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  1. Political Linkage
  2. If Germany Had Won the Great War
  3. Weekend Music: Gang of Four
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  6. Something is Rotten…
  7. Mamet Reads Sowell
  8. Psychology Linkage
  9. Spitzer Bits
  10. 1000 Words: Naomi Tani

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Political Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was dreading a dull, dull election campaign. If politicians can't even deliver some entertainment value for our tax dollars, then what use are they? But the gloves are finally coming off, aren't they? * Steve Sailer deserves lots of credit; he has been asking probing questions about Barack Obama, and about Jeremiah Wright -- Obama's zany black-nationalist preacher -- for months now. Here's Steve's latest Barack posting. Here's Wright in action. Funny to think that a few bad-taste remarks in long-ago newsletters got Ron Paul in such trouble that his campaign was effectively killed, isn't it? * Camille Paglia returns to Salon with a lot of smart and vivid observations about Hillary and Obama, as well as some bitching and moaning on the theme of "why has sex in America become so pushy yet unerotic?" I've treated myself to some similar rants. * The excellent Cristina Hoff Sommers reports the unnnerving, maybe even alarming news that institutionalized Boomer feminists are bringing Title IX-style pressures to bear on the worlds of math and science. Just what America needs: diversity officers running math departments and research centers. * Prof emeritus Anne Barbour Gardner says that the biggest influence on academic literary studies in recent years hasn't been deconstruction, it has been feminist criticism. A laugh from The Onion may be a propos here ... * Does anybody want dollars any longer? * Secessionism buff Bill Kauffman tells the story of the people who would like to create a new state out of southern Oregon and Northern California. I'm looking forward to Bill's new book, which goes on sale soon. * Good to see that someone has finally figured out how to make money on the web! * Too keep the insanity in perspective, how about a little something that offers real pleasures and satisfactions? How about a little Sam Cooke? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 15, 2008 | perma-link | (29) comments

If Germany Had Won the Great War
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Alternative History" was a popular sport a few years ago for history buffs. It probably always will be around if for no other reason than politicians and pundits love to criticize and second-guess actions of other politicians. For example, "If only Clinton had resigned when the Monica thing went public, then Al Gore would have been President and would have won the 2000 election. Bin-Laden never would have attacked the U.S., the Palestinians and Israelis would have made peace, we would now have Global Cooling and Earth would be paradise." Or something like that. Fun stuff. And it's generally harmless because it's pure speculation -- certainly after about the second major pivot point is reached. For example, it seems that records show that the German army would have pulled back from the 1936 re-occupation of the Rhineland had the French army moved east to counter it. It's possible that this could have led to a chain of events that would lead to Hitler's toppling and no World War 2. But it's also possible that World War 2 would have happened anyway, at a different time, under different circumstances and possibly with a different outcome. I'm not sure Alternative History would have pleased Leo Tolstoy, who thought Napoleon was rendered a sock-puppet by historical forces. I happen to think that men and randomness shape history -- of the political and military kind, at least -- as much as such "forces" do. What brings this up is that I just read a fairly recently reissued 1935 book about the opening weeks of the Great War by Sewell Tyng. Plus, I have read and re-read Edward Spears' 1930 account of the same period, but from a liaison officer point of view. The Great War is known for its bloody trench warfare which indeed took up most of the four years it lasted. But its opening and closing weeks were marked by fluid campaigns, and the opening campaign very nearly resulted in German victory. Many writers of military history assert that if the Germans had only followed Schlieffen's plan to the letter, their right wing would have swept past Paris and caught the French armies in a huge trap. On the other hand, Martin van Creveld writes that the Germans didn't have the logistical capacity to maintain such an assault and that Schlieffen himself knew it. The Schlieffen Plan and the French Plan XVII aside, Tyng mentions a number of occasions where the tide of battle might have changed had some transient condition or another been in place. Certainly the Germans had the upper hand until the first few days of September 1914. But, as both Tyng and Spears indicate, the sometimes derided French commander Joffre was able to throw the Germans back after having his center and left retreat rapidly while moving forces from his right to create a new army based on Paris. Anyway, just for speculative fun, let's assume that the Germans did decisively defeat... posted by Donald at March 15, 2008 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, March 14, 2008

Weekend Music: Gang of Four
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sadly for me, one of the punk bands that's least-well represented on YouTube is one of my favorites, the snarly English dance band Gang of Four. The videos that are available do a crappy job of conveying how fiery and exciting their music and shows were. Still, why should that stand in the way of a blogposting? A quick word about the group. One of the first of the "post-punk" bands, the Leeds-based Gang of Four blew onto the scene with a distinctive sound, a slashing and confident attack, and two really fabulous records, "Entertainment!" and "Solid Gold." They caught a downer of a mood. Big cities were falling apart, debt was everywhere, the '70s were grinding to an end, New York City had declared bankruptcy, squatters were taking over abandoned buildings ... It could feel some days like Western Civ was flailing, perhaps even on the verge of an apocalyptic turning point. Well, it could if you were a highly-reactive, imaginative, urban kid, anyway. Punk rock generally was implicitly a response to all this -- a black-hearted, dancing-on-the-cinders moment of reveling in the absurdity of it all, a reaction against both the bloat of what had become of Boomer rock and the sappiness of disco. What Gang of Four did was take the righteous-apocalyptic element that was implicit in much punk rock and foreground it. But enough with the blah-blah, let's cut to the music: It's party music -- only it's ghoulish, cackling, and strident party music. Too bad that video trails off at the end. In fact, Gang of Four (who are said to have taken their name not from the Chinese Communist politicians but from the Big Four of French structuralism) were political as hell, if in a snot-nosed-kid kind of way. They were Situationists, basically. (Read up here on Situationism, one of the kookier yet more influential radical movements of the last 50 years. I sort of like Situationism myself.) Can you hear and see the Situationism? Funnily enough, I can. I could at the time too. Here are two of the giveaways: The dancing. It's a bit of Devo, a little David Byrne, and distinctively hideous in its own right. Think: theory, confrontation, and attack. Think "pop culture is turning us into spastic robots -- yet even that has its own addictive high. We're electro-zombies who have been gutted of our humanity. Yet we're lovin' it." Those are some of the arguments that Situationism makes about how pop culture works. And that tactic -- taking the strategies of popular culture and turning them back on themselves -- is known as "detournement." It's a classic Situationist art-agitation strategy. The way the music mixes aggression and dissonance with funky danceability. Noise and feedback were big at the time. There were bands that were actual "noise bands," and there were composers around (such as Glenn Branca) who made ambitious entertainments out of chunks of electronic noise, arranging big masses of deafeningness like... posted by Michael at March 14, 2008 | perma-link | (12) comments

Quote for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- From Dean Baker: Why wouldn’t we want the [U.S.] banks to be forced to come clean and eat their losses? This is always the policy that the economists advocate when the parties in question are not the big New York banks. Does anyone remember the East Asian financial crisis when the media was full of condemnations of crony capitalism and the IMF insisted imposed stringent conditions on South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia as a condition of getting bailed out? At that time, everyone insisted on transparency. Aren’t there any economists who still have this perspective? If so, why aren’t their views appearing anywhere in the news? But it's soooooo much more fun to put the other guy on a diet than it is to lose a little weight yourself ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 14, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Since 1999, annual oil revenues for OPEC countries have more than quadrupled, to an estimated $670 billion in 2007." Source. Further: Since 1999, China's oil use has almost doubled. World oil use is up 13%; U.S. oil use is up 7%. "To some extent, we are paying for past shortsightedness," writes Robert J. Samuelson, perhaps understating matters by a tad. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 14, 2008 | perma-link | (0) comments

Something is Rotten…
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, Just after absorbing the news on the NY Fed’s bailout of Bear Stearns, I noticed this little item by Shobhana Chandra on Bloomberg: March 14 (Bloomberg) -- Consumer prices in the U.S. were unexpectedly unchanged in February, making it easier for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke to cut interest rates by as much as three-quarters of a percentage point. The figure followed a 0.4 percent gain in January, the Labor Department said today in Washington. So-called core prices, which exclude food and energy, also showed no change, the first time they didn't increase since November 2006. Since the core prices are flat, and food is up, we can conclude that energy costs are down? With oil at a record high, and natural gas up? WTF?! I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only person left scratching his head. Carl Gutierrez of Forbes seems to share my puzzlement in “Flat CPE Brings Sighs of Relief”: Despite the positive reaction in the bond and equity markets, some analysts were skeptical about the figures. "It is kind of bizarre," Robert MacIntosh, chief economist with Eaton Vance Management in Boston, told Reuters. "I don't know why you don't see inflation here. It must be a faulty measurement system -- it makes no sense whatsoever. How could energy have fallen 0.5%? Do you think energy-related costs are down? I bet that the market is just going to disregard this and move on." And, of course, in Europe where the ECB is stubbornly keeping interest rates higher than in the U.S. (generally an inflation-containing strategy) they weren’t nearly as ‘lucky’ as we were. Ms. Chandra remarks: The report from the U.S. contrasts with figures from overseas also issued today. European consumer prices and wages rose more than economists forecast, leaving the European Central Bank with little room to lower interest rates as economic growth slows. It's probably nothing but my terminally cynical nature that prompts me to wonder if the "faulty measurement system" mentioned by Mr. MacIntosh of Eaton Vance is perhaps not so much faulty as one suffering from a thumb on the scale by government statisticians. The Bloomberg story goes on to quote Stephen Gallagher, chief U.S. economist at Societe Generale SA in New York, who points out that with such low inflation, "The Fed certainly has more room to cut rates next week." So inflation numbers join unemployment numbers in my list of indicators to pay less attention to. Well, do you believe that this is credible? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 14, 2008 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mamet Reads Sowell
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Playwright David Mamet takes stock of life as he has experienced it, scrutinizes his actual beliefs, reads some Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele -- and finds that he's no longer the true-believin' leftie he once was. (Link thanks to the Tory Anarchist.) Nice passage: What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow. But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out? I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own -- take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production. * MBlowhard Rewind: I described my own adventures in rightie thought, and discussed the history of the director. (Scroll down a bit.) Theater productions didn't always have directors, you know. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 13, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Psychology Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Dennis Mangan and visitors have a good try at explaining why populations, as they get richer, start having fewer babies. * Rina confesses that she's pretty neurotic. * Roissy has a theory ... * Edward Hadas lists nine bad ideas economists have about human nature. * A yoga class triggers off some humane, helpful, and brainy reflections for Dark Party Review. Yoga will do that sometimes. * Henry Chappell wonders if it's possible to be crunchy and still shop at Amazon. * So long to one of Italy's more common hand-gestures. * Raymond Pert tries going without his mood meds. * Glenda Cooper recounts the history of English romance-novel publisher Mills and Boone, and reviews the way romance-novel storylines and heroines have changed over the years. * Prairie Mary muses about what it's like to have a "Pyrrhic Success." All of us have had a few of those, I suspect. You can now buy a copy of Mary's bio of her onetime husband, the western sculptor Bob Scriver, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 13, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Spitzer Bits
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few stray things that have caught my attention during the Client 9 -- er, the Eliot Spitzer -- scandals: * I don't personally know why prostitution is illegal, and I think Americans make far too much of it when public people are caught straying. Gosh: Ambitious, power-driven men tend to have strong sex drives and a taste for conquering women -- now who could have imagined that? All that said, the whole "crusading moralist caught with his own pants down" thing makes for a pretty irresistable news story. * Until his resignation, the NY Post was referring to Spitzer as the "governor erect." * Alex Tabarrook thinks that it's worth thinking about Spitzer's actions in terms of trade-offs. * Kirsten Mortensen figures out how much Spitzer owes in sales taxes. * Mark Brener, the man who allegedly ran the online callgirl ring that Spitzer patronized, once worked as a tax preparer. Brener, who is 62, dyes his hair black and when arrested was living with a 23-year-old woman. * Cindy Adams has some almost European-style advice for Spitzer's wife. It's startling to find this kind of thing in an American newspaper, isn't it?: I want to tell her -- so what. She may no longer be New York's first lady, but a husband hooking up with a hooker is not reason enough to no longer be a married lady. Sex, a primal need, outpoints fear, hunger and love as mankind's No. 1 driving force. Unless you're a pig or a monk, many an able-bodied -- and I use that term deliberately -- 48-year-old husband of 21 years has grazed. I'm not advocating it. I'm merely saying, so what? It's like takeout food. Less work for mother. * The Daily News reports that many guys have been with prostitutes. "Variety is sweet," says one of them. * Married 50-something Philip Weiss confesses that he feels sympathy for Spitzer's need to stray, and marvels at Spitzer's hooker-of-choice's "amazing rack." She's a cutie, that's for sure. * Read more about Ashley -- who wants to be a singer -- here. Ashley's mom says that she was “shell-shocked” when her daughter called mid-last week and told her she had been working as an escort and was now in trouble with the law. I'll bet she was. "Hi, Mom. Um, you know those headlines you've been seeing about Eliot Spitzer being caught spending time with a hooker? Well ..." * Tameka Lewis, who may have booked the Spitzer-Ashley assignation, is described by her family as "a church-going honor student who graduated from a prestigious school." * Steve Sailer guesses that NY's new First Lady will soon be getting a raise. * Steve Malanga reports that New York State has a $4 billion deficit, that nine of the U.S.'s ten most heavily-taxed counties are in New York, and that during Spitzer's brief tenure "the state's budget grew sharply." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 13, 2008 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

1000 Words: Naomi Tani
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Welcome to another entry in "1000 Words," a series of postings where I explore underknown and/or quirky cultural phenomena. Previous installments here, here, here, here, here. Today: the Japanese movie actress Naomi Tani, who was a star of what's known as the Japanese "pink cinema." A quick word of explanation. The pink cinema developed in Japan in the 1960s, flourished through the '70s, and died out in the '80s. It was, as its name may suggest, a sex-and-violence movement. It came about because of the way TV and American films were hitting the Japanese film audience. With theater audiences for mainstream Japanese films shrinking, independent production houses saw an opportunity to make money by producing low-budget exploitation pictures. It was a gamble that paid off. By 1970, even the big studios (Toei, Nikkatsu) had joined in the fun, putting aside most of their larger ambitions to make instead cheap and dirty movies that were heavy on the sex, the violence, and the kinkiness. Some of these pictures were flamboyant action pictures. Some of the films belonged to new or oddball genres -- I wrote here about a beautiful and poetic (if trashy) film in the "nunsploitation" genre. Others were straightforwardly porn, or near-porn. When Nikkatsu took on the sex-film genre, the studio gave its directors a little more money to play with than other porn-filmmakers had access to. These slightly-higher-budget Nikkatsu sex films became known as "romans porno." They were shot quickly, often in a week or less, and for very little money. They typically had a runtime of only 70 minutes. They were thrown together like Roger Corman's movies were -- with relative freedom so long as a concept was adhered to and a specified number of whammies (in this case, sex acts) were delivered. This being Japan, bondage, schoolgirls, and torture played a large role in the proceedings. This being Japan, large dots or blobs were inserted in the imagery to cover crotches and pubic hair. Despite the dots, though, the films were quite explicit -- what we'd consider today hard-R, or maybe even NC-17. (By the way: talk about rapid cultural change. Kissing wasn't seen on the Japanese movie screen until 1946. By 1970, theatrical films in Japan were showing everything but hardcore closeups. From the first onscreen smooch to a flourishing sex-film business in 24 years -- now that's a culture that was moving very fast.) The roman porno films were hugely popular, and remained so until the mid-'80s when the home-video revolution wiped out the theatrical porn-film business. But for a couple of decades, paying audiences were back in the movie theaters, and business was flourishing. A galaxy of stars emerged. Directors and writers got work and cashed paychecks. As it turns out, some of these hastily-shot, trashy movies have lived on. Some of the films are now respected; some of the stars are now in the reference books; some of the directors and writers are now recognized for... posted by Michael at March 12, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How Should Museum Art Be Selected?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- My copy of The New Criterion arrived yesterday, and the first article I dove into was this one, "Revisionism at the Met" by New York Sun art critic Lance Esplund. He has been examining the recently re-done Galleries for Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture and isn't entirely pleased. And he has some concerns about the direction the Met as a whole seems to be taking, but I'll leave that for another time. Another matter I won't deal with here is the validity of Esplund's complaints about the galleries. That's because I don't visit New York City often and haven't seen them in their present form. What interests me for now is the following passage. More and more, museums are allowing the public to decide what is and is not worthy in art. Websites and notebooks accompany galleries and exhibitions, so that visitors can weigh in on issues concerning what they saw, didn’t see, would like to see, or would like to see changed in museums. I think there is a lot of value to be gained here, as long as public opinion is taken for what it is -- public, rather than expert, opinion. The problem is that the experts and policy makers (museum curators, directors, and trustees) appear to be making decisions based on public taste. It is public opinion—or, more correctly, the desire to appeal to public, or populist, taste -- that has ruined the once-magnificent Brooklyn Museum of Art. And, based on what is happening within certain areas of the Met, including the Galleries for Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture, there is a sense that populist, crowd-pleasing taste -- or at least an appeal to that taste -- is weakening the museum’s foundations. Or, worse yet, there is a sense that populist taste is a Trojan horse that is already inside the gates. Let's see: letting the public taste camel get its nose in the tent will ultimately lead to a Met gallery of paintings of Elvis on different colored velvets. Well guess what: that very same Elvis gallery might result if left to "experts" and "professionals" uncorrupted by the public. All it would take is a prominent critic or two to proclaim that Elvis-on-velvet paintings really are art worthy of attention and respect. And if words such as "ironic," "paradigm," "deconstruction," "narrative," "subversive" and "meta-theory," were used in the right places, museums across the land might well stampede to the nearest shopping mall art show to scoop up their own Elvis collection. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously complained about the defining-down of deviancy. I think the same might be said of art. The term for what once was rarefied has over the years been applied to seemingly nearly everything. A visit to the Tate Modern a few years back confirmed this for me. Rather than art, I thought most of it was sh*t. Disagree with my opinion? Then let me add that... posted by Donald at March 11, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

R.I.P.: Sorrentino, Yang, Ichikawa
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When you aren't a devoted newsbuff -- and I'm not -- contempo events sometimes just slip by you. It was only recently that I caught up, for instance, with the fact that three artists whose work I'm very fond of died in the last few years. * The novelist and critic Gilbert Sorrentino. Sorrentino was as experimental and hardcore-modernist as it gets: For him a piece of fiction wasn't a story with characters, it was a construction of words and letters. Downside: His books often lost themselves in intellectual gamesmanship. But -- perhaps despite himself -- a few of his novels delivered real guts and feeling. They paid off emotionally; in them, the modernist strategies felt like fresh ways of presenting juicy subjects. Born in Brooklyn, Sorrentino taught in later years at Stanford, and the longer he was a professor the more ingrown his fiction became. Still, in "Aberration of Starlight" and "The Sky Changes," he combined virtuosity and sophistication with a lot of earthy Brooklyn soul and humor. He was also an excellent critic of modernist poetry. * The filmmaker Edward Yang, who died in June of last year at 59 of colon cancer. Although Taiwanese, Yang worked in the tradition of the Euro-American cinema. No kabuki here, and no crazed action or fable-like ghost stories either. Instead, he made films that feature three-dimensional "humanity" in the western sense. (Yang grew up on Taiwan; went to college at the University of Florida, where he earned an engineering degree; and was living in L.A. when he died.) The film of Yang's to start with is the 2000 "Yi Yi," a quiet, expansive-yet-intimate work that bears comparison to Chekhov and Renoir in its patience, its unforced curiosity, and its willingness to let characters and situations reveal themselves in their own time. * The Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, who died in February at 92. I'm not as crazy about some of Ichikawa's more famous movies ("Fires on the Plain," "The Burmese Harp") as many are. But I love-love-love many of his other films, and am happy to think of him as one of the true giants of the Japanese cinema, the equal of Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi. If Ichikawa wasn't as well-known as the Big Three perhaps it's because he worked in a really wide variety of genres and styles, and that made him a hard one to nail down. But to each of the films of his that I've seen he brought a distinctive technical brilliance, a snakecharmer's psychological insight, and a wicked perversity of attack. My viewing tip: Start with his documentary "Tokyo Olympiad" -- genius stuff. And hope that one day his brilliant Tanizaki adaptations "The Key" and "The Makioka Sisters" will be brought out on DVD. * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 11, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Financial Innovation
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: [Editorial Note: I wrote this last night, before news of coordinated activity by the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Canada and the Swiss National Bank had come out. As far as I can tell from a quick overview, none of that changes the overall conclusions of this post.] Dear Blowhards, As those of you who are following the financial news are no doubt aware, the ongoing saga of the credit crisis has taken another turn for the worse. Now that the banks have taken nearly $200 billion worldwide in write-downs, another domino is apparently falling: hedge funds. Many of these institutions use money borrowed from banks to help fund their investments, a practice known as lending (or borrowing) on margin. Unfortunately, the value of some hedge fund investment portfolios -- which are apparently in mortgage-related bonds -- has fallen, and the banks are demanding that a number of hedge funds reduce their margin loans now. If this is impossible, as the amount of money needed is very large, the banks will seize the hedge funds' bonds (as they have the legal right to do) and sell them off to raise cash. This, however, is a bit trickier than it looks. Right now, there aren’t many people willing to buy these mortgage-backed bonds – at least not without demanding a serious discount. In a market with very few buyers, sales such as these drive the price of the seized bonds down. Gillian Tett of the Financial Times in a story "Vicious Spiral Haunts Debt Markets" points out that this is a catch-22 situation. The quickest way to end the current crisis in financial markets is for the prices of assets, like for example those bonds owned by hedge funds and banks, to be driven down to the point where they actually look cheap to investors. At the moment, the investors are currently sitting around with their hands in their pockets, hording their dough. Why? Because the investors figure that even though much of these bonds are being offered at a discount, it will likely be offered at a still-larger discount next week or next month. Back in the S&L crisis of the late 1980s, the government helped resolve a similar problem by staging auctions of the assets of failed thrifts; as soon as investors saw people buying those assets at fire sale prices they figured the bottom had been reached and felt confident that anything they bought today was likely to retain its value in the future. Investors started reaching for their wallets and life in the financial markets went back to normal. However, Ms. Tett points out a key difference between then and now; in the late 1980s banks didn't have to reflect the market value of their own assets in evaluating their financial condition. Today they do; this is known as 'mark to market accounting.' And banks hold a lot of bonds very similar to the ones that they are forcing... posted by Friedrich at March 11, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Private Parts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Helen Gurley Brown's version of Cosmopolitan magazine was frankly what it was: a sexed-up, land-a-man publication for working-class gals. (Brown -- famous as well for the bestseller "Sex and the Single Girl" -- edited Cosmo for 32 years, beginning in 1965.) But despite the brassiness, heartiness, and materialism of the magazine, there was also something likable about it. (IMHO, of course.) Flipping through an issue was like hanging out with your favorite secretary at work, the one who wears long polished nails, who knows everyone's secrets, and yet who also has some real loyalty and sweetness. But Helen Gurley Brown was deposed at Cosmo in 1997. Since then a new version of the magazine has emerged, sleeker and louder, and full of up-to-date attitude. While the volume and shininess levels have skyrocketed, the likableness of the magazine has plummetted. I used to get a kick out of leafing through Cosmo for a few minutes once or twice a year. These days when I run across the magazine I gasp, wince, and recoil. I'm horrified not by the R-ratedness of the publication -- hey, I like sexy entertainments -- but at the harsh, unimaginative belligerance of it. Here's the cover of a recent Cosmo: In some ways it's just a pumpier, more jangly version of the old Cosmo. The following attraction, for instance, is just a revved-up version of the traditional Cosmo thang: Look a little closer, though, and you enter a whole new world: Note to self: Write a blogposting marveling over the way pop culture has lost track of the real glories of sex. Hey world: Sex with another person can be a whole lot more rewarding than getting yourself off is. Hint to the confused: Really good sex with a partner isn't just a better way to jerk off. Further note to self: Draw connection between the capitalist love of pleasing-the-self and the emphasis put by '70s feminism on women masturbating. Funny how both of these forces promote a me-first / me-always-first atttitude, isn't it? At one point feminism and capitalism were understood to be forces in conflict. Today ... Anyway: Who's going to stand up and say, "Far be it from me to get in the way of anyone having a good time getting him/herself off. But self-pleasure isn't all there is to life, you know, not by a long shot." It seems to me that the model's facial expression synchs up perfectly with the general me-first / screw-you tone of the whole package: Smug, mocking, out-for-#-1 ... Whose idea of sexy, let alone appealing, is that? For a little contrast, here's a cover from an issue of Cosmo from 1979. The model is Christie Brinkley, the photographer was a Helen Gurley Brown fave, the genius glamor-schlockmeister Francesco Scavullo. Apologies for the lousy quality: Yes, sure, it's kitsch. But it's calm kitsch, warm kitsch, approachable kitsch. Where the new Cosmo is glass, fiber-optics, and whirling computer graphics, the old Cosmo was... posted by Michael at March 11, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Monday, March 10, 2008

Didn't Do It ... and Glad!
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Joseph Epstein, for many years Northwestern University's pitcher of the wry, writes in the current Weekly Standard about the joys of not having done things. In his case, he mentions Never having owned a station wagon. Never having earned a Ph.D. "Some of the most deeply stupid people in the country have Ph.D.'s." Never having played golf. Not a bad list, that. I can claim two out of three. Unfortunately I let down my guard and got a Ph.D., and from one o' them fancy Ivy League schools, no less. I might never live that down. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 10, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Sunday, March 9, 2008

It Ain't Over Till There's Blood All Over
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" goes the saying. I'm not so sure. Granted, I'm no big opera fan. It's my wife who sees to it that I go three or four times a year. And after a few years of this, I've gotten a fair number of operas under my belt. Often enough, it's not the fat lady that sings to end the performance. Rather, it's an emaciated heroine who expires after withering away from a disease during the last act: think La Bohème and La Traviata. It can get worse. The last two operas I saw ended in bloodbaths. Pagliacci's curtain dropped after a cuckolded clown stabbed his wayward wife and her boyfriend. Not all clowns are funny, it seems. The heroine in last Wednesday's Seattle Opera production of Tosca leaped to her death after her boyfriend was shot by a firing squad. This was after she had stabbed to death the local police boss. And here I thought Italians were basically a happy, life-loving bunch. Good thing I hadn't seen Pagliacci and Tosca before last fall's trip to Italy: I'd have worried about poison in the spaghetti. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 9, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments