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

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  1. Collaborate, Resist or ...
  2. 300 Million
  3. Relax, Honey
  4. Kenneth Harl on the Ancient Near East
  5. Belts and Suspenders
  6. The Disappearing Middle?
  7. Looking Through The New Yorker
  8. Roger Scruton and Oikophobia
  9. Elsewhere
  10. Sudoku Triumphant

  1. Peter on Collaborate, Resist or ...
  2. Donald Pittenger on Belts and Suspenders
  3. Michael Blowhard on Looking Through The New Yorker
  4. the patriarch on Collaborate, Resist or ...
  5. Tom on Belts and Suspenders
  6. onetwothree on Collaborate, Resist or ...
  7. J. Goard on Looking Through The New Yorker
  8. Rick Darby on 300 Million
  9. s on The Disappearing Middle?
  10. Walker on 300 Million


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Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Collaborate, Resist or ...

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

If you had been a Frenchman during the period June 1940 (when France fell to Germany) and June 1944 (the Normandy invasion), what would you have done with respect to the Germans and their Occupation?

For many years following the end of World War 2 the French were cast (much of the time by their intellectual elite) into a cartoonish dichotomy. On the one hand were the noble, fearless members of the Resistance. On the other were evil collaborationists. The rest of the population was shrugged off, perhaps being sadly regarded as morally lacking for failing to be in the Resistance.

During the weeks and months following the Liberation, many collaborationists were publicly humiliated (women fraternizing with German soldiers were stripped naked, had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets) or were tried and, in some cases, executed. Some of this was pure public reaction. But both the Communists and the Gaullists had a large stake in claiming Resistance credibility in the early post-Liberation days as part of their maneuvering for power. So I wonder how much the anti-collaborationist spasm was political theatre.

In reality, the French people formed a continuum.

At the Resistance extreme were those who participated in guerilla warfare, blowing up German equipment or assassinating officers. Others didn't fight, but provided various kinds of support. Albert Camus, for example, edited the underground newspaper Combat while continuing his regular writing. Jean-Paul Sartre, after release from a German PoW camp, spent the war in Paris' literary circles though he did write articles for Combat in amongst his book-writing and teaching activities.

The most extreme collaborationists were members of fascist organizations dedicated to the support of the Occupation. Not far removed were citizens who ratted on Jews. And then there were Frenchwomen who had German lovers. I'm not sure one can call this "collaboration" if nothing was done to materially support the Occupation. Coco Chanel falls into this group. She was spared public humiliation because she "had friends in high places" and moved to Switzerland for several years to lower her profile. As for the prostitutes who entertained German troops, I have to assume their interest was largely monetary.

The extremes probably represented a small part of the population. The bulk of the French mostly hunkered down and coped as best they could.

Robert Gildea wrote a book titled "Marianne in Chains" a few years ago that featured residents of the Loire Valley and their ways of dealing with the Occupation. I bought a copy of the book because I was interested in the subject. But I found it tedious reading and set it aside.

Absent Gildea, I'll just have to resort to speculation based on what I've read elsewhere plus my take on human psychology.

Resistance members who did physical harm to the Occupation tended to be young and idealistic. Many were committed Communists who followed Moscow's dictates; before Russia was invaded, the Occupation was tolerated, and thereafter force was necessary. Others were simply young patriots.

Collaborationists were also idealistic, though largely in a negative kind of idealism. What was hated was the pre-war condition of France. To some it had to do with socialism or perhaps moral decadence. Others, monarchists, hated the Republic. Still others hated Jews.

Those who weren't at these extremes were pragmatists of various stripes, their behavior shaped by empirical conditions and their perception of those conditions.

Consider the empirical conditions at the end of 1940.

France had been defeated. Central/southeastern France was governed by the "Vichy" regime subservient to the Germans. A small part of Provence was occupied by the Italians. Northern France and a strip along the Bay of Biscay were German-occupied. The only power opposing Germany was the British Empire, and it was clear to most observers that the British, by themselves, were militarily incapable of dislodging the Germans from France -- even if that was their desire. Spain, to the southwest, would be of no help because its government was sympathetic to Germany. The United States was neutral, though it had recently re-elected Franklin Roosevelt who was pro-British. And the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in August 1939.

What were the prospects for France? The most likely outcome was that the British, unable to prevail against Germany by themselves, would eventually tire of the war and settle for a status quo peace with Hitler. This would not necessarily mean the end of the Occupation, but fewer German troops would be stationed on French soil. And maybe the French would be given more administrative freedom to run their country. In the farther future, expansion of Vichy to the entire country (aside from parts annexed outright by Germany and perhaps Italy) was a possibility. In 30 years time Hitler would be aged or dead and then the Germans might tire of the whole game, leaving France to itself.

In the meanwhile there was the problem of survival. Farmers had to keep farming. Shopkeepers had to keep turning over inventory. Workers needed jobs. Children had to be raised. People needed diversions and entertainment. In short, life had to go on.

To survive, certain levels of accommodation to the Occupation were necessary. Bureaucrats, minor officials and the police had little alternative than to deal with the Germans. Other people, especially those in the countryside away from German garrisons, could lead lives pretty much as they did before the war.

And the Resistance? To many "pragmatists" it was a case of: Those fools attacking Germans reaped nothing but retaliation, getting property destroyed and people executed -- and for what? Better to tolerate the Germans until they too got tired of the Occupation.

Later, when the USSR and the USA entered the war and it became clear that Germany would eventually lose, some sort of resistance had more logical merit. Even so, the downside fact of retaliation led many Frenchmen to keep clear of resistance efforts. And the destruction caused by Allied bombing didn't improve the attitudes of many Frenchmen.

What would I have done had I been a Frenchman in the early 1940s? I don't know.

I suppose it would depend on how old I was. If I were over 30, I imagine that I'd simply try to cope. If I were in my late teens or in my 20s -- I'm not sure. It would depend on my politics and level of idealism. But there is no certainty that I would have joined the Resistance.

What about you?



posted by Donald at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

300 Million

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

2006 is the year the U.S.'s population will reach 300 million -- with population growth due almost entirely to Hispanic immigration.

A couple of amazing/sad (by my lights, anyway) facts:

  • "In 1967, there were fewer than 10 million people in the U.S. who were born in other countries; that was not even one in 20. Today, there are 36 million immigrants, about one in eight."

  • Since the original Earth Day, our population has increased by nearly 50%.

I marveled here about the way most major environmental groups are dodging the immigration question, as well as avoiding the sheer-numbers issue.

Hey, say hello to the new racial politics. I won't be surprised if we see a lot more of this kind of thing too.



posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Relax, Honey

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Maybe nobody's doing anything wrong. Maybe it's just in your genes.



posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Kenneth Harl on the Ancient Near East

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A while ago I wrote about how much I'd enjoyed a Teaching Company lecture series by Kenneth Harl entitled "Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor." I recently finished another Harl lecture series -- "Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations" -- and I enjoyed it just as much. It's one of the Teaching Company's shorter programs -- twelve 30-minute lectures -- and it's clearly meant to serve as an introductory survey. It covers a huge amount of ground: around 3000 years, from the beginnings of settlements in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the Persian Empire. So it's a very speedy overview of the world out of which the old familiars (Egypt, Greece, Rome) grew.

I can't say that I now carry around a vivid picture of these nations and tribes: among them, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Sumerians, and the Assyrians. But I've wanted to find out a bit about these peoples for ages, and I'm grateful that I now have a general, eagle-eye impression of them. (Back here I wrote about how much I love 101-style introductions to subjects.)

With these two series, Harl has become one of my favorite audio presenters. His speaking voice is a long way from being the silken, clear, calm-yet-impassioned instrument that Charlton Griffin's is. (For my money, Charlton -- who I'm thrilled to say visits 2Blowhards occasionally -- is the best reader of audiobooks ever. You can explore the ultra-classy and mega-satisfying audiobooks that Charlton produces and presents here.) But Harl has lots of virtues of his own. He tempers scholarly zeal with a sense of perspective; his knack for doling out information in appropriately-scaled ways is really impressive. He respects the fact that, for many of us, he's delivering what's likely to be our one and only jaunt through the material; although he keeps the information coming at a cracking pace, he doesn't lose track of the larger movements and sweeps. He's modest about how much can be known about eras so very distant to ours, and -- for all his proficient-academic smarts -- he's down-to-earth about and even amused by how the real world works. (Bless him, he has no apparent political agenda.) And, unlike some profs, Harl seems to have no trouble with the idea that his listeners are grownups with busy lives. Instead, he seems to be thrilled that we're there, and that we're interested.

In the Teaching Company's lineup, Harl seems to be the go-to guy for the-stuff-in-between-the-usual-ancient-stuff. (It's a sign of how smart and decent the Teaching Company is that they have such a go-to guy on their team.) Harl doesn't do Egypt, Greece, or Rome at great length. Instead, he discusses all those other tribes and peoples. In addition to the series that I linked to above, he also presents the barbarians who duked it out with Rome, Byzantium, and the Vikings. Interesting topics! -- as well as ones that my college history profs skipped entirely.

A while back the bunch of us wondered if the teaching of history is getting too girly -- whether it has started to avoid wars and conquests. Harl's lecture series should please the boy-boys among us. It's about 90% boy-material -- a story mainly of kings, conquests, migrations, and empires. That's in fact my one small criticism of the series: Girly-man that I am, I could have used some breaks for human-interest stuff. How did these people live? What did they eat? What was day-to-day life like for them? (Long ago, I recommended Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger's "The Year 1000," a horizontal slice through British life at the end of the first millennium. It's a book that makes the living conditions of the time very vivid. Audio fans can rent the book here.)

It's a small criticism, though. For a few minutes, Harl had me feeling like I really got the ancient near east. That's quite an accomplishment. Now, if only I were young enough to have a brain capable of retaining new facts ...

If you're interested in further Teaching Company recommendations, you can find many such (from me as well as visitors) by typing "Teaching Company" into the Search box in the left-hand column of this blog.



posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Belts and Suspenders

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

What ever became of suspenders?

A few years ago, they had a mini-revival. But it seems to have flopped.

Larry King has been wearing suspenders probably since Franklin Roosevelt was elected for the first time. Plus, suspenders are his trademark, so he doesn't really count. But Dan Rather wore suspenders for a while, and what good did they do him?

In theory, suspenders should be functionally superior to belts and therefore belts would be expected to be the rarity. Suspenders, provided they don't become detached, can be adjusted just so in order to keep trousers at a desired position. The crease is maintained and there is no piling up of the legs atop one's shoes as can happen wearing a belt that can work its way down an inch or two during the day. This is why men's formal clothes are worn with suspenders and not belts.

My grandfather (1869-1963) wore suspenders. My father (1908-93) wore them with suits perhaps through the 1940s. My mother made me wear suspenders until I was seven or eight years old.

I hated suspenders. Still do.

For me, transitioning from suspenders to a belt was a milestone on the road to adulthood. Similar to the short-pants to long-pants transition for boys before, say, the 1930s.

The suspenders I wore had clips with teeth to attach them to the front side of my trousers; I can't remember whether the backside attachment was a similar clip or a button-loop. In any case, those clips were troublesome -- sometimes being hard to attach and other times becoming detached without warning.

Since childhood, the only time I've worn suspenders was when I rented formal wear. Not being used to them, they had an odd feel. The oddest thing was that the elastic allowed the trousers to do a mini-bungee jump with each step I took. My overall impression was one of insecurity: were my clothes about to fall off?

I'd like to wrap up this post with a profound sociological observation, but can't quite do so. The best I can come up with is to observe that the fall of suspenders and the rise of the belt roughly coincided with the start of the transition from males being relatively formally dressed to relatively casually dressed. And belts triumphed about the same time that men abandoned hats (baseball caps excepted).

Let me add that belts were commonly worn with casual clothing even when suspenders were pretty standard for suits. I suspect men perferred the apparently greater security of a belt and gradually stopped bothering with suspenders.

A final quick observation. Between 1950 and 1980 (approximately) waistlines on men's clothing have dropped. Higher beltlines are suspenders-friendly, lower beltlines are belt-simpatico. I'm pretty sure that the switch from suspenders to belts was a causal factor in the beltline change. There was a lag, however. Although I and all the other guys in high school wore belts (this was the late 50s), waistlines were still about belly-button high -- though not nearly as high as in the early 40s zoot suit era. It took another 25 years or so before the lower cut of Dockers pants and Tommy jeans prevailed, though the trend was in place.

Is there anyone out there who still prefers suspenders?



posted by Donald at July 4, 2006 | perma-link | (17) comments

Sunday, July 2, 2006

The Disappearing Middle?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Middle-class neighborhoods in urban and even suburban areas are shrinking at a very rapid rate. A Brookings Instition study "found that as a share of all urban and suburban neighborhoods, middle-income neighborhoods in the nation's 100 largest metro areas have declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000." More and more, neighborhoods are tipping either rich or poor. The most hollowed-out metro region in the country is Los Angeles, where "the share of poor neighborhoods is up 10 percent, rich neighborhoods are up 14 percent and middle-income areas are down by 24 percent."




posted by Michael at July 2, 2006 | perma-link | (23) 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 online yak) has often located and explored topics long before the squares in the media empires have begun to take note. Two of the topics I've made a point of pushing since beginning to blog almost four years ago, for example, have been immigration and the pros and cons of digital imagery; both topics have only recently begun to rate much notice in the mainstream. Even where discussing the arts goes ... Regular reviewing strikes me as pretty silly these days, so I've made a point of trying to discuss books and movies in nontraditional ways. The GNXPers and ChicagoBoyz regularly take hard-edged and daring looks at science and econ topics that the mainstream won't yet touch, and the erotic bloggers are making the mainstream discussion of personal matters look like etiquette-book stuff.

You no longer have to go through channels. You can just talk about (and read about) what interests you. Hey, does anyone else think, as I do, that Steve Sailer is doing the most vital journalism in the country these days? Agree with him or not, he regularly examines stories that 99% of mainstream journalists won't touch; he has an unmatched nose for topics that need to be raised. Steve of course publishes here and there in real magazines. But his blog and his contributions to the still sniffed-at Vdare are what I enjoy most about his work. There's nothing silky-cosmopolitan, let alone New York and Ivy League, about Steve.Yet, as far as I'm concerned, he's making the staff of The New Yorker look like a bunch of fuddy-duddies. Safe prediction: They won't be catching up to him for many years yet -- and once they do, they'll fail to give him credit for blazing the trails they're exploiting.

Part of the weariness I felt looking at The New Yorker this afternoon had to do with its pace. Life online is soooooo much faster ... I feel a little conflicted saying this, because I often style myself as Mr. Take Your Time. Life online often strikes me as far too unreflective for anyone's good. But, lordy, The New Yorker ... Those circuitous and ceremonial (yet pallid) sentences ... Those multi-paragraph-long windups ... Those acres of beautifully-wrought observations and details ... The overmanicured, wee attempts at wit ... Good Christ, it's all so overworked and constricted. And why can't these people make their points faster? Rock out, wouldya?

The magazine these days is clearly more informal than it once was, and thank heavens for that. But for all the brains, chops, and talent on display, it also feels synthetic, full of itself, condescending, and predictable. It isn't taking on much that's fresh, let alone doing so in any kind of fresh way. Despite the looseness and the attempts at hipness, it seems earnest and bratty. And that noble, pained, Harvard-liberal, American-Studies groupthink ... Christ, did people really once have to tolerate writers striking these kinds of narcissistic postures?

The magazine seems about as urgent and pressing, and as germane to my interests, as the Democratic Party does. Where it was once a bazaar of a publication that you might turn to to see what a bunch of terrific, maddening writers had to say, these days it seems like a nicely-done package: The New Yorker (TM). If you have a taste (largely nostalgic, I'd guess) for that particular package -- cartoons, lapidary sentences, naive-noble leftism, essays, self-conscious quirkiness -- being delivered to your house on a weekly basis, then it seems to me to be still a pretty good product. But it's a denatured imitation of itself, one that has been revived once too often, and in lifeless ways.

Here's my interpretation of what's going on behind the scenes. The staff has by and large put decades into playing by the rules and making it to where they are. OK, let's be blunt: They're a bunch of overachieving brown-nosers (exceptions allowed for, as ever) who crave respect. The magazine's brand name still confers and commands respect ... But all these wild media developments are happening all over ... All the values that sustain the magazine's traditional prestige seem to be collapsing ...

Circumstances like these lead to anxiety and caution. Imagine -- heaven forfend! -- if a Harvard degree meant nothing! Yet life does seem to be evolving in that direction. What to do, what to do? ... The editors of the current New Yorker aren't risking anything vital in magazine terms. Why should they? If they were to do so, they'd be risking their livelihood and their standing. Instead, they're playing the role of curators, promoting and protecting a classic franchise. They're hanging on, hoping to milk the brand successfully and to make it through their careers with dignity intact before the sand is washed entirely out from beneath their feet.

I can't argue with the verdict that The New Yorker is still an excellent magazine. During my couple of hours with it today, I ripped out a half a dozen articles that I was interested in reading -- pretty-good gleanings. But I ripped out no fiction, and no journalism other than one piece by Oliver Sacks. (And he's his own philosopher-scientist thing.) Instead, the pieces that appealed to me were long, heavily-researched articles about interesting, non-newsy topics: Huey Long, Gregg Toland ... And Peter Schjeldahl's art criticism is always an intense pleasure. (What an eye! What a sensibility! What a writer!) What my reaction means is that -- in my mind, anyway -- The New Yorker now stands alongside such publications as American Heritage and Preservation. In other words, it has become a not-bad -- if dowdy and square -- monthly. So why do they keep putting it out every week?

How does The New Yorker strike you these days?



posted by Michael at July 1, 2006 | perma-link | (32) comments

Friday, June 30, 2006

Roger Scruton and Oikophobia

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards

Thanks to Right Reason's Steve Burton for calling attention to this brilliant Roger Scruton speech. Scruton explores the touchiness of our ruling elites where the topics of immigration and integration are concerned:

For a long time now the European political class has been in denial about the problems posed by the large-scale immigration of people who do not enter into our European way of life. It has turned angrily on those who have warned against the disruption that might follow, or who have affirmed the right of indigenous communities to refuse admission to people who cannot or will not assimilate. And one of the weapons that the elite has used, in order to ensure that it is never troubled by the truths that it denies, is to accuse those who wish to discuss the problem of 'racism and xenophobia'.

Scruton discusses what it means to belong to a society:

Every society depends on an experience of membership: a sense of who 'we' are, why we belong together, and what we share. This experience is pre-political: it precedes all political institutions, and provides our reason for accepting them. It unites left and right, blue-collar and white-collar, man and woman, parent and child. To threaten this 'first-person plural' is to open the way to atomisation, as people cease to recognize any general duty to their neighbours, and set out to pillage the accumulated resources while they can.

Scruton also invents a nifty new word -- "oikophobia" -- to fight back against those who use terms like "racism" and "xenophobia" to stifle legitimate discussion of important matters. Here's how he defines "oikophobia":

Its symptoms are instantly recognized: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with 'them' against 'us', and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably 'ours'. I call the attitude okophobia -- the aversion to home -- by way of emphasizing its deep relation to xenophobia, of which it is the mirror image. Oikophobia is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested.

Here's a Salon interview with Roger Scruton.



UPDATE: Lexington Green (via Helen Szamuely) is reminded of an article on a similar theme by Kenneth Minogue.

posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (31) comments


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Why doesn't America treat itself to festivals like this one? Don't skip the slide show. (NSFW link thanks to the NSFW DazeReader.)

* The modernist dream lost its spell over me long ago. But if I did still follow modernist architecture, I'd follow the kind of modernist architecure that John Hill follows.

* Say hello to the new-style racial tension. It's something that -- thanks to our idiotic immigration policies -- we'll be seeing a lot more of.

* Tosy and Cosh thinks that "Titanic" was a lot better than it's often made out to be.

* Most Dutch now believe Islam is incompatible with modern Western society.

* Thanks to GNXP's Coffee Mug, who points out that many episodes of "The Charlie Rose Show" can now be watched on Google Video.

* A quarter of a million people in China commit suicide every year.

* Here's a hilarious posting entitled Top Ten Stock Photography Cliches. You didn't know you knew these cliches, but you do. (Link thanks to Lynn.)

* Dean Baker thinks we needn't be too awfully concerned about doctors' earnings.

* Chelsea Girl makes the act she describes as much a literary as a sexual event. (No pix, but a lot of very evocative NSFW words.)

* Why do some logos hold the public's attention? Why do some brand identities work and never let go? Michael Bierut speculates.



posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sudoku Triumphant

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In terms of popularity, Sudoku is blowing crossword puzzles out of the water. 40 of the top 50 books in the adult "games" category are now Sudoku books, and puzzle traditionalists aren't pleased. (Source.)



posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Technical Time Out

Thanks to everyone who wrote in earlier to let me know that the blog seemed to have been hijacked. Scary! In fact, a domain name renewal wasn't executed as smoothly as it should have been. A few back-and-forths with our registrar, a couple of hours out of my life, and all was back to normal. Not that I'm bitter about those lost hours or anything ...

Now, back to our usual programming.

posted by Michael at June 30, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Hoops

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yet another party that I'm very late to ... Did you know that Hula Hoops are once again cool? Actually, they seem to have gone beyond cool into downright edgy, even punk. Fitness, attitude, sex, daring -- you got it.

* Here's a cute fire-hoop routine.

* Miss Saturn starts her saucy burlesque hoop act at about minute four in this video.

* Yoga hooping.

* Fairy hooping.

* Hoop therapy.

* Arty hooping.

* Naked hooping.

* Even -- gadzooks -- virtuosic middle-aged hooping.

Fun to see that a movie documentary about the New Hooping is in production. Hooping.Org seems to be media central for the hooping craze. NPR offers an audio report.



posted by Michael at June 29, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* My copy of the July-August Commentary arrived yesterday and what did I see on the inside-back cover but an ad for a journal titled The Objective Standard.

Objective? Well, the headline said "At Last! A rational, principled alternative to the disastrous ideas of liberalism and conservatism." Hmm.

So I hopped on the web and looked at their site.

Turns out the Ayn Rand crowd is behind it. So they really ought to have named it The Objectivist Standard.

'Cause it sure ain't objective, if the web site's contents takeouts are any guide.

* That same Commentary issue has a Terry Teachout article I found interesting. Heck, I find almost anything Teachout writes interesting.

Rather than his usual music commentary, Terry riffs on a new biography of the late art critic Clement Greenberg by Florence Rubenfeld ("Clement Greenberg: A Life").

Greenberg famously championed the New York School of Abstract Expressionism and did much to launch the career of Jackson Pollock. Greenberg failed to appreciate the profound wonder and significance of most post-AE art and his career as critic sputtered to a crawl by the end of the sixties.

To my way of thinking, Greenberg's most dangerous notion (assuming Teachout got it right) was that there was an historical determinism in art that inevitably led to AE. This is the garbage I was fed in art history classes back in 1958-59. So now I have a better idea where my instructor got it from.

(Note to self: Suck in your gut and read more about art criticism of the 1940s and 50s. Yes I was alive then, but too young to read more than Time magazine's art coverage -- though they did regularly print color reproductions of what was hot in NYC at the time.)

Right now you'll have to buy the magazine to read the article. But try to remember to check their web site later this summer to see if they post it.

* And what have I been up to lately?

Getting rid of books. That's what.

Not to mention other stuff including file cabinets full of demographic data I Xeroxed over the years at considerable time and expense. Plus piles of really old (40-50 years old) issues of Time, Newsweek and car mags such as Motor Trend. And almost every issue of Road & Track from 1956 to 1990. (I haven't actually gotten rid of the magazines yet, but need to come up with some solution that doesn't involve keeping them.)

Last weekend I hauled a pile of books to Powell's in Portland and got a couple hundred dollars, selling all but four. I figure I'll need to make two more trips in July to get rid of the rest of the saleable ones. And at the end of the road, I'll still have a ton of books.

As attentive 2Blowhards readers know, I got married last month. Now I'm cleaning out my apartment so that I can move in with my bride later this summer. I hate getting rid of books, some of which I've had for decades. But, eventually, downsizing is inevitable so I might as well get started. The cold-blooded criterion I'm using is: How likely is it that I'll ever re-read the book or use it for reference.

Some books clearly are doomed to go and others are obvious keepers. It's the gray-area books that make the chore difficult.



posted by Donald at June 28, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Kids Forever

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Steve notices an article about a study concluding that immaturity is on the rise. A long-ago posting of mine entitled "Adolescent Nation" might be of interest to those who suspect (as I do) that there's something to the claim.



posted by Michael at June 28, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Four Facts About Neil Diamond

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* As a kid, Neil Diamond sang in a choir with Barbra Streisand.

* Neil Diamond is now 65.

* Neil Diamond wrote "I'm a Believer."

* It took Neil Diamond four years of Freudian analysis to wake up to the fact that his song "Solitary Man" -- "I’ll be what I am. A solitary man" -- was about him.

Here's his official site. Here's Wikipedia's entry on him. Neil Diamond is on MySpace! Here's the video for Smash Mouth's amusingly hardhitting version of "I'm a Believer."



posted by Michael at June 28, 2006 | perma-link | (2) 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!



posted by Michael at June 27, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Razib Interviews Adam Webb

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I enjoyed Razib's 10 Questions with traditionalist Adam Webb, whose take on modern liberalism reminds me some of John Gray's and Stephen Toulmin's. (Word of caution: "modern liberalism" in these discussions doesn't mean "America's current Democrats." It means the modern world in a more general sense, as in "post-Enlightenment Western society.") GNXP commenters applaud and cavil; Webb responds. Here's Webb's book.



posted by Michael at June 27, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, June 26, 2006

Local Voting

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's a well-known paradox of the American political system.

In theory, voters were supposed to be most knowledgeable regarding local conditions and local candidates as opposed to state and national issues and personalities. That explains the original notion that voters elected electoral college representatives rather than a presidential aspirant. (Technically, this is still the case.) And it's why senators for many years were appointed by state legislatures rather than holding office as the outcome of a direct popular vote.

This kind of voter was just possibly the reality in the 1780s when the Constitution was framed. Communication was slow in those days; the fastest means of spreading news was via dispatch riders. Newspapers were largely a city thing, not part of the daily lives of rural residents.

Those times and conditions are long gone. In general, voters are more familiar with national issues and candidates then with local affairs. It's certainly true for me now and has been my entire life.

Now, I happen to think I'm a pretty good citizen. Not perfect, mind you, but maybe a teensy bit above average. I used to vote in every election that cropped up. And for every office and ballot issue to boot. So there.

No longer.

Over the years I became increasingly uncomfortable with the thought that I didn't know anything about most candidates for really local offices such as Port Commissioner, Coroner, School Board Member, and so forth. This wasn't quite so serious where candidates ran as political party members, because party affiliation served as a rough filtering mechanism. But here in Washington state, most local offices are non-partisan. And voting without knowledge was simply contributing random noise to election returns. Worse, I realized that I might well be voting for people whose positions were antithetical to mine.

Nowadays I don't vote if I happen to be totally ignorant regarding candidates or issues. This means I sometimes don't vote at all in some local, off-year elections.

I'm even less motivated to vote on local offices because, even though offices are technically non-partisan, the candidates who tend to get elected around here are in fact partisans of the party I oppose. That is, my vote doesn't affect the outcome, and I normally don't like the outcome anyway.

All the same, I do vote on a number of offices. So, aside from paid political messages, how do I inform myself?

Out here there are voter's pamphlets that display a picture of each candidate (though some don't submit a picture) along with a brief statement from the candidate. The statements can be helpful, but sometimes you have to work to tease out useful information.

Usually all candidates claim to be in favor of children, a clean environment, honest government, etc., etc. Not helpful. So then I look for other clues. The fact that a candidate had once been a Peace Corps volunteer tells you one thing, 20 years service as a military officer or policeman might say something else.

Then, where possible, I look at what people and organizations support each candidate. For instance, does one candidate get lots of endorsements from, say, government employee unions. Or is a candidate endorsed by politicians of known partisan status (that is, are all endorsers known to be Democrats, say).

Sometimes, I can be influenced by yard-signs for candidates. Near the state capitol grounds is a neighborhood populated largely by career agency managers and legislative staff functionaries. So, if most signs on their yards favor one candidate, I'm strongly tempted to vote for someone else -- provided his voter pamphlet paragraph doesn't demonstrate serious weirdness.

All-in-all, I do the best I can given the (admitted small) amount of time I'm willing to devote to local politics. Yes, I know my behavior ain't pretty compared to the ideals promoted in my high school Civics textbook. C'est la vie.

And how do you cope?



posted by Donald at June 26, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, June 25, 2006

When the Mountain Exploded

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There are five volcanoes here in Washington and another just across the Columbia River in Oregon. Not to mention a number of others to the south, extending to California's Lassen Peak which last erupted less than 100 years ago.

When I was young, the Lassen eruptions seemed a long time ago -- far away in time and place, nothing to worry about. Besides, my father, a man with scientific training, once said regarding our local volcanoes, "Aw, nothing to worry about -- they're extinct." My dad's training was not in Geology, I should add.

As many of you know, Mount St. Helens (scroll down for lots of info) came to life again in the spring of 1980, adding another source of disaster to the earthquakes I wrote about here.

Washington residents weren't much taken by surprise when puffs of steam started appearing atop St. Helens. Less than five years before, there was a steam episode on Mount Baker up north near the Canadian border. At the time, geologists had Baker pegged as the most likely volcano in the state to go off. So whatever surprise there was had to do with the fact that yet another volcano was acting up.

As the steam spewed and ash began to darken the ice near the summit, local news media turned geologists into stars. We soon learned that rather than being "extinct" as my father thought, most of the state's volcanoes had been active in recent geological times -- even in historical times. The St. Helens link above provides a summary of known eruptive periods, and the most recent one was 1800-1857 when white men were exploring and settling the nearby lower Columbia River area.

Why were eruptions taking place as late as 1857 forgotten by 20th century residents? I'm not sure, but suspect the fact that those eruptions were never photographed had something to do with it.

Strato-volcanoes such as St. Helens are comparatively soft. When glaciers form, it doesn't take long (geologically) before the lava and ash layers become sculpted. Mount McLaughlin in southern Oregon looks almost perfectly conical from the direction of Medford. But from other angles, one sees that a huge chunk of its northern (shaded) side has been scooped away. Mount Hood seen from nearby Portland also shows a northerly scoop effect.

But Mount St. Helens, being recently (40,000 years) created, was nearly conical all the way around and likened to Japan's Fujiyama.

My mother grew up about 25 miles southwest of St. Helens and later was a schoolteacher in Longview, a late-1920s "new town" 35 miles west of the peak. She and her friends occasionally went on outings to St. Helens, picnicking by Spirit Lake at its base.

Due to my laziness that made the slow drive from Interstate 5 to the mountain a good excuse not to go there, I didn't get around to visiting St. Helens until 1978 -- two years before the eruption. On a whim, I packed my wife and two-year-old son into my car and off we day-tripped. The road went a short ways up the base of the mountain's north side -- the part that later blew away. It ended near the point where there was some leftover snow, so Andy got a chance to romp in the white stuff. Then we drove back down to Spirit Lake and poked around for a while near the lodge owned by curmudgeon Harry Truman who refused to evacuate when the volcano returned to life and whose body was never found.

I'm glad I followed my whim that day because it could be hundreds of years or more before anything like what we saw will be re-created.

Back to April-May 1980. For about two months we kept up with news reports regarding the status of the volcano. Some reports were empirical: X number of earthquakes of up to Y magnitude reported that day, presence of steam or ash, etc. Other reports were speculative: mostly interviews with geologists who of course wouldn't make firm predictions and mostly cited past behavior of volcanoes elsewhere.

I drove past it on the way to/from Portland a time or two and saw dirty ash around its top and small steam plumes. To be honest, I was rooting for St. Helens to erupt: Enough of this teasing, let's have the real thing!

(Like most people, I assumed that an eruption would be vertical, creating a crater at the summit. This might be followed by building the mountain higher. Instead, a bulge gradually formed on the north side. Eventually, this bulge gave way in a huge earth slide and the volcano erupted horizontally, stripping everything bare for miles.)

A stroke of luck to scientists was the unusually clear weather at the time of the eruption. Moreover, there were a surprising number of people with cameras at the ready. So there is a second-by-second record of eruption from viewpoints including Longview to the west, the top of 12,000-foot Mount Adams to the east and a small airplane flying above St. Helens. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any of these photos on the Web. They can be found in government research publications.)

Saturday, 17 May, my family (now including a 15-month-old daughter) were in Seattle visiting my parents. It was getting near sunset when we drove Interstate 5 back to Olympia. There were a few places along the way where one could see the top of St. Helens (before it was blown away: can't see it from there now). I was able to glance at its silhouette against a reddish-yellow sky and wondered if the damned thing was ever going to blow.

Sunday morning was sunny. For some reason we went to a nearby supermarket and on our way out the checker mentioned that the radio was saying St. Helens had erupted.

(We did not hear the explosion. Our house was about 65 miles from the mountain. From what I got from news reports at the time, people comparatively near St. Helens heard nothing whereas more distant folks did hear it.)

On went our radio. And then the TV. After an hour or two of listening, I got fidgety and said "let's hop in the car and take a look". So we did.

We drove south on I-5 about 30 miles to the town of Chehalis. Near it, the State Patrol had set up a roadblock to turn around southbound traffic. By that time it was known that freeway bridges across the Toutle River (whose headwaters are near St. Helens) were in danger of being washed out by the surge of water and mud comprised of ash and melted glacial ice along the path of the river.

The freeway was totally closed at those bridges, about 25 miles south of where we were. But I knew we could get a pretty good view of the mountain if we could go another 15 miles south. So I exited at the roadblock and simply ducked through Chehalis, hopping back on I-5 south of town. We continued to Exit 63 (the Winlock-Toledo road) situated on a hill where we could park and see St. Helens (35 miles away).

The mountain itself couldn't be seen due to haze caused by ash from the explosion. What we could see was the ash plume. By this time it was about five hours after the eruption, yet there was a steady flow of dark ash moving straight up out of the volcano for thousands of feet (as best I remember, news reports had it at 25 or 30,000) before high-level winds completely swept it off to the east, blanketing Yakima, Ritzville and other places in its path.

What's more, it was no longer a sunny day. Not near the volcano, anyway. A layer of stratus clouds was above us, and it stretched away to the southeast over Mount St. Helens and beyond.

Given the clouds and the ash, everything seemed subdued, gloomy, almost depressing. We looked at the volcano for a little while, but nothing was happening besides the endless spewing so we got back in the car and left. As we headed north, the stratus layer became increasingly broken and it got sunny again.

It struck me as what one might expect when driving away from Hell.

Mount St. Helens Gallery

This is the Mount St. Helens we knew before 1980. Spirit Lake, where my mother used to picnic as a young woman, is at the foot of the mountain. The explosion was on the side you are viewing.

Day of eruption.jpg
During the Eruption.
This photo was taken from the south, opposite the side of the mountain that blew away. The ash cloud that obscured my view can be seen. The wind is blowing west (left) to east (right).

Post -eruption.jpg
After the Eruption.
Here is what was left, as seen a few years later.




When I was young, I thought the volcanic mountains of the Cascade Range were lovely things. At a distance, in the summer when winter snows are melted and the air is hazy, all one can see is sunshine on the gleaming white glaciers. So the mountains can seem to be floating above the ground, the hazy blue-gray of their bases blending with the color of the sky. This is especially true of the view of Mount Rainier from Seattle.

Since Mount St. Helens erupted, my attitude is less kindly. Yes, the mountains (aside from the broken stump of St. Helens) are still lovely. But I'm now wary: those mountains can kill.

The greatest potential killer is Mount Rainier, the largest in the Cascades at 14,410 feet elevation. It is both taller and bulkier than the rest. Worse, Rainier is closest to major population centers. Several rivers drain from its glaciers through populated areas (such as Orting, a town with lots of new housing); an eruption strong enough to melt glaciers might case disastrous flooding. Some small cities (including Enumclaw) are built atop what were mud flows from old eruptions. If Rainier had an unexpected major eruption, many people would be doomed, as timely evacuation would be difficult. Even with weeks of warning a preemptory evacuation might not be entirely successful; some people surely would tire of being refugees and sneak back to their homes.

Finally, if you are interested, here is a link to a live Mount St. Helens videocam

posted by Donald at June 25, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, June 23, 2006

"Bollywood Comedy"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

David Chute reprints a good article by Lisa Tsering about non-Indians who have fallen under the spell of Bollywood films -- Chute himself is one of the smitten, and is quoted in the article ... And Tsering mentioned a Bollywood parody video that has been a hit on YouTube ... And I wound up laughing a lot watching it. Here's comedian Winston Spear:

Don't skip the Tsering article, which includes the titles of many promising-sounding Bollywood films. I've put them on my DVDs-to-watch list, and I'm eager to hear MD's evaluation of them.



posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Americans and Preference

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards--

When I look over the many comments that accumulate on my various postings about immigration policy, what puzzles me most has nothing to do with people's thoughts about immigration policy. Reasonable people can/will disagree, it's fun and enlightening to compare notes with civil and intelligent acquaintances, etc etc. No, what puzzles me far more than the question "How can anyone fail to succumb to the brilliance of my arguments?" is another question entirely: "Why are so many Americans so very shy about expressing their preferences?"

Preferences are important. Preferences help us decide how to live our lives. Without preferences, how would we prioritize? We need to connect with our preferences to help us answer important questions. What do we want our lives to be like? What are we hoping to get out of our lives? Perhaps preferences don't determine anything in an absolute sense -- but surely they deserve to be taken as respectfully into account as, say, predictions about the future. Predictions are nothing but predictions, after all. Where immigration policy is concerned: An infusion of tens (if not hundreds) of millions of Latinos might mean a glorious rebirth of American prosperity and optimism (Glen's view, I take it), or it might bring "Blade Runner"-esque crowding, pressure on lower-income natives, and lots of ugly ethnic horse-trading (my view). But both these points of view are finally nothing but predictions -- and who has ever proven to be any good at forecasting the future?

Unlike predictions, which are almost always uncertain, personal preferences can be known. Yet when I throw out the question "What would you like your country to be like?," only a few visitors volunteer a response. Very quickly, most people turn back to the apparently more-fun game of dueling ideals and warring predictions.

I've been so puzzled by the reluctance of many people to volunteer their preferences that I've put some thought into how I present these postings. With my last one, I thought I finally had it nailed. I would ask visitors what population they would be happiest for the country to be at. How to wiggle out from under that one? After all, where border policy is concerned, the one thing that we can be certain about is that a more-open regime will result in a larger population than a more-controlled regime will. So, "How big a population do you want your country to have?" I asked. Yet only a few visitors volunteered a preference where population totals are concerned.

I know that I rely on France far too often for the sake of comparisons, but since it's the only other culture I know (or once knew) well, I'm going to turn to it once again. French people are anything but shy about expressing preference. They're tiresomely opinionated, really. Ask a room of Frenchies about their opinions and tastes, and they'll still be jabbering enthusiastically six hours later. As a friend who lives in Paris likes to point out, Frenchies often begin sentences with the words "Moi, je ... " Rough translation: "Here's what I -- such a unique and fascinating creature -- have to say on this matter ..."

What's odd about this is that these opinion-spouting Frenchies inhabit a far more closed and stodgy culture than we do. Given the relative openness of America, you might think that Americans would really let fly with their opinions and preferences. But we don't. We certainly do whine on and on about our feelings and our troubles. (Not the classy visitors to this blog, though.) No reason to be as peacock-arrogant as the French, of course. But, where opinions, taste, and preferences are concerned, why be meek? Many of us carry on as though the only people whose opinions deserve public respect are experts. Earth to deferential person: Where your own life and your own preferences are concerned, you're already an expert. You're the expert, in fact.

I don't think this is entirely a function of this particular red-hot issue, let alone of the wonderfully rip-snorting visitors to this particular blog. I noticed, for example, something similar happening at Rod Dreher's blog recently. Rod wrote a posting entitled "Why Have Kids?" The conversation in the commentsthread turned into a war between breeders and nonbreeders -- mildly interesting in its own right, I suppose, yawn.

What fascinated me far more than the overt firefight was how seldom the participants used the argument, "This is the way I choose to live my life, because this is the way I want to live my life." Instead, nearly everyone relied on outside factors. The world has enough people already ... The world needs more people ... God wants us to breed ... It's cruel to animals ... People were reaching for cosmic -- political, ecological -- reasons to support their positions. I don't mind this; there's no reason such factors shouldn't play a role in decision-making. But isn't personal preference an important factor too? It didn't seem to occur to many of these commenters that "This is how I want to lead my life, and how I choose to lead my life" might be a legitimate, and perhaps even the clinching, argument.

Bizarre. Do Americans suffer from an excess of niceness? Are we reluctant to assert personal preferences simply because we're hesitant and respectful -- because no one has asked us to? If so, whose interest and attention are we waiting for? (Our stabbing-us-in-the-back elites? I hope not.) Perhaps we're shy about asserting personal preference because we're anxious about being left behind. I remember being struck by that suspicion during a long-ago visit to Vegas. The city was bursting with attractive dames in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations. Yet nearly all of them had got themselves up in the same way. As wonderfully various as these gals were, nearly all of them were doing their best to look like the same expensive blonde callgirl.

Why should we dream up social pressures (and then cave in to them) when there are none? A Brit friend who has spent some time in the U.S. took note of the same phenomenon. While he loved our freedom, he was amazed by the way so many of us choose to chase the same goals, and in the same ways. His own theory was this: Americans have so much freedom that we get scared. We can't handle it, so we band together in herds. I think he may be onto something. Americans often seem to be semi-convinced that if we play along we'll wind up with a big piece of the pie -- and that, if we don't, we're going cut ourselves off entirely from the wonders of the American mainstream.

Perhaps I'm being ungenerous. Still ... Perhaps wide-open freedom does make many people nervous; perhaps it leaves them wanting to seek shelter. Religion (which offers life-guidance, whether good or bad) has been by and large discredited, and the secular versions that function as religion-surrogates (self-help, science, liberalism, feminism) often offer super-bad life-advice. So people look outside themselves for hard-and-fast, factual-seeming justifications for the lives they're in fact choosing to live.

Deep down, I have a hunch that many of us simply haven't developed the confidence it takes to express (and stand by) our preferences. After all, it takes skill, effort, and flair to do so. Many people haven't cultivated the skill of communing with their insides -- their tastes, reactions, and preferences. We haven't given ourselves the chance to sift, sort, and compare notes with people we respect. And we haven't taken the trouble to introduce our tastes and preferences into the public discussion.

Grrr. Hey, America: It's OK to prefer butter to margarine. It's OK to prefer one wine to another, and OK to prefer a neighborhood that offers opportunities for walking to one that's purely drive-through. It's also OK to prefer a future for America that involves a population of 300 million instead of 600 million. (Vice versa too, of course.) I think, in fact, that it's tragic that we're so tentative. Imagining that we're being polite and respectful, we wind up letting ourselves be steam-rollered and taken advantage of. Hey, America: Your elites are screwing you over -- don't just lie there and take it! One of the greatest things about the advent of the blogsophere is that it isn't just giving us opportunities to sound off; it's giving many of us opportunities to discover how we feel in the first place. I for one always come away from a blogchat thinking fresh thoughts and examining questions from new angles.

If anyone should choose to leave a comment on this posting, let's -- please please please -- dodge the immigration issue and at least start off by focusing on the topic at hand. Any hunches about what has made so many bright and informed Americans so hesitant about expressing their personal preferences, and about according their personal preferences some weight?



posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (50) comments

YouTube Questions

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Watching an old video of some yoga immortals that someone posted on YouTube, Alan Little wonders what kind of legal ground is being trod. Watching some videos of the Harlem Globetrotters posted on YouTube, Bill Gates wrestles with the same question. Great Gates quote: "Stolen's a strong word. It's copyrighted content that the owner wasn't paid for."

I've been telling young people for years to go into copyright law. There isn't going to be a shortage of work in that field for a long time to come.



posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Anyone whose blood pressure is a little low could certainly do worse than pick up a copy of today's Wall Street Journal, which features an excellent and outrage-provoking article by Ellen E. Schultze and Theo Francis. The article's gist: Even as many companies are pruning back or terminating conventional pension plans, pension plans for top executives are growing more deluxe and expensive. Though the rationale for cutting back trad pension plans is that companies simply can't afford them any longer, many of those same companies are piling up ever more in the way of financial obligations to their executives. Oh, and btw? These liabilities require supersonic accounting skills to tease out.

Since I can't find the article online, I'll pass along some of its more gasp-inducing facts:

  • While pensions for grunt-level employees generally replace 20-35% of the employee's final salary, pensions for top executives often replace 60-100% of the executive's salary. Schultze and Francis compare the financial fates of two AT&T; people. CEO for a grand total of five years, David Dorman will receive a pension of $2.1 million a year -- 60% of his salary. Ralph Colotti worked as an accountant for AT&T; for 33 years. His pension: $28,800 -- 33% of his final pay.

  • Pfizer chairman Henry McKinnell will receive a $6.5 million-a-year pension -- 100% of his pay level, and an $85 million liability for Pfizer. Edward Whitacre of AT&T; will receive $5.4 million a year for life on top of a lump sum of $18.8 million -- a cost to AT&T; of $84 million. William McGuire of United Health can look forward to a $5.1 million-a-year pension on top of a $6.4 million payout -- a liability to the company of $90 million.

  • Executive-pension liabilities make up a substantial portion of total pension liabilities at many companies. Some of the figures Schultze and Francis (and the accountants who helped them) dug up: "12% at Exxon Mobil and Pfizer; 9% at Metlife Inc. and Bank of America; 19% at Federated Department Stores Inc; 58% at insurer Aflac Inc." At some companies -- Nordstrom and Dillard's, for example -- regular employees don't even have pension plans, while high-ranking execs do.

  • Companies are under no obligation to report executive-pension liabilities separately in financial filings. This can produce strange bookkeeping illusions. An example: TimeWarner's filings make its pension plans look underfunded by 7%. Yet the plan for TimeWarner's regular employees is more than fully-funded. According to Schultze and Francis: "The shortfall is entirely due to a plan for highly paid employees. That one has a $305 million unfunded liability."

  • At Lucent, the pension plan for regular employees is so solidly in the black that earnings on it generated 82% of the company's profits last year. Yet an unfunded plan for Lucent's highest paid people had a liability of $422 million. The way Lucent's management is dealing with this puzzle? It has been cutting back pension and medical benefits for regular employees.

  • For tax reasons, most executive pension plans are unfunded; there's no money-bin set aside to deal with them. That means that payouts are made directly from the current bottom line -- which in turn means that executive-pension expenses hit companies far harder than do employee pensions. An example is, again, AT&T.; The company's payout this year to 1000 retired executives was responsible for 45% of AT&T;'s pension expenses. The other 55% of those expenses covered 189,000 people.

  • While companies are generally free to alter employees' pension plans at will, executive pensions are often protected from any kind of interference.

Our beloved elites, eh? I understand bargaining for a good deal. If I were in any kind of power position, I'd do so too. What I fail to understand is conducting affairs in a way that's guaranteed to produce outrage, resentment, and disloyalty. Do our elites want to kill the goose that laid their golden egg? And what are we expected to make of people who seem to see the companies (and the country) that made them wealthy as nothing more than conquered cities to plunder?



UPDATE: Randall Parker looks at a new Brookings Institute report that concludes that America's middle-class is shrinking.

posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Facts for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Among Americans, average daily calorie intake "increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000." (Source.) Meanwhile, for the first time in 20 years, soft-drink sales are falling. (Source.) The category isn't expected to bounce back any time soon. According to a Morgan Stanley beverage-industry analyst, soft drinks are expected to continue "to lose their positive image as a popular, versatile, fun beverage choice as consumers are cutting back on sugar, drinking more water and watching calories." Could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Fat-American era?



posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Richard Wheeler Reports

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm delighted that I've been able to coax another piece of writing out of our new friend, the Wyoming-based (CORRECTION: whoopsie, make that Montana-based) Western novelist Richard Wheeler. Richard recently attended the convention of the Western Writers of America, and has generously filed this report about the event.

Report From Cody
by Richard Wheeler

The convention of Western Writers of America, held here in mid-June, was remarkable for its size and vitality. There was an overflow crowd attending, the mood was upbeat, and the six hundred-member organization is in fine financial condition.

This is a remarkable feat, considering that western fiction is no longer a significant part of mainstream publishing, and exists only as a niche market. Most mass market publishers have abandoned genre westerns, and the remaining ones concentrate on dead western authors. University presses have to some extent taken up the slack, publishing a little western fiction and nonfiction.

The transformation of WWA from an organization struggling to survive as western fiction and film declined in recent decades, to its robust status today, is largely the result of remaking the organization. It began in 1953 as an authors guild, with membership confined to well-established professionals. In this respect it resembled its brother genre fiction guilds, Mystery Writers of America, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Some years ago WWA quietly began to ignore its membership bylaws and admitted people who did not qualify. Later this was legitimized by changing the bylaws to admit self-published authors, paving the way for the flood of members who resort to the new print-on-demand vanity presses such as iUniverse or PublishAmerica. Today, perhaps three-quarters of the members have no significant professional credentials. As traditional book publishers retreat from western fiction, that percentage is likely to increase.

The Mystery Writers and Science Fiction Writers have gone the other direction, tightening membership requirements to preserve their professional status, and requiring applicants for membership to be published by an approved list of legitimate royalty-paying presses.

WWA is also steadily expanding its Spur Awards. Two new ones were announced at the Cody convention, one for best original audio novel, and one for best western song. The latter is actually a major departure for WWA, the first move from literature to music, or to put it another way, a departure toward the performance arts. The new awards will draw WWA away from print and into other media.

For an organization wrestling with its irrelevance to traditional publishing (New York editors and publishers and agents no longer bother to attend its conventions), WWA offers an amazing number of awards. With the new additions, it now offers seventeen Spur Awards, plus the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement. Some of these awards, notably the Best First Novel and Storyteller, began life as subsidiary honors, and were not intended to be Spur Awards, but recent boards have converted them. WWA hands out more awards than any other genre literature society.

By way of contrast, the larger and more successful guilds have fewer awards. The Science Fiction Writers offer Nebulas in five categories, plus the Damon Knight Memorial, and the Andre Norton Award. The Mystery Writers offer twelve Edgars plus the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

But WWA has found that handing out the candy is a good way to maintain a robust membership. And as its connection to literature wanes, it is expanding into performance arts. (In recent years, members have taken to wearing elaborate costumes, showing up as rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls, mountain men, or even sporting Wild Bill Hickock attire.) Where professional members were lucky to win a couple of Spurs over a lifetime of writing, it is very likely that many modern members will pocket half a dozen or more such awards.

But as WWA abandons its original mission in various ways, by dropping membership barriers and putting poorly qualified judges on the Spur Award juries and sliding away from literature, it also loses its reason to exist as well as any prestige it had acquired through the decades of its life. One sensed the hollowness at the conclusion of the Spur Awards banquet. There used to be an afterglow.


Many thanks to Richard Wheeler. We hope he'll continue to contribute pieces to this blog. You can read Richard's previous contribution here.



posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Laurence Auster wonders why the cultural neocons at the New Criterion are so attached to modernism -- and comes up with a convincing answer. Some of Laurence's readers pitch in here.

* Where did the absorption with the Self so characteristic of artists originate? We can blame it on the Romantics.

* All that said, I do like a fair amount of modernist art just fine, including some paintings by the Brit Howard Hodgkin, who has a big new show up in London. Online repros of some of Hodgkin's work can be eyeballed here, here, and here. Dig the way those colors vibrate!

* The sly and witty Bluewyvern has put up a a posting of links to some amazing photography sites.

* Did you know that only two biographies have ever been published of the painter John Constable? He does seem to have led a very boring life ...

* Rick Darby reads an article in the Orange County Register and thinks he may be seeing a little progress. Rick's blog now features a beautiful new banner headline, made for Rick by Daniel of Westgate Necromantic. Daniel is the sweet and heroic webguy who has been tech angel for 2Blowhards. Daniel's a joy to work with -- as well as (shhh!) very reasonable.

* Although I've paid for Apple's .Mac service for a number of years, I have yet to make any real use of it. I see I'm not alone in wondering if .Mac is just a big waste of money.

* In his explication of the Aussie slang word "bogan," Dirk Thruster lets fly with a lot of shrewd (and earthily-stated) good sense.

* Design Observer's Adrian Shaughnessy raves about the German obsessive-mystic movie director Werner Herzog, one of The Wife's favorite filmmakers. DO's Michael Bierut links to a Wes Anderson American Express commercial that confirms me in my conviction that Wes Anderson deserves an Oscar for Most Annoying Filmmaker Ever. It's good to see that DO has given its own visuals a classy upgrade.

* Lynn wouldn't mind living in a big Victorian house, or in a spacey bionic structure either.

* Recently I put up an enthusiastic posting about the neo-Oakeshottian English philosopher John Gray. It's evidently his moment.

* Pistol-packin', red-blooded George Bush has been the wussiest of weenies when it comes to his own country's southern border.



posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments