Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Reading List: "The Trial"

I've long thought of Kafka as probably the most important and influential writer that I'd never read -- except of course for that bit about the guy changing into the bug, and I’m not sure whether I’ve actually read that one so much as heard a lot about it over the years. It turns out that while I was reading The Trial, a number of people told me the same thing about themselves. We all imagine Kafka looming like, I don't know, like an enormous bug over twentieth century fiction. And that’s apparently accurate, too -- the dark comic irony and straight-faced, formal absurdities of many of the great postmodern authors trace much of their inspiration to the works of Kafka. We don't call the struggle of the alienated individual against the bizarre systems wrought by mysterious social forces "Kafkaesque" for nothing. (In fact, we call them "Kafkaesque" because we are big show-offs. But that's neither here nor there.)

I was kind of surprised, then, to learn that Kafka was virtually unknown during his own lifetime, and that it was only after the Second World War, a couple of decades after his death, that his works suddenly attained popularity and respect. His literary star must have risen with hand in hand existentialism, a philosophical movement perfectly attuned to his protagonists' alienated struggles against the absurd, but his reputation seems to have fared better than other existentialists, like Camus and Sartre, up into the present. I can't say much about that, never having read much Camus or Sartre.

Yeah, Yeah, But Did You LIKE It?

I sure expected too. Many of my favorite writers, Saramago or Murikami for instance, have been described as "Kafkaesque." Hell, "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus" are sometimes said to have Kafkaesque elements to them. I like dark absurdity! I'm all in favor of the surreal! I can't get enough of an ironically formal writing style!

And yet, no, I didn't like The Trial. I can recognize its obvious importance and influence, but I didn't enjoy it and can’t really recommend it on its own merits as an enjoyable read.

My objections are four. In reverse order of (self-perceived) sophistication, they are: 1) it's kind of boring, 2) it's kind of depressing, 3) its composition is disjointed, and 4) it cheats on its social critique.

I won't dwell on the first two. To say "this literary classic is kind of boring" is practically to say "I haz short attention span!" In my defense, the novel is all about a process (in German, the word for "trial" is Der Process) that goes on and on and on without any progress or resolution. Also, Kafka deliberately writes in a highly precise and formal style. Neither of these aspects of the novel are slam-dunk ingredients for an engrossing read. Similarly, to say "it's kind of depressing" is like saying "I can't handle looking grim reality in the face!" But I would say that Kafka painted a grimmer picture in The Trial than actual human existence normally justifies. More on that in a bit.

That the composition is disjointed isn't really Kafka's fault; he died while the book was still in a rough draft. Nobody's sure which order the chapters are supposed to be in, and there are picky little continuity errors here and there. The foreword to my edition didn't mention the possibility of missing chapters, but I have to assume that Kafka intended to write some more material between the penultimate and final chapters. As things stand, the ending jumps out of nowhere and does not feel like a natural extension of or conclusion to the rest of the book. But who knows, maybe that's the way he wanted it.

The point of Kafka seems to be a protest against the alienating and grinding persecution of individuals by arbitrary and blandly bullying systems, systems that have been put in place by the anonymous powers that be. Well, fair enough. It's a denunciation of inhumanity, and I'm good with that. The problem is, in The Trial the protagonist's persecutors are so inhumane as to be inhuman. They -- indeed, all of the characters -- act and speak in such a stylized fashion that they are scarcely recognizable as human beings. Kafka's flat, surficial descriptive style further alienates the reader (which is to say: me) from the humanity of his characters, giving me no inkling of what might motivate them to their strange behaviors.

The upshot of all this is that Kafka's world is a lot grimmer than the real world -- usually. In the real world, when you are being ground down by the bureaucracy or the corporation or whatever the arbitrary and blandly bullying system might be, you are being ground down by real live human beings. Occasionally you might note their sadistic glee in your distress, sometimes their indifference, but usually you are going to notice that people in general will at least make an attempt at kindness, as long as it doesn't cost them anything. It may not be much, but it's better than Kafka's world.

A final irony, however, is that Kafka's siblings were all murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. They ended up living in and being killed by the grimmest and most horrific blandly bullying system yet devised. Kafka himself died of natural causes long before Hitler's rise to power, and thus escaped having to inhabit the kind of horror he imagined in his novel.

Plot: "Someone must have slandered Josef K.," the famous first line goes, "for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested." He is not jailed, but is increasingly consumed by a trial that in some unknown, amorphous fashion, seems to be proceeding somewhere. We are never given any indication of what poor Mr. K's crime might have been; we merely watch as he bounces among the book’s minor characters, each of whom has their own specific advice about how he can attempt to secure a favorable outcome, and each of whom frankly confesses that, although their advice is sound, it never really works. Details throughout are so surreal as to be hallucinatory; the court where Josef K.'s case is apparently being tried is in the attic of a low-income tenement, and can only be entered through various residents' personal apartments.

While his trial may or may not be progressing, Mr. K makes a half-hearted pass at the girl across the hall, runs the rat race at the bank where he works, has an affair with a woman who has a thing for defendants, and waffles about whether to fire a lawyer who might be really good or might be really bad. All of these situations are completely absurd and arbitrary, and there is never any way for Mr. K to find out the truth of the situation, or even to gather information that might lead to an informed decision. All he can do is choose, and act, and any choice and any action is likely just as good as any other. Nothing he does will help much. This, Kafka suggests, is the human condition. He must have been a lot of fun at parties.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXX

The Thursday Quiz!

This season, the Thursday Quiz is a sequence game. Arrange the ten items in the proper sequence!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will lose their internet privileges. All of them. Permanently.
2. As long as you made it this far, you might as well play. It's not all about winning, you know. It's about using your knowledge and reason and making an educated guess. C'mon! It'll be fun!
Classical Music

Yes, it's another of the hot pop-culture topics that explains why the L&TM5K is among the hottest sites on the internet! List these orchestral compositions in chronological order, from earliest to most recent!

A: Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls”

B: Beethoven’s Symphony #9

C: Brahms’ Symphony #1

D: Dvorak’s Symphony #9 (“The New World”)

E: Glass’ Violin Concerto #1

F: Gorecki’s Symphony #3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”)

G: Haydn’s Symphony #104 (“London”)

H: Shostakovich’s Symphony #7 (“Leningrad”)

I: Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”

J: Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Song of the Year! of the Ox!

Here's a blast from the fairly distant past in honor of the brand-new Year of the Ox: Plague of Daisies performing the song "I'd Rather be a Cow" in a living-room tape from Spring 1994.

Plague of Daisies was, on this particular song:
  • michael5000 on guitar and vocals
  • DrSchnell on the bitchin' cello
  • Mike Horan on the mandolin and backing (albeit far superior) vocals
  • the late great Gary Shea on bass


WARNING: May take forever to load!

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Great Movies: "My Darling Clementine"

My Darling Clementine
John Ford, 1946.

Westerns are a tough sell for me, brimming as they tend to do with an overblown iconography of the ranching industry. There are cattle drives, shootouts, and rugged little villages gradually succumbing to the bittersweet trappings of civilized life, and who gives a damn? And let us not even get started on their portrayal of such villains as Native Americans, Mexicans, and effete intellectuals.

So My Darling Clementine was fighting uphill against my genre prejudices, and got the wrong foot forward with the atrocious faux-Western music over its opening credits. For the first fifteen minutes or so, I found myself looking for flaws, formulating nasty little quips that I could drop in this review. Soon, though, I realized that I was going to have to concede that the movie was damned well crafted. The acting is terrific, the scenes are nicely composed, the black and white photography is exemplary, and the interior and exterior sets are picture-perfect.

After a half hour, I had to grudgingly admit to myself that I was actually enjoying the movie. The plot is simple as opera, but the characters are given a generous portion of depth and individual quirks. By the time of the final shootout, which is understated and not allowed to become the focus of the film, you actually care about the fates of the participants. It doesn't necessarily sell you on the idea of staged gunfights as a means of ensuring public order, but what the heck. It was a rougher world before we succumbed to the bittersweet trappings of civilized life. Or so we are told.

Plot: My Darling Clementine is based loosely on the historic Shootout at the OK Corral, an actual historic event about which I know nothing. In this version, a cowpoke assumes public office in order to pursue a personal vendetta, but he's so gosh-darn decent that this doesn't seem quite as bad as it sounds. The town baddy actually turns out to be pretty decent too -- you know, underneath his rough exterior and all -- and of course the hooker has a heart of gold. Naturally there is a Nice Girl in the plot as well, and I will not give away the big surprise of who ends up with her heart.

Visuals: Mostly magnificent, so feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph. ....what, still here? OK -- Details bug me: the little town, an exquisite little diorama of Old West violence and lawlessness, is built in the middle of a desolate, unsheltered wasteland with no water in sight, precisely the kind of place where no one would ever, ever, ever build a town. This is in order to get the stunning rock formations of Monument Valley (or someplace like it) in the background, but for someone who has studied too much geography it does raise the question of what the townsfolk DO for a living in all that desolation. Also: Musicians, who are surprisingly numerous, play their instruments in ways unrelated to the music on the soundtrack, which always bugs me. But these little things jump out all the more because otherwise the movie's images are so well staged, framed, and filmed.

Dialogue: A bit uneven. Many scenes are written with a lot of depth and a fair amount of wit. Others seem to be drawn from the Big Book of Stock Western Dialogue. My Darling Clementine transcends but never quite escapes the limitations of its genre.

Prognosis: If you like Westerns, you should love this one. If you don't like Westerns, you still might like this one. I'm living proof.

NEXT WEEK: Nashville

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Monday Quix LX

The Monday Quiz goes to __________!

1. Where was this?

2. What's underneath the wrapping?

3. What famous landmark is this?

4. Tell me about this flag.

5. Give me either of the two names this building goes by.

Submit your answers in the comments.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Michael5000's Guide to Awesome Science Fiction, Part I

OK, first things first: much science fiction is dreadful. But worse than that, much of the "classic" science fiction is dreadful, or at least dull, and many of the supposedly "great" science fiction writers are in truth downright poor writers (I mean, seriously, try reading Phillip K. Dick sometime). This lack of good signposts makes it a genre that can be really difficult to get a foothold in.

Yet science fiction can also be awesome. By placing humans into unprecidented situations and imagining the outcomes, it can be a powerful tool for casting light on human nature. By posing cultures and species against each other on a interstellar scale, it can give us analogies for our own Earthbound sociopolitics without all of the baggage that is entailed in writing about real-world events. Science fiction can warn us or give us hope about what we humans might in time become, about how events on the future path of technology might be best or worst dealt with.

But how to separate the wheat from the endless chaff? Me, I look for three elements in my science fiction.

I: Plausibility and Coherence -- Taking "Plausibility" with a grain of salt, perhaps. Most science fiction relies on futuristic technologies that may well be completely pie-in-the-sky, as far as we can tell from the here and now. What concerns me is, how are the societies for whom these technologies are available appropriated adapted to and affected by the technology? In the very worst science fiction, all you get is the author's contemporary society with a sprinkling of new gadgets.

II: Ecology -- If you are on another planet, that is pretty interesting! It's not likely to be much like Earth! So, what is it like? What of the natural processes we experience here on Sol III are also present there? What happens very, very differently? What kind of critters are there, and how do they survive in that strange alien environment? Do tell!

III: Character Development -- Fiction doesn't pull much weight without well-drawn characters. Generations of science fiction writers have been too excited about technologies and aliens to think about motivation and human (or non-human) experience, and thus there is a vast literature in which the characters are one-note cardboard cutouts. Dreadful.

Let's cut to the chase! You can now avoid the crap, and treat yourself to the official list of Science Fiction approved by michael5000! Lucky You!

The Official List of Science Fiction Approved by Michael5000, Installment #1

Iain Banks, the "Culture" Novels. Hugely popular in the U.K. and almost unheard of here, Iain Banks is probably too clever for his own good but not too clever to write extremely compelling science fiction. From 1987's Consider Phlebas, a rip-snorting episodic action-adventure, to 2008's Matter, a sort of historical romance set in a complexly nested hierarchy of civilizations at differing levels of technological achievement, the novels set in the fictive universe of "The Culture" are a diverse but hugely engaging collections. Often gruesome, always inventive, and beautifully imagined, these are probably my favorite books in all of genre fiction.

Orson Scott Card: the Ender Trilogy. Ender's Game, Xenocide, Speaker for the Dead, and Children of the Mind are a terrific four-volume trilogy (as one often finds in science fiction) that explores of what contact with alien intelligences might actually be like; the series can also be read as a metaphor for intercultural contact here on dear old Earth. The middle two books are the strongest, the fourth is strictly optional. It is vitally important that you do not read any of the more recent books that Card has accreted on to the trilogy, or for that matter anything that Card wrote after the mid-90s, when he inexplicably went dramatically from being an excellent storyteller to the worst kind of hack. Quite sad.

Sherri Tepper: Raising the Stones and Grass. Sherri Tepper can be a mixed bag, but these two, the best of her books, are dynamite. In both, characters face mysterious challenges that spring from the quirks of an inventive but plausibly rendered planetary ecology. Grass, in particular, puts a grim, grim face on the idea of symbiosis.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXIX

The Thursday Quiz!

This season, the Thursday Quiz is a sequence game. Arrange the ten items in the proper sequence!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will lose their internet privileges. All of them. Permanently.
2. As long as you made it this far, you might as well play. It's not all about winning, you know. It's about using your knowledge and reason and making an educated guess. C'mon! It'll be fun!

Just when you thought it was safe to relax your geographical knowledge... list these members of our beautiful and historic planetary system of nation-states in order by area, this time, from smallest to largest.

A: Australia

B: Bangladesh

C: Canada

D: Estonia

E: India

F: Mongolia

G: Russia

H: Singapore

I: Sweden

J: United Kingdom

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Now That We've All Learned Our Lessons...

Hey, want to live in Neighborhood5000!?

You could move into one of these new condos! Just a short walk from the Castle, close to shops, restaurants, and entertainment here on the Inner East Side of the beautiful City of Roses. And best of all, no down payment!!!

What could possibly go wrong?

Fans of the occasional L&TM5K vignettes ought to enjoy Chance's post today....

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Great Movies: "Night of the Hunter"

Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton, 1955.

A modern thriller is often judged on its twists and turns, on how much the filmmakers can surprise us with plot reversals and shocking revelations that make us rethink everything that has gone before. So an earlier thriller like Night of the Hunter can feel pretty plodding these days just for being straightforward. This is a movie about a creepy preacher who preys on rich widows, and no time is wasted in establishing the premise. In a modern version, we wouldn't begin to suspect anything was amiss with the humble man of God until the 45-minute mark. In Night of the Hunter, the preacher shows his cards in his opening soliloquy.

The strength of this film is its imagery. The black and white photography is terrific, and the sets are slightly surreal, placing the characters in spaces that are at once familiar and grotesque. It is becoming obvious, halfway through this project, that Roger Ebert really loves him a motion picture image; so many of these Great Movies have great visuals but fairly serious flaws elsewhere.

In Night of the Hunter, all of that great photography is undercut by characters whose actions, depending on how charitable you are feeling, are either "highly mannered" or represent that their collective IQ approaches that of a turnip. The Spooky Preacher's work is just all too easy in this little village; the potentially rich widow is all but forced on him within five minutes of his arrival in town, before he's done telling his blatantly dodgy back story. A quick phone call would clear things up, but it doesn't occur to anyone that anything needs clearing up. Mysterious preacher passing through.... new widow.... why wouldn't there be a wedding?

These things I'm identifying as problems can be defended, as with my review of Metropolis last week, as intentional aspects of an Expressionist approach to filmmaking. My personal (and admittedly unorthodox (and arguably kind of crabby)) response to that would be that just because it's intentional, and just because it has a basis in theory, doesn't mean it ain't a flaw.

The Plot: Only the children know where the $10,000 is hid. The Spooky Preacher marries mom, interrogates the kids relentlessly, and eventually pursues them on a slow-speed chase down the Ohio River, the townspeople placidly failing to register anything unusual or disturbing throughout.

Visuals: Great!

Dialogue: Pretty thin. Most noted for the Spooky Preacher acting out the battle between L-O-V-E, tattooed on his right hand, and H-A-T-E, tattooed on his left hand. This little parable turns out to be a microcosm of the whole movie's narrative arc, which is kind of cool I guess.

Prognosis: It wouldn't be the worst movie you've ever seen, but you could probably find better ways to spend 90 minutes, too.

NEXT WEEK: John Ford's My Darling Clementine

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Monday Quiz LIX

Scientific Processes!

1. What are the red and the green thingies in this diagram called?

2. At a small scale and at a large scale, these are problematic instances of the process of ____________?

3. What's happening here?

4. With the little red dots representing water, and the big blue dots representing a substance in solution, this is the process of _____________.

5. In this diagram of the water cycle, you probably won't have too much trouble identifying Process #1, the arrow coming up from the water. But, can you identify Process #2, the arrow coming up from the forest?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The L&TM5K Calls In Sick

I'm very sorry, but you'll have to take your online amusement elsewhere this weekend. Fortunately, I have a few suggestions:

  • From Bioephemera, we learn that scientists may soon be able to cure us of that most perniscious of conditions -- love!

  • Also by way of Bioephemera, we found to this post which contains scans from "The Recently Deflowered Girl" -- a brilliantly naughty 1965 parody of etiquite books illustrated by the great Edward Gorey.

  • And finally, remember The Seven Wonders of the Castle5000 Environs? At the end of that post, I asked "What are the seven wonders of YOUR neighborhood?" Well, last week frequent commenter Sandy posted her own wonders, and a fine assortment they are.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, y'all. See you at the Monday Quiz!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXVIII

The Thursday Quiz!

This season, the Thursday Quiz is a sequence game. Arrange the ten items in the proper sequence!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will lose their internet privileges. All of them. Permanently.
2. As long as you made it this far, you might as well play. It's not all about winning, you know. It's about using your knowledge and reason and making an educated guess. C'mon! It'll be fun!

List these members of our beautiful and historic planetary system of nation-states in order by population, from smallest to largest.

A: Australia

B: Bangladesh

C: Canada

D: Estonia

E: India

F: Mongolia

G: Russia

H: Singapore

I: Sweden

J: United Kingdom

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Speaking Truth to the Young

Michael5000 is running in the park. Down the path, he notices a group of visibly dorky adolescents hanging out together. As he approaches, an especially dorky adolescent rushes out from the group.

Especially Dorky Adolescent (theatrically): Excuse me sir, [unintelligible]?

michael5000 (pausing his ipod, still running): What's that?

EDA(still theatrically): Sir, what are you running from?

m5k: My fears.

The Especially Dorky Adolescent pauses for a moment, surprised. Then:

EDA (puzzled): That's the same thing the last guy said!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Great Movies: "Metropolis"

Fritz Lang, 1925

Metropolis is a movie about a dystopian future in which the rich live in fabulous modern high-rise luxury and the downtrodden working class lives in a squalid underground warren. It’s often hailed as the first serious science fiction movie, or as the first film to advance a social critique by portraying a nightmare city of the future.

Let’s start with the bad news: as a story, Metropolis is an absolute hash. The action just wanders around randomly from event to event, with no real rhyme or reason behind it. Much of the original footage has been lost over time, moreover, which means that whole missing plot points have to be explained with screens of text. As usual in silent movies, the acting is unnatural and often laughably overwrought by modern standards.

Nor is there much weight in its social critique. The film thinks it has an important message about the importance of a “mediator” between workers and management, but its politics are as muddle-headed as its plot. We are clearly expected to pity the downtrodden workers and decry the mechanization of labor, but Lang is more interested in firing us up with striking images than with doing any actual thinking on the topic. His workers are a listless drone army, alternatively shuffling around like zombies, performing tasks with robotic stoicism, or swarming together in mindless mob violence, which tells us a lot more about Lang’s own social prejudices than it does about the conditions of the industrial workplace. And as for this “mediator” -- this “heart” that will join the “head” of management to the “hand” of labor – what that’s supposed to look like, I have no idea. And neither, by all appearances, did Lang. Politically, he was just blowing smoke.

And yet, this has to rank (with The General, q.v.) as one of the most compelling silent movies I’ve seen so far. Its strength is solely in its artistic design. Sets, staging, special effects, and cinematography are all extraordinary, yielding images that still pack a punch 81 years later. And while these images might not be as novel for us watching today as they were for the original audience, they have some special appeal for modern viewers too. Metropolis has been such an influential movie that to watch it today is like seeing a catalog of source material for later directors. In the same way that Hamlet can seem like it’s just a collection of figures of speech, Metropolis feels like a collection of classic film images.

Plot: The son of Metropolis’ industrialist overlord falls improbably in love (why? so there can be a plot, of course!) with a young woman who preaches to the workers about the coming of the “mediator” who will improve their lot. After witnessing an industrial accident, he becomes an advocate of workers’ rights. His father suppresses the workers’ movement with the help of a robot, except unbeknownst to him, the robot’s creator has other ideas and…. well, like I said, it’s a bit of a hash. Eventually, there’s a chase through the catacombs, a flood, erotic dancing, a burning at the stake, and a fistfight on the cathedral roof. Zowie!

Visuals: Really something.

Dialog: Nope. No dialogue either. It’s a silent movie.

Prognosis: A must-see for anyone interested in the history of film, or in the dystopian genre.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Monday Quiz LVIII

Name That Theme!

1. What are these folks up to?

2. What river? Bonus: What city?

3. What two incredibly famous landmarks are visible in this photo?

4. This is a page from The ________ ________.

5. What do the red lines indicate?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Coffee Table Book Party: "Designs on the Land"

So I had this awesome idea of hosting a Coffee Table Book Party. Mrs.5000 and I would set out selections from our fabulous collection and invite all of our friends, many of whom we know have excellent coffee table books of their own, to bring theirs too. Then, we could drink and have snacks and look at each other's coffee table books together!

Except, as much as this sounds like the Best Party Concept Ever to a confirmed introvert such as myself, I'm afraid it might leave something a little lacking for those among our friends who like to actually interact socially at parties.

So, instead of actually hosting an old-fashioned "bricks and morter"* party, I'm moving the Coffee Table Book Party onto the World Wide Web*! Over the next several months, you'll be seeing some of my favorite coffee table books, with a few amateurish but enticing photographs of their contents along with a brief review. If you have a favorite coffee table book of your own that you would like to share, send in pictures and a quick writeup. It'll be a party!

Alex S. Maclean, Designs on the Land; Exploring America from the Air. Thames & Hudson, 2003.

There are plenty of coffee table books out there that compile beautiful aerial photography. This one may well be the best of them all. Its focus is not conventionally beautiful landmarks and scenery, but the patterns imposed on the ordinary landscapes of the United States by our very way of life.

From a variety of heights and angles, Maclean's photographs reveal the often stark geometries of our cities, neighborhoods, and countryside. Patterns are revealed that derive from the deliniation of space into functional zones, from its devision by transportation corridors or property lines, or from the repetition of landscape forms.
The double-meaning contained in the title is no mistake. Maclean's images are strangely beautiful, but they contain an implicit critique of the mechanized nature of modern life. This is not without its snobbish overtones -- the snobbery of the person who looks at a busy street full of people conducting their daily business and, viewing them in the aggregate, regards them as an unthinking mass of lemmings -- but it is not without its validity either. Sometimes it's kind of alarming to see what we look like from a distance.

As of tonight, there are used copies on Amazon for as little as $11.90. Or check your library!

*Remember the late 90s?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

You Can't Resist Are On We You're Wind

The collection of Korean T-shirts that Heatherbee shared with us back in October was a real hit, and I wish I could tell you that she had brought back as many from her recent excursion to Indonesia. Alas, Heatherbee could not stay long in Indonesia and was not able to concentrate fully on T-shirt acquisition, for reasons that remind us that although Dengue Fever is a great band, it is not an especially great band name.

So, she was only able to bring us back one shirt. But it's a good 'un.

If any of all y'all -- there's no size given, but you would need to be on the slender side, and presumably female -- think you could pull it off, it is yours on the condition that you agree to send back in a picture of yourself wearing it proudly in public. Just let me know.

(Heatherbee, incidently, is fully recovered, safe, and happy. So don't fret.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXVII

The Thursday Quiz!

This season, the Thursday Quiz is a sequence game. Arrange the ten items in the proper sequence!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will lose their internet privileges. All of them. Permanently.
2. As long as you made it this far, you might as well play. It's not all about winning, you know. It's about using your knowledge and reason and making an educated guess. C'mon! It'll be fun!
The Planets

List these members of our beautiful and historic solar system in order... hey! Not so fast, hotshot! List them in order by size, from smallest to largest.

A: Earth

B: Earth’s Moon

C: Jupiter

D: Mars

E: Mercury

F: Disgraced former planet Pluto

G: Saturn

H: Sun

I: Uranus or Neptune (which are pretty much the same size)

J: Venus

Post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

High Fructose Corn Satire

Note to Sensitive Readers: This post contains descriptions of adult situations as well as crude language, including that word that starts with an "f" and ends with "uck."

In a recent post on her company's blog, MyDogIsChelsea wrote an analysis of some advertisements for, of all things, High Fructose Corn Syrup. Underwritten by a group representing the corn industry, they represent kind of a ham-fisted apologetics for the supersweet stuff. (Perhaps you are familiar with these ads. From inside the TV blackout of Castle5000, it can be hard to tell whether things like this are just another media blip or a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. One reads, for instance, that Americans have been all agog about a national singing talent show for the last several years. It sounds terribly unlikely, I know, but I'm assured it's true. But I digress.)

Anyway, these ads. They cast people concerned about the omnipresence of HFCS as ignorant busybodies who, fortunately, get led back to reality by the bland assurances of their more level-headed pals. Here's some examples:

Now, as far as I know (not far at all) the jury is still out on whether HFCS is actually any worse than conventional sugar. Still, there's more than a whiff of smug condescention from these ads, an adolescently swaggering attitude of "hey, our product is everywhere, and anybody who has reservations about that is STOOPID."

Now, I was not the first to bring a dog to this fight, but damn! -- how could I help wondering how Big Corn's line of reasoning might look when applied to some other goods and services? Here are some ideas:

I: A College-style apartment. Two guys hanging out.

First Guy (casually): I'm kind of bored. I think I'll shoot up.

Second Guy (shocked): Like, heroin? What the fuck?

First Guy (exasperated): What?

Second Guy: Well, don't you know what they say about heroin?

First Guy (dissmissive): Like what?

Second Guy: (speechless)

First Guy: Like, it's made from beautiful poppies? That its production supports hard-working Central Asian farmers? That it's very relaxing? And that it's only moderately toxic if used in moderation?

Second Guy (coming around): Gosh, did you bring TWO needles?

First Guy: Nah, but we can share.

II: Two guys walking through a fashionable nightclub district.

First Guy: (nonchalant) I think I'll hire that prostitute.

Second Guy (disturbed): What did you say?

First Guy: That hooker. I'm going to hire her.

Second Guy (horrified): Don't you know what they say about having sex with strangers?

First Guy: (mildly irritated) Like what?

Second Guy: (gathers himself to speak, but before he can open his mouth):

First Guy: That it is exciting and physically pleasurable, and 100% natural? That people have been doing it throughout recorded history? And that more than 3/4 of the time, you'll get away with it without incurring a sexually transmitted disease, HIV, or an unplanned pregnancy?

Second Guy (impressed): Well, gosh, I....

First Guy (indulgently): Come on, let's make it a three-way.

Second Guy (sheepish and grateful): You're awesome, dude.

III: Two guys in a college computer lab.

First Guy: Check out this satirical piece on the Life & Times of Michael5000!

Second Guy (appalled): You're reading a personal blog? In 2009? Really?

First Guy (confident): Why not?

Second Guy: Well, you know what they say about personal blogs....

[long pause. Second Guy gets embarassed.]

First Guy: That they're often written by hard-working people right here in the United States of America? That they express interesting ideas and unique material that you just won't find in the formal media? That they are a great internet tradition that has been around for literally several years?

Second Guy: Well... I mean... OK, I'll take a look.

First Guy: Thataboy.

[they look at the screen]

Second Guy (alarmed): Holy crap! That's... that's the conversation we just had!

First Guy (creeped out): What the....

[spooky music. fade out.]

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Great Movies: "Notorious"

Alfred Hitchcock, 1946

Notorious is often said to be among the most serious and stylish of Hitchcock's movies, and this is true enough. The stylish aspect of things comes off quite well, as it would almost have to with Cary Grant and Ingred Bergman in the leading roles. There is a lot of innovative camera work, and the sets and settings are superb. Personally, I missed the macabre sense of humor that is Hitchcock's strength in so many other films, but that might just be me.

The excellence of Notorious, it has to be said, is concentrated in its final reel. The first half of the movie exists only to set up the scenerio, and its functional nature is often pretty transparent. Events are always compressed in movies, of course, but in the first half of Notorious it sometimes feel like you are watching events in surreal fast-forward. Watch as a woman, learning her father has died, goes through the entire grieving process in about twenty seconds. A high-level meeting between international intelligence agencies requires about six sentences; an unlikely couple falls madly in love pretty much, well, instantaniously. Well, it's all in the service of the plot.

I don't want to say anything about the ending, but it really is pretty slick.

The Plot: A "notorious" playgirl is recruited to help American agents crack a ring of fugitive Nazis in Brazil. She and her handler fall in love, but then he must instruct her to seduce the bad guy. This kind of thing is always hard on a relationship.

Visuals: Handsomely filmed in black and white.

Dialog: Full of ironic hidden meanings. Characters talk about sex without talking about sex in such a way that we are left in no doubt whatsoever about who is having sex with whom. The Nazi characters speak with a courteous formality that is wonderfully full of evil menace. The Nazi mother is a thorough delight; watch her when she gets some bad news and fires up a cigarette. FABULOUS!

Prognosis: This one should be pretty enjoyable for any movie fan; it's a must for buffs of Hitchcock or of 1940s style.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Monday Quiz LVII

Big Famous Mountains

Once again, six chances to make five!

1. What is the name of this iconic European mountain?

2. What is the name of this Japanese volcano?

3. This mountain, the highest mountain on its continent, goes by two names. Either one will work here.

4. This mountain is also the highest on its continent. What is its name?

5. This mountain is the highest in the Southern Hemisphere. What is its name?

6. This mountain is the southernmost active volcano in the world -- but is not, as often thought, the highest mountain on its continent.

Submit your answers in the comments.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Bunch of Links Posing as a Post

But First!

Undoubtedly, you have noticed the new masthead! A sleek, zippy new look for the L&TM5K, this is the second submission generated by the Request for Bids I posted a few weeks back. It is by the lovely and talented Kate, and if you like it I'm sure she would enjoy seeing you gush about it in the comments. If you DON'T like it, there is but one obvious solution: submit one you like better!

(And if you were a big fan of MyDogIsChelsea's masthead -- or if you are, perhaps, MyDogIsChelsea -- have no fear. We'll figure out some way to rotate these suckers.)

Some Blogs I've Been Especially Digging Lately

Missed the Epistle
This is a brand new personal blog by a Spanish teacher at an alternative Jewish school. Her students say the damnedest things. Very funny.

Portland at Night
Beautiful, evocative black and white pictures of the City of Roses at night. I stumbled on this one whilst a-pirating images, and have been returning regularly.

The Comics Curmudgeon
Ascerbic, satirical daily commentary on the wasteland that is the modern funnies page.

123 I Love You
Entertainingly self-flagelating man suffers his way through life, specifically through the life of an English teacher in Japan. This one has been around for a long time, and is consistently funny.

Found In Mom's Basement
Great images from vintage and not so vintage advertising.

Surely you know about PostSecret? A must!

Then, there's the always-fabulous Bibliodyssey. Three of my favorite posts of late where on

Finally, I can't get enough of Blog Vice-Dork Rebel's hilariously honest coverage of her adventures in Thailand. Meanwhile, Blog Dork Rex Parker is now, in addition to his famous coverage of the NYT Crossword Puzzle and his should-be-famous coverage of pulp paperback covers, now has a third blog devoted to.... the letter K. Awesome.


Morgan talked me into joining, a website where one plays, you know, chess.

Also, taking the suggestion from Boo's blog, I've been playing Kingdom of Loathing.

If any of youse guys are on either site, look me up!

And Finally:

I stole this from the [Cherry] Ride...

While sitting at your desk, lift your right foot off the floor and make
clockwise circles. Now, while doing this, draw the number "6" in the air with
your right hand. Your foot will change direction and there's nothing you can do
about it.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Blog Year, Again!

Out with the Old!

And so, just like that, it's 2009. Time to evaluate all of those 2008 New Blog Year Resolutions! and see how I did.

1. Maintain all three blogs throughout 2008! Yeah, I've done that. Although I am not nearly so engaged with the quilt blog anymore, which is a little perverse since it was the most popular of the three. But I love L&TM5K best.

2. Keep the quizzes coming as long as people want to take them! Some might say I've exceeded expectations on this one.

3.Be at least half done with "The Great Movies" by year's end. Well, I got to 43 out of 100. That's not too bad.

4. Finish at least ten of the Reading List books by year's end. I got to 9. Not bad.

5. Pick up the pace in MRtB and finish the Book of Ruth by the end of the summer. I knocked this one out of the park.

6. Vignettes! Vignettes! I could probably still stand to beef up the anecdotal material. People seem to like it.

7. Try to keep up with everybody else's blogs. I've actually done pretty well at this, even if I'm sometime a few days behind.

And in with the New!

Having gone through that, I guess it's time to set some 2009 Blog Year Resolutions.

1. Stick with the Bible Blog, and try to finish off the Old Testament this year.

2. Keep the Quilt Blog, but don't sweat it.

3. Do a Great Movies post three or four times a month.

4. Do ten Reading List posts.

5. Don't forget to have fun with the thing.

That's All for Today!

Happy New Year, y'all!