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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Friday, November 14, 2008

The Statin News
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Michael Eades, Hyperlipid, and Jenny take sober looks at a recent study that led the press to make great claims for Crestor. Eades' summary: Let’s look at [the study] in the best light possible. If we do, we find that a small group of unusual patients - those with low LDL-cholesterol AND high C-reactive protein - may slightly decrease their risk for all-cause mortality by taking a drug that costs them almost $1,300 per year and slightly increases their risk for developing diabetes. That’s the best spin possible given the data from this study. Compare that to the spin the media is giving it. Semi-related: What's really in that fast-food burger? Back here and here, I wrote about Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation." I don't know about you, but especially when it comes to meat I'm happy to pay a few extra bucks for the quality stuff. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 14, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In 2000, there was $130 billion in subprime mortgage lending, with $55 billion of that repackaged as mortgage bonds. But in 2005, there was $625 billion in subprime mortgage loans, $507 billion of which found its way into mortgage bonds. The source is a Michael Lewis piece in Portfolio. (Link thanks to Steve Sailer.) I found Lewis very helpful. He brings a lot of perspective to bear, as well as a personal touch and a vivid writing style. Those with an aversion to math and technical language -- and who understand the world primarily via stories and people (that would include me) -- should enjoy his piece, even if Lewis does show a little too much fondness for the word "tranche." My grasp on details slipped away pretty quickly, but for a few seconds I really did have the impression that I understood what it means to short subprime mortgage-backed bonds. Lewis' main claim is that today's Wall Street culture is a continuation of what began in the leveraged-buyout '80s, and that the phenomenon is now cycling to its demise. Is he right, do you suppose? It has certainly been a weird stretch. Semi-related: A new report concludes that mass immigration has delivered no economic benefits for Britain, and has been hard on the working poor. Kneejerk immigration supporters respond with name-calling. Wow: doesn't that all come as a surprise. Semi-related 2: The Washington Post's ombudsman looks at the newspaper's campaign coverage and concludes that, yes, the WP did indeed show a marked pro-Obama bias. "Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got," she writes, "especially of his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago and his relationship with Antoin 'Tony' Rezko, who was convicted this year of influence-peddling in Chicago. The Post did nothing on Obama's acknowledged drug use as a teenager." Best, Michael UPDATE: Ron Paul takes questions from readers of the NYTimes' Freakonomics blog.... posted by Michael at November 14, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cutting Personal Spending
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- People with credible (beyond early childhood) memories of the Great Depression are now in their early eighties or older. The rest of us can only envision that period vicariously through books, old magazines, movies and so forth. I wonder what share of today's population has ever gone to the trouble of studying the Depression in either its economic sense or in terms of how ordinary folks coped with it. My guess is that most people have not; they most likely have a cartoon version of that era. I think it is useful to remind ourselves that the majority of members of the labor force did have jobs, that not everyone was on the dole or living in Hoovervilles. Money was spent. Automobiles were purchased, though not nearly as many as in 1928, say. Hollywood prospered because even folks on very tight budgets would spring for a little entertainment now and then. All of which is not to deny that we have been comparatively spoiled the last 40 or 50 years. For example, I too tend to treat many broken items as disposable that I would have had repaired when I was young. My mother used to darn our socks; nowadays I toss 'em when holed. Vibrations I get from recent shopping mall visits include smaller crowds and more sale offerings. Big-ticket items such as automobiles seem to be especially hard-hit and a current debate is whether the government should subsidize the car industry or let firms go bankrupt. This discussion is leading to the question of what you, Our Valued Readers, are doing to cope with the present economic situation. On the one hand, a rational response if one's income is threatened or actually terminated is to slam on the spending brake. On the other hand, reduced spending will lead to even more job losses and a self-reinforcing downward economic spiral. As for me, I'm retired and make significantly less than I did three years ago. I pretty much have to spend everything that comes in due to various fixed commitments such as insurance policies, so I can't economize much even if I wanted to. (Travel comes out of a family, not personal, budget and economies are planned there.) How are you coping (or plan to cope if things get worse for you)? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 13, 2008 | perma-link | (67) comments

California, Visited
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm back from two weeks in California and part of my unpacking took the form of downloading snapshots from the trip. Most of them are the usual tripe and wasted pixels. But a few might have turned out okay. Here they are: Gallery This was taken from a really posh winery near the road from Napa to Sonoma. It shows you what the area looked like before all those posh wineries came on the scene starting in the 1970s or thereabouts. Yes, those are vineyards in the middle distance. This area has been the heart of California's wine industry for decades; it's the fancy wineries that are relatively new. Here is the facade of the Santa Barbara mission. The towers were heavily damaged in the 1925 earthquake. Rather than using stone structure or facing on the repaired towers, what you see is probably plaster over reinforced concrete or some other base. And the "stonework" on the upper parts of the towers? ... It's painted. This tomb is on the mission grounds. I photographed it for two reasons: First, it was larger and more attractive than any of the other burial facilities. Second, the family name is the same as that of Miguel Covarrubias, a popular artist from the 1930s and 40s whose work I remember fondly. This neighborhood is opposite the mission, a nearly 180 degree pivot from the facade photo above. The Santa Barbara area has lots of lovely houses. On our way north we visited the Carmel area, another favorite California haunt. This is a view of Monterey harbor with a whiff of morning fog to provide atmosphere. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 13, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Taking It To the Streets
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had the breath sucked out of me by the events of the past few days: (1) The new new $150 billion bailout of AIG, which seems to have been designed chiefly to benefit…Goldman Sachs! And which was negotiated without public input or oversight of any kind! (And people thought we didn’t have enough debate on whether or not to invade Iraq…!) (2) The outright refusal of the Fed to provide details on who it is extending loans to and what collateral it is taking in return. (3) The bizarre ambiguity about the pressure being put on banks (most recently by the Fed ) to lend the bailout money which was injected (by the Treasury) in a manner carefully designed to leave banks total discretion as to how to spend or hoard it. Beyond my many, many questions about the practicalities of what The Powers That Be are doing (i.e., handing hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars to whomever they want on whatever basis they want, and no questions asked thank you very much) -- questions which could only be answered by information carefully withheld from us mere voters -- my brain is grappling with a larger question: whatever happened to our government, our constitution, our entire philosophy of public life? Did some revolution occur and noboby told me? Are we now governed by a Gang of Four, a.k.a. Treasury Secretary Paulson, Fed chief Bernanke, FDIC head Sheila Bair, and Interim Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability Kashkari? Will actual fighting break out between these powerful warlords? Who is likely to come out on top and successfully eliminate their rivals? Do I need to memorize a new pledge of allegiance, or start stockpiling water and food until it’s clear that it's safe to stick my head up? Words fail me. So I will quote Randy Steve Waldman of Interfluidity: What kind of society is compatible with an economy managed by a cadre of large, politically connected firms whose operations and those of the state are intimately connected, and which cannot be permitted to fail since that would bring "chaos"? Friedman would have remembered. "Mussolini-style corporatism" [polite term for “fascism”] can't be quarantined at the corner of Liberty Street and Maiden Lane [address of the NY Fed]. Trillion dollar bail-outs represent claims on scarce resources. If times get hard, the idea of scarcity will become a lot less abstract… And by scarcity, he's talking about how a couple or three trillion to the financial services industry leaves a whole lot less for paying unemployment benefits, etc., for Joe Sixpack. Let's face it, even the term "crony capitalism" seems to understate the scale of what is going on here. I think it’s time that portion of America outside Wall Street starts getting a clue as to what is going on here. Maybe it’s time for a large crowd of citizenry to visit the NY Fed with... posted by Friedrich at November 12, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Airflow and Friends
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Even though national economies contracted during the Great Depression of the 1930s, companies fighting for survival launched a flurry of innovations in an effort to lure customers. Perhaps the most visible case is that of the automobile industry which began the decade offering cars that were boxy assemblages of hoods, fenders, headlamps, spare tires and so forth. By 1940 most of the surviving firms were selling smooth, streamlined-looking cars. The idea of making car bodies aerodynamically efficient was nothing new; a few prototype aerodynamic cars had appeared as early as the Great War and others followed during the Twenties. But experimental cars and racing machines are not everyday transportation. The first serious attempts to produce aerodynamically refined sedans had to await the mid-Thirties. The most famous of the first round of aerodynamic cars was the Chrysler Airflow. Production delays, quality problems and sniping by rivals blunted sales, so the car and its DeSoto Airflow sibling were market failures in spite of their introduction of engineering innovations that became standard such as placing passenger seating between the axles. Perhaps the greatest problem with the Airflow was the styling. From the windshield to the tail, the car looked different from others, but not unacceptably so. The problem had to do with the front end. Contemporary cars -- particularly higher-priced ones that the Chrysler competed with -- had long hoods covering "straight-eight" or V-12 motors. Customers had been trained during the 20s to associate long hoods with power and prestige. Airflows had short hoods and soft, nondescript grilles that didn't suggest much of anything. Nevertheless, other manufacturers came out with cars that looked similar to the Airflow. They probably started development after the glow of the Airflow's introduction but before the sales catastrophe became apparent. The only commercially successful Airflow-like car was the French Peugeot 402 and the later, smaller version of it, the Peugeot 202. One possible reason why Peugeot succeeded while Chrysler failed was because the 402's grille-hood ensemble was more gracefully shaped and longer relative to the rest of the body. Placing the headlights behind the grille simplified the design, eliminating an awkward feature of the Airflow. Gallery Chevrolet - 1934 This Chevrolet sedan displays typical 1934 styling. Surfaces are more rounded than those from 1930 and the the grille and windshield are slightly raked, reflecting that streamlining was on the minds of stylists in those days. Being a low-priced car, its hood was relatively short for that era. Chrysler Airflow - 1934 Besides the rounded front, note the raked, V'd windshield and mildly sloping tail. Side panels and fenders were fairly conventional, though not elegantly shaped. Volvo PV 36 "Carioca" - 1936 Volvo's version of the Airflow was introduced in 1935 and sales were slow during its production run. The body is a little more rounded than the Airflow's, the grille less so. Toyota AA - 1936 This was Toyota's first passenger car. Only around 1,400 were built between 1936 and 1943. The... posted by Donald at November 12, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Aging Giants
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Mick Jagger reflects a little on what it's like to be 65. If I'm counting right, Jagger is the father of seven kids. Here's a track from one of the Stones' better periods: Hard to ignore how un-PC the lyrics are by today's standards, isn't it? At the time they were enjoyed not as offensive but as sweetly risque. * Legendary film composer Ennio ("The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly") Morricone turns 80. In this clip, Morricone conducts some of the music from the film: What are the odds that Morricone's film scores will be remembered for longer than much of the era's "serious" standalone music? I'd guess they're pretty good. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 12, 2008 | perma-link | (16) comments

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stickin' Right
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Oh ye of little faith. Well, I'm assuming that some of you were probably skeptical when I mentioned that I'd post Righty bumper sticker-bedecked vehicles when found and in camera range. Lefty stickers were featured here and here. Behold!! Okay, it's not so great compared to the others but I [whine] really [whine] really [more whine] tried. This truck was spotted in a fast-food joint's parking lot near Paso Robles, California. I'll keep trying to find a seriously plastered Rightiemobile. Now that The Savior is on his way to the White House my odds might improve. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 11, 2008 | perma-link | (34) comments

Over? Under? Sideways? Down?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Funny how all those cartoons and jokes about abstract art ("My kid coulda done it," etc) seem to come true, isn't it? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 11, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mood-Lift for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Funkiness, good humor, krazy kolors, and some of the biggest Afros ever seen -- that's right, it's 1973, and Billy Preston is stomping out "Will It Go 'Round in Circles": Whoo! Happy music indeed. Here's the Billy Preston Website. Billy -- who enjoyed a few years as a headliner as well as a long career as a superb sideman, performing with an amazing array of artists that included Mahalia Jackson, The Beatles, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin -- would have turned 62 this year. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 10, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

The Pleasures of Fat
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's pleasing to see that bacon is having a big cultural moment. "Bacon," writes Scott Gold, hitting just the right tone, "is amazing." Edward Bottone writes in praise of fat. Here's some straight shooting about saturated fat. The short version: "Study after study has failed to provide definitive evidence that saturated-fat intake leads to heart disease." Best, Michael UDPATE: Maybe we should relax a little about sat-fat and be a whole lot more wary of corn. Note that corn -- a contributor to both obesity and various environmental ills, at least as currently used -- receives large subsidies from the U.S. government. How did we come to have a government that underwrites chubbiness?... posted by Michael at November 10, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhward writes: Dear Blowhards -- Number of cellphones dropped in toilets every year in the U.S.: 7 million. Source: The History Channel's great documentary series Modern Marvels. Two of my favorite Modern Marvels episodes are "Bathroom Tech" and "Bathroom Tech 2." What an earthy way to do a little learning; what a fun prism through which to examine a little history. Small hunch: Kids would develop a lot more interest in history than many of them do if topics like bathroom habits and customs were included in the information they're given. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 9, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Down on Obama?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Peter Hitchens articulates the sourpuss's response to Obama's victory. Me, what I can't stop wondering about is how the truest of the True Believers -- and, while you may be a mature person / Obama supporter yourself, NYC is brimming with people who really do carry on as though he's the second coming -- will respond once he starts to screw up and disappoint. Because, y'know, all politicians screw up and disappoint. Best, Michael UPDATE: In announcing Obama's victory, the New York Times used a 96 point headline -- only the fourth time in its history that it has used 96 point type. Writes Joe Strupp: "Previously, only the resignation of Richard Nixon, the first man on the moon, and the Sept. 11 attacks sparked such a large Page One font for the paper." Link found thanks to Design Observer, which also points out this collection of Obama Wins headlines and front pages. Thanks as well to visitor michael for passing along a link to this hilarious Onion video: When in doubt about life in America, it's always best to check in with The Onion. UPDATE 2: Shelby Steele asks a lot of good questions about what Obama's victory means. Lisa thinks that Obama could use a "social adviser."... posted by Michael at November 9, 2008 | perma-link | (41) comments