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  1. Trip Report: Victoria
  2. DVD Journal: "Stranger Than Fiction"
  3. "Foundations of Western Civilization"
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  5. Question for the Day
  6. Always Chasing 20-Year-Olds
  7. DVD Journal: "Exterminating Angels"
  8. Wii Tennis
  9. An Okay Airline Experience
  10. DVD Journal: "American Pie"

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Trip Report: Victoria
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bloggers in our readership will probably confirm it when I assert that it can be hard to predict if a given posting will generate a lot of comments. So when I posted this innocent little article before sneaking out of town I had no idea that it would generate more than 80 comments, which is pretty close to being a 2Blowhards record. I appreciate the interest in the topic. And thank you for keeping remarks mostly civil for a topic that was potentially hackle-raising. As for me, I spent a couple of days in Victoria, British Columbia. Spring in these parts has barely sprung even though we're less than three weeks from the start of calendar summer. It was stormy enough on the trip up that the Victoria Clipper catamaran detoured to the lee side of Whidbey Island to avoid swells and rough water on northern Puget Sound. And we had no choice but to cross some rough stuff on the westerly shot from Deception Pass to Victoria. The weather improved little while we were in Victoria, though the return trip was smoother because of diminished winds. I'm giving you this long explanation to set the scene for the less-than-picture-postcard quality of the photo report below. Silk purses, sow's ears and all that. Gallery The Empress Hotel is the sight the greets most visitors to Victoria. It is the westernmost of the grand hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, having opened 100 year ago. It's currently part of the Fairmont group. Its architect was Francis Rattenbury who was responsible for a number of Victoria's landmarks and came to a sad end, being murdured by his second wife's young lover. Here are harbor taxis that are based near the Empress. This is the view of the harbor channel from where we were staying. Note the float-plane taxiing in. This is a closer look at a float-plane. It's part of the Kenmore Air fleet that flies passengers up and back from Seattle. Two Canadian airlines fly float-planes between Victoria and other Canadian destinations, Vancouver in particular. The aircraft shown has a radial engine, but most of the planes operating in the harbor are powered by turboprop motors. These small transports -- most of them built by de Havilland Canada -- have been out of production for many years; a Victoria company supplies parts and can do rebuilding tasks. This photo was taken the day we left, its location farther out the harbor channel. Those are houseboats in the middle-ground. They interest me because they are two-story structures; the modest houseboats in Seattle when I was young had only one story. The touristy stretch of Government Street is mostly comprised of old buildings. This chateau-style structure is fancier than most of the others. Spreading all the way from Government Street to Douglas Street is this atrium mall-cum-Bay store. Eaton's was the original anchor store, but that chain folded and the Hudson's Bay Company moved in. Back... posted by Donald at June 7, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, June 6, 2008

DVD Journal: "Stranger Than Fiction"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Pretentious drivel: A whimsical metaphysical comedy that's both a Michel Gondry-comedy wannabe and an attempt at a metaphorical statement film like "The Truman Show." The idea is that an IRS agent / bachelor / lonely-guy (Will Ferrell) starts hearing a voice in his head, narrating his life, and even hinting that his death is soon to come. It's the voice of a famous, blocked, long unheard-from author (Emma Thompson). (Incidentally, all this info is given away very early in the movie, so I'm not spoiling much.) Confronted with the fact that his life isn't under his own control, the IRS drone starts to live, live: takes up guitar; stumbles into affair with hippie baker Maggie Gyllenhaal. Confronted with the fact that a character she's been marionetting has a real existence, will the author start re-think her fanaticism about fiction? Dustin Hoffman plays a literature prof who tries to help Ferrell puzzle out what's happening to him. The main difference between "Stranger Than Fiction" and a tearfully life-affirming Meg Ryan weeper is that this movie has had a tricky "conceptual" frame placed around it. But all the folding-back-on-itself script stuff -- and all the arty-deadpan directorial trickery (which comes right out of blissed-out, New Agey, high-end TV ads) -- can't conceal the hackneyed thinness of the characters and the rote schlockiness of the central story. A sign of how lame the movie is is the way the major question about the central conceit is completely dodged: Why has this connection between writer and real person / character occurred? The film is beautifully-done in some out-of-time, out-of-place, fairy-tale ways. But emotionally and imaginatively it feels beyond arbitrary. Fast-Forwarding Score: Nothing -- I watched the movie with a bunch of other people. Had it been up to me I'd have shut the disc off after half an hour. Semi-related: I enjoyed disliking "Monster's Ball," another film directed by "Stranger Than Fiction"'s Marc Forster; I just plain enjoyed the rowdy Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy "Talladega Nights." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 6, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Foundations of Western Civilization"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thomas F.X. Noble's lecture series is a topnotch Teaching Company offering. It's a great intro to Western Civ -- the one you probably should have taken as a Freshman but skipped, or that you did take as a Freshman and that wasn't very good, or that was perfectly OK but that you didn't pay enough attention to. Guiding the listener from pre-history to the 1600s, Noble delivers both the classical basics as well as a lot in the way of more open, searching, and complex material. His virtues as a presenter and summarizer are many. He's good at reminding us that people in, say, 1400 had no idea what their actions would lead to. He's modest about what's known, and about what can be known. He's informative about disputes and controversies. He regularly reminds us that women were part of the Western Civ story, and he doesn't fall for the idea that history consists of nothing but Great Men and their battles -- though he doesn't forget about them either. And, though the material is crisp, focused, and well-rehearsed, his voice and mind are alive. He never drones; he's full of fervor, humor, and enthusiasm. (A small technical note: I'm awestruck by the way Noble moves back and forth between the big picture and the closeup, and knows exactly when the audience needs such a shift.) Two small misgivings. 1) I wish that Noble made more use of genetics and linguistics. 2) I'm always more curious than historians seem to be about how people paid their bills. But these are just minor quibbles. Noble's series is so good that it made me wonder why such a class should need to be delivered ever again. Can anyone do better? FWIW, my main idiot reaction was, "Wow, that medieval period was really interesting!" You can buy Noble's series here, though I suggest waiting until The Teaching Company puts it on sale, when it'll cost about 1/3 its list price. For more Teaching Company recommendations (from visitors as well as from me), type "Teaching Company" into the Search box in the left-hand column of this blog. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 5, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Peter Brimelow lays out what he thinks libertarians ought to be making of the current immigration mess. Those who are curious about how we have come to this unfortunate, perhaps even disastrous, pass should find Brimelow's book "Alien Nation" an eye-opener. * Oxford U. Press has just posted a gorgeous passage from the Man Who Is Thursday's translation of Ecclesiastes. At his blog, Thursday has a fun go at proposing a sweetly non-comprehensive taxonomy of female types. * MBlowhard Rewind: I wondered if life without taboo is possible. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 5, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Question for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tyler Cowen asks, Is Roissy evil? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 4, 2008 | perma-link | (44) comments

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Always Chasing 20-Year-Olds
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- No links here -- I'm just passing along what I read from time to time and hope that you have come across something similar while wading the media content stream. It has to do with men who seem to be perpetually fixated on women in their (early) twenties. Being interested in, say, 23-year-old gals is what is expected for guys who are 25 or 26. But some men at age 35 or 36 slough off their 33-year-old wives for a new 23-year-old wife or girlfriend. And when that women starts losing her bloom of youth, she in turn gets replaced by you-know-what. By the time the man is in his 50s and 60s, I have to assume he is likely to be rich or powerful or both, because his physical attraction quotient is probably on the skids. Why are some men this way? No question that women with slender arms, smooth skins -- especially without any of the first tell-tales of aging on the neck and under the chin -- and all the other attributes of a newly-adult body can be very attractive. This aesthetic factor seems central, so what matters is how men are motivated by this. There can be many reasons, some idiosyncratic. But the prime reason is that it's a male-ego thing: "Hey, look! See that I can still attract real babes!" This is the classic case where the woman truly is the "object" so beloved by feminist ideologists. The secondary reason is probably the related factor of age -- the "I can still" element. (Few adults welcome the prospect of growing older. One possible exception was Salvador Dalí who once claimed that he wanted to be old or something like that; I read it years ago and forget the exact words. Keep in mind that he made a number of statements for the sole purpose of attracting attention. He finally got his wish, if that's what it really was.) Unfortunately for the ideologists, most men seem to be more sensible than the stereotype suggests. My contention is that, if a relationship with the younger woman continues for longer than even a few weeks or months, it can be hard to sustain the women-as-object attitude. That is, that "relationship" will almost certainly evolve into a relationship and the man will have to regard the woman seriously as a human being. This kind of relationship-building is difficult to the extent that the two people differ in terms of shared background, outlook, and so forth. I think most adults beyond age 45 or so recognize the need such sharing -- especially generational sharing -- as reality. So when a May-September (if not November or December) relationship is encountered, adults possessing more than a smidgen of wisdom will roll their eyes and think "What the hell is going on? What kind of fools are they?" And I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of men would consider the guy with the young babe to... posted by Donald at June 3, 2008 | perma-link | (115) comments

DVD Journal: "Exterminating Angels"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Naughty games at a restaurant -- how French Pretentious, intense, and very, very sexy, this high-toned piece of loony self-absorption by Jean-Claude Brisseau tickled me no end, and for a variety of reasons. Conceptually it's a kooky but daring idea. Brisseau -- whose "Choses Secretes" I also loved -- was taken to court by some actresses who accused him of abusing them during auditions. He was semi let off, but he then chose to make this film, which is partly about that experience. It's a kind of apologia for his conduct as an artist and a director. In other words, it's a sexy arty film about auditioning actresses for a sexy arty movie. In that way it's rather like Catherine Breillat's "Sex is Comedy," which was based on the difficulties Breillat had shooting a sex scene for an earlier movie. Yeah, baby. In its realization, "Exterminating Angels" is a jaw-dropping combo of refined, spare French elegance; dreamy surrealism a la Bunuel and Cocteau; extended suspense a la Hitchcock; and voluptuous and intense sex fantasies. The director figure in the film puts his actresses through sexual trials and messes with their emotions, yet he never actually has sex with them -- something a few of them find hard to forgive. A couple of chic yet malevolent angels (really!) preside over the director figure's fate. Meanwhile, of course, you're watching the film thinking (among other things, such as "Wowee!"), "Holy shit. He had to audition actresses for the film we're actually watching, which is largely about auditioning actresses for the previous film. I wonder what that was like. And how crazy are the actresses we're watching, who are portraying crazy actresses?" It's one of the sexiest games of mental ping-pong I've ever had the privilege of taking part in. Brisseau is an unquestionable talent, yet he's a strange one -- as much an obsessed autodidact as Ed Wood; an elegant and innovative stylist; a man with sex, actresses, beauty, transcendence, religion, and cinema on his mind ... Film Comment's Gavin Smith has written that he thinks Brisseau may actually be deranged. That's certainly a possibility too. Even if you don't enjoy Brisseau's movies, you've almost certainly never seen anything quite like them. FWIW, as pretentious arty-sexy movies go, I found "Exterminating Angels" far more enjoyable than "Eyes Wide Shut." Breillat's "Sex is Comedy" is also very worth a watch. I should add that The Wife, who loved "Secret Things," was mostly bored by "Exterminating Angels," and that she's a defender of "Eyes Wide Shut," which she considers misunderstood as well as a lot of fun. * Here's an interview with Brisseau. * Here's a good Frédéric Bonnaud introduction to Brisseau's work. * For those who can manage some French, here's an interview with the film's three main actresses. * I wrote about Catherine Breillat's films here and here. I love many of them, but they certainly ain't for everybody. Fast-Forwarding Score: Are you kidding? I look... posted by Michael at June 3, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wii Tennis
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When I bought a Wii a month ago, I did so with some apprehension. I'd bought video-game systems before, and as purchases they'd never worked out well. I'm curious about culture and digital media, so I'm eager to explore and experience this new world of interactive "gaming." What's the addiction? What's the excitement? What are the terms? But since I never did get hooked on playing with the systems, I felt I'd wasted money. Would the Wii purchase leave me feeling silly too? After all, as far as I could tell I simply disliked playing computer games. Quick answer: Although we haven't explored any games beyond the sports games that the Wii comes with, I love the Wii. Even The Wife loves the Wii. We especially love the brilliantly designed and programmed Wii Tennis. Spin, strategy, lobs, drop shots ... Opponents with secrets, favorites, weaknesses, and strategies ... The computer players have personality too. During one whiz-bang game -- I, ahem, play Wii Tennis at a pretty darned high level -- my Wii opponents (Wii Tennis is doubles tennis) made an uncharacteristic, silly goof. I started in surprise, then muttered, "Well, they're only human." "No they aren't," The Wife reminded me. The Wife and I sometimes start the day with 30 minutes of Wii tennis. The Wife will play for a while with me watching (and, as husbands will, offering a lot of coaching). Then I'll play for a while with The Wife watching. We're so Wii Tennis-crazy that we have to monitor the amount of time we devote to the game. Play Wii Tennis -- which in effect is a lot more like ping-pong than it is like tennis -- for too long and your shoulder, arm and wrist will ache for days. My time with Wii Tennis has left me thinking: Hey, perhaps I don't dislike computer-game systems per se. Perhaps what I dislike is sitting in front of a screen with a controller in my hand, twiddling knobs with my thumbs. Because the fact is that much of what I love about Wii Tennis is the chance it gives me to get physical, if in a modest way. No thumb-twiddling; lots of arm-waving and wrist-flicking. Bring on the computer games. Feh on the thumb-twiddling. A funny twist in my Wii Tennis adventures is how it has affected my love of watching real tennis on TV. Though I don't generally watch sports on TV, I'm pretty darned happy watching pro tennis on TV for hours. The French Open is currently on, for instance, and I couldn't be much happier than I am when I'm sacked out in front of the TV watching the pros battle it out on clay. But but but ... This year I have this new option. Instead of watching pros play tennis, I can play Wii Tennis myself. Or -- something that's often even more fun -- I can watch The Wife play Wii Tennis and bug her... posted by Michael at June 3, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, June 2, 2008

An Okay Airline Experience
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The sport du jour seems to be airline-bashing. Lord knows there is no lack of cause. A particularly bone-headed item is American Airlines' plan to charge a fee for even one checked bag. Given the chronically too-full condition of overhead bins, imagine the chaos when a lot more passengers opt out of checking and into bin storage -- especially during winter months when heavy coats are headed for the same place. Apparently American can't do this sort of imagining. At least they did me one kindness today, sort of. Two months ago I cashed in frequent flier miles for a September trip to Boston, from where we'll loop up to Québec, up along the St. Lawrence River and on to Toronto and Niagara Falls. I told the American Airlines staffer that a return from Rochester or Buffalo would be fine -- pick one or the other. So it was Rochester. This morning I received an email from American advising me that there were some schedule changes -- flight numbers and times, etc. Glancing over the printout I noticed a tiny detail that I had missed in previous emailed itineraries: the return flight was originating in Rochester, Minnesota!! So I hopped on the phone to straighten out the mess. The lady on the other end of the line advised me that there would be a $150-per-person change-of-itinerary fee. Uh, oh. I had already booked hotel rooms and made arrangements to visit friends; too late to dump the trip. While the lady was off-line checking something, I remembered that the initial booking was done by phone and that the mistake was American's, not mine. Rochester, MN probably appeared on a computer screen above Rochester, NY so that was the one that got selected. When I got off hold I told the lady that the error surely was American's and that I didn't feel like paying $300 for their mistake. And if she couldn't fix this, then I wanted to talk to her supervisor. She put me on hold and returned a few minutes later to tell me that the supervisor agreed there would be no penalty for the change. Thanks, American, for doing something right. Now as for that luggage fee ... Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 2, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

DVD Journal: "American Pie"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Squaresville, inane, childish, sappy and obvious, it's like one of the drearier John Hughes movies spiced up with a little Farrelly Bros.-style raunchiness, though a very mild version of it. It took me four nights of trying to get through the film, and watching it left me wondering gloomily about why so many Americans are so fixated on their teen years. As kids, they can't wait to be teens; then they're teens, and it's amazing and it's horrifying; and then they spend their adult lives repeatedly revisiting their teen years. Which is a weird and unfair objection, because I have nothing against teenflix, and because the ones that I've enjoyed ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Valley Girl" come to mind) haven't left me pondering such questions. Fast-Forwarding Score: Very little, but only because I was trying to figure out why on earth the film was such a big hit, and why in the world it had meant anything to anybody. Semi-related: Here's a posting I wrote about the history of the teenager. Short version: Believe it or not, not so long ago being a teenager wasn't a big deal, and the experience of teenagehood was thought to be of no interest to anyone. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 2, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Low-Tech Zip
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- A lot of attention is focused on high-technology progress from laboratory to prototype to production to refinement and, in the case of objects digital, to increasing performance at decreasing price. This probably has to do with the "glamour factor" of high-tech. Unnoticed can be progress in low-tech fields. For example, the common zipper. When I was very young, I don't think any of my clothing was fastened using zippers. Not that they weren't around; according to the history reported here, zipper technology had evolved to essentially its present form around 1914. Nevertheless, my clothing was fastened with buttons until I was at some point in elementary school in the late 1940s. When I finally started wearing clothing with zippers, I found the gizmos unreliable. That is, they could jam. Or part of the zipped-up part could come unzipped. Or it could be hard to get the zipper properly connected so that zipping might begin. These problems and others are still with us. However, slowly but surely, they happen less and less often. And rather than being wary of zippers as I once was, I give them little thought when I buy a garment. Here, for the record, are some of my current zipper gripes. A zipper on one of my Tommy Bahama sweatshirts is happy to zip up, but doesn't like to unzip unless it's in the fully zipped position. Zippers on a few of my other garments have a tendency to jam because the slider catches on fabric. I chalk this up to an unintentional error in garment design or fabrication. The zipper on a Brooks Brothers sweater is difficult to get started. I have to get the part opposite the slider inserted just so or nothing happens when I try to zip. Maybe that's why the sweater was on sale. A few of my garments have zippers where the slider is on the right-hand side and not the usual left side. This makes things awkward because I'm not used to working a zipper that way. For what it's worth, the garments are imported -- one from Denmark, the other from England. All this complaining aside, the many zippers I deal with over the course of the year are virtually trouble-free, unlike they were around 1950. I hope yours are too. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 1, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments