In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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  1. Linkage by Charlton
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  5. Architecture and Happiness: Goleta Pier
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  7. Un-PC Linkage
  8. Toronto is New York
  9. Localism, Bad, Good, and Foodie
  10. Safdie Designs a Gallery

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Linkage by Charlton
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A selection of recent webfinds by champion websurfer Charlton Griffin: * How stars are born. * A followup to Donald's recent "ugly car" posting: The seven ugliest cars. * Here's an ode to a genuine 20th century icon, the Citroen Deux Chevaux. * Learn about the exoplanets. * Baby star. * More mischief from Penn and Teller. * When empires go bad. * More scorchingness from Pat Condell. * Debussy in an unexpected venue. * Witness the 172 foot dive. * Spooky physics. * Happy dog. * Time to reconnect with the basics? * Demographics gone wild. * I don't think I want to know quite that much about what's going on inside my body. * Obama has a jobs plan. * New perspectives on well-known films. * Another reason to be careful in your public behavior: Google Street View may be watching. * Has celluloid cinema film finally met its match? * In the Philosophers World Cup, it's Germany vs. Greece. * Amazing panoramic (or something) photos of a yummy-looking and incredibly well-stocked restaurant in Peru. Be sure to zoom in on the buffet table. * Health care goes global. * Put this on in the background and you'll be calmer within minutes. * Submit to the doodle master. * Meet the one-armed guitar virtuoso. Check out Charlton's audiobook offerings at Audible. Charlton is one of the very best producers and readers of audiobooks. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

AWOL Campaign Issues
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not a total political junkie. Honest. And I do try to focus my posting on arts and cultural matters along with whiffs of how I experienced life in the distant past (so that younger readers might get a sense of those times). Nevertheless, it's a presidential election year and November isn't far off, so indulge me this observation. A year ago and perhaps even six months ago the Iraq war was a major subject of political controversy. Now it borders on being secondary except when candidates occasionally feel the need to burnish their ties to their bases or jab at their opponent's presumed flaws. This would have been surprising to junkiedom a year and a half ago. Here's what's even more surprising. Well, it is to me. Maybe I don't read the better blogs or pay as much attention to political debates as I should, but I haven't heard as much about Global Warming and other environmental issues as I had expected. Some of this probably has to do with $4 per gallon gasoline prices. Hard-core environmentalists doubtless stuck to their plan to save the planet regardless of human costs. But even Democrat politicians seem reluctant to push those issues hard when the general population is unhappy about the cost of transportation and heating houses. Then there are statistics indicating that the earth essentially hasn't warmed since the end of the century. Plus the cooler weather most people have experienced the last two years or so. These too might have dampened public willingness to buy into the notion that world catastrophe is right around the corner. Yes, McCain mentions now and then that he plans to do something or other. And Obama when in Berlin said something about lowering the oceans or maybe parting the Red Sea. But I've heard little about Kyoto Treaties, carbon footprints and all that. I suspect this lull is temporary. We'll be hearing far more about such things than I want to after the election if the vote goes according to current polling data. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 18, 2008 | perma-link | (31) comments

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Truly Ugly Car
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Designing safety into automobiles wasn't solely the result of federal government mandates influenced by Ralph Nader's crusade against the Chevrolet Corvair in the 1960s. One example was the Tucker of 1948. I don't remember what all the supposed safety features were, but it did have a little padding on the panel below the windshield and a large-ish open space directly below it on the front passenger side where, it was said, the passenger could hurl himself prior to an impact. For the 1956 model year, Ford Motor Company offered a safety package that included lap seat-belts, padded dashboard and a steering wheel with a recessed hub that would be less likely to impale the drive during a frontal collision. In 1957 my jaw dropped when I opened my copy of Motor Trend and saw photos of a safety car designed by Fr. Alfred Juliano. It was strange, looking like parts of it were going in different directions. For a fairly detailed write-up, click here. Fr. Alfred Juliano's Aurora safety car - 1957 To me, the oddest feature was the windshield which bulges outward sort of like a sausage balloon. The above photo doesn't show it as clearly as a side view might, but if you look carefully you ought to be able to get a sense of its shape. The probable reason for the strange windshield had to do with frontal collisions. If the people in the front seat have lap belts (lap/shoulder belts such as we are familiar with are not apparent in the photo), their entire bodies won't be flung forward by inertia. Instead, the trunk, arms and head will pivot forward from the hip and the head might well strike a conventional windshield. A drastically convex windshield, on the other hand, is too far to be hit; the driver's chest will be halted by the steering wheel and the passengers head might strike the padded dash. Well, that's the theory as I surmise it. The linked article draws a similar conclusion using different reasoning. The car never entered production, yet somehow avoided the scrap heap and is now in a museum in England. I won't categorically claim it's the ugliest car ever built, but it's surely a contender. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 17, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ray Lowry R.I.P.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sorry to see that legendary British "rock cartoonist" Ray Lowry has died at 64. Lowry is most famous as the guy who came up with the concept for The Clash's "London Calling" record jacket, but he was also an exciting and witty cartoonist with a long history of work at Private Eye, Melody Maker, and Punch. The Ray Lowry website features a selection of his art. Read a good obit here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 16, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Architecture and Happiness: Goleta Pier
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Maybe what you remember from your recent visit to Europe or Chicago is the great buildings listed in the tourist guide. Or are you remembering postcards and photographs of them instead? ... But maybe what you remember with the most pleasure from your visit -- what you can still feel deep in your very own cells; what you really took away, for your very own self -- is the pleasure of breakfast at an out-of-the-way cafe, or the view down an unnamed alley, or leaning over a bridge and watching a river go by, or just enjoying the comfort of your hotel room's bed for a long lazy morning. Those are architectural experiences of worth too. Why aren't they recognized and discussed as such? A good architectural question: Why did you enjoy a long lazy morning in one hotel room and not in another? Architecture in the usual unique-masterpiece-torn- from-its-context sense involves too much self-consciousness, too much learning. It's unnatural, and it often doesn't correspond to our actual experiences of places. Architecture came into focus for me when I woke up to the fact that there was no reason to limit my interest to masterpieces and geniuses, let alone to buildings ripped from their context. Instead, I could let myself take in the entire built environment. Like that, parks, streets, the spaces between buildings, farms, trees, lawns, barns, and towns opened up to me as "architecture" too. I've been a happy (instead of a frustrated) fan ever since, with my eyes open nearly all the time to where I am and to what's around me. In fact, I often get so absorbed by the spaces between the masterpieces that I overlook the masterpieces. Between you and me, I don't generally find this to be any big loss. Which bring me to the no-masterpiece-but-still-wonderful structure I want to show off today: Goleta Pier, sometimes known as More's Landing, a pier off a beach about 10 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara, California, near Isla Vista. Let me take you on a quick tour, showing off some of the pier's virtues. For starters: The Pier interacts well with its environment: It punctuates the bay, and brings out its natural qualities, the way spices used well don't cover up a dish's major ingredients but instead complement them and show them off. Imagine this bay and beach without Goleta Pier. It'd be a lovely place still, but perhaps somewhat less defined and less memorable. The pier works -- it has "interest" -- not just from one distance and from one point of view. It's interesting and engaging from numerous angles, and from numerous points of view. Open secret: A common failing of modernist buildings is that, while they can have a lot of visual impact, they often have their full effect only when seen from one or two specific places. They aren't engineered for the use of 3D people, each of whom has his own purposes. Instead,... posted by Michael at October 16, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fragile Popularity
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, yes. I know. Just because something's popular doesn't mean it has high quality. And just because something has high quality doesn't foreclose it becoming popular. Moreover, all things being equal, I think it's nice when a writer / painter / creative whatever finds fame, fortune or both during his lifetime. Still... You see, there's this schadenfreude thing. I find myself pleased when one of those writer / painter / creative whatever types who happens to crank out garbage gets his comeuppance either in his own lifetime or his hereafter. Such reputation-crashing gives me hope that many of those "creatives" who have been doing such damage to the arts will indeed "get theirs" once the wheels of history have finished their grinding. And this is not to mention my happiness when a worthy artist gets his reputation restored after having fallen from fashion's favor. A complicated business all this. Murky, too. That's because everything aside from sales statistics (volume, price per unit, etc.) is opinion-driven. Speaking of numbers-driven information, I thought it would be fun to list the top ten best-selling fiction book authors from 100, 80, 60, 40 and 20 years ago and let you mull them over and make observations. The lists were compiled by Editor & Publisher and can be found on Wikipedia pages such as this one. Here are the lists, ordered from the author of the best-selling book to number ten. 1908: Winston Churchill (the novelist, not the politician), Rex Beach, John Fox, Jr., Harold MacGrath, Frances Hodgson Burnett, F. Hopkinson Smith, Mary Johnston, Louis J. Vance, George Barr McCutcheon, Gilbert Parker 1928: Thornton Wilder, Hugh Walpole, John Galsworthy, S. S. Van Dine, Viña Delmar, Booth Tarkington, Warwick Deeping, Anne Parrish, Mazo de la Roche, Louis Bromfield 1948: Lloyd C. Douglas, Norman Mailer, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Agnes Sligh Turnbull, Betty Smith, Frank Yerby, Ross Lockridge, Jr., A. J. Cronin, Elizabeth Goudge, Irwin Shaw 1968: Arthur Hailey, John Updike, Helen MacInnes, John le Carré, Taylor Caldwell, Allen Drury, Gore Vidal, Fletcher Knebel, Catherine Marshall, Morris L. West 1988: Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, Robert Ludlum, James A. Michener, Judith Krantz, Anne Rice, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Richard Bach, Leon Uris For what it's worth (remember, I'm not at all a lit guy), I can identify only one author (Churchill) from 1908. If the list were book titles, the only familiar book name was The Trial of the Lonesome Pine (by Fox). Five names from 1928 are familiar to me, ditto for 1948, nine from 1968 and nine from 1988. The reason I knew most of names from 1968 and 1988 is because I was an adult then and the information simply seeped into my brain. One puzzling item is the reason why 1908 came off so badly. Was it simply a blah year that randomly happened? As a check, here are the author names I recognize from the entire 1900-09 decade: Winston Churchill (the fiction writer -- and I did read his... posted by Donald at October 15, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Un-PC Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- * The unstoppable Fjordman lists 10 reasons why the European Union should be gotten rid of. * Some interesting sentences and observations from respectable intellectual Ian Buruma, writing about the rise of the far right in Europe: The biggest resentment among supporters of the right-wing parties in Europe these days is reserved not so much for immigrants as for political elites that, in the opinion of many, have been governing for too long in cozy coalitions, which appear to exist chiefly to protect vested interests ... Expressions of nationalism in postwar European democracies were always tolerated in soccer stadiums, but not in public life, by these leaders. Skepticism about European unity was routinely denounced as bigotry or even a form of racism. * What kind of sense does it make to be importing refugees who can't even begin to contend with modern life? * Peter Schiff predicts that inflation will be at 20-30% by this time next year. "We need to replenish our savings, and the government is not letting us do that. The government is force-feeding spending down our throat," Schiff says. * Fun facts for the day come from Heather Mac Donald: Though second- and third-generation Hispanics make some progress over their first-generation parents, that progress starts from an extremely low base and stalls out at high school completion. High school drop-out rates -- around 50 percent -- remain steady across generations. Latinos’ grades and test scores are at the bottom of the bell curve. The very low share of college degrees earned by Latinos has not changed for more than two decades. Currently only one in ten Latinos has a college degree. * Joseph Sobran wonders what it means to be conservative in America. It's a very good piece that I think even lefties would learn from. Well, open-minded lefties anyway. * Thomas Woods interviews "reactionary radical" Bill Kauffman. * "It is time for the government to do the one thing it does well: nothing at all," writes economist Jeffrey Miron. My own basic conviction about politics, FWIW: Nine times out of ten, nothing really needs to be done. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 14, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Toronto is New York
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- So we're strolling in Toronto a few weeks ago and discover that Front Street is closed for a block near the Royal York Hotel. Oh, it 's a crew filming a movie. What's that yellow thing over there? Why it's a taxi. A taxi decked out like a New York City cab. And the roof is smashed it. Here's a view from the other end. Looks like it got hit by a giant wedge. Half a block a way where the crew is filming, there's a nearly identical cab with nearly identical damage. So I suppose they were filming the hit and wrecked two cars to ensure that they got usable footage. I'm about as far as one can get from being a movie buff. That and my usual laziness means that I have no idea what movie was being shot in Toronto-subbing-for-NYC, and I' won't bother to track down what the title is. I'll leave that for any fans in the readership. So my parting shot for this post is the following spoiler: The Taxi gets it. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 14, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, October 13, 2008

Localism, Bad, Good, and Foodie
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Burkeman1 has been having a nightmarish wrestle with his local government. * Local authorities are often bunglers, god knows. But sometimes they commit just the right bungle. * Food writer and localism buff Michael Pollan has some ideas for the next Prez. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 13, 2008 | perma-link | (29) comments

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Safdie Designs a Gallery
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently wrote about Ottawa and Moshe Safdie. Now I'll combine the two by discussing his National Gallery of Canada building in Ottawa. To set the scene, here are the photos I took of it. Gallery This is the National Gallery as seen from near the Parliament building (to get some orientation, see the pictures in the first link, above). The following two pictures are interior views of the long, glazed wall and the glazed tower on the corner of the structure. This is what that glazed wall looks like from the inside. As you see, it's actually a gallery of sorts, the left side being windows with a view of Parliament Hill. The floor is a long ramp leading up to the glass tower and the first art galleries floor. This is the interior of the glass tower as seen from the upper art gallery floor. A coffee shop dining area is on the first level. And there is a fine view of Parliament Hill to savor. The National Gallery opened 1988 to a positive review by Paul Goldberger of The New York Times. My opinion is that the southern exterior, the one shown in the photo, holds the most interest; the rest of the building that I saw (I didn't walk around it, so might have missed a few things) is rather bland and nothing special. The best thing Safdie did was realize that, in many respects, the view from the building is almost as important as the view of the building. Hence the sloping-ramp gallery and glazed tower. These are two structural instances where Modernism can work well, though I can imagine some traditionally-based solutions that might work about as well. I wasn't happy with the layout of the main gallery wing. That might have had to do with the fact that we had a time budget of around an hour and I especially wanted to see the museum's display of Tom Thompson and Group of Seven artists. The trouble is, that particular display was diagonally opposite the glazed tower area entry to the galleries so, map in hand, I had to work my way around lots of less important stuff to get where I wanted to go. The layout is basically a racetrack pattern with two large galleries in the middle and a limited number of cross-paths. I would have preferred more entry points than the ones from the tower corner. The layout is simply too constrictive, too controlled. I recognize that there is probably no ideal museum layout, though my gut feeling is that a central entry with a set of branching-out points (perhaps along with peripheral race-tracks) might be better than alternatives. My take is that Safdie made visitor circulation subservient to his ramp-and-tower concept. All of which is not to say that it's a botched job. The museum is okay. The nice views are counterbalanced by a flawed circulation design. The exterior could easily be improved, but... posted by Donald at October 12, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments