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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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Back to the Seventies?
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, I’ve been doing a little light surfing this morning, and have to say that the overall impression is that we’re heading back to those good old days of the 1970s. Not only do we have an unpopular war dragging on in the Third World, but the economy seems to be headed into an unpleasant combination of recession, prolonged slow growth and higher inflation. Remember "stagflation"? Well, don’t take my word for it. Let’s start with The Economist’s story from November 15, 2007, "America’s vulnerable economy": More timely signs suggest that the economy could stall in this quarter. By early next year, output and jobs could be shrinking. The main cause is the imploding housing market. Experts said that house prices could never fall nationwide. But fall they have, by 5% in the past 12 months. Residential investment has collapsed, but a glut of unsold homes means that prices have much further to drop. Americans' spending is likely to be dented much more by a fall in house prices than it was in 2001 by the stockmarket's collapse. Then follows a Bloomberg story by Kabir Chibber on November 16, “Goldman Sees Subprime Cutting $2 Trillion in Lending”: The slump in global credit markets may force banks, brokerages and hedge funds to cut lending by $2 trillion and trigger a "substantial recession" in the U.S., according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Losses related to record home foreclosures using a "back- of-the-envelope" calculation may be as high as $400 billion for financial companies, Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist at Goldman in New York wrote in a report dated yesterday. The effects may be amplified tenfold as companies that borrowed to finance their investments scale back lending, the report said. "The likely mortgage credit losses pose a significantly bigger macroeconomic risk than generally recognized," Hatzius wrote. "It is easy to see how such a shock could produce a substantial recession" or "a long period of very sluggish growth," he wrote. Chiming in, we have Nouriel Roubini (admittedly, a long-time proponent of the hard-landing school of thought) on November 16 on his blog: But the evidence is now building that an ugly recession is inevitable. Thus, the repeated statements by Fed officials that they may be done with cutting the Fed Funds rate are both hollow and utterly disingenuous. The Fed Funds rate will be down to 4% by January and below 3% by the end of 2008. I suspect that Mr. Roubini is correct, but if so the inflation rate is likely to rise to unpleasantly high levels. In fact, inflation already seems to have gotten a bit of a head start on our Federal Reserve inflation hawks, oops, I mean, interest rate cutters. Barry Ritholtz, author of The Big Picture blog, has been a long-time skeptic of official inflation data. On November 14th, he questioned the official line that the Producer Price Index was a benign 0.1 percent in October: 0.1% PPI ? Not according to the... posted by Friedrich at November 17, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Moviegoing: "American Gangster"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is there something in the air? A few days ago I watched and blogged about Robert De Niro's somber CIA movie "The Good Shepherd." Today I watched a very similar movie, Ridley Scott's equally somber "American Gangster," about a real-life 1970s black NYC drug kingpin (Denzel Washington) and the lawman (Russell Crowe) who took him down. It really is bizarre how close the two movies are in tone and approach. They're both slow, dark, and "Godfather"-ish in style and ambition. "American Gangster" even has the same running time (2 hours and 50 minutes) that "The Good Shepherd" does. What's weirdest of all is that I found both movies completely uninvolving, and for semi-similar reasons. In "The Good Shepherd," dramatic-narrative immediacy is sacrificed for the sake of telling the story of how elite WASPs made the CIA their own club. In "American Gangster," dramatic immediacy is sacrificed for the sake of ... Well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what. An important statement always seems to be on the verge of being made -- the movie is entitled "American Gangster," after all. But what this important statement might be remains a mystery. Nonetheless, there are many, many cutaways to TV news shows reporting how badly things are going in Vietnam. Something is clearly being said. In any case, the film muffs basic storytelling over and over again. (At one point I whispered to The Wife, "I wouldn't have let this script in the front door, would you?" "No way," she whispered back.) Just a few of many examples: Because we see so little of his rise to the top, we're never sure what to make of the Denzel character. One face-off, one rival murdered -- and voila, it's settled. Denzel the chauffeur has become Denzel the king of Harlem. Since we never see his struggle, we never know whether to take him as a rousing but scary anti-hero or as a role model operating in a tough environment. But simple logistics don't play a big role in this movie generally. When Denzel wants some face-to-face time with his Southeast Asia drug connection during the very week Vietnam is collapsing -- hey, no problemo, he's there. I'd have loved to be told which airline he flew in on. The Russell Crowe character, meanwhile -- well, what on earth is he? There are times when he seems to be a cop and others when he seems to be a D.A. Yet if he's a cop, why is he acting as a D.A. at trials? And if he's a D.A., what is he doing with gun in hand leading on-the-streets investigations? Crowe's character's inner life is also a mystery. His honesty and passion for justice are remarkable -- yet where do they come from? We're given only a few shots of him in his working-class element, and almost nothing of him at home. It's hard to know what to make of the fact that the Crowe character... posted by Michael at November 17, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, November 16, 2007

Spitzer Listens
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The system works. Of course, why the system keeps generating so many politicians determined not just to defy the preferences of the general population but to smear us for holding the opinions we do is a bit of a mystery. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 16, 2007 | perma-link | (24) comments

Thursday, November 15, 2007

School Board Platform
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Seattle is still a fine place to live for most residents. But the politics can be pretty weird for mindless right-wingers such as me -- especially within the city limits. I imagine San Francisco is even farther out, as might be student voter dominated places such as Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California. Just for the heck of it, consider the District No. 3 race for the Seattle School District board ("District No. 3" is practically meaningless, as all voters in the school district area get to vote for candidates in each "district.") The following is the candidate statement for David Blomstrom as it appears in the voters' pamphlet. The link is here, but I don't know how long it will be active. America is being destroyed by corporate corruption, and we must fight back. Yet how can we bring George W. Bush and Bill Gates to justice if we can’t even reform our own local school board? In other news, did you know this may be Seattle’s LAST school board election? The media, public officials and school board candidates are complicit in their stunning silence on this issue. A former Seattle Schools employee turned whistle-blower (see “The Olchefske Files” online), I’ve advocated an authentic audit of the district since my first campaign in 1999. (Our new superintendent hasn’t earned $250K!) Let’s replace the Seattle Education Association with a real union (e.g. the Wobblies) and ban the WASL, a tool used by corporations to keep children down. I also advocate socialism - not Soviet-style, but more in line with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ vision. The oil industry should be nationalized, and money spent on weapons used to murder civilians in Iraqistan would be better used to fund free medical care. (By the way, as a children’s advocate, I cannot support the troops who have slaughtered so many children in foreign lands. Shame on them.) Our schools should similarly be un-privatized, and the Alliance for Education given the boot. (How many schools have been ruined or closed since Bill Gates began “donating” money to the Seattle School District?) I say screw Seattle civility, and embrace children and democracy instead. Even if your only concern is rising property taxes, you ignore Seattle’s Education Mafia at your peril. Beware candidates who proclaim themselves “national education consultants” and avoid the issues yet are endorsed by our corrupt media. (Remember: The Seattle Times endorsed president AWOL.) (Continued at; Bonus: My adventure with the privatized U.S. Postal Service!) Candidate David Blomstrom I assume Blomstrom's statement is not satire. And how did he fare when the November 6th votes were counted? As of yesterday, he had 24,785 votes, 22.85% of the total. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 15, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Older, Younger, Texan
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ray Wylie Hubbard, grizzled offbeat Texas mega-talent: If my ears are to be trusted, "Snake Farm" is a sinister, comic, and lusty mixture of blues, country, and swamp pop. Another Texas singer-songwriter whose work I've been enjoying recently is an alt-country youngster named Hayes Carll. You can listen to four terrific live tracks of Hayes' on his MySpace page. "Wastrel" seems like an apt word to apply to Hayes Carll, doesn't it? I'm finding that "It's a Shame" is seizing hold of my brain in the same way that Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" once did, and thanks to a similar combo of infantile catchiness, sweetness cut with melancholy, and poetry. Besides, the song's refrain -- "It's a shame / we ain't lovers" ... I mean, those are words that have been touched by genius. There's a goodly amount of Hayes Carll to be enjoyed by typing his name into the Search box at YouTube as well. Here are the lyrics for "It's a Shame." It sometimes seems like Being Texan can be an awfully fun and rewarding vocation, doesn't it? My all-things-Texas gurus are Scott Chaffin and Cowtown Pattie, both of them big-hearted bloggers with superb taste in Texas music. And no, since you asked, I most definitely did not record a copy of those Hayes Carll tracks for myself using Rogue Amoeba's convenient and easy-to-use program Audio Hijack. No sirree, no way. I'm shocked you'd even think I might do such a thing. Semi-related: I've linked before to some other memorable Texas music and musicians: Townes Van Zandt, T-Bone Walker, Guy Clark (performing with the beautiful Karen Matheson), Lightnin Hopkins, Delbert McClinton. That's a lot of grit, personality, and soul, baby! Here's a posting about Van Morrison. Speaking of Texas ... Here's the weirdly compelling Lyle Lovett doing his beautiful "If I Had A Boat." And here's Jimmie Dale Gilmore singing a moving version of Townes Van Zandt's "Buckskin Stallion Blues." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 15, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Supposedly, during World War 2, if a sentry was confronted by someone claiming to be an American but who didn't know that day's password, the sentry would ask "Who's in first place in the National League?" or something to that effect. The concept being that only a Real American would know such things. Perhaps when I was of soldiering age I might have known: nowadays I'd be shot on the spot. The only sport I follow these days is football, and only casually at that. I'm following the fortunes of the University of Oregon team (Number Two, as I write this) and will pay more attention to the NFL as the playoffs get closer. Here in the dank Pacific Northwest the two big professional sports stories are (1) the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team will probably head to Oklahoma, and (2) Seattle has received a Major League Soccer franchise. To which I say ... [Yawn]. The Sonics won the NBA title in 1979, which created excitement hereabouts. But that was nearly 29 years ago, and I haven't cared about them in ages. So good riddance. The new soccer team (that's what we enlightened Yanks call football, overseas readers) is interesting mostly because of its ownership which includes Microsoft gazillionaire Paul Allen and TV personality Drew Carey. According to an article in this morning's paper, a few teams in the league are actually making money. We'll see about the Seattle effort. Isn't soccer played in the summer? That's when grass grows around here and it'll be difficult to decide which will be more exciting to watch. * The previous item ought to rank as one of my all-time dumb cliché and trite idea-fests. If this blog had lots of ads and a tip-jar I'd probably have a spot-the-varmints contest and offer a prize. But we don't. So I won't. * A favorite Las Vegas pastime is imploding outdated casinos. And they do it with style! Well, in Las Vegas style. Here is a link to The Daughter's video of yesterday's demise of the New Frontier. Speaking of Vegas, we'll be there next week. Posting by me will be lighter, and I'm hoping that the Thanksgiving weekend will distract you from heavy blog-reading anyway. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 14, 2007 | perma-link | (20) comments

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

All Those Horrible, Terrible Tourists
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- My sorta-neighbor (well, we both live in the Seattle area) travel entrepreneur Rick Steves mentions in his guidebooks that this or that site is too touristy. He's not alone: other guidebooks and many travelers express the same lament. Unfortunately for him, my newly-minted but probably not original Iron Law of Travel Writing holds that, if a site is praised in travel books/films/videos/etc., the tourists will come. Lots of them, eventually. And local shops will begin stocking souvenirs and other trinkets. It certainly happened to Steves when he gave a huge boost to the five small Cinque Terre towns at the eastern end of Italy's Ligurian Coast by featuring them in his guide books and television show. The undertone to his treatment of Cinque Terre in his latest Italy book is that he wishes the place wasn't so overrun, but deserves to be a highlighted destination nevertheless. I don't consider myself a travel snob [pats his own back] but gobs and gobs of tourists in a limited area can get annoying. Here are some examples from my own travels. I visited Prague in July, 2000 and it was somewhat crowded. I visited it again on the last day of September 2006 and it was even more crowded; crossing the Charles Bridge (Karluv most) was a struggle. This was when the tourist season should have been over. I was in Cinque Terre early this October and the place still had lots of tourists -- again after the expected peak. This made me wonder how crowded the little towns were during the height of the season. The Waikiki beach and hotel area crowds are surely nearly all tourists. Florence is usually jammed. This is especially so on and near the Ponte Vecchio and in the squares near the Ufizzi Gallery and the Duomo. On Sundays, many tourists are Italians from nearby towns and smaller cities. This is because nowadays (more so than even a few years ago) stores in the tourist areas are open, whereas Sunday shopping is much more limited elsewhere. To be sure, London, Paris, New York and other tourist destination cities gather plenty of sightseers. But these places are so large that tourists can be overwhelmed by the even larger crowds of locals -- except around mecca sites such as the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Tower of London. Travel writers seem to take pride in discovering the undiscovered: an Italian hill-town or a French village untouched by tourism until the next edition of the travel book hits Barnes & Noble's shelves. I was offered food for thought about this several years ago when visiting St. Cirq-Lapopie on a hill above the Lot River in southwestern France. The place had been "discovered" (which was why we were there) and already had its establishment of restaurants and gift shops. There were nearby towns, none of which were touristy. I got to thinking that St. Cirq probably looked much like the others a few... posted by Donald at November 13, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Monday, November 12, 2007

Armistice Day Musings
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, yes. I know it's "Veterans' Day" officially and that it's November 11th and not today, the 12th (even though banks, schools and government agencies are closed today in many parts of the country). But it was Armistice Day when I was a kid and I claim The Right of Whimsy to keep calling it that. And to call "Beijing" Peking and so forth. Anyway. Yesterday in Church the pastor had veterans stand to be recognized by the congregation. There weren't all that many of us and a fellow behind me wondered that so few younger people stood. He should have known it is a matter of history and law, along with other things. So this afternoon I got to musing about military service while driving back from an emergency trip to the dentist (part of a crown cracked off). I'll deal with my own family, because I know the details best. For some reason, my bunch skated through the wars of the past 150 years unscathed while some other families had entire generations of males wiped out. My father's mother's father either (1) bailed out of Germany in perhaps the 1850s or 60s to avoid conscription or (2) was wounded and left for dead on a pile of corpses during a war. My grandmother, who had some credibility problems when storytelling, provided me the second version when I was ten or so: other kin were inclined to favor the first story. Even at the time her story didn't ring true because I knew that she was alive at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. Moreover, today I'm inclined to doubt that he was involved in the two Prussian wars in the 1860s because that didn't give him much time to get to Chicago and start a family by 1870, when my grandmother was born. My father's other grandfather (born 1837) enlisted for the Civil War and served a year or two as a musician -- apparently musicians doubled as stretcher-bearers, so there was risk. He and his fellow Ohioans were first sent to central Missouri, a border state, where there was concern about Confederate sympathizers and raiders in 1861. Then his unit was transferred back across the Mississippi and was involved in early stages of the Tennessee River campaigns before he completed his enlistment. I have a copy of his diary, but it mostly notes what the weather was; army life can be pretty dull, even in wartime. My father's older brother (born 1894) enlisted for the Great War. He was in the Signal Corps because he knew telegraphy and did his training at Camp Lewis, just south of Tacoma. I remember seeing wide-format photos of his training company at my grandparents' house and at his place. Signals could be a dangerous field, especially at the height of the trench warfare phase on the conflict. There was nothing like World War 2 walkie-talkies; the speediest means of communication was via telegraphy. And telegraph... posted by Donald at November 12, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

What Ever Happened to "First Do No Harm"?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- MIT sues Frank Gehry. The school says that the goofily off-kilter Stata Center -- which Gehry designed and which has been lavishly praised by the architectural establishment -- is plagued by persistent leaks, cracks, and mold problems. Gasp: Bizarro-chic new architecture that garners critical praise yet that fails in the most basic ways as pleasant and effective shelter -- now doesn't that come as a surprise? From Wikipedia's entry on deconstructivist hero Peter Eisenman: [Eisenman's 1989] Wexner Center, hotly anticipated as the first major public deconstructivist building, has required extensive and expensive retrofitting because of elementary design flaws (such as incompetent material specifications, and fine art exhibition space exposed to direct sunlight). Its spatial grammar of colliding planes also tends to make users disoriented to the point of nausea, and Eisenman has been known to chuckle in lectures about making people vomit. Talk about high maintenance! Buyer beware, of course. But it's probably a good idea for readers of the architectural press to beware too. What on earth is this crowd trying to put over on the rest of us? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 12, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Best Line of the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Where would our newspapers be without hysteria?" -- David Chute. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 12, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

DVD Journal: "The Good Shepherd"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't think I've watched an American movie as slow, as solemn, and as hushed as Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" since ... well, guess. A few hints: In "The Good Shepherd," beautifully detailed period homes contrast with beautifully-detailed period workplaces. Years pass while underlit men confer in hushed tones about sinister and dangerous things, and loyal but in-the-dark wives grow emotionally desperate and finally tip over the edge. Loyalties are tested. What ought to be kept impersonal becomes, inevitably, all too personal. That's right: "The Good Shepherd" is not only aiming for "Godfather" status, it's also using a "Godfather" strategy. Where in "The Godfather" Francis Coppola used the Mafia as a metaphor for American capitalism, in "The Good Shepherd" De Niro is using the history of the CIA as a way to talk about contemporary American politics -- the Bushies and their elite-WASP style of ruling more specifically. (Coppola is credited as an executive producer on the film.) The picture is certainly beautifully crafted in many ways, as well as acted with mucho conviction. And the lighting, costumes, and sets all contribute to a sumptuous, dignified realism of a type we haven't been able to enjoy in movies much recently. Bravo to all that. Even so, I found the movie a near-total snoozefest. Main complaint: What on earth is the film's story? Matt Damon plays a Yale poetry student who's recruited first into Skull and Bones, then into WWII-era government intelligence, then into the early days of the CIA, then into intrigue within the CIA. Some devious shit happens. Some more devious shit happens. Finally the deviousness and the shit hit home. And that's it -- that's all, storywise, this two-hour-and-40-minute long film gives us. Its energies, in other words, are far more focused on what's being said thematically than they are on telling us a crackling yarn, let alone with introducing us to juicy characters, or inviting us to explore charged situations. The film's "story" is so general and abstract that, for all the darkness and the brooding, little seems to be at stake. Well, scratch that -- "America" is what's at stake, we're meant to understand. Up on screen are a lot of preppy WASPs trying (in their chilly, controlling, proprietary way) to look out for what they feel is "their" country's best interests. It all slips out of their control just as it seems to have slipped out of the Bushies' control. The ruling-class blood not only runs thin; it runs out. But the film's characters? "Underimagined" doesn't begin to describe them. Although he seems meant to start off as someone with a few ideals -- a poetry student, etc -- the Damon character in fact plays onscreen as a near-complete cipher. Since he's masked and ungiving right from the get-go, we don't care if and when he loses the soul we've never seen anyway. As his wife, Angelina Jolie at least gets to cut loose in an early... posted by Michael at November 12, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments