Saturday, February 28, 2009

Coffee Table Book Party: "The Flight Into Egypt"

But first, some housekeeping business.

Dug, as is his right per the Michael5000 Quiz Regulatory Structure, has contested the scoring of the Thursday Quiz. And, after review, the ruling on the field has been reversed.

The Calico Cat retains the TQLXXIII Gold Star. However, the Silver Star is stripped from Cartophiliac, and given to dug instead. Cartophiliac takes the Blue. Also, interestingly, there are now two Green Stars added to the mix: d's Green moves him into a tie for ninth on the all-time leaderboard, and newcomer Sphi300 becomes the 49th Thursday Quiz Starholder. Everyone comes out ahead, really, as no doubt Carto's seething resentment over this turn of events will just make him hungrier.


The reason why Wednesday's post was so awesome, see, is that there's this meme all over Facebook? Where people go to some random sites to get their band's name, album title, and cover art? And then I took the ones that various readers did, and wrote reviews as if they were real albums? Anyway, it was brilliant. DrSchnell compared me to Borges!

The "album covers" were taken (without permission, naturally) from, if I remember right, kate (of katenben), I forget (sorry!), dan, lamanyana, Niece #1, Nichim, DrSchnell, me, BiggerSister5000, and Serendipity.

Let the Party Begin!

The Coffee Table Book Party now threatens to turn into an actual party, in that there is more than one person involved. Jenners, who I swear to God spends more time blogging than I do, recently wrote up the book Timeless Toys under the Coffee Table Book Party aegis. Awesome! She also chose a book after my own heart, lushly illustrated with photos documenting the evolution of many classic American toys and games. I've got the library's copy on my kitchen table even as we speak. Well, even as I type, and possibly as you read.

Ely, Timothy, The Flight Into Egypt. Chronicle Books, 1995.

The Flight Into Egypt is a very rare example of an "artist's book" -- the kind of work that you may know from me having shown you the amazing work of fingerstothebone or Mrs.5000 -- that has been mass-produced by a conventional publishing house and process. That the result was apparently a financial fiasco for all concerned should not take away from the happy fact of the book's existence among us.

As the title indicates, the work is broadly influenced by Egypt, the topography and imagery of which saturate the book.

Yet on another level, the book has nothing to do with Egypt whatsoever. Rich in abstract, intricate almost-maps of imaginary terrains, with accompanying text in an invented almost-language with its own alphabet, The Flight Into Egypt resembles nothing so much as the artifact of a visit to an alien planet by an alien species. If you found a journal in an abandoned starship, it might well look like this -- but only if the ship had been piloted by an alien with craftsmanship of the highest order.

There is no explanatory text (aside from an irrelevant foreword), no captions, no attempt at explanation. It is not a book to read, but rather to look at as you would a great painting or a great map, or both.

As of this writing, you can get a used copy of this beautiful thing on Amazon for less than twelve bucks. That's a pathetically low price, but -- lucky you!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The michael5000 Kitchen #3: Wheat Germ Nut Burgers

Recipe #3: Wheat Germ Nut Burgers

Provenance: I would have picked this one up in the bulk section of a natural foods grocery store, probably the Lawrence, Kansas Co-Op in 1991 or something. I have no specific memory of having made the recipe before, except for a vague sense that I’ve used rosemary in SOMETHING and I don’t know what else it would have been.

The Recipe:

½ cup Wheat Germ
1 cup Rolled Oats
1 medium Onion
½ teaspoon Rosemary
2 cups finely chopped Brazil Nuts
4 Tablespoons Water
2 teaspoons Basil
2 Eggs, well beaten
2 cloves Garlic, minced

Mix all ingredients until well blended. Form into patties and bake about 10 – 15 minutes on each side at 350 F.

The Results:

First off, I tend to agree with Mrs.5000 that this recipe needs a new name.

Next, I just want to say that finely chopping 2 cups of Brazil Nuts is kind of a pain in the ass.

Thirdly, the recipe leaves me unclear about exactly what stage these bad boys are supposed to be at when you are finished. Are these patties that should be stored and subsequently grilled when ready to be placed on a bun? Or should a warm bun be ready as soon as they are done baking? The text yields few clues.

Fourthly, what I got once all ingredients were “well blended” was not something that adhered well into what you would call “patties.” I ended up with three or four “coherent clumps,” three or four “loose aggregates,” and two “piles of crumbs.” I should confess here to a nagging fear that I might have used two cups of Oats by mistake, but I’m not sure.

At this point, you are probably wondering how they taste. And the answer is: surprisingly good! And somewhat like hamburger, maybe, although my understanding of what a hamburger tastes like is 22 years gone now and I am not the most reliable witness on this point. We grilled them with a little oil and made them into cheeseburgers, but then pretty much anything is better with cheese so that's a bit of a no-brainer.

Quite to my surprise, I think I will keep and experiment more with this recipe.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXIII

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is a twelve item is-it-or-isn't-it test of your knowledge, reasoning, stamina, and moxie!

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 never be able to look at themselves in the mirror again.

2. Don't get all stressed out about it! It's supposed to be fun!

Natural Features Around the World

Each of the places listed below is matched with a number on the world map. For each place, IS IT or ISN'T it accurately located?

Ooops. As the early test takers have noticed, there is no #10 on the map. Sorry about that.

Also, it has been called to my attention that it is Thursday, not Monday.

Also, the chief of quality control has been sacked, and we are welcoming applications for the position.

1. The Aral Sea

2. The Atlas Mountains

3. The Caucasus Mountains

4. The Gobi Desert

5. The Ob River

6. The Okavango Delta

7. The Orinoco River

8. The Pyranees Mountains

9. The Sea of Rhun

10. Sakhalin

11. Sulawesi

12. Tierra del Fuego

Submit your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New Music: A Survey

There's no counting the number of bands that employ retro guitar, scruffy production values, and a sense of detached irony, but World Festival of Youth and Students throws in a soaring soprano vocal line that takes the band into a territory all its on. On their sophomore outing, I Am the Person I Know Best, World Festival bring a fresh energy to songs about family relationships, living in a media-saturated culture, and the sometimes alienating lifestyle of the travelling professional musician.

Miracle Girls can be relied to deliver a cheerful, jangling sort of antidote to radio pop music, and they do not let us down on To Hate His Friends, their fourth effort. The songs are connected with a loose theme of how it's better to be single than attached, although it's not clear whether this was planned or is just a natural result of the Miracle Girls' way of thinking. The title track is pretty funny; the album closer "Home, Office, Home, Office, Grave" is, despite the title, one of the funniest songs I've heard this year.

for other people is the gloomiest record yet for Athens, Georgia based Gomishan City. Filled with brooding rock meditations on death and longing -- think Bob Mould meets The Smiths -- this record is packed with the kind of music you love to feel bad to.

Murder At the Windmill's a pinstripe suit is a low-fi song cycle about the decline, decay, and possibly the death (it's all very ambiguous) of a stereotypical high-powered businessman. Halfway between the classic Tom Waits album Frank's Wild Years and some kind of strange bluegrass dirge, this is the kind of record that seems at first merely bizarre, but then quickly gets under your skin if you let it.

The oddly-named Charles P. Steinmetz Academic Center are a Scottish quintet whose music features textured, brooding electronic soundscapes underlaying vigorous acoustic-guitar driven pop tunes. Steinmetz, the lead singer, has a terrific tenor, soaring up into a bold falsetto on "What One Has to Do," the title track of their third album.

You would not expect a woman with the stage name of "Oswald Pornbacher" to record conventional songs. Her new album "as quickly as possible" might well be named "as quirkily as possible," as odd instruments, time signatures, lyrics, and tempos bounce around almost, but not quite, at random. People who like songs to end in predictable ways may be made uncomfortable.

History of Nunuvut continues to produce noisy, quirky college rock, jangly guitars and vocal harmonies underlain with a rich cello line. Frightened of the Old Ones refers not to the band's own musical history -- fans will find this new album instantly familiar -- but to a series of old girlfriends, described to hilarious effect in the title track.

Gunthorpe, Nottinghamshire is not for everyone. With a blasting attack powered by no less than three heavily distorted electric guitars, G.N. has been fairly accused of being musically sloppy. On their new record, Whatever Your Task May Be, there is evidence of improving songcraft in there under the noisy assault.

Sythesizer-driven prog rock that could have fallen straight out of the mid-70s, USS Luckenbach nevertheless seem to be right at home in the current musical landscape. If they are at times a bit bombastic, it is great pretension to dance to. On Reason Shines But Dimly they are once again cerebral and virtuosic, but not too much so for their own good.

Crystal Palace emerges from a five-year drought with what at first listen sounds like an especially boisterous house party. Listening closely to the lyrics under the rich textures -- I'm pretty sure I hear oboes and bagpipes in there -- reveals a darker side to the album. Many of these rollicking, uptempo songs are about grief, about loss of illusions and loss of faith. Not often are the dark and the light of human existence -- Unbridled Joy and Nothing at All, indeed -- so beautifully combined in pop music.

Also recommended, especially for anyone puzzled about any of the above: The new Motorins album, Southern efficiency and Northern charm.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Great Movies: "Pickpocket"

Robert Bresson, 1956

Anyone who actually reads these reviews has probably figured out by now that I am not crazy about stylized acting. Plots and scenarios can be completely over the top, but when characters don't act like real, recognizable humans, it makes me kind of crazy. This is, now that I think about it, why I have trouble with so many comedies and action movies, where the necessity of laffs and thrills precludes people acting like people.

I ran into trouble, a few weeks ago, with the early-century over-the-top expressionism of Metropolis and Night of the Hunter. This week, I once again run hard up against a mid-century European film, and as usual my complaint is this: the characters don't show any emotion at all. This was, I have read, an intentional effect, so it is impossible to say whether the cast of movies like Pickpocket were good or bad actors. It is certain, though, that they would have made awesome poker players.

In addition to lowering the emotional volume to near imperceptible levels, this lack of emoting is confusing. There is a love interest in Pickpocket, but it took me until almost the end of the movie to realize this. Since they never look at each other with anything but a blank expression, it's a little hard to decode (or for that matter, understand) their attraction to each other.

Apparently, Bresson was motivated by a strong Christian spirituality. His intention was to film generic people in situations under an impassive gaze, leaving us the audience to meditate on the morality or immorality of their actions. Sounds like a neat idea, in theory. In practice? Kinda boring.

Plot: Ostensibly, the confessions of a pickpocket. We see him learn and ply his trade. He has relationships with other characters -- his mother, the alleged love interest, a police detective, accomplices -- but they are all conducted with a stunted emotional affect that you might expect from a survivor of brain trauma. There are four years of the character's life that sound like they were probably pretty interesting, but they are covered in a ten-second voiceover.

Visuals: Since Bresson wants our meditative moral gaze to fall on his characters, we spend a lot of time just staring at them through a stationary camera. Some of the actual pickpocketing scenes are pretty cool, as you see the thieves work a street or a train with a kind of smooth ballet of petty crime. Others, though, have the wooden aspect of a period training film.

Dialogue: Not very much, not very interesting. Lots of first-person past-tense voiceover.

Prognosis: This one is strictly for history-of-film buffs.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Monday Quiz LXIII

Rock: the 1960s

The 1960s was when the greatest rock music ever made was being made, at least if you are a fan of the rock music of the 1960s! Hum your favorite Beatles tunes to yourself as you identify the following rock artists of that great decade.

1. Who is this gentleman?

2. Who are these young lads?

3. How come... No, wait. The question is: Who are these guys?

4. Who are these fellows? Careful, now....

5. And: Identify either these guys....

...or these guys.

Submit your answers in the comments with a blast of guitar distortion presaging the hard rock of the 1970s.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I Hate These Maps!!!

Here are two maps that have been raising my hackles recently. But since many among the L&TM5K are map dorks themselves, and have proved themselves game for a little analytical puzzle, I thought I'd let YOU tell me why I hate these maps.

This one is being seen on billboards and print media all over the City of Roses....

...and this one was from a recent lead story in the 'gonian.

Oooh! I HATES 'em!!!


Like mappy challenges? Frequent commenter Karmasartre sent me a link to this time-consuming online Quiz recently. I scored 158. If you can beat me on your first try, I'll come up with some kind of fabulous prize. I dare you. That's right -- I'm bringing the heat. Do your best, suckers.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The michael5000 Kitchen #2: Hummus

Recipe #2: Hummus

Provenance: Written in the handwriting of frequent L&TM5K commenter mhwitt, this recipe was almost certainly put to paper between 1987 and 1989, the period when he and michael5000 shared a skanky off-campus apartment near the University of Oregon. The index card it was written on has numerous stains, suggesting frequent use, but I have only very vague recollections of using this recipe.

The Recipe:
2 cups cooked or canned Garbanzo Beans [note – this is a standard 15 ounce can]
6 Tablespoons Tahini
1/8 cup lemon juice (+more to taste)
Juice of Garbanzo Beans (enough to thin hummus sufficiently)
Pinch of Cayenne Pepper
2 teaspoons Olive Oil

The Results:

With apologies to mhwitt’s younger self, this recipe yields a hummus that is marginally passable but by no means especially appetizing. There is something of a bitterness about it, which may be due to an excess of the Tahini. It is also bland; this may mean that “more to taste” is an important aspect of the lemon juice, or that my pinch of Cayenne Pepper was too stingy. I also deeply suspect that the “2 tsp” of Olive Oil, the only part of the main recipe in my own handwriting, should be “2 Tbsp.” The word “garlic” that I appended at some point might not have been a bad idea, either.

Updates! Updates based on actual reader suggestions have been made to the M5Kitchen Recipe #1, Soda Bread.


UPDATE: Hummus 2.0

Taking elements from the blizzard of comments and personal messages regarding this recipe, I retired into the Castle5000 Culinary Studios and emerged with the following recipe, which attempts to honor the essence of the existing text, yet modify it in diverse ways suggested by you the readers in order to make it, you know, taste better.

The Revised Recipe:

2 cups cooked or canned Garbanzo Beans [note – this is still a standard 15 ounce can]
4 Tablespoons Tahini
1/8 cup lemon juice
Juice of Garbanzo Beans (enough to thin hummus sufficiently)
2 cloves Garlic
1 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Salt
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil


The Results:

Much, much better. Very tasty, in fact. The only flaw in the ointment, or rather in the hummus, is that it was a bit too garlicky. This was due to me being interrupted during preparation by a pair of nice young men representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints; when I got back to the blender, I had another garlic clove in there before I remembered that I'd already done the garlic. Well, live and learn.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXII

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is a twelve item is-it-or-isn't-it test of your knowledge, reasoning, stamina, and moxie!

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 never be able to look at themselves in the mirror again.

2. Don't get all stressed out about it! It's supposed to be fun!

The Novels of Charles Dickens

It is most amazing and most affecting how often coincidence and pathos collide in the works of the great Victorian master! Which of the following IS his novels? And which of the following ISN'T?

1. Adam Bede

2. Bleak House

3. Charles Middleworth

4. Dombey & Son

5. Hard Times

6. The Manor Intended

7. Martin Chuzzlewit

8. The Mayor of Castorbridge

9. Northanger Abbey

10. Our Mutual Friend

11. A Shropshire Lad

12. Vanity Fair

Submit your sprawling cast of answers in the comments.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

That Other Media Outlet's Flag Makeover

Remember, people, we did it here first! It was a full year ago now that the eXtreme talents and minds of the L&TM5K readership were applied to the task of redesigning the Oregon flag. Our best efforts were reviewed in this post. I was, lamentably, unable to interest the Governor in taking us serious, which I frankly think betrayed a certain lack of leadership and vision.

Then -- and you certainly don't hear me making any careless accusations of "plagiarism" or "intellectual property theft" or "craven immitation" here -- the 'gonian pops up with its own contest to redesign the Oregon flag just eight months later! I sent documentation of our pioneering efforts in this realm into the contest chair, but did I get the mere courtesy of a response? No. No, I didn't. Sheesh.

I have to admit, though, that the winning entry is pretty good. It was designed by... by... oops! Forgot to write that down when I took the picture. Oh well, whoever they did, they did a pretty good job. Keeping an element of the old flag was a slick move.

Last I heard, the Governor's Office was still playing hardball -- by which I mean, showing no interest in random flag redesign contests. Where are their priorities?


Say What You Like About the Great Movies Project...

But it does encourage eclectic viewing!

I never know what's going to be waiting for me when I pick up my library reserves.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Great Movies: Pandora's Box

Pandora's Box
G. W. Pabst, 1929

I think I've read that there were people around back in the day who thought that adding sound to movies would ruin them. It's kind of hard to imagine that perspective now. Stripped of the fundamental ability to depict people having conversations with each other, silent movies seem incredibly limited in the kind of stories that they can tell. It is no wonder that slapstick and swashbuckling were popular during the silent era; those are among the few realms of human endeavor that don't require words.

That's why you have to respect Pandora's Box for its ambition, if nothing else. Battleship Potemkin was a moving propaganda poster, The General was a long chase scene, and Metropolis was a visual extravaganza posing as social criticism, and you can still tell why they were successful. But Pandora's Box tries for something much more difficult, the silent drama. And it pulls it off surprisingly well.

What makes it work is terrific acting. The leads project a lot of subtlety of mood and intent, and there is a large cast of extras who always perform very naturally in the background. Characters are actually nuanced, something other than heroes, villains, or dupes. Pandora's Box is the only silent film I've seen thus far that you could say this about.

Plot: It was probably a little hackneyed even then: a girl from the wrong side of the tracks wants to break into show biz, but can't ever catch a break. During her decline and fall, she drags many a many down with her. People are forever bursting into rooms where couples who aren't supposed to be kissing are kissing.

Visuals: I was impressed by the composition of the scenes. The settings look authentic, and the depth of activity in the background establishes mood and veracity.

Dialog: n/a

Prognosis: If we didn't have the talkies, I'd think this movie was GREAT. Since we do, its entertainment value plunges to virtually nil. Mostly interesting to people with a particular enthusiasm for the silents, I'm afraid.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Monday Quiz LXII

Looking Down on Big Cities

In recognition that this might be, well, a little harder than usual, this time you have seven chances to make five. Name the cities shown in the various aerial images. Three of them are American, and two are European, but that's it for the hints.








Submit your answers in the comments.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Coffee Table Book Party: "The Games We Played"

Margaret K. Hofer, The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board & Table Games. Princeton Architectural Press, 2003.

This photo collection of board and parlor games from the turn of the 20th Century is endlessly charming in its own right, offering beautifully photographed gameboards and gamepieces grown exotic by the passage of time. But is also a fascinating glimpse into the beginnings of the modern middle class, with its new level of leisure time and discretionary income to spend on mass-produced trifles.

The subtitle -- "The Golden Age of Board and Table Games" -- is a bit of a misnomer. Hofer freely admits that in terms of gameplay, very few of the games of this era amount to anything more elaborate than rolling dice, advancing a gamepiece, and perhaps following the instructions printed on the space landed on. Even the more sophisticated of the games of the era are thus little more than "Chutes and Ladders" in drag.

Today, there are much better games available to people who want to exercise their strategic and tactical abilities with something besides chess -- and of course, we have Scrabble now, a major step forward for our civilization! Yet, it is also true that our publishing houses persist in pouring out dozens of worthless titles every year, most tied by phat marketing deals to movies or television shows produced under the same bloated corporate umbrella. Will these look as charming in 100 years as "Bicycle Race," a game that capitalized on the newfangled craze of the safety bicycle?

As of this posting, Amazon has used copies of this lovely book for as low as $9.74. Powells has one new copy at about $25.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Michael5000's Guide to Awesome Science Fiction, Part II

Literary Science Fiction

"Literary Science Fiction" is generally a code for books that treat traditional scinece fiction tropes -- futurism, the impact of new technologies, space travel -- but which are written from outside of the genre. Among your classics, the dystopian future of Orwell's 1984 was a sort of Literary Science Fiction; in the 1980s, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was a blockbuster, if flawed, speciman.

Literary Science Fiction brings with it the advantage of fresh approaches and voices. Often, an LSF writer escapes some of the stylistic conventions and cliches of the genre. Traditional Science Fiction prose, if we are honest, tends to be either fairly spare and hard-boiled, or heroic with a tendency towards pomposity. LSF writers, by contrast, are generally more -- duh! -- literary, with a tendency toward a more poetic, lyrical use of language.

The disadvantage of LSF is often that, having no grounding in the issues that good science firction writers have already been thinking about over the decades, they often lovingly depict an imagined world that is not really very well thought through. This is what I remember most from The Handmaid's Tale, although in fairness it has been over 20 years since I read it: it worked, more or less, as a grim feminist parable, but it didn't contain the sense of a plausibly imagined world or future.

The difference between genre Science Fiction and Literary Science Fiction is of course largely a matter of convention and marketing. Ursula LeGuin certainly writes with a literary voice, but she is generally considered a genre writer -- indeed, one of the genre's core masters. So yeah, to an extent this is a pointless distinction. But it is a pointless distinction that gives me the priviledge of recommending the following four books.

Haruki Murikami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. -- Murakami is a sort of stand-in here for an entire spectrum of postmodern "magic realist" fiction that arguably trades in the core concepts of Science Fiction. Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Jose Saramago, Kazuo Ishiguro -- all of these guys have written books that, with different cover art, would be right at home in the Science Fiction ghetto of the booksotre. Saramago's Blindness and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go are straight up, undeniable, classic Science Fiction stories -- awesome ones -- but they are clad and marketed in carefully literary clothing.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland, although not the best of Murikami's work, is probably the one with the most Science Fiction elements. Unabashedly trippy and weird, with a strong dose of melancholy, it is certainly not for everyone. But maybe it's for you?

Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of Day. Mrs.5000 introduced me to this book. I tend to forget the title and call it "Quakers in Space," which is far more descriptive of the content. The novel follows the practical and societal adventures in a space habitat inhabited by pacifist religious non-conformists on a multi-generational journey to colonize a new planet. Gently paced and concerned with exploring the benefits and problems of decision by consensus, the story takes place within a richly imagined microecology.

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife. The Time Traveler's Wife falls, consciously or not, in the great Science Fiction tradition of stories that sets up a simple counterfactual scenario -- in this case, what if there was this guy who sporadically travelled involuntarily back in time? -- and explores what the ramifications might be. In this case, we end up with a beautifully rendered story about the nature love, loss, and the passage of time. These are universal themes, of course, the same ones that are explored in much mainstream literature. But The Time Traveler's Wife also serves as a good example of, how by imagining people in unprecidented and extreme situations, the Science Fiction author can provide fresh insights, or at least a fresh viewpoint, into human nature.

In addition to being good Literary Science Fiction, incidentally, this book offers a great romance, strongly drawn characters, and an intricate puzzle of twisted and overlapping timelines. The two primary characters experience events in different orders, often knowing what lies in store in the future of the other; as readers, events are revealed to us on yet a third timeline. It is an intricate puzzle of cause and effect, and Niffenegger has structured the book masterfully to keep us thoroughly engaged in what will happen next. Or what will have happened next. It is a wonderfully crafted text.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. Another brilliantly constructed book, this is an intricately nested series of stories. Initially the components of the novel seem completely unrelated, and only as you approach the end does the overall pattern cohere. It can be read as a dystopian adventure story, as a meditation on the nature of individuality, as (perhaps) a study in chaos theory, or simply as a series of strange, highly evocative sotries with some quirky common threads connecting them together. Fabulous.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXI

The Thursday Quiz!

It's the return of the Thursday Quiz in its beloved classic form! A twelve item is-it-or-isn't-it test of your knowledge, reasoning, stamina, and moxie!

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 never be able to look at themselves in the mirror again.

2. Don't get all stressed out about it! It's supposed to be fun!

Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, it's:

Twelve basic concepts from various branches of science are below. But ARE THEY are AREN'T they defined correctly?

1. Astronomical Unit (AU) - a unit of measurement based on the distance from Earth to Alpha Centauri, one of the nearest stars.

2. catalyst - A substance that increases the speed of a chemical reaction without being consumed by the reaction.

3. condensation - the process of a substance changing state from a liquid to a gas.

4. density - the ratio of the mass of an object to its volume.

5. electrolysis - the emission of an electrical charge by a molecule when its protons are separated from its neutrons.

6.emulsion - a substance comprised of droplets of one liquid suspended within another liquid.

7. inertia - the tendency of a body to remain at rest or to remain in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

8. inorganic compounds - compounds composed primarily of carbon.

9. ions - molecules that have a positive or negative charge due to an unequal number of protons and electrons.

10. isotopes - Atoms that have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.

11. light year - The amount of time required for light or any other electromagnetic energy to travel one Astronomical Unit.

12. plane of the ecliptic - The surface area of a fluid through which waves can convey energy.

Postulate your hypotheses in the comments.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Inspector5000 and the Case of the Elderly Uzbek

Michael5000 was hard at work at the office. Suddenly, there was a commotion in the lobby! A elderly man from Uzbekistan had been found on the light rail, disoriented and unable to find his way home. When asked for an address, he gave a street number in Tashkent.

A conversation broke out in Russian, which michael5000 does not know. He watched the man for a while, noting his too-thin jacket, his belly-length white beard, and his poorly fitted dentures that kept threatening to leap out of his mouth as he spoke. But, with the conversation continuing in Russian, michael5000 eventually went back to his desk.

After a while, a coworker came by to confer. "We don't want to scare him by calling the police," she said, "but we just don't know what else to do! He can't tell us anything except his name and the names of his children. We've run them through all our databases, but none of them have ever been served by our office. We've called all of the organizations that serve people who speak Russian, but they don't know who he is either. I guess we'll have to call the cops."

"I'm not so sure about that," said michael5000. "I might be able to help."

What did michael5000 do to get the man home?

[this story, as with all stories related to my work, has been highly fictionalized to protect the confidentiality of the people I work with]

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Great Movies: "Persona"

Ingmar Bergman, 1966

Here's what the emperor’s clothes look like, according to the blurb on the cover of the Persona DVD:

This "exceptionally beautiful specimen of movie-making" (The New Yorker) is recognized as a modern masterpiece and "a landmark in late twentieth-century art" (Time Out London).

The New Yorker is a fine publication, of course, and no doubt Time Out London is good too. And, I've long made it clear that I have the deepest respect for Robert Ebert, whose "Great Movies" list is of course the reason I had to watch this movie. However, in the case of Persona, I don't just disagree with their assessment. I'm really kind of embarrassed for them.

Persona is a movie that thinks it is using the medium of film in daring, innovative ways, and that it is probing deep philosophical questions about identity and experience. It certainly isn't probing deep, philosophical questions, however. It is merely batting around the kind of superficial questions about the nature of reality that fascinate you when you are in junior high school and again, if you have a regular regimen of smoking weed, in college.

The characters act in unnatural ways and say things that no one has ever said in real life. They are not people but variables in a dumb philosophical thought experiment. It is intellectually painful, but fortunately it is also very tedious, which dulls the pain.

It is hard to say how innovative the cinematography may have seemed at the time, but to modern eyes it is almost unbelievably pretentious. We get sudden, inexplicable collages of clips from old films spliced with quick cuts of shocking images, such as quick glimpse of an erect penis that is the film's first and most random shot. We get occasional stylistic incongruities, such as a deliberately sappy narrator who appears once and only once to explain a transition in the action. We get occasional moments where the film is made to appear to break or melt in the projector. We get a long and especially dull scene shown twice, consecutively, from two different points of view. These kind of bombastically high-art shenanigans would be forgivable in a first-semester film school project or a hard-rock video, but in a full-length feature film they are insufferable.

Plot: After a dumb opening montage of random imagery, which no doubt conveys Deep Meaning if you are In The Know, a brutally expository exchange of dialogue sets up the story, such as it is: A famous actress refuses to talk, and a young nurse is assigned to her full-time. You know, because people are so often given round-the-clock medical attendants when they are acting weird.

The doctor decides that the hospital is not a good setting for the actress, so she sends patient and nurse to her own private beach house. You know, like doctors do when they think their patients need a change of scenery. What, your doctor never lets you stay at her beach cabin? You should change your HMO or something.

Anyway, while at the beach the two women act very strange and have experiences that are supposed to suggest that there is some kind of ambiguity or blurring of their individual identities. Whatever. The one who talks tells the one who doesn't talk the least sexy sex story ever told. One or both of them may be in love with, hate, or be completely indifferent to the other. It is all very ambiguous, yet manages to be not even the slightest bit intriguing.

Visuals: The visuals are great! They really are. A good experiment for Persona would be, watch it with the sound off and play a hard rock album instead. Or, if you have a regular regimen of smoking weed, a Pink Floyd album. I am almost sure you would have a superior experience that way.

Dialogue: Preposterous.

Prognosis: Recommended for storage in research libraries.