside-the-media-beltway dog like me, you can't help but... posted by Michael at October 10, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Rose-Colored Glasses and Economists
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, I noticed a current (October 10, 2007) story posted on the website by Joe Richter and Alex Tanzi, "U.S. Economy to Avoid Recession as Housing Sinks, Survey Shows." As the story leads off: The U.S. economy will skirt recession even as the housing slump takes a bigger bite from growth, according to a survey of economists. The economy will grow at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the fourth quarter, 0.4 percentage point less than forecast last month, according to the median of 71 analysts participating in Bloomberg News's monthly survey. Estimates for the first six months of next year were also reduced. Well, that's not fabulous, exactly, but it sounds like we're going to dodge the bullet, right? Unfortunately, maybe not. My recent reading of economics bloggers has tipped me off to a painful truth: economists are notoriously bad predictors of recessions. Indeed, they seem to have a systemic bias for what might be termed rose-colored glasses. Nouriel Roubini, a Serious Economist (see his Wikipedia profile), brought this up in a post (which you can read here) from a year ago in which he defended his call that the U.S. would see a recession in 2007: These days I get asked daily in interviews and talks: "How do you explain that the market consensus is still so far from your recession call for 2007? Why does almost everyone on Wall Street believe that there will be no recession? What do you know that they do not?" Actually I do not know anything that they do not; we use the same public information and, of course, I have no inside information. My explanation of the consensus view about a "soft landing" is that there is a massive and systematic bias in forecasting recessions. Take the following telling example: in March 2001 in a survey 95% of US economic forecasters predicted that there would not be a recession in 2001; 95% of them! Too bad that the recession had already started exactly in March of that year!....This even after the tech and investment bubble had totally busted in 2000; even after the 2000 Chrismas sales were a disaster and growth was already crawling down to zero by the end of 2000; this even after the Fed went into a panic mode on January 2nd 2001 and cut the Fed Funds rate in between FOMC meetings because of the collapse of Chrismas sales and the collapse of the NASDAQ that day was clearly signaling a coming recession. There was systematic delusional bullish bias among forecasters, among investors and in the Fed. [emphasis original] Dr. Roubini also linked to a IMF Working Paper by Prakash Loungani, , "How Accurate are Private Sector Forecasts? Cross-Country Evidence From Consensus Forecasts of Output Growth" from April 2000. This study systematically examined forecasts for 63 countries for the period from 1989-2000. One of its conclusions: How well do forecasters predict recessions? The simple answer is: "Not very well." Only... posted by Friedrich at October 10, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

1000 Words: Francis Iles' "Before the Fact"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've blogged recently about food, architecture, performers -- some of my favorite topics, in fact. But if I were to be entirely honest about what's been occupying my culture-mind for the last few weeks, I'd have to say that it has mainly been these questions: "Why isn't the Francis Iles novel 'Before the Fact' better-known than it is? In fact, why isn't 'Before the Fact' celebrated as one of the most brilliant prose-fiction performances of the 20th century?" Since you've probably never heard of Francis Iles, let me backtrack and fill in a few blanks. First: Until a few years ago I was barely aware of Francis Iles myself. The only reason I knew anything about him at all was because I've been through a number of histories of crime fiction. In them, Iles plays a small role as one of the originators of the genre known as the "inverted mystery," which in turn led to the genre of "psychological suspense." Little is usually said about Iles but that. He's presented as a small but significant historical landmark. There isn't much to be learned about Iles on the Web either. There's no Francis Iles Society, and there aren't any websites devoted to him. (Here's Wikipedia on him; here's a Crippen & Landru page.) What little I know about Iles I mainly owe to Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler's excellent "Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection." Among other things, their entry on Iles says, "[His] shunning of personal publicity made his private life a notable mystery in itself." Berkeley. Er, Cox. Er, Iles ... In any case: He was born Anthony Berkeley Cox in 1893. He wrote humorous pieces for Punch; he worked as a journalist; he cranked out comic novels. In 1925 he wrote his first mystery story. Finding that he enjoyed the rather larger paycheck he earned, he turned his talents and energies to the mystery field, writing numerous detective stories under a variety of pseudonyms. Along with such other giants as G.K. Chesterton and E.C. Bentley, Cox / Iles founded the first important mystery writers' organization, London's Detection Club. He also became a regular reviewer of mystery fiction. Then, in 1939, he stopped writing fiction entirely. Why? Did he come into some money? No one seems to know for sure. No one seems to know much else about him period. Did he grow up aristo or working-class? How did he pay the bills? Where did he stand politically, if at all? Was he a breeder or a non-breeder? What did he make of modernism? To all those questions I have not a single answer. Cox died in 1970. Or maybe 1971. Since psychological suspense happens to be my very favorite genre, around a year ago I finally decided that the time had come for me to read one of Cox's, er, Iles' books. (I'm anything but a scholar, but every now and then I do get curious about things.) So I read his... posted by Michael at October 9, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Child of a Pundit
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What's it like to grow up the child of a famous right-wing pundit? John Leo's daughter Alex recollects. Rebelling against her beloved dad, Alex decided to attend Wesleyan. Sheesh: Did she need to go to that extreme? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 9, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Commenting Explanation
I know some visitors are puzzled and/or frustrated when they try to leave comments on this blog, so a quick word of apology for that, as well as a quick explanation about how commenting works around here. We moderate comments -- in other words, we hand-review and hand-approve all submitted comments. We do this only because we've found that if we don't, the blog quickly gets overwhelmed by spam-comments. And what a misery that can be. As in hours and hours of weeding out loathesome crap. Depending on how regularly we proprietors are checking in with the blog, this can mean that it might take your comment anywhere from a few minutes to half a day to appear. And given the way we all enjoy the rapidfire, instant-gratification back-and-forth of blogging, this is unfortunate and a little bewildering. Like I say, sorry for that. I wish there were something I could do to make the process less awkward. Unhappily, spam-comments won't just go away. Unhappily as well, we have yet to figure out how to build a "captcha" function into commenting -- that's that scheme whereby you're asked to type in some random numbers-and-letters before posting. We also have yet to figure out how to build an explanation of what's going on into the commenting function. Wouldn't it be nice if a box saying something like "Comments are moderated by the blog-proprietors. This means that your comment may not appear for a while. Please be patient" popped up during the commenting process? But, well, my computer skills don't extend much beyond knowing how to link to other blogs. To be a little less flip ... This blog has been around for so long, and the software it's based on (Movable Type) has been upgraded so many times -- it's full of so much left-over back-end crud -- that even our beloved webguy (the man who set us up as bloggers many years ago) couldn't manhandle a "captcha" function into the process when we had him give it a try. Is this what those who know about such things call a "legacy" challenge? In any case, apologies for any inconveniences, and please keep those comments coming. They will show up eventually.... posted by Michael at October 7, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments