Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Diet Cola

I have always loved diet cola. From the tall, cold, thin glass bottles of childhood, it was a special treat at times of leisure. Going to summer camps during the high school years, I noted that college dormitory cafeterias routinely feature a soft drink fountain; it was my first inkling of the incredible license of grown up life in which, to an amazing extent, you can have as much as you want of almost anything.

My relationship with diet cola only reached its full flower, however, when I worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store for two years during college. The only perk of that job was full access to the soda fountain, and you can imagine that the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift involved a lot of caffeine use. Complicating things, the store was across the street from our squalid little apartment, so I was for better or worse able to caffeinate myself through the rest of my waking hours as well. When I finally quit that job, the withdrawal headaches went all the way down to my calves.

Here's how caffeine works: the individual caffeine molecules move easily through the blood-brain barrier, and within the brain they tamper with the system that regulates fatigue. When you burn energy, one of the waste chemicals from the expended ATP (our basic biofuel) stimulates inhibiting chemicals in the brain. This makes sense -- you burn energy, and then you get sleepy. What caffeine does is elbow its way into the neural receptors that detect this chemical. This means that neurons never get the message that fuel is being burned, the inhibiting chemicals never get secreted, and you don't get sleepy. It's a marvelous feeling, as you know.

The problem with this, as with most psychoactive chemicals, is that once the caffeine goes away -- it has a half-life in the body of around four hours -- you miss it. The neural receptors go back to pumping out the inhibiting chemicals, except they pump out more than they did before, and you are more sensitive to them now. And, if you have become a habitual caffeine user, it will take around seven to ten days for your body to return to its natural equilibrium. Seven to ten days in which you will be painfully conscious of the lack of caffeine in your blood.

In 1994, I stopped drinking caffeine in response to a medical crisis, and was fanatically free of the stuff for the next seven years. Returning to office work, however -- and then, having that office move to a new building next door to a convenience store -- has completely undone me. I have long since fully returned to the diet cola fold.

When I talk about this subject with people, they will often want to know whether I am more of a "Diet Coke Man" or a "Diet Pepsi Man." This question represents the triumph of marketing, for there is really no meaningful distinction of taste between the two or any of their smaller competitors. I hold this truth to be self-evident. If you take the proverbial "Pepsi Challenge" and emerge with a decided preference, even a maven like myself can tell you that you are paying far too much attention to your cola beverage.

I never touch the regular, non-diet stuff, by the way. Despite that I have a real sweet tooth in solid foods, the sugar content in a regular soft drink hits me like a bomb, making me lethargic and feeling swollen up tightly within my skin. I figured this out when I was 14 or so, and have avoided the stuff since.

At this point, perhaps we should discuss the question of scale. I drink more cola than the typical person. People often see me with one of my cola cups and ask "do you drink one of those every day?" Well, no. I drink two of those every day. At least. And the cups are 44 ounces in size, meaning that I am drinking the equivalent of a six-pack and a half of those old glass bottles, every day.

Now to a certain extent, this is just no big deal. Cola is mostly water, and the common-knowledge idea that this water somehow "doesn't count" is risible; even the medical establishment has finally been admitting in the last few years that water is pretty much water. Nor is the acid in cola capable of eroding coins (I have experimented extensively with this, thank you); nor would this matter much since it is destined in any event for the acid pit of the stomach. And, although there are some lingering questions about aspartame, I have reviewed the literature on this inert, supersweet protein and come away with no more reservations about putting it in my body than I have about, say, cheese (something else I arguably consume too much of).

On the other hand, drinking this much cola can't help. Can it? And, two bucks a day does become hundreds of bucks over a year, even if I usually buy cola with my pocket change to hide the expense from myself. (I remind myself, too, how much cheaper it is than a coffee habit!) And, there's something uncomfortable about the feeling of need, the feeling that I will be highly aware of it if I choose NOT to have a cola.

Could I make it the seven to ten days required to lick a caffeine habit? Sure I could. It would be uncomfortable, but I could do it. In fact, I have on a few occasions, most recently last year. I went around with my 44 ounce cups full of pure tap water for around a month. And then I backslid. Why I backslid is an interesting question. It might have to do with my constant attempt to squeeze as much time awake as possible out of every day, of course. It might have to do with the pleasant commercial aspect of the habit, the mind-clearing, routine-interrupting, social ritual of walking to the soda fountain where I will, often as not, be greeted cordially by a familiar face behind the cash register. Or, it might have to do with one of those open questions about aspartame: does it have a mild addictive quality of its own, with a longer duration of withdrawal than caffeine?

Addiction is generally thought to be bad, and there is certain obvious logic to having as few strings attached to your person as possible. As addictions go, though, you could make a case that caffeine is a rather innocuous one, easily beating out major competitors such as alcohol, meth, heroin, tobacco, religious hysteria, and sex with strangers. And I often recall the question a buddy asked me a few years ago: "Do you still enjoy drinking it?" My unhesitating answer was clearly not the one he was expecting: "Absolutely. It’s delicious and refreshing, every time."

So, those are the thoughts that knock around in my head about my beloved, but not beloved, diet cola. And they provoke the obvious questions:

1. Should I quit?

2. Why?

3. If so, how should I quit?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Thursday Quiz IIIL

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 what separates us from the apes:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be thrown to the
Pantherae leo.
This Week's Category will confront you with your own animal nature!


IS IT or ISN'T it the accurate taxonomic name for the organism in the photograph?

1. Anas platyrhynchos

2. Balaenoptera musculus

3. Bos taurus

4. Canis lupus familiaris

5. Drosophila melanogaster

6. Echinacea purpurea

7. Equus caballus

8. Gallus gallus

9. Homo sapiens

10. Panthera tigris

11. Sus scrofa domestica

12. Triticum aestivum

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wake Up With Michael5000! (Part II)

A few days ago, MyDogIsChelsea put up a post in which she literally dares -- dares! -- her readers to post a cuter photo than her.

Well, I am sure you understand that I am not one to take that kind of challenge lying down. I'll answer that dare! So go ahead, check out her picture (it's got a child and a dog, yadda yadda yadda) and then come back and tell me -- tell me! -- that it's cuter than this shot of two babies from a wedding I was at a few weeks ago:

Anyway, speaking of MyDog....

Last week, I inflicted on you Gentle Readers the playlist for the first of two CDs I compiled for MyDogIsChelsea. I think you see what is coming. Music-themed posts stay firmly in the Wednesday timeslot as I bring you the playlist for MyDog's second CD.

Both of the sets were designed to start the day off right. But whereas the first one was designed to catapult you (or, more specifically, MyDogIsChelsea) out of bed with a blast of controlled energy, the second one is intended to complement lounging about in a blissful state of semi-awakeness and low urgency. Sleep-in music for the highly literate rocker. Enjoy!

1. The Mountain Goats, “Love Love Love” (The Sunset Tree)

2. Andrew Bird, “Scythian Empires” (Armchair Apocrypha)

3. Eels, “Dirty Girl” (Live with strings)

4. Math and Physics Club, “Darling, Please Come Home” (Math and Physics Club)

5. Deb Talan, “Comfort” (a bird flies out)

6. Earlimart, “The Hidden Track” (Treble & Tremble)

7. The Mountain Goats, “San Bernadino” (Heretic Pride)

8. Margot & the Nuclear So & So’s, “Jen is Bringing the Drugs” (The Dust of Retreat)

9. Uncle Tupelo, “Black Eye” (83/93: An Anthology)

10. the Decemberists, “Engine Driver” (Picaresque)

11. Jenny Owen Youngs, “fuck was i” (Batten the Hatches)

12. Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, “rent a wreck” (#3)

Thanks to Blythe for alerting me to the existence of Suburban Kids With Biblical Names. And, Good Morning!

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Lady Eve"

The Lady Eve
Preston Sturges, 1941

The Lady Eve is a likeable screwball romantic comedy made while the United States was staggering out of the Depression towards World War II. It offers a giddy look at high life at a time when "the boats aren't running" to Europe and everyone is more than a little on edge. Although not especially naughty, this is definitely a film made for adults, and a careful observer can read between the lines to discover that, in the late 1930s, people thought about sex a lot! I'll be. Also, a strong dash of physical humor is more than balanced by bracingly snappy writing. Despite the pratfalls, it's genuine grown-up wit on offer here.

Plot: Jane Stanwyck plays a professional cardsharp who makes her living fleecing fellow passengers on passenger liners; Henry Fonda plays a guy taking a trip on a passenger liner. So, you already know how the movie ends. Surprisingly, though, there are enough twists and turns before we get to the inevitable conclusion that things are kept amusing and even a little suspenseful.

Visuals: This movie is more about characters and dialogue than images. Ebert, however, justly points out a very long, one-shot scene where Stanwyck's character, having lured Our Hero back to her stateroom, thoroughly seduces him as his sits frozen in sheer shy terror. It's pretty cute.

Dialogue: Funny, and sometimes even subtle. Modern comedies, alas, are at best wry and ironic, and you rarely see one that pours on the snappy dialogue. Watching The Lady Eve made me jealous of an era where a director could throw one-liners at you too fast for you to catch them all.

Prognosis: Not a Great Movie, really, but diverting enough. If you like the old black and whites, you should enjoy this one. It might be a good date movie, especially if you are dating a professional cardsharp.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Monday Quiz XXXVII

[It's the three hundredth post! Too much time goes into this!]

(What's Going on in That)
Mediaeval Art?

1. What historical event is depicted in this two images?

2. Who is this guy?

3. These images illustrate the story of ____________.

4. What's happening here?

5. And, what's happening here? Be as specific as you can.

Submit thy answers in the comments.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Michael5000 Bookarts Collection

We have a pretty good collection of book arts pieces here at Castle5000, and I am not ashamed to brag that we have the world's largest collection of the work of Mrs.5000. My own personal share of the collection is quite small, but has some good stuff in it.

My first introduction to the book arts was the Chinese New Year cards and small occasional pieces produced by time-to-time L&TM5K commenter Margaret. I still have these pieces, of course, but have unfortunately been too cheap so far to actually purchase anything from her.

As you might expect, I now have a number of pieces by Mrs.5000. I own, for instance, a handmade book from her small series called The Recombinant Alice. Each "page" of this book is a text from Alice and Wonderland set opposite the original engraving of the character that it describes.

However, each page is cut into thirds, and the whole is cleverly engineered so that, by flipping the little page-thirds, you can create weird new characters with weird new texts to describe them. It is like an elaborate game of "Exquisite Corpse," with the surreal setting of Alice and Wonderland serving as a natural jumping-off point into further absurdities.

The most elaborate Mrs.5000 piece in my personal collection is the box shown below. I don't know if it has a title; the question never occured to me until just now. It is typical of the Mrs.5000 ouvre, a mobile and intricately detailed three-dimensional space, chockablock with high-culture imagery, found objects, evocative snippets of text, mirrors, exposed mechanical objects, watercolor, technical images, and sudden surprising empty spaces that open up new views and perspectives. Made to be a Christmas gift for me, it is subtlely tailored to me and my interests, although you would have to know me awfully well to figure that out.

L&TM5K Blog Vice-Dork Fingerstothebone is a book artist and painter; we have one of her prints hanging in the living room, and I have framed several greeting-card prints of her paintings in order that I can enjoy her art with a minimum of financial benefit going to her. It's nothing personal, I'm just cheap.

I did, however, beg and wheedle until Mrs.5000 bought me one of Fingers' "Da(3)Pai(2)" playing card decks for a birthday present. These are a playable deck of cards that trace out the etymology of 52 words in written Chinese. They are way cool.

I note also that Fingers has created a "a mock fortune telling deck [of] 52 cards with 52 different vague answers to all the questions in life", but that it is not for sale. C'mon, Fingers. Everything's for sale....

Last on today's tour is my representative speciman of Pamela Paulrud's Book Stones, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. Paulrud presumably makes these by chopping up old, moribund, but still tightly-bound books and going after those suckers with a grinder or something. The resulting object looks fantastic displayed in a group along with actual river stones, as shown here, but is a thing of much coolness all by itself, as well. They are pretty, but also marvelously tactile.

I have not met Pamela Paulrud, and to my knowledge she does not read the L&TM5K, but I'm sure she is very nice just the same.


So, if you have a modest budget for acquiring distinctive, beautiful, and intellectually engaging works of art, you could certainly do worse than to patronize any of the above artists.

If you have a truly massive budget, please contact Mrs.5000 at your earliest convenience. Tell her michael5000 sent you!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XLVI

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 that the rules are the same, wherever you go:
No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will find themselves on permanent vacation.
This Week's Category will whisk you away to a tropical paradise!

Countries of the Caribbean

IS IT or ISN'T it an independent Caribbean country?
1. Antigua and Barbuda

2. Bahamas

3. Barbados

4. Dominica

5. Guadeloupe

6. Jamaica

7. Saint Kitts and Nevis

8. Saint-Pierre and Miquelon

9. Trinidad and Tobago

10. Turks and Caicos Islands

11. Vanuatu

12. Virgin Islands

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wake Up With Michael5000!

About a zillion years ago, MyDogIsChelsea did a post about a wake-up-in-the-morning music mix. The details had grown fuzzy in my memory, but the idea was something like this: if you the reader made a mixed CD for her, she'd make one for you. Going back just now to get the link, mind you, I see that that wasn't really the idea at all, but that hardly matters now. The point is, I've been going around for a year with "Mix for MyDogIsChelsea" as the perenial item I never got to at the bottom of my To Do list.

Well. No longer. In fact, to make up for lost time, I have now made and mailed two (2) "mixed tapes," as we used to call them in the heyday of the archaic casette tape technology. Except of course, I used the archaic CD technology instead.

The first of the two mixes is a relatively rambunctious and vigorous designed to jump-start the day. It is titled "It's Morning! Wake Up, Darn It!" And here are the songs on it.

1. Guided By Voices, “Fair Touching” (Isolation Drills)

2. Jim’s Big Eco, “Stress” (Noplace Like Nowhere)

3. Mountain Goats, “Palmcorder Yajna” (We Shall All be Saved)

4. The Thermals, “I Hold the Sound” (The Body, the Blood, the Machine)

5. The Arcade Fire, “Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels)” (Funeral)

6. Billy Bragg, “A New England” (Back to Basics)

7. Richard Buckner, “Town” (Meadow)

8. Jennifer O’Connor, “Sister” (Over The Mountain, Across The Valley and Back To The Stars)

9. Mike Doughty, “Madeline and Nine” (Haughty Melodic)

10. The Hold Steady, “Party Pit” (Boys and Girls in America)

11. Rilo Kiley, “Portions for Foxes” (More Adventurous)

12. Blue Scholars, “Inkwell” (bluescholars)

13. The Thermals, “An Endless Supply” (More Parts per Million)

Well, there you have it. The idea being that now, you too can go out and assemble this collection of songs through your iTunes or whatever. Then, you can do like MyDogIsChelsea, and Wake Up With Michael5000!!!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Vignette: Spelling it Out for Michael5000

Michael5000 is hanging out in the backyard with the Boy, his friend's eight year old son. Noticing some dry plants, he hooks up a nozzle to the hose.

Boy: You better not shoot me with that weapon!!

M5K: It's not a weapon, silly dude. It's just the hose. I'm going to water some plants.

He waters some plants.

B: Well, you better not spray me with the hose, because then my clothes would get all wet!!

M5K: Don't worry. I promise I won't spray you with the hose.

M5K waters some more plants.

He does not spray the Boy with the hose.

B: Hey! You sprayed me with the hose!!

M5K: What? No I didn't, you goof. Not even close!

B: Well, you better not spray me!

M5K (not really paying attention): OK, I won't spray you.

B: Because that would get my clothes all wet.

M5K: Uh-huh....

B: But, these are my swimming shorts. It's just my shirt that shouldn't get wet.

M5K: Uh-huh....

M5K continues watering the garden for a while....

B: Michael?

M5K turns to see that the Boy has taken off his shirt and is just wearing the swimming trunks.

B (very politely): Could you please spray me with the hose?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Monday Quiz XXXVI

Famous Buildings
What are the names of these buildings, and what countries are they located in?






Submit your answers in the comments.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Weekend Edition

Vignette: Life Online

A Little Story About the Internets in Six Lines, by michael5000.
(This vignette appeared previously in the Indigo Mouse comments.)

michael5000: See these [fabrics in the catalog]? I know the person who designed them!

mom5000: Oh, really? How cool! Who is that?

m5k: Her name is, um, Indigo Mouse.

mom: “Indigo Mouse”?

m5K: Well, I don’t know her real name…

mom: So, you know this person pretty well, then?

Meme Duty

Speaking of Indigo Mouse -- fabric designer, ace knitter, and keeper of the eponymous blog -- I picked the following bookish meme up from her last week. Here's her version... and it looks like frequent L&TM5K commenter Rebel took the plunge as well. (Congrats to I.M. as well on her latest project!)

1. One book that made you laugh: Anything by Richard Russo – especially Nobody's Fool – makes me roar with laughter. Mrs.5000, who reads the same books with a wistful and thoughtful air, occasionally feels that she is somehow missing out.

2. One book that made you cry: Update: I remember a book that made me cry! Charlotte's Web! Third grade.

3. One book that you loved as a child: I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy six or seven times over the course of middle school. But then, you probably did too.

4. One book you've read more than once: David Lodge's Changing Places.

5. One book you loved, but were embarrassed to admit it: Depends on the crowd. I'm sometimes shy about reading science fiction, for instance, but in a different setting I might be a little embarassed about reading the classics. Here's the one that affects me most often: more and more, I've become very fond of my Bible reading project. But, it can feel kind of weird to settle in for a little Bible study down at the coffee shop.

6. One book you hated: I have only read the first chapter of The Da Vinci Code, but the holistic putridity of those first few pages offended me enormously. I am not, of course, referring to the blandly controversial religio-historical content; I didn't get that far in. I'm just talking about the writing. If I had been handed the manuscript, I would have not only dismissed it as obviously unpublishable, but would have kindly but firmly advised Dan Brown to find a new hobby. This is, I guess, why I'm not in publishing.

7. One book that scared you: There was a Ripley's Believe it or Not book of ghost stories that I read voraciously one day when I was a kid. TOTALLY freaked me out. Was scarred for years.

8. One book that bored you: Oh, all of the books in my academic discipline. This is why I am no longer an academic.

9. One book that made you happy: The recently-reviewed King Dork by Frank Portman. Cracked me up.

10. One book that made you miserable: Something Happened by Joseph Heller.

11. One book that you weren't brave enough to read: I'm not brave enough to read Finnegan's Wake. Yet.

12. One book character you've fallen in love with: Can I go with Helena Bonham-Carter as Lucy in the film adaptation of Room With a View? (Second place would go to Helena Bonham-Carter as Ophelia in the Mel Gibson adaptation of Hamlet, except of course that Ophelia is barking mad. But maybe if she'd met me first....)

13. The last book you read: An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks.

14. The next book you hope to read: Beowulf, baby!

Now, I'm not one to put people on the spot by inflicting memes on them individually. On the other hand, DorkFest 2008 is only a few months away....

[Update: Nichim plays ball!]

[Further Update: Kate also plays ball!]

If You Could Live Anywhere...

Earlier this week, the featured image on Wiki was of a pair of posters drawn up during the great heyday of the Gin Craze in England. The artist's intent was to contrast the wholesome, industrious drinkin' on "Beer Street" with the moral perils of drinkin' on "Gin Street."

This made me think: Where would the good readers of the L&T rather live?

On Beer Street?

Or on Gin Street?

Wherever you live and drink, dear readers, have a fabulous weekend!

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Second Annual Fashion Edition!!!

Whether at work or out on the town, michael5000 knows he will always look great in either of two zippy ensembles.

The first is the "shirt and tie." In this look, a button shirt with a collar is worn... with a tie looped under the collar, draped down over the buttons! This combo is still fresh and exciting after 130 years or so, and doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon!

For comfort, durability, and flair, michael5000 prefers white or jewel-toned cotton twill shirts with a back yoke and button-down collars. He has a large collection of elgant, colorful ties, for which he has paid between 10 cents and 5 dollars apiece. He thinks that anybody who would pay the standard retail price of 30 dollars for a tie needs to have his head examined. For weddings, funerals, and employment-related situations that require kissing up, a jacket adds that "something special."

Sometimes -- oh, let's face it, often -- the shirt and tie seems like too much fuss for just another workday. Those are the days for the long-sleaved turtleneck t-shirt! Worn with a pair of slacks, this is a look that says, "Hey, world! I'm wearing a t-shirt to work! And getting away with it! Life is good!"

michael5000 wears a veritable rainbow of long-sleaved turtleneck t-shirts. Sometimes, he wears them with a brown belt and brown shoes. On days that require that extra touch of formality, a black belt and black shoes add a note of sobriety.

In closing, always remember this simple rule of fashion: if you want to put together a comfortable, functional wardrobe that you can maintain without much expense or worry, make sure to be born a male!

[The 2007 Fashion Issue: timeless!]

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Thursday Quiz VL

michael5000 is on the road. Scoring will not take place until Saturday. Sorry if the formatting is screwed up. Courage!

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 qualities of the architypical hero:
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 will overwhelm you with sheer spectacle!

The "Best Pictures" of the Last Ten Years

The following are a list of popular and/or critically aclaimed movies released during the last ten years. Some of them won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The others weren't even nominated in that category. For each movie, IS IT or ISN'T it the one that won the little statuette for its year?
1. About Schmidt

2. Affliction

3. Being John Malkovich

4. Black Hawk Down

5. Children of Men

6. Gladiator

7. Last King of Scotland

8. Requiem for a Dream

9. Return of the King

10. Shakespeare in Love

11. The Passion of the Christ

12. The Truman Show

Lights! Action! Post your answers in the comments!!!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Jazz Wednesday

A few weeks ago, I said something that might have suggested to some of you that I dislike jazz. "I dislike jazz," I said.

But that may have given the wrong impression. It's not that I dislike jazz, per se. It's just that I listen to very little of it, don't know much about it, and occasionally deride it as wonkish and wankish for cheap laffs. But underneath all that is, you know, a deep undercurrent of respect for this uniquely American art form. I guess.


Until recently, my jazz collection consisted of seven CDs:

  • A Billie Holiday collection, an Ella Fitzgerald collection, and a compilation called the Great Ladies Sing Gershwin. 'Cause you've gotta love that stuff.
  • Two (2) Dave Brubeck albums. 'Cause Take Five absolutely kicks my butt. Best drum solo ever.
  • An album by Sadao Watanabe. When I was a senior in high school, I taped a live album of kinda fruity, big-bandy saxophone music that I always thought was Sadao Watanabe. And I still love that battered old cassette tape. If I go to a record store with a jazz section and listen to all of the Sadao Watanabe, though, there's nothing that sounds remotely like what I'm expecting. Maybe I labeled my tape wrong?
  • The Best of Ken Burns Jazz. Yeah, whatever.

So, in my eternal quest to drink deep from the well of human experience, I recently started grabbing big fistfuls of jazz CDs at the library (which reminds me, Citizens of Roses, have you joined the Friends of the Library yet? And why the hell not!?!). I used the same criterion that one uses in selecting a fine wine, which is to say, I looked for discs with the coolest covers. Then I listened a few times, and returned the ones that didn't do it for me.
What follows are the ones I kind of liked. I have no idea if these are big names, or small names, or what, in the jazz world. Do they even have big names in the jazz world? Who are alive, I mean?
  • The Dave Holland Quintet, Prime Directive. Lots of trombone. Interesting sound.
  • Vijay Iyer, Reimagining. Very spacey soundscapy sorts of stuff, which I like, with very complex time signatures, which I like.
  • The Horace Silver Quintet, Doin' the Thing at the Village Gate. The best of the batch. A 1961 club recording, sharp, intelligent, and redolent with the sensation of being happily wired at 2:15 a.m.
  • Coleman Hawkins, Night Hawk. Bluesy oldschool saxophone stuff. Makes you feel all poignantly lonely.
  • Two (2) Bill Frisell discs. These were kinda purty. But I don't know if they were really "jazz."
  • Terence Blanchard, Flow. Trippy trumpet stuff. Makes me wish I smoked.

So, do any of you crazy jazz cats have any thoughts on this situation?
  • Specifically, I'd be very interested to know if there is any coherent pattern to the jazz that seems to appeal to me. Am I listening mostly to representatives of one or another subgenre, in other words?
  • Do you have any recommendations for further listening based on what I've said above?
  • Or, failing that, do you have any general recommendations based on just whatever YOU like?

OK, that's enough about jazz.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Bicycle Thief"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Bicycle Thief
Vittorio De Sica, 1948

We had probably start by acknowledging that The Bicycle Thief is by wide consensus among the very finest movies of all time. Here's the Wiki:

The film is frequently on critics' and directors' lists of the best films ever made. It was given an Academy Honorary Award in 1950, and, just four years after its release, was deemed the greatest film of all time by the magazine Sight & Sound's poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952. The film placed sixth as the greatest ever made in the latest directors poll, conducted in 2002.
Now then. What we have here is, first and foremost, a movie that is beautifully filmed. The cityscapes are lovely, and the action provides an interesting window into Italian life during post-war reconstruction. Culturally, too, the many minor characters of the movie are wonderfully Italian; a director from any other country would be accused of gross stereotyping if she had Italians showing so much cultural idiosyncrasy. The amateur cast puts in generally strong performances, and the main character’s wife and son especially are vividly realized small roles.

Ultimately, though, this is a movie about a guy looking for his bike. The idea is to show the social and emotional impact of poverty through a very simple tale. It works, as far as it goes, but the tale is so simple that it fails to hold much interest. Beautiful street scenes and cultural tourism are all fine and good, but unless you have some narrative power you might as well be filming a travelogue.

Plot: In a time of desperate unemployment, a man’s bicycle – which he needs in order to keep his job – is stolen. He spends the rest of the movie poking around Rome looking for the bike. (This is, incidentally, a bizarrely quixotic approach to his problem, but the movie acts as though it is exactly what anyone else would do under the circumstances.) In the final scene, he demonstrates that he can’t ride a bicycle any faster than a moderate jogging pace, so maybe he doesn’t need a bike after all.

Visuals: Lovely. Exquisite use of black and white and of the streetscapes of Rome, both ancient and modernist. Lots of heroic shots of the main character that bring to mind the best of those portraits New Deal photographers took of the American rural poor.

Dialogue: In Italian, with lots of gesturing and arm waving.

Prognosis: An obligatory stop on the History of Film grand tour. I don’t really see what all the fuss is about, though.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Things People Told Me to Read

King Dork by Frank Portman

(Recommended by Chance.) Is King Dork among the best young adult novels of recent years? Well, how the hell would I know! It's the only young adult novel of recent years I've read. But whatever. It's a damn fine book by any yardstick.

The main character, nicknamed "Chi-Mo," seems at first a fairly conventional teen-fiction protagonist. He is a smart loner on the outskirts of a brutally tribal high school society, in rebellion against the usual suspects: teachers, popular students, viscious students, parents, step-parents, and bad music. He is also more specifically in rebellion against the classic novel The Catcher in the Rye and its adoring fans among the adults in his life. Throughout the book, Chi-Mo ridicules Catcher as dated, pointless, and overrated. Whether this reflects Portman's own thoughts on Holden Caulfield, or whether the whole thing is ment as an homage to Catcher, I'm not really sure. I don't know enough about Catcher to say. (I haven't read it since high school, and I don't remember being particularly impressed. But I may have just been baffled by its East Coast prep school setting, which would have been about as recognizable to me at that point in my life as Mongolia under the Khanate.)

The plot of King Dork, which involves Chi-Mo's attempt to decypher strange messages and notations that he finds in his dead father's books, inevitably plays out against the stock conventions of teen fiction. What makes it brilliant is that way that Portman messes with these conventions. He knows what you expect from a novel about a young man coming of age, but tends to change the rules on you at the last possible moment. Chi-Mo does not discover that the well-meaning adults know best after all. He does not become the school hero after his rock band is a hit at the big pep assembly. He does not get the girl in the end. Or does he? I'm not telling.

Upping the self-referrential ante, Portman's first-person protagonist also knows the conventions of juvenile literature, and is continually commenting on how little application they have to his or anyone else's real life. Long-suffering, fiercely independant, and burdened with an abundance of ideas of his own, Chi-Mo reminds you of every painfully intelligent teenaged boy you've ever met. He's a compelling character, whose aventures in the worlds of family relationships, books, girls, epistomology, and rock and roll I found highly entertaining.

Highly recommended for bright, cynical teenagers and adults. (Contains descriptions of sex that, although not graphic, are detailed and enthusiastic.)

Fire Logic by Laurie Marks

(Recommended by Elizabeth.) Fantasy fiction has made a lot of great strides in the last couple of decades. Most writers now avoid epic struggles between the forces of "good" (pretty elves!) and "evil" (ugly goblins!). To be sure, there's usually still an epic struggle, but writers now take the trouble to think about what motivates the actors involved. This makes for a more interesting story, and makes the fantasy world more power as a metaphor for our own workaday world.

Too, most current writers think through the ecology of whatever system of magic (or whatever) that they develop. If there are people running around with supernatural powers, what is that going to mean for the society they live in? Taking questions like these seriously makes for a far richer, smarter fiction. (For the best of the crop, settle in to George R. R. Martin's sprawling Song of Ice and Fire epic with the first book, A Game of Thrones).

In Fire Logic, Marks introduces us to a continent whose peaceful agrarian society has been invaded by an aggressive warrior caste from overseas. I agree with Elizabeth that the dynamics of this scenario are among the most interesting things in the book; I did wish, however, that we had learned a little more about the invaders' point of view.

As Fire Logic goes on, we see less and less of the geopolitical contexts and more of the personal relationships among the six or seven main characters. This was a disappointment for me; I'm the kind of guy who, when the fate of civilizations hangs in the balance, is less interested in learning who is going to hook up with whom. But that's just me.

Also, this was interesting: Two of the hook-ups are same-sex relationships, and Marks introduces them without comment, treating them exactly the same as you would expect her to treat a heterosexual relationship. And this is all fine and good -- in theory. In the actual reading, however, I confess I found it surprisingly jarring. The effect was much as if she had written in big red letters in the margins, "Look! Same-sex relationships! Which I am normalizing by writing about just as I would a heterosexual relationship!" This might represent some sort of vestigial heterosexism in michael5000, but I think it also represents a special problem that still exists for writers whose characters fall in love with people of their own gender.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889.

(Recommended by a New Yorker article that offhandedly referred to it as the funniest book ever written in English. Seperately contrarecommended by both jennifer and Mrs.5000, who described it as nothin' special. An earlier version of this review appeared previously in an email to jennifer.) I think the warning of lowered expectations was helpful going into Three Men in a Boat -- and, I think it might be a better book to have read to you (I listened to an audiobook) than to sit and read -- but with those provisos, I did find it rather charming.

As essentially the Victorian era's equivalent of, say, Erma Bombeck, it is a historical document with a great deal of historical interest. I was suprised by how many elements of upper middle class life turn out to be pretty much the same over the intervening 150 years. The concept and experience of camping, in particular, seem in many ways unchanged. I wouldn't have guessed that.

There is a lot of fussing in Three Men about the modern times they live in and the fast-paced, dehumanizing nature of the 19th Century, and those are particularly arresting to the modern reader. Or at least, to me. These observations buttress my perenial pet argument that life in Britain and America went through wrenching technological and social changes in the early and mid 1800s, but has been relatively static ever since. ("Relatively" being a key word there, of course.) A long passage in which Jerome makes fun of antiques, and then riffs on the preposterous notion that everyday mass-produced goods will be regarded as "precious Victorian antiques" in 100 years time, is priceless. Sidelong references as to how people commonly drink a lot, hole up at parties to make out, and otherwise behave in unVictorian fashion are additional good correctives to our historical stereotypes.