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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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  1. More on E-Books and E-Book Reading Devices
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  3. Happy Music
  4. Some New WebStops
  5. Book It, Donno
  6. Moviegoing: "Beowulf"
  7. Italian Efficiency
  8. Eroticism Linkage
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  10. Natalie vs. Jennifer

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Friday, November 30, 2007

More on E-Books and E-Book Reading Devices
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Amazon's new Kindle, announced a few weeks ago, the debate is on once again about e-book reading devices. Bezos' Baby Everyone has an opinion about the Kindle. Half-Sigma thinks that the prices of e-books are out of line. David Pogue writes that this kind of device might make some sense for the textbook market; the comments on Pogue's column are worth scrolling through too. Tyler Cowen and visitors pitch in. Newsweek's Steven Levy visited with Amazon's Jeff Bezos and thought the Kindle had its virtues. Hotshot book designer Chip Kidd thinks that the Kindle is going nowhere fast. Meanwhile, Amazon quickly sold out of the device. Robert Nagle and I have a bet on about e-book readers. Robert thinks that e-book reading devices will catch on bigtime -- he makes a good case for this, by the way -- while in my opinion e-book readers will never become a hugely successful product. Let me offer two quick, very practical reasons why I think I'll win our bet: Who needs 'em? Books of the paper-and-cardboard sort are miraculously efficient, enjoyable, and affordable content-delivery vehicles. They're unmatchably pleasing in many ways. For one thing, in order to use them you don't have to do any thinking. Interacting with a book is all a matter of reach-and-grab. You get to reserve your mental power for the book's content. With an e-book reader, by comparison, you have to puzzle out how to use the thing, and then you have to keep relearning your lessons. "How do I make the device behave?" keeps breaking in on your experience of the book's content. Think of the consequences. While being able to store your entire library in one small device certainly sounds appealing, it also means: No passing along your books to family and friends; worries about what will become of your beloved collection should the electronic device it's stored on fail; and -- inevitably -- the nightmare of digital-rights management. You don't think that publishers are going sell easy-to-use, compatible-with-everything files, do you? Get real. They're going to do whatever they can to protect their creations from unauthorized copying, and they're unlikely to band together and settle on a single convenient format. In other words: Imagine the Betamax-vs.-VCR wars multiplied many times over. And then imagine contending with all of this: decoding the device, keeping it charged, not being able to rip out pages, and feeling annoyed that the book you want can't be read on the device you own. That's a lot of brainstrain. Now recall what it's like to interact with a book. You grab it off the shelf, and you settle in for a read. I could be wrong, of course. I find Robert Nagle's enthusiasm for e-book readers very winning, I think that David Pogue's hunch about the textbook market makes a lot of sense, and progress will march on no matter what my opinion about it is, darn it. And the designers of... posted by Michael at November 30, 2007 | perma-link | (22) comments

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Facts for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Immigration makes the news: Immigration into the U.S. over the last seven years was the highest in any seven-year period ever. Over 10 million new immigrants have settled in the U.S. since 2000. More than half of them are illegal immigrants. The majority of immigrants during this period came from Mexico and Central America. There are now 38 million immigrants living in the U.S. In the U.S., one in eight people is an immigrant. One third of immigrant families receive public assistance. Over the last 15 years, immigrant families have accounted for three-quarters of the increase in those without health insurance. 31 percent of immigrants over 25 years old, both legal and illegal, have not completed high school, compared with 8.4 percent of American citizens. Among adult Hispanic immigrants, nearly 51 percent do not have high school diplomas. Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 29, 2007 | perma-link | (82) comments

Happy Music
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Two fab contributions from wonderful YouTube uploader Gatorrock786. A young Ray Charles performs a roof-raising "What'd I Say?": Goodness gracious: Did that man ever command a lot of sexual power. And weren't those go-go dancers doing an awfully fine job? Ricky Nelson keeps things swinging in a cornier, mellower, yet still toe-tapping way with "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" (Backup singing by -- yes! -- The Four Preps.) I do love a lot of easygoing, bland-o, whitebread, 1960ish crooning ... Was Ricky Nelson the Bing Crosby of '50s teenyboppers? Here's the Ricky Nelson website, and here's Wikipedia reports that one of the Four Preps went on to write the song "Tainted Love," and that another Prep created the TV show "Battlestar Gallactica." Best, Michael COMPLETELY UNRELATED: Don't miss the wrasslin' match over at Marginal Revolution.... posted by Michael at November 29, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Some New WebStops
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Hey, some high-quality bloggers you may already know but who I've just begun catching up with: * Jeff Sypeck. Jeff is the author of an excellent recent book about Charlemagne. Evocative, informative, and beautifully-scaled, it's first-class intellectual entertainment. As a blogger, Jeff loses none of what makes him a remarkable nonfiction book author: he's friendly, perceptive, and humorous; he puts on no airs; yet he's completely unapologetic about the pleasures and benefits of brains and knowledge. That's a nice, and all-too-rare, combo. Check out Jeff's very sharp thoughts about John Gardner's "Beowulf"-inspired novel "Grendel" -- "one of the most reactionary novels an English major will ever read." And on viewing the film "Beowulf," Jeff reverts to his 12 year old self to review it. Talk about an appropriate response! * Joe Valdez. Joe runs an ambitious-yet-relaxed blog about movies where he maintains a very high level of moviechat. Generous and sympathetic, he has an interesting conception of how moviechat should be conducted. He recounts the story; he nails the genre; he researches how the film came to be; he shares his own reactions; and he passes along the reactions of other fans and viewers. I'm pleased to see that he's no hero-worshipper of directors, but is instead alert to the many people (writers, producers, performers, etc) who contribute to movies. But my favorite aspect of Joe's multifaceted approach to the movie-thang is this: He doesn't let himself be tied down by studio release dates and instead follows his own muse, exploring new movies, movie history, and DVDs as the mood strikes him. That's movie-watching as a real movie-lover does it. For an especially good example of how rewarding Joe's approach can be, check out his beautiful posting about the 1978 Dustin Hoffman / Ulu Grosbard / Edward Bunker crime drama "Straight Time." Joe's site includes a very cool movie poster gallery. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 29, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book It, Donno
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- At the ultra-secret 2Blowards staff meeting a few weeks ago someone -- The Wife, I think -- said something about me writing a book. I hear such remarks about twice a year, and my standard response is that I did write a book once upon a time: this one, actually. (Lord knows why Amazon even bothers to list academic books that went out of print more than 25 years ago.) To be honest, I sometimes do consider writing another book. If the book question pops up when I'm in one of those delusional frames of mind, I then usually say something like: "I might. But a really tough part is finding a publisher, and I'm not sure I want to go through that hassle." Then, after saying just that at the restaurant table, I mentioned that I was toying with the idea of building on those Peripheral Artists (and similar) posts. The concept would be to create a kind of alternative to painting history narratives showing an inevitable path from the Renaissance to Modernism. That is, if Establishment/Modernist narratives downplay or ignore artists and styles that don't fit those narratives, then why not create a narrative where Modernism is a source of ideas, yet a sideshow, an interesting experiment that ultimately proved unsatisfying. Since the meeting I've taken a few small steps. First, I've been fiddling with a provisional outline. Once that's done I'll probably have to write a sample chapter. The third task is coming up with a list of potential publishers (I'm doing that now, actually). Then I assemble a proposal and shop it. Given that such a book requires plenty of illustrations, I don't think self-publishing or electronic publishing will work; I almost surely will have to talk a going concern such as Yale University Press into backing the thing. An important consideration is that I don't want to turn this into a crusade; if I get turned down by a number of publishers I want to be able to walk away from the project with few regrets and a minimum of wasted time. Money? I'm not doing this for dollars. As Michael and others have repeatedly mentioned, the hourly wage for most authors is pitifully small. Yes, there's the little dab of glory and the larger surge of ego-satisfaction and pseudo-prestige (in some circles) of having a book published. But my main motivation, oddly enough, is idealism. I genuinely think that Modernism has received far too much honor and attention than it deserves, and needs to be cut down to its proper size: I want to do my part. Another thing I'm doing is writing little notes to myself while at my favorite donut shop. What I need is some sort of organizing scheme. Obviously, there's chronology. Then there's the matter of geography: a lot of important non-Modernist art was created someplace besides France and New York, and that must be be dealt with somehow. And at this point I'm... posted by Donald at November 28, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Moviegoing: "Beowulf"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I found Robert Zemeckis' 3-D "Beowulf" movie so lifeless that I'm too depressed even to bother cracking a few jokes about it, let alone saying anything helpful. To cheer myself up, I'm treating myself to a musing-a-thon instead. Funny, isn't it? Some people really do change. In the days of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Used Cars" (a steal at $9.95), and "Back to the Future" (all three episodes for a mere $13.49), Robert Zemeckis was an exuberant satirist. But mucho time has passed since then. And where he was once a malicious entertainer, these days he just seems to want to play with machines. I skipped Zemeckis' previous experiment in motion-capture filmmaking, "The Polar Express," because -- semi-curious though I sometimes am about what Hollywood gets up to with its money and its computers -- the previews for the film freaked me out. Motion-capture=major creepiness, I concluded. Those wooden limbs, those near-featureless faces, all of it crossed with the fact that the awful creatures unquestionably bear some resemblance to real humans ... If I were a kid I'd have gone home after a couple of hours in motion-captureland and had myself a really horrendous nightmare. Thank heavens: The semi-digital / semi-real characters who inhabit "Beowulf" aren't nearly as disturbing as the ones that spooked me in those "Polar Express" previews. Some problems have clearly been ironed out. But the "Beowulf" humans are spooky enough in their own right. Instead of "Polar Express" devil dolls, the "Beowulf" beings are like overblown videogame creatures, their limbs and gestures showing no trace of where any physical (let alone emotional) impulse might start. Freaky! The weakest element in the mix seems to me to be mouths and teeth. A character's mouth seems to have a life apart from the face it inhabits. The teeth -- well, the best I can say about them is that the character designers are clearly hoping no one will take too much notice of their creatures' teeth. If you can't solve a problem, bury it. In any case: The "people" onscreen in "Beowulf" are still creepy-creepy-creepy. Since I guess there's no avoiding the fact that we're going to have this technology in our entertainment lives, I hope it'll become cheap and accessible, and very soon. Only that way will we get to watch a motion-capture movie made by a team that isn't weighed down by budget and strain. For one thing, the irreverent dirty-joke possibilities seem endless. Since the creature onscreen that looks like Angelina Jolie isn't really Angelina, why stop with having her be naked? Why not have her go porno-wild? There's a long tradition in cartooning of this, after all. The porno-cartoonists who made Tijuana Bibles had lots of fun with celebrities. In their crude drawings, they'd have Bogey, Hepburn, and Harlow -- as well as characters out of straight-world comics -- perform all kinds of X-rated actions. Why settle for a PG-13 mock-Angelina? But I'm ignorant of where the... posted by Michael at November 28, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Italian Efficiency
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The trains we rode during our recent Italian trip ran on time sometimes and only once were we seriously late on arrival. Otherwise, such delays as there were, were on the order of five or ten minutes. Il Duce Mussolini, wherever he is, must be displaying half a smile. Even more efficient -- or might I say dictarorial -- was the Galleria Borghese in Rome, home to such noted artworks as Antonio Canova's "Paulina Bonaparte as Venus Victrix." Paulina was Napoleon's wild kid sister who posed semi-nude for Canova. The Wikipedia entry for Canova is here (scroll to bottom for a Paulina picture). Nancy is a huge Canova fan, so a visit to the Borghese was a must. However, as we discovered, one doesn't casually bop into the place. Reservations are required. Luckily we were in Rome for enough days that we were able to get on the list. Things got even stickier once we arrived at the Borghese. It seems that visitors have a two hour time limit to see what they can -- half an hour in the paintings galleries and the balance viewing sculptures. I'm pretty fast when in museum-viewing mode and therefore didn't find out if, or how drastically, these time limits are enforced. In any case, we could linger in the museum shop/cafe area as long as we wished. Never experienced such a thing before. But rules are rules and not to be quibbled by foreigners. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 27, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Eroticism Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Polly Frost swoons over her favorite sexy short story. * The Communicatrix discovers the upside of putting on a few pounds. Hint: boobage. * Finally: a Swedish-feminist cause a man can really cheer on. * Tristan Taormino reports that the edgy porn site gets more web visitors than MSNBC does. Here's a NYTimes article about Peter Acworth, the British MBA-student-turned-porn-auteur who founded Here's an example of's work. Be forewarned: That last link is NSFW to the max. * What's the relationship between Beauty in the elevated sense and what gives Roissy a boner? * Good to see that the old wedding traditions are still being honored. * MBlowhard Rewind: I meditated on the cultural significance of the thong here, here, and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 27, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Stephen King has some thoughts about what ails the short story. (Link thanks to Dave Lull.) * Cryptic yet satisfying, not to mention dependably provocative: OOCRadio, a blog by a guy who enjoys Antonioni, death masks, and Philip K. Dick. * Steve Sailer links to some pieces reporting that the excellent Shelby Steele is writing a book about Barack Obama. * Vanessa discovers her favorite Chicago pizza. * TerrierMan makes a heckuva case for gun ownership, and links to a hilarious video clip about Thomas Midgely Jr., history's greatest environmental troublemaker. * The state of Pennsylvania doesn't want you to know whether the milk you're thinking of buying was produced with the aid of growth hormones. * Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen figures out how many copies a book needs to sell to make it onto the bestseller list. Though the word "bestseller" certainly sounds impressive, the sales figure that makes a book a bestseller is amazingly small. I wrote about some other aspects of bestseller lists back here. * Thursday contrasts the "creative artist" and the "critical artist." * MBlowhard Rewind: I expressed the hope that the monopoly of the "taste mafia" should break up soon. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 27, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Natalie vs. Jennifer
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Natalie Portman certainly doesn't seem to enjoy being a movie star, does she? Well, the feeling is semi-mutual, if that makes any sense. The only film that I've ever really enjoyed watching Natalie in was the 1996 "Beautiful Girls." 15 at the time, she upstaged everyone else in the cast with her childlike transparency, eagerness, and impulsiveness. Since then, though ... As pretty and chic as Natalie has become, and as intelligent and worthy as she apparently is as a person, as an onscreen presence she has also grown more and more self-protective. She radiates nothing, at least nothing that my antennae can pick up. So I'm unable to follow her career with any interest. I tend to slot Portman in the same category as Jennifer Connelly. Like Natalie, Jennifer comes across as a bright, pretty co-ed type -- a dull good girl, attractive but remote, even wooden. But with Connelly the intelligence and the earnestness are accompanied by a spilling-over physical lushness, as well as by some appealing waywardness; both of these qualities keep me looking forward to her next performance. While most of Jennifer's films are a drag, every now and then she'll sign on to play the vamp or the bad girl, and she'll do her (admittedly clunky) best to put over the hot moments and the shock scenes. Vavavoom! In "Requiem for a Dream" Connelly gives a performance that's not only terrific (it's maybe her only terrific performance) but genuinely edgy. Where Portman is like a bright girl happy to intern for an anti-famine group, Connelly is like an employee of the same nonprofit, but one who on the weekend enjoys getting drunk and indulging in some sexy misbehavior. Why not have a little fun with life as it is, and with the gifts God has given you? If I'm to be stuck in the company of intelligent good girls, I'll choose to spend my time in the company of the one who has at least a streak of mischief in her. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 27, 2007 | perma-link | (18) comments

Monday, November 26, 2007

Staging Opera
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I know next to nothing about opera. I know next to nothing about music, as my four years as a lazy grade school and junior high school band zillionth-chair clarinet player attest. Therefore, no one can truthfully accuse me of being an Opera Snob ... though I am more vulnerable to being tagged as a blowhard for some obscure reason. Nevertheless, I'm here to pontificate on the staging of opera -- from a near-Everyman perspective. So read on or tune out: your pick. ... Hmm ... anyone still around? My pathetic accumulation of experience is as follows: At the top end, I saw Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" at the San Francisco Opera in 1982. From 2003 into 2006 I saw several operas performed down the bay in San Jose. A year or two ago I saw a partly-staged Beethoven "Fidelio" at the San Francisco Symphony. Early this fall I saw Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" at the Seattle Opera. Most recently, in Rome, at the All Saints church (Anglican) on the Via del Babuino a few blocks northwest of the Spanish Steps, I saw an unstaged version of "La Traviata." The San Francisco Opera performance was the full deal. Large, purpose-built opera house with terrace upon terrace of seating. Elaborate sets with gauzy effects to evoke Spain's Mediterranean climate. No sub-titles. In the film "Amadeus" Emperor Joseph II complained that "Marriage of Figaro" was too long: he was right. Seattle's opera house was drastically refurbished recently. While it lacks the grandeur of San Francisco's, it has plenty of room for fancy staging. The first couple of years I saw San Jose performances, the operas were staged in a seriously small theater that limited the amount of scenery that could be deployed, so the contrast to San Francisco was considerable on most dimensions. At least they had English subtitles (as did Seattle) which I find to be a great help even though I have a smattering of knowledge of German, French and Italian. About two seasons ago the San Jose company moved to a renovated movie theater that provided a lot more seating plus a larger stage for more elaborate sets. The partly-staged "Fidelio" was performed in the hall where the San Francisco Symphony plays. So there was no stage, no curtains -- just a few platforms at different levels where the cast could move about to a limited degree. The Roman opera was, of course, basically a church setting for the audience. We sat on wooden folding chairs. A 15-20 piece orchestra (which performed well once it got over some raggedness during the overture) was also on the main floor of the church, in front of us. Ditto the singers for the most part, though they were sometimes able to take advantage of raised areas near the altar. The "Traviata" performers used a few props and moved around a little -- so it wasn't a static recital. In theory, opera is supposed to be a multi-pronged... posted by Donald at November 26, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Las Vegas Goes Modernist
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This is the Las Vegas Strip as we know and love it. But it changes moment by moment. Some of those changes are almost undetectably minor. Others have the potential to alter the character of the place. For instance, this is what I saw last week while we were on our annual visit: Hmm. No monster pyramids. Not a single half-size Eiffel Tower. Nor a 30-story Italian villa. I saw not a sign of fake pirate ships and toy volcanoes. No. It's, it's ... The Horror!!! ... Modernist Architecture! Modernist architecture in the form of the CityCenter project, a multi-billion dollar effort by our friends at MGM Grand that replaces a nondescript jumble of seedy stores and aging time-share condos. Here's what it might look like when completed: Here is the flashy official site -- but it might be handier to link here to its Wikipedia entry which contains under-construction photos and a set of views of projected final appearance. I have no idea what was on the minds of the geniuses behind CityCenter. Instead of letting Vegas be Vegas, a lesson that Robert Venturi famously urged architects to study, they opted to grace the strip with the artistic fruits of starchitects. The rogues gallery of architectural offices doing CityCenter buildings includes Cesar Pelli, Rafael Vinoli, Lord Norman Foster, Helmut Jahn and Daniel Libeskind. And I'm all but certain the results will be perfectly swell. If you love the sort of sterile, geometry-based glass 'n' steel structures that warms our hearts when we conjure images of New York City's Sixth Avenue -- with the switcheroo that some CityCenter buildings are curved! My head reels in admiration for such imaginative solutions. Will CityCenter wreck the Strip? Big though it is, it's still fairly small given the huge size of the place. So long as no similar projects are built, it won't fit in well, but might be tolerable. Tolerability might be enhanced if the owners pry loose starchitect hands at street level; lots of flash and pizazz for pedestrians would distract from the monster blandness of the tall, background structures. We Shall See. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 25, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

The Long Run
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: In 1986, just back from a couple years abroad, I opened a copy of the Washington Post and saw a long article on healthcare spending. It made a convincing case (to me, anyway) that healthcare spending that exceeded the growth rate of the economy as a whole was a recipe for disaster in the long run. Welcome to the long run. A report that the CBO has just issued, "The Long-Term Outlook for Health Care Spending" points up how little has changed in the last 20 years: Spending on health care in the United States has been growing faster than the economy for many years, representing a challenge not only for the government's two major health insurance programs -- Medicare and Medicaid -- but also for the private sector...In December 2007, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will release new long-term budget projections, and spending on health care will play a central role in the [U.S. Government's] fiscal outlook to be described in that report...The goal of the projections in this study is to examine the implications of a continuation of current federal law, rather than to make a prediction of the future. Under [the no-change scenario], however, federal spending on health care would eventually reach unsustainable levels...[emphasis added] By the way, 'central role' means that any pretense of fiscal solvency of the U.S. government will turn almost completely on how we handle health care spending. How can I make such a ridiculous statement? Well, this is the one paragraph summary: Over the past 30 years, total national spending on health care has more than doubled as a share of GDP. Under the assumptions described above, according to CBO's projections, that share will double again by 2035, to 31 percent of GDP. Thereafter, health care costs continue to account for a steadily growing share of GDP, reaching 41 percent by 2060 and 49 percent by the end of the 75-year projection period... As a naïve kid, I would have thought that such a problem would be vigorously addressed by a nation that likes to think of itself as a can-do problem solver. Unfortunately, as a sadder-but-wiser adult, I now see that we’ve been conducting a philosophical experiment over the past twenty years. An immovable object, budgetary constraints and simple prudence, has met an irresistible force: health care special interest lobbying. Heck, the immovable object has failed to even slow down the irresistible force. (Granted, this is hardly the only sign of U.S. governmental sclerosis. Two families have run the country for 19 of the last 21 years, and with a little luck they can probably extend that run to a solid 28 years.) Perhaps immovable object will develop more mass when we start signing over our paychecks directly to our healthcare providers. But I’ve grown tired of speculating. It’s like Robert Heinlein said about life after death: "Why worry about it? Soon enough, you’ll know." Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 25, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments