Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Year Weekend Edition

A Bunch of Self-Referential Stuff, and a Quiz That Only d Could Love.

Party Like It's 1998!

For some reason, I have felt compelled recently to put together a personal web page. It is kind of a sweet old-fashioned idea, I know, but there you have it. As it stands, it is mostly just an index to the various projects that get written up in these blogs, although I may also eventually link out to some of my favorite internet diversions of various kinds (games, art, maps) as well. Or, it might just sit there and rot like all the other personal web pages out there. That wouldn't surprise me, either.

Anyway, if you are killing time, do pay a visit:

Update: it sat there and rotted like all the other personal web pages out there.  I killed in in March 2013.

The Reading List

Last week, I asked L&TM5K Dork Gray to pick the next book in my Reading List project off of a short list of candidates. Here's her response:

I'm going to go with gut and a certain irrefutable logic: Nabokov, Lolita. It's
the perfect bridge between the Russian-language books you've been reading
(having been written by a Russian and all) and it will be a great bridge to
other romances you'll read (I'm looking at you,
End of the Affair). Also, it's a
good fit time-wise.

Well OK then! A copy of Lolita has been rounded up, and I will dive in tomorrow with the new month!

Meanwhile, I was amazed by how many people seemed interested in giving The Master and Margarita a try. Mrs.5000 picked up the book only a few days after I put it down, and finished up with her re-reading yesterday.

Surprisingly, our cat Caliban appears to be giving it a try as well.

Not hard to guess which character he'll identify with....

Speaking of Cats

This photo is both an extension of the Sentimental Cat Post and an update on the M5K beard. Taken while I was waking up last weekend, it is not the most flattering picture of me, but it explains what I mean when I say that "my cat likes to sleep on my head."

We took her to the vet two weekends ago, and I noticed a chart on the wall that gave the human age equivalent for a 21 year old cat as being 100. My cat is 100 years old. Trippy.

The Blog Resolution Check-In

Here we are, one-sixth of the way into 2008. Thought I'd check in and see how I was doing on the New Blog Year Resolutions. Quality control, you know. Only the best for my readers.

Here's the findings:
  • Keep the blogs going: So far, so good.

  • Keep the Quizzes going if people seem to be enjoying them: Based on the straw poll from last week, people still like pop quizzes. Development begins next week on new seasons for both of them.

  • Be halfway through The Great Movies project by year's end: That requires a pace of about 3.5 movies per month, and I watched 4 apiece in January and February. So, I'm pretty much right on track.

  • Finish The Brothers Karamazov by the end of January: Oh yeah, baby.

  • Finish ten Reading List books by the end of the year: I've finished two, and start a third (see below) tomorrow. Comfortably on track.

  • In the Bible project, finish the Book of Ruth by the end of summer. Have already zipped through Deuteronomy and Joshua. Ahead of schedule.

  • More Vignettes: Hell, I might be overdoing these.

  • Keep up with everyone else's blogs: I get behind, but I always catch up. I hate missing out on your blogs; they are awesome.
And finally,

A Quiz About University of Kansas Basketball!

Not an official M5K Quiz.
1. What year did the men's basketball team help KU mark its first season in the Big 12 by winning the conference championship?
2. What player was the first freshman in Big 12 history to be named part of the All-Big 12 First Team?
3. Last year the Jayhawks celebrated a milestone with what overall conference title?
4. Bud Stallworth holds the Jayhawks' record for the most points scored in a single game during Big Eight conference play. How many points did he rack up against Missouri in 1972?
5. What former basketball player left KU ranked as the leading scorer and rebounder in Big 12 history?
Source: KU Alumni Association
Happy Weekend, Y'all!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Leap Day Books and Movies

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo. [Melancholy American dramatic novel]. Richard Russo writes novels that, for Mrs.5000, are funny books that make her cry, and that for me are wistful books that make me laugh out loud every couple of pages. Bridge of Sighs is his newest and by all appearences (I'm 5/6 of the way in) his best. Working, as in all his novels, in the milieu of a down-at-its-heels small town in the rural Northeast, Russo manages to recreate much of the American experience in this little literary test tube. His characters are as fully rounded, as complex yet as consistent, as any in literature. They are real enough that you care for them and about them despite yourself, in that psychotic break that good fiction so wonderfully invokes. They are real enough to show you something about yourself.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. [Gritty Crime-Ain't-For-Amateurs flick] This movie might have been custom-made to my specifications. It has one of my favorite actors! (Phyllip Seymour Hoffman) It has one of my favorite narrative techniques! (After starting with the central event, the film skitters backward and foreward in time to explore why it happened, and what happened as a result of it.) It has one of my favorite stock movie scenarios! (The heist.) It has one of my favorite movie themes! (The destructive forces that can spin out of control when basic human relationships fail). But somehow, it didn't all add up for me. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead implies a pretty grim social critique, but doesn't offer much in the way of helpful suggestions for improvement. The title is from an Irish saying, "My you be in heaven for a half hour before the Devil know's you're dead," but I haven't figured out how that connects.

Volver. [Spanish genre-defying movie] I hadn't seen a film by the famously quirky Spanish director Almodovar in a million years, so I didn't quite know what to expect from Volver. The beginning of the movie itself doesn't offer many clues. At first, you seem to be watching a conventional drama about family relationships, and then it looks like it's going to be a ghost story, and then, suddenly, we're confronting the classic movie problem: how are we going to get rid of this body? Except, as things turn out, it's still a conventional drama and still a ghost story, more or less. It's funny, sweet, and sassy, and packed with awesome eye candy. Mrs.5000, I'd be willing to watch it again if you want to see it.

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. [Incredibly action-packed autobiographical novel]. Ripping tale of an Australian man on the run who carves out a life for himself among the slums, expatriates, and criminal princes of Bombay. It's implausibly rich with bizarre and extreme events, and strangely free of dull moments, but apparently quite closely based on the author's own extraordinary life. The first-person hero offers a compelling model of the tough guy with a heart and a brain. Engagingly written and, in the reading I'm listening to on my Ipod, beautifully read by Humphrey Bower, who among the vast catalog of characters is required to mimic just about every possible accent that can be spun on the English language.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXVI

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 how to act if you hope to be "discovered" by a big quiz producer:
No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will find themselves on the cutting room floor.
This Week's Category is connected to you through no more than six degrees of separation!

Movies Starring Kevin Bacon

He has, famously, "been in everything." But not really, of course. Which of the following films did he actually appear in?

1. Animal House (1978)
2. Apollo 13 (1995)
3. The Breakfast Club (1985)
4. A Few Good Men (1992)
5. Friday the 13th (1980)
6. JFK (1991)
7. Magnolia (1999)
8. Mystic River (2003)
9. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
10. The River Wild (1994)
11. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
12. The Usual Suspects (1995)

Pitch your answers to some bigshot quiz executive by putting them in the comments.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Went to the Mountain Goats, and You Didn't

Last night was time to cash in on one of my Christmas presents to Mrs.5000, and it was one of those presents where I got as good as I gave, so to speak. The present was tickets to see The Mountain Goats at our favorite City of Roses concert venue of late, the East Side's own Doug Fir. We were expecting it to be freaking awesome, and we were not disappointed.

Many gentle readers, I know, share our enthusiasm for the Goats, whose elegant song structures and narrative lyrics represent some of the finest pop songcraft currently available on the planet. As this was our first time seeing them live, there were some surprises. First, what a dork lead Goat John Darnielle is! Mugging like he was on children's television, going off on rambling affectionate asides to the audience, quoting Chaucer -- fucking Chaucer, people! -- from the stage, he came off as a completely loveable geek. I should have slipped him the L&TM5K URL.

The other surprise was the, urm, muscularity of the performance, which had a much harder rock edge than do the studio recordings. The melodic gracefullness -- the prettiness, really -- remained intact. The crowd responded enthusiastically, often singing the choruses, and keeping "Love, Love, Love" going when Darnielle lost track of his own lyrics.

At any gap of more than two seconds between songs, half the audience started shouting requests from the extensive Mountain Goats back catalog. Clearly, many considered the obscurity of a request the best measure of its merit. The band, as you might expect, stuck largely to their set list, and so I did not get to hear my own bellowed request, "Up the Wolves."

One last surprise -- the first surprise of the night, really -- was the opening band, New York City's Jeff Lewis and the Jitters. These guys integrated a spare indie sound with a crack rhythm section, electronics, and harmonies that reminded me of the oddball eighties outfit "Shriekback," if that isn't too obscure a reference. This was broken up by very funny solo a capella song-poems, delivered straight-faced while paging through an enormous set of comic-book illustrations, and a long lecture, in rhyming couplets and with accompanying music samples, of "The Development of Punk Music on New York's Lower East Side, 1950-1975." Really quite brilliant. Gotta get me some of these kids' records.

Finally, a mini-vignette: after I exchanged a few sentences with a young female Mountain Goats co-enthusiast while Mrs.5000 was visiting the bar, a boyfriend scurried across the club and conspicuously interposed himself between her and me, remaining there for the rest of the night. I overheard him grilling her for maybe two minutes about our 25-second conversation. Clearly, he was plenty threatened by my radiant sexual charisma. I've aparently still got it! It must be the beard.

I Hate this Billboard

"Why are you taking a picture of that billboard?" asked my carpool passenger, after I had swerved into a 7-11 parking lot and broke out the old digital camera.

"Because I hate it so much! I'm going to write about it," I told her.

"You aren't afraid to have opinions about things, are you?" she observed.

Well, perhaps not. But I sure do hate that billboard. Maybe I can make you hate it, too!

Hate Factor #1: Rewards. It offers me a "reward," and yet I do not recall having done anything of merit. Long-suffering readers may recall an earlier rant on this point, but hey! Advertisers! There is no quicker way to piss me off than to offer me "rewards," short of "tousling my hair" and calling me a "good little boy." Or perhaps, offering me a "dog biscuit." You are in a position to humbly thank your customers, but not to reward them, and you forget this at your peril. Offer a good service at a fair price, and customers might reward you with their business.

Hate Factor #2: The Happy Person. In the last five years, I've noticed a pernicious increase in the number of ads that feature a picture of a happy person, and that's all. Just a happy person. True, these advertisements are usually aimed at selling intangibles, such as insurance, banking, or education, but the fact that it was a challenging assignment should not excuse a total failure of imagination at the ad agency. The person is sitting there looking happily at the camera because, what, health insurance makes one happy? What?

My credit union -- formerly operating under the cool historical name of "Portland Teachers' Credit Union" but now, in a salute to committee-think, under some bland, generic name that I have never been able to remember -- indulges in some happy-people advertising, but they also demonstrate how to avoid the Hate Factor. They'll show happy people... in a new car! painting their house! Enjoying a vacation! In other words, people enjoying the things they were presumably able to obtain through the credit union's services. This makes all the difference, because it means they are selling services, as opposed to just the mood of happiness.

Hate Factor #3: The Insanely Happy Person. Can you imagine responding like the woman in the billboard to the availability of a checking account with favorable terms? Can you imagine that there is a single person, anywhere on the planet, who would respond in such a way to any checking account, ever? This woman's reaction would be appropriate to a marriage proposal, perhaps, or news of a grandchild on the way, or maybe a big lottery win, or news of a major promotion. But a checking account? No. Not even close. And for the marketer to assume that the part of my brain that reads emotions is so poorly wired that I would find it plausible is kind of offensive.

But I Really Like This Flyer

...from the cult period-fixture merchants Rejuvenation here in the City of Roses.

Cracks me up.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Monday Quiz XVI

American History in Photographs

1. Who? Where?

2. What? Where?

3. What is happening?

4. Why are these people so happy?
5. (two photos) What City? When?

Extra Credit

A tough one, but just because I love the photograph: Where?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Reading List: The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita,
I Guess I Can Read a Book in Less Than a Month After All!

[For how The Reading List project write-ups work, check here.]

Why Read The Master and Margarita?

I'll be honest: I had never even heard of either Bulgakov or The Master and Margarita when the polls opened for The Reading List. It was not among my original suggestions, but got written in, so to speak, by Mrs.5000. She called it "a bitter, fantastical romp that keeps reinventing itself as it goes along—a surefire godfather to Murakami's work, far as I'd guess, in its crazy stew of the impossible and the banal."

Meaghan, whose book recommendations are not to be sneezed at, chimed in: "it's got flying on brooms and devils and Pontius Pilate and sadness and beauty and strangeness." "Excellent," said Patrick; "amazing," said Vida; "scandalous," said Sarah. By the time the dust settled, I was so excited I voted for it myself, and it ended up getting the most votes in the category of post-1950 novels, despite having been written in the 1930s. An appropriate trick for this mischievous book to have pulled.


Feeling that I could have done a lot better choosing a translation of The Brothers Karamazov, I spent some time researching the relative merits of the various versions of The Master and Margarita. Based on this research, I ended up buying my own copy of the translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Conner (pictured above) when I realized that all of the copies at our library are of other, apparently lesser, versions. I was very happy with my version, which used a snappy, natural English and had some of the most helpful annotative notes (by Ellendea Proffer) that I ever seen, in any book. Sweet!


The Devil went down to Moscow, he was looking for a soul to steal. Or was he? Bulgakov's Devil eludes our expectations of a Satanic presence, and although you can't exactly say that no one gets hurt during his visit, he seems much more prankish than traditionally evil. Like some kind of moral martial arts master, he delights in luring people into exposing their own petty vices and cruelties. He torments the wicked, in a way, but he seems more disappointed than delighted in their wickedness. This is not, apparently, your father's Satan.

A second plot woven through the book involves Pontius Pilate and somebody named Yeshua, who seems awfully familar but who also defies expectations. Is he who we think, or is he someone else entirely, or maybe both? Bulgakov gives us plenty of clues, but never enough to be certain about anything. He is messing with us, in really interesting ways.

The book was written and is set in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a period that the annotator refers to, reasonably enough, as "The Terror." Bulgakov, who apparently had very low expectations that the book could ever be published (as it wasn't, until 1966, and even then in a censored abridgement), comments wryly throughout on the grotesque distortions of social life under Stalinism. From the opening pages, where a pompous editor corrects an inept poet at comical length for failing to properly establish the historical non-existance of Jesus Christ in his work, he attacks political correctness (the old-school Soviet version, of which the petty stuff we carp about today is but a triffling shadow). As the book procedes, he will take aim at communal housing, the use of assylums to incarcerate people with subversive opinions, pampered regime-sponsored writers, the petty corruption and mutual suspicion that pervade communist Moscow from top to bottom, and the disquieting tendency of people to disappear suddenly and without explanation. Since all of this is handled in a supernatural context -- remember, this is a story about the Devil -- the social critique is simultaneous disturbing, surreal, and very funny. In The Master and Margarita, everything disturbing is also comical, and everything that is funny is also sad.

Style Points

When I started Master, Chance and d worried that I was jumping back into "heavy allegorical Soviet lit" and "dreary Russian authors" too soon after The Brothers Karamazov. I was worried about that too, but it was soon obvious that we could all relax. Bulgakov (at least when filtered through Burgin and O'Connor) writes beautifully, the allegory leavened by a sparkling humor and the dreariness of the social commentary rendered very palatable by the crazy weirdness that crops up wherever Satan and his retinue wander. And the weirdness is pretty sublime: women riding across the sky on the backs of priggish neighbors who have been transformed into flying pigs, women fighting over fancy clothing that later vanishes while they are wearing it in public; a witches' ball attended by dead evil doers who arrive as corpses falling down the chimney into a huge fireplace. Awesome. Bulgakov writes, basically, in the comic style I'm always trying for myself -- with an exagerated, playful formality, often about seemingly trivial things, with a cumulatively profound effect. Needless to say, he manages to be a whole lot funnier, and infinitely more profound, than I will ever be.

The structure of the book is quite odd, and contributes to your off-kilter sense of not knowing quite what to expect next. In general, things get increasingly more fantastic, even hallucinatory, as the book progresses. The twining of the main narrative with the Pontius Pilate sections, similarly, becomes stranger and more intricate the deeper in you go. The characters of the Master and Margarita have to be among the least dominant title characters in all of fiction, entering the action only in Chapter 13 (of 32) and never really stealing the stage from the Devil and his oddball companions (who, I should mention, include a giant black cat that talks, walks on its hind legs, and is if anything more mischevous than his boss). Margarita is a much more vivid and interesting character than The Master, incidently, the latter a Bulgakov-like writer with several apparently semi-autobiographical qualities.

The Reading List Project Bears Fruit!

There are references here and there in Master to The Brothers Karamazov, another Russian novel that features (albeit more obliquely) a visitation by the Devil. The cool thing is, I caught 'em! Or at least some of 'em! Undoubtedly there were plenty of references to other great Russian novels that I haven't read, too, but my point is, already at Book #2, the Reading List Project has enhanced my appreciation of literature! w00t!

The other conspicuous commonality between Master and Brothers is that they are both simply CRAMMED with idiomatic phrases that invoke the Devil. In both novels, you start to feel a little worn out by the repetition "the Devil only knows," "to the Devil with you," "having a devil of a time," "like the devil's own {whatever}," and so on. The notes in my copy of Master explain that Russian has a lot more of those phrases than English do, and a lot of word roots that kind of suggest devilry, so an translator is obliged to really pack in an English equivalent whenever the opportunity presents itself.


Not exactly an easy read, The Master and Margarita is nevertheless entertaining and fun. If you can handle surreality and a certain dryness of tone -- if you like Saramago, or Eco, or Calvino, or Murakami, or any of those South American dudes -- I think you'll enjoy it. Worth reading in and of itself; secondarily an interesting and humane look into life under totalitarian rule during the darkest era of the Soviet state.


I'll be reading off-list this weekend and through the coming week. Meanwhile, a short subset of the master list is on its way to L&TM5K dork Gray, who I will ask to take a turn of selecting the next book.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXV

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 the Basis of Unity:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will have to make it on their own.
This Week's Category will spur a flurry of new flag design!

National Divorces

Where once was the Austro-Hungarian Empire is now, among other countries, Austria and Hungary. Where once was a country called "Korea," now there is North Korea and South Korea. There have been many national divorces throughout history; which of the following are actual examples, and which happened purely in michael5000's twisted imagination?

1. 1889 – Divided by the nearly impassible Andes from the political center in Buenos Aires, the west coast of Argentina declares independence and becomes the modern country of Chile.

2. 1903 – The northwestern part of Colombia that sticks up into Central America calves off and becomes Panama.

3. 1943 – While the colonial powers are embroiled in World War II, the remote British territory of Turkmenistan revolts and splits into modern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan; the Uzbeks are absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1946, but regain their independence with the end of the USSR in 1992.

4. 1960 – Seventeen months after its creation, and two months to the day after it gains independence from France, the Mali Federation fractures into Senegal and the Mali we know and love today.

5. 1961 – The United Arab Republic, after a three-year run, splits back into Syria and Egypt.

6. 1968 – The former Portuguese colony of Luanda splits into modern Angola and Namibia in the course of a violent civil war.

7. 1971 – Pakistan, the two halves of which have been on opposite sides of India from each other, divides in half. The western half gets to keep the name; the eastern half becomes Bangladesh.

8. 1973 – Lesotho, a non-contiguous province of Tanzania completely surrounded by South African territory, declares independence.

9. 1989 – Senegambia, which has been a federation for less than a decade, pitches it in; Senegal and Gambia reassert their full sovereignty.

10. 1991 – After a long civil war, Eritrea declares itself independent of Ethiopia.

11. 1997 – After three years of existence, the country of Bosnia & Herzegovina splits into the two countries of Bosnia and Macedonia.

12. 2006 – Montenegro declares itself independent of Serbia

Express your nationalist aspirations by submitting your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Great Movies: "Blow-Up"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966

Much as I respect Roger Ebert, I think he dropped the ball on this one. He begins his write-up in The Great Movies by scolding "young audiences" for not being interested in this movie about an ennui-stricken playboy photographer. We are all about slasher flicks and explosions, he suggests with uncharacteristic gracelessness. But that's silly. Contemporary audiences are quite comfortable enough with slower-paced movies about ennui; take "Donnie Darko" or "Lost In Translation" or your pick of the Wes Anderson films, for instance. "Blow-Up" hasn't become obscure because we've lost the sophistication to deal with its clever themes. It has become obscure because it isn't very good.

We have here another film from the sixties that, like "Belle de Jour" or "8 1/2," handles psychological themes with a ham-handedness that approaches self-parody. Late in the movie, for instance, the lead character finds himself at a rock concert. The guitarist smashes up his guitar and throws it to the crowd. They have been listening in torpid passivity up to this point, but the mods in the crowd come to life now and go nuts fighting over pieces of the guitar. Our hero, though not a rock fan, comes up with the biggest chunk and fights a long retreat, defending his prize from others who chase him, trying to take it from him. They chase him down an alley! He perseveres! Until he gets to the street, where he realizes he doesn't really want or need a chunk of broken guitar, and carelessly tosses it aside on the sidewalk.

Well, fine: it's a metaphor for the way that striving engages one completely, whereas having achieved the goal is often a hollow experience. It's the theme of the movie in a nutshell. Except that this episode takes a couple minutes of screentime, and carries no weight whatsoever in advancing the plot, developing the character, or otherwise integrating itself into the rest of the movie. The effect is like reading the short fiction of a bright college freshman. You get tired of being beat over the head with the overt symbolism.

"Blow-Up" does have an interesting murder-mystery concept at its core, although we are required to accept a very high level of stupidity on the part of the apparent murderers -- shoot a guy in broad daylight in a public park? Without noticeing the flambouyant photographer prancing around, 30 meters away? I don't think so.

The biggest problem with "Blow-Up," though, is that its lead character is contemptable, and the movie doesn't seem to realize it. The movie seems to think that he is glamorous and cool, and that we should all feel bad about his little ennui problem. Actually, he is merely a misogynist creep, and it's hard to feel too terrible about how bored he has become of the good life. Really, it's kind of hard just to put up with him for the length of the movie.

Plot: Misogynist creep, after taking pictures in a park, is approached by a woman who really, really wants the pictures back. He refuses. Looking very closely at the pictures later, he discovers what may or may not be a murder in progress. His pursuit of this interesting finding is interupted by an episode of what the movie considers "swinging, baby" but which would today more likely be considered "rape," and by a good old-fashioned pot party. By the time he is back on the case, all of the evidence has disappeared, and the movie ends inconclusively. Back to the ol' ennui.

Dialogue: Naturalistic, and reasonably well delivered. The lead character spouts off bits of pseudo-philosophy from time to time to the effect that nothing matters to him except the beauty of images. This is supposed to convey his artistic sensitivity, I think, but it really just conveys that he's an asshole.

Visuals: Easily the strength of the movie, there is lots of lovely cinematography and visual tricks throughout. Like many films of its period, "Blow-Up" has many long stretches where we are watching characters perform everyday actions with no supporting noises on the soundtrack. I've always felt that this reflects a director's overconfidence in the power of the image, and found such sequences a little painful to sit through. It's a detail, but the glimpses we see of the lead character's photography are pretty boss.

Prognosis: Of historical interest only.

- - - - -

Song of the Day

Billy Bragg, "The World Turned Upside Down"

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Second Anecdote, Oddly Enough, About the Motion-Activated Lights in the Restroom at Work

I'm in the restroom, the motion-controlled lights are on, and all is well. A high-spirited coworker, a Russian man about my age, we'll call him Aleksy, shuffles in and enters a stall. A few moments pass.

The door opens again. We hear the voice of Aleksy's crony Bogdan, an equally high-spirited Bosnian man. Together, Aleksy and Bogdan are the office goof-off and class clown, although which man is which varies from day to day.

Bogdan has somehow come into possession of one of the little keys that turn motion-controlled lights on and off. "You must," he intones from the doorway, his heavy Eastern-European accent dripping with profundity, "learn to use -- the instinct!"

And the room goes pitch black.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Monday Quiz XV

More Great Paintings

The Monday Quiz leans toward the visual arts, for obvious reasons. But, we at Quiz Central are also aware that after of a handful of Mona Lisas and Last Suppers, the drop-off in how generally well-known paintings are is pretty damn steep.

With that in mind, there is an sixth image this week; your best five go towards the Exclamation Point. The question for each image is: What is the name of the painting and who painted it?, but if you don't know those feel free to throw in whatever you've got -- time period, country, significance, whatever.







Answers in the comments, please!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

President's Day Weekend Special Number

In celebration of the Presidents' Day Weekend holiday,

Michael5000 Salutes the Obscure Presidents!

...I mean, haven't you always wondered? I did a little research, leaning heavily on the Wikipedia. If you happen to have any actual knowledge about any of these guys, please share!

John Tyler (1841-45) - A Vice-President who was promoted in the field when President William Henry Harrison kicked the bucket one month into his term. Tyler was on watch when Texas was annexed to the United States and when Florida became a state. An advocate of states' rights and the separation of church and state, Tyler was quick with a veto and slow to use Federal force when patience and negotiation could yield better results. By all accounts a very nice guy, although his slaves might have had something to say about this, if anyone had asked.

Zachary Taylor (1849-50) - A career army officer who got talked into running for President as a Whig, despite a conspicuous lack of any political experience on his resume. Only after the inauguration did the Whig leadership catch on that Taylor disagreed with almost their entire platform. Despite being a Southern slaveholder, Taylor was against the expansion of slavery. So, pretty much everybody was mad at this guy. Just when things were getting interesting, he died of cholera, or heatstroke, or something, during the second year of his term.

Millard Fillmore (1850-53) - Succeeding Taylor was his Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, who had been placed in that role mostly just to make sure a New York state party boss named Weed didn't get the job. Where Taylor had been a slaveowner determined to restrict the spread of slavery, Fillmore detested the practice but was determined to give it its full Constitutional protection. His great achievement, in fact, was coming up with a comprehensive solution to the slavery issue. It lasted for several months.

Franklin Pierce (1853-57) - Pierce, a good attorney but a rotten President, undid whatever Fillmore had accomplished by engineering the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the spread of slavery into the territories. A New Hampshire attorney with Southern sympathies, Pierce proved to be easily led and easily overwhelmed. His successor James Buchanan is famous for greasing the skids as the country slid towards civil war, but Pierce set in motion many of the problems that Buchanan would fail to confront. Not nominated by his party for a second term, Pierce was later exposed as a Confederate sympathizer and was a highly unpopular figure as he gradually drank himself to death.

Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81) - A compromise candidate, Hayes lost the popular vote but was appointed by a Congressional commission after voting irregularities in Florida, among other places, threw the electoral vote into uncertainty. The deal-making that accompanied his appointment forced him to gut the civil rights legislation of Reconstruction, although to his credit he tried to preserve the rights of former slaves as much as was politically possible. He pleased no one at all by siccing federal troops on striking railroad workers in 1877. Other than that, he has a low historical profile because he happened to sit a quiet watch.

Chester A. Arthur (1881-85) - Rising to the Presidency after the assassination of James Garfield, Arthur was a longtime player of the game of political patronage who, once responsible for governing the country, became an advocate of civil service reform. He did much to lower the level of corruption in the country's political institutions. Like Hayes, he is obscure because he served during a relatively uneventful period. It probably didn't seem uneventful at the time.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) - Tariffs, anti-trust legislation, whether or not to annex Hawaii.... the big national political issues of the late Nineteenth Century are a great cure for insomnia. After winning a notoriously crooked election, Harrison appears to have done his honorable best to guide the ship of state, and his best seems to have been neither outstanding nor especially shabby.

No, no, it's not a quiz. They're all accurate. At least, I think they are.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXIV

[Happy Valentine's Day! I hope that you -- yes you, dear L&TM5K reader -- will be my Valentine! Void where prohibited by law. This V-Day, Give Her What She Really Wants is by occasional L&TM5K lurker Gigi. Used by permission.]

Why not challenge your sweetheart, or a potential sweetheart, or anybody, really, to:

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 the Cornerstone of Democracy:
No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will bow out after a lackluster showing in New Hampshire.
This Week's Category will be doomed to eventual anonymity!

Also-Rans and Seconds in Command in the U.S. Executive Branch, 1960-2000.

What we have here is a list of two kinds of political figures: American Vice-Presidents, and losers of American Presidential elections. As you would expect, some items on this list are accurate, and some are not. Which is which?

1. Spiro Agnew. Loses to Jimmy Carter in '76.
2. George H.W. Bush. Loses to Bill Clinton in '92.
3. Jimmy Carter. Vice President to Gerald Ford.
4. Michael Dukakis. Loses to Ronald Reagan in '84.
5. Hubert Humphrey. Vice President to Lyndon B. Johnson.
6. John Kerry. Vice President to Bill Clinton.
7. Thurgood Marshall. Loses to Richard Nixon in '68.
8. George McGovern. Loses to Richard Nixon in '72.
9. Richard Nixon. Loses to John F. Kennedy in '60.
10. Richard Nixon. Vice President to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
11. Thomas "Tip" O'Neill. Vice President to Jimmy Carter.
12. J. Danforth Quayle. Vice President to George H. W. Bush.

Submit your answers to your state's delegation to the electoral college, by putting them in the comments.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Yet Another Work Vignette

When I got my first job in refugee work, I remember thinking that the clients would be visibly shell-shocked, wide-eyed at the abundance of American life. I pictured them being awestruck by computers and photocopy machines and other marvels, bewildered by telephones and traffic. That was naïve of me. For one thing, I was imagining that refugees would come from a world of places untouched by modern technology, a world that has not really existed for at least 50 years. For another, even those refugees who really do come from places of extreme material scarcity – southern Sudan, rural Afghanistan, post-war Somalia – are normal human adults. They don’t want to look stupid. They aren’t going to wear confusion on their sleeves. They’re going to go with the flow.

So, refugees don’t gape at computers. They don’t jump when the phone rings. In fact, there is only one item of technology, so far as I’ve noticed, that they consistently find baffling. That item? Motion-activated light switches.

I was following a young woman down the hall yesterday. Decked out in jeans, a fleece, big winter boots, and a fuzzy scarf, she could have been any American high school senior. From the context and from some of her mannerisms, though, I could peg her as being from northern Burma, a remote, rural, troubled part of Southeast Asia. She looks like she’s fitting in well enough, but she is likely experiencing a whole lot that is brand new to her.

She finds the door she is looking for and, as newcomers will, carefully triple-checks the sign on the wall against her mental list of important words and symbols. Yes, it is the women’s bathroom. She opens the door, and sees that the interior is…. pitch black.

With the Chin language equivalent of a “what the hell?” she stands there stymied for a second. I’m thinking that I’ll try to clarify the situation for her, but as I get closer she takes a tentative stop into the room, flailing around for the missing light switch. Just as I walk by behind her, she gets far enough into the room to trigger the motion detector, and the lights come on.

Since the problem is solved, I don’t say anything, I just continue down the hall. But after a few seconds, I hear her behind me. “Oh!” she says, to get my attention. I stop and turn. She’s looking at me with a big smile. “Thank you!” she says.

What can I do? She’s clearly still operating on just a small handful of English words, so there’s no easy way to explain that I haven’t done anything for her, let alone how motion-activated light switches work. For now, all I have to offer is a graceful end to the situation, and a reassurance that she has said what she intended to. “You’re welcome,” I say, and we both go on with our days.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Great Movies: "Body Heat"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Body Heat
Lawrence Kasdan (1981)

There's a scene in Body Heat that I'd like to ask you readers of the female persuasion about.

It goes like this: The hero has just met a woman. They exchanged small talk that suggested mutual attraction, and she invited him back to her house for a brief visit. After a few minutes, she tells him it's time to leave; when he wheedles, she politely but firmly shows him to the door.

As he unlocks his car, he sees that she is watching him through the window. So, he races back up to the house and begins trying all the doors as the woman retreats into the house's interior. Unable to get in, he grabs a piece of lawn furniture and hurls it through a glass door. He strides in through the shattered wreckage and seizes the woman passionately. Her response? "Oh, yes!" she moans, and pulls him down on the floor with her to initiate some frenzied hot sweaty sexual intercourse.

My question is: would that really... you know... work?

No, I didn't think so. It's a hyperexagerated example of the common but bizarre movie notion that two people who are really, really enjoying their hot sweaty sexual intercourse just won't care if they knock over a lamp and it explodes into fragments on the floor. In real life, of course, humans just aren't that cavalier about their expensive belongings, or about shards of glass or ceramic bursting around their hot sweaty naked bodies.

It's a shame that such a -- what is the noun form for "ludicrous"? "Ludicrosity?" -- lurks at the heart of an otherwise fine film. Body Heat is a film noir, one of the most stylized of genres, and for the most part it adheres beautifully to the conventions of the genre while maintaining basic credibility. Like The Big Sleep (reviewed last month), a movie to which it is heavily indebted, it is a sexy puzzle about people playing a dangerous game in which not all of the facts, or all of the rules, are knowable. In this context, the door-breaking scene is only unfortunate in that it takes style too far, at the expense of the necessary ingredient of recognizable human behavior.

Plot: Seedy young lawyer meets the highly attractive wife of a mysterious and apparently quite dangerous man. They begin meeting regularly to enjoy sexual intercourse. They are in love. No good can come of this.

Dialogue: True to the noir style, the dialogue is both mannered and gritty. This is a subtly dialogue-driven movie; even the characters with just a handful of lines have a handful of really meaningful lines, and this creates a richness to the film. The supporting characters have strong personalities and are superbly acted.

Visuals: Lush and lovely. Noir is heavily associated with the black and white palette, but Body Heat is shot with rich reds and warm sepia tones, which along with the small-town Florida setting convey a wistful note of faded elegance. In the climax scene, the characters are filmed in brilliant chiaroscuro against the black of night. Slick.

Prognosis: Although Ebert was being overgenerous to call this one "Great," it is certainly one of the Good Movies. It should be thoroughly enjoyable for anyone who enjoys film noir or complex plot twists and turns, or who just likes their movies stylish and a little shabby, seasoned with that sweet sweet note of despair.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Monday Quiz XIV


Note: Due to the expected high difficulty level of this Monday Quiz, a special offer. Any contestent answering all five questions correctly may demand a L&TM5K post on the topic of his or her choice!

1. Where is this, and what imperial South American civilization built it?

2. Where is this, and what Central American civilization built it?

3. It is 1906. What happened?

4. "Ruins" is probably too strong for this building, which has seen periods of disrepair but which has never been entirely abandoned since its construction in the 1100s. What is its name?

5. It's 1972. What's going on?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Weekend Edition

The Sentimental Cat Post

My eccentric cat and constant companion Yoyo, a delightfully gentle and affectionate beast, is twenty-one this February. Strangely, she is still alive, and even relatively healthy. To celebrate the event, I am posting the following:

  • Four (4) pictures I took of my cat, plus this link to, yes, an online gallery of additional pictures I have taken of my cat.

  • This link to a somewhat overwrought song I wrote about my cat.

  • The following sentimental poem that I wrote about my cat last summer.

Apparently, I have given up on trying to earn the world's respect.

For I Will Consider My Cat Yoyo

In answer to a question by Vida. It will make more sense if you have read Jubilate Agno, (the famous "For I Will Consider My Cat Geoffrey") by the brilliant 18th Century poet, churchman, and nut-job Christopher Smart.

For I will consider my cat Yoyo
For Vida hath asked me, "Why is Yoyo so cute?"
For her cuteness is of ten aspects -- as are the laws of God --
For although it is great in effect, is it not finite of cause?

For the first is that of her face, half grey, half tan
(For it is of this that first captured mine own heart)
For the second is that she is abundant in fuzzyness
(For this rewards the petter, who doth reward the cat)

For the third is of her urgency in trifles
For the fouth is of her imperturbability in the alarm
For the fifth is of her purring, very loud
For the sixth is of her expectation of welcome

For the seventh is of her peculiar habits
(For it is amusing to see a cat in the sink
For she will drink not of the still waters)
For the eighth is of her gentle manner
(For she will not place her claws upon bare flesh
For she understandeth that this is cause of pain)

For the ninth is of her assurance of purpose
(For she doubts not the affections of her people)
For the tenth is the completeness of her slumber
(For she fears not to be harmed within her home)

For the wisdom of these ways hath let her become most old
For the being of Yoyo hath kept her in perfect cat.

["For I Will Consider My Cat Yoyo" has appeared previously on the FaceBooks.]

OK, Enough of That

I've been wanting to find y'all some Wipers to celebrate the first weekend of the Year of the Rat. I was especially pleased to find this trippy thing on YouTube:


I was tagged to this by Elizabeth. I'm just a boy who can't say no. Even though it's, like, four thousand questions long.

1. What time did you get up this morning? Between 6:30 and 7:00.
2. Diamonds or Pearls? Cotton.
3. What was the last film you saw at the movies? "The Darjeeling Limited."
4. What is your favorite TV show? I don't watch television.
5. What do you usually have for breakfast? Trader Joe's granola. Thanks, Trader Joe! 6. What is your middle name? {redacted}.
7. What food(s) do you dislike? Lots of them. I am your basic picky eater. In particular, I very much dislike tomatos. Also, I don't eat red meat.
8. What is your favorite CD at the moment? I don't have to choose, so I won't.
9. What kind of car do you drive? 1994 Toyota Pickup.
10. Favorite sandwich? One on one of these really awesome bagels we've been getting.
11. What characteristics do you despise? Disingenuity. The belief that one is strong and tough enough to do what must be done, when one is simply unimaginitive and
cruel. Dogma posing as professionalism.
12. Favorite item of clothing? Sweatshirts in the indoor season, shorts in the outdoor season.
13. If you could go anywhere on vacation where would you go? Ask me right now? India.
14. What color is your bathroom? White.
15. Favorite brand of clothing? Oi.
16. Where would you retire? City of Roses, baby!.
17. Most memorable birthday? I think it was my 37th we were on Hadrian's Wall.
18. Favorite sport to watch? College football, baby!
19. Summer or winter? Summer.
20. Who do you expect to repost this? Ha! I just noticed that Elizabeth wrote "Michael5000 might."
21. Person you most admire? The most recent winner of the Thursday Quiz
22. Favorite saying? Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."
23. When is your birthday? If you need to know, you do.
24. Are you a morning person or a night person? Whatever
25. What is your shoe size? 9-1/2 or so.
26. Pet? See above.
27. What did you want to be when you were little? A dairy farmer.
28. What are you doing today? Hanging out.
29. What is your favorite candy? I have no idea.
30. What is your favorite flower? I have a whole garden full of them. It's hard to pick.
31. What is a day on the calendar you are looking forward to? The day my ship comes in.
32. What church/temple do you attend? Well, it's been a few years.... Twelve, actually....
33. What are you listening to right now? A raga by Dr. M Rajam.
34. What was the last thing you ate? Caesar salad with mac and cheese.
35. Do you believe in angels? No.
36. If you were a crayon, what color would you be? Oi.
37. What are your pet peeves? See #11, above.
38. Last person you spoke to on the phone? Mrs.5000.
39. Favorite soft drink? Diet Cola, baby!
40. Favorite restaurant? India Grill.
41. Hair color? Light brown.
42. Siblings? Three.
43. Favorite day of the year? Christmas, duh.
46. Hugs or kisses? I thought you'd never ask.
47. Chocolate or vanilla? Vanilla.
48. Do you want your friends to repost this? That's their deal.
49. When was the last time you cried? I don't want to talk about it, and you don't want to hear about it.
50. What is under your bed? Shoes, a flashlight, and a stout cudgel.
51. Who is the friend you've had longest? Depends on how you define "friend" and "longest." ChuckDaddy and MyDogIsChelsea are the blogfriends I've had the longest.
52. What did you do last night? Hung out.
53. Favorite smell? The open road.
54. What are you afraid of? Death. Disability. Poverty. Disgrace. Loss of loved ones.
Humiliation. Being forced to do things I don't want to do. Being forced to give
up things I love. That Depression won't ever go away next time. Why do you ask?
Oh, you mean like how I'm afraid of snakes and flying?
55. How many keys on your key ring? Ten or eleven, I guess.
56. How many years at your current job? Seven and change.
57. Favorite day of the week? Saturday, duh.
58. How many towns have you lived in? Seven, I guess.
I'm outta here. Happy weekend!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXIII

[Happy Lunar New Year! Or, as they say in much of the world, "Happy New Year!" Rah Rah Rat, celebrating the new Year of the Rat which begins today, is by very occasional L&TM5K commenter Margaret. Used by permission.]

And what more auspicious start to a new lunar cycle than to partake of the age-old tradition of:

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 the Laws of Nature:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will lose standing in the scientific community.
This Week's Category will submit you to a rigorous, methodical inquiry!

Real and Bogus: the History of Science

Which ones really happened? And which ones are a tissue of lies and seductive half-truths?

1. 1676 - Danish astronomer Ole Romer makes the first reasonably accurate calculation of the speed of light. He pulls this off by carefully timing how long eclipses of Jupiter's moons seem to last, depending on whether Earth is approaching or moving away from Jupiter.

2. 1735 - Robert Hooke discovers chromosomes within cell bodies and postulates their role in the heredity of traits. His hypothesis will not be proven for another 60 years; eventually, it will prove very influential in the development of evolutionary theory.

3. 1750s - American statesman Benjamin Franklin determines that electricity has positive and negative charges, develops the concept of grounding, and devises the famous "kite" experiment that proves lightning is electrical.

4. 1811 - Amadeo Avogadro hypothesizes that, at any given pressure and temperature, a given volume of any gas will have pretty much the same number of molecules, no matter how big or complex those molecules are. Oddly, it turns out he's right.

5. 1828 - Friedrich Wohler synthesizes urea in the lab. By showing that organic chemicals do not rely on a special life-force, this discovery means that biological science has to discard its assumption that living beings are distinguished by a "vital spark," or physical incarnation of the soul.

6. 1850s & 60s - Gregor Mendel looks very closely at 28,000 pea plants, takes good notes, and publishes a theory of heredity based on his findings. No one cares. Thirty-five years later, his work is rediscovered and becomes the basis of modern genetics.

7. 1859 - Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, in which he argues that human social and economic systems should function according to the laws of nature, which he describes as "survival of the fittest." Others subsequently develop the notion of biological evolution that is implicit in this idea.

8. 1870 - Scottish geologist Charles Lyell develops the idea of "uniformitarianism," the concept that the Earth's interior is composed of an undifferentiated mass similar to the minerals found at the planet's surface. This will later be proven incorrect, but is now regarded as an important step forward from earlier theories of a hollow Earth, or of a literal underworld or hell within the Earth's interior.

9. 1905 - Einstein publishes his "Theory of Relativity," which holds that the speed of light changes relative to the position, direction, and velocity of the observer. Within five years, this simple insight will result in revolutionary changes in how physicists conceptualize the universe.

10. 1912 - Alfred Wegener introduces the first serious theory of continental drift. The new idea remains controversial for half a century, finally becoming generally accepted only around 1960.

11. 1953 - James Watson and Francis Crick, cribbing from the data of a young female research associate, publish a paper describing the structure of DNA. This conceptual breakthrough pretty much kicks off the field of molecular biology.

12. 1972 - Astronomer Cherryl Trillick uses magnetic imaging to detect AO-054, the first major "Astronomical Object" to be found in the outer solar system. Since this object is never seriously nominated as a planet in its own right, despite being almost exactly the same size as Pluto, it will eventually undermine that unhappy sphere's planetary status.

Submit your hypothesized answers to peer review in the comments.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A New Flag for Oregon: the Gallery

Well, today's the big day! Entries have been flooding in, relatively speaking, for the big L&TM5K Design a New Flag for the Beaver State Contest! As a native of the Beaver State, my heart swells with provincial pride at each and every entry shown here. So take your hats off, please -- any one of the following may well be the next official state flag of Oregon!

Well, probably not either of the first two.

But with no futher ado, let's get right to the flags! Here we go!

Cleverest Flag (Flatter the Host subcategory)

The winner in our first category is Karmasartre!

Artist's Statement: A gorgeous flag, surely you can see its merit. [Damn straight I can, Karma! Damn straight!]

Cleverest Flag (Make the Host Laugh Really Hard subcategory)

In this coveted division, the runaway winner was Rebel!

Artist's Statement: My interpretation of the flag was inspired by Oregon's motto, which speaks to our independent nature and free thinking optimism. The mature shade of green represents our environmental sensibilities. The leaf represents our pride in Oregon's agricultural heritage.

Best Tricolor

Topping the, um, field in this classic category was.... me! michael5000!

Artist's Statement: It's, like, a map? Because the blue is like the ocean? And the green -- oh, hell, never mind.

Best South-Pacific-Micronation-Style Design

Dominating this category was the lovely and brilliant Mrs.5000!

Artist's Statement: It is mostly green because, duh, it's the flag of Oregon. Green is for the Earth and forests and the down-to-earth pragmatism of the Oregonian people. Blue is for the water which is life-giving and bounds us on two sides. Also for the sky, and the starry-eyed idealism of the Oregonian people. The curve is for the arc between earth and sky, and to remind us we're part of the Pacific rim. It's not that we're going downhill or anything! The flag is uncluttered and free of representational figures because the people of Oregon are capable of abstraction.

(If you don't believe the people of Oregon are capable of abstraction, perhaps you will like version 2 of my flag, which has a duck on it.)

Best Flag Overall: The Finalists

Then we get to the real contenders. In all honesty, these are all so great, I don't know if I can pick just one winner. I might have to leave it to Governor Kulongoski. In no particular order:

Artist's Statement: Obvious choices of natural green and blue, with the blue signifying the ocean more so than the sky. The stand of evergreens is intended to also evoke a sense of a skyline in the Western portion of the state, recognizing growth and sophistication integrating with natural beauty.


Artist's Statement: My design is primarily forest green, to represent Oregon's wondrous forests of pine. The top and bottom and bordered with gray, which represents the eight months of rainfall that keeps the place green. In the middle is a beaver icon (the state animal and nickname, as well as representing the spirit of pride and labor that I love in so many independent-minded Oregonians who are not hobos). Finally, the beaver is in a circle of blue, which represents the all-too-brief spring, during which the weather is perfect.

Bridget B.!

Artist's Statement: Well, instead of printing an artist's statement, I'll just point you here and encourage you to scroll down at your leisure. She's a flag-designin' machine. The following are my three favorites from her output.


Wow! I'm dazzled! And I bet the Governor will be too!

Please feel free to comment on the flags and congratulate the artists. Let me know if there's one in particular that you would feel especially proud to live under, if you live in Oregon that is. Or that you would be pleased to see Oregonians living under, if you don't.