Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Michael5000's Guide to Awesome Science Fiction, Part III

Sprawling Fantasy Epics

"But wait," the dorkier among you are even now saying, "this series is supposed to be about Science Fiction! Why are we talking about Fantasy?" To which I say, eh, it's a blurry line, there are a lot of mutual fans, and as genres I consider them very similar in terms of their strengths, liabilities, and standards of excellence. Although really, it might just boil down to the fact that they were shelved together back in the Hometown5000 Public Library and so are indelibly fused in my mind.

Why sprawling epics? Well, that just seems to be the way that the fantasy genre works. I think that writers who have lovingly imagined a whole world and its social, political, and supernatural setting are apt to want to continue working in and exploring that context. Readers too, having invested in imagining a world-system, are likely to want to learn more about its implications. Massive bloated corporate publishing juggernauts, in their turn, are pleased as punch to be able to cultivate an established brand. Everybody wins, and there's no need to invoke the genre's roots in and enduring connections to the saga forms of the premodern peoples of Northern Europe. Although, you can if you want to.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings -- Well, duh. Tolkien can fairly be said to have kicked off an entire genre of fiction, not to mention having deeply informed the evolution of role-playing games, computer gaming, and heavy metal music. It is equally fair to say that most minor-league fantasy fiction written before the year 2000 was more or less directly derivative of Tolkien's world-making. And, like many people and I expect most of my gentle readers, I love these books very dearly. One of the few books I have read more than twice, I have in fact read this series something like nine times.

The action of The Lord of the Rings is set within a massive historical, geographical, and linguistic setting that one can not help but admire even as its sheer scale makes you wonder if Professor Tolkien did not perhaps have a few screws loose. While this is a strength, I think it must also be said that odd intrusions of this ponderous backstory, often in the form of tedious faux folk-poems, are the most obvious flaw of the trilogy. (The second most obvious is the sudden save-the-day manifestation of an army of the dead, which is not at all well integrated into the rest of the story.) Some critics also fault Tolkien's narrative voice as being dry and wooden, but I do not agree with this; I feel that he successfully sustains a dignified heroism that integrates beautifully with the texture of his imagined world.

George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice & Fire -- The Ice & Fire books are still being written -- indeed, I have no confidence that they will ever be finished -- and yet they are already a masterful achievement. They are to contemporary fantasy what Lord of the Rings was to late 20th Century fantasy, the touchstone that all other efforts must react to and be measured against. Heavy on the swords, light on the sorcery, the Ice & Fire books are about politics and power and the role of the individual in history. In exploring these issues on a human scale, they are magnificent. They are also vividly and richly written in a way that compells a reader forward through their hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Which brings me to this observation: the reason why Ice & Fire has supplanted Lord of the Rings as the dominant paradigm in fantasy fiction is that -- painful as this may be to those of us who have Tolkien enmeshed in our hearts and in our bones -- it is better. Martin's world is a more fully realized ecology, his characters have more recognizable psychologies, and his understanding of how history works is far more sophisticated.

Summary is futile. The plot deals with the many contests for power, great and small, within the fuedal kingdom of Westeros. There is much violence and many surprises, and a kind of harsh fantasy realism -- don't get too sentimental, as some apparently key characters aren't even going to survive the first book. On a personal scale, all of the many, many characters are fully realized, complex, believeable people. On a world scale, the history of Westeros has an immediate plausibility to anyone who has looked at medieval European history. The only real issue with Ice & Fire is its sheer bulk; Martin is certainly making a handsome living off of his creation, and good for him, but I sometimes fear that the sheer vastness of its creation will overwhelm its long-term popularity.

Ursula LeGuin, The Earthsea Trilogy -- A fantasy trilogy for adolescents, Earthsea is a tale of an orphaned boy who is discovered to be a wizard and sent to a special school to develop his talents. There, he has to deal with the politics of his school peers before -- What?!? Did you think J.K. Rowling invented the adolescent fantasy novel? LeGuin was crafting Earthsea while Rowling was still in her diapers. Literally.

Earthsea is -- how can I put this? -- I much more mature sort of fantasy for adolescents than is Harry Potter. It's in a darker register, in a more dignified tone and a sparer and more elegant language than Rowling uses or likely could use -- LeGuin is a powerful writer even in her juvenile fiction. The daughter of a leading anthropologist, LeGuin ties her work always to the mythologies, folklore, and archetypes of premodern real-world cultures. Where a key strength of the Potter books is perhaps their setting more or less in the real world, Earthsea is thoroughly Elsewhere, an archipelago land of quasi-Celtic earthiness and quasi-Norse pessimism. It is not an especially merry place, but it is beautifully evoked and an enriching place to visit.

What about Harry? Well, I've only read fragments. It's the next item up on the Reading List, though, so I'll be sharing my no-doubt crankish opinions with you soon enough.

Stephen Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever -- This series is also on the Reading List; I read it twice as a kid and once in graduate school, but not in the last fifteen years. It stands out in my reading memory, though, as an exceptionally alternative assay into the genre. Thomas Covenant isn't a sparkly-eyed child drawn into a happy wonderland, nor a quaintly virtuous hobbit drawn unwittingly but with pluck and spunk into events beyond his understanding. He is a disagreeable, disfigured grown man -- and an asshole, not to put too fine a point on it -- who is taken unwillingly into an parallel universe where he is asked to be an epic hero for a civilization under immediate threat from the forces of evil and chaos (who are led by the rather bluntly named "Lord Foul").

What I remember from my earlier readings is that the first trilogy took this unlikely concept and ran with it pretty brilliantly. Sometime in the next few years, we'll see if that still holds. My memory is also that Donaldson wrote a bunch of subsequent trilogies, and that they were decreasingly interesting. We'll see about that if the first series still works for me.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Seventh Seal"

The Seventh Seal
Ingmar Bergman, 1957

Man oh man, I really didn't want to watch this movie. After suffering through the pretentious twaddle of Bergman's Persona, it seemed like things could only get worse in a metaphysical drama where a guy sits on the beach playing chess with death. I dreaded this movie. I put off watching it for weeks.

But as it turns out, The Seventh Seal is awesome.

Despite its setting in the horrors of the Black Death, despite a heavy theme -- human striving after an absent or invisible God -- and despite an ending that would normal render it a tragedy, The Seventh Seal has -- believe it or not -- a certain lightness of heart and touch. It is, against all my expectations, funny. The characters, although realistically enough numbed by the terrifying events that surround them, are decent, intelligent people who make the most of the life that remains that remains to them. It's kind of inspiring, that way.

Plot: An exhausted knight and his sardonic squire return from the Crusades to their native Sweden, which is being ravaged by Plague. Death comes to claim the knight, but he postpones the event by challenging Death to a game of chess.

The chess game, though, is just a framing device. The bulk of the movie recounts the wanderings of the knight and squire, of a small troupe of minstrals, and of a few villagers that they encounter over the next few days. The Plague has emptied farms and villages and wrecked social order, and the characters encounter abandoned churches and settlements, thieves, and a general population and a military class that is on the edge of hysteria. We see brutal abuse heaped on a stranger in an inn, a procession of religious flagellents, and a teenaged girl quite mad with fear as she is prepared for being burned alive. All of this unfolds in a memorable series of episodes as the knight makes his way home toward his castle.

The Seventh Seal is one of those movies where you can recognize visual ideas that have been used and adapted for use in dozens of films since. (As an obvious example, having watched Seal now gives me a deeper understanding of a much different but arguably important movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) But the Seventh Seal is also classic in the sense of being deeply rooted in literature. It gestures backwards toward Shakespeare and Don Quixote and The Decameron, even as its protagonist wrestles with the existential theological puzzles that obsessed intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s.

Visuals: Well filmed and framed in black and white, with a very convincing depiction of everyday life in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The casting and acting is perfect to such an extent that the stars and extras alike feel completely natural, as if they were just people living their lives rather than characters enacting a drama. (Although, this is obviously more tricky with the character of Death.) Occasional purely symbolic images are thrown in here and there, but with sufficient restraint that they enhance rather than distract from the film's impact.

Dialog: In Swedish, with subtitles that clearly simplified things by rendering only 80% or so of what was said. This was irritating, but not the movie's fault.

The philosophical themes are carried in surprisingly direct and believeable language, and characters express well-rounded personalities through their conversations. The squire, a smart man who has seen the Crusades and come back deeply skeptical (reasonably enough), has most of the funniest lines, and there is some slapstick humor built around the character of a dimwitted blacksmith, but even the more serious characters have moments of quiet wit.

Prognosis: I am amazed to find myself proclaiming that this Great Movie is indeed a great movie. A must for fans of European film or medievil history. If you have any tolerance at all for films that don't have the breakneck pacing and sleek production of modern Hollywood features, The Seventh Seal is worth giving a chance.

Next Week: The Seven Samurais

The Monday Quiz LXVIII

Name That Theme!
This time, though, the theme is pretty damn obscure. If anybody gets it, I'll be dazzled. Dazzled!

1. What very famous athlete is shown here in his youth?

2. What noted actor is shown here in his youth?

3. Who is this leading figure in... in... well, American letters, I suppose you could say?

4. Why, it's the legendary entertainer _______________!

5. Who is this "Rough and Ready" gentleman?

Submit your answers, and your best guess at the theme, in the comments.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ribbing Mondrian

This is a post that I wrote for my quilt blog a few weeks ago. But it might have a general dork appeal for those who, for whatever strange reason, are not interested in quilts.

Synchronicity, part 1

So last summer Mrs.5000 found this big box of scrap corduroy for a buck at a garage sale and hefted it home a good mile or something so she could give it to me for my birthday. Mrs.5000 understands me.

Meanwhile, in 1921, Piet Mondrian painted one of his famous grids of rectangles and primary colors. (Neoplasticism, I think the genre is called. The de Stijl movement! i iz likes art history.) This particular one is usually called Composition in Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black.

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

And so eventually the idea of "What shall I do with the corduroy?" rattling around in my head ran up hard against the idea of "you know, of all the painting genres, the de Stijl stuff is the one that would be most susceptable to a treatment in quilt form." From that collision was born a Bee in my Bonnet, which involved compulsive internet searches for the simpler of Mondrian's work and an appraising sifting of my corduroy trove.

Once I found Composition, I transferred its grid onto graph paper, made some very rough color equivalences, and started cutting. And when I say "rough" color equivalences, I mean a not-as-light-as-it-could be grey for white, burgandy for red, golden tan for yellow, and a dark, greenish blue for blue.

Nevertheless, I am very happy with my little "Mondrian Quilt" face. Indeed, I bet its one of the best adaptations of Mondrian in scrap corduroy to have been achieved on the West Coast this year! (Libby, commenting on the quilt blog, was so kind as to say she thought it would be in the top five corduroy Mondrian adaptations nationwide this year. I am happy to take her word for it.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The michael5000 Kitchen #7: "Marvelous Minestrone"

Provenance: This recipe is printed on a half-page handout from the Lawrence, Kansas Community Mercantile natural foods co-op. The Mississippi Street address indicates that I picked it up sometime between about 1993, when it moved to that location, and 1997, when I (by that time living some 90 miles away) stopped shopping there. I do not recall ever using the recipe, which is elaborate enough that I probably would remember, nor are there any significant stains or other signs of use on it. I am a little puzzled by a small happy face in what looks like my own penmanship on the recipe card. What might that indicate? That I actually DID make the recipe and liked the results? That I thought it looked tasty, but never got around to making it? Or was there some other motivation to draw a smiley face, now lost in the mists of time? We’ll never know.

The Recipe:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 – 6 cloves minced or pressed Garlic [I used 5]
1 large Onion, chopped
2 medium Carrots, chopped
4 – 5 stalks Celery, chopped [I used 5]
2 Tablespoons fresh chopped Parley
1 Tablespoon dried Basil
2 teaspoons dried Oregano
1½ teaspoons Black Pepper
1½ teaspoons Salt (or to taste)
3½ Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar
2 Tablespoons “Sweetener of Your Choice.”
5 – 7 cups “Water or Stock”
4 medium-sized Tomatos
1½ cup Green Beans, cut to 1” lengths
2 cups cooked Navy Beans
6 – 8 ounces Pasta

Heat Olive Oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. In it, sauté the Garlic, Onions, Carrots, Celery, Parsley, Basil, and Oregano for several minutes. Add Pepper, Salt, Vinegar, Sweetener, Water or Stock, Tomatoes, and Green Beans, and simmer over low heat until vegetables are tender but not falling apart. Add the beans and cooked pasta and heat through. Serve with grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese.

The Results:

This is a recipe that contains within itself a certain latitude of interpretation, which I suppose is appropriate for a traditional dish like minestrone. For some of the simpler choices, I used 5 cloves of garlic, 5 stalks celery, and 8 ounces of pasta, the latter concept (i.e. measuring an ingredient by weight) requiring the purchase of my first ever kitchen scale (I picked up a new set of measuring spoons too, while I was at it). For the “Sweetener of My Choice” -- did I mention this recipe came from a natural foods store? -- I used White Sugar, the traditional sweetener of my people.

The 5 – 7 cups of “Water or Stock” presents a vast range of possibilities. I used a carton of Trader Joe’s Vegetable Broth, which turned out to be four cups, plus a cup of Water, plus a cup of Red Wine, which an asterisk suggested as a stand-in for one cup of Water or Broth. That brought me to six cups of liquid which, with 8 ounces of pasta, made for rather too little broth in the mix. I believe I’ll try for 7 cups of liquid and 7 ounces of pasta on the next go around.

Despite the long list of ingredients, the recipe posed no special problems once I bought the scale. I do always groan, though, at recipes that call for a quantity of “cooked beans.” I have no idea how much the various beans swell when cooked, so I will always end up (as now) with the amount that actually ends up in the recipe, plus a huge surplus of boiled beans in the fridge, plus another surplus of dried beans that I overbought, always thinking for some reason that a cup is much bigger than it actually is.

Oh, how did it taste? Pretty good! It had, Mrs.5000 noted, a bit of a “bite,” but I think that is due to me accidentally putting in 2 Tablespoons rather than teaspoons of Oregano. By the time we were done with the stuff, we were calling it "Oregano With Vegetables." Must learn to be more attentive to recipe measurements.

It is worth mentioning, too, that this is probably one of the healthier recipes in my files. It is probably better for you, for example, than the Better Than Robert Redford dessert. It can now join the salsa at El Burrito Loco on 82nd Avenue as a food that I can use to sneak that most vile of fruits, the tomato, into my diet. I can’t believe I actually purchased and cooked with four of those things, but you know me – anything for a project.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXVII

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!

Movies of Alfred Hitchcock

Which of the following IS or ISN'T among the films of the portly legend?

1. Anatomy of a Murder

2. The Apartment

3. Breakfast at Tiffany's

4. Charade

5. Lifeboat

6. North by Northwest

7. Notorious

8. Rope

9. Sabotage

10. Strangers on a Train

11. Touch of Evil

12. The Trouble with Harry

Submit your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Let's Talk About the Flag of Angola!

It has been a while since we had a post on that dorkiest of our core topics: flags. So I perked up the other day when I noticed that the Angolan dude with whom I am playing online chess was represented by an unfamiliar looking flag. I was naturally expecting the familiar old Angolan flag that we all know and love.

This banner, you'd have to admit, embodies some of the core flaggy virtues. It is graphically simple and direct yet highly distinctive. It is immediately recognizable, and visually arresting. But it turns out that there are people, including possibly some actual Angolans, who have some reservations about this flag. Their criticisms are at least three.

1) The sickle and hammer concept is a little out of fashion.

2) Using a machete as your national symbol in an African republic could be construed as kind of, um, insensitive.

3) Perhaps most importantly, the flag descends directly from the banner of the largest of the colonial-era resistance movements in Angola, which subsequently became the dominant political party. Thus it is perhaps not the best symbol for a nation giving multi-party democracy the old college try.

A suggested alternative, and the flag that is being used by chess.com, is this:

The design in the middle is apparently derived from some famous Angolan prehistoric cave paintings, thus representing a tie to the ancient past.

It seems that chess.com is jumping the gun somewhat, though. I checked out the website of the Angolan Embassy to the United States, and there is no reference to this new banner to be found. In fact, I'd have to say that the embassy is still rocking the old flag's symbolism mighty hard.

There is, unsurprisingly, precious little media coverage of this issue to be found. The best I can do is off the Wiki, which sayeth:

Many Angolans dislike the flag proposal because they feel it has no real meaning, as opposed to the current flag which clearly has historical associations. Others are of the opinion that the proposed flag cannot be seen as uniquely Angolan because it resembles other national flags including the flags of Costa Rica and North Korea.
What do YOU think, gentle readers? Allowing that the final decision is, of course, nobody's business but the Angolans'. But what should be the L&TM5K Community's amicus brief on the matter?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Great Movies: "Nosferatu"

F.W. Murnau, 1921

Well, here we are again in the age of the silents. Nosferatu, the granddaddy of the horror genre, is among the oldest of the Great Movies, and looks it. Whether from the limitations inherent during film or through decay over time, the film itself is brittle-looking and riddled with flaws and jerks. It's only seven years older than The Passion of Joan of Arc, for instance, but it looks like it comes from another time. This antique quality lends it a certain charm, however, and makes it easier to appreciate without adverse comparisons with the technical slickness of modern films.

On its own terms, Nosferatu is a special-effects spectacular. Almost all of the actual special effects would look ridiculously crude in a movie today, but its use of stop-motion, fast-forward motion, colored filters, moving cameras, and photonegative must have dazzled the watchers back in the day. The stagecraft, moreover -- the use of good old fashioned makeup, costuming, and sets -- would be masterful in any era.

Some of the most vivid shots, such as the famous shadow of the vampire climbing the stairs toward his victim, probably made the original viewers leap out of their chairs. Some of the subtler shots are even more effective, though. Near the end there is a view that encompasses an entire bedroom; a victim lies on the bed, with the vampire's head just barely visible, quietly feeding at her neck. The animal compulsion suggested by this quick scene is far creepier than the beast-attacking-the-terrified-maiden sequence that precedes it.

Plot: A young assistant realtor travels to Transylvania, where a client has expressed interest in buying a second home in his little German town. The client proves difficult to work with. There is some business about plague and, of course, quite a bit of business about vampirism. The connection between the two is never really made clear, but I suppose that's niggling.

Visuals: Oops, I already talked about the visuals above. One thing I didn't mention, though, is Murnau's terrific use of settings. From mountain scenery, to the Count's castle, to the streetscapes of the charming little town, the action is always compellingly framed in interesting scenery.

Dialog: n/a. Fairly heavy use of dialog title cards. Murnau also uses shots of books and other documents to convey plot information.

Prognosis: Although not quite as artistically sophisticated as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Nosferatu is an immaculately crafted film. Despite its age, it may retain some campy entertainment value for horror fans or vampire buffs. Those on the History of Film Grand Tour are likely to find it one of the most enjoyable of the silent-era stops.

The Monday Quiz LXVII

Famous Rivers

1. Flowing through one of the great world capitals, it's the _______.

2. Highlighted in yellow is the _______ River.

3. Separating the old towns of Buda and Pest, it's the _________.

4. Highlighted in blue, it's the _________ River.

5. Plunging from a plain down into a narrow chasm over the mighty Victoria Falls, it's the __________ River.

Submit your answers in the comments.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday: 3.22.09

11:05 p.m. And another weekend staggers to its end. Goodnight, gentle readers! See ya tomorrow!

10:58 p.m. Flouride rinse....

10:40 p.m. ....and the Quiz is ready to go. Mrs.5000 says "Tell the world I say goodnight." I'm ready to brush my teeth myself.

10:32 p.m. OK, I've come up with the pictures....

10:06 p.m. Finished movie. Finished fabric sorting. Was reminded by Mrs.5000 that it is Garbage Night, and we broke into our immaculately choreographed Garbage Night ritual. The neighbor's band was playing a cover of "Cruel to Be Kind," which was fun to sing along to.

And now, once again I must face the terrible terrible fact: I got no Quiz! And Monday just hours away!

9:24 p.m. Turns out "Singin' in the Rain" is actually fairly entertaining...

7:50 p.m. Evening has set in with a series of unremarkable tasks. Mrs.5000 and I have coordinated our calendars for the next couple of weeks. She has chosen Tuesday as the day I will take her on a "mystery date." I'm chatting with MyDogIsChelsea, who is bummed because she needs hardware and the hardware store is closed. (A skeptic of my choice to liveblog Sunday, she is now allowing that this post is "actually pretty entertaining." She is a generous soul.) And the last glimmers of sunset fade over the City of Roses.

Over the course of the day, I've continued to wash and dry a small mountain of old blankets and fleeces I bought in bulk at "The Bins" for use as quilt batting (stuffing, for you non-quilter types). Now a vast mountain of shabby fabric looms over the room. So I think, as a capper to this weekend excitement, that I'll watch the next Great Movie in the queue -- it's going to be "Singin' in the Rain," looks like -- and get this crap pressed and folded.

7:21 p.m. Kitchen finally restored to order. Time to put together the Monday Quiz. I usually have the Quizzes ready a few weeks in advance to avoid this kind of situation, but not this week...

6:45 p.m. Mrs.5000: Well, I'm going back to work in the basement.

michael5000: You're just going to leave me to clean up the kitchen all by myself? What kind of monster are you?!?

Mrs.5000: I'll try that on you next time.

michael5000: Hmm. It won't work.

Mrs.5000: Well, it isn't working this time either.

6:16 p.m. Have successfully done battle with the airlines. We're heading to Colorado at the end of June. Meanwhile: dinner.

5:43 p.m. I'm on hold with an airline, which feels TOTALLY old school. Like, pre-1997. But we've got this 2-for-1 thing that I don't know how to access from the web site. Really bad lite jazz.

The bread was awesome, though.

5:22 p.m. Found Mrs.5000 and got settled, but then she called her parents and wandered off. Caliban the cat came and laid down on me, which was pleasant. Typed up some recipes. Now, the timer has gone off, and the bread should be ready. Haven't eaten much since the long breakfast, so I'm excited about this.

4:40 p.m. Several rounds of chess later, I've dried off. Still some time before dinner -- I suppose I'll find where Mrs.5000 is and write up some of the day's cullinary exploits on the laptop.

4:24 p.m. Back. Three laps around Laurelhurst Park to get the blood moving. Spring is a-bustin' out all over out there, even on a grim day like today. Lots of pink and yellow blossoms everywhere. S'nice.

3:47 p.m. I've stretched, I've made a few moves in chess games, and now I'm ready to run. Once I find a hat. Oh, and shoes.

3:28 p.m. The oven is off, there's a load of dishes in the dishwasher, and I've starting typing up some "michael5000 Kitchen" entries. Have been listening to the classical station, and [very specific in-joke] have realized that Edmund Stone reminds me of Toby. [/in-joke] Now, it's finally time to go running. It looks like my timing has been good, as it's no longer hailing, not even raining really, and the temperature has soared into the high forties.

2:34 p.m. The granola is done, the soup is done, the lasagna is in the oven, the bread is in the bread machine, and I'm sweating like an ox. I hate cooking for a single meal, but I love the big production of cooking a lot of things at once.

The kitchen looks like a tornado hit, so now I suppose I ought to clean it.

1:08 p.m. E.G.G. 2.0 is in the oven, and enough of the alcoholic beverage to intoxicate and fatten a platoon has been blended up. Now, on to the soup. Mrs.5000 has made a couple of remarks about my "manly stomping about from one ingrediant to the next." I think she's making fun of me.

Occurs to me that I had intended to get the Monday Quiz set up back at the coffee shop. Damn.

12:42 p.m. And, we're off and running with Ex-Girlfriend's Granola 2.0. The hail has stopped. A slight touch of panic that I'm not going to get everything I hoped to do this weekend done has begun to set in, but this is an expected part of Sunday afternoon and arriving quite on schedule.

12:17 p.m. As the relentless hand of time drags us into Sunday afternoon, I've returned home. I haven't mentioned before, but it is damp, cloudy, and kind of miserable today -- barely over 40 F, when it was 60 F and sunny yesterday afternoon. Spring is a harsh mistress.

Vida demanded a photo, so here I am as a was a few minutes ago:

Note: Haircut, public Bible, chess.com, remains of pomegranite-blueberry smoothie.

As I was posting that picture, it began to hail briskly. My run later today should be all kinds of fun.

But that's for later! For now, it is going to be one of those Sunday afternoons when I do the michael5000 kitchen! That means I can skip lunch and nibble as I go. Today we're doing a soup, a bread, and an alcoholic beverage (!), as well as revisiting the "Ex-Girlfriend Granola" recipe. Might also do a lasagna, but no promises.

11:56 a.m. And another boring Michael Reads the Bible post is in the can! Time for a few quick chess moves, and then home to the castle.

11:23 a.m. Done reading. Now I'm about halfway through writing up the MRtB post.

11:00 a.m. Geez, the Book of Job is so turgid...

10:46 a.m. Well, that's probably enough depressing chess for one morning. Now, time for my weekly Bible-reading session. I used to be really self-conscious about doing my Bible reading in public places because, gosh, what if someone thought I was religious or something. I've since realized that a) there's no reason to think anyone is paying attention to me; b) there's no reason to think anyone who noticed me would care whether I was religious; and c) so what if they did?

10:10 a.m. God, my chess games are depressing. It seems like in the three months I've been playing a lot, I've just been getting worse and worse. My rating corroborates this.

9:37 a.m. OK, fully dressed and at the coffeeshop. The coffeeshop is just a few hundred feet from Castle5000; I've come here fairly often since they opened a few years ago, and a LOT since I got Bruno the Laptop, who can take advantage of the wi-fi. Ostensibly, I come here to "write," but spend at least as much time chatting and playing online chess. By socializing and playing chess in a coffeeshop, I join in a tradition going back at least as far as the glory years of the Ottoman Empire. That I am not interacting with the other people present with me in the physical space of the coffeeshop is neither here nor there.

I had a very light breakfast, so I am supplementing it now with the pomegranite-blueberry smoothy, for the antioxidants, and the coffeecake, because it looks yummy.

9:01 a.m. Got the laundry going and had breakfast -- just a little granola. Then, found myself reading an article in the New Yorker, and had to finish that. Contemplating getting dressed now.

8:24 a.m. I haven't moved. After the last update, I was messaged by Serendipity, and then there was chatting, and then I was messaged by Heatherbee, and then there was some concern about updating my profile picture to something more post-beard. Meanwhile, Mrs.5000 has woken up, so Sunday is really in full swing now! Better go get breakfast.

8:01 a.m. OK, up for good now. Didn't feel great yesterday afternoon, so I was in bed early and am up kind of late, for me.

So: Sunday! Let's see. I collected quite a bit of scrap fabric yesterday -- free boxes and "The Bins" -- so I better get some more of that in the washing machine. Then, I'll figure out something for breakfast.

5:40 a.m. Up briefly to pee. Back to bed.

I'm still asleep.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

michael5000 has a close shave!

I started the day Friday in the fullness of beard. [photo credit: my co-worker Mo]

Then I went to my uncle's barbershop.

"Make me look like I live in the suburbs," I said.

He went to work.

Now I'm clean-cut.

michael5000's hair by Gary's Barber Shop, 2308 SE Division. $9 a whack.

(cf. last year's beard-shaving experience)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The michael5000 Kitchen #6: Ex-Girlfriend’s Granola

Provenance: This recipe is written on a postcard dated 27 September, 1991, addressed (with my name spelled incorrectly) to my first apartment in Lawrence, Kansas, where I went to graduate school. It is from my girlfriend of the time, of whom perhaps the less said the better. I used the recipe a lot that year and occasionally for a few years afterwards; this was my first go at it for at least a dozen years.

The Recipe: is quite wordy. Here goes:

A TUB O’OATS, largish, uncooked.
1 – 2 cups Wheat Germ
1 – 2 cups Sunflower Seeds
1 – 2 cups Nuts
2 – 3 Tablespoons Cinnamon


¾ cups Oil
¾ - 1 cup Honey
1 stick Butter
¼ cups Maple Syrup
1 Tablespoon Vanilla
2 Tablespoons Water


The oven goes on 300. Make efficient use of the first wafts of heat by melting the goo in the bottom of a wide, sided cake pan. Stir the essentials into it until evenly coated and pop in the oven for about 90 minutes, taking it out several times to stir so that everybody’s evenly toasted. [She then goes on for quite a while about different variations and options, none of which I believe I ever tried.]

The Results:

Careful readers will have noted the ambiguity of the phrase “A TUB O’OATS.” I must have known what this meant at one time, but I don’t now. Taking a stab in the dark, I used a standard 42-ounce tube-shaped container of Oats, the kind you often see a jolly-looking religious dissenter portrayed on, but this turned out to be I think rather too many Oats. Using the largest cake pan in all of Castle5000, considerably larger than anything I would have owned in graduate school, it was still only possible to bake the ensemble by making a little mountain in the middle of the pan. Attempts to “stir so that everybody’s evenly toasted” resulted in numerous avalanches, which in turn led to pointed little remarks from Mrs.5000 about much she treasures a clean stovetop.

But how does it taste? Familiar, for one thing. Like the "chili" recipe, this tastes like the first year of graduate school. And, it's not half bad. Quite rich, though – you wouldn’t want to eat more than a small bowl of this unless you were about to climb up a glacier or something. Also, it’s quite…. um…. oaty. If I continue to experiment with this recipe, a key area of focus will be trying to figure out what the hell the ex-girlfriend meant by “A TUB O’OATS.”


An new version of the hummus recipe, extensively revised according to reader suggestions, has proven quite satisfactory. I call it Hummus 2.0, and it is available at the bottom of the hummus post.

Also, I was delighted to hear that Kadonkadonk gave last week's Better Than Robert Redford dessert a try, and not at all surprised to hear also that she made herself a little sick with it. The Better Than Robert Redford dessert is not to be trifled with.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXVI

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!

Abraham Lincoln!

Twelve statements about the great President of the United States. But which of them IS true, and which ones ISN'T -- and are, in fact, just so much poppycock5000?

1. Lincoln really was born in a one-room Kentucky log cabin.

2. After failing at several business ventures, including selling whiskey, Lincoln found a cheap second-hand set of law books and used them to train himself as an attorney.

3. As a first-term U.S. Representative, Lincoln was a vocal opponent of the Mexican War. This position was so unpopular that it not only made it impossible for him to run for re-election, but temporarily ended his political career.

4. President Taylor offered Lincoln the governorship of the Oregon Territory. Rather than accept a post in such a remote backwater, however, Lincoln chose to return to his private law practice in Illinois.

5. In Lincoln's most important legal case, Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company, he was able to establish the legality of bridges, which boat and barge companies had disputed in some cases as "hazards to navigation."

6. Though healthy and vigorous throughout his life, Lincoln was at 68 the oldest man to have assumed the Presidency up to that time.

7. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln was actually fairly popular in the South. Out of 996 counties in the southern states, Lincoln won a majority of the vote in a respectable 360.

8. The Southern states succeeded to form the Confederacy after Lincoln's first year in office, in a protest of his vigorous efforts to restrict the practice of slavery.

9. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, one of the most important speeches in American history, was discovered in the 1990s to have been cribbed in large part from a soliloquy by the obscure British playwright John Fletcher.

10. Lincoln insisted on being directly involved with Union strategy during the Civil War, despite his lack of real military training. However, he is generally considered to have performed as well or better than most of his generals in this regard.

11. Lincoln's three terms of office make him the only President other than Franklin Roosevelt to have served more than two terms in the Oval Office.

12. Abraham Lincoln had four children, but only one of them survived into adulthood.

Submit your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wednesday Drivel


I put it in red letters in the sidebar, so am sure you are all excited about the upcoming blog event coming March 22, 2009, when:

michael5000 LiveBlogs Sunday!!!

That's right! Liveblogging, heretofore limited to athletic events, presidential elections, and the like, finally comes home to real life! From Castle5000 and its environs, I'll be giving comprehensive all-day coverage of the back half of the weekend! This will be a fully interactive experience, with readers free to ask questions, make suggestions, or discuss their own experience of Sunday!! It's sure to be the media event of the weekend! For me.


m5K x 24 hrs

Be there and/or be square.


You know how sometimes you see something really quickly out of the corner of your eye, and you get it all wrong? Sure you do.

Well, I was wrestling with the even crappier new Facebook interface earlier this week, and I caught what I thought was a truly remarkable advertisement over on the right side of the screen. Hitting the back button, I discovered that this is what I had REALLY seen:

But what I had THOUGHT I had seen, as you might have already guessed, was this:

With apologies to the organization in question, I can't help but think the ad generated by my subconscious is a bit more.... provocative.

And Thirdly:

Mrs.5000 and I made up a tongue twister! It's fun to say out loud! Try saying it twenty times quickly. Also, drunk.

OK, that's enough out of me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Great Movies: "Some Like It Hot"

Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder, 1959

The trope of people dressing up as members of the opposite sex has been a staple of comedy for as long as there has been comedy. Shakespeare got a lot of good yucks with it. There was that Bosom Buddies sitcom. And indeed, they are still churn out crossdress-to-fit-in movies at least every couple of years.

I am willing to stipulate that the Billy Wilder film towers like a mighty colossus over the genre. It has some memorable scenes, some strong money lines, and, most precious of all, occasional moments of pure strangeness. [case in point: can anyone explain for me why the tango band is blindfolded?] It is well-paced, well-cast, and genially preposterous. So if I'm just generally unentertained by the premise -- Dude's wearing a dress!!! -- surely it is my own loss. It was good enough for Shakespeare, so I don't know what my problem is.

Some Like It Hot is a 1959 movie set during Prohibition, and since Wilder does not fret overly about period veracity the movie is an interesting visual stew of 1950s with 1920s trappings. Even though this is a screwball sex comedy, moreover, the uptightness of the 50s is always in evidence; if a film like this could have actually been made during the 20s, it likely would have been a fair sight racier.

Plot: After their usual gig is shut down by a police raid, two jazz musicians witness the execution-style killing of seven or eight mobsters (a scene which, call me crazy, I felt interrupted the comic mood somewhat). Subsequently, they must get the heck out of Chicago. Needing to be as unobtrusive and inconspicuous as possible, they naturally decide to join an all-girl band. Complications ensue as they wrestle with the obvious conundrum: how are they going to get laid without compromising their new female identities?

Visuals: Billy Wilder's touch is apparent in consistently good handling of scenes that require comic timing and juxtaposition. The cinematography is most notable, though, for its careful, loving attention to Marilyn Monroe's breasts. In all of her scenes, even when she is but one person in a crowd, Monroe's two "chests" (to use the film's own euphemism) are set out in dramatic relief. When she is seen performing as a nightclub singer, for instance, she is filmed from across the room yet with both chests lit in radiant chiaroscuro. Achieving this effect must have involved the concerted effort of a great many people, requiring skillful lighting, an expert wardrobe team, precisely placed cameras, impeccable direction, and of course the talents of Ms. Monroe herself. She is, incidentally, fairly charming in her role as the ditzy lust object.

Dialogue: Variable. Dumb jokes mix with middle-grade stand-up material, with occasional truly quirky gags thrown in for good measure. Jack Lemmon could really deliver a comic line, and often does here. Marilyn Monroe is a better actress than I expected, bringing a fine goofiness to her role as the dim sex kitten. Boop-boop-ba-doop.

Prognosis: This 1950s screwball comedy will undoubtedly appeal to fans of 1950s screwball comedies!

Next Week: Nosferatu!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Monday Quiz LXVI

Art of the Seventeenth Century

Many of you will perhaps find this one especially brutal. You've got seven chances to make five. For full marks, identify the painter (e.g. "Leonardo da Vinci") , or the title and the country ("It's the Mona Lisa, by one of those Italian guys.") Half marks for the right title without the right painter ("The Mona Lisa"). Half marks for the country and genre (It's a portrait by one of those Italian guys").
It has been a while since our star Art History dorks Becky and g have been around, so with any luck you'll be as in the dark as everyone else. Courage!








Paint your answers in the comments.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The michael5000 Kitchen #5: “Better Than Robert Redford”

Provenance: This recipe comes from and is in the handwriting of frequent L&TM5K commenter DrSchnell, who in turn got it (if memory serves) from an aunt who didn’t like to talk about her “Better Than Sex” recipe in front of the kids. DrSchnell likely gave me the recipe sometime during our mutual residence in Lawrence, Kansas, between 1993 and 1996.

I don’t recall if I was ever served this dish by DrSchnell. I attempted to make the dessert myself sometime last year, but made two very critical errors – trying to substitute almonds for peanuts, and accidentally buying one instant and one non-instant pack of pudding – and ended up with a sticky, barely edible mess. This time I paid closer attention.

The Recipe:

2/3 cup Chopped Peanuts
1 cup Flour
1 stick Butter
Mix these and press into a 9” x 13” baking pan. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes. Cool.

8 ounces Cream Cheese
1/3 cup Peanut Butter
1 cup Powdered Sugar
Mix these together until smooth. Then mix in 1 cup Cool Whip. Spread mixture on cooled crust layer. Chill.

1 small package (3.9 ounce) Instant Chocolate Pudding
1 small package (3.9 ounce) Instant Vanilla Pudding
2 ¾ cup Milk
Beat two minutes. Spread mixture on top of Cream Cheese Layer, then cover with remaining Cool Whip from a 8 – 9 ounce package.

Sprinkle with another 1/3 cup Chopped Peanuts and 2 ounces Chocolate Shavings (which you can grate from a standard Hershey Bar.

Chill. Eat. Get Fat.

The Results:

Oh. My. God. This really is ridiculously more brute-force delicious than anything has any right to be. I found that it was best not to concentrate on anything else but the very small bites that you put into your mouth; this dish would be wasted on a social occasion. I recommend very small portions, as large portions would probably kill you.

Don’t trust me? Here’s frequent L&TM5K commenter Vida, who lives near Castle5000 and got a big chunk delivered to her door:

It's an explosion of texture. First there's the nutty topping, and then there's a chocolately, soft layer. Then there's a nice complimentary layer underneath (not sure what this is made of) and then there is the scrumptious cookie crumbly layer on the bottom. All these layers really explode in the mouth. And then there is that nutty aftertaste…. I think it's really tasty.
Later, she added:

Vida: By the way, thank you for not putting any nutrition facts with this recipe. I don't even want to know how much fat this has.

Michael5000: Well, you know, you need a CERTAIN amount of fat in your diet just to stay alive....

Vida: Yes, and one piece of this would cover me for 50% of my life, assuming I live a long time.

Incidentally, I missed the part about covering the Pudding Layer with Cool Whip. I doubt it makes much difference in the taste, but the chocolate shavings and the mixed nuts sprinkled on top probably look a little better against the white background.

Would it change things much if you went with two packets of Vanilla Pudding? Two packets of Chocolate Pudding? I dunno. Ask DrSchnell’s aunt. It is, however, vitally important that they both be INSTANT pudding. Trust me on this.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXV

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!

Relatively Recent Books!

Which of the following (mostly) critically acclaimed modern novels IS correctly matched with its author? And which ISN'T?
1. A.S. Byatt, Possession

2. Michael D. Coyen, Large and Big and Wide and Tall

3. Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

4. Khaled Hosseini, The Remains of the Day

5. Kazuo Ishiguro, Atonement

6. Yann Martel, Life of Pi

7. Ian McEwan, Midnight’s Children

8. Marilynne Robinson, The Harry Potter series

9. Philip Roth, A Suitable Boy

10. Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

11. Salman Rushdie, The Plot Against America

12. Vikram Seth, The Kite Runner

Submit your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Inspector5000 and the Case of the Garrulous Girl

Michael5000 was waiting in line at the toy store. The woman standing in front of him, a well-to-do redhead in a stylish winter coat, had with her an unusually perky and outgoing curly-haired little girl. As the two of them approached the counter, the little girl spoke to the cashier in a loud voice, announcing “I am happy and relaxed!”

“Why, that’s great,” laughed the clerk, and began working with the mother. There were several questions about a purchase that the woman was contemplating, then some complications with a credit card machine that kept the clerk busy for a while. We waited. During this downtime, the perky little girl brightly scanned the counter area, looked at some of the small toys placed near the cash register as impulse items, and was generally quiet and well-behaved. She said nothing, in fact, until her mother turned to go. Then, as a sort of farewell, she announced to the clerk that “Now I feel happy and romantic!”

“Ah-ha!” thought michael5000. “I know what that little girl’s new toy is!”

What was the girl’s new toy?

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Great Movies: "Red River"

Red River
Howard Hawks, 1948

When I was around ten, I stayed with my oldest sister at college, and by way of evening entertainment she took me to a John Wayne movie being screened on campus. Watching Red River last night was only my second exposure to Mr. Wayne, so it is safe to say that I don't have a deep understanding of this American icon.

Apparently, Red River is one of the finest films to star Wayne, and the one in which he is thought to have best employed his acting skills. This gives me a profound sinking sensation when I consider the rest of his large corpus, which must therefore be worse than this piece of crap. For Red River is a straightforwardly bad genre movie, exactly the film I feared I would be watching when I saw My Darling Clementine a few weeks back. Wayne is a block of wood who, throughout the film, sounds like he's reading a script into a Dictaphone; a half hour toward the end of the film when he is largely absent from the action is far and away the least bad part.

I have read that there are people who think of John Wayne as a kind of American hero or saint, as an exemplar of the qualities of our great (or, at the very least, our very large) nation. It is disturbing, then, to see him here portraying a deeply evil character. Ebert, curiously, wants to see him as an ambiguous character, and to see that ambiguity as the interesting part of the movie. But no, there's really nothing ambiguous about it. The film begins with the Wayne character knowingly abandoning his friends and fiancé to danger, then watching impassively from a distance as they are all killed a few hours later, then stealing some land, then murdering a representative of the rightful owner in cold blood. And that's all in the first ten minutes.

Subsequent scenes show him stealing his neighbors' cattle, bullying them (the neighbors, not the cattle) into submission, attempting to murder an employee, successfully murdering three other employees, and finally attempting an execution-style murder of two more. He is admittedly also fond, albeit in a grotesquely dysfunctional fashion, of a young man he adopts early in the film, but the idea that this makes him morally "ambiguous" is frankly preposterous.

Plot: Some ranchers move cattle a long distance, overcoming difficulties along the way.

Visuals: Lots of pictures of ranchers doing their work. It struck me here, as it has before, that there is really nothing unusually interesting about the work of ranchers. You seldom see films with long montages of 19th Century farmers, office workers, or office laborers going about their tasks, but filmmakers often seem to think that maneuvering herd animals has inherent fascination. I don't get that.

Dialog: Although badly delivered by Wayne and by some of the supporting cast, the script is weirdly macho but no worse than your average genre movie. An exception is the dialog given to the film's one female character, whose lines boil down mostly to three soliloquies that are almost dumb enough to be fascinating, but not quite.

Prognosis: Don't touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Sunday, March 8, 2009