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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Tiepolo's Hottie Madonnas
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I wonder how he got away with it. The Madonna, the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God -- a devotional figure central to the Catholic Church -- traditionally has been depicted as a serene, perhaps somewhat distant, idealized, saintly woman. There have been countless depictions of her in painting and sculpture over many centuries, so there is no strict uniformity in what we see in museums, cathedrals, parish churches and on household walls of the devout. Still, I cannot recall seeing a intentionally ugly Virgin. My take is that she is usually shown as pretty, but in a restrained way. But one famous artist, the Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) painted Mary as a babe. Um, let me qualify that. He tended to pain her as an attractive women such as he could see daily on the streets, canals and plazas of Venice. Or like women we can see daily in the towns and cities where we live. Unlike stylized women that tended to appear in non-portrait paintings until the late 19th century, Tiepolo's Madonnas and female saints look normal. Plus, they have sex appeal. One would think that painting Modonnas with sex appeal would have led Tiepolo to the stake or at least a public recantation. But no, he was hugely successful, his paintings and frescoes appearing in churches in many Venetian neighborhoods and elsewhere in northern Italy as well as Spain, where he ended his career. And he's perhaps most famous for ceilings, the most noteworthy of all in the Residenz of the Prince Bishop of Würtzburg. Here are some examples. The original paintings are so large and full of figures that the Virgin's face can be hard to see on a computer screen; I strongly recommend that you find a book about Tiepolo to get a better idea of what I'm talking about. I notice that English translations or versions of titles can vary considerably, perhaps because some Tiepolo works might not have had formal titles in the first place (I'm speculating). So the titles I use here might not agree with titles shown in Tiepolo books. Gallery Immaculate Conception - 1767-69 Immaculate Conception - 1767-69 (detail) Out Lady of Carmel - 1721-27 Out Lady of Carmel - 1721-27 (detail) The Virgin Appearing to St. Philip Neri - 1740 Virgin Appearing to Dominican Saints - 1747-48 Alternative title: The Virgin Mary with Saints Catherine, Rose of Lima and Agnes of Montepulciano. Apparition of the Virgin to St. Simon Stock - c.1748-49 Alternate title: The Virgin Mary presenting the Scapular to St. Simon Stock. In all the paintings shown above (aside, perhaps, from the one of St. Philip Neri), Mary has a haughty look. And, with nearly closed eyes, see seems (to me, at least) sensual rather than spiritual. This seems most pronounced in the St. Simon Stock painting, which you will have to find in a book to get the full effect. In the painting of Mary with Sts. Catherine, Rose... posted by Donald at February 23, 2008 | perma-link | (12) comments

Bailouts, Part II
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, The competition for "most revealing anecdote about how the U.S. political economy really works today" is fierce, but this story in the New York Times may be the winner. Edmund L. Andrews writes: WASHINGTON — Over the last two decades, few industries have lobbied more ferociously or effectively than banks to get the government out of its business and to obtain freer rein for “financial innovation.” But as losses from bad mortgages and mortgage-backed securities climb past $200 billion, talk among banking executives for an epic government rescue plan is suddenly coming into fashion. A confidential proposal that Bank of America circulated to members of Congress this month provides a stunning glimpse of how quickly the industry has reversed its laissez-faire disdain for second-guessing by the government — now that it is in trouble. The proposal warns that up to $739 billion in mortgages are at “moderate to high risk” of defaulting over the next five years and that millions of families could lose their homes. The essence of the proposal is that Bank of America -- which, as you recall, just voluntarily increased its exposure to the home mortgage market by buying the nation’s largest mortgage lender, Countrywide -- wants the U.S. government to step in and buy some fraction, or possibly all, of these loans, thus providing the banking industry and securitized mortgage-backed bond holders with a sort of re-insurance stop-loss agreement. The industry and the investors would agree to take a modest hit today in order to get a much larger potential problem off their books. This would, of course, be a very, very good thing for the financial services industry and for its investors; perhaps not such a good deal for the rest of the nation’s taxpayers. (I was quite surprised not to see any mention of the banks and their employees voluntarily disgorging the salaries and profits they’ve made on originating and securitizing such potentially troubled loans as they pass them off to the government, but maybe that’s down in the fine print somewhere. And if Bank of America is really worried about "millions of families losing their homes" in any sense other than how that would impact Bank of America’s balance sheet, it could, you know, just decide not to foreclose on those families, but I didn’t see that option discussed in the story, either.) This proposal is supported by what the story calls "community advocacy activists" such as John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. I checked Mr. Taylor’s group out and found that it describes its mission thusly: NCRC creates, implements, and supports long-term solutions and strategies that build community and promote individual economic well-being. Through information, research, programs, training and service, we ensure that people in traditionally underserved communities are treated fairly and justly when applying for credit, opening a bank account, getting a mortgage, a loan, or other financial product or service. NCRC ensures that banks, mortgage lenders, and the financial community... posted by Friedrich at February 23, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, February 22, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Seth Roberts makes a supersmart point about what makes magazines such a great form. God, I do love a good magazine. * Jessica Helfand reviews the history of the design of poultry-industry trade magazines. These days, with so many of the mainstream magazines given over to trends, glitz, celebs, and kapow, I often prefer to leaf through trade magazines. They can be a little dowdy, but at least there's usually some substance there. Best Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Frozen Mischief
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another excellent large-scale prank from ImprovEverywhere. My favorite overheard remarks: "It's some kind of protest, probably." "Either that or an acting class." Very Dada, no? Here's a sensible look at a new Dada exhibition from the Times of London. Verdict: A fun moment of wild mischief -- but what kind of sense does it make to give Dada a lot of museum space? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Or iSpaceOut, at least. Which ain't nothing. Presenting the world's first iPhone band: Is that a Nintendo DS on rhythm? Fact for the day: "Google has found that iPhone users make 50 times more web searches compared with any other mobile." Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pollan and Taubes and Kunstler
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Michael Pollan thinks that, where food and eating go, we ought to learn how to trust our instincts. I think that's good advice where art and culture more generally go too. * Gary Taubes discusses carbs, fat, and bad dietary advice at the Stevens Institute of Technology: * Standup intellectual James Kunstler takes a break from Peak Oil to deliver a fiery talk about American urbanism and suburbia: Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 21, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Architecture Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Charles Siegel thinks that John Silber's new anti-starchitecture book doesn't go far enough in its condemnation of absurd buildings. * Charles Siegel is also the author of a small new book that I just finished reading with a great deal of pleasure, "An Architecture for Our Time: The New Classicism." In the first part of his book, Siegel brings us up to the present: How have we come to be living in a world where absurd architecture is the standard / accepted thing? Charles supplies the best short answer to this question that I've ever read. In the second half of the book, he offers an argument for reviving architectural classicism. It's the book's manifesto section, and it's stirring and stimulating --- you don't have to agree with Charles' every point to find a visit with his mind and his thoughts very rewarding. Let me add that the book is beautifully scaled: While it's a short, fast, and fun read, the amount of knowledge, experience, brains, and wisdom that Charles packs in per word is awfully impressive. As a writer / publisher, Charles is resourceful and entrepreuneurial. He offers a book of idiosyncratic length -- as long as it needs to be but no longer -- in hard-copy, HTML, and downloadable-PDF versions. Snag a copy here. Charles runs the Preservation Institute and blogs here. * Sigh: Some atrocious concrete-bunker-style high-rise apartment buildings a few blocks from where I live in Greenwich Village may soon be officially declared landmarks -- yet another example of how the preservation movement (which was founded in order to combat the depradations of architectural modernism) has been captured by establishment modernists. Benjamin Hemric, who often offers erudite and insightful commentary here at 2Blowhards, gets off a number of informed and sensible comments on the New York Times's blogposting about the brouhaha. * MBlowhard Rewind: Back here, I wrote about the hideosity of the modernist urban form known as "towers in the park," and included a couple of snapshots of the awful I.M. Pei buildings that may now be declared landmarks. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 21, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 30-Minute Meal diva Rachael Ray gives the exercise system called Gyrotonics a whirl: Though I don't giggle quite as infectiously as Rachael does, darn it, I enjoy Gyro too. I've been going to a class or two a week for about two years now, and I love the workout as much as I love yoga, which is saying a lot. For one thing, I love the activity itself. At first the machines can seem bizarre, the movements can be hard to imitate, and lord knows Gyro has its silly side. (That's a bad thing?) But the Gyro scene is a lot of fun. One reason is that Gyro hasn't been as thoroughly discovered and exploited as yoga and Pilates have been, so it's still a small and friendly universe. For another, Gyro teachers (most of them ex-dancers) seem nearly all to be sweet-natured, helpful, and easygoing -- less mystical than yoga teachers but far less Nazi-drill-Sergeant-esque than Pilates instructors. My physique hasn't exactly been transformed into a Greek god's -- far from it. But I'm well past the age when that's a realistic possibility anyway. What I love-love-love most about Gyro is the way it leaves me feeling: stretched, toned, and mellow. It isn't a sweaty-grunty, gym-style, testing-your-willpower activity, thank god. (Lost interest in those years ago.) The weights on the machines aren't there to exhaust you, they're there to dramatize and heighten the movements you perform. Instead it's great at helping you get the kinks out; at expanding your range of motion; at fostering body awareness; and at reminding you of how much fun it can be to have a contented and alert body. You may walk into a Gyro class feeling distracted, alienated from your body, and full of aches and pains -- but you're likely to walk out feeling blissy and playful. The sensation is a hyper-pleasing blend of "I just had a workout" and "I just got a massage." Hours after a Gyro session, I often find myself savoring the sensations in my hip joints, my shoulders, and my spine -- not something I'm likely to find myself doing otherwise. Gyro hasn't replaced yoga in my affections, but it has become a wonderful complement to it. I dragged The Wife to a few Gyro sessions not long ago. Though at first she dismissed it as one of my loonier passions, she has since become a regular at the Gyro studio herself. She likes the scene and the teachers, and she likes the way an hour of Gyro makes her feel. I like the way Gyro leaves her an even sweeter-natured, kittenish thing than she usually is. Here's another glimpse of some basic Gyro moves: A warning: Private classes with a Gyro instructor can be very expensive. So, if you're tempted to give Gyro a try but aren't rolling in dough, let me make a few suggestions. Do spring for five or ten private lessons despite the cost. The movements and... posted by Michael at February 21, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A 27-Year Computer Diet
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The first significant portable computer debuted 27 years ago. It was Adam Osborne's Osborne I which weighed 24.5 pounds. It appeared not long after the launch of the famous IBM PC, when IBM compatibility wasn't an important sales factor. For the record, it had a Zilog Z80 processor and the CP/M operating system, both commonly found in early PCs. In the fall of 1982, Compaq unveiled its first personal computer, a portable weighing 28 pounds that had the virtue of being completely IBM-compatible. (To be fully-compatible, a computer had to have either an Intel 8088 or 8086 processor, run Microsoft's operating system and -- most crucially -- have a BIOS that worked exactly like the one IBM used. The BIOS is a hard-coded, chip-based operating system that mediates between the hardware and the main operating system.) By 1983, compatibility was becoming a Big Deal. Normally, it didn't matter much. But if a user hit an incompatibility when something really important had to be done, he was shafted. And today? Apple's new MacBook Air weighs all of three pounds! And it can run Microsoft Windows if one makes the effort and pays some extra money. Adam Osborne and Osborne computer Steve Jobs and MacBook Air computer IBM seems to be out of the personal computer business and Compaq was merged into Hewlett-Packard. And Osborne? It crashed in the fall of 1983, the first well-known personal computer company to do so. Adam Osborne, the man behind the Osborne was born in Thailand in 1939 to British parents. Following graduation from university in England in 1961, he emigrated to the USA, eventually becoming known as a writer and publisher of computer books. After the demise of his computer company he launched a software firm, Paperback Software. This venture failed when he lost a lawsuit by Lotus Development. It was alleged that Osborne's spreadsheet's user interface mimicked too closely that of Lotus 1-2-3, at the time a top spreadsheet program. His health starting to crack, Osborne left the Berkeley Hills for India in 1992, where he died in 2003. I crossed Osborne's path twice. Once was at a personal computer show in San Francisco where he was manning the Paperback Software stand hawking his products. We chatted for a couple of minutes but I didn't need any of his programs and continued on my way. In 1991 Osborne and I were on the same panel at the APL programming language convention. Before we went on stage he mostly grumbled about lawyers, this being a little more than a year after having lost the Lotus case. Osborne was born the same year as me. He flew far higher and probably fell a bit lower. Such is life. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 20, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * "I definitely think pageants define me as a person." (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.) * The greatest duets of all time. (Link thanks to the Communicatrix.) * "Sweet Child of Mine" -- on the sitar. * The Beatles perform "Stairway to Heaven." (Both of these links from Will S.) * Michael Bay doesn't just blow shit up. Michael Bay is awesome. (Link thanks to Bryan C.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 20, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Urban Squeezing
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's not yet Hong Kong. Or even Manhattan. Not yet, anyway. But I wouldn't be surprised if Seattle's planners and their political and media allies, deep down in their hearts, would like the city to resemble those places. When I was growing up, Seattle was a city of detached houses. There were a few areas with "high rise" (in Seattle's case, six floors and higher) apartment buildings. Other areas had lower-density apartments. But apartments were decidedly the exception, not the rule. For the last few decades, in the name of saving the planet, Seattle zoning has encouraged both high (including 30+ floors) and low rise apartment buildings. Detached housing is still allowed, but lots have been subdivided in halves or thirds and the new structures pretty much fill the available land. A new kind of housing hereabouts is the townhouse -- something I'd previously encountered in San Francisco and large cities in the Midwest and Northeast. Here are some recently-built examples. The lower photo shows the driveway and parking situation in greater detail than the top photo -- basically an "establishment" shot as they say in the movie trade. There seems to be a little problem here for many car owners: where is the room to maneuver a car into those garages tucked under the houses? I'm pretty sure my car (the blue one at the right of the top photo) could never make it. Therefore, I have to conclude that Our City Masters really want us to drive one of these: That's if we are so brazenly anti-Earth to own a car in the first place. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 19, 2008 | perma-link | (15) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Guys: Maybe the time really has come to give up the soft drinks. * What should the experts require of us? It seems like it must be a lot of fun to be a nanny-state advisor ... * Why do you exercise? * MoonRiver runs some beautiful reproductions of four of Fairfield Porter's paintings. FvBlowhard and I are both Fairfield fans. Friedrich recently shot off this fun passage to me: I like some of his pictures intensely, others I’m pretty indifferent to. My reaction to him is quite a bit like my reaction to Bonnard, who was one of inspirations. In some pictures both guys are geniuses, in some they look like they’re 12-year-old amateurs.In any case, I always like the emotional tone, the investment in quiet everyday domestic life. I really like the high angle landscape of the parking lot; the generalizing of the color shapes is cool, as is the fact that he preserves the tonal relationships but suppresses most texture. I almost feel inspired to knock out a painting in response to this one! Here's a good Robert Hughes passage about Fairfield Porter. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 19, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, February 18, 2008

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Herewith are two items on the internet that I found interesting and worth passing along. * Talk show host / movie critic / author / columnist Michael Medved mentions here that, of the 43 U.S. presidents, only five had brown eyes. They were Andrew Johnson, Lyndon B. Johnson, John Quincy Adams, Chester A. Arthur and Richard Nixon -- hardly a stellar cast, he notes. Medved wasn't able to find the eye color for briefly-serving William Henry Harrison. He points out that blue, grey and hazel eye colors are vastly over-represented in the presidency compared to the population at large at various times in our history. Fascinating, but I have no idea if it means anything. * Jeff Jarvis took a small, utterly unscientific poll of his readership, asking which daily newspaper features ought to be eliminated in these times of retrenchment. The results are discussed here (scroll down to February 17th). The top ten contenders for oblivion were: Financial tables 43.06% Sports section 21.65% Sports columnists 8.00% Entertainment section 3.76% Movie critic 3.76% Business section 2.59% Syndicated features 2.59% TV critic 2.59% Music critic 1.88% Book critic 1.65% The big surprise was the sports section vote. I always thought that sports was a major reason why guys, at least, bought papers. It's possible that the people who voted were elitist intellectoids who disdain sports. (Full disclosure: I voted, but not to zap the sports section.) Jarvis wonders if sports might be covered by sports-only papers in the future. Surprisingly, Web-booster Jarvis didn't mention that the internet is already crawling with sports sites. By the way, what would you zap? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 18, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Aiming Too High
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This isn't new news, but it's worth repeating every so often: An early success can create psychological poisons that inhibit further success. Terry Teachout does a nice job of illustrating this here in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Some exerpts: We begin after Teachout tells us about Leonard Bernstein's creative collapse following "West Side Story." What happened? Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein's collaborator on "West Side Story," told Meryle Secrest, who wrote biographies of both men, that he developed "a bad case of importantitis." That sums up Bernstein's later years with devastating finality. ... I'd like to put forward Teachout's First Law of Artistic Dynamics: "The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one." That law was inspired at least as much by Orson Welles as by Bernstein. ... Welles's story is one of the saddest tales in the long history of a hard profession. He became famous far too soon and was acclaimed as a genius long before his personality had matured. At 23 he made the cover of Time magazine. Two years later RKO gave him a near-blank check, which he used to make "Citizen Kane." By then he was convinced that he could do no wrong, and when the money dried up and he had to struggle for the first time in his life, he lost his creative way. ... Voltaire said it: The best is the enemy of the good. Ralph Ellison, like Bernstein and Welles, learned that lesson all too well. In 1952 he published "Invisible Man" and was acclaimed as a major novelist. The well-deserved praise that was heaped on him gave Ellison a fatal case of importantitis, and though he spent the rest of his life trying to finish a second novel, he piled up thousands of manuscript pages without ever bringing it to fruition. Why did he dry up? Because, as Arnold Rampersad's 2007 biography of Ellison made agonizingly clear, he was trying to write a great book. That was his mistake. Strangled by self-consciousness, he never even managed to finish a good one. ... Yes, it's important to shoot high, but there's a big difference between striving to do your best day after day and deliberately setting out to make a masterpiece. What if Welles had gone back to Broadway after "Citizen Kane" and directed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on a bare stage, with no expensive bells and whistles? Or if Bernstein had followed "West Side Story" with a fizzy musical comedy that sought only to please? Or if Ellison had gritted his teeth, published his second novel, taken his critical lumps, ignored the reviews, and gone back to work the very next day? Then all of those gifted, frustrated men might have spared themselves great grief -- and perhaps even gone on to make more great art. Teachout uses George Balanchine as a counter-example: an artist who kept cranking out ballets for decades. Contrast Ellison's creative paralysis with... posted by Donald at February 17, 2008 | perma-link | (24) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some of the most undersung contemporary culture-heroes -- IMHO, of course -- are YouTube music-video uploaders. Just think of it: At no previous time in all history have we had anything like this kind of easy access to such a wealth of fabulous music performances. And we owe it to the voluntary efforts of a lot of amateurs, motivated by love, generosity and enthusiasm. It's enough to make a person believe in anarchist theory. (Incidentally, that's a first-class essay.) A few of the uploaders I rely on most heavily: rockabilly buff Gatorrock786; country-music lover Genewatsonfan2; Rolling Stones champion Ghostryder4067; StAlphege, surely in the top tier of the world's Emmylou Harris admirers; and the classical-music connoisseurs Judicaelp and Tbromley. Here's some footage of the legendary Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Chopin: And a clip of the brilliant Maurizio Pollini performing Debussy: Pollini's Chopin is a modern legend in its own right, and there's a lot of it on YouTube. Here's one good example. A couple of recent discoveries have also been making me very, very happy. Oldtimer (456 vids uploaded so far -- imagine the time and effort!) Ultracoolsixties has an eclectic collection of '60s pop music clips that must be peerless -- it includes performances by Marianne Faithful, The Byrds, Francoise Hardy, and a longtime fave of mine, the high-octane, midwestern R&B group Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels: And doesn't that take you back to the glory days of AM radio! When I'm the mood for workingman's rock, I'll take Mitch Ryder and the boys over Bruce Springsteen any day -- in my value-set, raucous party spirit always prevails over mythos and bloat. Here's Mitch Ryder's website Why not spring for this best-of collection? Newcomer Musicfirstlove has been sharing a priceless collection of alt-country clips, including many I hadn't even known existed of someone I never tire of going back to, the angelically-gifted Texas depressive Townes Van Zandt: Well-synch'd-up-with-its-sound or not, that's some precious footage. I wrote -- OK, I raved -- about Townes Van Zandt back here. Here's the Townes Van Zandt website, run by his widow Jeanene. Jeanene sent 2Blowhards a very moving letter that we were honored to reprint here. Buy a copy of "Be Here to Love Me," Margaret Brown's evocative and poetic documentary about Townes, here. Do you have some favorite YouTube uploaders that you can pass along to the rest of us? It seems to me that the urge to share our pleasures is a lot of what makes the Web the glorious place it is. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 17, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments