Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Monday Quiz XLI

Aerial Photos

This week, the Monday Quiz takes a bird's-eye view of some famous places. You've heard of all of them. But can you identify them?

1. What is this place called?

2. What city is this?

3. What city is this?

4. What is this place called?

5. What is the compound in the upper left of this photo called?

Submit your answers in the comments.

...and, just for fun: where's this?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Weekend Edition


Those of you who live in the United States of America should definitely drop everything you are doing and come out next Friday evening (Sept 5th) for the opening of Mrs.5000's First Ever Solo Show!! It's at the 23Sandy Gallery here on the beautiful East Side of the City of Roses, sensibly located at the intersection of 23rd and Sandy. Reception from 6 to 9! If past experience is any guide, there will be free wine and cookies! Can't go wrong with free wine and cookies.

Here's the official postcard! [note: Mrs.5000 uses a goofy alias, "Susan Collard," in order to attract attention in the "art scene." But you and I know who we're really talking about here.]

The online catalog for the show can be found right..... here.

Hey! The Olympics are Over!

Here's the final score of the Olympic games!

1. Bahamas: 2
One medal for every: 153,725 people

2. Jamaica: 11
One medal for every: 254,939 people

3. Iceland: 1
One medal for every: 304,367 people

4. Slovenia: 5
One medal for every: 401,542 people

5. Australia: 46
One medal for every: 447,839 people

6. New Zealand: 9
One medal for every: 463,718 people

7. Norway: 10
One medal for every: 464,446 people

8. Cuba: 24
One medal for every: 475,998 people

9. Armenia: 6
One medal for every: 494,764 people

10. Belarus: 19
One medal for every: 509,777 people

So, congratulations to the island nations for their athletic prowess!

Congratulations too to Estonia, right up there in the world standings with a 12th place finish! (And, it's worth mentioning, 3rd place in gold medals per capita!) Ära räägi! Kas tõesti?! Kas te soovite tantsida?!

Tough breaks for the United States of America, though, which ended up way back in the pack at 46th with only one medal for every 2.7 million people. And a devastating Olympics for hosts China, with a humiliating 68th place finish of only one medal per 13.3 million people. China can at least take pride in having beaten neighbor India, taking up the rear at 87th with only one medal per 382.7 million people. Well, there's always next year. Or, four years from now. Whatever.

It's Labor Day Weekend!

...unless you are from one of those countries that celebrates labor in May. Which is pretty much every other country in the world, right? Well, we in the United States of America celebrate labor at the end of summer. That's just how we roll.

A chat snippet from last year:

8:54 AM Patrick: hooray for labor!
8:56 AM michael5000: Hooray for Labor Day!
8:57 AM Patrick: oh right.
8:58 AM michael5000: well, labor too.
9:00 AM Patrick: but less so

College Football, Baby!!

It's the first weekend of the season!! But I promised not to talk about that.

A chat snippet from last year:
10:46 PM michael5000: How 'bout them Huskies?
10:48 PM BigSister5000: Yeah, could you believe the third quarter?
10:50 PM michael5000: I'm pretty sure that was a lucky guess.
10:51 PM BigSister5000: What, was it actually lucky?

And finally, the buzz-kill:

Yoyo the Cat, who was featured back in February in the Sentimental Cat Post, died this week at age 21 1/2. She was a remarkably gentle, good-natured, intelligent, and charming animal, and lived a enviably happy and peaceful life. We miss her a lot.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Thursday Quiz: Bye-Week

The Thursday Quiz has a lot to celebrate! Saturday, for instance, is its first anniversary! Plus, today is the first day of the COLLEGE FOOTBALL SEASON!!! ...which, per last year's spectacular lack of reader interest, I will not be talking about this year. However, we should at least give the great sport a moment of dignified contemplation:

Right, where were we? Oh, right -- the Thursday Quiz is taking the week off; it will be back next Thursday to start off the Sixth Season.


...are in order to the Fifth Season Champions, who include, but are not limited to:

gs49 -- Five stars, two of 'em Gold ones!!

Phineas -- Four stars: a Gold, two Silvers, and a Blue!!

Karmasartre -- Four stars: a Gold, two Silvers, and a Green!!

Nichim -- Four stars, a Gold, a Silver, and two Blues!!

Rex Parker -- Four Green Stars!!

Thanks to them, and -- as always -- to all of you who indulge me by taking the Quiz or just by glancing at the blog in general every once in a while. It's very flattering. I hope some of you have a small fraction of the fun I have with this thing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Return of Classical Wednesdays I

By actual requests -- of which there was more than one! -- Classical Wednesdays returns with a new round of recommendations for your listening pleasure.

The Baroque Era

Before I wrote the Classical Wednesdays series, I thought I had an roughly even mix in my collection of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century music. I was wrong! Turns out I actually listen to music of the Baroque much less than music from any other of the four time periods. But never fear! I can still write about the period in a tone that implies absolute confidence in my own knowledge! Any questions? No? Good.

General Listening Suggestions

The three biggest names in Baroque music, at least from the modern American perspective, are Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Georg Friedrich Handel. Most of the Baroque music in my collection was written by one of those three guys, and honestly I can't feel too bad about it. All three wrote at a consistently high level, and you could do worse for a Baroque listening strategy than to just focus on them.

Handel, who wrote in England, is a bit heartier than the other two. His music has a bit of bluster in it that I like. It's peppy. J.S. Bach is the intellectual, writing intricate pieces where the various parts all seem to move independently of each other but also somehow come together in an coherent whole. There's a mathematical precision to Bach. Physicists love him. Vivaldi is sunnier, showier, a violin virtuoso who creates music that feels a little more spontaneous, a little less methodical, than Bach's. If you root around in the music of these three, you'll find a certain sameness to a lot of it, but you'll also find some real gems. If you can handle vocal music, try Handel's operas, Bach's cantatas, and the Vivaldi Gloria.

There was also a lot of concerto writing going on in the Baroque, so if you are fond of a particular instrument and want to get away from the Big Three, you can look for a collection of concerti. For instance, I have a disc here called "Baroque Trumpet Classics" (this one happens to be on the Seraphim Classics label) that features concerti by Stolzel, Telemann, Torelli, and (of course) Vivaldi. It's good! And, the focus on a single instrument gives a concerto a distinct sonic texture, and breaks up the sameness you can sometimes get in the Baroque sound.

More Specific Suggestions

Realizing my lack of breadth on the Baroque circuit, and knowing that the L&TM5K readership expects the very highest level of content, I have been digging around in the Baroque literature a little to find some new pieces for us to listen to. Here's what I've turned up.

Corelli: Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. There's a sweet wistfulness in these proto-symphonies that, combined with the inherent thinness of the Baroque sound, strikes me as downright autumnal. Maybe its just that we are approaching the turn of the season, but this music seems to conjure up visions of falling leaves, late sunshine, and apple stands. Very pleasant stuff.

Tartini: Five Sonatas for Violin & Basso Continuo. Most chamber music before Beethoven or thereabouts was composed more to be enjoyed by the players than to be enjoyed by listeners. This was before wide-screen television, computer gaming, and fantasy sports, remember, so the poor wretches were reduced to playing music together as a form of entertainment. Much of a composer's money was made through providing sheet music for this market.

The Tartini Sonatas show the classic profile of chamber music written for amateur performers. The violin part offers opportunities to show off, but really isn't very complicated. The harpsichord part is even simpler, for the most part just laying out chords for the violin to riff over. The cello part requires little more than a living human being, which goes to show that, then as now, it was hard to scare up a good bass player.

For all that, they are nice. At times a little on the formal side, at times fairly jolly, they have a great deal of old-world garage band charm. They won't blow you out of your shoes, but they might pick up your mood a little.

Handel: Recorder Sonatas, Op. 1. Since our last discussion of the Baroque prompted a free and frank exchange of views on the recorder, I thought I would give Handel's contribution to the repertoire a listen. They are very listenable! They are light, bouyant, and highlight the pure quality of the instrument's tone rather nicely. They are also, it must be said, a bit static harmonically. Since the recorder can't really cover the whole chromatic scale, a piece that uses it has very few options for changing key. It's interesting to hear Handel try to fudge this problem. He has the accompanying instruments change key while the recorder plays melody lines cobbled together out of the handful of notes within that key that it can produce. Even with this trick, though, a little bit of monotony sets in if you are listening too carefully.

Bach: Cello Suites. Six suites! Six movements apiece! One instrument! And the cello isn't really a chord-playing instrument, either, so for the most part you are simply listening to a single melodic line throughout the suites. It goes without saying that this makes for a somewhat austere music. This is probably not the best choice for music to keep you perky while driving at night. However, there is a dignified sweetness to these pieces that makes them good listening, and -- sorry, Bach -- terrific background music for writing and thinking. The first movement of the first suite is the big hit of the series; you can give it a listen and decide from there if you want a lot more of the same.

Teleman: The Paris Quartets. Bubbly, pleasant, suitable for a wedding reception -- this is champaigne music. The flute is a featured instrument in some of the quartets, which gives them a lightness of touch that might be charming, or kind of lame, depending on your mood. Not recommended for firing up the team before the big game. But potentially great in other settings.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Great Movies: "The General"

The General
Buster Keaton, 1926.

The General must have been a hella exciting movie in 1926. With sound, it would still be pretty exciting today. It consists of two incredibly elaborate train chases, bookended and divided by some very modest plot material. Since there's not much of a story line, the biggest problem of silent film -- that dialog is incredibly cumbersome -- is simply avoided. And even without a soundtrack, the photography of the train chases is pretty amazing. The many stunts, some of them rather jaw-dropping in their daring, were clearly performed in an era of more relaxed standards of liability. It is far from obvious how many of the shots of the moving trains were even filmed, given the technology of the day. There are a gazillion extras, costumed and choreographed to a tee. It is a astonishing feat of filmmaking.

But is it entertaining? Well, somewhat. As much as it could be, perhaps.

A silent movie just lacks the immersive quality of the talkies. The action is visually dazzling, but without the screeches, roaring, shots, and shouts, it's not really very engaging. There is comic relief in The General, but since dialog is not really an option, it's almost all in the form of broad visual gags (there is, however, a fine instance of irony in the late going, but it's the best moment in the movie and I don't want to give it away). It is certainly the most entertaining silent movie I've ever seen (beating out Battleship Potemkin by quite a ways, and Broken Blossoms by a country mile), but that's not really saying much. Once you've had synchronized sound with your motion pictures, it's really, really hard to go back.

Another possible problem with the entertainment value, depending on how much you worry about such things, is that the movie wants you to root for the Confederate States of America against the corrupt and devious soldiers of the United States. Now, I understand that many ordinary folks in the South fought in the army of the CSA with noble intentions and commendable bravery. And, I understand that national reconciliation was a bit more of a live issue when The General was filmed than it is today. Yet, if you wanted to identify a single country that has ever embodied the worst of the human species, the CSA -- the explicit purpose of which was to protect and perpetuate the human rights atrocities of its ruling class -- would have to be on your short list. So even watching The General as a historical artifact, I personally find its sentimental take on the gentility of the Confederate Army a little hard to stomach.

Plot: For reasons having to do with the Civil War and luv, a man chases one train with another train for a long long ways. Then, for similar reasons, he drives a different train back to where he started, while being chased by other trains. Out of an hour and a half of screen time, a full hour is train chases. The best part of the movie? The train chases.

Visuals: Rather amazing, really. People are running around all over the trains while they are in motion, shooting at each other, throwing stuff onto the tracks, blowing things up, fighting with other people on the train, etc., and you always have a coherent idea of what's going on. Filming so many stunts, many of them quite daring, on and from a moving train, must have been a pretty amazing experience. I'm glad I wasn't the film's underwriter.

Dialog: It's a silent movie.

Prognosis: If you watch just one silent movie this year, this is the one to watch! But... why would you?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Shh! The Monday Quiz is Sleeping!

...and the Fourth Season of the Monday Quiz is in the record books. Congrats to DrSchnell, who put in a dominating performance, taking Exclamation Points home in seven of the season's ten contests to earn top honors.

Cartophiliac was right behind him with six wins, and takes the second spot.

Chance, la gringissima, and gs49 were all strong contenders as well, with four E.P.s apiece over the course of the summer.

My respect and thanks to these general knowledge studs -- and to everyone else who has showed up for a Quiz or two over the summer.

Seasonal Champions of the Monday Quizzes are now shown on the Quiz Leaderboard. Eternal glory, baby!


The Fifth Season of the Monday Quiz starts next Monday, September First.

Q: Will you be bringing a challenging yet entertaining mix of traditional and innovative five-question image-based pop Quizzes?
A: You know I will.

Q: I'm a teacher. Is it really proper for me to be taking the Quizzes? Isn't my role to be giving quizzes?
A: It is critical for an educator to be able to understand and identify with the experience of their students. The michael5000 Quizzes have been shown by several scientific studies to enhance intellectual humility, broad-mindedness, and love of learning if taken on a regular basis. Several major universities and urban school districts are in fact looking into requiring their teaching staff to take the Monday Quiz for just this reason. There is really no better way for a teacher to spend their Monday lunchtime.

Q: How about students?
A: Yeah it's good for you guys too.
See you next week for the Fifth Season of the Monday Quiz!


If you are starting a new semester of teaching or learning this week, best of luck to you! Knowledge and understanding are good! Have fun!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Reading List: Beowulf

Beowulf is a message in a bottle from an amazingly remote time and way of life. It is like a letter that you find in the attic, written by a cultural great-great-grandparent, an eccentric ancestor that you never had the chance to meet and whom you know precious little about, but whose influence is still felt every time the family gets together.

The differences between your life and the life of a medieval Anglo-Saxon tribesman are notable. You, gentle reader, live perched on the framework of a global economic system, a relatively stable social order, and myriad wonders of technological achievement and materials science. The Anglo-Saxon, on the other hand, has a life style that, although by no means "natural" -- we're talking about human beings, here -- is far more exposed to the elements and to the immediate questions of food supply and survival than we are or probably could bear to be. Manufactured items are exceedingly rare. With communication sporadic and resources few, human-on-human violence is a commonplace.

These are people without literacy, without an organized justice system, without antibiotics. They can not expect to be famous in the future or to be defended from assault by others, and they know that life is always extremely tenuous. All of this breeds a way of thinking about priorities that seems to the modern eye, shall we say, bracingly rugged. There are no frills, and there is no romance. Beowulf, the warrior hero, lays it out for us before going into battle: not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.

A Note on the Text
No one knows the exact origins of the Beowulf story. We don't know whether it was an important legend among the Anglo-Saxons or just a random one that happened to survive by accident. It is an oddity in that it is a written relic of a non-literate people; the oral tale survived long enough into the reintroduction of literacy for someone -- two someones, judging by the handwriting -- to write it all down.

There is a lot of Christian content in Beowulf layered over a clearly pagan core narrative. This may be because the scribes who wrote the tale down, who were almost certainly monks, manipulated its content; or, it's possible that the tale had evolved Christian trappings among its tellers in the newly Christianized population. Either way, the text reflects its having been written down in the period of transition from non-literate pagan England to literate, Christian England.

That Was a Good King
The Anglo-Saxons are a tribal people; in the grand game of Civilization, they have discovered Iron Working but not Monarchy. What they call "Kings" are really regional warlords. The job of these kings is to protect their people through wise leadership in war and diplomacy, and to ensure that everyone gets an equal cut of the spoils. Alliances must be well thought out, wars must be prosecuted with vigor and valor, and treasure and the honor that it signifies must be distributed fairly and properly to those who have earned it.

To an great extent, Beowulf is a kind of Medieval Machiavelli, a manual of advice for the Anglo-Saxon king. Beyond the basic tale of hero fighting monsters, the text is packed with digressive speeches that recount the histories of tribes, heroes, and events. Each of these tales comes with an implied suggestion for the best practice of leadership.

One of the key messages of Beowulf, for instance, is "avoid feuds." The idea that "it is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning" is intended to deter crime and violence by the threat of reprisal, and doubtless it often served that function. It's an unstable system, though, in that once the peace is broken it tends to stay broken, in an endless cycle of reprisal killings. And this is bad. Feuds are costly, disruptive, and almost impossible to stop once they are underway. They can fester for generations. The Anglo-Saxons, as you might expect, understood the psychology of this very well; at one point, the tale contemplates two tribes trying to end a decades-old feud through a judicious political marriage:

Than an old spearman will speak while they are drinking [at the wedding feast],
having glimpsed some heirloom that brings alive
memories of the massacre; his mood will darken
and heart-stricken, in the stress of his emotion,
he will begin to test a young man's temper
and stir up trouble, starting like this:
'Now, my friend, don't you recognize
your father's sword, his favourite weapon,
the one he wore when he went out in his war-mask
to face the Danes on that final day?
...and now here's a son of one or other
of those same killers coming through our hall
overbearing us, mouthing boasts,
and rigged in armor that by right is yours.'
And so he keeps on, recalling and accusing,
working things up with bitter words
until one of the [bride's] retainers lies
spattered in blood, split open
on his father's account....
Then on both sides the oath-bound lords
will break the peace....
It's hard to end feuds. Readers of Beowulf are reminded of this constantly, and reminded that the best path is to make sure that feuds don't get started in the first place.

An even more important message is "be generous." Give until it hurts. In Beowulf, the final measure of a king is how much loot he is passing around. If you are distributing a lot of gold to your people, it shows that you have successfully fostered and defended the wealth of the community, and that you honor and respect the work of the people who made it all possible. It is, oddly enough, a more or less democratic mechanism, a way of assuring the consent of the governed. If you are tight-fisted, you will sow resentment and dissent, and you will not be king for long.

Considering that we are in the Early Middle Ages, here -- the proverbial "Dark Ages" -- its impressive what a promenant role queens have in this system of distributing wealth and honor. They mix freely and with apparent ease through the company of warriors, and the honors that they bestow through words and gifts are portrayed as somewhat independent of, but equal to, those of their husbands. That they possess some measure of power -- and that they, like their husbands, were considered under obligation to exercise that power wisely -- is shown clearly in this episode:

Great Queen Modthryth
perpetrated terrible wrongs.
If any retainer ever made bold
to look her in the face, if an eye not her lord's
stared at her directly during daylight,
the outcome was sealed: he was kept bound
in hand-tightened shackles, racked, tortured
until doom was pronounced -- death by the sword,
slash of blade, blood-gush and death qualms
in an evil display. Even a queen
outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that.
A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent
with loss of life for imagined insults.
Queens are definitely not entirely autonomous, but then this is not a society of autonomous individuals. Everyone in the community is bound to everyone else by obligations of service, responsibility, and the sharing of loot.

About that loot
The Anglo-Saxons are mad for it. They do not share our notion of the embarassment of riches. Unabashed materialists, they find gold fascinating and lovely, and frankly want as much of it as possible. In a time of very, very few manufactured goods, a handful of gold hoops seems to have represented the good life. Indeed, to an Anglo-Saxon gold "rings" (bracelets, really) ARE the good life -- they are the luxury automobile, the McMansion, the marble countertops, the master bedroom suite with wraparound shower, the weekends in Aspen, the whole deal. It's all wrapped up in a few bands of metal. A person's rings represent their honor and their standing among their peers, and thus, like the luxuries of any era, they have a psychological worth unrelated to their inherent beauty or utility.

This is the kind of thing that makes Beowulf so fascinating. Its characters think and act in ways that are often wholly alien to us. But at the same time, they are human beings and, for those of us who grew up in the matrix of the English speaking world, they are important cultural ancestors. In there with the alien, there are plenty of glimpses of what we share.

On the Translation
I read the popular recent translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heany. This version is sometimes criticized on technical grounds and for being "too much Seamus Heany, not enough Beowulf." I am unqualified to comment on the technical questions, but can comfortably say that "too much Seamus Heaney" is an oxymoron. The text as he renders it is a brilliant piece of alliterative poetry. I read it out loud, probably to the puzzlement of the neighbors, and it felt great coming out of the mouth. The only problem was getting the rumbling rhythms out of my speech for a few hours afterwards.


You know the story. Man fights monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mom, and a dragon. The fights don't make up much of the text, though, and for my money they are just window dressing for a much more interesting meditation on the qualities and responsibilities of leadership.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Thursday Quiz L

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 rules of the game:
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 throw down some massive noise from the bleachers!

College Football

It's that special time of year again, people! IS IT or ISN'T it an American college football team?
1. The University of Akron Zips
2. The University of Alabama Crimson Tide
3. The Kent State University Golden Flashes
4. The University of Illinois Tigers
5. The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
6. The University of North Texas Mean Green
7. The Ohio State University Wolverines
8. The University of Oklahoma Cornhuskers
9. The Stanford University Cardinal
10. The Texas Christian University Horned Frogs
11. The Wake Forest University Demon Deacons
12. The Wisconsin State University Mustangs

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The "I'm Sorry, Madonna" B-Side

Now, doubtless you've been listening to "I'm Sorry, Madonna" pretty much non-stop since it was released two weeks ago -- playing it loudly in public places, burning it to CDs for all your friends, air-guitaring to it with your tennis racket.... No? You haven't? Well, whatever.

Anyway, "ISM" was a ~single~, and one thing for sure about a single is that it has a B-side, right? So here's the B-side. It's a cover of a song by Norman, Oklahoma's The Flaming Lips, "Waitin' For a Superman." Dedicated to all you Normaniacs out there. DrSchnell! Blythe! Here's your long-distance dedication.

Out of grudging respect for the whole copyright thing, I will only have the song on the internet for one week. So live it up while you've got it.

Guitars, voice, and percussion programming by me, natch. No trumpet this time, sorry. If my paper-thin voice and spare-bedroom production values don't do it for you, why not check out the original version? You can find it here, with a little poking around.

If you are a legal professional in the employ of the Flaming Lips, or more likely of Warner Bros Records, please note that this is a hobby recording and that no money is changing hands in this wholesome act of homage.

Meanwhile, in Beijing

The L.A. Times continues to impress with its coverage of Olympic medals per capita, and there have been some exciting changes since we last checked in. Armenia has slipped all the way down to fifth place in the standings. Australia continued to dominate among the large countries of the world, and ranks fourth overall, but feisty neighbor New Zealand has meanwhile lept into second!

Give it up for southeastern Europe, though, as little Slovenia takes a commanding lead over the rest of the world. But most exciting of all, the L&TM5K's own Most Favored Nation, Estonia, has leapt into Sixth! Go, Estonia!

1. Slovenia (5 medals) - one per 401,542 Slovenians
2. New Zealand (8) - 521,862
3. Jamaica (5) - 560,866
4. Australia (35) - 588,595
5. Armenia (5) - 593,717
6. Estonia (2) - 653,802
7. Bahrain (1) - 718,306
8. Belarus (11) - 880,542
9. Denmark (6) - 914,120
10. Norway (5) - 928,891

A disappointing Olympics so far for us in the United States of America, however; our athletes have managed only a rate of one medal for every 3.8 million of us in the population, putting us in 42nd place.

At least we're beating the hosts, China, who are having a truly dismal year. At only one medal per 17.5 million citizens, China is in 58th place on its home turf. I would imagine the hometown crowd is getting pretty ugly at this point.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Great Movies: "La Dolce Vita"

La Dolce Vita
Federico Fellini, 1959

I had started to worry that maybe I was anti-Italian. My recent encounter with the much-lauded classic The Bicycle Thief landed it on the heap of Italian films I find grossly overrated, along with such widely beloved movies as Cinema Paradiso (yawn...) or Life is Beautiful (a truly nasty little piece of work). And long time followers of the Great Movies project may remember my first encounter with Federico Fellini, in which I reviewed his 8 1/2 jointly with the Marx Brothers hit Duck Soup. I found them both pretty painful. I called 8 1/2 "absurdist fantasy... approached with all the subtlety and restraint of the sophomore class play."

So it was not without trepidation that I cued up the three-hour marathon that is La Dolche Vida. Yet, as the opening minutes went by, something surprising happened. Gradually, my sneer relaxed. Gradually, I began not only to appreciate the images flashing before me, but to care about the characters. I began to enjoy the movie! A breakthrough! And so, I am happy to report that La Dolche Vida is not grossly overrated! It is, at worst, mildly overrated!

It is, first and foremost, a lovely moving picture, packed with memorable images. An element of surrealism is present -- especially during the ensemble scenes, the characters act in highly stylized ways -- but we are not assaulted with crude symbolism to the extent we were in 8 1/2. The lead character, a failed writer who pays the bills as a hack celebrity journalist, suffers from the same ennui and emptiness as the protagonist in 8 1/2, but unlike that character he is still struggling, hoping to find meaning somewhere, and this restlessness makes him -- and the film -- much more interesting and moving.

Like 8 1/2, La Dolche Vida parodies the fast, glamorous, pointless lifestyle of artists, actors, aristocrats, and other intellectuals and glitterati of the early 1960s. Most of the action happens at night or in the grim light of dawn, at cafes, clubs, and parties. The protagonist moves in a colorful, multilingual, pan-European crowd of vivid faces and personalities, rather as if Tintin the boy reporter had reached his 30s and been assigned to the club beat. There is sex, there are drugs, and there is a bracing blast of pre-Beatles rock and roll; all of this diverts but fails to fulfill the characters, who have the misfortune to be living during the mid-century existentialism epidemic.

Everywhere there are reporters and photographers (this is the movie that introduced the word "paparazzi" into English) and they are eager, as in real life, to present the mundane aspects of celebrity as noteworthy and to package the events of the world into digestible, vacuous chunks. They stand ready to engineer a news event, if none volunteers itself. As a reporter, the protagonist renders everything meaningless; as a human being, he aches for the loss of meaning.

Plot: An alienated reporter for the celebrity press drifts through nights spent with minor celebrities. In a series of extended episodes, he fails: (1) to either heal his relationship with, or free himself from, his train wreck of a girlfriend; (2) to mend his relationship with his estranged father; (3) to score with a famous actress he finds himself suddenly smitten with; (4) to parley a meaningful friendship into a potentially meaningful affair; or (5) to emulate -- or to save -- the one person he seems to sincerely admire. Throughout, he fails in his ambition to write anything of substance. At the end, there's a big party, where he fails to act decently.

Images: Clearly Fellini's strong suit. I was interupted several times while watching, and every time I had to pause the movie, the randomly frozen image looked like a striking promotional still shot. That's how well composed and framed each scene is. There are lots of very memorable, evocative pictures throughout.

Dialog: In Italian. Since the dialog is often functioning to demonstrate the essential shallowness of the characters' concerns, it is by design a bit dim-witted. Many of the performances are similarly somewhat hammy, but the characters themselves are all rather hammy, so it works.

Prognosis: This seems like a good stop for someone curious about what all the Fellini fuss is about. It undid the damage of 8 1/2, leaving me with some respect for this most famous of directors. Also recommended for fans of movie photography, people interested in the European intellectual culture of the 50s and 60s, and lovers of European films in general.

The Great Movies Project: Explanation and Index

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Monday Quiz XL

The Monday Quiz Goes to ___________!

1. What is this place called?

2. The area in purple on this map is the ______ ______ ______.

3. The bridge and the building in the lower right are both famous landmarks of this city, _____________.

4. What is this cute little guy?

5. What's in the jar?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Weekend Edition

What, no real content?

Eh, summer. As the Cars taught us, it turns you upside down. I'm behind.

How about something random yet adorable, then?

Well, here's a set of pictures of a panda, from birth to panda toddlerhood. Cooler than it sounds.

There's always flags....

Have we done Icaro Doria yet? He's a Brazilian artist who makes legends for national flags, as if they were graphs. The result is always clever, generally acidic social commentary. (If you know of a better link for Doria, let me know; I haven't been able to find a personal website for him.)

Turning to sport...

Awareness that the Olympics is happening has penetrated even the legendary michael5000 media blackout, and naturally I'm as curious as anyone else how the nations of the world stack up against each other in the production of freakishly overachieving athletes. Unfortunately, most lists of medal count you see around make a amateurish error in data handling, and fail to standardize by population. I thought I was going to have to do this myself, but fortunately the L.A. Times beat me to it.

Now the Olympics of course is really just a big international lovefest, and of course there are no winners and losers, only competitors. Having said this, here are the countries that are winning the Olympics as of several hours ago:

1. Armenia (3) - 989,529
2. Georgia (3) - 1,543,614
3. Australia (12) - 1,716,738
4. Switzerland (4) - 1,895,380
5. Slovenia (1) - 2,007,711
6. Slovakia (2) - 2,622,375
7. Kyrgyzstan (2) - 2,678,435
8. Azerbaijan (3) - 2,725,905
9. Finland (2) - 2,727,704
10. Mongolia (1) - 2,996,081

The number in parentheses is the number of medals won by that country's athletes; the second number is national population per Olympic medal. Go Armenia!

(We here at Castle5000 are of course hoping that either the United States of America, the country in which the L&TM5K is written and published, or Estonia, the only country thus far to have established diplomatic relations with the L&TM5K, will do well enough to crack this list before it's all over. Don't give up, guys!)

How's the diet cola thing going?

Not bad, actually. I didn't have my first diet cola today until a full three hours after my usual time. Eventually, I'll push it past noon! However, due to some practical considerations I won't go into here, we are going to spend an extra week at 64 ounces, before taking the plunge down to 48 starting on Monday the 25th. Don't worry, though. I'm totally on track.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Thursday Quiz IL

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 to keep things in perspective:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will, unlike Pablo Picasso, be called an asshole.
This Week's Category is one of those pretty ones!

Painters and Paintings

Which painters actually painted the painting shown below them? And which ones didn't?

1. Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

2. Canaletto.

3. John Constable.

4. Salvador Dali.

5. Wassily Kandinsky.

6. Michelangelo.

7. Claude Monet.

8. Pablo Picasso.
9. Rembrandt .

10. Vincent Van Gogh.
11. Grant Wood.

12. Andrew Wyeth.

Submit your answers in the comments. Correctly identifying the red herrings wouldn't help your score, but it sure would be impressive.

(Other Thursday Quizes on Paintings and Painters include TQVIII & TQXXXVI. Rex and Rebel, respectively, took the Gold.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Godfather"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppela, 1972

The Godfather is a movie about ways of life and the way that values adapt and endure as the world changes. The business of the family in question -- maintaining a network of illegal gambling and prostitution by hurting, killing, and scaring people -- is almost irrelevant; their Italian-ness is what is really important. And that ethnic background, in the 1945 setting of the story, dictates many things about relationships within the family and community, and about what one does and does not do in various social contexts. To watch the characters interact is to glimpse within an arcane rulebook on the conduct of Life that is very different than the one that we (or at least I) am used to. As the family is beset by changes of fortune, by changes in the practice of organized crime, and always by the relentless cultural force of the American mainstream, some of the old ways survive in new contexts, and some do not.

Or, The Godfather is a moral parable about how laudable qualities like respect for others, familial love and loyalty, and the drive to be of service in the world can paradoxically lead to destructive actions and consequences. The film's central character, Michael Corlione, has been groomed to rise above his family's problematic trade, but when a series of actions instigated by his incompetent older brother create a major crisis, he steps forward to save the day. He increasingly asserts his impressive intelligence, determination, courage, and self-control, however, in arranging the gruesome executions of people he finds inconvenient. Evil circumstances, argues The Godfather, make the best of men into the worst of men.

Or – for a very unconventional way of watching the film – the Godfather is a movie about the marriage of an unhappy Italian-American woman. It starts with her wedding, explores the ramifications throughout her family of crises in the marriage, and ends with the unpleasant death of her husband. Now, the movie isn’t really about this marriage, of course – but it’s interesting to what an extent the movie is structured by the life events of these very minor characters. It’s a very nice narrative device.

Or, The Godfather is nothing more or less than a masterpiece of filmed entertainment. Rather like how some Shakespeare plays seem to be strung together out of clichés simply because they have been so widely quoted, The Godfather can feel like a collection of classic movie scenes. Yet all of its famous set pieces really are quite great, and so is most of the narrative material in between. The central characters, all highly stylized, nevertheless manage to act very naturally, and every second of screen time seems beautifully composed and framed down to the smallest detail. The film melds violence and tenderness, florid sentimentality and stern stoicism, the exotic and the quotidian, into an amazingly powerful and intelligent gangster flick. A terrific movie.

Plot: Criminals kill each other over disagreements about territory, business practice, and lapses in loyalty. One family's favorite son, reared to transcend criminal life, becomes embroiled instead due to his older brother's failures of leadership. He ultimately becomes an especially dangerous criminal.

Images: The style, feel, and mood of mid-40s America is beautifully reconstructed. There is a lot of eye candy here, with plenty of rich and authentic detail to look at in the background if you can pull your eyes away from the uniformly strong performances in the foreground.

Dialogue: This is a film packed with memorable lines. Despite being a rather long movie, it is taut -- very little is wasted. Every bit of dialogue is pulling double duty in furthering the plot and developing the character of the speaker. It's an amazing economy, and it is part of what gives The Godfather the impact of half a dozen ordinary movies.

Prognosis: Are you kidding me? After this re-watching, I'm very comfortable saying this: everybody should see the Godfather! Film aficionados should watch it for its technique and influence, anybody who likes movies should watch it for its entertainment value, and anyone else interested in or immersed in American society needs to watch it if only for the sake of their cultural literacy.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Monday Quiz XXXIX

American State Flags
With apologies to all you non-Americans out there, for whom this quiz is not a reasonable challenge

1. What American state does this flag represent?

2. How about this one?

3. This one?

4. This one?

5. This one?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Late Summer Loose Ends Post

Diet Cola: The Plan

After carefully and scientifically weighing the evidence concerning diet cola presented in last Friday's discussion, I have come to the following resolution:
  • I shall attempt to reduce my diet cola intake from 88 to 44 fluid ounces per day.

  • From this coming Monday to the following Sunday, I will target an interim diet cola intake level of 64 fluid ounces.

  • Road trips, movies, and restaurants don't count.

  • No adjustment shall be made to my customary weekly coffee treat.
I will periodically report back on how this is going, not out of any illusion that you could possibly care, but because doing so will help me stick to my goals (which is a big part of what this blog is about, anyway, come to think of it). Thank you for your support, assuming I have it.

The "I'm Sorry, Madonna" Single Release

Have you listened to my song yet? Well, why the hell not? It's entirely listenable! People have said so!

Seriously, many thanks to those of you who have listened and made encouraging comments. And even more thanks to those of you who have listened and kept discouraging comments to yourself!

What's Up With the Projects

Summer, the sudden recording binge, being involved with a community group, and a steady stream of guests through the Castle have all conspired to slow down the whole self-education thing. I'm about a third of the way into both of the current Reading List books, Beowulf and Dominion, but haven't made much headway this week. Also, I'm kind of behind over at Michael Reads the Bible, which no doubt is deeply distressing to all three readers of that fine blog. I haven't even made much headway with The Great Movies, what with the weather being good and all that.

So: I think, if this enterprise continues to operate in future years, I'm not going to try to do much with it in the summer. Too much other fun stuff to be doing.


I will shortly be turning forty. I know, I know, you would have guessed me at 28, but there you go. And in celebration of this turning over of the odometer, I am going to throw a biggish bash here at Castle5000. If you are a regular L&T reader and are able to make it to the City of Roses, you are definitely invited. Contact me at the obvious gmail account, and I'll give you the specific day and time, as well as directions to the Castle grounds.

I may have implied to some of you -- for instance, by presenting it as fact -- that I would be LiveBlogging the big bash. I've decided not to do this. The reason is, it wouldn't be any fun. And I prefer a certain minimum fun level in my party experience, don't you? So, if you want to get in on the action, you'll have to do it in person. See you there!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XLVIII

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 enduring lessons of the past:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be doomed to repeat history.
This Week's Category is one of those long, rambling, wordy ones!

Real and Bogus in American History II

Which ones actually happened? And which ones only kind of seem like they might have happened, but really didn't?

1. The Barbary Wars (1801-15): The first overseas military operations of the newly independent United States are against the Berber peoples of northwestern Africa. Several of the Berber rulers promote piracy in and around the western Mediterranean; the American economy, heavily dependent on transatlantic trade, is threatened by this organized threat to shipping. The successful campaign is important in establishing the form and role of the American military.

2. Republic of Texas (1836-1845): In Mexico's Northeasternmost province, immigrants from the American South grow resentful of having to live under Mexican laws, especially the ones against slaveholding, and are disgusted by the overtly corrupt administration of dictator Santa Anna. After a successful war of independence, Texas functions as an independent country for nine years before accepting annexation by the United States.

3. Benjamin Harrison! (1840s): The tenth President is the first Vice-President to assume the office at the death of his predecessor (John Tyler). Constantly at odds with Congress -- he is even expelled from his own party (the Whigs) -- Harrison consequently has a hard time enacting much of a legacy. However, the states of Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma are added to the Union during his tenure.

4. 54'40" or Fight (1840s): As the United States begins to settle the western half of North America, territorial tensions with Great Britain heat up. The British claim to all lands north of the Columbia River would put most of today's Washington state into their Canadian colony. However, the American insistence on a border at 54 degrees, 40 minutes North -- and the threat of military action -- won the day, and that line of latitude forms the modern international boundary.

5. Battle of Borodino (1846): After being humiliated by his inability to penetrate Mexican defenses during the first few months of the Mexican-American war, General Zachary Taylor finally ambushes five divisions attempting to retreat over the Borodino River. The resulting rout effectively puts an end to organized Mexican resistance.

6. Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1869): Taking the Presidency at the end of the Civil War, Johnson pursued what was considered a "radical" policy of creating social, economic, and political opportunities for the newly freed Southern slaves. Conservative forces in the Senate put a stop to this through the impeachment process. He remains the only American president to ever have been unwillingly forced from office (Richard Nixon having resigned before he could be kicked out).

7. The Spanish-American War (1898): The United States, supporting an independence movement in Cuba and spurred by the mysterious (but likely coincidental) explosion of its biggest warship in Havana Harbor, launches naval attacks on Spanish colonies worldwide. The war lasts four months, and ends with the U.S. holding Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and with Cuba as a nominally independent client state. By thoroughly defeating a major European country, the United States gains recognition as an ascending world power.

8. Eugene V. Debs runs for President (1900-1920): A former state Representative from Indiana, labor leader Eugene Debs became somewhat against his will the leading political figure of the Socialist movement in the United States. While never a serious contender for the White House, he was nevertheless more than a fringe phenomenon. In 1912, he polled 6% of the popular vote, and in 1920, despite having been jailed for espousing un-American ideas, he still managed to muster 3.4% of the vote from his cell.

9. The Teapot Dome Scandal (1920s): Warren Harding's Secretary of the Interior leases public oil reserves, which are supposed to be an emergency supply for the Navy, to oil industry bigwigs in return for a portfolio of gifts, cash, and no-interest loans. A Congressional inquiry into the matter is harassed, and its members' offices are bugged and ransacked by the pre-FBI Bureau of Investigation. The resulting scandal destroys Harding's reputation and damages American confidence in government.

10. Passage of the 20th Amendment (1930): Even after the horrors of child labor were exposed by the muckrakers of the late 19th Century, it took more than 30 more years before a Constitutional Amendment limiting the practice was finally passed. Opposed by both farming and industrial interests, the 20th Amendment's prohibition of heavy labor for children under thirteen was largely passed through the efforts of women's groups and religious organizations.

11. Passage of the 25th Amendment (1976): After years of political resistance, the so-called "Equal Rights Amendment" finally becomes law after being ratified by the state of Iowa. Requiring equal treatment under the law for men and women, the 25th Amendment creates major changes in government, in law, and in many other aspects of American society throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s.

12. Passage of the 27th Amendment (1992): This simple prohibition on Congress voting itself a pay increase was originally proposed as part of the Bill of Rights in 1789, but was not ratified with the others. Dug up in the late 1970s, it was subsequently approved by thirty additional states; when added to the eight states that had ratified it more than a century earlier, this was enough to reach the 3/4 mark required to pass a Constitutional Amendment.

Submit your answers in the comments.

(The first Thursday Quiz on Famous Poems was TQXX. Missy took the Gold.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Single Release Party: "I'm Sorry, Madonna"

More than two years since the "release" of my last "single," I am once again ready to bring on the "rock!" This summer's sure-fire hit is a mid-tempo feel-good meditation on the arbitrary nature of celebrity, with a quirky little solo break thrown in for good measure! I'm sure it will be all over the airwaves in no time. But you, the beloved L&TM5K readership -- you get to hear it first.

I'm Sorry, Madonna
Words and Music (c) 2008
(Creative Commons)

If you are not able to play the song from the box above, or if you desire to download a copy of this fine piece of music to keep on your very own hard drive, try this link.

All singin', accoustic instruments, electric instruments, and percussion programming by me.

Thanks to Austin for loaning me the electric I used for the solo bits.

Thanks to Mrs.5000 for putting up with this hobby, which is not unobtrusive.

Thanks to you, for being part of the single release party!

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Great Movies: "JFK"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Oliver Stone, 1991

I'm deeply suspicious of conspiracy theories in general, and you should be too. When tragedy is linked to shadowy, sinister forces, the case usually hinges on the testimony of people describing what they heard and saw during a few seconds of surprise and terror, conditions under which humans simply do not have the capacity to perceive and remember events with any accuracy. Often, and notably with the oddly popular "alternative" theories put forth about the destruction of the World Trade Centers -- an event, if ever there was one, requiring no alternative explanations -- they show a depressing naivete about the physics of objects under extreme conditions of speed, stress, or temperature. And, most theories postulate a cabal of the kind of well-dressed, impassive, implacably evil villain that only really exists in filmed entertainment.

But the single most problematic aspect of conspiracy theories is that they involve conspiracies -- that is, that they hypothesize sizable groups of people who join together to keep an important secret, and keep it until the grave. This doesn't really jibe with an everyday experience of human nature. It's damned hard to keep one's own secrets, and exponentially harder for two people to keep a mutual secret. Could a massive, generation-defining catastrophe requiring the knowing participation of hundreds really be kept under wraps? I sure don't see how.

However, an awful lot of strange things happened in Dallas on and around November 22, 1963. The very least you can say is this: the astonishingly sloppy treatment of evidence and procedure shown across multiple agencies and organizations during the run-up and response to the Kennedy assassination has created vastly fertile ground for speculative scenario-spinning. Decades of theorists have created a massive library of alternatives to the notoriously weak and unconvincing Warren Report.

Oliver Stone's sprawling JFK is a layman's tour through the strange world of Kennedy assassination theory. Interjecting archival materials freely into the filmed drama, and recreating period environments so beautifully that it is not always easy to tell which is which, the film offers an engrossing reenactment of its central event. Or, more properly, many engrossing reenactments, as several different hypothetical scenarios are depicted over the course of the film. Even the strict Warren Report version is given its own fair, literal depiction, demonstrating that it is just, just barely within the realm of possibility.

The only completely safe statement you can make, having watched the film, is that the assination of John F. Kennedy did not go down like the lead character in the movie thinks it did. For one thing, the movie allows into evidence a confession that never actually happened, makes simple composites out of multiple complex characters, and refers to sinister peripheral events that, since the making of the movie, have since been shown never to have happened. Also, Stone clearly wonders whether Kennedy was killed because of the threat he represented to the "military-industrial complex" -- the opening scene is newsreel footage of Eisenhower's Farewell Address, in which the concept was first articulated. Yet most historians today, if I've been reading accurate summaries, are deeply skeptical that Kennedy's administration posed any threat to the military-industrial complex whatsoever. Finally, the movie proposes a conspiracy so broad and so complex as to represent an impressive chunk of the national population. That's a lot of people keeping discipline about a very, very juicy secret. Not bloody likely.

Where the movie excels, though, is in creating and sustaining an air of sinister unease. It is, without a doubt, a significant predecessor of The X-Files and the mild paranoia that hung like smog over the culture of the 1990s. Stone also provided a public service, I think, in pointing out the myriad genuine, disturbing questions left hanging by the essential non-investigation of the Kennedy killing. The blurring within the film between historical fact and speculation, between archival and filmed material, is a fitting means to portray one of the great enigmas of American history, a tragedy about which, both in its legend and in its actuality, facts and truth have a way of seeming to bend, twist, and disappear like smoke.

Plot: A New Orleans District Attorney becomes obsessed with investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Oodles of his witnesses get rubbed out, but he doesn't, which seems like fuzzy thinking on the part of the sinister forces mustered against him. But never mind, he soldiers on heroically against the odds, and digs up all sorts of disturbing connections and absences of documentation. Eventually, there's a big trial.

Visuals: Zowie! This is an amazing movie in terms of its visual and sound design. There is enough straight narrative content to keep you oriented, but extensive screen time is given over to non-narrative audio-visual collage. By turns mysterious, exciting, haunting, and suspenseful, these many long episodes are powerfully evocative yet entirely coherent.

Dialogue: Often in the form of long speeches about how, or why, a character thinks something might have been done. This is rendered tolerable, though, by making most of the expository bits into voice-over of a reenactment of the action being described.

Prognosis: One more thing about this movie -- it's eight hours long. No, wait, that's Empire. JFK is only three and a half hours long. That's a sizable investment of time, and to it you should add at least an hour you will spend on the Wiki looking into the facts, fictions, fancies, and reactions to the thing.

JFK isn't quite like any movie I've ever seen, though, and it may be worth watching for that alone. It is thought-provoking, entertaining, long, beautifully made, and very long. Recommended for anyone with a stout attention span and a few hours to kill.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Monday Quiz XXXVIII

Postcards From ____________

1. What country would this postcard most likely be sent from?

2. What three countries are shown (in part or in whole) on the main map of this postcard? (not the inset map)

3. From what country was THIS postcard most likely sent?

4. What island is shown on this postcard?

5. This postcard shows a province of what small country?

Submit your answers in the comments.