Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Return of Classical Wednesdays II

The Classical Era

When we first talked about the Classical era, I admitted that it's hard to offer listening recommendations outside of the works of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven. Partially this is because these composers were all mad prolific and titans of human artistic achievement. They had plenty of contemporaries, of course, but from the perspective of a couple hundred years, anybody else working at the same times as them fades into relative insignificance.

Those three guys were also terrifically influential, both on their peers in the contemporary European music scene and on pretty much every musician who has lived since. Because of this, I think a sense has emerged of "why listen to Mozart's more obscure peers, when you could just listen to Mozart?" (The same syndrome occurs in other fields as well; one thinks of poor John Fletcher, forever in the shadow now of his somewhat better-known peer Christopher Marlowe. Oh, or William Shakespeare.) Add to this that the Classical style imposed an explicit model of how pieces should be structured and fairly tight norms of melodic and harmonic development, and you get an era of music that is frankly a bit formulaic. The very best of Mozart's contemporaries tend to sound more or less like Mozart. The others often sound like bad Mozart.

Listening Suggestions

Peter Joseph von Lindpainter's Bassoon Concerto, for instance, is an absolutely charming piece of Classical concert music. From its grand, sunny opening on, it maintains an upbeat and expansive mood. Like the best Classical era music, it innovates enough to fend off boredom, yet always keeps you comfortably within a cozy musical framework. If you have ears, you will like this piece.

But: I DEFY you to distinguish it from the music of Mozart. Unless you have made Mozart (or, less likely, Lindpainter) the object of your life's work, I bet you would not be able to tell that this is not Mozart. Yes: Lindpainter was, at least this once, THAT good. On the other hand, he might not have wanted to be remembered as "the guy who was so good that his best work could pass for Mozart."

Mauro Giuliani's Guitar Concerto, on the other hand, has a little more distance between it and the Vienese masters. Presumably an Italian -- not too much of a stretch, with that name -- Giuliani writes warm, lyric melodics that (whether or not they actually were) feel like they were borrowed directly from Medditeranian folk songs. This might not have seemed particularly sophisticated at the time, as it was still some decades before the cool kids would go out to mine their national folk traditions for musical ideas. It does, however, make Giuliani's concerto a distinctive and very enjoyable piece, definitely constructed within the Classical tradition but not enslaved to it.

You're not going to mistake Thomas Arne's Symphonies for Mozart, either. Arne, one of the rare species of British composers, is for one thing a few decades earlier than Mozart, coming during the transitional period from the Baroque to the Classical period. You can still hear a bit of Baroque in his Symphonies, most obviously in that he's still got the basso continuo harpsichord rattling around down there. More importantly, Arne has nothing like the melodic gift of Mozart. His strength is weaving together rhythms and maintaining forward momentum; the pleasure you're going to get from his music is more from its energy and bustle than any particular charm or elegance.

Clocking in at between 8 1/2 and 14 minutes, by the way, Arne's symphonies are a good example of what the form looked like before the Vienese big shots -- particularly Beethoven -- got their hands on it. In Arne, just when you're thinking that the big introduction is over, and the orchestra is about to settle in and play the main theme? That's when the movement is over. That intro was the whole deal.

Poor Carl Maria von Weber. Not only was he named "Carl Maria," which had to have been very confusing during adolescence, but he is also arguably the fourth most famous composer of the Classical Era. This is a tough gig, analogous to being the Fourth tenor, the Fifth horseman of the apocalypse, or the eighth Magnificent cowboy. Weber is a late Classical composer, and you hear quite a bit of Beethoven in him, but to my ear he never takes the plunge into full-blown Romanticism. So, like in early Beethoven, you've got music that still follows the Classical party line, but is infused with more drama and thunder then you get in anything but the very last works of Mozart and Haydn. I like his Piano Concertos and his Clarinet Concerto.

Happy listening!


Wednesday Weigh-In

+2 to 213, 3 lbs over plan
however, feeling good about development of new eating habits.

Diet Cola: Mission Accomplished. Will not post further updates for time being.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Great Movies: "M"

Fritz Lang, 1931

Of the various professions that are overepresented in movies -- attorneys, architects, cattlemen, renegade police detectives with partners in their last month on the force, quirky young artists with strangely enormous apartments -- there's none that can touch the hardworking serial killer. Serial killers are very, very, very rare in real life, fortunately (consider, for example, that you still know who "Jack the Ripper" was), yet from the movies, you would expect Serial Murder to be a leading cause of death, especially in the key "Totally Hot Female, 19 - 28" demographic. There are occasional good movies in the serial-killing genre (Se7en), and there are lots and lots of bad ones. Several years ago, I sat through three (3) consecutive previews for movies about the macabre cat-and-mouse game between police officers and the twisted serial killers who so enjoy baiting them with gnomic hints and clever misdirection. Then I watched a movie about serial killing. And this was not during the Serial Killer Film Festival or anything. This is just business as usual at the movies.

Fritz Lang's "M" is apparently the film that started the genre. Peter Lorre stars as a deeply troubled dude who is compelled to befriend and then kill little girls. It is creepy enough, but not at all a violent movie. Although we are given hints that the murders are pretty nasty, they happen comfortably off-screen. "M" isn't aiming for shock or horror.

What Lang is going for is social satire, so the film is darkly comic in mood. German society in 1931 was lurching towards toward the collective paranoia that would be its horrific undoing, and in retrospect it is hard not to read "M" as a futile plea for national sanity. Fear of the killer in their midst drives the public to a kind of herd madness; in one scene, a kindly man seen talking to a schoolgirl is attacked by a reactionary crowd ready to assume the worst of anyone. The police, although they perform some nice detective work, are also depicted as contemptuous of the public and eager to suspend civil liberties in response to the crisis. Lang juxtaposes the civil authorities against a highly organized criminal "underworld," often intercutting shots of parallel meetings at police headquarters and criminal headquarters. The two groups are so alike in their goals, attitudes, and methods (the criminals want the killer caught for reasons of their own) that it is often difficult to distinguish between them; obviously, Lang had some questions about where civic authority was heading.

The movie essentially ends (although there is a further minute or two of lame denouement) with a speech in which the killer condemns those who have caught him. I do evil because of compulsions I can't control, he says, whereas you commit acts of crime and corruption because you choose to, because it's the path of least resistance. It's a fair point. Lang isn't suggesting a free pass for the pathologically insane, but underlining the moral failure of banal, everyday evildoing. It's a pity his original audience didn't pay more attention.

Plot: Various elements of the population of a German city react to the presence of a pedaphiliac serial killer in their midst. Eventually, the police and the local organized crime outfit both close in on the killer, and he is put on trial by both of them.

Visuals: Lang uses imagery nicely to convey what he sees as the shabbyness of bourgeois society. His graceless characters inhabit a landscape of dim, smoky meeting rooms, bland offices, and crassly commercial shopping streets. The off-screen murders are handled very nicely, too; one especially effective shot shows a balloon that we had seen the victim holding a few minutes earlier, now tangled up in powerlines and being buffetted by the wind.

Dialogue: In German. Little of the dialogue in this fairly early talkie seems especially natural. There are a lot of strictly expository conversations in "M," and a lot of others that seem to exist only to show us how corrupt or cynical a character is. There are also several long stretches when activity on screen is accompanied by total silence on the soundtrack. This probably seemed less strange to an audience that was used to silent movies then it does to a modern viewer.

Prognosis: It's a well-made movie, but it feels a few years older than its 1931 date of release. People who are interested in film history will likely find it interesting and reasonably entertaining. For a more general modern audience, though, its entertainment value alone won't quite cut it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Pointless Map Post

Needing some content here to mark the end of the quiz, and not having written much lately, I have nothing to offer you except two scraps from the map file.

The first one comes from, of all places, my alumni magazine. Say what you like about the University of Oregon, it has what must be one of the best alumni magazines anywhere. There are actually interesting articles and stuff.

The map, by an Oregon student, is based on data from Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss, and purports to show levels of "subjective well being." Denmark ends up taking the prize, with Switzerland right behind. A disappointing showing for Estonia, but things are not at all bad for me and my happy countrymen here in the United States of America. Apparently.

Speaking of the United States of America, here's a quilted map of that country from the 2001 book The Art of the Quilt. It is what at first appears to be a well-made coffee table book, until you start noticing that many of the captions don't seem to have much to do with the photographs they are next to. Then, there's this gem:

The quilt was apparently made in the year VXXLCCCD. Even upside-down, it's kind of fun to see the unbroken Dakota Territory. But then, I'm both a quilt dork and a map dork; it might not be such a thrill for you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Thursday Quiz LIV

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 "to be or not to be that?" is the question. Also:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be hoist on their own petard.
This Week's Category creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time!

Shakespeare Plots

This week, the Thursday Quiz presents some of the greatest plays of the Immortal Bard, shortened to a manageable length for today's busy lifestyles. Which plays have I summarized more or less accurately? And which have I converted from hawk to handsaw?

1. All's Well that Ends Well -- Helena, the orphaned daughter of a physician, lives in the home of the Countess of Rossillion and is secretly in love with the Countess's son, Bertram. She cures the King of France of a disease, then asks for Bertram's hand in marriage. Bertram flees to a war in Italy in order to avoid marriage. Helena goes on what is ostensibly a pilgrimage and ends up in Florence, where she meets Bertram's new flame Diana. Helena sleeps with Bertram while Bertram believes he is sleeping with Diana, and thereby bags her man.

2. As You Like It -- Diago, an ensign in the Venetian army who really dislikes his General, maliciously schemes against him. He tries to make trouble between the General and his powerful father-in-law, and then tricks the General into believing that his wife is having an affair with his best buddy. Eventually, the hapless General commands the assassination of his pal and kills his innocent wife himself. But things don't turn out too well for Diago, either.

3. Henry V -- Henry, Duke of Gloucester, wants to be king, but so many other people are in his way! What to do? He has his brother George arrested for treason and then killed. King Edward IV, the third brother, hearing of George's death and takes ill and dies. Henry has his little nephews, Edward's heirs, confined in the Tower, ostensibly for safe-keeping. Edward IV's widow, Elizabeth, mistrusts Henry and is proved right when he also has HER brothers executed. Then he kills the nephews! He's king! Then he kills his wife. But by then, he has made quite a few enemies and they come and kill him.

4. Macbeth -- The King of Scotland is dead and has been succeeded by his brother Claudius. Claudius has also married Gertrude, the widowed Queen. The prince, Gertrude's son, is already distressed by his father's death and the hasty remarriage. When his father's ghost appears to announce that he was murdered by Claudius, the prince vows revenge. To cover his intentions, he feigns madness.

5. The Merchant of Venice -- Bassanio, a young Venetian, is determined to woo the wealthy heiress Portia. He needs some dosh to pull this off, and asks his rich buddy Antonio to lend him the money. Antonio has some cash flow issues, so borrows the cash from a moneylender, Shylock. Shylock doesn't much like Antonio, so offers him an interest-free loan that carries a nasty late penalty: a pound of flesh. Death, basically. For a while, it looks like Antonio will have to pay the penalty, but eventually everything turns out fine.

6. Othello -- A Moorish general gets talked into killing the king and assuming the throne by his ambitious wife. Then, they decide that he needs to kill off a few more people who would also like to be king, or people who correctly suspect him of having murdered his predecessor. Eventually, a competitor shows up with a big army and, much to his surprise -- some dodgy witches implied that he was invulnerable -- does him in.

7. Pericles -- Greek populist Oripides offers a crown to Pericles. Although Pericles turns it down, fear that he is becoming too powerful leads several Athenian leaders, including the highly respected Achilles, to plot his assassination. Disregarding his wife's prophetic dream, Pericles goes to the Agora and is killed. In rabble-rousing speeches, Achilles and Oripides present contrasting views of the conspirators' motives. The people turn against the conspirators, who are forced to flee Athens. Beset by Oripides' army and haunted by Pericles' ghost, Achilles agrees to take his army to serve in the Trojan War.

8. The Taming of the Shrew -- Katherine, a young woman of Padua, needs to be married off so that her beautiful little sister, Bianca, can get hitched. While much wooing of Bianca is going on, a poor poet named Petruchio arrives in town. Petruchio sees that Katherine, who is thought of as abrasive, is actually a kind-hearted person who lacks opportunities to express her intelligence. He becomes her tutor, and the two of them conspire to make people think he has "tamed" her. This allows Katherine, no longer stigmatized as a "shrew," to marry the Duke of Padua; in gratitude, her father grants Petruchio Bianca's hand in marriage.

9. The Tempest -- Prospero, former Duke of Milan, has been exiled to an island where he lives quietly with his daughter Miranda, an enslaved supernatural being named Caliban, a spirit named Ariel, and his books. When his enemies sail by the island, Prospero uses magic to raise a storm and shipwreck them. The castaways wander the island, enduring all sorts of tests and mischief set up for them by Prospero. Some of them scheme with Caliban against Prospero, futilely. A handsome prince, Ferdinand, falls in love with Miranda. Everyone is reconciled in the end, and Prospero gives up magic since it's kind of sacrilegious.

10. Titus Andronicus -- Titus Andronicus, Rome's most honored general, returns from wars against the Goths with their Queen Tamora and her sons as captives. He sacrifices her eldest son; she vows revenge. Once she becomes empress through various twists and turns, her two remaining sons rape and horrifically mutilate Titus' daughter; he vows revenge. He eventually gets it by killing the two sons and serving them to their mom in a pie. Then pretty much everyone else gets killed too.

11. Two Gentlemen of Verona -- Geronto and Marcello, the titular gentlemen of Verona, enter into a bet to see who can woo the most beautiful woman. After predictable hijinks, Geronto falls in love with a beautiful but anonymous actress at the palace theater, and Marcello is smitten by a young shepherdess he sees in the countryside. Neither can work up the nerve to approach their loves, but each brags publically of bawdy make-out sessions in order to claim the bet. Unfortunately for the gentlemen, both of the women are in fact the same woman: the young Queen, who goes out in disguise to escape the tedium of palace life. When the King hears of their boasts, they are condemned to death -- but when the whole story comes out, the King and Queen are more flattered than angry, and they are granted a full pardon.

12. The Winter's Tale -- Viola and her twin brother Sebastian have been shipwrecked, and Viola believes Sebastian to be drowned. Viola disguises herself as a boy and, calling herself "Cesario," enters the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke sends Cesario to woo the lady Olivia on his behalf but Olivia falls in love with the attractive 'boy' instead. Meanwhile, Sebastian turns out to still be alive and, since he looks a lot like his sister, hinjinks ensue. Olivia meets Sebastian and, mistaking him for Cesario, arranges for them to be secretly married. Other people are also confused by meeting “Cesario” unexpectedly. Orsino is furious at the apparent falseness of his page, but eventually true identities are revealed and Orsino recognizes his love for Viola.

Post your answers in the comments.

Note: These summaries -- the true ones, anyway -- have been vetted and approved by an actual, real-life Shakespeare scholar, for your protection.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Great Movies: "L'Atalante"

Jean Vigo, 1934

L'Atalante is routinely listed as one of the very finest films of all time. Well, whatever. It's OK.

It is an episodic and dreamlike movie, more about its own quirky characters than any particular plot or message. Ebert wrote that it has the qualities of memory, and I think this is right: as the characters travel down a French river on a barge, we don't get the usual narrative structure of establishing shots, landmarks, and key events, but rather snippets of events that might have personal emotional significance. It's wistful, sometimes funny and sweet, and often kind of weird. But it honestly isn't what you would call riveting, either. The movie moves at its own slow pace, like the barge it is filmed on.

Plot: A young village woman marries the captain of a shabby river barge, and becomes the fourth member of its eccentric crew. As the days go by, she begins to suspect that this might not have been the best plan for escaping the claustrophobia of small-town life.

Visuals: Much hailed, and certainly very moody. Also rather muddy, I thought.

Dialogue: In French, with what I suspected were overly literal and humorless subtitles. In this kind of quirky character drama, accent and diction are usually pretty important, and these were of course lost to me.

Prognosis: If you a) enjoy the movies of Jim Jarmusch, and b) enjoy movies of the 1930s and 1940s, then: you will c) enjoy L'Atalante.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Monday Quiz XLIV

The 1970s in the United States of America

1. What's up with this?

2. Why are all of these people waiting in line?

3. This record, although not recorded in the United States, made a big splash in certain American circles. I've blocked out half the words. What is the album's full title?

4. What is this woman up to?

5. WTF?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Obligatory Spore Review

If you are not already playing Spore (Hi, Morgan!) than you probably don't give a damn, but whatevs. Spore is a long-hyped and fairly innovative computer game that allows you to take a critter from its humble beginnings as a bacterium to, potentially, master of a vast space empire. Or really, it's a series of five interrelated games, each of which offers a relaxed mix of game goals and opportunities for free-form "sandbox" play.

The first two stages are all about developing your critter. In the Cell stage (poorly named -- from the get-go, the critter is a complex multicellular organism), you swim about in the primordial ooze, chomping on either plant bits or other critters, or both, all while avoiding being eaten by your neighbors. It is not much different than a very elaborate Asteroids, for example, but for all that it is surprisingly engaging. In the much more elaborate Creature stage, you struggle up on dry land and trot about a beautifully realized 3-D world, socializing with, fighting with, or devouring your beautifully realized 3-D neighbors.

Throughout both of these stages, there is a ton of mating. It's very G-rated mating, to be sure, which is probably just as well because there is an awful lot of it. Each mating is an opportunity to modify and improve your organism. There are almost infinite cosmetic choices. You can have a six-legged blue beast with wings, or a one-legged spotted orange beast with seven eyes. Unfortunately, not many of those choices really matter in terms of gameplay.

Guest Spore-Related Vignette

I was working at my desk when my eight year old son came in to get a Kleenex.
"How's it going?" I asked.
"Fine. I've already got Glide 2. I
pride myself on my glide."
"Hey. Are you going to be hungry for lunch soon? I was thinking chicken noodle soup."
"Ooh! Chicken noodle soup!"
"Are you ready now?"
He started heading back to the other room to his computer. "I'm almost ready. I just want to mate first."

All that really matters by the time you get to the third and fourth stages is whether you reared an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore. Both of these stages are short, simple real-time strategy games. In the Tribal phase, which is cute and cartoonish, your own aboriginal critters make war or peace with other aboriginal critters; by the much darker Civilization stage you lead a city to planetary victory over other cities populated by critters of your own kind. The latter stage is redered annoying by the requirement to create elaborate designs for different kinds of vehicles and buildings which not only have no impact on gameplay, but also aren't even really visible after you've made them.

The final Space Stage is the one I have played the least so far. (I've played four critters through the Creature Stage and three through the Civilization Stage; only one is a spacefaring race so far.) Until last night, I was prepared to dismiss the final frontier as a crashing bore. Then something unfortunate happened. I started ignoring the tutorial, and it got sorta fun. In fact, I was up until two. Damn. I was hoping to get back to The Reading List.


  • Spore is one of few games I've seen in the last ten years that runs well out of the box. Despite this, there has already been a patch released to address the few bugs, as well as early gameplay complaints. The developers are doing a better-than-usual job of taking care of the customer.

  • It's very pretty.

  • The customization options can be kind of fun.

  • The gameplay is easy to learn and entertaining, kid-friendly but capable of engaging adults too.

  • The first four levels are really hard to lose. The patch apparently raises the challenge level somewhat, which might make things a little more interesting.
    The penalties for "dying," at any level, are so very, very mild that there's not a lot of motivation to protect yourself, or to weigh the odds before taking an action.

  • Gameplay is very simple. Even in the relatively complex Space Stage, there are only really a handful of actions to take. It's only going to stay interesting for a while.

  • Not enough matters. You can customize a vast array of truly amazing creatures... but it doesn't really matter, they're pretty much all the same. The terrain, vegetation, and ecosystem is beautiful and complex... but it doesn't really matter; it barely affects the game. You can, and in fact must, customize your every city in detail, but none of it really matters; you'll barely even see it, and it's unlikely to change the outcome. Spore is supposed to be all about building and customization, say the developers, but since building and customizing doesn't lead to success or advantage it is an empty and somewhat melancholy aspect of the game.


Spore might have come along at just the right time. I'm still having fun with it, and wouldn't be surprised if it still has about two weeks worth of interest left to it. That's just enough time to console me while my ankle heals. About the time when I can start running around exploring the real world again, I suspect I'll be ready to shelve the Spore world for the time being.

...and the next day, the eight year old boy asked his mother:

"You know what I love about mating?"

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sarah Palin, Caligula, and the G.O.P.

I try to spare you my specific political opinions, and I try to avoid stating the obvious. Today I'm letting you down on both counts. But I need to get this off my chest.

The thing is, I thought the Republican Party had run out of ways to offend me. I'm not naive, and have never expected the G.O.P. to live up to the ideals of a frankly heroic Republican like Abraham Lincoln, or even of a decent, reasonably noble Republican like Dwight Eisenhower. I came of age listening daily to Ronald Reagan's unabashed contempt for truth and reason, and it did not teach me to expect good things from the organization that nominally represents conservative values in American politics. Indeed, I have been able to smile through the Keystone Kops ineptitude of the current administration only because, well, you get what you vote for. It's not like we as a nation had any right to expect better.

And even in the limited realm of Vice-Presidential candidates, it was hard to imagine that the Republicans could worst themselves. I'm not thinking of bloodless, creepy Dick Cheney here so much as Dan Quayle, a man whose name has become a sort of code for ineptitude, a ideologue who -- though I'm sure not really a fool -- was patently lacking the gifts of intellect and leadership that high office demands.

And yet, here we are.

Many, many, many people have already commented on Sarah Palin's radical unsuitability for high national office. That's obvious, but it's not my point. My point is that to suggest her as a candidate -- to say "here is a person you might want to cast your vote for to be Vice-President" -- the Republican Party has mightily insulted our intelligence. It is a stinging slap in the face.

The Emperor Caligula is said to have expressed his contempt for the Roman Senate by nominating his horse to be a Senator. I don't mean to compare Ms. Palin to an animal; doubtless she is a woman of ordinary competence, and given time perhaps she could grow into being an effective small-state governor. It is possible some day she would be in a position to consider national office. I would not vote for her ticket, but she might be a credible candidate.

But that would be years in the future. Many years in the future. To propose someone with the negligible credentials as she currently holds as a Vice President, the Republican Party is playing the part of Caligula. To nominate someone so radically unsuitable is to express contempt for the office, by extension to express contempt for the executive branch as a whole, and ultimately to express contempt for the citizenry, those governed by the executive branch.

The Republican Party feels that Ms. Palin offers adequate leadership for my needs. The Republican Party feels that Ms. Palin offers adequate leadership for your needs. It is an insult that will be tough to forgive.

...and, if you like this kind of thing, a reader response at no extra charge

This is a reader response -- apparently, a comment that got a bit out of control -- sent to me via Email. It resonated with me, so I asked for permission to tack it on here anonymously, thereby increasing blog content and value to you the gentle reader with a minimum of personal effort! Sweet.

The Palin nomination made me sad in a way I would not have thought possible. Why would McCain, who at one point had seemed to me admirably independent, thoughtful, and above all, responsible, put someone on his ticket who (politics aside, and I mean it) is so radically unqualified, both in experience and general temperament, to be president? Surely there are other people out there who could have appeased his base - people who, I don't know, have some interest in and curiosity about the world, who exhibit some capacity to have an intelligent discussion about a major issue, some basic understanding of how the world works and how it might work better. Someone. Dear god, someone. I'm looking at you, Orrin Hatch. Seriously. Orrin Hatch. I disagree with the man on virtually every issue, but he is thoughtful, competent, and, at his core, decent.

"Country First????" Those placards at McCain rallies ... it's like some kind of dystopia. Yes = no. Day = night. No one who truly puts his country first would have nominated Palin. Everything you say about her, M5k, is true, including her possible future competence (in theory). Comparisons to Obama's own relative lack of experience are laughable. How do I know? OK, imagine it's 3 a.m. and the phone rings ... I am half serious. Obama always seems to want to know more, to find things out, to learn (even when he clearly already knows a Ton). Palin knows what she knows. She has "that certainty." No blinking!

Again, this has gone beyond politics. Disagree with me on issues, fine. I've been in the minority on most issues my whole life (pro gay marriage, pro drug legalization, anti death penalty, etc.). I can handle losing. But if you're going to beat my guy, please please, have the basic knowledge, competence, and thoughtfulness to be President Of The United States of @#@$#ing America.

In conclusion [HA ha, not really]: I have this theory about Reagan. People talk about my generation (X) being all ironic and sneering and detached. And it's true. And that's one of the great lasting effects and triumphs of the Reagan era. He made empty sloganeering an art form. Everything he said was about being strong and certain and essentially unthoughtful (no blinking!) - and he had a lot of followers, obviously, but for those of us who were just coming into political consciousness at the time of his early presidency ... to see such hucksterism work, such irresponsibility reign (re: living beyond our means, having whatever we want when we want it, saying we support democracy while arming strongmen, undermining democracies we don't like, etc.) ... to look around you and watch people adore this man and think to yourself "Are you @#$#! kidding me? People are buying this @#$#?" It was devastating, in a way. Couple that with the quick onset of the MTV and then digital age, and you get a generation of people who are, happily or not-so-happily, tuned out, who find it very difficult to be "patriotic" when every self-styled patriot they've ever seen has been in the service of a fundamentally dishonest regime; people who retreat into isolated, technologically enabled enclaves, which only strengthen that already strong sense of detachment and isolation from the greater community. When a generation of kids opts out of concern for country due to a deep cynicism fostered by manifestly dishonest political role models, that provides fertile ground for manipulative, anti-intellectual, hateful culture-war-mongers to thrive and thus control the terms of public debate (and the meaning of American symbolism, i.e. the flag).

And now we're grown up and we all watch TDS and Colbert and laff as Rome burns and burns and burns.

Carter was prescient about so many things, but he was a terrible leader. So maybe I should blame him for Reagan. Or maybe I should blame Nixon for Carter, who was like the anti-Nixon. I don't know. But the mess we're in now - Carter didn't create it. Nixon, though his resignation plus our failure in Vietnam did cause massive disillusionment, didn't create it . Reagan, arguably, did. Reagan / Bush's cynical manipulation of the symbols of America / patriotism, their celebration of mindless consumption, their exploitation of "values voters" (screw them financially while doing Nothing about their alleged "moral" concerns), and their Orwellian disregard for truth all made me and many like me retreat into Academia, where we could sneer at the idiocy of the country from the comfort of our sinecures, as if the plight of our country were just a bad movie. "Why is everyone so stupid!?" cries the disgusted, befuddled, over-educated liberal. The answer is, at least in part, because academics hate "people" and 20 years ago almost completely gave up on the idea of addressing the public in terms it could relate to / comprehend. We're now in the odd position of seeing the "people" as oppressed and deluded. I.e. we're many of us tacit-to-explicit Marxists. Except we hate workers and the stuff they like (God, NASCAR, American beer...). Much as I hate conservative critiques of "The Ivory Tower," there is a hint of truth there. And so here we are.

This ironic sense of detachment - It's an affliction (at least in part self-induced) that I'm still getting over. Ironically (!), getting over it means starting to see Republicans and conservatives as (occasionally) decent and principled people. You sort of have to opt out of the culture wars at some point if you want them to stop. Right now, I just want this comment to stop. And I want very much for Obama to be my next president. Not because Democrats are better than Republicans, or because magical "Hope" will make everything better - just because, in addition to his basic intelligence and charisma, Obama seems genuinely committed to a post-Reagan, post culture wars world. A genuinely conservative world, where what's being conserved are what I like to think are basic American values (honesty, decency, financial prudence, a respect for difference, a strength that has peace as its ultimate goal). A dream world, maybe, but if I'm going to put my Faith in anything but God, that's where I'm going to put it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Thursday Quiz LIII

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 civic code:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be sent downtown for "questioning."
This Week's Category will grind you up and spit you out like a million other chumps that were drawn to it by the bright lights and the false hopes of fame and easy money!

Really Big Cities II

All of the following cities are in the world's largest 100. For each city, IS IT or ISN'T IT listed with the correct country?
1. Belo Horizonte, Brazil
2. Busan, Bulgaria
3. Dhaka, Bangladesh
4. Hyderabad, Pakistan
5. Jakarta, Malaysia
6. Khartoum, Tajikistan
7. Kinshasa, Kenya
8. Kuala Lumpur, Mongolia
9. Lahore, Iran
10. Luanda, Angola
11. Medellin, Honduras
12. Shenzhen, South Korea

Post your answers in the comments.

(The first Thursday Quiz on Really Big Cities was TQXI, back in November 2007. Blythe took the Gold.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Looking for a Sign, Final Edition

Thanks to the many of you who, here and elsewhere, took part in the DAD (Democracy-Assisted Design) Process for my arbitrary symbol. Here's the backstory:

The original post, October last year

Part II, September 1 this year

Part III, September 2

Part IV, September 3 (on SotC)

In particular, thanks to g for making the key suggestion of looking at Maori designs, and to Fingerstothebone and Mrs.5000, whom I have pestered in person about this odd project.

K. That's WAY more introduction than was needed. Here it is: The Arbitrary Symbol!

And you know, it occured to me at some point that although this is (I hereby declare) "right side up," all I have to do is make the final product hangable from any side (easy) and I've got four symbols for the price of one. Sweet!

Just to be clear: I am no longer looking for modifications and suggestions. I am looking for praise. "Bitchin' symbol!" will suffice nicely.


Wednesday Weigh-In

Target Weight: 211

...and after a week of better exercise and what felt like increasing dietary restraint:

Actual weight: +2, 216.

But that's not what is so damn FRUSTRATING!!!

What is so damn frustrating is that I've twisted my ankle again, for this second time this year. It is the latest of an unbroken string of incidents and accidents dating all the way back to November that have kept me unable to run, which is my main form of exercise. I was just getting to the point where I could run long enough to get some good out of it again, and now it will be at least three weeks before I can even start testing the ankle again, if past experience is any guide.

Least interesting blog photos ever: left ankle is an ankle, right ankle is a big wad of puffiness.

Internal bruising.

So what I'm saying here is, poor me.

Diet Cola Consumption: Consistenly at or under plan.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Great Movies: "Bride of Frankenstein"

Bride of Frankenstein
James Whale, 1935.

For as much as people love to pick on the old B-movie horror flicks, they really aren't all that much worse than the old A-movie horror flicks. Bride of Frankenstein, clearly not on Ebert's Great Movies list for its intrinsic merits (it seems to have made the list because its director was the subject of a currently popular documentary), is a case in point. Despite a respectable cast, strong production values, and an obviously handsome budget, it is at its heart a pointless, poorly-structured slab of pure ham.

It's too bad, in a way. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities in a story about a new form of life created by human beings. Frankenstein's monster could have been a great foil against which to explore, or at least "say something" about, the species that created him. But Bride is having none of this. It can't even decide on a consistent personality for its monster, who lurches about like a fiendish killing machine at some moments and like a sentimental rube at others. The lurching is consistent, at least. He also likes eating, drinking, and smoking; he wishes he could get him a woman but finds that they are repulsed by him. He comes off less like an amazing new creature brought to life through human hubris than like that hard-luck uncle your family is so embarrassed about.

The opening scene is a campy, rrrrrr-rolling tableau of Byron and the Shelleys in their chateau, as Mary sets out to entertain the boys with a sequel to her Frankenstein story. The ending is... well, nonexistent. The movie just stops after the climax scene. In between, there are mad scientists, funny working-class British accents, lots of lurching, and pretty good special effects, all thrown in together in no particular order. It's a real snooze.

Plot: Movie studio having had a big hit, a sequel is made in which key characters turn out to have survived after all. They have some pointless episodic adventures.

Visuals: Quite good! The lab scenes in particular are handsome examples of the starkly lit mad scientist's lair. Various explosions and fires throughout are especially well rendered.

Dialog: Ham, ham, ham, ham, and more ham.

Prognosis: Recommended for anyone who is bored and is looking for a mindless entertainment. In the 1930s.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Monday Quiz XLIII

Black and White Movies

The following are stills from famous and/or critically acclaimed B&W movies. Name 'em. NOTE: Possibly kind of hard.






Submit your answers in the comments.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

We Interupt This Reality

Over the next several weeks, blogging activity here at the Life & Times will be somewhat reduced. We mildly regret any inconvenience this may cause. Far more, we regret any indifference with which this news will be received. The Quizzes will continually to appear regularly.

The slowdown will likely affect not just the quantity and quality of daily blogging but also progress on ongoing blog-related projects such as The Reading List and Michael Reads the Bible. It is due to a conjunction of factors, not least of which are the busy season for the Friends of the Library, various events in the 5000 family, and the general hustle and bustle of early fall.

But mostly, Spore.


It came yesterday! I spent only a couple of hours installing it and playing a test run, during which I evolved a creature which had numerous rudundant parts (I didn't realize they were redundant) and no armor or weapondry whatsoever. I was commended for the pacifistic nature of my gentle, fragle, playful green beast! I made friends with a race of sentient pears! After that, I became an increasingly intelligent form of lunch for more well-rounded species.

The question, is, will Spore be...

a CIV, entrancing to the point of self-destructive behavior, played in all night binges for months and regularly for years afterwards?

a Master of Orion, providing enjoyable, captivating, yet managable periods of play for more than a decade?

A Morrowind or 1602 or SimGolf, played obsessively for a month or so then dropped like a hot rock?

Or a Galactic Civilizations, much-praised but unable to hold my attention for more than fifteen minutes? Well, that would have been nice in a way, actually. But it's already too late for that.

Playing Spore? I'll be playing as -- what else? -- michael5000. Designate me as your playing "buddy" to see my good-natured first creature, Michaelus Fivethousandous, which I'm sure you will find very tasty. Or maybe not. I'm getting the hang of things now.

The Thursday Quiz LII

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 system of justice:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be jailed for contempt.
This Week's Category will overrule your objections!

The Novels of John Grisham

He has sold a quarter of a BILLION books! And what have YOU been up to, lately?

IS IT or ISN'T it the title of a Grisham novel?

1. A Time to Kill
2. The Book of the Dead
3. The Client
4. The Cooler
5. The County Courthouse
6. The District Attourney's Wife
7. The Firm
8. The King of Torts
9. The Last Juror
10. The Napoleanic Code
11. The Street Lawyer
12. The Sustained Objection

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Not Cut Out For Management

I saw this last weekend:

So yeah, my girlfriend suggested I blog about needing a manager, and I was like, Eh, that's kind of weird, but she pointed out that that's how I found my musical factotum and near-soulmate Scrap. And pretty much anytime musicians talk about a new manager, there's a wistful thread of the conversation that goes, "If only there appeared, magically out of the blue, some super-fired-up young person who's chomping at the bit to work his ass off, but where would you find one?"

If that's you, drop a line to md (at) mikedoughty (dot) com. Now, if you're somebody that's never dealt with the music business, if you're just maybe looking for a new kind of work, I'm afraid this may not be for you. But if you're a manager out there who digs what I've been doing, get in touch.

-- From the blog of musician Mike Doughty

And reponded like this:

Mr. Doughty,

I hope that you will not consider hiring me as your new manager. You would be crazy to. True, I am “maybe looking for a new kind of work,” but my mere availability would by no means compensate for my sheer unsuitability for the position.

Not only have I never worked in the music business, but I am sure I would be uniquely bad at it if I tried. Being the manager of a rock artist presumably involves lots of telephone conversations and negotiations, which I would frankly suck at. I hate telephones, and I am telling you right up front that I would be unwilling to purchase or carry a cell phone for work use. I should also mention that I can be socially awkward, especially around the types of confidently cool guys who seem to own and operate most clubs and bars. I would likely get flustered around them and cause you no end of embarrassment.

I’m reasonably hard-working, detail-oriented, and all of that, but my lifestyle is not at all suited to the music industry. I expect a regular salary and benefits package. I like to get to work first thing in the morning and be on my way home at 5:03 p.m. I am not willing to travel for business.

I read So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star a few years ago, but unfortunately have forgotten everything I might have learned from it about the process by which a band is scheduled to play in a certain place at a certain time. I know nothing about record labels or the contracts that musicians negotiate with them. I can only guess at what the rest of a manager’s job might entail, but honestly I would probably suck at those bits too.

I have problem-solving skills that are really no better than the next guy’s, and my judgment is pretty middle-of-the-road too. I tend to freeze up a little bit in a crisis. I like driving at night, which I’ve heard is a good skill for a rock manager, but since, like I mentioned, I’m not willing to travel for work, I guess it’s a moot point.

I do, it must be said, “dig what you’ve been doing.” But this one thing should not blind you to my many inadequacies. I sincerely hope that you will not ask me to be your new manager.

Best Wishes,

...so far, I haven't heard back.


Wednesday Weigh-In

Target Weight: 212

...and after a few week of diligent exercise and reduced diet:

Actual weight: +2, 214.

Diet Cola Consumption: Holding Steady at 44 oz, per plan.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Great Movies: Ikiru

At the Movies with Michael5000

Akira Kurosawa, 1952

Ikiru is a dark comedy about a man who finds out he has only a few months left to live. I think I can get away with calling it a kind of La Dolce Vita meets The Apartment meets It's a Wonderful Life. It is like La Dolce Vita in its critique of the ideas and lifestyle of the 1950s intelligentsia. We learn from this film that "Beat" was a truly international phenomenon, as our hero finds himself (to his surprise) in a variety of the seediest Tokyo dives and clubs. Where the protagonist of La Dolce Vita is never able to escape his endless treadmill of trivial nights, however, Ikiru's Watanabe-san is able to find something else to do with his limited time.

Ikiru is like The Apartment in its merciless parody of bureaucracy and the world of work. Two of the best sequences in the movie come at the beginning and the end of the film. The first is a long, absurd montage of citizens being directed pointlessly from office to office at city hall,none of the bureaucrats they encounter even slightly interested in their complaint. The second is the long denouement of the movie, a funeral at which many of the same bureaucrats slowly drink themselves into a maudlin stupor, recklessly making resolutions to become better public servants that they will clearly never keep. These scenes are razor-sharp send-ups of the bureaucratic (or, the same thing, corporate) lifestyle, at the same time unfairly simplistic but also funny because they are true.

Ikiru is like It's a Wonderful Life in that it celebrates idealism and an ordinary life lived in service to the community. It champions the idea that one person really call make a difference if they roll up their shirtsleeves and give it their all. Obviously, it gets a little treacly. But it isn't too bad; both the protagonist's moral redemption and what he is able to achieve with his end game are plausible and kept in reasonable perspective. It's actually kind of inspiring.

Plot: A very boring man discovers, or at least comes to believe, that he will soon die of cancer. He experiments with various methods of trying to squeeze the most possible life out of his final months before hitting on one that works.

Visuals: Very nicely filmed in black and white, with strong use of contrast and many memorable images. There are a fair number of funny visual tricks as well, where changing camera angles or widening shots show us that characters are in somewhat different situations than we thought they were.

Dialogue: In Japanese. This is another movie where every line is efficient in both advancing the story and showing us something about the character who speaks it. Usually, we are learning something about the character that the character doesn't know about him or herself. Ikiru is a deeply ironic film.

Prognosis: If you like Kafka -- or if you are like me, and suspect you would like Kafka even though you've never read anything but that story about the guy who turns into a bug -- you'll probably really like Ikiru. As a movie about a man dying, it is not the most upbeat story ever filmed. It's rather sad, really. But it is underlain with a sharp wit, and its parodies of life and work in 1950s Japan can still hold their own in 2000s America. Or wherever you happen to live.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Monday Quiz XLII

Old-School Computer Gaming

To kick off this very special week, the Monday Quiz meditates on classic computer games of the past. Name 'em.






Submit your answers in the comments.

...and, not a scoring question, but: Why is this a "very special week"? Not you, Mrs.5000, I've made sure YOU know...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Spiritual Friday

I. My Father Told Me a Joke

So this Buddhist goes up to a hot dog cart. He says to the vendor, "Make me one with everything."

II. I Told My Buddy Who's a Buddhist Abbot My Dad's Joke, and He Responded

The Buddhist hands the vendor a $10 bill, and the vendor just hands over the hot dog.

The Buddhist asks, "Where's my change?"

The vendor answers, "Change comes from within."

III. I Ran Into My Friend in a Parking Lot

michael5000 runs into a friend in a parking lot; she has her two year old boy with her. They talk.

Friend: We were really sorry to hear about Yoyo. I know how much she meant to you.

michael5000: Oh, thanks. We miss her.

Two year old boy: What happened to his cat?

Friend: Oh. Well, um, remember how we were talking about how people and animals die?

Two year old boy: [distracted]

Friend: So what happened was, his cat died, and so now she's up in kitty heaven.

Two year old boy: [giggles]


This post inspired in part by Chance's recent collections of Zen koans. Readers are advised that Chance's koans include adult content, such as the word "fuck."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Thursday Quiz LI

For further developments in the evolution of the Symbol -- yes, since yesterday -- check over here.

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 system that makes our existence possible:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will face extinction.
This Week's Category is one of those really verbose ones!

Environmental Disasters

This week, the Thursday Quiz presents twelve tales of humans messing with Ma Nature and paying the price. Which of these stories are pretty much accurate as written? And which have been taken a trip through the michael5000 plausible nonsense grinder?

1. The Aral Sea Debacle -- The Soviets dam the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers to provide large-scale irrigation in Central Asia. The scheme is actually quite successful, and Uzbekistan remains today a leading exporter of cotton. Without the water from the rivers, however, the Aral Sea began to dry up. As it shrinks into a much smaller lake and evaporates down to a toxic level of salinity, the regional ecosystem and the prosperous fishing industry it had supported are destroyed.

2. The Ardennes Inferno -- After the hot, rainless summer of 1944, Germans launch the famous "Battle of the Bulge" in a last attempt to stem the advance of the Allies. All along the front line, bombs and tracer bullets ignite the tinder-dry trees and undergrowth of the Ardennes Forest, and soldiers on both sides conduct hellish weeks of battle in and around the largest documented forest fire in European history. By the times that the Allies contain the German advance, more than twice as many soldiers are presumed dead of fire and smoke inhalation as from combat injuries.

3. The Boston Molasses Disaster -- In 1919, a large holding tank of molasses (a more important sweetener in the American diet then than it is today) ruptures in downtown Boston. A fast-moving wave of molasses around ten feet high tears down busy streets, drowning or crushing twenty-one people as well as horses, dogs, and other animals. Tens of thousands of man-hours are required to clean and repair streets and buildings in the aftermath of the flood. The extent of ecological damage to Boston Harbor -- which remained molasses brown for months -- can not be assessed.

4. Cane Toads -- In an attempt to control a pesky native bug, the cane beetle, 500 Hawaiian Cane Toads are introduced into Northwestern Australia in 1935. Able to reproduce quite quickly, the Cane Toad population explodes, rapidly expanding its range and dramatically altering the local ecology in often unpredictable ways -- with toads available to eat, for instance, fewer crocodile eggs get eaten by predators, which leads to obvious problems. The Toads now number over 200 million.

5. The China Southern Smog Disaster -- Visitors who complain of Beijing's smog problem today don't know how good they have it. The Chinese capital's skies are much clearer now than in the days before democratic reforms, when coal-burning factories kept the city in a perpetual smoky twilight. The low point was the 1989 crash shortly after takeoff of a China Southern Airlines 737 outside the city, with the loss of all passengers and crew. After two years of foot-dragging, the official investigation was finally allowed to admit the humiliating truth: both of the airplane's engines had failed due to oxygen starvation in the murky Beijing air. Public outrage led to the passage of some of China's first ever environmental legislation.

6. The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 -- Fires had been breaking out on the lower Cuyahoga River, an industrial waterway winding through Cleveland, since at least 1935. Floating oils, chemicals, and debris made the river highly flammable; the largest and most damaging fire had been all the way back in 1952. It was an awakening environmental consciousness and a colorful article in Time magazine that made the 1969 fire a body blow to the civic image of Cleveland and a spur to the creation of the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.

7. Deforestation of Easter Island -- The inhabitants of Easter Island, an isolated society in the South Pacific, gradually cut down all the trees on their formally wooded island, probably for logs with which to roll and raise their enormous stone statues into position. With no wood available for tools, no nesting sites available for many species of birds important to the local diet, and widespread soil erosion, the Easter Island food supply and the civilization that depends on it go into steep decline.

8. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- Currents draw floating plastic waste from lands bordering the Pacific Ocean into a stable area in the North Pacific five times the size of Kansas. In some parts of the patch, as many as a million pieces of floating plastic per square mile have been counted. As plastic degrades from exposure to salt water and sunlight, it eventually dissolves into the sea, from where it begins to enter the food chain by accumulating in organisms that filter sea water for food and oxygen.

9. The Los Angeles Harbor Oil Spill -- The Sea Trader and the Prudhoe Bay -- not what we would consider supertankers today, but among the largest oil tankers afloat in 1955 -- collide in a rare late afternoon fog in Los Angeles Harbor. Both boats remain afloat, but each loses its entire cargo into the bay. With little attempt at cleanup, the spill wipes out the marine ecology of the region, and with it the old L.A. fishing and shellfish industries. Occurring before the environmental movement, the incident receives little attention outside of L.A., and would be largely forgotten today if not for the oil "bubbles" that still occasionally rise off the bottom and wash in to besmirch the famous Southern California beaches.

10. Love Canal -- The City of Niagara Falls school board buys an industrial waste site from a plastics company -- over the objections of the company -- as a site for a new school. The city puts in streets and sewers, and soon there is a residential neighborhood planted on top of what is essentially an underground lake of toxic waste. The problems that surfacing barrels and bubbles of industrial chemicals pose to landscape maintenance are the least of resident's worries; by some counts, more than half of the children born to neighborhood families have significant birth defects. After 21 years, a federal emergency is declared; the neighborhood is razed and its inhabitants evacuated.

11. Minamata Disease -- The Chisso Corporation, a Japanese chemical company, dumps toxic metals into the harbor of the city of Minamata during the 1950s. When it becomes clear that hundreds of people are contracting a crippling form of mercury poisoning, Chisso responds by installing a phony waste treatment system and continuing to dump mercury waste for another decade. By the time the practice is stopped, more than 1000 people have died and Chisso is able to profitably mine the harbor bottom for reclaimed mercury.

12. The Roberts Island Fox Hunt – On New Zealand's Roberts Island, home to a human population of more than 40,000, rabbit farmers decide that the island's foxes pose a threat to their industry. They arrange a highly successful eradication campaign. To their chagrin, however, it soon becomes apparent that only foxes had been keeping the island's Norway rats in check. The rat population explodes, becoming a major detriment to agriculture and a public health hazard. The large-scale abandonment of "Ratters Island," as it is often called now, is blamed mostly on this unpleasant ecological disaster; the current population is around 5000.

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Looking for a Sign, part III.

Several readers were kind enough to comment yesterday about my quest to find or create an arbitrary symbol. Here is the design that was up for critique; let's call it Symbol #1:

Comments about it included that it looks like fire, that it looks like a French curve drafting template, that it didn't really seem symbol-ish, that it looks weapon-y, and that it looks like a jack-o-lantern face tipped over sideways. And I agree with all four of those points. In fact, it feels kind of like y'all put words to unconcious reservations I'd had with the design.

So today, I used a highly sophisticated piece of graphic design software -- it's called "Paint" -- to tinker and tamper with the Symbol. I started by twisting the upper left branch to the left, to diminish the flame/spearpoint look, and breaking the "donut hole" through the bottom, to disrupt the jack-o-lantern face and to try to make it more typographical. Here's Symbol #2.

Then, I put an indentation in the left side -- I wonder if there are words for this kind of thing? -- in an attempt to, again, make it less flame-y and more caligraphic. Here's Symbol #3.
Later in the day, I messed with it some more, twisting the old "spear tip" over and to the right." Here's Symbol #4. (by the way, don't worry about the color differences and ghost design lines; those are just artifacts of my having used the least possible sophisticated design tool.)
Thoughts? Votes?

...and other weighty matters.

I shall now introduce a new weekly feature that may well bring back this online variety magazine's original subtitle. Which was, you might recall, "Like You Care."

One of the purposes of the L&T is to keep me, michael5000, focused on my long term goals, projects, schemes, and hijinx. And there is a long term goal that I've never been able to do much about. That goal? To get rid of some of the weight I gained in my early thirties.

So here's the deal. Tonight, writing the Wednesday post, I weigh in at about exactly where I've been for the last five years. 213 pounds. Roughly 30 pounds over a healthy weight for a guy my height, particularly one who jogs a lot. So I've graphed out weekly target weights for the next two years, which seems like a fairly moderate time span. With every Wednesday post, for as long as this blog keeps plodding along or for the next two years, I'll note where I am relative to the plan.

The idea here is of course that I will either have to lose weight through a judicious application of reduced caloric intake and an active lifestyle -- or I will have to admit my failure to you, my readers. And if I fail, I encourage you to mock me for it. In particular, I encourage you to call me "Tubby."

So: WEEK 1: Target Weight: 213. Actual Weight: 213. Except, this first one doesn't really count as much of an achievement, for obvious reasons.

Isn't Wednesday Supposed to be Music Day?

Wow, you've really been paying attention. Yes, we'll get back to that next week.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Looking for a Sign, part II.

It's the first ever post featured both on the Life & Times and State of the Craft! I'm so efficient I can hardly stand myself.

Last year I asked my readers of the Life & Times of Michael5000 blog to suggest a neutral symbol for me to use as the dominant element of a new quilt. I wanted something that appeared to have meaning but that was actually meaningless, or that meant something completely trivial. I wanted a signifier without a signified, for all y'all who have dipped into semiotic theory. "Why?" you might ask. Reasonable question! I've got no answer for it, however.

The readers came back with some fabulous suggestions! But then the suggestions pretty much just laid around the studio floor for a year, until last week. Having put Symbol on my quilting to-do list, though, I clearly needed to start thinking about what the symbol in Symbol would be.

To review: Symbol is going to use a set of neutral batiks that BigSister5000 gave me for Christmas a few years ago. They will to be pieced together too form a very simple background, and then the symbol itself will be appliqued over the top of them, probably in scarlet. If all goes well, it should look attractive and interesting. With me? Good.

OK, so back to the question of the symbol. As I started chasing down the leads that readers had tossed me, I got kind of interested in the concept of the irony mark. I love the irony mark! Although, if people used it, it might reduce the impact of irony. Ironically. But anyway, in terms of this project, it is perhaps both too meaningful, and too graphically simple to be impressive when rendered at four feet tall.

Similar considerations torpedoed the interrobang.*

I flirted briefly with this symbol for something-or-other from mediaeval alchemy. I could have reversed it or something. But I ultimately rejected it for being, maybe, just a tiny bit too figurative. Which is to say, it looks just a little too much like a critter.

Heather's suggestion of letters from the ancient Soyombo alphabet of the Mongolian language -- see why I pose these questions to readers? -- was pretty awesome. I think they are lovely. I was afraid of what the straight lines of the right and top sides would look like at large scale, though. It seemed like they might be too rigid.

Then, I thought I had it! The letter "aum" in the Devanagari alphabet, used in Hindi and several other languages:

It's lovely! It's curvy! It's simple! It's arbitrary! But... as I soon found out... it is the most common graphical symbol of Hinduism out there. My "arbitrary" symbol was just as content-free as a crucifix, star of David, or yin-and-yang symbol.

Back to the drawing board.

Another reader, G, had suggested I look into Maori design, and I was taken by this pendant I had found:

I don't know if that shape conveys meaning in a Maori context or not, but I wasn't taking any chances. I took out the details on the top left to reduce it to a more graphic level, flipped it around the vertical axis, and "cut a hole" to make it look slightly more caligraphic. Here's what I came up with:

Now, here's the question: Have I successfully come up with a completely arbitrary symbol? In other words, have you ever seen this shape in a corporate logo, in religious iconography, in a foreign alphabet, or anyplace else? 'Cause I don't want to make this thing and discover I've just made an elaborate advertisement for the Americaplump MegaAgriCorp, Inc., or whatever.

* Very possibly the first ever use of this sentence in human history.