Thursday, January 31, 2008

Blog Seeks Subtitle

Gentle Readers, I have some excellent news to share. You may remember that, last week, I interviewed for a promotion that would involve exciting new professional challenges and responsibilities! Not to mention a substantial pay increase! Well, you will be happy to hear that I did not get the nod, and will happily therefore be able to continue to dedicate many happy leisure hours to the production of rantings for this online periodical.

Which brings us to our next point.

Ever since the L&TM5K started, back in 2007, it has always borne the proud motto of

My Life. Like You Care.

Recently, though, I've been wondering if the first half of that is really accurate. After all, I don't really talk about my LIFE very much; it's really more like "Stuff That Interests Me, Like You Care" or "My Gonzo Projects, Like You Care." Except, those would both stink as subtitles.

Now, I know that many of you are still busy working on your Flag of Oregon designs. But, I am now also soliciting suggestions for a new subtitle/motto for the L&TM5K. There's got to be something short and punchy, something that would capture the essential experience of the blog -- you know, the dashing wit, the bracing intellectual rigor, the ineffible PIZZAZZ of the thing. But I can't think of anything. Can you?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXII

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is, as always, a "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Treat this rule as though your life depended on it:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will lose their power of speech.
This Week's Category is the living end!

Death in America

There are many ways to make one's exit from life's great adventure, but some are more popular than others. Of the following, some claimed more than 17,000 victims in the United States in 2004, the last year from which complete records have been published. The others are relatively rare, each resulting in fewer than 3500 deaths. Which of the following are common (ie. more than 17000 per year) causes of death in the United States?

1. Accidental Discharge of Firearms
2. Accidental Drowning
3. Accidental Falls
4. Appendicitis
5. Death of Mother in Childbirth
6. Homicide
7. Kidney Failure
8. Leukemia
9. Meningitis
10. Salmonella
11. Suicide
12. Syphilis

Submit your "final answers" -- so to speak -- by posting them in the comments.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Apu Trilogy"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Apu Trilogy
Satyajit Ray (1955-1960)

Here, cribbed from the Wiki, is the kind of critical praise that generally gets heaped on Pather Panchali, the first movie of the Apu Trilogy:
  • Newsweek critic Jack Kroll reviewed the film as "One of the most stunning first films in movie history. Ray is a welcome jolt of flesh, blood and spirit."
  • Hazel-Dawn Dumpert of LA Weekly wrote that the film was "as deeply beautiful and plainly poetic as any movie ever made. Rare and exquisite."
  • Philip French of The Observer has described Pather Panchali as "one of the greatest pictures ever made."
  • The Village Voice ranked the film at #12 (tied with The Godfather) in its Top 250 "Best Films of the Century" list in 1999, based on a poll of critics.
  • In 2005, the film was included in Time magazine's All-Time 100 Movies list.
This is all very unfortunate. Pather Panchali, made by amateurs on a shoestring budget, certainly shows that its makers have promise; in the two subsequent movies, which are quite good, that talent will be realized. Pather Panchali judged on its own merits, however, is not "one of the greatest pictures ever made." In fact, it is manifestly not a particularly good picture at all, not by any conventional standard, and it is pretty disingenuous to claim otherwise. It is melodramatic, tedious, predictable, and, well, amateurish.

Aiming at social drama and evocation of a place and time, Pather spends almost all the screen time in a handful of rooms; you finish the movie with no concept at all of what the village it purports to depict even looks like. The characters are thin caricatures of socials types. As a student film, mind you, it would be impressive enough: A+. As a social documentary, perhaps a C. As an entertainment, it is hard to evaluate. I really have a hard time imagining the person who would find it entertaining in the normal sense.

Now, I have no problem with criticism that confuses potential with merit; everybody wants to be the first one to catch the next big thing. But when we are still trumpeting this kind of movie as "great" half a century later, something a little bit damaging starts to happen. After all, Pather Panchali is exactly the kind of movie that makes people hate "foreign films" -- it is depressing, boring, a little too clever with its symbolism, formless in its plotting yet devoid of surprises. When you recommend it as "great," anyone who watches it on that recommendation will forever distrust film criticism, and probably anything with subtitles as well.

The second movie in the series, Aparajito, is enormously stronger, and the third, Apur Sansar, is better yet. As he learns how to make movies, Ray develops a striking visual style that captures the life and feel of the films' settings. The pace is quickened, and -- especially in Apur Sansar -- the characters achieve a depth, realism, and complexity that allows us to see them as fully human. To be sure, they still would not be the first movies I would reach for if I wanted to give a bright high school sophomore his first exposure to foreign film, but these later two movies would at least be entertaining and interesting for the educated casual viewer.

Plot: A coming of age epic. We meet Apu as a baby, and in the first installment we follow his village childhood. In Aparajito, we see his adolescence and young adulthood in a larger town and eventually in Calcutta, and in the final chapter we follow the events of his early adulthood. Along the way, he has many lucky breaks and sudden turns of good fortune, but experiences a staggering degree of loss and disappointment as well.

Visuals: Clumsy, muddy, and unvarying in the first film. Increasingly sophisticated and impressive in the second and third, either of which would be worth seeing on the big screen.

Dialogue: In Bengali, with a significant loss of cultural context occurring in translation, I suspect.

Prognosis: Recommended for anybody who enjoys movies made in languages other than English. I would watch Aparajito and Apur Sansar, and then go back and watch Pather Panchali last if you are really hooked. You don't really need to see it first to appreciate the other two.

Monday, January 28, 2008

"Moral Sense" with Michael5000

A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large. The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.

Moral puzzles like this have been of increasing interest lately not only in the field of ethics, but in neurobiology as well. Scientists watch images of brain activity in people who are pondering this kind of issue to see what they can learn about the biological basis of the human conscience.

You know me: I'm always trying to help. So, here's my contribution to the field of moral intelligence.

The boat is sinking!

There is but one life raft, and you are the only one with the maritime skills and experience to make survival on the open seas possible. Regrettably, the life raft can only hold three people and there are four of you on the sinking boat: you, and three other passengers.

Which two will you save, and which one's terrified screams, pleading, and whimpers, still somehow audible over the storm as you row away from the sinking hulk into the night, will forever afterwards haunt your sleep?

Passenger #1 - A pleasant, slightly overweight man of thirty-five, friendly, conservative, and forgetful, a construction worker for a commercial contracting company. If he survives the current crisis, he will only live two more years. During that time, he will have four girlfriends, all of whom he will unwittingly infect with a sexually transmitted disease that will render them sterile and eventually, in their old age, blind. One of the four sometimes cheats on him with another man, and will infect him with the disease; this man, who is quite promiscuous, will in turn infect an additional 31 women.

Your passenger will die (in two years, as I mentioned) by falling six stories off of scaffolding onto a busy street. He will land on and crush a small dog, the only companion of a lonely old woman, who will subsequently slip into a depression that will last until her death seven years later. A promising young athlete who sees him fall will develop a post-traumatic disorder and lose his interest in basketball; where he would have had a stellar career, entertaining millions, commanding an enormous salary, and becoming a highly visible spokesperson on issues of social justice, he instead has a religious conversion, goes to seminary, and becomes a much loved small-town pastor, remembered for decades as a man who provided comfort, support, and guidance to three generations of parishioners. Finally, a bus driver who sees your passenger plunge to his death will, in the aftermath of the incident, decide to go back to school and study medicine; she will have a solid but undistinguished career as a urologist. She will not, therefore, be driving during a freak April blizzard two years later. In this storm, she would have lost control of her bus and plunged off of a bridge into a railyard, an accident in which she and 23 bus passengers would have perished, as well as 156 passengers on a passenger train which could not have stopped in time to avoid the fallen bus lying across the tracks.

Passenger #2 - A beautiful little girl of twelve, cheerful, polite, and sweet, an honor student and piano prodigy. If she lives, she will go on to win a prestigious youth piano competition at sixteen; the second-place contestant, unhinged by the competition, will go on a shooting rampage at his school, killing nine before turning his gun on himself. In the aftermath of this event, school districts all over the country will divert funds from classroom education to school security.

In college, your young passenger will study biochemistry; when she is 35, she will isolate a compound that will add an average of three years to the human lifespan; in two of those added years, on average, people will be active and in good health, but in the third year, must people will be confined to their bed and beset by fatigue and mild chronic pain. Her first husband will die after two years of marriage in a car accident; afterwards, she will go through many brief and unsatisfying relationships without ever really feeling "in love" again. She will be unintentionally cold and aloof towards her daughter, who reminds her of her late husband; however, her heart will be broken again when the daughter, at age 16, runs away with a banker in his 40s and refuses to reestablish contact thereafter. Famous as a scientist for her great breakthrough, she will nevertheless gradually lose the respect of her peers when she fails to produce any further work of significance; most members of the general public will assume she died long ago. She will live to be 96, spending her final three decades battling poverty, alcoholism, and increasing ill health.

Passenger #3 - A leering, arrogant man of 60, argumentative, condescending, and openly racist, who describes himself as a "soldier of fortune." He is, in fact, a hired killer; he has committed more than twenty murders for money, in addition to six which he has committed for his own enjoyment. If he lives, he will commit one more murder, after which he will be caught, tried, and sentenced to death. In prison, he will be successfully treated for acute schizophrenia, find religion, and become sincerely repentant and remorseful for the pain he has caused; after three years, he will be executed.

That one man he will murder if he survives the current crisis is one of the world's preeminent brain surgeons, who at the time of his potential murder is scheduled to remove a tumor from the brain of an Eastern European dictator. Without the operation, the dictator will die, and therefore will not implement a plan of ethnic cleansing in which 450,000 will be relocated and impoverished and 32,000 will die; among the dead will be a little boy who would otherwise have grown to be the universally-recognized greatest painter of the century, twin sisters who would have won the Eurovision Song Contest at age 17, and a young man who would have eventually lead a successful campaign to have the World Cup held every three years, instead of every four.

Who do you save? Discuss.
(Or don't.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Monday Quiz XII

Musical Instruments

1. What is this thing called?

2. What are the three instruments in a traditional string quartet? Which one is there two of?

3. What are these two instruments? And -- not so fast, you're not done yet -- which one is which?

4. What is the formal name for this instrument? But what is it almost always called?

5. And finally, what is this?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Weekend Edition

The L&TM5K News In Brief

No Doubt You Are Already Working on the New Oregon Flag

What, you're not? Well, there's time. Remember, all the rules are here.

Michael5000 Employment Update

Some of you know that I interviewed for a promotion at work on Tuesday, and had kind of expected to hear back about it by Friday. That I didn't is not necessarily a good sign. If I did get the nod, I would have the privilege of grappling with interesting new professional challenges and opportunities. However, my blogging life would likely suffer in the long run. Life is full of trade-offs, so we'll just have to wait and see how this goes down.

This Does Not Constitute a Review-for-Airplay Scandal

The current episode of the Fillup Munkee Show (reviewed in "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Boo and Her Monkey," Jan. 11) features music by me! Michael5000! I'm so excited! (Insiders should be imagining this paragraph being spoken in a Fillup Munkee voice, by the way.)

This is my first, um, soundtrack appearance, and it's very fun and a great honor to be a part the Fillup Munkee experience. I'm glad my silly little song ("She Seems to Think") got a chance to come out and play.

And Now, This Message from the People of Estonia

Regarding Estonia's award for "Best Flag (Tricolor)," ("Flag Criticism: michael5000's Turn," Jan. 14), the Estonian Consul in Seattle had this to say to the L&TM5K:

Thank you for sharing your appreciation of our beloved flag and bestowing this designation of award upon it.

We have been very proud of our flag since the time 90 years ago next month that it first flew officially over our Republic. We appreciate knowing that others too share in its fondness.
Pure class, I thought. The L&TM5K is not exactly your major media outlet, after all. You have to appreciate a country that is willing to talk to its fans.

Two Vignettes

I. Work Vignette #2

(Note: This vignette has been slightly modified from Reality to more accurately depict Truth.)

I'm at work, conducting the initial evaluation of three newly arrived refugees. They are guys from a country which shall remain nameless, a popular tourist destination that has a reputation as a place where the men are not adverse to, shall we say, an amorous adventure.

The first two tell me that they can speak a little English, so I ask the interpreter not to say anything for a moment, and ask a routine series of questions:

M5K: What is your name?
Refugee: My name is {name}.

M5K: Where are you from?
Refugee: I am from {country}.

M5K: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Refugee: Yes, I have two brothers and one sister.

M5K: How old are they?
Refugee: 25, 28, and 32.

M5K: What city in {country} are you from?
Refugee: What? Oh, I am from the city {city}.

M5K: How many people live in that city?
Refugee: I... don't understand.

So, this is pretty good. These guys have some handy survival English skills, for refugees only three days in country.

So now we get to the third guy. He is a handsome guy with an outgoing personality, full of charm and confidence and energy. Like the others, he tells me that he can speak some English, so again I ask the interpreter to hold off:

M5K: What is your name?
Refugee: My name {name}.

M5K: Where are you from?
Refugee: (blank stare)

M5K: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Refugee: (blank stare)

At this point, I have the interpreter join in again, and say "you know, it really doesn't seem like you can speak any English." But, he is insistent. "I do!" he says with absolute confidence, in his own language. "I really do know some English!"

"OK," I say, through the interpreter. "Just say something in English, then."

A tiny trace of something that might be embarrassment, or might not, flickers across his face as he pauses for maybe half a second. Then, very earnestly, he gives us his best line of English:

"Baby! Please, don't go!"


II: "Vignette of the Day 1/12/08--Tanning" by occasional L&TM5K commenter Allie.
[This is, as far as I can recall, the first guest content to have been featured on L&TM5K. Allie originally published this great vignette on her FaceBook page, but since I couldn't link to it without her having to change her privacy settings, she has graciously allowed me to republish it here.]

My mother, for those of you who don't know, is a teacher of Math. Because teachers are paid so very well, my mother makes up the difference by tutoring various youngsters from the community. This morning, a young woman was sitting at our kitchen table, painstakingly going over her Geometry work. I don't know her well, but she seems nice enough, but in a very bubbly, cheerleader "like-oh-my-God-where-is-my-brain" sort of way. In a pause in all that shape-analyzing action, my mother engages her in some small talk:

"So," my mother asks, "do you have your dress for the prom?"

"Oh yes," the girl replies, "that's all set, it's so like, totally gorgeous, but oh my God, I so have to go tanning. Michelle, like, look at my face, just look at it!"

There is a pause, where I guess my mother has simply shrugged her shoulders. "I've never been tanning," she replies.

"I know it's totally bad for you, and I mean, I probably already have skin cancer 'cause I like never wear SPF or anything, but I don't care."

My mother, with what I will guess is a bewildered look on her face says, "but honey, why do you do that?" At this point I can see the girl's face, wearing a look of utter disbelief. She might have just asked her why she bothers breathing on a daily basis.

"The question is why don't you do it?"

"I don't want skin cancer!"

"But you'll be tan"

"But I would have skin cancer!"

"But you'd be tan!"


Happy Weekend, Y'all!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Flag Makeover: The Beaver State

And You Thought We Had Got Past the Whole Flag Thing...

But no. You might remember that, after seeing the "most improved" category of the L&TM5K Awards for Flag Merit, Bridget B. brought up the idea of a "flag makeover."

Meanwhile, in response to Rebel's mention of the Oregon flag's two-sidedness, I shot off my mouth in the following reckless manner:
Rebel: Oregon has the only double sided state flag - does that count for

michael5000: The two-sidedness of the Oregon banner does count for something, yes. It counts towards the cumulative suckitude of our state flag. The "front" side -- something you would never have to say about a proper flag -- is a prime example of the suck-o-rama state-seal-on-blue genre that I discussed in the O.P., exacerbated by text that reads "STATE OF OREGON." Rule of Thumb: If your flag is so unmemorable that you have to WRITE OUT THE NAME OF YOUR STATE ON IT, start from scratch.

From the collision of these two concepts emerges:

The L&TM5K Design a New Flag for the Beaver State Contest!

And here are the rules:

1. A flag needs to look, you know, flaggy. Patterns of bold color with, if you must, simple and iconic symbols. No photos. No intricate drawings or text. (Intricate drawings and text are on the current state flag, of course, but that's a big part of why we are designing a new flag.)
2. Flags are one-sided. Duh.
3. Flags are rectangular. Don't get all Nepal-Ohio on me.
4. Ideally, a flag should be distinctive and immediately recognizable, yet sit comfortably among traditional flag designs.
5. Readers who are not especially knowledgeable about Oregon are probably worrying too much about symbolism if they even see that as a problem.


Entries are due no later Tuesday, February 5th. They may be in the form of a verbal description, a clipped and forwarded image, an original graphic created in a sophisticated graphic design tool such as "Paint," an actual piece of paper (or knitted swatch, etc) handed or mailed to me in real life, or any combination of the above. My email address, at Gmail, is michael5000.

Please note: participation is mandatory for those of you who have artsy cred and were hoping to keep it.

I will personally send the winning entry, or maybe all of the entries, to Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski! Or perhaps a low-ranking member of his administrative staff! And although the L&TM5K budget can't really cover an material award at this juncture, it seems quite likely to me that you will get a handsome check from the people of the State of Oregon if and when your design is actually adopted as the official state flag. Also, you will of course have the thrill of seeing your design featured in a future post.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXI

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is an "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Remember always these words of inspiration:
No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be stripped of their citizenship.
This Week's Category is a poet, but is unaware of that fact:

Famous Poems

In fact, many of the following (I'm giving you the poet, the title, and the first few lines) are SO famous that they are in William Harmon's 1992 book of the 500 most-anthologized poems of all time. The others are, in various ways, quite bogus. Which ones are the actual famous poems?

1. W.H. Auden, "Musée des Beaux-Arts"

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along....

2. E. E. Cummings, "anyone lived in a pretty how town"

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

3. Emily Dickenson, "The Yellow Rose"

There's a yellow rose -- in Texas --
That I am going to see,
Nobody else could miss her --
Not half as much as me.

4. T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels....

5. Alan Ginsburg, "On the Che Guevara Highway"

It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline
Fidel Castro's brother spies a rich lady who is crying
Over luxury's disappointment
So he walks over and he's trying
To sympathise with her but he thinks that he should warn her
That the third world is just around the corner.

6. Henry Reed, "Naming of Parts"

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts.

7. Percy Bysshe Shelley, "England in 1819"

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow....

8. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "In Troy"

The ragged sea, incarnadine, lashing
Here across rocky bluffs has ceaseless swept
Since time beyond our ken. Yet heroes here,
Remembered still, did clash, and die, and win
Their place upon history's page.....

9. Dylan Thomas, "The Two Seasons"

Weary: my body goes weary round the long fall.
Thin sun, and thinner, and dry the scuttering leaves
Swirl round nostalgic apple red and cider stand,
Round clean clapboard churches, whitewashed, tidy as pins.

10. Walt Whitman, "The Tethered Ass"

Poor little foal of an oppressèd race!
I love the languid patience of thy face:
And oft with gentle hand I give thee bread,
And clap thy ragged coat, and pat thy head.

11 . William Wordsworth, "The Swimmer"

With short, sharp, violent lights made vivid,
To southward far as the sight can roam,
Only the swirl of the surges livid,
The seas that climb and the surfs that comb.

12. William Butler Yeats, "The Circus Animals' Desertion"

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

Submit your answers, in a rhyme and meter scheme of your own choosing, in the comments.

The Reading List: The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov,
Oh my God I can't believe I've finished this freaking book that I've been reading since, like, August, Holy Mother of God, I thought it would never end.

After much hullaballoo at the launching of The Reading List last summer, some readers noted that a strange silence then settled over the enterprise. Well, it took me a long time to get through the first book of the project, The Brothers Karamazov. I have a variety of excellent and highly vindicating excuses, but won't go into them here as we have a lot of ground to cover.

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that Brothers is the densest, most challenging, or even longest of the books that I've set myself up for here. Nor am I likely to undergo a radical lifestyle or personality shift that frees up vast new expanses of reading time, not unless Hasbro really does end up shutting down Scrabulous. Therefore, in order to keep The Reading List from being a merely bi-yearly feature of L&TM5K, in the future I'll check in from time to time during the longer books. OK? Good.

Procedural Note

So, what I'm going to do here is present my reaction to the book simply as I read it, with no particular attempt to check in with the interpretive or critical literature. This does disservice to 13 decades of scholarship and exegesis, of course, but keeps me from having to earn a new graduate degree for every book on the list. Fair or not, each book is going to have to stand or fall on its own merits. If I have other thoughts later, whether on the basis of research I do after finishing the book, or from the new perspective you get after a book has percolated in your mind for a while, or because y'all have ripped me a new one in the comments, I might come back and give a revised assessment.

Why Is the Brothers Karamazov on the Reading List?

Because you, the readers, voted for it, of course. But The Brothers Karamazov was a slam dunk. It probably appears on Top Ten lists of the best books of all time more than any other novel. It is a book with many rabid fans; L&TM5K reader Austin, for instance, overcame an apparently broken shift key on his computer to send in this lyrical recommendation, which I love:

the brothers karamazov is to literature what opening the window is to indoor life. a constant reminder of the incompleteness of the preconceived world, and a source for its renewal. recommended by einstein, freud, kafka, henry miller.... it should be read by all saints, outlaws, and magicians.
Since this seems to be more or less what ALL the cool kids think of Brothers, it seemed like a good place to start the journey.

A Note on the Translation

My impression is that my translation (by David McDuff, for Penguin Classics) stank. Mind you, I don't know Russian and have not read competing translations, but the prose style here is pretty darn wooden. The continual reuse of odd phrases and strangely-chosen words may reflect an attempt to craft a highly faithful, literal translation of Dostoevsky -- I don't know -- but it certainly doesn't do him any favors.


It is the 1870s. A man in a provincial Russian town is universally considered to be a real jerk. He has three adult sons, or is it four? There's the impulsive lout, the snide intellectual, and the gentle and passive monk, but then there's also the mysterious and slightly spooky manservant who may or may not be a fourth, illegitimate brother. Father and eldest son, the lout, are both in love with the same woman, this despite that the lout is engaged to someone else; the intellectual meanwhile is in love with the lout's fiancé. Got all that?

This set of seedy family dramas percolates through the first half of the book until someone finally kills the father; the second half traces the aftermath, investigation, and courtroom trial that follows. Sub-plots abound.

The whole thing is widely held to be a long parable about the nature of Christianity and the existence or non-existence of God, but I sure as hell didn't catch that.


Dostoevsky has an amazing grasp of human psychology, and the power to make you see through the actions of his characters things about yourself that you immediately recognize, but could never have articulated yourself. Since he is writing at the time when the very idea of psychology is just beginning to be popularized, the novel is an implicit and sometimes (as in the courtroom scenes) an explicit critique of the infant science.

Critical discussion of The Brothers Karamazov, which seems highly focused on discussing it as a big long religious parable (which, if it is one, it isn't a very good or clear one), seems to overlook that it a terrific "state-of-Russia" novel. I mean this in the sense that Dickens is said to have written "state-of-England" novels, works that weave together the experiences of a wide range of different professions and social classes in a great portrait of a nation. In Brothers, we meet children and the elderly, the rich, the middle, and the poor; we meet the women and the disabled people that are invisible in many 19th Century novels; and we can observe how people in groups often act differently than they do when they are alone or with their family. It is a shrewd sociological document.

There's an artful subtlety in the novel that makes it feel like a relatively accurate mirror of life. The action is not neatly resolved at the end -- we know what all of the major characters intend to do next, but we also know that they have not generally been able to pull of their plans in the past, so we leave them with the action somewhat suspended. For that matter, we never really know the answer to the central question of the plot: who killed Dad? Now, the Wikipedia article on Brothers, which you would expect to express something of a critical consensus, shows very little caution in identifying the murderer. I am much less certain about this point, and suspect Wiki may have fingered the wrong man. Assuming, that is, that Dostoevsky himself had a specific killer in mind, and from the text I am not convinced that he did. As in real life, it's never 100% clear what's going on.


In Brothers, it is famously difficult to keep track of the characters. This is usually attributed to the difficulties that English speakers have with multiform Russian names and patronymics, but that's the least of the problem. The bigger issue is that Dostoevsky is much better at probing human nature in general than he is at crafting single, memorable characters. For this reason, the older and middle brothers (the "lout" and the "intellectual") are nearly indistinguishable until the middle of the book. The two main women whom the Karamazovs are entangled with are similarly thin creations; one is supposed to be a fairly wanton, mean-spirited lower middle-class woman who is morally redeemed over the course of the action; the other is supposed to be a good, kind, upper-class woman whose morality is lowered to the level of everybody else by the end of the book. Unfortunately, they are not distinct enough characters for these reversals to be particularly engaging, and the changes they undergo feel as much like authorial inconsistency as the unfolding of a transformation.

And, finally, it must be said: this book is incredibly long-winded. Dostoevsky never says in one sentence what he could hammer to death in seven, and the first half of the book is largely comprised of long, overwrought, unlikely philosophical conversations among the principal characters, all hung together with a bare minimum of plotting. Now, of course a modern reader struggles with dense language of any book written before television and particularly before radio, when attentions were more focused and distractions were fewer. But consider: Dostoevsky was roughly contemporary with George Elliot, and The Brothers Karamazov was published ten years after the death of Dickens. Both Elliot and Dickens wrote incredibly purple prose by modern standards, but their text is rich, never tedious.

The comparison with Dickens is a meaningful one, in that Brothers is very much a Dickensian novel -- a sprawling, cast-of-thousands tome focused on a few main characters but with dozens of minor ones, everyone wrestling with melodramatic questions of love and money, with questions of morality foremost in the author's mind. Now, if Dostoevsky is guilty of too little characterization, Dickens is probably guilty of too much, erring always towards the cartoonish. But for all that Dickens writes in a sprawling, florid, clearly-paid-by-the-word sort of style, he hasn't bored me since I was in my teens. Dostoevsky bored me in every chapter. Dickens' promiscuous sub-plotting is all part of the fun, as the extra activity is all part of an organic whole that is always bustling onward with a lively momentum. The sub-plots in The Brothers Karamazov are not the problem, except that they are as massively overwritten as the core action and therefore add yet more sheer mass to the book.


Clearly, there is something great and significant within The Brothers Karamazov for it to have impressed so many people so much for so many decades. Austin, he of the broken shift key, suggested a series of podcast lectures on Dostoevsky’s vision of Christianity, and I am looking forward to listening to those and seeing if they will deepen my experience of the book. For the time being, though, The Brothers Karamazov has been largely lost on me, a long and difficult book that offered me relatively few rewards for the time and attention I gave it.


I'm going to take a few weeks of sheer pleasure reading before taking on the next book from The Reading List. I'll let you know.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Three Ramblings in Search of a Post

Another Damn Quilt

I continue to be in finishing mode with the quilting thing, and finished this sucker over the weekend. It has the imaginative title Labyrinth. Four years in the making, it has over 3000 individual pieces. Technical details are over at State of the Craft, as is the custom.

Why? I'm not sure. Why does anybody do anything?

Mmmm... Maps....

Here's some fresh linkage for all of you map and geography dorks. You know who you are, and it's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The book arts and image dorks might want to check some of these out, too.
Naturally, we continue to endorse occasional L&TM5K commenter Dug's "Map of the Week" as well.

Meanwhile, by way of Chance's blog I discovered the following entertainment. It's the most map fun you can have without a map. Or maybe it's not. Kind of interesting, though. Can you top my 88?


Beard Update

Two weeks into the beard project, we have a bona fide (albeit admittedly quite scrawny beard), as seen at left. Interestingly, I had a test of beard resolve at this fragile state of new growth. I am going to interview for a possible promotion at work tomorrow morning. After brief internal debate, I have resolved to keep the beard and rely on my snappy repartee to get me through the hour. I'll trim the neck, of course.

Anybody with good mojo to spare at 9 a.m. PST tomorrow, I'd appreciate whatever you've got. You know I'd do it for you.

The Monday Quiz XI


1. What is this famous building?

2. How about this one?

3. What city is shown in these four photographs?
(They are all of the same city.)

4. Whose influential ideas about city planning are shown in these images?

5. Who designed these houses -- and what is the specific name he gave this kind of house?

Submit your answers in the comments!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

MLK Holiday Weekend Edition

This holiday weekend marks the end of the second season of the Thursday Quiz and the first season of the Monday Quiz. You'll be happy to know, I guess, that the Board of Director has already selected topics for another season of both Quizzes, to begin immediately this Monday. But until then, let's just take a moment to admire the trophy cases of some of our most bling-bedecked quiz regulars.

Mmmmm... Crow....

In the responses to this week's Monday Quiz, Rex Parker made this observation:

"I maintain that [Sol LeWitt] is a hundred million times more obscure than the other artists."

To which I dismissively but cleverly responded:

"@Rex: Nah, Sol LeWitt is roughly on par with Chagall and Rothko. One advantage he has is that, because of the three-letter first name and the consonant-vowel pattern of his last name, he shows up a lot in crossword puzzles. You should try your hand at crossword puzzles, Rex. I bet you'd really enjoy them."

Unfortunately, I later decided I would prove the point to myself with the help of the always-entertaining Google Trends. And here is the Trends graph showing Kandinsky, Chagall, Rothko, and LeWitt:

Damn. Rex, you were right and I was wrong. There, I said it.

Interestingly, here is the Trends graph showing Kandinsky, Chagall, Rothko, LeWitt, and Rex Parker:

And lastly, here is the Trends graph showing michael5000:

The L&TM5K Awards for Flag Merit: Readers' Categories:

On Tuesday, fellow flag critic Chance suggested the banner of the Moscow-area Oblast of Yaroslavl as a candidate for Most Bad-Ass Flag.
I'm inclined to agree. Runners-Up: Angola, Albania, Wales, Lviv Oblast (Ukraine), Saudi Arabia.

Also: New flag critic Rebel, in a move certain to be popular in the Middle East, declared Lebanon the winner of the Most Christmassy Flag category.

Runners-Up: Norfolk Island, Bangladesh, Surinam, Belarus, Tainan County (Taiwan), Simbu Province (Papua New Guinea), Smaland Province (Sweden).

This will hopefully mollify Kadonkadonk as well, who seemed to feel that Lebanon was slighted in the original awards.

ChuckDaddy, meanwhile, has suggested that Maryland has the Ugliest Flag.

This is not an opinion endorsed by L&TM5K. I see his point, but I actually like the Maryland banner for its unabashed old-school heraldic elements. (I am, however, openly hostile to the Old Line State's campy motto: "Fatti maschii, parole femine" -- "Manly deeds, womanly words.") In the Ugly Flag department, Zambia, Seychelles, Macedonia, and South Africa are standouts for me on the world stage; among the many train wrecks of the U.S. state flags, Delaware and North Dakota are highly egregious examples. How about you, gentle reader? Do you have a nomination or vote for Ugliest Flag?

Regarding Bridget B's idea of a "flag makeover" -- well, we'll be getting back to that soon.

Happy Holiday Weekend!
The Monday Quiz XI, which will have absolutely nothing to do with the birth, life, or legacy of Dr. King, will run at the usual time.

The Thursday Quiz XX

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is an "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Remember always Article VII of the Constitution:
No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be stripped of their citizenship.
This Week's Category is closer to home, if you happen to live in the United States of America:

Real and Bogus: American History

Significant events, all of them. The question is, which ones went down more or less as they are described here?

1. Battle of Red Cliffs –
In 1856, 600 soldiers of the U.S. Calvary, along with their horses, supplies, and ammunition, are traveling the upper Missouri on a flotilla of rafts, which are all lashed together for stability. As the river passes thorough a narrow canyon, a group of Lakota Sioux launch burning boats into the Calvary rafts, setting them ablaze. In the resulting chaos, all but six of the U.S. soldiers are killed or taken prisoner. The victory will preserve the independence of the Lakota for another decade, but will be their last major military success.

2. The California Republic –
In the summer of 1846, a couple dozen American hotheads in Northern California make a flag with a bear on it and declare California's independence from Mexico. They cancel their project a few weeks later, when news arrives that the U.S. has declared war on Mexico and is obviously going to be absorbing California in the near future anyway.

3. "Dewey Defeats Truman" –
Misled by public opinion polls, the Chicago Tribune prematurely announces Thomas Dewey as the landslide winner of the 1948 presidential election. The real winner, Harry Truman, ends up with one of the best photo ops of the century. Oddly, polls continue to be treated as if they were relevant.

4. The Ford Administration –
Public outrage over the Watergate Scandal fuels a landslide victory for Gerald Ford over rival George McGovern in the 1974 election. Although he presides over a period of great economic growth in the United States, Ford's popularity plunges when he appears unable to mount a response to the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran by student radicals. Acknowledging his own likelihood of defeat, he chooses not to run for reelection.

5. Hawley-Smoot Tariff –
In a characteristically clever 1930 reaction to the onset of the Depression, the Hoover administration enacts a stiff increase in tariffs in order to protect American manufacturers. The predictable retaliatory tariff hikes enacted by other countries kills the global market for American export manufacturers and pretty much guarantees that the Depression will be around for many years to come.

6. James K. Polk –
The eleventh President (1845-1849) is seen by some historians as one of the most successful. In four shorts years he met his every goal: He seized the whole Southwest from Mexico, made sure the tariffs fell, and made the British sell the Oregon Territory. He built an independent treasury. Having done all this, he sought no second term.

7. Millard Fillmore –
Fillmore is generally thought to have won the 1884 election solely on the strength of what, in a later era, would have been his movie-star good looks. However, Americans quickly realized they had elected a man of little substance. Corruption and incompetence, culminating in the infamous "Teapot Dome" scandal, plagued his administration, and the concerns of office sapped his health. His death in a riding accident six months after leaving office is widely considered to have been suicide.

8. Passage of The Twenty-Eighth Amendment –
In the flurry of political reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in 2001, numerous federal agencies, policies, and practices are reworked or reorganized. The change reaches the Constitutional level in the autumn of 2002, as the 28th Amendment, creating the Department of Homeland Security, is ratified by the necessary ¾ of the state legislatures in just a month and a half – making it by several years the fastest passage ever of a Constitutional amendment.

9. Pullman Strike –
An 1894 pay cut for workers at America's largest manufacturer of rail passenger cars triggers a strike and lockout; many railroad workers quickly join sympathy strikes and work stoppages. With the economy, completely dependent on rail transport, at risk, President Cleveland uses the U.S. Army to break up the strike. The showdown demonstrates the growing power of the labor movement, but also the power of the establishment to resist its demands.

10. Shay's Rebellion –
In the waning days of the Civil War, Tennessee governor James Shay sees the writing on the wall and "rebels" from the Confederacy back to the union in late 1864. As a result, Tennessee escapes much of the misery experienced by the rest of the South during the post-war years.

11. Whiskey Rebellion –
With the new central government of the United States still establishing itself 1788, settlers in the Whiskey River basin of western Virginia, still loyal to the British crown, petition London to be chartered as a British colony. Federal troops led by Thomas Jefferson himself lead a brief siege of the valley, and the rebels submit to the new regime with no loss of life.

12. The XYZ Affair –
With French-American relations deteriorating, an American delegation visits Paris in 1797 to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The delegation is not allowed to even speak to the French foreign minister without first paying a substantial bribe. They refuse and return home; subsequently, the United States and France enter an undeclared state of war, fighting numerous naval battles in the Caribbean and Atlantic over the next three years.

Submit your answers to L&TM5K Quiz Headquarters, located here in the beautiful United States of America, in the comments.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Big Sleep"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Big Sleep
Howard Hawk (1946)

After a short string of disappointments, we return to a truly great movie. Wildly entertaining, The Big Sleep is also a smart movie about smart people who interact with each other in a stylized but basically plausible fashion. Beyond this, it doesn't have any particular point or message, but really the promotion of wit and banter as their own rewards is a worthy cause in its own right. Lord knows the kids I encounter on mass transit could use some witty role models in their lives.

The Big Sleep, however, is very much a movie for grownups. Hawk trusts us to catch the subtleties, and to understand that people who use violence or their own sexuality without intelligent restraint are pathetic, even if they are superficially glamourous. The sexuality with intelligent restraint, on the other hand, is, well, dead sexy. Check out the scene in the bookshop, where the woman behind the counter locks up early for the day in order to share a drink with the hero. They aren't going to remove a single garment -- there isn't time, and they are keeping a lookout. Instead, they are simply going to spend an hour in each other's company, each enjoying the conversation and frank admiration of the other. And if you don't think that's damn sexy, you are either a) very young, or b) missing out. That shit is HOT.

Shortly afterwards, the hero tails a bad guy in a taxi driven by a sharp, confident female cabbie. At the end of the ride, he praises her driving; she gives him her card and tells him to call her if he ever needs her again. "Night or day?" he asks. "Night is better," she says. "I work during the day." Yow!

Plot: Incomprehensible. There's a thicket of murders, blackmailing, people with questionable relationships to the wrong people's wives, shady casinos, and so on. Scenes that would have clarified it all were apparently cut from the movie, in favor of concentrating on the relationship between the two leads, played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

It was a good choice. The plot per se is just window dressing; at heart, the Big Sleep is simply a love story punctuated by violence. The real action is in watching the Bogart and Bacall characters recognize that they are kindred spirits, cynical but decent people who sparkle with intelligence and crave the intelligence of each other.

Visuals: Good to great use of black and white. Always something interesting going on the background. There's a short scene where the hero comes to a realization over coffee in a cafe. Just as the idea comes to him, a waitress in the background reaches up and turns on a light that, in the screen image, is right over his head. It is so subtle and natural that you could watch it a dozen times and not catch it. I wonder how many moments like that I missed.

Dialogue: Marvelous. Hardly a dull line in the whole picture.

Prognosis: A blast. Highly recommended for you brainy types who hang out in my comments section. If you watched it a long time ago and don't remember it as all that, I bet it will have grown on you.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Flag Criticism: michael5000's Turn

As you have gathered, I am a dork of legendary proportions, and this explains why I have not been able to get the idea of comparitive flag criticism out of my head since the subject came up last week. You might remember our discovery that both frequent L&TM5K commenter Chance and some Kiwi prof had published their opinions on the relative merits of various flags. Well, with a deferential salute to their groundbreaking work, but with surprisingly little compunction about stealing the idea, I have engaged in a rigorous binge of flag-critical thinking, and am now prepared to announce:

The L&TM5K Awards for Flag Merit

Best Flag (Tricolor): Estonia

You can't get much more classic than a tricolor flag design. A tricolor's bright, contrasting fields do a great job of identifying your army on a confused battlefield, provide a striking visual accent against the ornately carved stone of your public buildings, and give your population relative flexibility when dressing up in the national colors. But please -- red, white, and blue has been done to death, to the point where it's not even useful anymore ("Are we in the Netherlands, or Luxembourg?" "No problem, there's a flag. D'oh!"). Red, white, and green; Orange, white, and green: these combinations are fresher, but hardly unique. Estonia's tricolor, on the other hand, is muted yet individual, dignified yet surprising. It takes a grownup color palette, and uses it in a flag that is remarkable for its simple, elegant distinction.

Runners-up: Armenia, Botswana, Lithuania, Gabon.

Best Flag (Figurative): Kazakhstan

When you deviate from simple color fields, it is easy to get your flag design into real trouble. Look at Uganda, Dominica, Macedonia, or South Africa for great examples of ways to make a hash of it. Kazakhstan succeeded where so many others have failed by keeping the primary flag design element, color, under control. A fairly complex central design and the inward-side filigree characteristic of the "Stan" flags are rendered spare and elegant by their rendering in just two mature and memorable but unconventional colors. One of the best new flags in recent history.

Runners-up: Angola, Bhutan, Turkmenistan, Barbados, Kyrgyzstan, Uruguay.

Best Flag (Classic): Portugal

This is a limited-entry category, as it requires the nation in question to have a centuries-long relationship with the practice of heraldry. Here, the issue is not so much design sense as projecting a vision of your country's sheer accumulated authority, the cred that comes with merely having been around the block several hundred times. Portugal's shield figure is dismissed by some as fussy, but it is set off magnificently by generous rectangles of rich green and red. The most identifying feature of the flag, that shield is the central focus. It's right there in your face, all but daring you to call it old-fashioned. That ain't old-fashioned. That's classic.

Runners-Up: Albania, Denmark, Iceland, Moldova, United Kingdom.

Most Improved Flag: Rwanda

Rwanda's former flag was a tricolor in the familiar African colors of red, gold, and green, marked with a big capital "R" in the middle for the purpose of distinguishing it from the flag of Guinea. No, really. The new flag, by contrast, is an optimistic landscape in green, gold, and sky blue, with a jaunty sun rising over the horizon of, one hopes, a new and more prosperous Rwanda. A profound improvement.

Runners-up: Georgia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Lesotho.

Best Flag (American State): New Mexico

Most American state flags are simply appalling. Sticking a prissy state seal on a blue background isn't a design, and the result is barely a flag. It's just your state seal on a blue background. Eliminating these embarassments narrows the field to only around a dozen real contenders. Of those, New Mexico's banner steps out of the pack for its clean and distinctive design, instant recognizability, and daring coloration.

Runners-up: Alabama, Hawaii, Maryland, South Carolina, Alaska.

OK! Let the dorky second-guessing begin!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Monday Quiz X

Modern Art

This week, it's the same question for all five: who is the artist? Not all of these are famous works in their own right, but all are highly characteristic of their maker.

In the unlikely event that more than three people sweep this one, you will also need the title for number three to get the Exclamation Point.

1. Who is the painter?

2. Who is the painter?

3. Who is the painter? (And what is the title?)

4. Who is the artist?

5. Who is the painter?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Weekend Edition

I am so totally full of, um, content this week that there's extra content spilling over into the weekend. Here are a few bits and bobs that we never quite got to this week.

There's an Election On!

Voters in two small rural states have been making important decisions about where political donors will be sending their checks for literally the next few weeks. The race is generally
characterized as being between an highly competant and charismatic man with modest government experience, whom everybody seems to like, and an highly competant and charismatic woman with modest government experience, whom some people seem to like but whom other people seem to hate with a startling intensity, but for no particular reason. Also, there are apparently Republicans.

I will bring you further updates as events unfold.

Boring Postcards: The Dirty Little Secret

Karmasartre remarked in his Thursday Quiz response that he had never received a boring postcard from Boring, Oregon, and I immediately felt a sense of deep, gnawing, guilt and shame. Why? Well, longtime readers may recall that Mrs.5000 and I actually have a boring Boring postcard in our collection. I bragged about it in this post.

But if you just followed that link, you may now find yourself confused and disoriented. "That does not look like the rolling landscape of the Boring area," you might be saying, if you are a resident of the Beaver State. Or, you might notice that the card looks suspiciously like the second card from last Wednesday's post, which is clearly from Glacier National Park, in Montana. That's right, gentle readers. Back in August, I posted the wrong postcard. I've known it all this time, and could never admit it. It has haunted me. I'm so sorry.

Here, at last, is the REAL boring Boring postcard:

Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Boo and Her Monkey

As far as I have been able to reconstruct, the story goes something like this: Frequent L&TM5K commenter Boo received a monkey puppet in the mail as an unexpected gift. She scratched her head, wondered "what the hell do I do with this?" and came to the only really rational conclusion. She decided she would design, direct, film, and edit a online television-style show, with the monkey puppet as the star.

I am not sure if The Fillip Monkee Show will have universal appeal, but I am kind of mesmerized. I think it's a scream. Fillip is an impressively well-developed and consistent character, and it is amazingly easy to take on his point of view. He is perfectly candid about the fact that he is a puppet attached to "the lady's" arm, that he doesn't eat or wear clothes and spends most of his time in a bag, but somehow that doesn't make him any harder to identify with.

Fillip is kind of an Alexis de Tocqueville to human life, curious about almost everything that is going on in the strange place he finds himself and doing his best to report back to his public. He is very earnest, but wears his enthusiasm on his, um, sleave -- he can't help but tell us how excited he is about the topic of the day. Like another naive traveller of film, Borat, he goes out among the people, who vary greatly in their ability to conduct a graceful conversation with a monkey puppet. There is not a lick of mean-spiritedness in Fillip Monkee, though, and he is not trying to trick people into revealing themselves at their worst; this makes him for my money both a lot more interesting and a lot more funny than Borat.

The Fillip Monkee Show is a non-professional, homemade production; judged as such, it is startlingly well-produced. Kudos to Boo for undertaking such an elaborate project, apparently just for the hell of it. I think many L&TM5K readers will find the Fillip Monkee Show pretty damn amusing.

BeardQuest '08

Inspired by d's increasingly stunning mane, and more to the point provoked by his direct challenge, I am now officially starting my first winter beard in six years. I may even go goatee. As of this posting, I am about 10 hours in. Wish me luck; I'll report back.

And Finally,

By special reader request, it's The Beer Quiz! That's right! Identify these five beer brands, and win -- not a thing! Not so much as a virtual comma! But nevertheless, you can submit your answers in the comments if you are so inclined.