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  1. Car Mag Hot Car Covers
  2. Vanity Fair's Disappearing Demographic
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  4. Foreign Misperceptions
  5. The Fantasies That Women's Magazines Sell
  6. Collapsing Newspapers
  7. Media Linkage
  8. Cars 70 Years Ago: Not So Big
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Magazines, Newspapers, Ads and Design

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Car Mag Hot Car Covers
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I see this almost all the time at news stands: General-interest car magazines with expensive, hot cars on their covers. The current (November 2009) covers of those magazines are: Motor Trend -- Corvette; Road & Track -- Lamborghini; Car and Driver -- Corvette and Ford Shelby GT500; and Automobile -- the forthcoming $200-300K McLaren. Conclusion: Magazine editors almost certainly do it because sales data indicate that issues featuring photos of high-performance automobiles on the cover make for higher news stand sales than issues whose covers feature lesser cars. Follow-up question: Why do car magazine covers with those high-performance autos have such appeal when most readers of such magazines cannot in their wildest dreams afford to buy such cars? I can't readily speak for myself on this crucial matter because I tend to subscribe to car mags rather than buying them at the news stand. Cover subjects aren't normally a factor for me. On the other hand, when I started buying (and later subscribing to) car magazines as a teenager, I couldn't afford to buy a new car of any kind. To a degree this parallels the question posed above regarding ends and means. But my motive for buying those magazines was that I was simply a car fan and wanted to stay current with the automotive scene. I still do, but with much less intensity. My lack of intensity has reached the point where those fancy, expensive cars featured on covers barely interest me at all. What interest I have has to be with styling and design matters and not whether the car can accelerate from 0 to 60 in less than four seconds, can take a corner while maintaining a lateral force exceeding one gravity or costs more than $250,000. That said, what other reasons are there for buying a car magazine at a news stand when its cover features a flashy car? One possible motivation is to be au courant regarding cars to maintain credibility with other guys once a bull session starts; same thing applies with regard to baseball, football and other sports. Another motivation is aspirational; some day fame and fortune could strike, so be prepared! One more might have to do with what might be called "realistic fantasizing" -- yearning for what one knows full well is unobtainable. It can be easy to snicker, but all of the above reasons represent normal aspects of human psychology. I might have written something similar about women who buy magazines about movie stars or royalty. Or men purchasing issues of Playboy to ogle centerfold pictures of women they have no realistic chance of possessing. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 14, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, September 25, 2009

Vanity Fair's Disappearing Demographic
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- My wife subscribes to Vanity Fair magazine, but I don't bother reading it. It has a rep as an upscale gossip rag, so maybe I'm missing something each month. Oh well, I don't read most magazines and surely miss a whole lot of really good stuff, so my Vanity Fair information loss falls into the statistical noise category. One thing that interests me about the magazine is how often it features members of the Kennedy family. Consider the current issue: Vanity Fair cover - October, 2009 Nancy tells me the Jackie article has to do with the trials William Manchester endured trying to write and get published a book about John Kennedy requested by Jackie. I imagine there's drama involved, but the matter is surely little more than a footnote to the Kennedy saga. Despite such barrel-scraping, editor Graydon Carter continues to include articles about the clan year after year. I suppose all those number-crunching folks at Condé Nast have reams of findings supporting the notion that Kennedys on the cover equal great news stand sales. Still, I have the oddball notion that the Kennedys are pretty passé from the newsmaking standpoint, especially since Teddy has gone on to whatever reward he merits. Furthermore, Americans who have even a borderline adult personal memory of JFK's Camelot administration are Carter's age and older (he turned 60 this past summer). In the TV biz, audiences older than 50 tend to be disregarded; so what's Carter up to? Reliving the passions of his adolescence? Obeying rock-solid market research findings? Beats me. Moreover [assumes jaded expression, flicks dandruff speck off shoulder] I can't quite bring myself to care. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 25, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

The WSJ's Regional News Stand Pricing
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- You can learn a lot by traveling. One thing I learned on my recent trip to the Mountain States is that The Wall Street Journal's news stand price there is $2, rather than the $2.50 it is here in the Puget Sound area. I paid the two bucks in Wyoming and southern Idaho, but maybe that price isn't universal twixt the coast and the plains; I wonder about Denver and Albuquerque. Rupert Murdoch is indeed a sly fox. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 25, 2009 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Foreign Misperceptions
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bill Katz at Urgent Agenda posted some observations by overseas American Renee Nielsen (click here, scroll to bottom entry). Nielsen has lived in four countries (Denmark, Panama, India and, currently, Latvia) over the last seven years and is somewhat frustrated regarding news media perceptions of the United States. In her remarks in the link, she's upset that foreigners seem the think the USA is far more racist than she believes it to be. When I was in business for myself I subscribed to the Financial Times for a few years because I was producing demographic and income forecasts for the world's countries and needed to be better aware of the foreign scene. At the time (early-mid 1990s) I was struck by how distorted the FT's coverage of the USA seemed. The general impression was that the US was a weird, dysfunctional place held together mostly by the efforts of President Clinton. There was little positive (or even accurate) coverage of ordinary middle class life in flyover country. In short, the FT was simply parroting The New York Times, a newspaper I have long regarded as largely out of touch with this country. Reading the FT and NYT, one would think that America was typified by the nastier parts of The Bronx, Newark (NJ), and eastern Los Angeles. While there are indeed places in this country that are pretty awful, that doesn't strike me as being typical of the country at large (and I've visited 49 of 50 states). This brings up another matter. If foreigners view the USA through a Leftist media lens (lazy journalists assuming that The New York Times actually reports fairly, and lifting that paper's perspective for their own stories), then to what extent is the news we in the US read about other countries distorted in a similar way? Although I've spent about a year and a half traveling or living outside the USA, I don't have a good answer. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 24, 2009 | perma-link | (21) comments

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Fantasies That Women's Magazines Sell
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Killing time waiting for The Wife at the hair salon, I leafed through some women's magazines. Not for the first time I found myself thinking: What a weird and terrifying world is the mental landscape of the human female! I had a good time noting down some of the fantasies the editors of women's magazines -- and presumably some of these magazines' readers -- enjoy indulging in: Spend a year in a foreign country, and you'll discover your true self. The right combo of leotard and jogbra top will make your workout easier. Applying the right lip gloss and eating some whole grains will solve whatever's bothering you today. Embracing who and what you are -- whatever that means -- will make you look ten years younger. Jobs aren't about selling something others are willing to pay for. Jobs are about personal fulfillment. Plastic surgery won't make you look weird. Driving a Prius and installing compact flourescent lightbulbs will save the world. Drinking green tea and pomegranate juice will ensure that you'll never get sick. Nevertheless, you're always just this far from discovering that you have breast cancer. Emotions -- no matter which, no matter when -- need to be faced and worked-through. Then you'll feel great. Following your instincts and your feelings will always work out for the best. You can eat yourself slim. The troubles of movie stars are just like yours. The right fabric patterns and colors will successfully disguise your fat ass. What did I miss? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 1, 2009 | perma-link | (45) comments

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Collapsing Newspapers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Onion -- sold to our creditors, the Chinese. The Daily Planet -- downsizing. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 25, 2009 | perma-link | (0) comments

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Media Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Here comes the new Newsweek. Michael Kinsley doesn't think much of the magazine's self-reconception. * Fred Reed offers a tangy history of the news business. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 23, 2009 | perma-link | (41) comments

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cars 70 Years Ago: Not So Big
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Not long ago James Lileks (his site is here) posted the photo of a Minneapolis building shown below. His interest was in the building's history, mine is different. As the banners indicate, the photo seems to have been taken in 1939. A couple of cars near the center of the photo seem to be 1939 models: the rest are older, as one would expect. Now look at the people near the cars, because they provide scale. Note how short and narrow the cars are. They are typical of the 1930s. Luxury cars such as Packards and Cadillacs were larger (longer, for the most part, but not much wider). By 1970, American cars were quite large, the growth trend having begun to develop seriously when the first redesigned postwar models appeared in 1947-49. I remember that advertisements crowed about six-passenger seating. But even so, a while back I was startled when viewing a parked 1950 Buick Special to notice that it seem narrower than I remembered them. Nowadays, cars come in a larger variety of sizes and types and comparable street scenes should reflect that. Later, Donald... posted by Michael at May 22, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, May 15, 2009

Facing Pages
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was leafing through Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue when a juxtaposition caught my eye. On pages facing each other were this girl -- -- and this ad -- Of the many taste-changes that have most taken me by surprise over the decades, the preference that this illustration represents is high on the list. These are robot creatures ... for guys who find Lara Croft sexier than real women? Is that right? What shall we call this preference? "Unreal digitized Photoshop perfection"? Or -- a term I believe visitor Ricpic came up with -- "android sexiness"? Even the real girl in the comparison above has an unreal, android-ish, silvery flawlessness. It seems to me that, where sex and many other things go, the relationship to fantasy has changed. Adjusting to the reality of real women used to be considered part of becoming a man. Back in the day, there were plenty of jokes around about how boys setting out on sex lives expected to find staples in their girlfriends' tummies -- acknowledgments of how influential the Playboy centerfold was in shaping male expectations. But it was also widely understood that fantasy was something you had to know how to keep in its place. Real life was more complex -- as well as more moving, upsetting, disturbing, and rewarding -- than losing yourself in fantasy was. And that's what a woman could represent to a man: real life. Artifice and invention? They weren't mean to overwhelm life, they were meant to enhance it. Now, though ... By comparison to what's on the computer screen, real life apparently looks dim, inert, and depressing. Online experiences apparently hook some boys so young and so deep that many of them never recover. Real girls are never more than poor substitutes for Lara Croft, real life just a dim disappointment that can never be recovered from. Bonuses: Read a history of the Swimsuit Issue Friedrich von Blowhard wrote a posting comparing Schiele and the Swimsuit Issue Donald wrote about American pinup artists Just for the record: Jule Campbell is the name of the brilliant editor who turned the Swimsuit Issue into an American pop-culture classic. For 30 years Campbell put to work an unmatchable knack for combining athletic, sweet, a little sophisticated, and beautiful. Her girls represented a healthy and friendly alternative to the creatures that inhabited fashion magazines. However glitzily produced the Swimsuit Issue has been in the years since Campbell left the helm, her special magic is now missing from the publication entirely. I'm sorry to report that I can't find much about Campbell on the web. She makes a few appearances here. I'd love to interview her. If anyone knows how to contact Jule Campbell, please shoot an email to me at michaelblowhard at that gmaily place. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 15, 2009 | perma-link | (29) comments

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Are the photos in the new issue of Allure despicable porn? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 14, 2009 | perma-link | (50) comments

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ads as Front Page "News"
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- According to an article linked by Hot Air, Los Angeles Times reporters are in a snit because the newspaper placed an advertisement on its front page. The page in question is shown on the link to HotAir, provided the link is still good. Hot Air's Ed Morrissey mentions that the paper approached the advertiser (the NBC television network) with the idea of putting a normal ad for a forthcoming show on page 1 and combining it with a news-like article about one of the characters. Given that entertainment is an important local industry that the Times favors in its news coverage, the piece might seem to be a real news item to some readers. On the other hand, the ad is set off by a bolder than normal border and the typeface used is also stronger than that used for editorial material. The faux article has a little colored NBC logo at the top, something real news stories lack. One missing item seems to be the word "Advertisement" that many publications use at the top of the framing to help clarify to readers that something that looks like editorial content really isn't. Morrissey points out that advertising that looks almost like news stories is a common practice, and notes some of the items I mentioned above. He isn't nearly as upset as the reporters, and neither am I. The Times really should have inserted "Advertisement" above the NBC logo to make the placement truly unambiguous. but otherwise I find nothing ethically wrong. After all, front page advertising is nothing new. I'm pretty sure that, years ago, my local paper would sometimes have a two-column, three-inch display ad at the lower-right corner. And I'm also pretty sure that the New York Times might have had tiny, classified-like two-line ads at the foot of the page. Or maybe it was the Seattle paper. I do recall seeing such things someplace and I also know that the practice died out on the papers I'm familiar with. Many years ago, newspapers had lots of advertising on their front pages. Below is part of the front page of the Boston Evening Transcript for 11 July 1851. The left-hand columns contain advertising. For Windows users, right-click and select "View Image" to see an enlarged version. As far as I'm concerned, newspapers can have the entire front page covered with ads if that's what their publishers want. It's a business decision, and editors and reporters must comply or seek work elsewhere. I tire of journalists' superiority complex. The Army trained me and a lot of other guys in the nuts and bolts of the trade in eight weeks; journalists are nothing special, believe me. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at April 12, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Future Times?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Taking a look at the books, Eric Englund concludes that the real cause of the financial distress at the NYTimes hasn't been bad journalism or falling sales. Instead, it has been gross executive mismanagement. * Would the NYTimes save money by abandoning paper and sending each of their subscribers a Kindle instead? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 24, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Newsless Newsweek
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Every year or so I wring my hands over the sad state of the weekly news magazine industry (for example, see here, here and here). Now that Spring is (almost) in the air again, I've noted articles such as this that prompt me to run to the keyboard and pound out more copy on the continuing drama. The problem is, there isn't much justification for weekly news magazines any more. For many years they successfully coexisted with newspapers, radio, newsreels and even television. But the Internet finally shattered the informational isolation of people living in news-deprived parts of the country. (Think small-town, small city locations far from the circulation zones of major papers with, in the good old days, large news holes. The main news sources were the local paper -- a hit-and-miss proposition -- and the thin gruel of TV news.) True, the Economist seems to be doing comparatively well. I suspect that its coverage of international news is its main selling point; even Internet users can be sketchy as to which overseas-based sites are worth bookmarking. At any rate, Newsweek seems to be planning to ditch much of the weekly news content and become more of an opinion-based journal than it presently is. How will this work out? I think long-term (ten years, say) success isn't very likely. Potential competition exists in the form of a fair number of opinion journals such as The New Republic, National Review, The Nation, Commentary and the Weekly Standard along with publications with a slightly softer opinion edge such as the Atlantic, Harper's, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and so forth. Then there is the name problem. The Newsweek brand has been around since the 1930s and is well-established in the minds of the reading public. But if it no longer dwells on the news of the previous week, then the title becomes non-descriptive, bordering on deceptive. Yet a name-change immediately wipes out more than 75 years worth of brand-equity. All things considered, if I were the publication's owner, I'd fold the thing and move on to something with greater potential. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 12, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, February 13, 2009

G.M. Fender Evolution: 1936-1950
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Once upon a time -- the 1930s and 40s -- automobile styling followed a clear evolutionary path. I wrote an article on styling evolution in general here, asserting that the process essentially ended around 1950. The present post deals with one aspect of that evolution: fender design as practiced by General Motors. From the later 1920s until sometime around 1970, GM called the styling shots for the industry in America. In part this was because the General attained and then maintained a market share of 50 percent or thereabouts. When half the cars one sees on the streets had their shapes emerge from one styling operation, that has to have an impact on the buying public. The other factor was GM styling supremo Harley Earl, creator (along with Alfred Sloan) of the practice of a styling studio whose chief reported directly to top management rather than to someone such as an engineering vice president. Earl reigned at GM for three decades, losing his design touch only a few years before his 1958 retirement. I speculate he lost that touch because automobile styling progress had become random, as opposed to the evolutionary process it had been during most of his career. To set the stage, below are photos illustrating fenders from GM cars before and at the completion of the process of their integration into the body of the automobile. 1936 Oldsmobile 1950 Oldsmobile 98 Styling of the 1936 Oldsmobile was influenced by the idea of streamlining. Although the car was objectively better streamlined than its 1930 predecessor, its streamlining was more stylistic than aerodynamic. Note that curves and roundness abound -- even including the side-window cut-outs. Fenders are separate and based on the classic teardrop concept of streamlining. Top-line GM cars for the 1950 model year had integral fenders. Note that the top fender line falls a few inches below the crest of the hood and the bottom of the window cut-outs. Earl felt that his studio's experimental designs of that time with integral fenders reaching the hood and windows appeared tall and slab-sided. Dropping the fender line made his cars look lithe rather than ponderous. Having established the bookends, let's see how Earl dealt with the evolution between these points. Gallery 1938Cadillac 60 Special Stylist Bill Mitchell, with Harley Earl's approval, began the process by squaring up the aft of the fenders. 1941 Cadillac This evolved into comparatively squared-off fender shapes. At the time, the term "suitcase fender" was used because the shape resembled that of luggage. In my opinion, the 1941 GM line, especially Cadillacs, represented the peak of Earl's styling career. 1942 Pontiac For 1942 and the early post-WW2 years, GM cars' fenders extended onto the front door. This appeared on the 1941Cadillac 60 Special before being extended to most of the rest of the line the following model year. 1947 Buick Roadmaster Earl did special favors for Buick president Harlow Curtis. One of them might have been the 1942 extension... posted by Donald at February 13, 2009 | perma-link | (1) comments

Monday, January 19, 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle Celebrates
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The place we're staying in while Nancy skis drops off a newspaper at our door every morning. The last two days we got the San Francisco Chronicle. For some reason, the print edition is making a big deal of the paper's anniversary. For instance, yesterday's paper had the sports section printed on green colored paper as a commemoration; that's how sports was printed for ages and ages until maybe sometime in the 1990s. And what significant anniversary is the venerable paper celebrating? The 144th. Hmm. That's not a silver anniversary. Nor a golden or diamond one either. And the year isn't evenly divisible by a 10 or even a five. Such a puzzlement, as the King of Siam might put it. Oh. Maybe I get it. They're celebrating this year because they aren't sure they'll be around for the 145th. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 19, 2009 | perma-link | (8) comments

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Shockingly Correct Reply
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Vanity Fair magazine hasn't been a very George W. Bush-friendly journalistic zone. Even though he'll no longer be president in a few days, Graydon Carter and company keep piling on poor W while getting misty-eyed over John F. Kennedy who (1) was aggressive regarding national defense and (2) a tax-cutter (remind you of anyone?). The February 2009 issue delivers one last groin-kick in the form of an article ("Farewell to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House" by Cullen Murphy and Todd S. Purdom, starting page 88) comprised of carefully selected quotes from people who interacted with the President in one way or another. On page 96, under the heading "August 6, 2001" the article states (original was in italics): While vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush is given a Presidential Daily Briefing memorandum whose headline warns that the al-Qaeda terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden, is "determined to strike in U.S." After being briefed on the document by a C.I.A. analyst, Bush responds, "All right, you've covered your ass now." I strongly suspect that Vanity Fair intended readers to gasp, thinking "Why, that idiot Bush was given warning of the 9/11 attack and did nothing!!" Your reaction might differ from mine, but I thought that I would say almost exactly the same thing Bush did, assuming the memorandum was no more specific than Vanity Fair indicates. Why? Because a vague warning with no actionable information is next to worthless. What would you think if I said "There's big trouble brewing; you'd better watch out" and nothing more. It's the same situation Bush faced. Unfortunately, most readers probably never get beyond the initial shock of learning of a disaster that "could have been prevented." I suppose that's why leading public relations professionals, "documentary" film makers, major media journalists and other opinion-manipulators are paid so well. No doubt Obama will be treated much more kindly if/when America is hit with a terrorist strike on his watch. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 18, 2009 | perma-link | (27) comments

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Another Newspaper Biting the Dust
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The decline of the American newspaper is coming close to home. My home, at least: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been put up for sale by Hearst, its long-time owner. Actually, the paper might well have been folded (if you'll pardon the expression) immediately if it weren't for rules governing its joint operating agreement with the Seattle Times. Those rules call for a 60-day period for prospective buyers to step in and save the situation. Probably there will be no such buyers. The P-I has been hanging around Seattle since the 1860s, and that longevity alone can be enough to bring a tear to one's eye. The P-I was the area's morning paper for many decades and did reasonably well. Seattle was a three-paper town for many years, but dropped to two papers in 1947 when the labor-friendly Seattle Star was sold to the Times, which immediately shut it down, cherry-picking a few comic strips and perhaps some other assets. But in 2000, the Times (for many years Seattle largest paper) switched from afternoon to morning delivery, removing an important marketing advantage of the P-I which was virtually never profitable since then. Both Seattle papers lean left politically, the P-I more solidly so than the Times. Even though the central Puget Sound area has a strong liberal political tinge, this apparently did little to help the P-I retain readership. Matters are still in flux and one possibility is that the P-I will continue as an on-line entity. I hope this proves to be the case, mostly because it would make for an interesting experiment. With drastically reduced production/distribution costs, far fewer employees would need to be supported by advertising revenue, therefore opening the possibility of profitability. On the other hand, once the P-I disappears from newspaper boxes, news stands and residential doorsteps, it will have little visibility unless it is promoted by TV or poster advertising. In conclusion, let me add that I only regularly read the P-I for a couple of periods. The first was when I was in college and my frat house got a copy every morning; a big fight for the sports section would follow. Then for a few years around 1990 my son delivered P-Is in our neighborhood, so we got a free copy each day as a result. I grew up with the Times, and my wife is a subscriber; otherwise I wouldn't read the incredibly shrinking thing. When I buy a paper, I get The Wall Street Journal. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 13, 2009 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, December 1, 2008

Meta-Magazine? Meta-Blogging?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When I spotted this magazine, my head started to spin. Thrilled to be blogging about a magazine about blogging, Michael... posted by Michael at December 1, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Crazy Parens
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Why are some design concepts suddenly everywhere? For all their talent and style, are designers the biggest sheep in the world? And why did this particular design idea become such a craze? My own small-t theory about why nonsense brackets and nonsense parentheses became cool is this: It's because they relate somehow to media irony, or quasi-irony anyway -- very Dave Eggers, very "making snarky comments about the TV while the TV is playing" -- and also because they make text look a little like computer code. And these days nothing's cooler than computer code. Does anyone have any other hunches about why this particular design trope just won't quit? Best, Michael UPDATE: Forget politics, forget graphics, forget making sense of the world. Monica Bellucci is here to give life a little meaning. Quote of the Day: "I love the idea that when a man pays to see one of my films, he’s paying me to feel pleasure." Puts it all in perspective, doesn't it? Now, forgive me while I let my soul tremble with poetic, religious, erotic, and refined-yet-earthy feelings.... posted by Michael at November 8, 2008 | perma-link | (24) 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

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ad Copy
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My favorite recent piece of high-flown ad copy comes from Swedish vibrator-maker Lelo: LELO is a designer label operating in the premium segment of the erotic market space. Through a special blend of fashion, femininity, engineering and sleek Scandinavian design, LELO provides Pleasure Objects for women and their partners. By challenging the overall concept of conventional "sex toys," our vision is to create aesthetically pleasing, orgasm-inducing, high-quality alternatives to the norm and thus inspire a more female-friendly erotic market space. Pretty deluxe! And deserving of a special Oscar for using the term "market space" twice in one paragraph. Do you suppose the team responsible for creating this jeweled ad copy had a lot of chortles about whether or not to use the terms "high end" and "low end"? Just curious: Ladies, has the vibrator market space really been in need of serious classing-up? Ritzier materials, sleeker design, fancier packaging, higher prices -- all those attributes that some women seem to crave? FWIW, I hear that Lelo (or rather LELO) makes very nice vibrators. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 5, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shrinking Newspapers Note
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This item appeared in today's Seattle Times editorial page. It seems that said page is about to go Poof! The editor mentions that on-line readership is up and believes that the editorial opinion-related material can be better handled on the Web, allowing blogs, lengthier articles and so forth. All of this is probably true. Not mentioned is the likely fact that print advertising had fallen to the point where two-page editorial sections (five days a week; Monday and Saturday got one page) cannot be economically justified. As for me, I will rue the disappearance of the editorial section (though a vestige might remain in print). That's because I stopped reading the comics section and relied on the editorial pages to provoke laughter. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at September 28, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Women Crix?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anne Thompson thinks male critics just don't get the appeal of certain movies. "Twilight" is her example. So why aren't more women writing about movies? I left this comment on her posting: May we hear more from the ladies, of course. But will we ever? As a practical thing, it seems to me that men tend to put their opinions out there much more aggressively than women do. 1) In the blogosphere, where anyone can say anything, how many people who loudmouth it about movies are women? A few, sure. But meanwhile scads of guys carry on. 2) In the mag and newspaper worlds (in my small experience) editors actively look for lively, sparky women arts-and-culture opinionators. They'd rather not hire a man. But they wind up hiring guys, usually, because the guys are so much more numerous, and so much more bullish (which can mean that they're more fun to read, because they love going out on a limb). So maybe, generally speaking, opinionating for a living is a dick thing? And I say all this as someone who came to movies (to the arts generally, really) via Pauline Kael ... Years ago, The Wife and I did some editing for a small English culture magazine. One thing we tried to do was to scare up some fresh female arts writers. We turned up a couple, but only a couple. What we found generally was this: Guys care more about their opinions (at least about matters like sports, politics, and movies) than women do. Women are generally more solid performers than men are, but they tend to be cautious. If what you're looking for is flashy and provocative stuff, 90% of what you'll turn up will turn out to have been written by men. Women: Better students? Men: Bigger showoffs? Best, Michael UPDATE: Robert Fulford wonders what Pauline Kael would make of the present-day scene. Link thanks to Arts and Letters Daily.... posted by Michael at July 27, 2008 | perma-link | (47) comments

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bozeman Slick
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Time was, the fancy "slick" (for the quality of the paper) magazines were based in big cities such as New York and Philadelphia. These days, they are able to originate almost anyplace, as this Bozeman, Montana based publication indicates. Whether or not Western Art & Architecture will last is hard to tell, given the present economy and trends in some print media sectors,. At least that other trend of decentralization of culture continues. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 26, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Advertising and Taste
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Perhaps the new Cottonelle campaign is a clever attention-grabber. After all, why not be earthy and charming about bodily processes? It isn't as though they're about to go away. Or perhaps the campaign is a more-than- we-really- need-to-think-about step too far: And what's with the use of the adorable pooch? A dog has what to do with toilet paper exactly? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 15, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, May 23, 2008

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Newspaper headline writing might be looked at as a form of blank-verse poetry -- incorporating a lot of meaning into the few words that available space and type size allow. A real art, when done right. On the other hand, everything can fall apart. This happened on page B1 of today's (23 May 2008) Wall Street Journal over an article dealing with the tribulations of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The headline reads: Goal: To Make Fans Love Hockey Okay, using the word "Goal" is cute: no problem there for me given my own tendency to get cute. What bothers me are the words "Make Fans Love Hockey." For one thing, you can't "make" people love something. That implies use of force, but loving is something people do voluntarily. I suppose someone radically into operant conditioning might argue that love is simply a conditioned reflex and is thereby something that can be externally contrived. But I'm not a True Believer in that breed of psychology and dismiss that argument. Then there is the matter of "fan." The essence of being a fan is to be deeply, positively committed to something, a form of love, perhaps. So if fans are already in love with the sport, how can they then be forced to do what they are already doing. The headline really should have focused on attendance or TV ratings, not fandom. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 23, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- More video material has been uploaded to YouTube in the past six months than has ever been aired on all major networks combined. My source for this is Michael Wesch, a Kansas State University cultural anthropologist. A project that Wesch runs called Digital Ethnography can be explored here. Who says we aren't living through an astounding period in cultural and media history? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 22, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More on the Media
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The Kenyon Review's Kirsten Reach thinks that print-on-paper has a lot more going for it than is generally acknowledged these digital-dizzied days. (Thanks to visitor Evan for the link.) * Gabriel Sherman looks into how new owner Rupert Murdoch may be changing the Wall Street Journal. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 20, 2008 | perma-link | (0) comments

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Prissy / Decadent
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Why are actresses and models willing to get so much more naughty and frisky for European magazines than they are for American ones? (NSFW) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 10, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, May 2, 2008

What'll They Bracket Next?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Long-time readers might recall that Michael has this, er, thing regarding typographical brackets in advertisements, editorial layouts and so forth. Like [this] {sort} (of) stuff. His first salvo on the subject can be found here. Ah, but now the bar has been raised. Behold the following snippet from an advertisement for EliteJets, a business jet chartering firm: Over to you, Michael. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 2, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Icon World
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Before the first Macintosh went on sale in 1984, I don't think I'd ever heard the word "icon" used to describe a stick-figure "graphical" visual before. Come to think of it, I don't think I'd ever heard the word "graphical" before either. But all of a sudden it seemed that everyone had an opinion about "graphical interfaces." Here's a shot of the original Mac 128k screen: It seemed a like foreign (if appealing) universe. Outlines? Impersonal lines? Hyper-simplification? Pictographs? It seemed more like ancient Egypt than modern America. In America circa 1980 you might occasionally run across schematic drawings by engineers and architects: Those male and female outline-drawings that pointed you to men's and women's toilets were a staple of international airports. But -- strange though it can seem today -- the arrival of pictographs seemed pretty damned exotic. The world simply hadn't been heavily decorated and punctuated with hyper-simplified symbolic line images. These days, by contrast, it can seem as though icons (like tags) aren't just everywhere, they're a defining characteristic of modernity. What's a button, or a screen, or even a thought, without its own icon? I'm OK with this in a general sense, not that my opinion should matter. Eye-candy? -- I often like it, especially when the eye-candy serves a usability purpose as well as a delight purpose. I'm reminded that, back in the early '80s, I knew a writer who was struggling unsuccessfully with adapting to computers. Publications were demanding that writing be delivered in computer form, and -- as brilliant as he genuinely was -- the poor guy simply didn't have a computer-compatible brain. The screens presented by early-'80s PCs (green letters on black) put him off. File systems baffled him, and having to memorize basic computer commands ... It all made him just about weep with frustration. I don't mock this, by the way. People who don't happen to have brains that synch up well with computers are at a serious disadvantage these days. Come to think of it, one of the biggest changes I've witnessed in my lifetime is the development of a general expectation that everyone should be able to manage computers. It's a strange expectation, when you think of it. I work in an arty-media field, for example, yet it's all now based on computers. How bizarre that English majors -- English majors!! -- are expected to be competent with computers. Hey, IT people: There are perfectly decent and intelligent people out here whose brains just don't do the computer thing very well. Yet here we are today, nearly all of us spending our professional days serving the great computer god. There are moments when it all seems like nothing more than a naked power-grab by the geek class, doesn't it? Anyway, as of 1983 my writer-friend was in despair. His brain just didn't -- and really couldn't -- work the command-line way. Then, in 1984, he bought a Mac, and his problem was... posted by Michael at April 29, 2008 | perma-link | (15) comments

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Propaganda Misfire?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was leafing through a book about the history of posters and happened upon this: "What England Wants!" - Egon Tschirch, 1918 It was inspired by a 3 January 1918 Daily Telegraph article quoting Labour party member Johnson-Hicks (I can't find more detailed information on him) as saying "One must bomb the Rhine industrial area day by day with hundreds of airplanes, until the cure has occurred." -- the "cure" being destruction of the German armaments industry. A German translation is at the bottom of the poster. The intended message was probably something like "Those evil Englishmen are out to destroy us!" To me, looking at that huge swarm of bombers, the unintended message is "Holy s**t! Those Limeys have a gazillion bombers to throw at us! We're DOOMED!!!" I'm not sure why, but my distant cousins from along the Rhine never quite get public relations right. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at April 27, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, April 4, 2008

Magazine Design
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- MagCulture's interview with British magazine-design legend David Hillman supplies lots of info and context. Hard to believe that not all that long ago magazines had the kind of excitement and buzz about them that web-products do today, isn't it? One especially nice stretch: For me the best magazines are the ones where you can sense the enjoyment of the people who made it. Exactly. They are few and far between these days ... One thing I found difficult was the a period ten years or so ago when photographers like Jurgen Teller and Terry Richardson were shooting pictures of girls that looked like they were about three minutes away from dying. And I remember being in Paris with Harry Peccinotti and I happened to have a magazine with some of these pictures in it, and I said to him, what happened to the days when you used to go through a model’s book and think, who do I want to fuck? Not that we went around fucking models all the time… …that was my next question… …but models were real people. I used to fall in love every day. I’ve done a few photographic sessions recently and a lot of these girls you can’t even have a conversation with. We used to all go out to dinner together after a shoot and have a really fun evening. Most models now I can only just about bear being in the studio with them. That’s not being snobbish, they’re just so young and un-worldly. Link thanks to Michael Bierut. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 4, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, March 31, 2008

More Newsweekly Troubles
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- From time to time I've wondered about the state and fate of news weeklies -- here, for instance I dealt with Time. Today's Drudge Report offered this link relating that Newsweek is undergoing a significant staff reduction in the form of early retirement buyouts. Names are named, including some whose bylines are widely recognized. I used to subscribe to Newsweek in the 1970s, but haven't paid much attention to it in recent years; I mostly skim a copy while waiting for a dental or medical appointment. My impression is that weekly news magazines (with the exception of the Economist) have been evolving away from the format that served so well up until, say, the 90s. The impact of the Internet has been negative for most magazines that I am familiar with including the car buff mags I read, and a good deal of scrambling and format-tinkering has been underway. Unfortunately -- and I do like magazines and printed stuff in general -- most of this fiddling doesn't seem to be working. Certainly the Newsweek bombshell adds credence to this notion. And an economic recession isn't likely to help. I hate to say it, but Time, Newsweek and U.S. News seem to be in the same spiral I saw back around 1960 for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and Look. Can anyone come up with an optimistic scenario for the news weeklies? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 31, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Mad Gone Wrong?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- My name is Donald. I am a packrat. But I'm doing better. Honest, I am. We finally got around to unboxing stuff that had been piled up in the basement rec room since we moved to Seattle. I weeded out a fair amount of books and other items, though what remains is still formidable. Among the things I still have is the last issue of Mad while it was a comic book. And I have the very next issue, its first as a magazine, along with a half dozen other early magazine copies. Besides those, I have a copy of Humbug, a magazine started by Harvey Kurtzman after he left his editor job at Mad and, later, Trump, a humor magazine that was briefly part of Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire. I don't have more copies of Humbug because it only lasted one issue. Trump didn't last long either, but I don't know how many issues were published. My collection includes two of them, so it went at least that far. But back to Mad. Gallery Cover of first issue of Mad comics, 1952 The artwork is by early mainstay Will Elder. Superduperman, from Mad comics This is the opening panel of the Superman satire drawn by ace cartoonist Wally Wood. Note the detail and micro-humor such as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on Superduperman's chest and the "super" signs in the background. The stacked babe at the right is "Lois" (no last name provided) who looks like a Will Eisner sexpot raised to the third power. Wood's style here is pretty much extreme-Eisner with the addition of the detail byplay and Duotone shading. Jack Davis artwork: bottom panel from Mad Jack Davis was my next-favorite Mad artist after Wood. He was prolific, and eventually even did covers for Time magazine. Cover of first issue of Mad magazine, 1955 Besides Superduperman, satires in Mad comics included Starchie (Archie), Flesh Garden (Flash Gordon), Lone Stranger (Lone Ranger), Prince Violent (Prince Valiant), Gopo Gosson (Pogo Possum), Poopeye (Popeye the Sailor), Teddy and the Pirates! (Terry and the Pirates) and Manduck the Magician (Mandrake the Magician). Needless to say, I found most of these hysterically funny, being 13-15 years old at the time. In its comic book guise Mad also satirized the Captain Video, Dragnet and What's My Line television shows, cowboy movies, print advertising and other subjects. When Mad went to magazine format, it drifted over to satirizing movies and television, abandoning targets from comics. And it is this, I contend, that marked the demise of the publication in my esteem. This is heresy for many of you, no doubt. And I can't argue that Mad has been anything but commercially successful enough to survive for more than half a century as a magazine. But still ... I say Mad was at its peak when it was a comic book because it was essentially the same medium as the main targets of its satire -- comic... posted by Donald at March 1, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, February 22, 2008

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm probably getting this all wrong. After all, I hardly watch television any more. And I wasn't particularly paying attention when Super Bowl ads came on. I was fixing dinner so that Nancy could watch the halftime show. Otherwise I was wandering back and forth to the room where the TV was. Despite the distractions, I thought I noticed something I hadn't seen before. It happened on some of those beer ads, as best I recall. For years now, such ads often have a bunch of guys hanging out, having a good time implicitly fueled by the sponsoring beverage. Way back when, they might have been all white. Then, for quite a few years it was white guys and some black guys. This year (and maybe earlier for all that TV-phobic je know), the white guys and black guys were joined by East Asian guys and what seemed to be guys from India! Not that there's anything wrong with this, mind you. I have nothing against a society that's truly color-blind from an opportunity standpoint. And when I was in the Army, the Some Of My Best Friends Are situation applied. Moreover, the sponsoring beer companies Have Their Hearts In The Right Place, wanting to Do The Right Thing and Fight For Social Justice. And yes, the scenes these commercials portray can be construed as an ideal situation towards which America is striving. But right now, I find them not quite believable. Where, in the real world, is one likely to find a bunch of white, black, East Asian and Indian guys hangin' out and swilling beer? The most plausible setting I can come up with would be a Friday afternoon decompression party at a Silicon Valley firm. Except there would be gals present as well. What we have seems to be a replay of those old World War 2 army movies where the platoon is filled with Iowa farm boys, an Italian guy from South Philly and a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. Except the movie had 90 minutes for character development and the ads only get 30 seconds. Now I'm wondering what race/ethnic groups will be added for next year's Super Bowl ad-athon. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 13, 2008 | perma-link | (12) comments

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Newspapers, R.I.P.?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The New York Times reports on the shakey state of the newspaper business. Nifty/scarey passage: “I’m an optimist, but it is very hard to be positive about what’s going on,” said Brian P. Tierney, publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. “The next few years are transitional, and I think some papers aren’t going to make it.” * Marc Andreessen inaugurates a New York Times Deathwatch. Funny bit: "Sometimes it's darkest right before it goes pitch black." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 7, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Banks As Graphic Design
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another gargantuan blockbuster from that unstoppable movie-production titan ... Well, I blush. You do know to be kind, don't you? Previous efforts can be watched here, here, here, and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 3, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, December 21, 2007

Hot, Commercial, Public
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Get your sizzling and controversial ad campaigns here. Are you as much of a fan as I am of the current American Apparel ads? They often strike me as startling and brilliant. Ad people, stylists, and clothing designers, eh? -- forever finding new ways to shock us, scandalize us, and make us feel titillated. How do they manage it? The American Apparel ads strike me as amazingly evocative of being 14 and finding everything that's happening to your body (and to your friends' bodies) momentous and hot -- about messing around with undies, belts, a mirror, and a digital camera while Mom and Dad are out of the home. And, hey: What would it be like to be a model? Or maybe the star of your very own porn movie? These are questions that must be on a lot of teenage minds these days. What do I think (and how do I feel) about the fact that this kind of material is widespread, that children aren't protected against it, and that its subject matter routinely plays with illicit behavior? Pleased you asked, but I'll save my no doubt uninteresting answers for another day. Generally speaking, though, I feel about these ads the same way I feel about online porn: Since it isn't as if tut-tutting is going to make this material go away, why get hung up on the moral angle? No one has to find any of these developments interesting, let alone attractive, of course. Tuning out is always an option. But at the same time, what could be the harm in taking note of what's going on in the world? These days, when I go to the movies, it's usually not to see a specific movie; it's to see what movies these days are like. Curiosity can be a strong motivator. Nothing wrong with arguing over morality, of course -- it just isn't a conversation I'm often eager to take part in. Besides, practically speaking, it would take a lot to persuade me that a few minutes spent surfing through the American Apparel website contributes -- or contributes much, anyway -- to the moral rot of the world. Semi-related: I wrote about "Havoc," a misbehaving- overprivileged- teens movie by Barbara Kopple here, and about a movie by Larry ("Teenage Lust," "Kids") Clark here. I wondered how and why thongs had become such a big part of contempo culture here. If you want to eyeball examples of the work of one of the photographers who established the contemporary wood-paneled-basement, glaring-flash, almost-but-not-quite kiddie-porn style, do a Google Image search on "Terry Richardson." Small suggestion: Turn "SafeSearch" to "Off." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 21, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, November 12, 2007

Best Line of the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Where would our newspapers be without hysteria?" -- David Chute. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 12, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Missed Opportunities
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For an arty guy with no technical gifts or interests, I smacked into the computer world at a relatively early stage. I don't mean "the computer world" in the absolute sense, by the way. When I was in high school back in 1970, for instance, computers were certainly around. But at that point they weren't of much interest (let alone of much use) to anyone other than extreme geeks. In 1970, the idea of computers seemed futuristic in appealing ways. But the reality of computers was much less attractive. In the case of the high school I attended, for instance: Computing meant one small, airless room with a keyboard and punchcards, and a connection to what was mysteriously referred to as "the Dartmouth computer." I poked my head into that computer room one time and one time only. Not pleasant: bad lighting, and full of geek b.o. and giggly social ineptitude. And why on earth would anyone think it was a big deal to be playing playing tic-tac-toe "with Dartmouth"? Since what I wanted from life was girls, movies, art, physical activity, and sunshine, computers in 1970 seemed like the opposite of everything I valued. They seemed like the antithesis of what I then thought of as "aesthetics." No, for the sake of this posting anyway, what I mean by "computers" is computers in a somewhat later sense: computers at the time videogames and personal computers were starting to make a more-than-a-novelty kind of impact -- the early-to-mid '80s, roughly. By then, computers and aesthetic matters didn't seem to occupy quite such opposite poles. Pong had long since given way to more complex games. Hard drives were beginning to seem like a plausible part of everyday reality. And when the original Macs came along -- in early 1984 -- the machines started to speak directly to the arty set. Right about then was when I woke up to the cultural implications of computing. I found myself on BBS's, for instance, caught up in debates about the impact of word processing. For those who haven't encountered the philosophy-of- word-processing field: The advent of word processing hit a handful of culture-types very hard. Nearly all writers were delighted by the way the new tools enabled them to get their writing down so easily, of course. But a small band of culture-fiends also found themselves looking at the phenomenon from a longer point of view, and musing, "Hmm, you know, this word-processing thing might really change the whole 'writing' game at a very deep level ..." It was a tiny world, this musing-over-the-aesthetic / cultural-implications-of-computers world. But for some reason I really zero'd in on it. For instance, I didn't just read Jay David Bolter and Michael Heim -- the philosophers of what word processing might mean in the big sense. I met and chatted with them. In 1987, Apple's HyperCard gave non-techies a chance to mess with databases and programming. By the late 1980s, software created... posted by Michael at October 18, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another bulletin from our changing media environment: The average [newspaper] reader spends more time with a print edition on a single day than the average visitor to a paper's Web site spends in an entire month. Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 16, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Headline for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Punchline: This is the headline of an Editor's Note in AARP Magazine -- that's right, the publication that used to be known as Modern Maturity. Sensible response, or so it seems to me: Well, if cotton-tops and retirees don't know what it is to be a grownup, then who does? Hey, if grown-up-titude has genuinely become such a perplexing puzzle, maybe that's a sign that the time has come to abandon the idea. Why agonize over maturity and responsibility? Let's all be kids forever. BTW, if you haven't yet had the pleasure: Modern Maturity hasn't undergone an overhaul merely where its name is concerned. It's now full of catchy themes, sassy boxes, and punchy graphics. It features celebrity confessionals; seniors who are cheery, active, and dynamic; and one of the zaniest of the bizarro new Tables of Contents that I've taken note of several times. (Here, here.) It has been transformed, in other words, into a magazine for the crowd that used to subscribe to Rolling Stone. Joking about Boomers, their Peter Pan ways, and how they've ruined our culture generally, can now commence. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 16, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

This Airport Is Sponsored By ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- During a recent bout of air travel I amused myself by keeping track of the ads I ran into -- more particularly, where they were physically placed. Microsoft, for example, had a big production number happenin' all around a lengthy stretch of moving sidewalk. No way for the air traveler to avoid a pretty intense encounter with that particular ad campaign. Out at the gates, Sprint's message was a lot louder than the gate information. My favorite -- "favorite" as in "Come on, enough's enough" -- ad-placement, though, was this one: That's an ad in the bottom of the tray used at the security and metal-detection bottleneck -- the tray you dump your change and shoes into before being scanned for liquids and pointy objects. Can you imagine being the person whose job it is to sell airport ad space? "Hey Eliza, it's Blake. Look, I want to let you in on a special promotion we're offering this week. We've finally got the go-ahead to sell ads on the customers' luggage. If your bosses pull the trigger in the next 24 hours, I'll give you an exclusive on the porcelain in the urinals too. I'll get back to you next week on that secret thing I'm working on. What? OK, but keep it just between us: What I'm angling to do is sell ad space on the backsides of the pilots' pants." How do you feel (and what do you think, of course) about the way ads seem to show up in more and more places? As for me, well, 2Blowhards deliberately doesn't run any ads. This is partly a matter of principle, I suppose, though we certainly have nothing against anyone else running them, particularly people who can genuinely use the money. (Not that any of this is any of our business, of course.) Mainly, though, and at least for me, it's an aesthetic judgment -- we do take aesthetics pretty seriously around here. For one thing: Aren't there enough ads around already? For another: Ads create clutter. And, especially when indulging in aesthetic and intellectual reflection, isn't it far nicer to do so in a classy and calm environment? Values other than money, efficiency, and convenience sometimes really do need to prevail. The whole debate about where ads can go is one that interests me a lot, not that I have much to add to it. Generally speaking I wish people would show more taste and restraint than they often do. All that said ... Lordy, give 'em the smallest opening, and commercial forces will weasel their way in everywhere. Besides, what's a free-wheeling yet aesthetics-oriented person to make of this perennial conundrum: Strict zoning and tight regulations can be an oppressive drag, yet complete free-for-alls quickly turn ugly. (Hey, did you know that Sao Paulo recently placed a wide-ranging ban on outdoor advertising? I wonder how it will work out.) The gray zone between public and private is an interesting one... posted by Michael at September 4, 2007 | perma-link | (18) comments

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Annals of Illegibility 2 -- TOCs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As far as I'm concerned, the way that computers have altered the balance of power between words and visuals is usually for the better. Still, there are times when the egos and values of the design crowd get a wee bit out of hand -- and ain't it fun to take note of these times. An earlier entry in this series is here. In today's installment, I revisit a topic I originally looked at back here: the Tables of Contents of magazines. Have you been following the evolution of TOCs? It's remarkable how different they are these days than what one might think of as the classic TOC. In the pre-digital days, a Table of Contents was generally a straightforward guide to the contents of a magazine. It was nearly always presented in a linear way -- from beginning to end. (In other words, the magazine in hand was conceived-of as something with a beginning, a middle, and an end.) Visuals were subdued, except perhaps in flashy publications like fashion mags. In any case, the general understanding was that a TOC should present essential help and information in an easy-to-understand way. The new TOC is a very different experience. For one thing: Visuals! Color! Graphics! Pop goes the layout. For another, the front-to-back way of organizing information (subject matter, page number, authors' names, etc) has in many cases been thrown out entirely. The new basis for organizing the TOC is thematic and / or conceptual. The new pattern is that the big, long articles ("Features") are grouped together; the magazine's regular columns and such are grouped together, often under the rubric "Departments"; and the junkfoody stuff that usually runs at the front and the back of the magazine is grouped together in one way or another. Another thing that's remarkable about the new TOC is how settled a form it has become. That has been the big change since the last time I visited the topic four years ago: Nearly all magazines are now using close variations on what I'm describing. In my earlier posting about TOCs, I was taking a snapshot of a form in the process of being born. These days, the new TOC is simply what a TOC has become. Funny, isn't it, the way that what a magazine is can seem like a completely settled thing? During a period when nearly all magazines feature celebs on the cover, it can seem like a god-given fact that a magazine is a publication that has a celeb on the cover. Publications seem to cohere around certain templates. Then something comes along -- an innovation, a change in technology -- and it's all up for grabs. Everyone scrambles and experiments furiously, and then everyone settles on a new template. By the way: As far as I've been able to tell, this is often done without any reference to the customers or audience at all. (Where TOCs are concerned: Were readers consulted about how... posted by Michael at August 7, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Times and Journal Price Hikes
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I somehow missed the June announcement and entered a state of shock yesterday when I discovered that the news stand price of The Wall Street Journal went up 50%, from a dollar to $1.50. The New York Times went from a dollar to $1.25, a mere 25% increase. That doesn't affect me personally because my love affair with the Times ended 15 or 20 years ago. Now that I'm retired and several years away from running a demographics data business, business news isn't the necessity it once was. Plus, as I posted here, the Journal's editorial page slipped in quality markedly when Paul Gigot took the baton from the great (but, sadly, now late) Robert Bartley. Nevertheless, I was still buying the paper at the rate of three or four copies per week. And now? I think I'll fork over the buck-fifty for the Friday edition. That's because I enjoy the big arts / culture / etcetera Weekend section. I'll miss the reviews from the Tuesday-through-Thursday Personal section. Ditto Walter Mossberg's Thursday computer column. That's life. Will I subscribe to the on-line WSJ? Perhaps, but it's not likely. I truly enjoy scanning newspapers and picking out stuff to dip into or read entirely, and that's still not conveniently done on the Web. I read someplace that WSJ news stand and paper-box sales are less than seven percent of total paid circulation. So if the 50% price hike translates into a 50% sales loss in that segment, then the WSJ will lose three percent overall circulation. (From what I read, subscription prices have yet to change. Moreover, that circulation hit at boxes and stands won't be nearly as much as 50%. Even so, total circulation might take a one percent decline.) What does this mean? Thomas Lifson speculated on The New York Times here. He concludes that the paper is shrinking by almost any important measure: read his article to see how he builds his case. The WSJ situation is harder to figure out. Traditional circulation and advertising sales aren't going as badly as at the Times, and the WSJ presence on the Web has decent paid circulation. The major uncertainty for the short run is whether or not the Bancroft family will sell to Rupert Murdoch; a sale might well mean a new business strategy. It's a commonplace in the newspaper industry that paid circulation revenues don't cover production and distribution costs -- advertising is what opens the possibility for black ink on the ledger. Some observers mention that printing and distribution costs can be huge, and reducing a "newspaper" to a Web-only presence might be viable economically because only reporters, editors and support staff would be necessary. Assuming, of course, that enough advertising can be sold. At any rate, I find the 50% price rise hard to take. I might have tolerated a 15 or 25 cent hike, but 50 cents drops me to one paper per week. My best hope is that... posted by Donald at July 18, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Edible Magazines
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Today's Seattle Times business section has an article about a group of magazines devoted to locally-grown food. The article defines "local" as being within a day's drive (by truck, presumably) -- about 250 miles, it says. The local food fad has been around for a while, but I hadn't realized that it had generated magazines. The magazines are franchised and each has a title starting with the word "Edible." Examples include Edible Portland, Edible Hawaiian Islands, Edible Ojai (the original version) and, coming next spring, Edible Seattle. Oh yes, there's also an Edible Brooklyn. My take from the article is that the mags offer info fodder for foodies along with cheerleading for local family farmers and damning those eeevil corporate farms. Apparently Edible Communities (the name of the umbrella-franchiser firm based in Santa Fe) has a good thing going. They claim average reader household income to be $110,000. New magazines are said to become profitable after the first year. And overall circulation is 2.5 million copies per year. With 30 titles at four issues per year, this comes to about 21,000 average circulation per issue. Annual subscription is $28 a year, but the magazines are give-aways at upscale food stores. This demonstrates that there is still room for new niche magazines in this on-line, digital age. And if they are successful, that's fine by me even though I don't much care who grows my food or where it comes from. (I'm a foodie of the Time Magazine fonder Henry Luce persuasion: "Food is fuel.") Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 4, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Weak Newspaper Ad Sales?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- What follows is anecdotal, not statistical, even though some numbers are involved. But hey, this is about newspapers, and that biz thrives on the personal, the anecdotal. (I'm excepting the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Investor's Business Daily and their ilk, natch.) Circulations have been falling at big city dailies for a while now. And it's known that classified ad lineage is getting hit hard by Internet-based classifieds. Moreover, I'm pretty sure there are real statistics out there regarding ad lineage in general. I won't let that stop me from tossing your way a few numbers I collected. Lately I've been noticing how anemic the Seattle Times -- largest circulation in Washington state -- has seemed. Some sections didn't appear to have many advertisements at all. So I tallied the Business and Sports sections for four days this week, starting Monday. Institutional and public service ads were not counted. The Sports section had 650 column inches of paid advertising out of a potential 5,544 inches -- 11.7 percent. Nearly half of that was on Monday, a big sports news reporting day. The average for Tuesday through Thursday was 8.9 percent. The Business page had 132 ad inches out of 2,112 -- 6.3 percent. About half of that was due to a full backpage ad that appeared Tuesday. If I were the paper's publisher, I'd be breaking out in a sweat over this sales performance. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at May 3, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Craft of Interviewing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm all in favor of holding the feet of the mainstream media to the fire, and god bless the blogosphere for being there to keep pro journalism more honest than it would otherwise be. That said ... Well, as someone who's worked in the media for decades I'm sometimes struck by how much civilians take for granted. Where design is concerned, for instance: Whether or not you like the end products, the people who sling together magazines, newspapers, and TV keep the glitzy graphics and the splashy designs comin' at you at a truly amazing clip. In my experience, the people creating these layouts, photos, infographics, and spinning whizzinesses are often as talented as the fine-art crowd, and are often ten times harder-working. If you don't think their work is impressive (like it or not), well, try keeping up with them. And where the people who bring us our foreign news go ... They're often criticized (as they should be) for their politics, or are dumped-on for being lousy thinkers. No harm in that, of course. But why not give them their due too? These are people who lead seriously oddball lives. They travel more than investment bankers do, they work on impossible deadlines, and they're tossed into stories with little but notebooks, tape recorders, and guts to rely on. The ones who cover danger zones amaze me the most. If I were to get a call from my boss in the middle of the night saying, "There's been an outbreak of guerilla fighting!", my response would be along the lines of, "Thanks for the warning! I'm locking myself in my basement!" Foreign correspondents aren't like that. Instead they respond by saying, "I'm on my way!" I've known a number of foreign correspondents, and though I wouldn't pay a lot of attention to the thinking or to the politics of more than a couple of them they've all been remarkable creatures -- daring, crusty, full of bravado, and not unshrewd about human nature. Plus they all have great stories to tell. It seems to me that another media type who doesn't get the respect he / she deserves is the interviewer. Lordy, I do love a good interview. Is there a more efficient way to convey the gist of someone's thinking, research, and personality? A well-done interview can inform, enlighten, and entertain; it can be charming or brain-opening or both. The idea that interviewing is easy to do seems to me naive. Of course interviewing isn't brain surgery or bridge-building. Still, it isn't nothing either. I say this, by the way, as someone 1) who has done some professional interviewing, 2) who wasn't initially any good at it, and 3) who has learned a bit about how to be a better interviewer than I once was. I make no huge claims for myself, merely: I been there, I stank, and eventually I got less-bad. One of the things I've learned is that there are... posted by Michael at February 28, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Alice thinks that the time has come for people in marriages to pay better attention to each other. * What on earth is going on in Austria? * Alan Sullivan has never understood the fuss people make about blonde bombshells. * Allan Mott fondly remembers some books that defy movie adaptation. * Maxwell Goss recommends Russell Kirk's collection of ghost stories, "Ancestral Shadows." * Searchie goes into business for herself and has her first-ever meeting with a CPA. * Ross Douthat wonders if "The Wire" is peddling any anti-Semitism. * Ootje Oxenaar talks about what it was like designing the Netherlands' very beautiful currency. Ootje is a man who has enjoyed his work: "You're making something that lasts for decades and is in everyone's pockets, every shop; it's a fantastic feeling." * Lynn Sislo has some advice for those Treasury Dept. types who are hoping to make dollar coins a going thing. * Batons! Flames! Burlesque! Why not hire Fire Groove to liven up your next party? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 15, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Steven Heller
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've just awakened to the fact that the designer and writer Steven Heller has a website. Heller is a super-bright, civilized, talented, generous, and creative guy, and anyone interested in visuals, the media, and design should enjoy a visit with him. He's also staggeringly productive -- a genuine "Where does he get the energy?!!!" phenomenon. He operates in many different dimensions and in many different capacities: as a designer, as a book author, as a curator, as an editor, as a teacher, and as an interviewer of other figures in the field. He and his wife, Louise Fili, have often worked with the brilliant San Francisco-based publisher Chronicle Books. You'll run into a lot of Heller's journalism at AIGA Voice, which he edits. (I especially enjoyed this interview with Eye magazine's John Walters.) I own a dozen books that Heller has written, co-written, or edited and I've enjoyed them all. While I've learned a lot about the visual universe from a lot of different people, I've probably learned more from Heller than from anyone else. Where Steven Heller is concerned, I'm always eager to read and look at more of his work. But what I'd really, really like him to do is give a seminar on energy and productivity. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 23, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Time Running Out?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Wither Time magazine? And Newsweek and U.S. News. Last May I wrote a post titled Saving Time that used the hook of the magazine getting a new editor to mention why I used to like it and to offer some advice to the new hand on the helm. Eight months later it's beginning to look like the helm with the new hand is attached to a sinking ship. Today (I'm writing this on 18 January) Time Inc. announced that it was axing 289 positions, more than half in the editorial domain and 40 of those in Time magazine itself. Bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta are to be closed, according the the Advertising Age link above. Although Time has a ways to go before finally folding, I think it might be interesting to re-evaluate prospects for the weekly newsmagazine segment. Before offering my feeble advice to the new editor in the May post, I stated These admittedly personal observations lead me to suspect that Time is doomed no matter what Stengel tries in his rejuvenation effort. My "personal" position was that of a news-junkie growing up in the (comparative) sticks who gradually needed newsmagazines less and less as new media proliferated. Let me add that even at the height of my Time-adoration, I tended to pay more attention to the (cultural) back of the book than to the (hard news) front. Okay, one justification for newsmags is that they provide a useful service for folks too busy during the week to keep up with the daily press and TV news. And there are lots of people in that position today, just as there were when Time was gleaming in the eyes of Harry Luce and Britt Hadden. How well are the newsmags serving this sort of customer? Not as well as they once did, judging by their addiction to feature articles. My "solution" was a return to serious news-summarizing at the cost of a big circulation-drop. But, truth is, a Web-based summary system likely would do that job better than print. If that's so, then is there any commercially viable role for a weekly general-news publication? I can't think of one. Can you? UPDATE: For Jeff Jarvis' take, click here. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 18, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Annals of Illegibility 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the widely-noted effects of the digitization of the media is that writing has been knocked off its perch as the premier, culture-defining medium. After all, when everything has been turned into pixels, why not treat yourself to color, images, movement, and sounds too? In the electronic world, it seems that the natural mode of expression is multimedia. Confining yourself to mere writing can seem perverse. Although I'm a happy reader and writer myself, this is a trend I applaud. Lordy, the way the word-thang used to be held above everyone. And, double Lordy, the way writers used to carry on! A PBS documentary about Gore Vidal that I recently watched was full of footage from the '50s and '60s. Were those writers ever puffed-up and pompous things. And why not? They were celebrated as giants not just by their own egos but by the culture generally. Why did anyone ever think that writers had a privileged kind of insight into life? And what's so special about writing anyway? So I'm thrilled that writing has taken its place among the rest of the media, no more or less important than any other. At the same time ... Well, I'm not so keen on it when the other media make power grabs at the expense of reading, writing, and comprehensibility either. Designers, for example. By comparison to what they once were, magazines today are certainly far more colorful and visually-interesting (or at least dazzling) things. That's thanks to a long-overdue shift in the status of designers. But isn't what's being said in a verbal sense all too often being overwhelmed by design ambitions? A few examples from a recent issue of the American Airlines magazine: Fun-looking pages! But ... In the first example: Are you even tempted to try to read the text that's been presented as a disk of horizontal lines? I look at that page and I feel for the writer, none of whose words will be consumed or enjoyed by anyone. In the second example: How about that for a great idea -- floating info-text over a herringbone pattern? Boingggggggggg go the eyeballs. "Huh?" goes the inquiring mind. FWIW, I've hung around designers and watched them evaluate magazines. They consume them in exactly the way you might expect: leafing through pages one after another, evaluating how visually poppy and visually tied-together the package is. I don't think I've ever seen one pause to sink into the text, which they seem to consider it their professional duty to view as rivers of dull gray stuff badly in need of visual redemption. Do you have the impression that magazines today are more quickly-gone-through things than they once were? Perhaps that's because that's what designers think a magazine ought to be: something you flip through in the quest for eyeball-highs. Designers today: Has their new-found power gone to their heads? Or are they talented innocents who simply don't know what it is to read?... posted by Michael at December 6, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Newspaper of the Future
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, I sometimes have to whisk off stray bytes and pixels from my sleeve, so no ink-stained wretch am I. My only brush with newspaper-type journalism was from the public relations side. Well, I helped put out the Fort Meade weekly paper and edited the monthly 7th Logistical Command paper while in Korea. But I doubt that those Army experiences count as "real" journalism. Nevertheless, I keep my eye on the field. This is easy to do because newpapering has been really interesting the last few years. And that's because newspapers are going to hell. Circulations are falling. Staffs are getting riffed. The Internet is starting to eat into classified ads, the ultimate cash cow of the industry. A take on the carnage that I especially like can be found on Jeff Jarvis' site, where former print media insider Jarvis offers several posts a day about industry woes and what might be done to salvage the situation. If I understand him correctly, he thinks that papers should stop trying to be general-interest publications. They should strip out features that appeal to small audiences and thereby waste print and ink that might have better uses. Papers should play to their strength -- local news. They should become better integrated with the Internet. Go to Jarvis' blog and scroll / click around through the last month or two of his posts, and you'll probably get a pretty good idea about his positions on media issues. Only the future will reveal whether or not he's on the mark, but what he writes generally seems sensible to me. Critics from the political right (Jarvis is moderately to the left, aside from the Iraq issue) claim that one reason newspapers are losing readers is because their coverage of events is biased. I don't know if this claim has been tested using solid data. But I do believe that most papers claim to be unbiased while definitely slanting news items by commission or omission. And that's one reason I haven't subscribed to newspapers in years -- I feel that I'm being cheated. Enough of my gripes. What about Jeff Jarvis? -- he's the professional. He claims that many publishers and editors are still so stuck in the past that they aren't willing to do what's needed to survive once revenue streams dry to the point where ledger ink turns red. He favors cuts in content. He favors retrenching to local news. He doesn't pay much (or any) attention to the political slant issue. And what do you think about newspapers and their future? Are you satisfied with the paper(s) you read? If not, what improvements do you think will appeal to you and readership in general? Do you think such changes will have a positive impact of profitability? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 14, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Junk Snailmail
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Wasn't the advent of email expected to reduce the quantity of junk snailmail we'd have to deal with? Anything but, reports the New York Times' Louise Story. Last year, more than 114 billion pieces of junk mail were sent, an increase of 15 percent over five years ago. For the first time ever, the volume of "bulk mail" exceeded the volume of first class mail. The explanation: Marketers have found that many people, feeling beleaguered by electronics, actually like junk snailmail. "As the world becomes more digital, there is a need for tangible experiences," one ad exec told Louise Story. Interesting to learn too that, while only 2.15% of mailed ads result in any customer action, that's a good enough batting average to keep the business profitable. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 2, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

[Every : where]
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A design fad that 2Blowhards visitors may be familiar with has gone global. Mr. Tall sends in this photo he snapped recently in Hong Kong: Dig those ca-razy brackets! But, as Mr. Tall observes, what really puts this particular logo over the top isn't the nonsense brackets, it's the nonsense colon inside the nonsense brackets. Mr. Tall and his partner Mr. Bald do a lot of first-class blogging here. I wrote about nonsense brackets here, here, and here. Punctuation marks: They aren't just about language any longer. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 10, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Leaving Reason Behind
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Big-decision time: I'm letting my subscription to Reason magazine lapse. (The earth trembles ...) Reason can be a provocative publication, god knows, and Cathy Young and Charles Paul Freund are long-time faves of mine. But, whatever Reason's virtues, I've come to dislike it. The magazine annoys me too much, and in bad, not fun, ways. For one thing, its contrarian-ness has become knee-jerk and predicatable. You have reservations about legalized gambling? Hey, gambling is good! Strip malls strike you as ugly? Hey, strip malls are good! The way so many Americans have blimped-up in the last 25 years seems bizarre? Hey, fat is good! For another thing, too many of its articles and reviews, however bright, are completely un-nuanced. I didn't find Reason featureless and unnuanced when Virginia Postrel was editing the magazine, btw. She published a libertarian magazine that didn't feel monomaniacal and dogmatic. It had shading; it felt human. But under Nick Gillespie the magazine has become monotonous. A recent example is a review of Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma." According to Reason's reviewer, Pollan's book fails because it's snobbish. The review fails, according to me, because the reviewer seems completely unwilling to deal with such basic matters as the roles of snobbery, class, and taste in American food-and-eating history. Libertarians may find these facts displeasing, but there they are: Many of the developments that have led to the more rewarding sides of today's eating-and-food worlds originated with socialists, snobs, and cranks. Organic? Local? Fresh? The re-discovery and appreciation of folk cooking and folk eating? The creation of today's stunning and extensive food press? The informal merging of high and low? Sorry to say, but the card-carrying libertarian crowd didn't play much of a role in any of this. Meanwhile Berkeley people, hippies, regionalists, back-to-the-landers, anthropologists, Francophiles, Asia-o-philes, and artsies did. Snobs, to some extent, all of them. What's good about today's food-and-eating world has emerged, more generally, from a complex swirl of home cooks, local farmers and breeders, the Food Network, traditional people, high-end chefs, trade schools, handed-down recipes and techniques, chili virtuosos, editors and publishers, innovative retailers, funky lowdown / chow-down people -- and, of course, an enthusiastic crowd of audience / participants. (I'd love to see the other art worlds follow in the steps of the food world.) Scott Chaffin, for instance, might be a true populist as well as one of the world's most approachable people -- but that doesn't mean he doesn't have very strong opinions about the differences between better and worse barbecue. 2Blowhards lesson for Reason reviewer: Try moving beyond such simplistic ideas as "Snobbery is bad." Play with the idea that there might exist such a thing as "productive and worthwhile snobbery that doesn't sneer and destroy, but that instead contributes to the flourishing of the field in question." Taste-experts can serve the rest of us too. They sometimes don't, but they sometimes do, and it's far more interesting and useful to distinguish between helpful... posted by Michael at October 7, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Thursday, October 5, 2006

"Font" or "Typeface"?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Allan Haley explains the difference between a "font" and a "typeface." He also argues that we should be more careful in how we use the words. I understand Haley's point and am sympathetic. I have my own streaks of language-usage persnickitiness -- back here, for example, I expressed my exasperation with the common misuse of the phrase "begging the question." But, practically speaking, where "font" and "typeface" are concerned? I suspect that Haley is fighting a language-usage war that was lost several years ago. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 5, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Looking through the cover story in a recent issue of British Esquire, it seemed to me that an important line has been crossed. See if you can guess what it is from these scans. First, the issue's cover: Now, the story itself: Tick, tick, tick ... Time's up. Answers please. Here's what struck me, at least once I was over my initial "Wow, that Gretchen Mol sure is a honey, isn't she?" response: Where's the story? This Esquire package consists entirely -- entirely! -- of photos, graphics, boxes, bits 'n' bytes. The few words that play a role have been punched up with colors and font-games; they seem more about visual punctuation and rhythm than they do about meaning and sense. In any case: I don't know that I've ever before run across a non-tabloid, glossy-magazine cover story that didn't include, as part of the package, an actual article. Is this a good or a bad development? As usual, I'm of several minds. On the one hand: Who really needs yet another actress profile? And how many writers really bring a little something extra to the task? If it's all going to be junk and crap anyway -- sexy and dazzling browsing material -- better that it should be straightforwardly what it is, no? Why pretend to be selling something of substance when all you're doing is throwing around confetti and tinsel? On the other hand: What do editors these days have against the traditional reading experience? And -- while I adore visuals and think that the text-thing can certainly be overdone -- a magazine package like this one can seem like going out for dinner and being served nothing but appetizers and snacks. Where's the meal? Some more general questions: Doesn't it sometimes seem as though media people are determined to turn everything they touch (and peddle, of course) into a highlight? And what becomes of life when everything in it has been pushed to the top -- when everything is clamoring aggressively for attention, and nothing is held in reserve? Don't our quieter, less-pumped-up experiences merit some appreciation too? (I'd love to think that one of the things that 2Blowhards offers is some attention to our shared cultural backdrops ...) * Related: I yakked a bit here about how traditional, old-media, long-flowing-rivers-of-text are being chunked up into grab-bags of headlines, graphics, visuals, and boxes -- and about how this is becoming common practice even in the books world. Is everything being turned into a reference-source / catalogue to be browed and grazed? BTW, British Esquire is a snazzy and enjoyable -- and, despite all the cyber-jazz, literate -- publication. Spending a few hours with it is like attending a fun party: Lots of carefree style and larkiness, minus the stress and franticness that poison so many commercial American magazines. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Tabbed Browsing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I am without a doubt the greatest design critic who has ever lived. Proof of my genius arrives on my doorstep daily. Long ago -- in fact, several times -- I blogged about crazy visual uses of brackets and parentheses. These days: How about parentheses around an entire magazine-article title? Long ago, I wondered what has become of Tables of Contents. Today's TOC's are more nonlinear and bewildering than ever. Click on the image and eyeball the order in which the page-numbers of the stories are listed: Back in the dark ages I discussed what I've called a "scanner aesthetic." In other words, the plane of the page is understood to be a piece of glass, through which you sometimes look but on which things are also piled. These days: Is the scanner-glass thing common or what? I even took early note of a very strange trend: women and their bodies being presented all chopped-off. These days, chopped-off female bodyparts are a standard part of our culture's visual decor: Now that my prescience and infallibility as an observer of graphic-design trends has been established: What's next? Er, OK, well, let me revise my self-evaluation. Like many other people, I like watching movies, TV, and ads, and I like leafing through magazines, books, newspapers, and websites. Occasionally I notice a little something that I haven't yet seen anyone else discuss. Um, that said ... And acknowledging that it's a whole lot easier to rip things out of magazines than to capture passages from movies or TV ... OK, got one: Isn't it interesting how the nouveaux psychedelia and the man-merging-with-the-cybermachine riffs are themes that are happenin' at the exact same time? Here's some contempo psychedelia. I don't know why, but I like to think of ads like these as having a case of the "blooming swirlies." In these ads, man becomes his own portable USB drive: If anyone wants to say "Computers are the new hallucinogens," it's OK by me. But you probably want some trend that's newer ... That's really fresh ... And that we're only going to see more of ... OK, here's a guess. You may have noticed on a lot of websites (and even in browsers themselves) something called "tabbed browsing." File-folder-like tabs at the top of a page that you can click on, and that will take you to another page. At its website, Apple has made a major design commitment to tabs: Here's an example I just noticed this very instant, from the screen of my blogging software. This is what's before my eyes as I type: Hilarious, no? The Movable Type tab -- and then coming down from above it, my Safari browser's tab. Online, it's a tab, tab, tab, tab world, let me tell you. In yet another proof that print design now follows screen design, the latest vogue in commercial magazines and print ads seems to be for tabbed browsing. Which, if you think about it... posted by Michael at August 20, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, August 14, 2006

Design Gripes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Michael Bierut wonders if the availability of ever-more DIY design tools is a good or a bad thing for graphic-design professionals. A fun commentsfest follows. * Lionel Shriver thinks that book jackets would benefit if graphic designers could tear themselves away from their computers and pick up some manual tools for a change. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 14, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, July 28, 2006

Mags for Millennials
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The "Millennials": They're between 14 and 30, and there are as many of them as there are Boomers -- which of course makes them prime targets for the advertising and publishing businesses. So what have these businesses learned about them? In brief, they want things their own way and they have stars in their eyes. According to Myrna Blyth, traditional women's magazines hold little appeal for Millennial females. The only kind of magazine that has been a wild success with this crowd is celebrity weeklies. Bonnie Fuller, an editor who has recently had a magic commerical touch, says that young women today are "practically obsessed" with celebrities and all aspects of their lives. "Nowadays there is a fine line between real life and being the star of a reality show," says Fuller. Another nice passage comes from mag-biz analyst Samir Husni: "Young women talk about celebrities like they are members of their family ... There is nothing iconic about celebrities anymore. They went from the big screen to television, and now we hold them on our laps in a magazine. Young women can laugh about them. They even feel they can bully them." One distinctive characteristic of the new Millennial-targeted celeb mags is that they offer no traditional advice columns. "Frankly, young women today don't want that much advice," says one pollster, who also notices that "this generation has a split-second attention span." Let's see: no patience ... strong preferences ... full of themselves ... living in their fantasies ... May I be permitted to say Eek! and Yikes!? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Looking Through The New Yorker
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- After about six months of never once looking at it, I just spent a couple of hours grazing my way through a half a dozen recent issues of The New Yorker. How remote, underlit, unpressing, and unnecesary the magazine felt. Whether you loved or hated The New Yorker of previous decades, it was a distinctive (and maybe great) American-culture achievement. Under Harold Ross and his successor William Shawn, The New Yorker was sui generis, as well as genuinely eccentric and unpredictable. A bizarre combo of the sophisticated and the completely out-of-it, it was unlike any other magazine, and its arrival in the mailbox every week was a genuine cultural event. The magazine these days seems to me completely skippable. Why? It seems to me that two key things have changed since the old days. One has to do with the magazine itself. The old guard -- the people who really created The New Yorker -- is now almost completely gone. The magazine today, edited by David Remnick, is now populated by pro journalists, Boomers and Xers, many of them ambitious Ivy League brats of the "we must occupy the offices of the people we grew up admiring" sort. Smart and talented though many of them are, they're anything but originals. They don't even offer much of an alternative to the cast and voices at Slate and The New Republic. The other Thing That Has Changed has to do with media life outside the magazine -- and that, of course, is the advent of the web. Back in the days before online publishing, magazines, books, and writers often served as intellectual friends. Although you could of course hang out with, write letters to, and yak on the phone with your actual friends, what could you do about your cultural and intellectual interests? And how could you expand your horizons? For such functions, you often turned to writers. You looked forward to visits with them. You carried on long conversations with them in your mind. With the web, you no longer have no choice but to commune with writers in your head. Online, you can find kindred spirits and really commune with them, and in near-real time. People online are speaking about things they've noticed, and things that matter to them. They're bringing expertise and life-experience to bear. They're finding subjects months before the mainstream media do, and they're yakking about them in more open, freewheeling, and honest ways than pro journalists often can. Bloggers get too much credit for this, it seems to me; as far as I can tell, our most important function is as conversation-starters. In any case, the ongoing conversations are the point -- and links, commenters, and interview subjects all play important roles in keeping these conversations alive and rolling. In the to-and-fro of comparing notes and making connections, who has time to care about mere "articles," let alone bigshot magazine writers? Even so far as journalism goes, online journalism (and... posted by Michael at July 1, 2006 | perma-link | (33) comments

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Magazines are experimenting with new kinds of digital platforms, reports USA Today's Laura Petrecca. Which makes sense: As more and more advertising action moves online, magazine managers are following the money. The fact I found most interesting in Petrucca's very interesting piece (emphasis mine): U.S. Internet advertising will boom 27% this year to $14.5 billion, while spending in consumer print magazines will grow 3% to $13.2 billion, Merrill Lynch forecasts. It would be the first time that Web ad spending beat magazines. Merrill sees Internet ad spending at $17.7 billion next year, and magazines nearly flat at $13.4 billion. Interesting -- and make that interesting-scary -- times in the mediabiz! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 27, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, May 22, 2006

Saving Time
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I see that Time magazine has a new hand on its helm. Richard Stengel has been appointed Managing Editor, the new top-dog position. For all I know, Stengel is the perfect man for the job and that within a few years every issue will be packed with ad pages commensurate with its fat circulation figures. But I'm doubtful. Back in the 1950s teenager me eagerly awaited the mailman to arrive on Thursday, the ETA for Time to get from the Chicago printing plant to Seattle, way out on a remote corner of the country. When it arrived, I'd plow through it before other family members could get to it. And having finished, I had the satisfaction of feeling plugged into the news as interpreted by the sophisticated geniuses inhabiting New York City, nexus of information. Yes, it was a hix-in-the-stix taking cues from the Giant Metropolis thing. I somehow felt more "in the know" than the Seattle folks who relied only on broadcast media and local newspapers for news. Now, I'm sure Harry Luce's PR guys would never have put it quite so bluntly when away from their favorite Radio City area watering hole, but I think aspirational, middle-brow people in the provinces were an important target for Time. You really need to understand that media based in New York (especially), Chicago, Los Angeles and perhaps Washington, D.C. had immense prestige in the 1950s and early 60s compared to media based elsewhere. Go back another 20 or 30 years and LA didn't count much if entertainment was set aside while Washington's prestige was largely as a dateline location. Today the news/culture scene in the United States is far more dispersed. Important blogs, to take the most extreme example, are based in such (formerly) unlikely places as the Minneapolis area and Knoxville, Tennessee. I essentially stopped reading Time by the early 1980s. Even given cheap subscription rates, I simply wasn't getting enough value to make it cost- and time-effective. Worse from Time's standpoint, I find it hard to imagine any circumstance that would have me regularly reading it in the future. And I doubt that I'm alone, notwithstanding those high circulation numbers. These admittedly personal observations lead me to suspect that Time is doomed no matter what Stengel tries in his rejuvenation effort. For what it's worth, if I were in Stengel's shoes (and without benefit of focus group and other marketing research data he has available) I'd be inclined to go back to Time's roots as a news summary for people who are too busy to pay much attention to events on a daily basis. I would greatly increase the ratio of word-space to photo-space. I would eliminate feature articles -- even the cover story. Facts would be salient and opinion segregated to sections where opposing views would be presented, along with short rebuttals. Given the tendency for news media to ignore inconvenient (from their perspective) information, I'd include short facts-rebuttal sections in the... posted by Donald at May 22, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, May 15, 2006

Mistaken Identity
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Given the amount of material that the media generate every day, I'm surprised that this kind of thing doesn't happen a lot more often than it does. Here's the BBC's own account of the snafu. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 15, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Liz and Dick and Eddie and Liz and ...
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ever notice that those tabloids and celebrity mags on the display racks near the supermarket checkout seem to mention the same people week after week in the headlines? That's nothing new. My initiation to celeb-hed journalism took place during the winter and early spring of 1962, back when New York boasted seven daily newspapers. Seven dailies? Yep. Count 'em: The New York Times and the Herald-Tribune were the quality morning broadsheets. Hearst's Journal-American was an afternoon broadsheet, but hardly "quality" (aside from in the imagination of Hearst management). The World-Telegram was another afternoon broadsheet. There were two morning tabloids, the Daily News and the Mirror. Finally there was the Post, a flaming-liberal afternoon tabloid that proudly proclaimed it had been founded by Alexander Hamilton, of all people. By the end of the Sixties only the Times, Daily News and Post remained. I was stationed at Fort Slocum (site of the Army Information School) from mid-January 1962 till mid-May. Fort Slocum (closed in 1965) was situated on David's Island in Long Island Sound. To get there one had to take an Army-operated ferry from New Rochelle. Good soldier that I was, I got a pass every weekend I was stationed there. Of course I went straight to New York City every time I hit shore. There were two reliable ways an automobile-less G.I. could get to Manhattan in those days. One option was to ride the bus to the north end of the Lexington Avenue subway line at 241st Street in The Bronx (it was an elevated line through much of The Bronx, going subway before reaching Manhattan if I recall correctly). The other option was to take the bus to the New Rochelle train station and catch a New Haven train (the Stamford Local). If you got the timing right, the train was faster. But the subway was cheaper and ran more frequently, so I suppose I mostly took it. Regardless of transportation mode, I always wound up in the same place: Grand Central Terminal. And I usually exited Grand Central onto the 42nd Street sidewalk, where I would confront a news stand or racks with Friday's newspapers. And Friday evening after Friday evening, nearly every paper save the Times, Herald-Tribune and perhaps the World-Telegram had a headline dealing with Liz, Dick, and Eddie. This went on for months! Liz? Dick? Eddie? Who were they? I'm referring to actress Elizabeth ("Liz") Taylor, actor Richard ("Dick") Burton and crooner Eddie Fisher. Eddie and Liz were married. Liz and Dick were filming the hyper-expensive eventual box-office disappointment "Cleopatra." Oh, and they were carrying on a torrid affair while Eddie was left twisting in the off-stage wind. The permutations of this love triangle kept New York headline writers on aspirin trying to avoid repeating themselves as the weeks rolled on. Since I basically saw this only on Fridays, I've always wondered what the headlines were about during the rest of the workweek. My best guess is --... posted by Donald at March 21, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Another Graphic Detournement
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've written before about the way graphic designers have appropriated parenthesis marks and brackets for themselves. Short version: Graphic designers have taken a typographical symbol (the parenthesis/bracket mark), and have turned it into a purely visual device. Once upon a time, the parenthesis and the bracket served the interests of those making use of words -- people for whom a page is primarily about making verbal sense, or about providing word-based entertainment. These days, parentheses and brackets often serve the interests and purposes of those who like visual jazziness -- people for whom the main thing about a page is that it should look snazzy. Design Observer's Michael Bierut explained the history of this development in a comment on my posting. You've seen a lot of play-with-brackets in recent years. Designers all over the place have been using parentheses and brackets not to indicate pauses or asides, but to provide visual kapow. Here's a typical example, from Fitness magazine. Click on the images in this posting for larger versions: Whatever it is those brackets are doing, it has nothing to do with serving a written-grammar/written-meaning kind of purpose. Whether or not you like the look, this appropriation of one field's symbol by another field is a classic case of what the Situationists called detournement. It's a matter of one group (visual people) taking a device that another group (writers) evolved for one purpose, and putting it to use for their own ends. The fad hasn't captured just the art directors of silly pop magazines, by the way. Here's part of a page from the sober (if glossy) publication Scientific American Mind: What in the world are parentheses doing around that pullquote? And why do they surround the rubric on the Further Reading box? (Scientific American Mind -- after some early trouble finding its bearings -- has become a very good magazine: substantial yet accessible, sophisticated yet clear. A 2Blowhards intellectual hero, V.S. Ramachandran, sits on the magazine's advisory board, and much of the publication seems to reflect his approach and his characteristically thoughtful tone.) In terms of designers making visual-impact use of brackets and pullquotes, we may in fact be entering a late phase. Things have gotten mighty baroque in recent months. Here, the art director of Fitness gets jiggy: But Scientific American Mind isn't to be outdone: Y'know: Why not flip brackets 90 degrees and stack them vertically? Why not use only one parenthesis mark? "Meaning" is so passe anyway. All of which prompts a question: Which typographical symbol are designers going to claim for themselves next? I have a feeling that the most likely candidate is quotation marks. (I sometimes picture designers as being like a pack of hyenas separating a gazelle out from its herd ...) Already we're seeing a lot of this kind of thing: OKOKOK, that's an ad. But part of what happens when digital tech sweeps through a media field is that the wall between editorial and advertising... posted by Michael at March 9, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, January 23, 2006

Pundits, Then and Now
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Walter Lippmann wasn't the first newspaper columnist, but he arguably was the man who created the mold of newspaper pundit -- a wise man who analyses and comments on current political and socio-cultural events. (The term pundit comes from India, and can be spelled "pandit" as in Pandit Nehru.) Lippmann became a columnist at the New York World in 1920 and later at the Herald Tribune. How does one become a pundit? Lippmann was a Harvard graduate who had written some books, was a key player in the founding of The New Republic and had experience in government before becoming a columnist. Working from memory, this seems to cover most of the career paths to punditry -- and Lippmann, intellectual ubermensch that he was, pulled off the hat-trick. George Will is a current pundit with a combination of elite education, legislative staff experience and journalistic practice. James "Scotty" (he was born in Scotland) Reston on the other hand, came up through the reporting ranks, eventually combining his duties as The New York Times' Washington bureau chief with punditry. This path seems to be the most heavily trodden: John Tierney one of the NTY's newest columnists spent 15 years as a reporter at the paper (though he also was a Yale man and free-lance journalist before coming to the Times). No doubt personal or social factors come into play when one enters pundithood. I can't demonstrate this, but I think it's likely that being a pal or protg of the publisher, editor or editorial page editor gives the skids a nice greasing. But landing a columnist's job is not enough. One needs to deliver the goods, especially if one becomes a syndicated columnist. Cronyship might retain a job at a single newspaper, but a syndicated pundit needs to pull in enough eyeballs to justify the syndication fee a paper must pay. Okay, what I just said is an ideal-world case. In practice, it's hard to measure with any precision how much any given columnist increases, maintains or decreases a paper's circulation. In ancient times, letters to the editor or publisher was about the only mechanism. In recent decades, survey research can be used to evaluate pundit pull. Times are changing, because of the Internet. Success on the Web is now a path to syndication, a good example being Jonah Goldberg. Although Goldberg's father happened to have been an executive with a syndication firm, Jonah had to win his spurs by writing posts on National Review's Web page that proved to be very popular, attracting attention to his skills and leading to television appearances and column syndication. Thanks to blogging, it's possible to become a self-anointed pundit. Self-anointment does not lead to real pundit status, however: that requires an audience. And a number of bloggers have indeed attained pundit status, in my judgment. Here are a few examples from the part of the Blogosphere I'm most familiar with: Steve Den Beste, who no longer blogs on... posted by Donald at January 23, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

The New Yorker Wants Me
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The New Yorker really, really wants me to become a subscriber: If they're willing to knock almost 90% off the usual cost, then why shouldn't they be willing to give me the magazine outright? Come to think of it: If they want me that badly, then why don't they pay me to take their magazine? Or would I then no longer qualify as a subscriber? Donald riffed here on the theme of subscribing to magazines. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 4, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, January 2, 2006

Resubscribe ... or Not?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't subscribe to many magazines these days, but boy do I get a lot of subscription-renewal mailings. Maybe I should keep better track of these things, but my impression is that some magazines start coming after me six months or more before the current subscription expires. Michael is in a better position to explain this, but let me toss out a few plausible reasons anyway. Even in our fast-paced, computer-driven business world, subscriptions seem to take a long time to get processed. For example, after mailing a renewal check maybe a month before my subscription ran out, I found the next few issues arriving in the mail a couple of weeks after they appeared on news stands. (Normally these appearances would be less than a week apart.) In fact, once in a while I'll buy a magazine from a stand fearing the Postal Service lost my magazine, only to have it turn up in my box a few days later. On the other hand, it's possible that I actually re-subscribed so late that it was processed as if it were a new subscription, thus accounting for the delay. If you examine the mailing tag on a magazine or your address block on the renewal form (these are the same, or nearly so, in most cases) you'll find the final issue is indicated: for instance, "SEP 06." So I might take it that I can wait until August before sending my check. But this would probably be running things too close because the "September 2006" date on the magazine is there to tell news stands to remove that issue come September. Better that I should mail my check in July. But what's in it for me to re-subscribe to a SEP 06 bingo-date magazine in February, when the first notice darkens my post office box? In theory, the $19.95 I'd be sending them represents a loss to me of untold wealth to gained by investing it until the last possible re-subscription moment. And it would be the magazine company, not me, that would be reaping that rich reward. In addition to front-loading revenue, an early renewal would lower marketing costs in that further solicitations would be unnecessary. Again, I haven't made a tally, but it seems that I can get as many as four or five notices -- especially if I fail to renew. These notices each probably cost between 50 cents and a dollar to send; this can amount to 15-20% or more of the amount of that renewal check they're trying to pry loose. I should add that it's no secret that large-circulation magazines push heavily-discounted subscriptions in order to attract advertising dollars, their real source of any profits given that subscription and news stand sales income do not cover operating costs. Media buyers (who a friend of mine in the media data trade characterized as having "the intellect of a peanut") tend to use circulation counts and advertising costs per thousand... posted by Donald at January 2, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Friday, December 30, 2005

Image and Word
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Words come easily to me. They're my most direct form of expression; they're what I turn to first when I have something to communicate. Despite being a primarily-verbal guy, though, I cheer the fact that, these days, words are taking a beating. [Brief interruption for those who haven't run across this argument. We're said by many to be living at a time when the dominance of The Word is coming to an end. For hundreds of years -- the usual account locates the origin of this state of affairs at the time of Descartes -- words have held sway over all the other media. And modes of thinking that words are sometimes said to promote -- linearity, rationality -- have lorded it over other kinds of thinking. Nowadays -- what with computers, screens, recordings, email, advances in printing, etc. -- that super-verbal era is coming to a close. Images and sounds are turning up everywhere, and so are clickable buttons. We're moving into a less-authoritarian era -- one in which books, paper, and linearity become mere parts in a more-fluid, ever-turning-over, interactive, multimedia jumble. Such is the story anyway. Some people think this is a good development. Many people think it's a bad one. Most people seem to stare in amazement, and to feel bewildered and ambivalent ...] As far as I'm concerned, the de-throning of The Word is a great thing. Why shouldn't words take their modest place among the other media? Why shouldn't they stop carrying on so pompously and learn how to play nice? This attitude makes me a rarity among verbal people. I have many writer friends who feel very depressed about these developments. They trained themselves in and for a very different world, and they feel as though much of what they care about is dying. There's no question it's a tough time to be a writer. So many people agree that we're living at a time when, after a long period of subjection to The Word, The Image and The Sound are asserting themselves. And good for The Image and The Sound. Still, things can sometimes be taken too far. Graphics get used not because they work well, but because they're cool, or attractive, or punchy, or something. There's nothing wrong with words, after all. But Image-people especially seem to get carried away on a regular basis, choosing imagery and graphics when a printed word or two might have functioned far better. Perhaps they're a little drunk on their newfound power? Here's an example. The photo is a closeup of the side of The Wife's iBook: Can you tell which wire or plug is meant to be stuck into that hole? I certainly can't, and the cute graphic that Apple's designers have supplied isn't giving me any help. Would it have killed the designers to print the word "Power" next to the plug? Why topple one tyrant (words) only to install another (graphics) in its place? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 30, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Time" Marches On Into the Ditch?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- To the hoots and sneers of a number of Internet denizens, Time Magazine recently unveiled its "Person of the Year" for 2005. Actually, it's a trinity: rocker Bono and M & Mme Gates of Medina, Washington. And my two cents say the choice was an emergency-room case of lameness, given what has been going on in the world in 2005. My second reaction to the selection was "Boy, Time has really been screwing up the PoY's in recent years!" Was I being fair? Well, as they almost used to say, "Let's roll the archives!" or videotape or whatever. A list and related links are here. I'll present the awardees by decade and score the results based on my (possibly warped) historical knowledge and judgment. The first "Man of the Year" ("Person" came later) was Charles Lindbergh, for 1927. His New York to Paris flight was huge news in that peaceful year and it had a considerable impact on the popularity of aviation and the future of the aviation industry in its various guises. The next two MoY's were businessmen -- Walter Chrysler and Owen Young -- the latter was chairman of the war reparations conference, an important issue in those days. Call it two out of three, lumping Chrysler and Young together as a "one." The 1930s MoY's were, in order, Gandhi, Pierre Laval, FDR, Hugh Johnson (of the NRA agency -- "We Do Our Part"), FDR again, Haile Selassie (king of Ethiopia, target of Mussolini's war), Wallis Simpson (King Edward VIII's flame), Generalissimo and Mme Chang Kai-Shek, Hitler, and for 1939, Stalin. I say Laval was a mistake and give half-points each to Gandhi and Wallis, so call the 30s eight of ten. World War 2 and the Cold War dominated the 1940s, and Time selected Churchill, FDR, Stalin, Gen. George C. Marshall, Eisenhower, Truman, Secretary of State Byrnes, Marshall (now Secretary of State, and author of his Plan), Truman again and, in 1949, Churchill as "Man of the Half-Century." Somewhere in my heap of stuff I have a copy of the 1949 MoH-C issue. I say Time had a hot ten of ten run here. The 1950s started with the Korean War "G.I. Joe", then Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran, Queen Elizabeth II, Konrad Adenauer, John Foster Dulles, Harlow Curtice of General Motors, Hungarian patriots (for their 1956 rebellion), Khrushchev, De Gaulle (for his return to power), and Eisenhower. My take is that Joe, QEII and Curtice were flat-out mistakes and that Mossadegh and Ike rate about half a point each, so my call is six of ten. The big question: Was Harry Luce asleep at the switch? "U.S. Scientists" started the 1960s with a judgmental whimper. MoYs for the rest of the decade were JFK, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, LBJ, Gen. Westmoreland (in Vietnam), "Young People," LBJ again, "U.S. Astronauts," and the "Middle Class." I say the scientists, Westmoreland and the middle class rate zip. The "Young People" award might... posted by Donald at December 21, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Pronunciation is Bad (Advertising)
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ever notice print advertisements where the headline is in the form of those pronunciation guides found in dictionaries? Sorry I can't find an example to display or link to, but what you get looks something like this (if your computer can match mine's symbol set, that is): Thĭs ĭz Hrd t Fŏl (Actually, the "Th" should have a line through it and the first two "o"s and the final one should have horizontal lines over them -- this is the best I can mimic my dictionary.) I suppose my failing here is that I have an irrational aversion to pronunciation symbols (though, perversely, I use 'em when I need 'em). Sort of like sentence diagramming. Big-time rear-pains when I was in grammar school. What's more, I can't imagine what the copywriter and art director were thinking when they created advertisements with symbol-strewn headlines. Did they think the headline could be easily scanned? Who were they trying to reach? And who were they trying to impress? -- their Fifth Grade teachers? Did they ever think it might be a turn-off to oddballs like moi? Reactions, anyone? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 29, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, November 11, 2005

Razib and Derb
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- GNXP's Razib interviews John Derbyshire. An excellent chat: Let's hear it for entrepreneurial blogging. Scatter-brained, impressionistic me especially appreciated Derb's comment that "Having a well-thought-out world-view can make a person narrow and arrogant." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 11, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, October 28, 2005

Mac [Magazine]
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Arriving in my mailbox yesterday was this gorgeous set of nonsense brackets: So nonsense brackets have now made it onto the cover of not just any magazine, but of MacHome -- surely one of the squarest of all publications known to mankind. Hmmm. Maybe that's a sign that nonsense brackets are on their way out. But I suppose it's just as likely to be a sign that they're now firmly established as a standard part of our visual lexicon. I love MacHome, by the way: tips and advice for the interested dumdum ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 28, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, October 21, 2005

Graphics [Fads]
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A halfway-decent rule about fads seems to be that the moment a fad crests is the exact moment when it also begins to run out of steam. Take baseball caps. Only a few years ago, they were so common that I was sure they were on their way to becoming an enduring everyday fashion item. Then -- overnight, as far as I could tell -- they vanished. Even balding guys stopped wearing them. The only people I see in baseball caps these days are people who are actually on their way to the ballpark. Although I'm a broken-down old embarassment, I still enjoy tracking -- however half-consciously -- the fortunes of various contempo fads. One that has fascinated me for a while is a graphic-design trope: the use of what I think of as "nonsense brackets." Here's a typical example. As always, forgive the rotten scanning: Why are colored brackets surrounding this page's subhead? The meaning of brackets is generally taken by writers to be something like, "The editor has a comment here, and he doesn't want anyone to mistake it for a parenthetical remark. Pay attention to what I'm saying, but DO NOT include this passage in the final printed copy." The brackets above, in other words, have no meaning in a traditional sense. Do they have any significance in any other sense? There's no question that they give the subhead more visual pop than it would otherwise have -- so a meaning-set is being expressed: Poppiness is good! Do they convey anything else? They certainly signify, "The art director of this magazine has been looking at what the art directors of other magazines are doing." At the moment, there's something about nonsense brackets that says, "I'm up-to-date." Which makes me wonder: What relationship does attitude-signifying have to "meaning"? Here's a similar but slightly different use: Why the pointy brackets, for one thing? Although I'm a semi-professional media-and-words guy myself, I don't have any idea what pointy brackets are doing on my computer's keyboard, and I have never made use of them. And how odd that the pointy brackets are picking out the words that they're picking out. It would be just as plausible/unplausible for them to pick out all three words, or a different set of words. Perhaps we react to this arbitrariness by thinking: "Wow, how kookily arresting!" To my eye, one thing that highlighting the words "over $500" accomplishes is to make those words look like an item on a menu. Bracketed together, they look like something that you might move your cursor over. They invoke a computer screen, in other words -- something dancing and eager, and something more malleable and twitchy than a mere piece of paper. When I first noticed nonsense brackets -- about a decade ago? -- I was annoyed by them. These days I'm tolerant, weary, semi-amused. Still ... Even as decorative ornaments they strike me as so much clutter. I also dislike the way... posted by Michael at October 21, 2005 | perma-link | (29) comments

Ultra-Slick Magazines (The Covers)
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Just yesterday I casually tossed a magazine on the hassock -- and it kept sliding until it dropped onto the floor. Grrr. This isn't breaking news because they've been around for a number of years: ultra-shiny, slippery magazine covers. Super-slick covers were probably introduced because they look bright and inviting on the news rack as compared to those other magazines printed on slightly duller stock. And perhaps the surface might allow finer screening for cover art. (Any thoughts about these points, Michael? Are there other, more important reasons for ultra-slicks?) Whatever marketing advantages that existed when the first shiny covers were introduced have long since been negated by the fact that most mass-circulation magazines now sport such covers. All that's left, for me anyway, is the annoyance factor. The plain truth is, it's very hard to stack slippery magazines and to keep the stack intact. Another bothersome point for me is that I can't come up with a practical way to fight this evil scourge. The best way should be via the market. But because most magazines have slippery covers, I can't easily switch to a competing magazine with traditional cover stock. Besides, I buy magazines for their content and not how they're packaged. Although slippery covers are annoying, the annoyance isn't enough to prevent me from making the purchase. And presence of a traditional cover is not enough of an incentive for me to buy a magazine with inferior content. Some things you just gotta live with, I suppose. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 21, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, October 14, 2005

Sports Car Magazines: Great Writing or Solid Info?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Once upon a time long, long ago -- around the mid-Sixties, actually -- automobile-buff magazines were just as niche-entrenched as they are today. Except, like alliances between countries, magazine brands have shifted niches as circumstances dictated. Historical Sketch The title of this posting mentions the sports car magazine niche or category. Here's a quick post-WWII history of that category based on my sometimes-faulty memory. Another short, personal view can be found here. So far as I know, the mass-circulation car-buff magazine entered the periodical scene in the form of Robert E. Petersen's Motor Trend which appeared in 1949, about a year after his first publication, Hot Rod. Whereas Hot Rod was a niche-within-a-niche magazine, Motor Trend dealt with all kinds of cars; the main focus was American passenger cars, but hot rods, sports cars, classic cars and the European car scene were not ignored. The first important sports car magazine was Road & Track, started in 1947 but not regularly published until 1949. Editorial operations moved from New York to California in 1948. Motor Trend has always been based in California. When Road & Track finally proved viable, rivals appeared. The most important and longest-term rival was Car and Driver (originally titled Sports Cars Illustrated), launched in 1955 from New York City, but moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1977. Over time, Road & Track, Car and Driver and Motor Trend have departed their roots and converged in terms of subject-matter. Each covers the American automobile industry, imported cars, sports cars, sport-utility and other sub-types. They also keep an eye on the world automobile scene. I should add that this convergence is not total; each magazine retains some of its original niche flavoring. In the places of Road & Track and Car and Driver, other sports car magazines have appeared, but these tend to deal with racing or the fortunes of a single car maker such as Porsche, and not the sports car spectrum. Identities Circa 1965 In the mid-1960s Road & Track (R&T) and Car and Driver (C/D) had distinctly different persona. Back then, this was my take: I was a R&T guy. I started buying it in 1956 and a few years later became a subscriber. (Until 1990. I'm too fond of the first five years' worth of issues to part with them, but I suppose I ought to try to sell most of the later ones -- you see, I kept every one except for one a cousin borrowed and never returned.) Around 1965 R&T was elitist and Californian. Elitist because it mostly dealt with cars from Europe, American autos being seen as mostly inferior. And California has been the prime car-nut What's Happenin' zone for decades: it was particularly trend-setting during the 60s. This gave R&T a certain cach, an exotic blend of snobbery and laid-back California-ism along with a kind of British car magazine attitude of diffidence (because British car magazine test reports showing lots of statistics served as... posted by Donald at October 14, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Editorial Page Personality Makeover: The WSJ
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- If I wasn't so lazy, I'd dig around and come up with a man-bites-dog story. But I thought this post up during my usual early afternoon down-time, so it's gonna be dog-bites-man. I've worked in a top-level government agency off and on for more than 15 years and have seen at least seven agency directors swiveling away on their fancy chairs (including one who went on to become president of Starbuck's). And nearly every one of them strongly influenced the tone and style of the agency, consciously or not. (This is the dog-bites-man angle I just mentioned. Some year I need to come up with a case of an organization changing the personality of the person in charge.) One director, for example, ran an agency cowering under a seemingly benevolent, yet highly politically-correct management style. Another director favored a kick 'em in the teeth approach -- the 'em being other agencies. And any sports fan can cite many cases of teams assuming personality traits of their coach. What this is leading up to is changes I've noticed in the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal since Paul Gigot took over as editor from (the now late) Robert Bartley. Bartley struck me as being a bright, intellectually-curious ideas-oriented guy. And I found his editorial page a joy to read. Nearly every edition delivered at least one or two especially snappy lead editorials plus an equal number of stimulating op-ed columns. Bartley liked to claim that his editorial page was one of those rare ones that actually sold papers. This was largely the case for me: I developed the habit of going out to breakfast and lingering with that third cup of coffee over Bartley's page. Gigot, on the other hand, seems to be something of a policy wonk -- I got that impression back when he was just a columnist and editorial writer. His heart's in the right place, but his op-eds are often written by (or ghosted for) Important People. My eyes, as the saying goes, glaze. The basic editorials are still pretty well-written, but I sometimes wonder how long that will continue. Plus, I'm less tempted to buy the Journal these days. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 4, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Lotsa Magazines
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I stumbled across a really nice bookstore magazine department recently -- in Helsinki, Finland. The previous sentence serves, Gentle Readers, as a preview (warning?) of what's to come now that I've been elevated from Guest Poster status to the nosebleed-inducing heights of Blowhard. It's no big secret that blogs are a lot like talk radio in that much of the content is event-driven. I didn't start reading blogs until shortly after the September 11th attacks when "milblogs" leaped to the fore, but I've read that many early blogs were "web diaries" -- accounts of day-to-day events by ordinary folks. I'm not planning to glaze your eyes with daily reports about my personal life. But my life, like yours, consists of a string of events, some of which will trigger subject ideas or even subjects themselves. Such as the fact that I was in Finland not long ago. And in Denmark, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Accordingly, expect a few Baltic-centered postings over the next couple months because I found some things there worth writing about such as that magazine department mentioned above. I'll write about other stuff too. Like Friedrich, I'm something of a history buff who's curious about Modernism and how it usurped other approaches to art and architecture. Don't expect as much profundity as Friedrich used to regularly deliver, but you can count on the subject being raised from time to time. And you'll be reading about painting, architecture, industrial design, media, advertising, "social science" bits, commercial illustration, transportation design and other arts-and-culture fields I tend to follow. What you wont get much of from me are articles about performing arts, cinema and literature -- I'll happily leave those areas to Michael. Okay. What about that magazine department? It is in a bookstore owned by Stockmann, Helsinki's major department store. Stockmann also has stores elsewhere in the Baltic region, including Russia, and I was told that there's a saying that "If you can't find it at Stockmann's, you don't need it." The main Stockmann building is an early 20th Century architectural landmark (I might discuss it another time) and the bookstore is across the street. Stockmann store Actually, the bookstore itself is large, taking up at least three substantial floors. I didn't thoroughly case the joint, focusing mostly on the 3rd floor art & architecture section. A good share of the books I noticed were in Finnish, a slight surprise because most Finns seem to know English and their language is probably understood by fewer people than live in the five New York City boroughs, making for comparatively small printing runs and high prices. (In the three Baltic states, fairly large proportions of the books I saw were in English and not in the local language. This was particularly the case in academically-oriented bookstores, as might be expected.) The magazine department had a large number of English-language magazines, many from America and the rest mostly from Britain. The Fiance was able... posted by Donald at September 27, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, September 16, 2005

News Habits of the Young
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Young people's media-consumption habits continue to shift in the direction of the web. Merrill Brown highlights some findings from a survey he helped conduct of 18-34 year olds and their news habits: "Internet portals emerge in the survey as the most frequently cited daily news source with 44 percent of the study group using portals such as Yahoo at least once a day for news. By this same measurement, local TV comes in second at 37 percent, followed by network or cable TV Web sites, and newspapers, at 19 percent each." "41 percent of young news consumers say that the Internet is the most useful way to learn, compared with 15 percent for second-ranked local TV. And 49 percent say the Internet provides news 'only when I want it' a critical factor for this group versus 15 percent for second-ranked local TV." "Baby boomers read newspapers one-third less than their parents, and the Gen Xers read newspapers another one-third less than the boomers ... From 1972 to 1998, the percentage of people ages 30 to 39 who read a paper every day dropped from 73 to 30 percent." Brown's conclusion strikes me as a marvel of understatement: "Clearly, young people don't want to rely on the morning paper on their doorstep or the dinnertime newscast for up-to-date information; in fact, they as well as others want their news on demand, when it works for them." We've entered a have-it-your-way media universe. Fun! On the other hand: scary days for traditional media businesses. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 16, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

In Newsweek
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Newsweek's Robert Samuelson takes a hard look at our barely-there immigration system. Sample quote: Being brutally candid means recognizing that the huge and largely uncontrolled inflow of unskilled Latino workers into the United States is increasingly sabotaging the assimilation process ... To make immigration succeed, we need (paradoxically) to control immigration. Samuelson points out that Mexicans now represent a gigantic -- and "historically unprecedented" -- preponderance of immigrants. In 2000, Mexicans were 30 percent of the total, while "in 1920, for example, the two largest immigrant groups --Germans and Italians -- [together] totaled only 24 percent of the immigrant population." * Also in Newsweek, Julie Scelfo reports on a dramatic increase in teen-girl violence. Sample quote: According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, the number of girls 10 to 17 arrested for aggravated assault has doubled over the last 20 years. The number of boys arrested for weapons possession rose 22 percent between 1983 and 2003, while the number of girls increased by a whopping 125 percent. Today, one in three juveniles arrested for violent crimes is female. Rather daringly, Scelfo suggests that the increase in girl violence may reflect the influence of feminism, as well as such buttkicking pop-cult icons as Uma Thurman's character in "Kill Bill." Best, Michael UPDATE: The WashPost reports that "Hispanics accounted for about half the growth in the U.S. population since 2000 ... In the 1990s, they accounted for 40 percent of the country's population increase. From 2000 to 2004, that figure grew to 49 percent."... posted by Michael at June 8, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

Saturday, May 28, 2005

New Graphics Language
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I spend so much time immersed in the media world that I sometimes forget that some visitors may not pay as much attention to it as I do. Are civilians generally aware that the world of graphic design has been revolutionized in the last 20 years? I'm going to assume that a few people might not be aware of this and might be interested in hearing a bit about it. Those who know better than I do will excuse my feeble effort at sketching out an introduction. Short version: because of electronics and computers, the structure of knowledge has been changing. Many people have run into a lot of biz-chat about "disaggregation" and "horizontal hierarchies" and "connecting with customers." It may be jargon, but it represents efforts to discuss many real challenges and changes. The same changes are happening in the cultureworld as in the bizworld. Previously welded-together elements are falling apart; vertical ways of organizing information and thinking are flattening out; and new links and channels are riddling established structures, making them permeable in ways they've never been before. These developments have found reflection in visual design: in magazines, in ads, in TV, in movie production design, and in much else. Twenty years ago, the traditional media were pretty stable, the product of many decades (or even centuries) of evolution. The basic media categories were discrete and well-understood: movies, theater, music, art ... Books were often thought of as being at the peak of the culture mountain. Book editors behaved loftily, as though they ran the admissions board at Harvard. Authors were looked to for opinions and for deep thoughts. And knowledge generally was organized according to principles adapted from this kind of book-centric hierarchy. Thanks to computers, we've moved into a very different world. In it, the various media blend into and out of each other. Since the digital media all boil down to zeroes and ones, why not? Your cell phone's also a camera and a voice recorder; you might email someone a note that includes a photo or an MP3 track. Few people would pretend any longer that books stand atop the culture heap; in many ways, books now represent the low-end of the media world, the place where losers who can't make it in the snazzier media fields wind up. The ways we organize information and knowledge have changed dramatically too. Where books and the Dewey Decimal system once ruled, our central organizing technology today is the searchable (and often interactive) database. One consequence of these changes are herds of bewildered middle-aged and old people. Show a little pity for the aged, who feel as though everything they ever learned -- as well as every skill they ever mastered -- have been rendered useless. But another consequence of these changes has been the revolution in design that I'm long-windedly getting around to discussing. Once upon a time, books and magazines were mainly meant to be read, not just scanned... posted by Michael at May 28, 2005 | perma-link | (23) comments

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Magazines About Everything
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Noticed during my latest visit to the nearby magazine stand. Retrogamer (for those who like to play old computer games) YM Your Prom Homeopathy Today Autism Spectrum Quarterly With a neighborhood magazine stand like this, who needs the Web? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 25, 2005 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Media-Consumption Attitudes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Poynter Online's Rich Gordon, who linked to this fascinating study. It's a look at the "media consumption" attitudes of 18-34 year olds. Some factlets that should scare the daylights out of traditional-media owners (and traditional-media employees, too): 97% believe online is the same or better than magazines for finding information about products and music. In addition, 83% say reading a story on the Internet is the same or better than reading one in a newspaper, and 67% say that watching a short video clip online is the same or better than watching highlights on television. Longer-format videos compare less favorably online, with 63% sill believing that television is better for watching longer video programming ... Notably, the Internet is the only medium with net growth in perceived time spent. Forty-seven percent of respondents indicate that they spend more time using the Internet now compared to one year ago. Interestingly, 35% of respondents indicate that they spend less time playing video/PC games and 28% say they spend less time watching television. Not surprisingly, the Internet is used more for informational purposes, while television is used more for entertainment and relaxation ... 38% of 35 to 54 year-old newspaper readers indicat[e] that reading the newspaper is an important part of their day, compared to only 17% of 18 to 24 year-old readers. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 10, 2005 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- On the left, a cover from The Whole Earth Catalog, the ultimate expression of '60s hippie idealism. On the right, the cover of a recent issue of Cargo, a men's shopping magazine that might well be the ultimate expression of 21st-century-style consumerism. Conceived of by Stewart Brand and kicked off in 1968, The Whole Earth Catalog wore the tagline "Access to Tools." It was issued semi-annually as a thick, oversize catalog, and embodied a granola-eco-communal/early-cyber-hippie ethos. The WEC was an exhilarating (if often annoying) publication. The late '60s and early '70s were a great period for magazines generally, what with Evergreen, The New Yorker, Harper's, and Esquire roaring away at peak capacity. The New Journalism was fresh, and cultural critics sang like they never had before; writers like Mailer, Wolfe, Kael, Sontag were doing much of their best work in mainstream venues. Even some professors -- gasp -- were doing their best to communicate straightforwardly with the masses. It may be hard to believe, but this was an era when you might buy a magazine not because it was selling information about a hot new gadget or photographs of a sizzling starlet, but because it featured a new essay by a great writer. Though The Whole Earth Catalog was one of these great '60s-'70 publishing projects, it came out of the San Francisco Bay Area and it had a very different approach and tone than the East Coast magazines did. The WEC didn't traffic in big intellectual egos trying to make sum-it-all-up, impose-a-point-of-view statements. In its pages you found a team of people. Bylines were present, but they were small, and the cast list was large. Everyone's entitled to have an opinion -- that was the message. Don't force anything on anybody, man; just make interesting "stuff" available. To my knowledge, the WEC was the first publication to use "stuff" in that now-familiar sense. Encountering the WEC for the first time could be a startling experience. A catalog ... But not of products ... Well, OK, some products, if oddball ones ... But mainly what was being discussed were ideas and resources. You weren't submitting to gale-force brilliance, as you sometimes were when you read Mailer or Kael. Instead, you were joining a community of equals. Nothing ran too long. No voice was too forceful. For the hours you spent with The Whole Earth Catalog, you were a member of a commune that functioned. The fact is that, looking through the WEC, you never felt any obligation to read anything, let alone read anything all the way through. Your main activity while in WEC-land wasn't reading; it was flipping-around. You weren't being driven through or steered along; it was up to you to put your own experience of the publication together for yourself. That was another of the WEC's implicit messages: Your life is your own to live. (To get something out of the way: of course the WEC wasn't a magazine. At the... posted by Michael at March 30, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, January 7, 2005

Popular Culture has Passed Me By
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recall a time when I was tuned-in. Can you recall similar days? It was a long while ago now for me. But for a few years, I had an intuitive feeling for why popular-cultural-things were going the way they were. The jokes and styles made instinctive sense to me: why one movie worked and another didn't; why one song stirred up excitement while another made people laugh. Then, one day in my early 30s, I felt popular culture speed by me. Whoosh -- like an 18-wheeler passing a bicyclist. I'd been in the lead, and now I was eating diesel smoke. I started to have to observe, to figure things out, and to ask for advice and insights. Contempo popular culture began to puzzle me. I did my best to get used to being a has-been -- and it can be tough to admit that your moment has passed when your moment has never come. But I chuckled about it gallantly anyway. I said to friends things like: "You wake up one day, and a pop star has died from a heroin overdose, and millions of people are in deep mourning -- and you haven't even heard of the guy!" Yuk yuk. But on the plane flight back east from California a week ago, I woke up to the fact that even that particular older-but-wiser phase is over. Now I'm simply without a clue. Jammed into my economy seat, I was flipping through a stack of tacky celeb mags that The Wife had bought for the flight -- By the way, do you find you can do any substantial reading while on a plane? I can't, and never have been able to. I used to think that I should be able to get Real Reading done during airplane hours. Yet whenever I'd try to focus in the way that Real Reading requires, I'd fall asleep. Then I'd be cross with myself for wasting all that potentially-substantial time: what was wrong with my willpower? Ah, youth: time of passions and aspirations. These days, I've abandoned the fight. Why aspire to the impossible? Now, it's magazines, mysteries, crossword puzzles and dozing, all the way from Kennedy to LAX and back. -- so I was thumbing through a stack of tacky magazines whose purchase I was glad to be able to blame on The Wife. And I realized that I recognized fewer than half the celebrities whose careers, lives, and plastic surgeries the magazines were smacking their lips over. Fewer than half! Even the figures whose names I was familiar with seemed to have lived through several lives since the last time I'd heard gossip about them. Picture me leafing through The Star. My mind was going something like this: So there's an Elisha Cuthbert as well as an Eliza Dushku? Well, that explains a thing or two, I guess. Do you suppose there are people who can tell them apart? Goodness, but that Kirstie Alley... posted by Michael at January 7, 2005 | perma-link | (32) comments

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Negativity and Artsyak
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- How do you guys feel about negativity and reviewing? Not about being panned yourself -- that's always got to be painful -- but about the proper use of negativity when discussing the arts? My own thoughts about the use of negativity in professional outlets -- magazines, TV, etc -- are fairly clear-cut, and grow out of a feeling that a reviewer's main responsibility is to his readers. A reviewer ought to be (among other things) honest and trustworthy. Readers never have to agree, god knows, but they deserve to have a clear sense of who they're comparing notes with, and to know that this person is being straight with them. Complicating the reviewer-reader relationship as a practical matter is the fact that reviewers aren't employed by readers, except very indirectly. Reviewers' immediate bosses are editors and producers, who have their own preferences about what reviewers should be doing. Editors, producers, and advertisers like enthusiasm and pep; after all, they're selling a sense that something noteworthy is happening every day. (How else can they grab your attention?) Yet four out of five novels (or movies, or art shows, or ...) aren't worth paying much attention to; and, despite the current convention of the weekly "theme piece," substantial artsthemes don't exactly come along on a weekly basis. But if a reviewer alienates too many advertisers with his lack of enthusiasm, chances are he won't be around for long, no matter how popular he is with readers. So, a question every professional reviewer winds up struggling with is, How to be truthful about what he's encountering while not doing too much damage to his employment status? It never hurts to remember that, to a large extent, culture reviewing is a service business. The reviewer is covering a field's output, and is serving as a consumer guide. But he may also be trying to make some useful observations, to do a little writin', and to provoke a few thoughts. (I'm leaving aside the whole "a reviewer has his own career goals" side of the discussion ...) To an extent that isn't often mentioned, a reviewer is also trying to keep his own spirits up. This is one of those open secrets: one reason reviewers sometimes make their fields sound like more-happenin' places than they really are is because the reviewer has to keep his own interest level jigged up. After all, after seeing something and writing a review about it, the regular reviewer has to go back out and do it all over again. Phew. As a music reviewer once said to me: "Free CDs, yippie! What could be better? The trouble is, you gotta listen to them." As for negativity ... If what's under review is a big, impersonal entertainment, and a reviewer thinks it's awful -- well, why not open fire, and with both barrels? Corporate-entertainment ventures seem to me like nothing if not fair game for ridicule, and having the freedom and license to make... posted by Michael at December 1, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Staring Into the Light
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What's with all the backlighting? Not since the 1970s -- when movie directors and cinematographers decided that lens flare, glowiness, dust, and haze could be exploited rather than fought -- have I found myself gazing woozily into light sources quite so frequently. A few samples from the many I've noticed recently: How to account for this vogue for backlighting? (My genius scans, by the way, don't convey just how backlight-y these images really are.) I'm going to assume for a sec that I'm not making too much out of a fashion blip. Debatable, I know, but what the heck. In any case, my theory is that it has to do with computers and television, and the switchover from traditional values to electronic-media-age values. The people making photos, ads, and layouts are in a phase where they're determined to turn all media experiences into something akin to surfing cable or the web. And along with everything else we're doing when we're looking at a computer or a TV is the simple fact that we're looking at something that's lit from behind. So that's my explanation for this mini-epidemic of backlighting: designers are doing their best to recreate the subjective experience of looking at something lit from behind even when they're working on paper, which reflects rather than transmits light. It's a kind of digital-electronic fundamentalism, isn't it -- a constant bringing-us-back to the most basic constant of life in the digital age: staring at a backlit screen. Does anyone have any alternative hunches about how to explain this epidemic of backlighting? By the way, is anyone else as startled as I am by how much time many of us spend these days peering into glowing screens? Digital cameras, Palm Pilots, cellphones ... We're spending an amazing amount of our lives staring at backlit screens -- we're like a nation of people transfixed by gods-in-the-form-of-lightbulbs. It's as though we're expecting to find something in our backlit screens that's really significant, something more than a mere phone number or spreadsheet. What do you suppose we're hoping to find in there? Perhaps with just one more click, we'll find Meaning Itself. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 21, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Rorschach o' th' Day
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, I have been puzzling over certain aspects of the latest cover of The New Yorker and thought to write you for your sense of the matter. Here's the cover: It's hard to tell when the image is small, but if you look carefully, you'll see what appears to be the shadow of a man with his arms outstretched superimposed on the image of an American flag. Given that we are getting close to the presidential election, I immediately recognized the relevance of the flag (having taken Semiotics 101) but have been struggling over the deeper meaning, if any, of the figure (not having taken Semiotics 201). After a time--aha!--the surface significance came clear. I'll try to show below what I think the illustrator had in mind. The illustrator has cleverly taken an image of a flag and superimposed on it the outline of a figure from the Abu Ghraib prison photos! Yes, that's it all right, I'm sure of it. But darn it, I am still having a hard time figuring out the meaning. The New Yorker has a long and storied history of witty and sophisticated covers and this one struck me--regardless of one's views on Iraq--as sophomoric and trite. Of course, I am not A New Yorker so maybe this is all one or more steps ahead of me. My non-ironic conclusion is that the cover does not aspire to humor at all, and is as post-ironic as the conclusion to this posting. That is, I suspect it does not aspire to sophistication and wit but rather down-home honesty, New York-style. At least that's the only way I can understand it. If it is trying to be witty, it fails. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at October 16, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Can anyone enlighten me about the thinking behind the recent Mazda "Zoom-zoom" campaign? Sleek and flawless young people participating happily in extreme sports; cell phones chirping impishly; soaring, if friendly, world music; and a chevron of shiney Mazdas racing heedlessly across the usual salt flats. It's all a sparkly rapture of transparency, streamlining, and youth. And then comes a question that seems meant to tie all these elements together: "What's your Zoom-zoom?" Huh? I've seen ads from this series three or four times, and each time I've found them so nonsensical that I thought I'd developed aphasia. Nothing going on around me seemed to make any sense any longer. What are we meant to feel that cell phones, extreme sports, and Mazdas have in common? And what's with "Zoom-zoom"? Hiphop slang I'm unfamiliar with? Some ad-writer's hopeful invention? Is the whole package supposed to convey "lovably goofy, young, and with-it"? Is it meant to suggest silvery Mac-G5-style bliss? (Hmm: I'm reminding myself of my own posting about silver cars. A pity for my thesis that the Mazdas in these ads come in Life Saver colors -- blue, red, etc ...) Are these the elements that are being conjoined, and the values that are being sold? Me, I found the ads' thinking and imagery embarrassing -- so infantile that they made me cringe. I mean, "Zoom-zoom": that's baby-talk, right? I'm tempted to rant a bit about pop culture, These Kids These Days, electronics, and adolescence, but will spare you. Well, OK, but only because you insist: the gist of this rant I'm sparing you would be that the all-pervasiveness (and the effectiveness) of whooshy electronic-pop-media values seems to be making it impossible for kids to imagine what it might be like to grow up -- ie., to adapt to the actual facts of life and thereby become adults. Of course, there's always the possibility that my reaction is nothing but an old-fart sign of how removed from the general zeitgeist I've become these days. A setting-it-in-context, film-history note: did you know that this kind of associative editing -- where you slam previously-unrelated images up next to each other so as to establish a connection between them and thereby spark off a new effect -- was originally devised to help sell the Soviet revolution? That's right: at its origin, it's a Soviet-revolutionary-film stylistic move. One shot was the thesis; the next was the antithesis; and the impact that was made by putting the shots next to each other was the synthesis ... Hegelian filmmaking, Marxian filmmaking -- that was the idea. Sergei Eisenstein worked this angle so resourcefully that he earned a big spot for himself in the film-history reference books. How funny/ironic/paradoxical/pleasing/hilarious/sad that this maneuver has been taken over by the corporate-consumer world, where it has become the standard way ads proceed. Hey, I'm struck by something similar when I visit the new Times Square. When I'm there, I find it impossible not to be... posted by Michael at September 23, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Saturday, September 11, 2004

The World Goes Silver
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What's with all the silver cars? Every second or third car that drives by these days seems to be silver, and silver cars have a near-monopoly in ads and magazines. Not a surprise that silver cars are out there on the usual car-ad salt flats. That's where all cars show up eventually. But that silver-on-salt look does deliver a special, hushed kick, doesn't it? That's one alone car, baby, and that's one dignified car too. Interesting, the way that silver cars seem to feel a kinship with the chic new architecture, isn't it? I've noticed that some silver cars have a taste for moving in ultra-close to the camera lens. Perhaps they like being appreciated for their purely abstract qualities: you certainly don't know what these cars look like, except that they're silvery. The fad is so widespread that even some low-class cars are daring to go silver. Will the other cars let the low-class cars get away with this kind of fashion audacity? Silver may indeed be neutral and dignified. But even so, it's not as though silver cars don't know how to have fun. Silver car go whee!!! Deep down, though, to be silver is to be comfortable and calm with yourself -- even when posing for the cover of a magazine. But being silver is also about being willing to play a supporting role too. Why? Because that's real confidence. Hard to believe, I know, but silver cars were once a rarity. Back when, silver was understood to mean "BMW" or "Mercedes" -- "expensive German engineering," basically: something for people with money, taste, and Euro-pretentions. (Me, I always liked silver on a car: I had the Euro-pretentions if not the money.) But real American cars had colors, dammit. Your Mustang was stop-sign red; your Sting Ray was kandy-flake blue. These days nearly everyone seems to want their car to be silver. How to explain this dramatic change in taste? Has there been a general raising of tone and taste? What with The Gap and Banana Republic being everywhere, your standard American does dress a little better -- and in a more neutral kind of way -- than he/she once did. So can the new silver cars best be understood as symptoms of America's yuppification? My own hunch is a little more ... well, OK, maybe Euro-pretentious. I think that silver these days suggests not just "high-end German engineering," as it always has. I think that silver has become the color of the computer age. Pixels ... Computer models ... Visionary concepts ... Is-it-plastic-or-is-it-metal flowiness ... Swoopy shapes ... Photoshop ... That glowy, depth-and-reflectiveness finish ... Those Dolby sound effects and fireballs ... Ooops, sorry: I got computer-era cars all mixed up with computer-era movies there for a second. But it's all very Darth Vader/DVD/Time-Warner building (here)/G-5 Mac/"T-2," isn't it? It's all about cyber-whooshiness -- the car (or the building or the movie) that wants to be taken more as an "experience"... posted by Michael at September 11, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Six Packs
Dear Vanessa -- Does this ad take you as aback as it does me? If I read this ad right, it's directed at women, who are presumed to be thinking about gifts they might give to their fellas, who in turn are being conceived of as wanting to possess -- more than just about anything else in the world, apparently -- a six-pack set of abs. Men's Fitness is selling itself as the key to those abs. Where "the guy" in this equation is concerned, the people behind this ad are assuming (or at least trying to get us to assume) that he really, really wants a fab-looking tummy. This is a guy who's more concerned about the appearance of his naked tummy than he is about getting a new football, or a car, or a remote-control videogame gizmo. Having a six-pack really, really means something to him. Which would seem to mean that he's someone who spends a lot of time dwelling on media images of guy desirability, and looking in the mirror, evaluating his own guy desirability, if not maybe getting turned on a bit by it himself. How about where "the girl" in the equation is concerned? As far as I can tell, she's presumed to be 1) accepting of this ... well, shall we call it "narcisissm" on her guy's part, and 2) willing to cater to it, and perhaps even 3) likely to find it pretty sexy herself. Am I 'way off here? Assuming I'm not, I'm a little taken aback. Younger dudes may not realize how startling we geezers find these kinds of advertising pitches. Back in the day, gramps here would have found such an ad a 100% guarantee that the people involved -- both as creators and audience -- were gay. The ad's main image is a sexily-photographed male ab, with classical-statuary overtones -- wink wink and nudge nudge. It wasn't often that a Real Guy looking at a photograph was asked to imagine himself as the glamorous person in the photograph. Imagining yourself as the glamorous person -- especially the naked and glamorous person -- in an ad or photo layout was thought to be a female thing; think of women flipping through fashion mags, fantasizing about having fun and being found desirable. They're imagining themselves as the gals in the pix. Or, of course, it was thought to be a gay-male thing. Projecting yourself into a picture for the sake of enjoying the fantasy of yourself as physically desirable smacked of spending too damn much time looking at yourself in the mirror, something gay or Euro men might be allowed to do but that was no part of a real-American-guy's no-nonsense behavior. Red-blooded American Guys might imagine themselves to be the hubby in an ad, sitting on the lawn tractor; they might idolize heroic physical guys, and might make some efforts to keep from getting too flabby or disgusting themselves. But dwelling in any way on the hunky, beautiful, Greek-statue... posted by Michael at August 25, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Magazine Titles
Dear Vanessa -- Until today, I'd thought that the most vulgar/outrageous/naughty (depends on the mood, doesn't it?) nonporn magazine titles I'd ever run across were those of two hipster style/fashion rags: Wad, and Self-Service. "Self-Service" -- the perfect magazine title for a solipsistic, it's-all-about-pleasing-yourself age, eh? But there's a new contender. Browsing around the magazine racks this afternoon, I spotted a glossy called ... FaceFull. And, no, it's not oral-sex porn; it's not even a hipster style/fashion magazine. Instead, it's an edgy, snazzily-produced magazine devoted to the, er, sport of paintball. Splat! Here's FaceFull's website. Trekkies may enjoy the magazine's visit with William Shatner, paintball enthusiast. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 24, 2004 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, June 21, 2004

Trib's 50 best mags
Dear Michael: Last week, the Chicago Tribune, my adopted hometown's major daily, published its 50 Best Magazines list, which I think they do every year (but possibly only last year and this year, so far). I think it's a fun survey of the magazines out there and I do enjoy viewing the results of what must have been a deeply psycho-neurotic editorial process to come up with such a list: Doesn't it make us look quirky to have noticed Wooden Boat magazine? We read American Demographics because we're geeky journalists, we can't help ourselves! This one just won a National Magazine award, so that's a safe choice. We're cool because we can admit we read Us Weekly. We like Time better than Newsweek, "Is it better...? Is Coke better than Pepsi?" Well, duuuuh! Here's the list, cut and pasted because I couldn't figure out how to link to it: 1. Wired. After a wobbly post-boom period, Wired has transformed itself from an insider computer monthly into a slick, smart and playful cultural journal. The reporting is excellent ("The Future of Food," "The New Diamond Age," for instance) and the graphics deliver some of the best short-form journalism in the business. The back-page feature Found" and the upfront section "Start" are consistently strong, and even the "Letters" page crackles with energy. The writing staff is lively yet authoritative, and columnists Lawrence Lessig and Bruce Sterling are smart without being snooty. Even the ads are cool. Finally: We dare you to show us a better magazine Web site ( 2. Real Simple. This gem seduces and delivers the goods with teasers such as "A cleaner house in less time: 23 breakthrough tools and tips," "Swimsuits to flatter every figure" and "With a simple box of yellow cake mix, you can make any of these seven sweet desserts." The magazine is a breeze to read, filled with charts, photos, where-to-buy, how-to-order, how-to-make data right there, front and center. 3. The Economist. The no-nonsense font and rigid layout style make it look like a class handout on the first day of an MBA program, but don't be dismayed. This magazine features the most succinct, globe-encompassing wrap-ups of politics and economics on the market. Even often overlooked cultural features such as book reviews glisten with insight. 4. Cook's Illustrated. Our biggest complaint with this always readable mag? That they haven't come out with a gardening version that gives the topic the same thorough, skeptical treatment. We'll say it again: Not taking ads and writing about the actual cooking process so the average home cook can understand gives this magazine an authority that few others in any field enjoy. 5. Esquire. We suspect we're not as good-looking as we think we are. We know we're not clever enough. Esquire is the antidote to our human frailty. Snazzy, gorgeous, well-dressed, smart and that's just the magazine itself. The writing within is consistently great and sometimes beautiful, offering heaping portions of journalism, fiction, essays and helpful advice columns.... posted by Vanessa at June 21, 2004 | perma-link | (23) comments

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Media Bliss vs. White Borders
I treated myself to a computer break over the long weekend because I've found that ambitious, day-after-day computer use can cause brainstrain. My mind was feeling like a heap of burnt-out cinders. Why should this be? When I first noticed the phenomenon of computer burn-out, I thought it must be a function of staring at awful CRT computer screens. But even though they've been replaced by higher-quality LCD screens, my brain cells still get fried. Does this have to do with the weightlessness of cyberlife? With its disconnectedness from the physical world? With the way computer space is so vast, and seems to consist of right angles, tree-structures, and databases? I wonder sometimes about the consequences of digital efficiency. Does it really enable us to get that much more out of ourselves? Perhaps what it really does is to encourage us to burn up what we have to offer more quickly than we otherwise would. Hence the feeling of having a headful of cinders. Or perhaps this is all just a rant about the way electronics affect l'il ol' me? Thanks to my break I'm feeling refreshed and ready for further blogging. A little stumped with this posting, frankly. I had a good time collecting the ads I present here -- I'm pleased to have noticed the minitrends I've noticed. But I'm not sure what to make of them. I toyed for a few minutes with the idea of using these trendlets to illustrate Camille Paglia's contention that the history of Western art is best understood as a quarrel between the Dionysian impulse and the Apollonian impulse -- it's the Romantic thing vs. the Classic thing, over and over again. Paglia made a good, basic, and necessary point, and I for one am happy thinking that people who quarrel with it just don't get Western art. If the two ad-trends I point out here don't illustrate her argument, I don't know what use they are. At the very least, in the spirit of good blogging citizenship, I was hoping to turn up info about when the second volume of Paglia's book "Sexual Personae" will be published. Alas, no such luck. She's been working on the book forever, and (as far as I can tell) several times has even announced that she's on the verge of finishing it. But I see nothing online confirming that she's in fact completed the book. I did think this Wikipedia entry on Paglia here was awfully good, though. So apologies for a substance-free posting, and here's hoping you'll enjoy the eye candy. On to the pix. What I've noticed is the amusing coexistence of two different styles. First up is the cyber-Dionysian. Looking at these images and layouts, the voices in my brain mutter something like this: "Photoshop is the new crack! Whee: I'm happy, or I am so long as the goodies keep on showering down on me. Psychedelia! Black-light posters! Tiny ideas wildly overproduced! Overstuffed colors, and objects and lettering so full of... posted by Michael at June 1, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Womens Magazines Are Bad for Your Mental Health
Michael: I couldnt help but pick up this copy of Glamour magazine at my local 7-11 the other day. As I was waiting to pay for my purchases, I kept seeing more reasons to nominate the editor for the 2004 Nobel General Rottenness To Humanity Prize. Here are five from the cover alone: 1.Dress and Feel Sexy At Any Size. If sexiness is possible at any size, why do we mention size at all? Heh, heh. 2. THE SCARY PAP TEST RESULT EVERYONES GETTING. If everyone is getting scary results on their pap tests, they cant be accuratewhich means the reassuring result you got on your last pap test probably wasnt accurate, either. 3. Attention curvy girls, skinny girls, big chests, flat chests: instant confidence clothes inside. Since you curvy, skinny, busty and flat-chested girls werent hip to our clothing-recommendations before reading this magazine, any confidence you had in your sexual attractiveness was obviously misplaced. 4.The 31 SEX & LOVE thrills no woman should miss. Since you cant instantly rattle off 31 sex and love thrills youve ever had, your sex life is clearly inadequate. But we knew that. 5. FREE! FREE! WERE GIVING AWAY THE WORLDS MOST FLATTERING JEANS. And the way you look, honey, you better pray that you get a pair. I still cant understand why women go looking for anything except masochistic abuse in womens magazines. When you see one of their editors coming to pat you on your back, you better check to see how big a knife she's holding. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 24, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Monday, March 8, 2004

Tables of Contents
Dear Friedrich -- When you think of a magazine's Table of Contents, you probably think of a linear, top-to-bottom, instantly-graspable guide to what's coming up in the issue -- something like this page from a recent issue of The New Yorker. (If you click on the images in this posting, you'll be able to see how the magazines handle story orders and page numbers.) Or maybe you stretch your imagination and memory and come up with something like this. Here, the editors of The American Conservative have broken the more important stories out from the pack. So on the left-hand side of the ToC page, you've got a north-to-south list of the issue's big pieces; on the right-hand side, a north-to-south list of the magazine's small pieces. It takes about a microsecond to figure this out; then the whole page opens up and is there to serve. (You might notice one odd hitch here: why is Taki's column, p. 39, listed at the top of the short stuff? Oh, right: he's the magazine's co-editor.) Black and white ... A general north-to-south thing ... Maybe a few touches of color ... I mean, what the hell else can you do with a Table of Contents, right? Ah, you unhip, cranky curmudgeon you. Like me, you're an Old Media dinosaur. Let's treat ourselves to a look at what many up-to-date popular-magazine editors and designers are doing with their ToCs. Here's something typical, from Cooking Light magazine. In the actual issue, these two pages aren't run next to each other -- you have to turn an in-between ad page to get from the first ToC page to the second. What's going on here? It takes me a couple of seconds to begin to comprehend what I'm encountering -- and then I'm not really sure. Looking at the first page, my reactions go roughly like this. Whoa! Color! Visual punctuation! Bip-bop, throb, flash ... Oh, there's information too. Now, what do we have? It's ... well, it seems to be a grab-bag of features. But why aren't the stories presented in any normal order? Is there some coded-signifiers system in place here that I'm failing to grok? And what is that box on the left, the one with its own little list of stories? Feeling buzzed and confused, I flip to page two. Page one has been useless to me, but perhaps the key to the puzzle is to be found in page two. I look around a little and find no enlightenment. At the top of the page? "Departments." OK -- but I'm left wondering what's meant by "Departments" in the case of this magazine I'm not familiar with. I notice that there are some general regions within the page, and some north-to-south listings within each region. OK, I got it! But on the left, there's a bunch of stories on the theme of "Healthy Living." Bizarre: wouldn't you expect most stories in Cooking Light to qualify? At the top of the page,... posted by Michael at March 8, 2004 | perma-link | (27) comments

Friday, March 5, 2004

Method Look. Now: Method Cropping?
Dear Friedrich -- It's fun to watch culture fads emerge, gather force, peak and vanish. I haven't noticed too many baseball-caps-worn-backwards recently, for instance, while one style that seems to be everywhere today -- have you noticed it? -- is the silvery-whoosh car ad. A big spread with lots of air; something streamlined, abstract and silver (that would be the car); and a few discreet Quark boxes in subdued colors supplying the necessary information -- the whole of it screaming (but classily) "Expensive German engineering," even if what's in fact being peddled is a Chevy or a Honda. I seem to notice two or three of these ads in nearly every magazine I leaf through. Perhaps that's a sign that the style has already peaked. Perhaps it's a sign that it's becoming a classic. One trope that's been around for decades -- it's a classic with a capital C -- is what I think of as The Method Look. The model gazes out from beneath impassioned eyebrows, making eye contact so direct that ... Well, I guess we're meant to feel that the model's looking deep into our soul and whispering, "I know what you're thinking, and it's something dirty and now, and it's about me and you, baby." A private exchange, meant to turn us on and make us go Yikes at the same time: young, bruised, resentful, hurt, challenging, and of course hot hot hot. For a moment the social niceties have been set aside and the raw Thing Itself -- vulnerable, intense, defiant -- is being channeled. I'm no student of ad styles, but I'm guessing that The Look dates back to early Method days, to Brando particularly. He seemed to look at everyone that way, all the time. Was he the originator? I wonder. Did John Garfield use The Look before Brando did? Going back even further, Navarro and Valentino certainly smouldered -- but was their smouldering Method-esque? Beats me. But it's certain that since Brando, stars like James Dean and Paul Newman, as well as hundreds of wannabes, have used The Look pretty consistently. Let's just say that a lot of actors and models have spent a heckuva lot of time standing in front of mirrors while adjusting t-shirts, leather jackets, and eyebrows. The Method Look has been a big presence in our cultural life for at least 50 years, yet apparently it still works. Pretty amazing, no? I wonder what its magic consists in. Any thoughts? In any case, I'm only just now getting around to noticing a new way the media biz has developed of presenting The Method Look. They're managing to keep it fresh, I guess. Here are a few examples I plucked from current ads. As ever, apologies for crummy scanning skills. The Method Look, Gal Division The Method Look, Guy Division Familiar stuff, no? The sultriness, the eyebrows ... But what I've only recently begun to notice about the way The Method Look is presented these days is how uniform... posted by Michael at March 5, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Women's Magazine Editors
Dear Friedrich -- The latest NYC media-world tempest in a teapot is gathering now and should break in the next week or so. Myrna Blyth, who was editor in chief at Ladies' Home Journal for 10 years, has written a book, Spin Sisters, in which she ... Well, why not just quote the books' p-r material instead? Blowing the whistle on a job she herself did for over ten years at Ladies Home Journal as editor-in-chief, Blyth reveals the almost institutionalized selling of a liberal/do-gooders message to women through chararacterizing women themselves as victims. Playing on women's compassion and ability to be hooked into "uplifting" stories with a moral or happy ending, American media has convinced the most well-educated, rich and healthy audience in history that they are miserable. Here's a quote from the book itself: Many [of these high-up media women] are talented, and ambitious, and smart; and, I must admit, some are friends of mine. But ... I also know they are elitist, liberal, parochial, and pampered, and all of them believe that if you're a woman, you should think like them. Blyth evidently hopes to be the Bernard Goldberg of the women's-magazine universe, calling attention to biases, sloppiness, egos and betrayals. Is it true that the women who run women's magazines are Hillary-esque, unhappy, and bossy? Are they really narcissistic lefty wrecks who insist on being taken as role models? My meek, worm's eye view is: Hell, yeah! That destructive loon played by Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction"? Let's just say that while the stereotype of the terrifying, crazy career media bitch no doubt does an injustice to some women, there are good reasons why it's attained stereotype-hood. And though the Close character worked in book publishing, many of the gals I've met from the women's-mag world have been kindred spirits. But, really, I'm pleased that the subject's being talked about. I'm pleased, in fact, just about any time people examine the media industry and its products more closely and more openly than they usually do. I look forward to the catfights. May the fur fly. A brief pause for some perspective: it seems to me that the people who criticize these media products need to wrestle the fact that these products work. They sell. I mean, the media biz is a going concern; if it weren't onto something -- even if that something is merely how to exploit the fantasy lives and anxieties of American women -- it wouldn't be long for this world. Millions of women buy these magazines, and advertisers pay good money to buy space in them. Why? Is the formula of pushing anxieties (weight, men, careers, biological clocks, medical scares) while selling solutions (plastic surgery, diets, clothes, doctor visits) simply irresistable? And if these magazines are repulsive products, why don't women en masse stop buying them? I'd be the last person to defend the puffed-up, vain madwomen who run women's magazines. But it doesn't hurt to remember that they're working under the... posted by Michael at February 25, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Gay Ad Aesthetic
Dear Friedrich -- In a long-ago posting I can't seem to retrieve, I made passing reference to the way gay aesthetics have conquered a lot of pop culture. When a visitor, who seemed startled, challenged me to prove my assertion, I was a bit nonplused. I mean, where not to point? Who not to cite as a source? The way that gay styles, tastes, and fashions have conquered mid-America is one of the most striking and -- in my media-centric neck of the woods, anyway -- one of the most openly-discussed developments in pop culture in the last couple of decades. But I'm reminded of how un-clued-in some people can be whenever I visit flyover country, which I did recently. It's really amazing, the way so many mid-Americans ... well, just don't have a clue. Not only do they not have gaydar, they don't even know such a thing exists. Perhaps this article by Robin Finn for the NYTimes, here -- a brief visit with Sam Shahid, the advertising art director behind the notorious Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues -- will open a few eyes out there in Squaresville. Yes, there were indeed some bare boobies on display in those sexy catalogues; yes, there were indeed photos of boys and girls exchanging sultry looks with each other -- but the basic aesthetic behind the whole thing was gay. Gay, do you hear me? Everyone knows it!!! Wise up!!! Get a clue!!! Gay gay gay gay gay!!!! Not that my beloved fellow mid-Americans occasionally make me impatient or anything. Best, Michael UPDATE: A propos of not a lot, but very interesting anyway: here's Alan Sullivan on the A&F catalog and much more. And here's an amusing onscene report from a Swarthmore College online publication describing what it was like when the A&F gang visited campus for a photo shoot.... posted by Michael at February 18, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Monday, February 2, 2004

Anthony Lane
Dear Friedrich -- Did he just have an off week, or has The New Yorker's Anthony Lane become a terrible writer? I was as amazed as anyone when Lane first arrived at The New Yorker. His writing may have been nothing but pinwheels, fireworks and fairy dust, but his columns had a performer's charge of their own. What a brilliant, breezily-confident, full-of-mischief prodigy. You didn't read him to find out about movies -- Lane has always been useless as a film critic. But he had something like Kenneth Tynan's semi-camp verbal facility mixed in with something like Andrew Dice Clay's lewd pleasure in self-display. You read Lane to see what wild joke he was going to crack that week. But it's been a few years since I followed The New Yorker regularly. This week, I picked up a copy of the magazine and turned to Lane's review of the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' memoir "Hollywood Animal," hoping for something richly entertaining. How wrong I was. What an unfunny and unwitty piece of work. It was as though, while his typing fingers were busy turning Anthony Lane cartwheels, his brain was engaged elsewhere. Lane describes the loud, crude, long book he's reviewing as "shy and blushing." (How archly amusing ... I suppose.) Eszterhas writes at length about his childhood in Cleveland, "and so much of the autobiography is devoted to the rough joys of the city that the title 'Hollywood Animal' comes to sound unjust, although I guess the marketing department at Knopf might have balked at a book called 'Cleveland Human Being'." A lot of engine-revving for a joke that never takes off, no? "It may be that some brave young editor at Knopf took the liberty of suggesting a gentle rewrite; if so, whoever you are, it's safe to come out from under the desk now. The storm has passed, and the book is in the shop." I don't hear anything but the clatter of word-processing keys in that passage. I read this review feeling like I ought to be making the kind of indulgent chuckling sounds you make when an ancient aunt who's on the decline but hasn't realized it yet ventures a witticism. Lane writes about how Eszterhas, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer spent time in Toronto researching exotic dancing while preparing "Flashdance," and follows those sentences with this payoff: "We don't learn whether the costs of this scholarly trip were written off against taxes." Anthony Lane: dotty old thing. Humor's a very personal matter, which is why I'm curious about how you respond to the above. Does any of it strike you as dazzling? Does it even strike you as amusing? Me, I find it about as funny as late-period Bob Hope; all I sense is spent comic reflexes and mannerisms. But Lane is still in his 40s, I believe. Can someone that young already be written-out? But I wouldn't have bothered taking much note if I hadn't finished the review feeling a little miffed by Lane's... posted by Michael at February 2, 2004 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, October 23, 2003

"Glow" Update Redux
Dear Friedrich -- The Wife tells me (supportively and sweetly, but firmly) that I blew it bigtime with my previous posting -- that I didn't make myself clear. Oh, well: sometimes happens. In fact, I notice that it's more likely to happen with the postings I've given the most thought to. I wonder why. Anyway: a quick attempt to clarify, condense, and make punchier what I was fumblingly trying to say earlier. The nature of the media world has been changing ever since computers started being widely incorporated into the media-making process. The media world reflects our consciousness. Our consciousness finds expression in the media world. Two-way street. If the media world has been undergoing in-its-nature-and-being change, that means that the nature of the general consciousness (ie., the mental world we all kinda-sort share) has been changing too. When we were growing up, what seemed most striking about the art and media worlds were the uses to which the creators were putting their media. Hence critics and reviewers were important, and often were able to say interesting and insightful things about Life As It Was Being Lived. But since circa 1980, what has seemed most striking to me about the art and media worlds has been something different. It's been the glacial/tectonic/whatever changes that have been going on as we've all been adjusting to a new set of basic production conditions. Out with the old grids and the old hierarchies; out with the Dewey Decimal system. In with ever-updated, ever-revised, ever-shifting interlinked databases. In this new world, which hasn't attained anything like a steady state (if it ever will), new elements and approaches are forever being introduced and tried out. Some of them seem to take; some of them seem to resonate. Many don't. In other words, we're all adapting. Following this process of trial-and-error adaptation has struck me (a pretty arty guy) as, in general, far more interesting than following whether the current hot novel, or dance piece, or the current big release is worth attending to. As a consequence, the cultural commentary that has struck me as most enlightening over the last couple of decades hasn't often come from critics and reviewers. (I feel for them; they often got into their fields because they grew up at a time when it seemed exciting and glamorous to be a critic and a reviewer. And these days they're often in the position of being service providers.) It has often come instead from people thinking about econ, tech, cities, and business. The pix I included? They were just me having fun trying to track what people in the ad game are doing in their attempts to adapt to new conditions. A new vocabulary, a new set of conventions, a new pallette of attacks, and none of it yet settled out. Not that I expect anyone to pay attention to these musings, of course ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Ad Update -- "The Glow"
Dear Friedrich So far as the arts and the media go, the era during which we grew up -- the '50s, '60s and '70s -- was mainly interesting for what the creators were doing. During the '80s, '90s, and the aughts, watching what the creators have been up to has been less interesting than watching the impact digital technology is having on the arts and the media. (I'm going to say this once and hope everyone will agree to let it hover over everything in this posting: IMHO, and many exceptions allowed for.) I often find that when I venture an observation like this, some people will treat me as though I'm either being perverse or have some vested interest in making the argument. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. I'm unhappy about this development. I'd much prefer to be spending my adult years enjoying a rich era of fascinating new artworks -- wonderful literature, luscious painting, etc., all of it illuminating our lives and fates in fresh ways ... I just haven't found this to be true. Like it or not (and I don't), it's been my strong impression that the last few decades have been, by and large, a time of adjustment to a changing tool-set. So why isn't there more discussion of these developments? Not in whizbang tech-and-gizmo terms, but in terms of values, experience and esthetics? God knows it's fun to trade tips and compare notes about individual artists, and about individual works of art and entertainment. But coverage of the arts often seems to me stuck in 1970, with the (often really good) critics and reviewers discussing their fields as though little in the social/economic/technical matrix they're rooted in has changed since then -- here's a Charles Paul Freund piece in Reason Online that makes some similar points. Why isn't more notice being taken of the changes in the context? I hope my critic and reviewer friends will forgive me for saying this. Back (say) in the '70s, individual movies and books gave reviewers plenty of opportunities to take note of larger social/consciousness/etc changes. These days, even the best art and entertainment often doesn't. So critics and reviewers, many of whom got in the reviewing game because of how exciting they found the arts in the '60s and '70s, are now stuck tending their gardens; they cover their assigned field, they recommend this and advise against that; they try to wing a joke, or an evocation, or an idea, or even a little writin' past their bosses ... These days, the cultural coverage that resonates for me often doesn't come in the form of reviews or criticism. Instead, it comes from business books, sociological studies, writers on the economy, discussions about demographics. It comes from pros like Freund, Denis Dutton (here), Joel Kotkin (here and here), Virginia Postrel (here), Tyler Cowen (here), Malcolm Gladwell (here), Camille Paglia (here), Steve Sailer (here), Frederick Turner (here), Nikos Salingaros (here)and Christopher Alexander (here); and it comes... posted by Michael at October 22, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, October 10, 2003

Why The Times?
Friedrich - Question for the day: Why the Times? What I mean is, why do so many bloggers love hovering around the New York Times? They monitor it; they criticize it; they attack it, etc etc. I do a bit of this myself. What is it about the NYTimes that encourages so much of this kind of behavior, especially on the part of bloggers? It seems to me that any rational person who's bugged by the Times would simply stop looking at the paper and turn elsewhere. After all, why patronize an establishment that offends? It's not as if there aren't alternatives. Naughty, subversive (if diverging from my topic) thought here: don't these eternally-outraged bloggers realize that the Times is happy about their outrage? After all, that means they've still got their attention. The Times' editors don't care if you hate them -- so long as you buy and read them. After all, they're in the business of delivering eyeballs to advertisers. As someone in the mediabiz, I'm sometimes amazed by the naivete of many otherwise impressively smart bloggers. Hey folks, the news game is a business! So long as they have your eyeballs (and especially so long as you're steering other eyeballs their way), they've got you! They win! Criticize them, and they win! Express your outrage at them, and they win! Simple fact: So long as you're paying any kind of attention to them at all, they win. There's no way around this. If you disapprove of the Times and want to do it damage, then the only thing to do (assuming you really want to do it damage) is to stop looking at it, and encourage others to stop looking at it too. Sorry, phew, OK. Anyway, why should the Times so obsess so many people? They've really got a knack. It's not as if the Times is the country's official national newspaper. It's just a media operation like any other. And, besides, the country's other national papers, the WSJournal and USAToday, don't seem to get under people's skins in the same way. Why not? And -- a calm pause to be reasonable here -- the Times does deserve credit for running a lot of thoughtful, good articles that few other newspapers would run. What other paper compares where culture and ideas stories are concerned, for instance? My guess about this? It's that the Times is so morally officious (and hence puffed-up and annoying), and so pretentious, so center-of-the-world, and so final-arbiter-of-what's-really-news self-satisfied, that it's hard to resist taking shots at them. Which of course only delights their editors, who are thinking, Aha, gotcha! What's your hunch about this? And why don't people who are peeved by the Times simply drop it, leave it behind, forget about it, etc? These outraged, obsessed people must be getting pleasure out of going after the Times -- so much pleasure (or, hey, "utility") that they don't care that their actions only serve the Times' ends and not their own. I... posted by Michael at October 10, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Saturday, October 4, 2003

Magazine Titles
Friedrich -- I'm in front of a rack of dazzling and lewd magazines, all of them screaming, "You know you want to buy me!" Among the titles are: FaceFull. SelfService. Hardcore. Wad. Cream. Fetish. Uncut. Ah, those porn magazines, eh? So-o-o subtle. Only I was in fact at a store that carries nothing racier than Maxim. The titles listed above are titles of mainstream (or mainstream-ish), consumer-type magazines. Anyone can buy 'em. Sometimes I want to grab a passing magazine editor, give him/her a good shake, and say, "Does your Momma know what kind of magazine you're publishing?" Problem is, Momma's probably got money invested in the magazine. Either that, or she's the half-naked babe on its cover. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 4, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Monday, September 15, 2003

Plot Summaries
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Are you as amazed as I am at the amount of space movie and book reviewers these days devote to plot summaries? It's common for more than half a review to be spent telling the movie or fiction-book's story. Who wants this amount of plot synopsis? I may be an extreme case, but I hate it when a work's story is given away; I want a work's surprises to be allowed to surprise me. So I just skip over the plot-summary part of reviews. Lately, this means that that when I read a review, I've been skipping 2/3 to 3/4 of its paragraphs. I read reviews when I do for a variety of reasons -- to enjoy the reviewer's mind and writing, for tips about what I might see or read, and in the hope of encountering an observation or idea or two. But certainly not for plot summary. I find that a one-sentence characterization of what a movie or a fiction book is suffices. Examples: It's a "lyrical, writing-school-ish collection of stories about upper-class family dysfunction in Connecticut." It's a "straight-faced teen horror movie with supernatural touches set in the cornfields." That's all I need -- then it's on, or so I hope, to the observations, insights and jokes. You'll notice that -- role model that I am -- I avoid summarizing plots almost completely in my own postings about movies and books. Here's a virtuoso example: many thousands of (apparently unread, sigh) words about a French gangster movie with nary a plot-point giveaway to be seen. Do I mind a description of a story's set-up? No, though I want it done discreetly -- set-ups have their own surprises, and I don't want them spoiled. And I do always appreciate an effort at taxonomy -- a shot at nailing down a work's general category and subcategory. But giving away the actual plot? ... I wonder if any studies have been done that chart how much space reviewers are spending on plot summaries. In any case, assuming that my impression is correct, how to explain the phenom? Do most reviewers have nothing of their own to say, and so fall back on recounting the plot in order to fill their space? Fair warning: old-fart moment coming on. Do you find, as I do, that young viewers and readers often seem to have nothing of their own to say these days? I find talking to most of them about what they've read and seen like talking to children about favorite TV shows: "Well, first there was this schoolbus. And then, this outerspace ship arrived! And the ugly neighbor? Well, he was really, I mean really, mean ..." But I'll stop now, as this is part of another posting, one I'll probably never get around to finishing about how the collapse of traditional education leaves kids defenseless, and with no background or perspective -- nothing to call on but childlike energy and a childlike sense of... posted by Michael at September 15, 2003 | perma-link | (21) comments

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Free Reads -- City Journal
Friedrich -- Hard to believe, but City Journal, one of the very best magazines anywhere, puts all its content up for free on the Web. How did we get so lucky, what have we done to deserve it, etc etc. Due gratitude expressed: hey, there's a new issue out, and the table of contents is here. Hours of good reading. I've only been able to do some skimming so far, but already can recommend John McWhorter on hiphop, Heather Mac Donald on Homeland Security, Kay Hymowitz on Michael Moore, and especially Brian Anderson's piece on NY senator Charles Schumer's campaign to change the criteria by which judges are chosen. (Go to the table of contents and do a search on "Schumerism," or just click here.) There's much more that looks tantalizing too: Myron Magnet, Theodore Dalyrymple ... I'm sure you won't want to miss Steven Malanga's piece on how L.A. is making things tough for small businesses, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 23, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Magazines and Hip Fat
Friedrich -- A quarter of an hour at a crowded, chic local magazine store has left me pondering a few things. 1) Young women are still wearing hiphuggers and showing off their midriffs. It's been a couple of years since this style began, no? Which is longer than I'd have expected it to last. Do you, as I do, sometimes wonder about when and why and how some fads turn into standards? I was wondering about baseball caps worn backwards, for instance. A year ago it seemed to me that they were on the verge of becoming a standard, like khaki trousers. This summer, poof, they're gone. There are only a few baseball caps to be seen, and most of them are being used for forehead-shading purposes. Why? What happened? As for hiphuggers, they may still be with us, but something about the style seems to have changed. A year ago, the fashion seemed to be all about being wild and daring -- about how-low-can-you-go -- and it seemed to me that the focus was on the millimeter above the pubic hairline. This season, my eyes seem to be drawn less to the crotch-diving V and more to the hips as seen from behind. To the hip fat, to be more exact -- the wiggly, tender stuff that rides the hipbone, the bulge right where it starts to turn into a waistline. Is that where you feel your eyes being steered? I think this is the first time I've ever felt my attention directed to that feature. Once again I marvel at the ingenuity of women (and the fashion industry), who manage to keep the female body looking fresh, different and alluring. Look here. No, there. Now I'm going to cover it up. But not before giving you a little glimpse. Gasp, pant, collapse. 2) I spent a couple of minutes leafing through some of the more avant-garde glossy magazines. Is this anything you ever waste time on? Amazing creations: fabulousness everywhere you look -- in the design, the photography, the printing, the concepts. (The writing's just gray stuff between the images and graphics.) These magazines are all about dazzle, dude, and as displays of media fireworks they're hard to beat. I look through them feeling as though a slow-motion nuclear explosion is going off in my brain, incinerating the few IQ points I still have left and leaving the rest of me happily stupefied. I'm a blissed-out cinder going twinkle, twinkle, bzzzzt, crackle. Which isn't exactly what I'm looking for from a magazine. I tend to like something a little more reflective and thoughtful, something that leaves me wrestling with (dare I say it?) a thought or two. These things leave me feeling pumped, wowed, overthrilled, and empty. Basically, they make me feel like masturbating -- hey, I noticed a new magazine, very edgy, called SelfService -- or maybe (even better!) like going out and buying something. Which, come to think of it, is probably the point. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 14, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Browsing and Scanning
Friedrich -- Dept. of "You Know It's True Just From Looking at the Products But It's Always Fun to Hear the People Responsible Spell the Facts Out Anyway": A graphic designer I ran into at a party told me that most magazines are now designed and made with the idea in mind that purchasers will spend no more than 30-45 minutes with the magazine. (In more logocentric days, such publications were referred to as "fast reads." These days it seems like magazines are simply assumed to be fast reads.) Ie., most magazines are being made to be leafed through, not read. It seems to me that the implicit assumption (and fact) is that the words are present to 1) accompany (and explain) the flow of pictures and graphics, and 2) to be dipped into from time to time. I wonder what percentage of their articles, essays and stories magazine editors expect readers to read all the way through in the old, linear, from-beginning-to-end way. How do you experience magazines these days? I'm awestruck by them, but in a very limited way; as composed-and-assembled, Hollywood-esque productions (conceptualized, designed, printed, etc), they're often astounding, and bursting with energy. That said, I by and large have no interest beyond the curious-and-anthropological. I look at them trying to figure out what's what in terms of the media world. Main conclusion: Most of them seem to mimic channel-surfing. Main reflection: Fascinating how channel-surfing has become the media/art experience against which all others are measured, isn't it? I guess what interests me most is the frame of mind the current media products promote and assume. I find "looking" to be one thing, "browsing/scanning" to be another, and "reading" to be a third. In a way, it's a continuum, from visual to verbal. In another, "browsing and scanning" stands apart. "Looking" and "reading" can both lead to and promote experiences of depth, while "browsing and scanning" always seems to be a matter of skittering along the surface. I wonder if it has to be. But, in any case, these three different mental activities/states-of-mind seem so different -- at least I experience them as very different -- that I'm surprised studies aren't being done on them. I'd be surprised if brain scans of people looking, of people browsing/grazing, and of people really reading didn't reveal striking differences. But a few quick Googlings haven't dropped anything in my lap. Have you stumbled across any such discussions? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 12, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Derbyshire Q&A
Friedrich -- As you know, I'm a fan of John Derbyshire, who writes opinion columns for National Review. He's a true conservative (a rarity), and one with a lot of writing style -- I enjoy his dryly incisive and amusing way with a sentence, a paragraph, a piece. (Semi-aesthete and anti-political person that I more or less am, I'm moved and impressed by flair.) Those babies are turned. Plus, hey, agree with him or not -- and he takes a lot of stands that many will find outrageous -- he makes tons of worth-wrestling-with points, at least if you're open to the fun of wrestling with a well-made conservative argument. Perhaps this is a special taste. Derbyshire has a typically good column here, asking (vis a vis the Jayson Blair scandal) why we take journalists all that seriously anyway. Bernard Chapin interviews Derbyshire at length here for Enter Stage Right. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 22, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Amazing Day at the Times
Friedrich -- I don't know about you, but I take it for granted that the NYT is in the business of peddling the usual media-leftist myths. So imagine my surprise this morning on finding three pieces in today's paper that speak straightforwardly about life as it's actually lived. (Two of them in the Arts and Ideas section!) What's the world coming to? * In an op-ed piece here, Samuel Freedman discusses what he sees as the demise of the special relationship between Jews and blacks: "[The] black-Jewish era, in many ways, is over. It can be studied and celebrated. But for reasons of demography and politics and the mere passage of time, it should be retired to the realm of history or mythology." Shockeroonie: I don't know if I have it in me to handle such frank talk coming from the Times. * Alessandra Stanley has a lot of malicious fun reviewing the new PBS series "Race: The Power of an Illusion" here. I generally think of the Times and PBS as two branches of the same PC tree. But check out these passages from Stanley: ...its larger message is overpowered by the intellectual timidity of the messenger...The series could more aptly be titled 'PBS: The Power of Self-Delusion,' a study of how a publicly owned television network with a mandate to challenge the mind can instead put even the most caffeinated brains to sleep ... Like the character played by Bill Murray in 'Groundhog Day,' PBS keeps reliving the horrors of slavery, segregation and discrimination without advancing to the more politically and culturally sensitive issues of race relations today. Hey, that's the kind of thing we Blowhards might have said! Actually, we have said similar things, here. Lordy, now we have the Times breathing down our necks. Who said it was easy being a Blowhard? * And here's a good piece from Gregory Jordan about the state of creative-writing programs that's full of up-to-date and useful information. (It's also -- shiver me timbers -- free of the the Times' usual moral grandstanding on literary matters.) It turns out that the creative-writing-school industry is booming these days: last year, 20,000 people applied for 4000 spots. (Jordan reminds us that while in 1967 there were only 13 creative writing programs in the US, today there are 330.) A surprise is how much of this is driven by Hollywood money, or the possibility of it anyway. Alice ("The Lovely Bones") Sebold is quoted saying, "I was stunned at how students talked about movies when we went out to dinner, when I was expecting them to talk about novels. There is big money in Hollywood, and it lures away really good minds." Another source tells Jordan, "Thirty years ago, students probably wanted to be the next great novelist. Now many want to write the next great screenplay." It's helpful as well to be reminded of one of the important reasons why universities are so enthusiastic about these programs. It's because -- what with... posted by Michael at May 17, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, March 21, 2003

When will Lewis H. Lapham Learn to Count?
Michael: I just dont know how Lewis H. Lapham does it. By it, I mean, act as the editor of a magazine. Let me give some small examples from his latest screed, um, essay in the April 2003 issue of Harpers Magazine: His essay is entitled Cause for Dissent: Ten Questions for the Bush Regime [emphasis added.] It has ten numbered sections. Oddly, however, at least three of the sections contain no questions. As best I can tell, having gone over the essay roughly four times, there are only eight questions in the text, one section having two. Still, it aint ten. The essay is advertised to page-flipping readers via large type excerpts. These excerpts turn out not to be excerpts, exactly. The differences are telling: Large Type Excerpt: Tyranny never has much trouble drumming up prompt agreement. Democracy stands in need of as many questions as its citizens can ask. Actual Copy: Tyranny never has much troubled drumming up the smiles of prompt agreement, but a democracy stands in need of as many questions as its citizens can ask of their own stupidity and fear. [emphasis added] Did some vestigal commercial sense persuade Mr. Lapham to shift the wording to avoid alienating the legions of the stupid and fearful who actually shell out for his magazine? Or was hegaspedited by someone else? The essay is utterly without a central thought, other than Mr. Laphams constant whine that he knows better than the Bush Administration, goddammit, and if the American people were so f---ing stupid as to elect George W. Bush then they should get smarter and vote for Lewis H. Lapham next time around. His individual points are, however, as follows: Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to fall for Bush Administration agitprop about the risk posed by Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State Powell can wave little jars of pseudo-anthrax around all he wants to, but Lewis H. Lapham is not going to accept any proof of Saddams bad intentions short of, one presumes, a video tape of Saddam personally infecting Americans with anthrax. Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to believe Bush Administration rhetoric about its own moral clarity and principled resolve. He noticed right away that the Bush Administration does not appear to be ready to invade North Korea, explaining this failure of moral courage on the fact that Pyongyang has 3 nuclear weapons and Baghdad none (hopefully). Living, as he does, in a wonderful world untroubled by practicality, Lewis H. Lapham can spot a moral evasion like the Koren Exception when he sees one, by God, and hes not going to pass over it in silence. Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to take seriously the Bush Administrations public resolve to not live in fear. He notes that the Bush Administration has issued many warnings of terrorismwhich Lewis H. Lapham is smart enough to realize, could make people afraid. Obviously, according to Citizen Lapham, the real purpose of these warnings is to prevent smart guys like... posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Department of Male and Female Relations
Michael: Id like to nominate Kim Cattrall for an award, Most Flamboyant Gesture in Ending a Relationship. The relationship in question is with her 3rd husband, Mark Levinson (the co-author of Ms. Cattralls recent book, Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm.) A couple of days ago I happened to glance at the March 17 copy of People Magazine, in which the two are described as taking a break. As the story reports: Why? No exact reason, says a friend. No one is dating anyone else. It just happens. This story of a relatively amicable split was belied the next morning, however, when I was standing in line at the checkout counter of my local 7-11 and caught a glimpse of the cover of FHM (For Him Magazine) for April. Who is posing in just a shirt and a pair of underwear? You guessed it, Ms. Cattrall. Before and After But the best part is the quote on the cover from Ms. Cattrall: I prefer younger men. Ouch! I have no idea what really went on here, but based purely on the available evidence it looks like Mr. Levinson must have done something really, really bad. I don't know about you, but I've been dumped once or twice with a certain amount of flair (granted, a quality that is easier to appreciate with the distance of a few years.) Anybody out there got a good dramatic-gesture-in-the-context-of-a-breakup story? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 13, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Monday, February 24, 2003

New Magazines
Friedrich -- Do you follow the style magazines? I don't mean the fashion magazines, I mean the style magazines. I do, though I sometimes wonder why. I guess that I simply enjoying keeping up with what people are doing with magazines. And what I find myself mostly buying these days are examples of a new breed of style magazine. I wonder if youve run across them. Hard to describe; I dont know if the genre has a semi-official name yet. Style, fashion, art, celebrity -- but, frankly, old fart that I am, I cant tell what their subject matter really is, and I cant tell what it is theyre selling. There seems to be nothing at the core. Theres little or no information in them, the writing is drivel (and next-to-unreadable anyway, what with the text being Quarked way over to the side, reduced in size and made sans-serif -- it isnt writing, its decor). Theres no gear on sale. There seems to be nothing graspable there. Which seems to be the point: style, look and attitude. These magazines seem to be all about edgy media values. Period. Theres a fair amount of art-school-style semi-nudity, fashion and performance-art self-consciousness, and new-look models hoping to make it big. But theyre a long way from a Maxim or a Stuff. This is alternative product, and part of whats bewildering about them is the combination of grunge and uptown-quality production values. For some reason, nearly all of them have one-word titles: Zink, Flaunt. Trace. Contents. And theyre often quite spendid, as lavishly and sumptuously produced as art books. They also make me think of those legendary custom-made art-thing magazines that were financed by rich people for about five issues back in the 30s and 40s, and whose titles escape me at the moment. The big diff between them and traditional art-and-word-centric publications is their value-set, which derives from the media. Whoosh. Fwoof. Kapow. Theyre as consciously designed and constructed as art things, and in a way, thats about as good a description as I can come up with: theyre media-derived abstract magazine experiences, Quark and Photoshop extravaganzas put together (as far as I can tell) by recent art-and-design grads. The thing about Quark and Photoshop is that they enable you to compose a magazine in a non-linear way; designers actually speak about constructing pages, layouts, passages, entire issues. These magazines take that approach as far as any Ive run across. The individual pieces are subordinated to the larger digital-media page-flipping experience. Theyre disappointing -- nonexistent, really -- in terms of content. But why be square: Content, thats so 20th century. No, theyre all about media effects. A lot of lavish paper, gorgeous models all shiney and full of tude, photographs blown up so that the bigness is the point, and the whole put together to create (this seems to be the point) an abstract media-magazine experience. Its all about look, feel, rhythm and effects. Its as though the raw material is the Fwoof... posted by Michael at February 24, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Short Stuff
Michael-- Perhaps you caught this headline from the Wall Street Journal of December 12: Europe's Space Effort is Hurt As Rocket Explodes on Launch Gee, you think? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at December 12, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

The New Advertising
Friedrich I love paying the occasional little bit of attention to advertising. So what if it's all about selling goods: there's lots of eye and brain food there to enjoy, as well as sometimes to be dazzled by. Self-protectively, let me say that I'm sure there are writers and thinkers out there who look at and analyze ads far better than I do. And I'm just as certain that I'm years behind on noticing what I'm noticing. Ad people, and the people who write and think about them, are nothing if not quick and clever. Still and all, I can't resist. Exhibit 1: Old vs. New. A fairly traditional ad for Newport cigarettes, and a new-style ad for ... well, for what, exactly? Rope? Wrapping material? The Newport ad has a little designed-on-the-computer jazziness to it: the abruptness in the way the elements are juxtaposed, the way the photo falls so quickly into a space of its own, the brightness and flatness of the green, the way the cigarette boxes really pop, and then the copy really-really pops on top of that. But it's a pretty traditional ad, basically: product, people enjoying it, ad copy, product name. All of it arranged in swooping diagonals that converge on the product itself. The other ad (for Gaultier sunglasses, as it turns out) is another thing entirely -- and entirely, it seems to me, of our new Quark 'n' Photoshop age. For one thing, what's being sold? Maybe the post-MTV generation gets these things instantly, but it took this geezer a couple of seconds even to figure out that what he was looking at was an ad. The Gaultier label being sewn into the fabric is a clever and effective way of achieving so-recessive-it-calls-attention-to-itself-ness. The ad also displays what I've come to think of as a "scanner aesthetic" -- the way what's on the page seems to be pressing up against a lens, or a sheet of glass. And that's it for the ad: a bunch of things brought together in a seemingly casual way on top of a scanner, with an i.d. carelessly dropped into the background of the mix. It's both a cool gesture and pure evidence of coolness, like a head of hair that's rumpled just so. Exhibit 2: Coolness sponsorship. For a geezer, both these ads rely partly on the "huh?" or "what the hell?" factor. What are they advertising? The left-hand ad is for Perrier; as for the right-hand ad, beats me. A clothing line? What I notice about both of them, and what moves me to place them side by side, is a conceptual similarity. Both are 99% made up of a very cool photo. A great big one, in both cases -- and, by traditional standards, a rather odd one too. Not only is the question "what's being advertised?" an issue; the question "what the hell's this a picture of exactly? and why are we being shown it?" is being asked, at least by my arthritic... posted by Michael at December 4, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, November 7, 2002

How Happy Are You?
Michael Are you happy? Are you satisfied? If you told me: yes or very should I believe you? Obviously, there are a lot of, ahem, philosophical issues raised by such subjective measures of happiness. However, blithely ignoring all of them, Ronald F. Inglehart of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Hans-Dieter Klingemann of the Social Science Center in Berlin apparently conducted tens of thousands of personal interviews around the world (personally?) in the mid-1990s and devised a subjective quality of life map, which is reproduced in the November issue of Scientific American. Although the map, for reasons left unexplained, does not include Siberia, the Middle East, most of Africa, and Southeast Asia, I thought youd like to know a few of the highlights: 1. Disneyland is not the Happiest Place on Earth. Apparently, that distinction belongs to Iceland. (Having taken a good look at several Miss Iceland contestants at international beauty pageants, I can see how that might be the case. As I understand it, Iceland has a "Miss Universe" for every 90,000 inhabitants.) Happiest Men on Earth? 2. While the U.S. reports itself to be marginally less happy than Scandinavia, Ireland, and Switzerland, it is either marginally or significantly more happy with its lot than is the rest of Europe or Japan. 3. The least happy country reported is the Ukraine, where people either appear to be downright sunk in misery, or, possibly, highly amused at the thought of lying to the good professors. 4. The biggest surprise is Canada, which only squeaks in ahead of Germany and is a good bit behind the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Does this demonstrate a true happiness gap (as in, Man the barricades, a horde of disaffected Canadians is headed south across the border!) or is this some sort of low self-esteem issue for the Canadians? Perhaps they dont feel they deserve happiness when their dollar is worth only around 67 American cents. I have only one question. Every time Ive ever asked a woman this question, it usually entailed a two-to-three hour conversation to discover how she really felt. Do you think the professors stuck with it long enough to really find out? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 7, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, October 18, 2002

On-Stage Ads
Friedrich -- Vanessa O'Connell in the WSJ (not online, at least not for free) reports that billboards for Piper-Hiedsick and Montblanc -- paid-for ads -- will be part of the onstage scenery of the much-anticipated upcoming Broadway production of "La Boheme." (Much-anticipated because it's being directed by Baz -- "Moulin Rouge" -- Luhrmann.) Sample passage: "'This is an example of a deal where you can service the art and service the business,' says Jeffrey Seller, a producer of 'La Boheme.'...'The economics of live theater are always challenging, especially because we have to persuade people to buy $95 and $100 tickets'." My suggestion to people who are bugged by product placements? Skip the kinds of productions that are likely to feature them. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Free Reads -- Steve Sailer
Friedrich -- I love checking in on the protean Steve Sailer (here). He writes enlighteningly about evolutionary biology, he writes sensible political commentary, and he writes smart, brave, always-worth-wrestling-with things about race and immigration. (A standout piece on whether or not the concept of race has any validity is here.) In addition to all that, he's a movie critic who takes a distinctive approach to thinking about movies, treating their business and popular history not in the usual way (as gossip and matter for facile sociology) but as evidence of what works and what doesn't in the art form. It's a kind of evo-bio approach to writing about the arts -- let's see more of that. He even manages to get off the occasional good, yet informative, anti-P.C. crack, as he does in a review (here) of the Navajos-in-WW2 thriller "Windtalkers." Sample passage: The screenwriters...are so terrified of being accused of stereotyping Native Americans that they portray the Navajo with no particular traits. Look, you can't "celebrate diversity" unless you show some diversity. In reality, the Navajo are fascinating. They are possibly the most economically dynamic of all tribes. They were originally invaders from Canada who arrived in the Southwest not long before the conquistadors. Acquiring sheep from white people, they prudently shifted from hunting and gathering to herding, weaving, and crafts manufacturing. While the rest of the Native American population was in catastrophic decline due to European diseases, weapons and alcohol, the Navajo exploded in numbers, much to the distress of their neighbors and rivals, the more conservative Hopi tribe. You won't find that kind of thing in Film Comment. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, October 14, 2002

Short Stuff
Michael Going through the Wall Street Journal of October 14, I noticed the following, er, "Dog-Bites-Man" headlines: -TNT Tells Operators That Its Higher Fees Are Worth the Price -Global Aids Fund Issues Appeals for More Money -Worldcoms Ex-Controller Pleads Guilty -Do Predatory Lending Laws Curb Mortgages? -China May Free Political Prisoner Ahead of Summit I'm just guessing that Sunday might have been a slow news day. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 14, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, October 10, 2002

Female Gaze
Michael I was driving down the road the other day when I passed a bus shelter and spotted the following Bebe ad. Eye Catching? (By the way, all the pictures in this posting are pop-ups, and it helps to click on them so you can see them in more detail.) From my not-very-well informed point of view, fashion ads seem to divide into two overlapping, but essentially independent camps: one aims at making women attractive to men, and the second provides fashionable women with firepower in their struggle to demonstrate superior taste. Frankly I look at ads from the first camp and ignore the ads from the second camp. Bebe, being emphatically in the first camp, tends to get my attention. But there was something about this particular ad that caught my eye. (And I assure you, the fact that the girl was managing to display her face, her breasts and her thighs had nothing to do with my interest. I am shocked, simply shocked that anyone would suspect me of such impure motives!) Regrettably, having only 1.7 nanoseconds to look at the ad, I couldn't study it at the length it so obviously deserved. It left me with an impression suggesting a narrative or dramatic context (i.e., the girl seemed a tad flustered getting ready to go out on a big night on the town.) But that didnt entirely explain my feeling that I was seeing something relatively new here, something that had unusual echoes. So when I got back home I picked up some of my daughters/wifes fashion magazines and started checking out the ads. They seemed to divide, relatively straightforwardly, into the following categories: 1. Direct Eye Contact Category #1 is the most common, with one or more models making direct eye contact. This replicates the effect of trying clothes on before a mirror. 2. Avoiding Eye Contact Category #2 involves a female model avoiding eye contact. Here you're supposed to look at something on the model, as if on a mannikin. Generally used for jewelry, skin care ads, hair care ads, etc. 3. Radiantly Happy In Category #3, we generally have one female model making direct eye contact, while looking radiantly happy. This foreshadows what a shopper will see in the mirror after she tries the product. (This is a sort of old-fashioned ad strategy and is never used by products attempting to create a high status impression. Apparently, very high status women are never radiantly happy or at least never allow other women to catch them at it.) 4. Everyone's Looking At Me (Including Me)! Category #4 involves one female model looking directly at the camera while other models (usually men) stare at her. This reproduces the common experience of fashionable women who constantly check themselves out in store windows and mirrors while in the presence of other people. 5. Love the Life You Lead, Lead the Life You Love In Category #5, a more rarely used strategy, we have multiple models (usually male and... posted by Friedrich at October 10, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tuesday, October 8, 2002

A Prospect on Prospect
Michael I guess I gotta get down to my local magazine stand a bit more often. Hunting around for something to read at my dental appointment (don't get me wrong, my dentist is a great guy, but his taste in magazines is not mine), I came across a magazine I haven't noticed before called "Prospect." It's a U.K. mag (my copy came with a large and rather strange sticker marked "Printed in England" stuck on it) which carries the subhead: "Politics - Essays - Argument" and, rather astonishingly, delivers. All you hipsters who are on to "Prospect" can feel free to giggle at my insularity right now, but if, like me, you haven't tried this yet, I would recommend it. A sample quote from "Death of An Idea" by Julian Baggini: ...most of 20th-century Anglo-american analytic philosophy--perhaps the least postmodern alcove in academia--has been based on a rejection of grand systems, such as those of Kant, Hegel and Marx. In its place has been a piecemeal approach to philosophy that is as much opposed to grand narratives as post-modernism. Nor is the rejection of absolute truth the hallmark of a distinct philosophy. There are many ways to be a relativist, not all of them intellectually disgraceful, as Jonathan Ree has recently pointed out in these pages. We cannot locate a philosophy that lies behind these various postmodern positions because there isn't one. What is worse, when people do try to make the lead from postmodernism as a social or cultural phenomenon to post-modernism as a philosophy, they tend to make basic mistakes. If you want to check out the "Prospect" website, you can do so here. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 8, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Sunday, October 6, 2002

Short Stuff
Michael Two headlines from the NY Times of October 5: Jury Sets Punitive Damages at $28 Billion for Smoker I understand about the dangers of second-hand smoke, but it still seems a bit excessive. I.R.S. Offers Deals on Tax Shelters In a down market, you gotta do what it takes to move the merchandise. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 6, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, October 3, 2002

Not a Critic
Friedrich -- After a few recent visits with bright, talented friends who are critics, it occurs to me why Im not one. (Putting aside all questions of my gifts and credentials, or lack thereof, of course.) Critics, generally speaking, care about their opinions. I mean, really care. Do they want to impose their opinions, and see them prevail? I dont know. But at the very least, most of the critics Ive known want their opinion to be out there in public, playing a role (the bigger the better) in forming the general consensus. My opinion just isn't that important to me, and I have a hard time seeing why it should be of much importance to anyone else. (Opinions are like assholes..., etc.) The real critic seems to feel that the world needs to know his opinion. Me, Im grateful to have a few people in my life willing to put up with me, let alone my no doubt tiresome opinionating. The general consensus? It gets on fine without input from me. And then it gets revised anyway. So why waste the energy? For me, an opinion is a small part of a much larger package of responses: feelings, reflections, musings, thoughts, observations, bodily sensations. And lord knows I do love exploring reactions, other people's as much as my own. But that's one of art's functions, to give us excuses to muck voluptuously about in this make-believe-but-oh-so-real way. Comparing notes=bliss. Fighting over opinions? Arguing about whose is right? Thanks, but Ill pass. How do you experience your own opinions? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 3, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Magazine Culture
Michael 2Blowhards has scored another triumph of investigative reporting. Owing to a wrongly directed fax, weve got the behind-the-scenes scoop on Lewis Laphams latest screed: Lewis H. Lapham Editor, Harpers Magazine Darling Lewis, I just read your fabulous essay, The Road to BabylonSearching for targets in Iraq. Loved it, simply loved it! As usual, youre just too good for the American public! However, a few words of advice if you want to get it published someplace other than, well, you know, Harpers. Not that there is anything wrong with Harpers, darling, you know I read it cover to cover each month, but remember how the magazine world snickers when you write the lead article in a magazine that you edit. I mean, even Tina Brown never did that! And, as long as Im being terribly frank, you need to do something about the circulation of Harpersmore people would read your work if you published it in the Piscataway Penny Saver! So, while I would never dare to edit you from the purely artistic point of view, I jotted a few notes of some eensy-weensy things you might want to do if youre serious about getting published in a magazine with a real subscriber base for a change: 1)Try getting to the point a tad quicker. Youre saying the invasion of Iraq is a bad idea, but youre 900 words into your piece before you mention the first actual reason its bad. 2)Lose the extended comparison with the Athenian invasion of Sicily. I mean, people might get confused and remember Pattons invasion of Sicilywhich went rather well, you recall, during World War II. And it pushes your word total to over 3,500 wordsin other magazines, darling, they have advertising and have to watch how long their articles are! Really! 3) You dont provide much substance on many of your main points. You describe Bushs invasion plan as being [a]gainst every precedent in international law, in violation of the United Nations Charter, and without consent of the American Congress. I mean, weve all read lots of op-ed pieces that dont agree with you, darling, and I think youre going to have argue these points a bit, dont you? 4) Some of your arguments, are, wellI dont know how else to put this, darlinga bit shrill. I think you might want to rethink the sentences starting: Even if one discounts the devastation of Baghdad as a minor and scarcely noticeable loss, what is to prevent the conflagration likely to erupt in the nearby countries of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran once the U.S. Air Force has lit up the entire Muslim world with the putrifying fires of civil and religious war? Who prevents Ariel Sharon from upgrading with nuclear weapons the Israeli program of preemptive assassination, and, in the relatively sizable footprint of an oil price marked up to $50 or $70 a barrel, what happens to the economies of London, Paris and New York? 5) You might be a bit less personal... posted by Friedrich at October 3, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Maybe We Need a Sports Page
Michael My wife is a fanatical tennis player, and as a result we have lots of tennis-oriented publications laying around, none of which have ever brought even a twitch to my lips while reading them (chiefly, I admit, in the bathroom.) As a result, I was stunned to pick up a rag called Inside Tennis and discover, well, humor. In particular, the "Short Shots" column, also oddly known as the IT Notebook. One example: Justin Time: Just as our spirits were getting soggy due to all the mid-tournament rain [at the U.S. Open], Justin (low ranking, high entertainment value) Gimelstob came on the air to analyze how he defeated Edwin Kempes, No. 249 in the world. A yoga kind of guy, Gimelstob referred to himself as a "peaceful warrior" (think New Age writer Dan Millman) and confided that he sweats more than most human beings because of his "Jewish nerves." Gimelstob admitted, "The mainstay of my game is significant prayer," and added that "hitting a triple-bouncer to the net post is never a good strategy...[in fact], my game plan then was to sweat on the court and hope Kempes falls on a wet spot." Time and time again, Gimelstob referred to Brad Gilbert's curious forehand (e.g., "I greased that point and 'Gilberted' my way through.") Then Justin admitted, "I was one point from sick manic depression." When he started to cramp, he joked with the trainer, pleading, "Bring out the good stuff--the stuff the Spaniards use." Ultimately, Gimelstob admitted, "Like many things in my life that go wrong, I just blame my parents." Justin the Great If Gimelstob decides to hang up his racquet, I'd like to offer him a spot on our blog. Are you with me on this? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at September 25, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Social History of Advertising
Michael I believe you once expressed the opinion that advertising was the true offspring of the traditional visual arts, serving business today with the same subtlety and skill as painting, sculpture and architecture once served church and state. I got to thinking about this, and I guess theres not much question in my mind that advertising is sort of the essence of all pop culture art forms, the way math is the "essence" of the hard sciences. So over the weekend I picked up a book by Philippe Lorin on 5 Giants of Advertising. While this book reads as if it had been written to the publishers specs in about a week (and then translated into English), it did introduce me to a remarkable individual, Albert Lasker. Lasker is the founder of the modern advertising industry according to the website of the American National Business Hall of Fame. During his life he was a successful journalist, art collector, inspiration behind the creation of the National Institutes of Health, part-owner of the Chicago Cubs and, as you might expect, really rich guy. However, he is remembered in advertising chiefly for creating the first modern American agency, Lord & Thomas, and for playing a significant role in the launching of a whole series of products that changed the way Americans live. That's Mister Lasker to you Laskers first exposure to changing-the-world via advertising came at the turn of the century while he was a Chicago-based ad salesman and copywriter making a lot of trips to Battle Creek, Michigan. This diminutive city was the epicenter of the newfangled packaged cereal industry, in which as many as 24 companies fought out the Battle of Battle Creek for commercial dominance. Eventually Post and Kellog were the last men standing, but the true significance was that by the time it was all over, oatmeal and home-made grits had been replaced across America by packaged cereal. As Lorin observes, [t]his experience taught himthat a good product supported by advertising could revolutionize consumer habits throughout the country overnight. A few years later, Lasker got a chance to try his hand at this game when the California Fruit Growers Exchange (later known as Sunkist) became a client. The fruit growers were in the process of cutting down many of their orange trees, as the current market demand wasnt large enough to justify the acreage in cultivation. This outraged Lasker (who didnt like wasting natural resources like mature fruit trees) and led him to suggest that the growers needed to sell Americans on drinking orange juice in addition to eating the fruit. Its kind of weird to realize that one guy was responsible for the mass consumption of orange juice. Drink an orange? No one-hit-wonder, Lasker went on to launch such consumer staples as Pepsodent (the first mass market toothpaste), Kotex (the first mass-market sanitary napkin), and Kleenex (well, you know.) He was also the guiding hand behind Lucky Strike cigarettes and tobacco advertising targeted specifically at women. And this... posted by Friedrich at September 24, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Saturday, September 21, 2002

Women's Mags
Friedrich -- The magazine industry is going through what many say is its worst period in decades. All sectors are suffering -- except one. According to the Economist (online, but subscription only), the women's glossies are not just thriving but booming. Why? Two reasons. The first is that, in a gloomy era, advertisers seem to prefer seeing their ads run next to pretty pictures rather than downbeat stories. The other, and larger, reason is that, despite the recession, American women continue to buy and spend as enthusiastically as ever. Sample passage: Certain items, such as luxury watches, cars or mobile telephones, seem to be as content nestling next to articles entitled "I'm a monster in bed" or "The truth behind the Britney backlash" as they once were amid stories on corporate strategy. You go, girls! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 21, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, September 20, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 10
Friedrich -- The Friday New York Times includes two arts sections, one about movies and theater, the other about what the newspaper calls the "fine arts." The headlines today in both show the paper's usual light touch. In the performing arts section: * Revival Works a Transformation * Maazel Shows His Firm Hand From the Start In the fine arts section: * The Face (and Soul) Of Africa * A Tower of Dentists Wears a Golden Crown Boogie down! I'll admit that that "dentists" touch is a nice, if bewildering, one. The tone of the story, though, disappoints. It concerns the history behind a monumental old Brooklyn landmark, the Williamsburgh Savings building, and it has a characteristic Times tone: semi-camp, semi-whimsical, a little bratty. "The basilicalike banking hall remains a pretty awe-inspiring place to fill out a deposit slip." Good gosheroonie! And so much for history and grandeur. Hmm, the Times never seems to use that tone for discussions of modernist buildings. I wonder why not? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 20, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 9
Friedrich -- Headlines from the front page of today's NYTimes' Arts section: * China is Warming to Hollywood's Glow * Not All Sunshine for Teensy Set's Troubador * Decades After Their Pop Hits, 2 Singers Show What Else They Have * An Uphill Effort for World Harmony Who knew being interested in the arts could be such a burden? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, September 16, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 8
Friedrich -- In case you enjoyed yourself too much over the weekend, Monday's NYTimes Arts section is here to wave an admonishing finger at you. Two of its front-page headlines: * Advice and Songs on Death Row, but No Easy Answers * A Cairo Storyteller With Time to Dream I don't know about yours, but my sense of fun just deserted me. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, September 13, 2002

If I Were an Editor 5
Friedrich -- If I were the editor of a book-review section, I'd provide coverage and reviews of the usual, but also of visual books, pop fiction, joke books, self-help, and more. I'd also make a point of running profiles of and interviews with the many non-author people who help make the world of readin'-and-writin' what it is: designers, editors, artists, agents, booksellers.... It's bewildering that "books coverage" limits itself to the small cast of characters it does. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Media Overload
Friedrich -- The book I finished last night I got free; the audiobook I listened to this morning also came free. That's one of the upsides to working in an arty corner of the media world -- free stuff. One of the downsides is: too damn much free stuff. Keeping up with the product, even from a mere housekeeping point of view, can clog your brain, swamp your desk, and make you forget what you really enjoy, as well as how you'd really like to spend your time. Let's see... Before me right now are invites to movie screenings: "Spirited Away" (Japanimation -- don't think so); "Moonlight Mile" (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon -- hmmmmmm, nope); and "Ballistics: Ecks vs. Sever" (spy thriller rated R not for sex but violence -- puhleeze). Into the circular file. There, my head's clear again. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Times Arts Frownlines 7
Friedrich -- Headlines from the front page of today's NYT "Weekend" (ie., popular arts) section: * Mob Life Resumes, Darker by the Day * Tragedy Kindles Dance of Hope Phew. I'd almost forgotten what a heavy burden the arts are meant to be. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 13, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 6
Friedrich -- More headlines from the NYTimes' Arts section that'll set your pulse racing with anticipation. On the front page: * Journey Back From the Abyss in Beijing (about a Chinese director who has made a movie about his own struggle giving up a drug addiction) * Poet Turned Antic Architect Keeps Exploring Inner Space And inside: * Zurich Theater Director Becomes a Public Issue (subheaded "A shrinking audience, a firing, a petition of protest" -- be still, my heart!) When did the arts become a branch of the social services industry? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 12, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, September 6, 2002

If I Were an Editor 4
Friedrich -- I've said it before, and you can be sure I'll say it again: if I were an editor, I'd be doing a much more aggressive job of covering immigration than most publications are doing. (Jeez, are bigtime editors just not listening to me?) The topic is on people's minds, the walls preventing discussion are starting to crumble, the foolish old dichotomy of pro vs. anti is falling apart -- yet mainstream outlets are by and large ignoring the subject. Spiked Online (formerly LM, or Living Marxism, magazine) to their credit -- because they're very pro open borders -- runs a good piece by Anthony Browne about why he thinks immigration should be slowed in Britain, here. Excerpt: Having resorted to intellectual dishonesty to hoodwink readers into thinking that immigration is at a lower level than it is, the pro-immigrationists tried another tactic: smear the opposition. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

If I Were an Editor 3
Friedrich -- If I were an editor, I'd run lots of pieces about the impact of evolutionary biology (and evo-psych) on thinking about the arts. I'd do more than that; I'd go out of my way to use the evo-bio crowd as standard sources for quotes and thoughts about the arts. It's where the best, or at least most useful, new thinking about the arts is coming from. Structuralism? Deconstruction? Postmodernism? They're, like, so five minutes ago. And thank god for that. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, September 5, 2002

Columnist Shootout
Friedrich -- After much enjoyably self-important mulling and musing, Ive decided that the best journalistic essayists now writing are John Derbyshire, Theodore Dalrymple, Mark Steyn, and Robert Fulford. Do you know their work? In case you don't, here are examples of each of them in fine form: Mark Steyn, here. Theodore Dalyrymple, here. John Derbyshire, here. Robert Fulford, here. Civilized, provocative, stylish and brainy, each one. Do you marvel, as I do, at the inability of Americans to enjoy examples of what they disagree with? It seems terribly difficult for an American to read or hear something he disagrees with and yet enjoy it. Why, do you suppose? Years ago, I spent a while writing for an English magazine. What a treat. There may be much to be said against the English, but in their favor is the fact that many seem to have no trouble enjoying provocation as a form of intellectual entertainment. It's a ritual and a game: the writer takes an extreme stance, the reader cheers or is annoyed by the point of view, but applauds the presentation if and when it strikes him as well done. In fact, without sufficient provocation the English reader seems bored. Americans, on the other hand, are often earnest beyond belief. If we dont agree we go ballistic, in one way or another. Big-city types, I find, often go (ponderously, savagely) on the personal attack. Small-city and backwater Americans tend to feel hurt or enraged; they often look like theyre going to cry. I wonder if this is because we're so hopelessly mixed-up about sophistication. We either revere it and identify with it (the big city), or it ticks us off and makes us feel like we're being looked down on by snobs (mid-America). In any case: ah, for the chance to enjoy both sides of a debate. But maybe I'm perverse. Most people seem to want to root for a team; I usually find myself rooting for the game. (After all, it's not as though my opinion is going to effect the result.) Culture partisan that I am, I find myself wondering plaintively why there arent people writing (commenting, etc.) at a similarly high level in the arts. Though Steyn does write well about the theater, and Fulford checks in with the occasional good piece about cultural matters Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 5, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 5
Friedrich -- Another enticing front-page-of-the-NYTimes-arts-section headline: * "London Stage, a Social Mirror" Well, I'm sure curious to find out more! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 4, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Sunday, September 1, 2002

If I Were an Editor 2
Friedrich -- If I were an editor, I'd run a cover story about today's 20somethings, focusing on looks and attitudes. I notice two contrasting types, flip sides of each other: the kids who favor stretchy synthetics, depilation, bare lower bellies, and sleek Gap-ad hair; and the other kids who favor a Burning-Man, neohippie, cut-and-paste gestalt. Both look like they just stepped out of a computer screen. I'd entitle my cover package "The Photoshop Generation." If Tom Wolfe uses this, he'll be hearing from my lawyers. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 1, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 4
Friedrich -- The Times shows its usual lighthearted, companionable touch with arts coverage today. The two headlines on the front page of the Arts section: *"The Information Age Processes a Tragedy" *"Music Rivalry and Revelry Both Serving Irish Culture" Inside, fans get to read "Singing About Frustration, Some Strain, No Self-Pity," and "A Midnight Rendezvous With bin Laden." The arts as a grim burden -- that'll draw in the crowds. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 28, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

If I Were an Editor 1
Friedrich -- If I were editing a mainstream news publication, I'd be running lots of coverage of immigration topics right now. The subject couldn't be more timely, what with anxiety about airplanes, Muslims, borders, Mexicans, etc. It's bizarre that the topic doesn't get covered regularly and widely all the time. Who, how many, on what basis? What kind of effect are they having on the country? Shouldn't such questions be openly and easily discussed? (If controlling the borders isn't one of the half-dozen main things a government should be responsible for, I don't know what is.) Making it next-to-impossible to discuss immigration rationally has been another victory for the Left's thought-police. Say, you don't think that political bias on the part of news people (along the lines of "thinking about, let alone raising the topic of, immigration"="being anti-immigrant"=racist) has had anything to do with the fact that immigration gets so little coverage, do you? But, heck, maybe it's just an innocent oversight; maybe journalists just aren't as smart, perceptive, and tuned-in as I am. If you're in a mood for some freewheeling, feisty thinking about immigration, I know of a couple of sites worth exploring. Are you man enough to wrestle with Steve Sailer, here? Let alone the Vdare crowd, here? Sorry to report that I waited too long to see "The Scarlet Diva." Its run lasted less than a week here in NYC. What's happened to the cult movie audience? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 27, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, August 26, 2002

War on PBS
Friedrich -- Do you watch PBS? I haven't much in years. "Mystery" series, evenings at the Pops, fundraisers, "Three Tenors"-style concerts, solemn battle-oppression P.C. documentaries about atrocities, feel-good P.C. documentaries about ethnic groups -- who watches this stuff? And why should tax dollars go to paying for it? I choose an evening's PBS programming at random from this week's schedule: *Nightly Business *NewsHours with Jim Lehrer *Evening at Pops *A documentary, "Growing Up Global" *A documenary about four nuns raped in killed in El Salvador The boring worthiness of it all. Plus the always-nagging question: is any of this something that can't be gotten from commercial channels? Although, in fairness, I did enjoy PBS's recent Richard Brookhiser documentary about George Washington. (David Gergan interviews Brookhiser here.) And, in fairness too, I could be as easily rid of HBO -- an ongoing stream of all the dumb movies I'm happy to avoid -- as PBS. But HBO's part of my cable-modem package. Let's see: if we de-fund PBS now, no one would notice. What's your favored plan for upgrading the legal system? Sometime soon: I declare war -- in the name of the arts -- on the NEA. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 26, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 3
Friedrich -- The arts, ever under siege -- at least according to the New York Times's "Arts" section. Two of the section's front-page headlines today: * "Water and Woe For the Czechs' Cultural Gems" * "Radio City and the Rockettes Reach a Labor Agreement" How would the arts survive at all in this vicious world if it weren't for the Times? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 22, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Times passes, art changes
Friedrich -- I just killed a little time reading a magazine cover story (by Joe Morgenstern) from 1970 about Barbra Streisand. (Not someone I'm prone to think much about.) It was lovely -- evocative, intelligent, knowledgeable about acting, movies and music while being modest about how much can really be said about how and why something works and something else doesn't. Brainy, unpretentious, and full of feeling. A civilized pleasure. Darn it, what happened to all that? I get depressed from time to time by the fact that the art, media and entertainment worlds have changed so much from what they were when I got interested in them. These days I'm often not just uninterested in them, I recoil from them. They seem like (almost) completely different creatures from what they once were, all about product, packaging, business, effects, personalities -- pure aggression, in other words, with the only alternatives seeming to be, yawn, politics or a kind of dreary, attitude-copping self-expression. Who cares? Generally speaking, not me. "I might as well have gotten an MBA," is what tends to run through my brain at such (unfortunately not-rare) moments. Is this unique to the last 30 years? Was there that dramatic a sea change in the nature of art-and-entertainment during the previous couple of decades? Am I just getting old and running out of gas? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 17, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines 2
Friedrich -- The NYTimes Arts section today goes four-for-four -- all, repeat all, of the headlines on the front page of the section are self-serious protest classics: 1. "It's Gloves-Off Time for an Angry Arthur Miller" 2. "Not Just Singing, but Soul-Baring Too" 3. "Party for Zora Neale Hurston, Obscure No More" 4. "Actors in Ellis Island Show Vote, 7 to 1, to Join Union" ...I was thinking of making some comments here about the Times' vision of of what art is (apparently a civil-rights fist shaken, in the name of justice and self-expression, in the face of oppression), and about how, if that's what art really were, I'd have no big interest in it. But I'll spare you. Best Michael... posted by Michael at August 15, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Times Arts Frownlines I
Friedrich -- One of the few reasons I still look at the NYTimes is because I'm so fond of the way the newspaper tries to turn the arts into a day-to-day matter of intense social concern. The effort it must take to continue strong-arming readers in this way! Here's the frownline, er, headline of one of today's leading arts articles: "Young Musicians Granted a Respite From War's Curses." Gotta love it! But maybe the editors are cynical and are just playing to their audience. Maybe the editors have a macro key on their keyboards that spits this stuff out, endlessly recombining such words as "oppression," "youth," "spirit," "war," and "protest." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 14, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments