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Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Pleasures of the Cusp
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This item by the incomparable Mark Steyn is linked by Instapundit and probably others. Relevant section: As John [O'Sullivan] put it, societies in the early stages of decline can be very agreeable - and often more agreeable than societries [sic] trying to cope with prosperity and rapid growth. ... Precisely because the first stages of decline are so agreeable, it's very hard to accept it as such. Part of the problem in Europe is that, when chaps like yours truly shriek "Run for your lives! The powder keg's about to go up!", etc, the bon vivant enjoying his Dubonnet at the sidewalk cafe thinks: Are you crazy? Life's never been better. Civilized decline can be so charming you don't notice it's about to accelerate into uncivilized decline. Interesting concept. But difficult or impossible to quantify, leaving us to fall back on anecdote and conjecture. Complicating things is that no society of any size is homogeneous economically. For instance, late-Victorian and Edwardian England as well as France in the Belle Époque era could be cited as examples of agreeable life at the cusp and beyond. Yet other observers might immediately jump in and cite heartbreaking tales of impoverished peasants and exploited factory workers from the same times. Then there is the fact that, given a clear disaster or collapse, the period immediately before it must have been better, for some people, at least: we're talking comparisons, right? Enough quibbling. Let's have some fun. Assume O'Sullivan/Steyn are correct. What twilight good-times can we identify? In addition to the ones mentioned above, I can pile on some other obvious cases: The Roaring Twenties, Vienna in that same Belle Époque and Rome in the first decades after it became Imperial. And on a smaller scale, what about cities other than Vienna? A while ago I wrote about the point when I thought New York City tipped into the death spiral of the 70s and 80s. But our shiny new search engine doesn't think 2Blowards ever used the words "New York," so I can't link to that post. Anyhow, for my non-childhood lifetime, I say New York City noticeably hit the skids around 1965. So the ten or 20 years before that might count as a golden twilight. Ditto that for San Francisco -- same dates, but 'Frisco (I know locals hate that name, but so what?) is still on the skids. Go to Market Street near the theatre district some evening and you'll get the picture. Which makes me wonder about Seattle. Living here is about as pleasant as can be (aside from last week's windstorm and power outage, and possibly the occasional earthquake and volcano eruption). The town votes Democrat overwhelmingly and the mayor and city council scare this particular warmongering Neanderthal with their (unintended? ... or not?) drive to turn the place into yet another NYC or SFO. Enough of me. What do you think? Please comment. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 20, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

The Face of Ford
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- A while ago I discussed continuity of automobile brand styling cues. I used Packard as an example, but Rolls Royce and Mercedes would have worked just as well. They are among the exceptions. A few other makes use styling themes fitfully, keeping with cues for a few model years, discarding them and occasionally reintroducing some of them years later. I wrote about Buick's use of "portholes" and other cues here. Most often, themes are used for a few years and then are discarded for good. I suppose this can be justified/rationalized by claiming that obliterating old cues tells the public that the brand is progressive, continually reaching into the future for newer, better solutions to evolving conditions. While this might make sense for a brand with a miserable reputation -- erasing as many references to a shoddy past as possible -- I'm not convinced it's a wise policy for successful brands. Confusing the issue is the pressure of fashion. Car stylists seem to be about as prone as anyone in the fashion industry to herd behavior, so brand continuity often has to fight styles considered "trendy" or even "expected." And then there are management changes. Perhaps a new styling director or even a company president in true dog-and-fireplug fashion wants to make his mark. All of these factors seem to have affected styling of Fords for the last 60 years. In the examples below, I use as best I can the "standard" Ford model of the time. This didn't matter in the early years, but since around 1960 Fords have come in several sizes and bodies each model year, and I tried to select the model that would have represented Ford absent the extension of the brand to multiple "platforms," though that selection might be pretty arbitrary for some model years. To keep things simple, I'll concentrate on grilles, which are the "face" of a car. Gallery 1947 Ford Aside from Studebaker and the new Kaiser and Frazer brands, 1947 American cars were face-lifted pre-war models. Ford was in turmoil when the '47s were styled. Founder Henry was finally out of the management picture, having been succeeded by grandson Henry II and a newly hired corps of former General Motors hands aided by the famed ex-Army Air Force "whiz kids" who included Robert McNamara in their ranks. The company had been losing money, in part because of chaotic accounting practices, and was feverishly working on 1949 models that had to be good enough to stave off expected redesigns from Chrysler and General Motors and thereby save the company. The grille was a simple affair featuring horizontal chromed bars. 1949 Ford And save the company the '49 model did. Although its styling has an interesting history, I'll focus on what moved down the assembly lines. I like the 1949 Ford grille very much. It's simple. And the round "bullet" shape in the middle echoes the round headlights while providing a triangular subtext to what otherwise... posted by Donald at October 20, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Vanessa reviews the edible goodies at a party Saveur magazine threw for itself in Chicago. People who attend p-r events can sometimes eat pretty darned well. * You've probably already seen Snowball, the funky, BackStreet Boys-lovin' cockatoo. But if not ... * Lester Hunt celebrates the fiftieth birthday of "Atlas Shrugged." Have there been many novels as influential as "Atlas Shrugged"? * Razib puzzles over the way some dark-skinned Melanesians have blonde hair. * The man can breathe, there's no doubt about that. * LordSomber recalls the awful coffee, soup, and hot chocolate that was dispensed by old vending machines. * Who even knew there was such a thing as Canadian exploitation films? * Jon Hastings lists what he likes to see in a movie performance. * JewishAtheist wants to know how literally the Orthodox take it all. * Ed Gorman confides that many well-known authors have written porno novels. Curt Purcell is on the story. * Tim Worstall doesn't have a lot of patience with people who claim that there's a female / male pay gap. * According to Sam Jordison, the carefree, fun-loving Bohemian set can't afford Britain any longer. * I wonder if this guy is the world's spinning-on-your-head champ. Are there any challengers? * Glenn Abel raves about Criterion's DVD edition of Clouzot's classic thrller "The Wages of Fear." * Kirsten is hopping mad at NY's self-righteous, over-ambitious Governor Eliot Spitzer: here, here, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 20, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Adventures and Recommendations of David C.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bollywood aficionado David Chute takes off a few pounds, lands a new gig, and reviews some intriguing new Asian movies. Does anyone in America know more about Asian movies than David Chute does? David also tipped us off to Neal Stephenson's brilliant essay "In the Beginning was the Command Line," a piece of writing that should fascinate anyone with an interest in computers 'n' culture. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Music-Is-a- Strange-Career Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Sam the Sham, who earned rock immortality for the 1965 "Wooly Bully" and the 1966 "Little Red Riding Hood," these days works as a motivational speaker. * Former Go-Go's lead singer Belinda Carlisle now lives in the South of France and has a new chanteuse-cabaret CD out -- sung all in French. She's amusingly frank about her days of debauchery as a rock star. Despite their sweet partygirl image, the Go-Go's were evidently determined to out-do da boyz in da bad-behavior department. The house the bandmates shared was the site of so much lewd wantonness that it came to be known as "Disgraceland." On her way back from multiple addictions, Belinda was at one time attending Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous simultaneously. * In his new memoir, Eric Clapton reveals that heroin left him not just uninterested in sex but constipated. Excerpt here. * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote about the Pogues' defiantly self-destructive (yet indestructible) Shane MacGowan here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Missed Opportunities
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For an arty guy with no technical gifts or interests, I smacked into the computer world at a relatively early stage. I don't mean "the computer world" in the absolute sense, by the way. When I was in high school back in 1970, for instance, computers were certainly around. But at that point they weren't of much interest (let alone of much use) to anyone other than extreme geeks. In 1970, the idea of computers seemed futuristic in appealing ways. But the reality of computers was much less attractive. In the case of the high school I attended, for instance: Computing meant one small, airless room with a keyboard and punchcards, and a connection to what was mysteriously referred to as "the Dartmouth computer." I poked my head into that computer room one time and one time only. Not pleasant: bad lighting, and full of geek b.o. and giggly social ineptitude. And why on earth would anyone think it was a big deal to be playing playing tic-tac-toe "with Dartmouth"? Since what I wanted from life was girls, movies, art, physical activity, and sunshine, computers in 1970 seemed like the opposite of everything I valued. They seemed like the antithesis of what I then thought of as "aesthetics." No, for the sake of this posting anyway, what I mean by "computers" is computers in a somewhat later sense: computers at the time videogames and personal computers were starting to make a more-than-a-novelty kind of impact -- the early-to-mid '80s, roughly. By then, computers and aesthetic matters didn't seem to occupy quite such opposite poles. Pong had long since given way to more complex games. Hard drives were beginning to seem like a plausible part of everyday reality. And when the original Macs came along -- in early 1984 -- the machines started to speak directly to the arty set. Right about then was when I woke up to the cultural implications of computing. I found myself on BBS's, for instance, caught up in debates about the impact of word processing. For those who haven't encountered the philosophy-of- word-processing field: The advent of word processing hit a handful of culture-types very hard. Nearly all writers were delighted by the way the new tools enabled them to get their writing down so easily, of course. But a small band of culture-fiends also found themselves looking at the phenomenon from a longer point of view, and musing, "Hmm, you know, this word-processing thing might really change the whole 'writing' game at a very deep level ..." It was a tiny world, this musing-over-the-aesthetic / cultural-implications-of-computers world. But for some reason I really zero'd in on it. For instance, I didn't just read Jay David Bolter and Michael Heim -- the philosophers of what word processing might mean in the big sense. I met and chatted with them. In 1987, Apple's HyperCard gave non-techies a chance to mess with databases and programming. By the late 1980s, software created... posted by Michael at October 18, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Italy Album, 2007
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- When I returned from my recent trip to Italy, I got my orders from Michael: pictures!! That being the price I (and you too) have to pay for my nearly three weeks of lollygagging from blog duties, here goes ... Galleria Italia I'm hardly a day off the airplane in Rome and, by golly, who do I spy but Julius and some of his buddies/assassins/entrepreneurs. You'll see a few of these guys hanging out at the Colosseum end of the Forum. If you want to take a picture of your spouse or friend with them, they'll ask for a tip: we forked over two Euros each for a pose with Nancy and two of them. The photo you see here was taken using a telephoto setting, so I didn't have to pay them one red Euro-cent. I fugure the nearly $6 the previous encounter cost us was plenty for that crew. This is the Colosseum taken from the hill to its north. Yes, it really is big: note the size of the people nearby. Here is a view of the Forum. For some reason, ruins don't move me much. What I found most interesting, as with the Colosseum, was the scale of the place. Again, note how small humans are in relation to the structure elements. Another view in which I try to illustrate the scale. This was taken at an Autostrada rest stop. Along with normal travelers and some tour buses were a couple of vans with Italian soldiers (now volunteers, not conscripts). Yes, the fellow you see is packing serious heat. Eyecharts seen along the main shopping drag in Capri. (By the way, Italians pronounce it KAH-pree.) What? Chinese and Greek not enough to cover the touring throngs? Then try this. Milan doesn't strike me as being a comfy, touristy place, unlike many other Italian cities. The one really nice spot is the Galleria, charming visitors and locals for around 140 years. For the Venice part of the tour, rather than staying in Venice itself or at nearby Mestre, they put us up at a place more than an hour's drive south, at the other end of the Venetian lagoon: Chioggia. It's a quiet place with (unusual for Italy) lots of kids. It has canals, too. What's a trip to Italy without a visit to Florence and a visit to Florence without seeing the Ponte Vechio ("Old Bridge")? We were there twice -- once with the tour and later while on post-tour traveling. The Arno River was low and slow so I was able to get a lot of nice reflection-shots, but most of those were at higher densities than permitted for this blog. This is Sorrento, on the Bay of Naples, taken from the harbor area. The buildings perched on the cliff fascinate. Also note the motor scooters and cycles below. As a parting shot, here's Vesuvius at daybreak. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 17, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * National Review's David Frum congratulates neocon John Podhoretz on being appointed editor of Commentary magazine. Steve Sailer and visitors treat themselves to a lot of mockery at JPod's expense. * Tikkun founder Rabbi Michael Lerner thinks that Walt and Mearsheimer's characterization of the Israel Lobby is pretty much on target. Don't miss the q&a at the bottom of the page with Congressman Jim Moran, who explains how much weight AIPAC swings in D.C. (Link thanks to FvBlowhard.) * Jon Entine, whose courageous 2001 book "Taboo" dared to discuss racial differences in athletic gifts and achievements, has a new book coming out about the genetics of Jewishness. (Entine is Jewish himself.) Evo-bio expert Razib asks Entine "10 Questions." Entine's own website is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Grumpy Old Bookman on Short Stories
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Grumpy Old Bookman thinks that the problem with the contempo short story is that "it's pussywhipped." He gets no argument from me on that score. Also not to be missed are GOB's two contrasting Histories of the Short Story, the official one and the true one. "Not only do academic writers tend to overlook whole areas of fiction writing," writes GOB, "but they are also likely to ignore the economic facts of life." There's a lot of experience and wisdom in those words. Thanks to Dave Lull. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Procedural Note
A pause in the action to note that a technical challenge has arisen here at 2Blowhards. No idea why, but as of around 10 pm Tuesday evening it's as though the blog reverted to the state it was in four or five hours previously. Unfortunately this means that some backstage work has been erased, and that some comments have been misplaced. I'll be speaking to our blog-hosts as soon as they're back in their office, or server-farm, or wherever it is they work. I hope they'll be able to recover whatever it is we've lost. Thanks for your patience. UPDATE: Problem -- er, challenge -- addressed and solved. Our wonderful webhosts (highly recommended) were moving our site onto a shiney and speedy new server. Since all elements have now been retrieved and aligned, we'll be off and running again shortly.... posted by Michael at October 16, 2007 | perma-link | (0) comments

Fascist Buildings
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not writing about buildings that seem fascistic in their relationship to occupants, though Lord knows there's plenty of grist for that mill. No, this is simply a quick post showing a few buildings I encountered in Italy that were built in the days of the Mussolini regime. I'm not sure I'd even give the matter of Fascist-era architecture much of a thought except for the fact that popular travel writer Rick Steves takes the trouble to mention in his Italy guidebook that this or that building dated to Mussolini. So if Über-Liberal Steves seems a bit obsessed by Fascist-era buildings and not, say, those from the reign of King Vittorio Emanuele, then attention obviously must be paid. I haven't researched this subject, but from casual observation I found nothing particularly evil or even unusual about the Fascist-era buildings that I came across. Mussolini's agenda included making Italy a modern, efficient country, so advanced (for the times) artistic and architectural concepts were favored by the State. In practice, this meant Art Deco-inspired styles in the late 20s and nearly ornament-free buildings in the later 30s. Similar architecture can be found all over the USA in the form of government buildings funded by Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-fighting agencies. For what it's worth, here's what I photographed: Gallery Milan's Stazione Centrale The present Milan Central Station was designed years before Mussolini took power, but not dedicated until 1931. According to this report, modifications were made to the design during the long construction process. Although Steves notes an association with Mussolini, that's not really apparent from the architecture. The station is undergoing renovation and was a mess when we were there which made it hard to evaluate. Florence's Stazione Centrale Santa Maria Novella Opened in 1935, Florence's central station is clearly Modernist in spirit. (For a Wikipedia link, click here, though I must caution you that it's in Italian.) Perhaps the architecture seemed shockingly modern when the station opened; certainly it wasn't in the spirit of the rest of central Florence. But the station is on the edge of central Florence, which lessens the visual damage. From a 2007 perspective, the building strikes me as nondescript. Government building, Rome I think I snapped this while strolling a ways northwest of the Vittorio Emanuele monument, but didn't write down details. Anyhow, it's Fascist-era. Mediterraneo Hotel, Rome This is where our tour group stayed. Very convenient for travelers arriving on the train from Fiumicino Airport: it's only a block from the plaza in front of Rome's Stazione Centrale. According to its web site, the hotel was opened in 1938. So far as I know, it was a private project, yet it is in the spirit of government buildings of the time. Later, Donald... posted by Michael at October 16, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another bulletin from our changing media environment: The average [newspaper] reader spends more time with a print edition on a single day than the average visitor to a paper's Web site spends in an entire month. Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 16, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Kalb on Alexander
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Jim Kalb is having an appreciative wrestle with volume one of Christopher Alexander's "The Nature of Order": here, here, here, here, here. Since Alexander is, for my money, one of the really important thinkers of our time -- hint: It ain't just about architecture -- and since I find Jim to be one of the most substantial and thoughtful of bloggers, I'm one happy reader. Jim's verdict on the book: "I can't think of another book on any topic published since the Second World War that strikes me as equally valuable." I'll second him on that. The Alexander-Kalb matchup is one made in 2Blowhards heaven for another reason too. Early on we did a long interview with Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician, architect, and architectural theorist who has worked closely with Christopher Alexander. You can get to all five parts of the interview via this posting. Nikos' own very generous website is here. We also ran a three-part interview with Jim Kalb, in which Jim explains the nature of real conservatism: Part One, Part Two, Part Three. Please do treat yourself to both of these interviews. They're real brain-openers. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 16, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Headline for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Punchline: This is the headline of an Editor's Note in AARP Magazine -- that's right, the publication that used to be known as Modern Maturity. Sensible response, or so it seems to me: Well, if cotton-tops and retirees don't know what it is to be a grownup, then who does? Hey, if grown-up-titude has genuinely become such a perplexing puzzle, maybe that's a sign that the time has come to abandon the idea. Why agonize over maturity and responsibility? Let's all be kids forever. BTW, if you haven't yet had the pleasure: Modern Maturity hasn't undergone an overhaul merely where its name is concerned. It's now full of catchy themes, sassy boxes, and punchy graphics. It features celebrity confessionals; seniors who are cheery, active, and dynamic; and one of the zaniest of the bizarro new Tables of Contents that I've taken note of several times. (Here, here.) It has been transformed, in other words, into a magazine for the crowd that used to subscribe to Rolling Stone. Joking about Boomers, their Peter Pan ways, and how they've ruined our culture generally, can now commence. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 16, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, October 15, 2007

Modern Art, Italian Style
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Rome has the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in the Villa Borghese park area and Florence the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in the Palazzo Pitti museum aggregation. The former deals with art from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century while the latter's time frame is 1784 to 1924 or thereabouts. Italians seem to view art with a longer perspective than do Americans or even northern Europeans: something to do with Etruscans, Greeks and Romans, perhaps. To them, "modern" is something that happened after the Renaissance as well as the Baroque and Rococo periods. Recent art? That would be called "contemporary" -- for what it's worth, Rome does have its Museo di Arte Contemporanea. I visited the "modern" museums and found them worthwhile. As many Faithful Readers know, I'm especially interested in non-Academic, non-Modernist art from the second half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th. This is because I think that Modernism (and its PoMo guises) was a probably necessary experiment that largely failed aesthetically, even though it has remained commercially successful. Non-Modernist art might offer clues as to the direction art might take once Modernism shrinks to proper place in the art pantheon of movements and styles. The web site for the Rome Moderna is here and that for Florence's is here. The Florence gallery features the Macchiaioli movement, and I'll deal with them in a later post. For now, I'll discuss the Rome Moderna. The building is divided into four main gallery blocs along with connecting spaces. The bloc containing works from the first half of the 19th century was closed the day we visited, so we had to begin with art from 1850 or a little later. Yes, I'm letting my biases show, but I found the paintings from 1860 to 1910 fascinating. Here was gallery after gallery, most with several eye-catching paintings by artists I'd never heard of in college art history courses or seen mentioned in art history books. I've taken some heat from readers regarding my "peripheral artists" pun when I wrote about Finnish, Russian and Polish artists from the same era, but here were artists not peripheral geographically who have been consigned to art-historical oblivion. Why? Most likely because they fit neither the Paris-centric 19th century art history narrative nor the teleological Modernist narrative of mid-late 20th century writers. If you feel like mousing around on your own, the link above offers a secondary link to pictures of paintings and sculptures in the collection. Or you can click here for a Google-based set. Otherwise, below are a few painting I found interesting. Gallery Domenico Morelli - Ritratto di donna in rosso - circa 1855 "Portrait of Woman in Red" interests me because it has an Impressionist feel even though it predates the movement by about a decade. Domenico Morelli - Le tentazioni di Sant'Antonio - 1878 Another Morelli --"The Temptation of Saint Anthony" -- is earthy and dramatic. Like certain examples of... posted by Donald at October 15, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Perceiving Italy
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Italy takes some getting used to. It did for me, anyway. Other folks seem to cotton to the place immediately. Some make it their only serious European travel destination. A few even buy property and spend a good part of the year there. I've come to be fond of Italy. But, as suggested above, it took a while. A number of factors came into play, yet I suspect that a key one is generational. I don't remember when I was first made aware of Italy, though it might have been in the early post-World War 2 years (by the time I was conscious that "there was a war on," Italy was already out of it and, to me, the enemies were Hitler and Tojo). Post-war, Italy was one of those basket-case countries the Marshall Plan was set up to help, so I suppose I heard it mentioned on radio broadcasts and appeals from charity agencies such as CARE. As I became increasingly history-conscious while in elementary school, I learned that Italy's performance in the recent world wars was less than stellar. The pattern I was seeing was that Italy was a second-rank player in the European stage. I later became aware that lots and lots of Italians had left Italy because it offered them little, moving to the USA, Argentina and elsewhere: again, not a good advertisement. Italian-American had yet to strongly move into the middle class and, in Seattle, the not-so-many Italians lived mostly in the south end, not the northeast where I grew up. The image was of a bunch of poor who left a poor country and seemingly remained poor. In the early, pre-color TV 1950s, the local television station began boasting its new movies. Hollywood had yet to release its film libraries for broadcast, so we were stuck with seeing cheapo films from the 30s. Unfortunately, the "new" movies were equally cheapo. They were shot in Italy and dubbed into English -- perhaps the greatest expense in a low-budget production. Anyway, what I mostly saw were longish-haired (for the times) men wearing trench coats, wandering nearly-deserted cobblestone streets. Not very much of that expensive dialog; just a lot of sideways glances and puffing on cigarettes. And again, not very appealing. Perhaps Italy would have come off better had I seen Roman Holiday, but I'm semi-sure I missed that flick. Over time, my knowledge of Italy expanded while my perception remained that it was a second-rate place. Sure, Italians built Ferraris and other high-performance cars with classy bodywork. But the Fiats that I might have been able to afford and other makes such as Alfa Romeo had a reputation for unreliable electricals. Yes, Italy was the core of the Roman Empire and host to the Renaissance. But it wasn't militarily competitive in World War 2 and, post-war, has been unstable politically while experiencing a stronger Communist presence than in most other democratic European countries. People 15-20 years or more younger than... posted by Donald at October 14, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments