Monday, November 30, 2009

Remodeling Week: Already Finished

It's time to report back to real life, for the Castle5000 Home Improvement Week has reached an end. Did we spend a week of arduous labor, plus time off from work and a modest but significant sum of American Dollars, to good effect? You make the call.

I: The Shower

The shower tile has been sealed and, although you can't tell from the picture, a lot of work has gone into solving a series of problems with the plumbing fixtures (they'll go on when the caulk has cured). Lots of other details with edges between the tub and the walls have been dealt with too.

II: The SE Corner

Here you can see that we've added a strip of moulding at about the 7-foot point. We also did some minor retexturing of the walls and, not incidentally, have been doing some painting. We call the main wall color "Morocan Ice Cave Blue."

III: The Sink

You might feel that we overdid it with the purple, and admittedly it's a little dark in there at night for the time being. We think that once we have our large white towel shelves hanging again, as well as some wall art, that the effect will be considerably softened. Also, the new floor and baseboard trim (which we didn't get to) should lighten things a bit.

IV: The Door

We may have to take a little off the bottom of the door once the new floor is installed, so it hasn't been painted yet. It's waiting in the basement, scraped and sanded. The attic hatch is also down in the basement, with a fresh coat of paint drying on it.

V: Built-In Shelves

The shelves are almost ready to move into, but the cabinet door is also waiting for a fresh coat of paint to dry.

VI: The Floor

We didn't get to the floor.

VII: The Light Fixture

The pictures don't really make the improvement here clear. The new light is probably three times as bright as the old once, and its fan is whisper-quiet, whereas the old one roared like a helicoptor at lift-off. But nor do the photos indicate what a arduous process the replacement was. It required cutting not one but two large holes in the ceiling, and then of course repairing them. Just installing the new light took a full day that ended at 9 p.m. On the up side, it gave me the opportunity to correct an egregious venting error and a downright spooky wiring job committed by whomever the last person was to poke around in that ceiling.

In Conclusion

We're kind of tired now.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Reading List: "Jane Eyre"

Jane Eyre is not properly speaking even on the Reading List, but I was told that it would help with The Eyre Affair, which is, and besides it seemed like it was time to get this important and influential novel under my belt. I read a Random House printing from 1943, a pleasantly bulky and solid volume with two columns of text per page and moody, occasionally trippy full-page woodcut illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg.

It is a well-crafted and entertaining novel, and I daresay it must have seemed at the time like a quantum leap forward in pleasure reading. Its greatest strength is in the development of its title character, who is the book's narrator and protagonist. She is a solumn but quirky heroine, not a little uptight but also bracingly intelligent, diligent, and sassy. I suspect that Jane Eyre was also, by the standards of the day, an unusually independent and liberated female character. The use of the first person is intimate and beautifully pulled off; Brontë crafts a character-narrator who writes about herself in a way perfectly consistant with her reported thoughts and actions, and this adds a great deal of depth and verisimilitude to the book.

[mild spoilers from here on out]

Brontë also keeps us wondering how her story is going to end. Even having seen countless allusions to Jane Eyre over the course of my reading life, even knowing that I would eventually encounter the famous sentence "Reader, I married him," I was still left guessing until very close to the final page which way things would fall and who would be the lucky groom. Importantly, I found myself caring a great deal how the book would end, which is always a sign that the author has done well.

There is, to be sure, quite a bit about Jane Eyre that seems a little corny today. Who knows, maybe it seemed a little corny at the time as well. There's a Great Big Coincidence, there's an Unexpected Revelation Involving Money, and there's a little cosmic magic towards the end that makes the eyes roll a bit. But eh, that's the Nineteenth Century for you. (To be specific, it's the middle Nineteenth Century; part of the historical interest of the book is its portrayal, from a vantage a decade or so later, of the profound isolation possible in the last years before rail travel radically shrank the world, and of the epic journeys still undertaken then to traverse just a few dozen miles.)

Too, I found the overall structure of the novel slightly inelegant. It is constructed in four episodes -- four distinct times and places in the title character's life -- and an coda. The first two episodes (early childhood and schooling) are brief and tightly constructed to the point of seeming almost chopped off, ending just as they are reaching their stride. The third episode (Mr. Rochester's house), on the other hand, sprawls out in extended slo-mo, gleefully hanging on to its Big Secret for as long as humanly possible. Generally I don't feel a enormous need for perfect order and balance, but something about this assymetry -- or rather, the irregular pacing that produced it -- bugged me a bit.

But on the whole, Reader, I liked this book. I liked Jane and her uncanny understanding of the psychology of courtship. I liked the big, brash, sharp-witted Mr. Rochester, with all his many faults and flaws. I liked being called "Reader." I liked the musty smell of old book wafting up from a classic novel, too. Wrapped in a quilt on autumn evenings, making my way through this vintage volume, I felt like Charlotte Brontë was right to call me "Reader." I'd earned the title.

Plot: Plucky girl escapes abusive foster home to attend abusive school for orphans. Arriving at adulthood, she meets Mr. Right*, but is troubled by the magnitude of his asterisk. Then she meets Mr. OK, who is nice enough until she does him a big favor, at which point he turns into a world-class knob. Eventually she marries somebody.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Happy American Thanksgiving!!

...and to you non-UnitedStatesians, happy November 26!

Image: The InLaws5000 Vintage Family Postcard Collection.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Comics Curmudgeon, Supplemental

The Endorsement

No blog is more consistently able to make me roar with helpless laughter, pounding my palm repeatedly on the desk in an excess of mirth, than The Comics Curmudgeon. The eponymous curmudgeon, one Josh Fruhlinger, surveys the grim wasteland that is the daily newspaper comics page and finds something remarkable there: humor. His witty critiques, caustic observations, and cruel abuse of comedy's lamest format never fail to amuse. (Strictly speaking, they never fail to amuse me. It's true that I'm pretty easy to amuse.)

[ATTN: DrSchnell: The first entry of this one almost made me pee my pants; I have to think you'd get at least a chuckle out of it. ]

But He Missed One!

Well, there's a lot to mock in any given day of the so-called "funnies," so it's understandable that the C.C. failed to notice this episode of the venerable "Hi And Lois" from sometime last week:

The singular thing about this strip is how heroically it strains to produce a joke -- Hi is embarassed because his male friends might associate him with the labors of child-rearing! -- that is almost paralyzingly unfunny.

Consider: to make this joke "work,"

  1. Lois has to be transported into an eyes-closed state of sensual pleasure at the scent of... baby powder?
  2. Hi, who has admittedly been trapped in a strangely frozen suburban milieu since 1954 and is likely suffering from extreme cultural disorientation, must forget that it's been decades since middle-class men started taking every possible opportunity to position themselves as Good Dads.
  3. An American man must announce to his wife that he is going to apply cologne for the benefit of his visiting male pals. (It is not surprising that Lois looks blankly stunned at this sudden and all-too-revealing insight into the nature of her husband's relationship with "the guys.")

Now I'm no humor professional, so it's not for me to say. It seems, though, that a good rule of thumb might be: if there are three elements of your set-up so bizarre that they are funnier than the ostensible payoff, your joke has problems. Just a thought.

Meanwhile, In Prince Valiant:

Hmm, I don't know about that "Next: Bad Trip." Looks to me like the bad trip has maybe already started.

But Seriously:

Safe journeys to anyone travelling for Thanksgiving today. No bad trips!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Great Movies: "Fargo"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Joel Coen, 1996.

Preconceptions: I first saw this movie in Lawrence, Kansas, in its original release. I liked it. Then I think I saw it on video at some point, maybe, and liked it then, too.

- - - -

Fargo not only survives a third viewing, it prospers on a third viewing. Even though I knew at any given moment what was coming next, there was still a lot of pleasure to be had in enjoying the details of the dialog and sets and in appreciating the craft that went into making one of the all-time great dark comedies.

The hazard of a third viewing, though, is that it tempts you to wax literary. For instance, why is this movie called "Fargo"? It's set mostly in Minneapolis, with the balance of the scenes in Brainard, Minnesota. Only the opening two or three minutes are set in Fargo, and even those are not significantly in Fargo, but just in a dingy bar that could be found anywhere in the American Midwest. Despite my better judgement, I'll propose here that "Fargo" is a sort of geographical pun, representing a desolate and wintery town of the imagination where dwell those that "Go" too "Far." Know what I'm sayin'?

Fargo tells a complex enough story, too, that during a rewatching you can reinterpret what is happening in the story. In previous viewings, for instance, I assumed that Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless, miserable, cringing villain of the film, was simply trying to raise capital for his business venture. Details suggest, though, that he is in deeper and more desperate financial trouble than that, for reasons that are unknown but can't possibly be good. Similarly, on previous viewings it seemed that the terrific character of Police Chief Marge Gunderson visited an old high school acquaintance while in the Twin Cities on police business. This time around, it seemed pretty clear that her police business in the Twin Cities is more motivated by her curiosity about the old high school acquaintance. Neither point is especially important to the narrative, but in both cases it deepens our appreciation of already very well developed characters.

Also, the music is interesting. A gentle little folk lullaby theme -- sez here it's a Norwegian folk song, "The Lost Sheep" -- plays quietly over the initial shot of a snow-choked highway, then swells with repeated strikes on the timpani into something sinister and forceful as a car drives into view. The tension between the soft lullaby and its louder, more threatening iteration undergirds most of the rest of the movie. Here, as everywhere in Fargo, polite daily life and menace are closer together than you expect.

Plot: Jerry, a desperate family man and crooked car salesman, concocts a Rube Goldberg scheme to squeeze money from his wife's father by having her kidnapped. The thugs he hires, unfortunately, are as stupid as he is, and everything goes violently wrong very quickly. Chief Marge is able to bring the cycle of violence to a close with quick wits and a steady trigger finger, despite being seven months pregnant.

Visuals: Fargo switches back between three visual modes: tidy, kitschy interiors; dark, drab interiors, and cold white snowscapes. In conjunction, they create a perfect setting for the characters' mounting desperation; they are trapped and claustrophobic in the interiors, but completely vulnerable to forces outside of their control when they step outside.

Dialog: The exaggerated upper-Midwest accents caused a bit of a flap when the movie first appeared. To say that the movie takes cheap shots at regional culture is to state the obvious. But that's satire for you. Fargo exaggerates to make the point that bad behavior can have its roots in stifling pressures of social conformity. It's not an incredibly original point, of course -- Fargo sits in a tradition that goes back at least to Sinclair Lewis' Main Street -- but it's a valid one. An oldie, but a goodie.

Prognosis: Fargo is probably the most violent of the movies we've covered so far in this project, and is emphatically not recommended for those who faint at the sight of blood. For all others, happily recommended as a great movie.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The michael5000 Kitchen #14: "Pumpkin Cookies"


With the American holiday season looming afore us (note festive masthead, above) I am prepared to share with you, the L&TM5K reader, some of my favorite seasonal baking recipes. We'll start with Pumpkin Cookies, which have over the last however many years gone from being a strange little recipe I liked to being a mid-level family5000 holiday tradition, especially beloved of sister jen.

My much-annotated physical copy of the recipe is from the inside of a label of major brand of canned pumpkin. I may have had it for as long as two decades. I know I had it by 1994, because I have a vivid memory of trying to make these cookies while recovering from my first and most severe episode of Clinical Depression. They burnt literally to charcoal, causing me to sit on the kitchen floor sobbing for a good half-hour about how I was so worthless I couldn't even bake a batch of cookies. Later, it was determined that the oven's thermostat was broken. But, hey, that's not a heart-warming holiday memory! That's a grim, bitter, awful memory! So let's move on to the recipe!

The Recipe:

Preheat your oven to 350 F.

2 1/2 cups White Flour.
(You can substitute up to one cup with wheat flower if you are so inclined*)
1 tsp Baking Soda
1 tsp Baking Powder
1/2 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Nutmeg
1/2 tsp Salt
Combine in medium bowl.

1/2 cup Butter
(that's one stick, natch. You can reduce this by up to 2 Tbsp without causing trouble*)
1 1/2 cups Sugar
(You can get away with as little as 1 cup*)
1 cup canned Pumpkin
(which is, quite inconveniently, half a can. For this reason, it's often practical to make a double batch)
1 Egg
1 tsp Vanilla
Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. I usually partially melt the butter to make this easier, and although I believe serious cooks frown on this it doesn't really seem to hurt anything.

Add the pumpkin, egg, and vanilla, and beat until everything is nice and creamy. Then add in the dry ingredients and stir until you've got a well mixed dough. Plop on a greased cookie sheet, although if you forgot to grease the cookie sheet you'll probably get away with it. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.

2 cups Powdered Sugar
(thought you were done, didn't ya)
3 Tbsp Milk
1 Tbsp melted Butter
1 tsp Vanilla
Stir until smooth. When the cookies have cooled for a few minutes but are still warm, put a little of this glaze mixture on each of them. It will melt a little and both spread over the top and sink into the cookie itself a little bit before congealing, rendering great yumminess. Don't do this while the cookies are still hot, though, or it will all just run off the sides.

*I have been using this recipe long enough to do some experimenting during a few relatively health-conscious phases.

The Results:

I've always liked these, and I seem to keep liking them better every year. The ones that I pre-baked for the Thanksgiving feast were just perfect, and I've had to impose elaborate security measures to keep me and Mrs.5000 out of them until the day arrives.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Remodeling Week: The Epic Begins

Longer ago than I want to know for certain, but measureable in years, not months, Mrs.5000 and I embarked on a remodel of the upstairs bathroom of Castle5000. The project, to be generous, has proceded in fits and starts. We managed to do quite a bit to the space without actually making it either fully usable or at all attractive, and then for various reasons we sort of... stopped.

And really, it doesn't matter why. There's no point in arguing about who "can't tear himself away from his goddamn blogs" or who "has no time for anything but her precious bookarts." The point is that over the next week, we are going to throw ourselves at this project with a unstoppable forcefulness and coordinated effort the likes of which hasn't been seen since the siege of Troy. Both Mrs.5000 and I are taking the week off and, except for a few days at Thanksgiving, we'll be doing home repair like its never been done before.

The PhotoEvidence!

Now, we'll be partially motivated by our desire for an attractive and functional living space. But thanks to you, the L&TM5K readers, we'll also be motivated by fear and shame! For posted below are seven pictures of the bathroom as it stands right now. And on Monday, November 30, I will rephotograph these exact same shots, and you will either be mightily impressed by our fantastic progress... or friends, you will jeer and scorn. Or maybe both.

I: The Shower

We took off the truly skanky old shower lining, put on new backer board, and tiled that sucker. We never sealed the tile, though, and there's assorted detail work to be done.

II: SE Corner

Here we see an experiment in color selection overlain by an experiment in wall texturing, plus a rather successful retrimming of the window. Also what cheap tile flooring looks like after three or four generations next to a toilet. Did I mention that this post was not vetted by Mrs.5000?

III: The Sink

We're actually pretty proud of our installation of this cute little sink, which replaced a comically tiny vanity sink that was there before. We are willing to admit that we have not yet provided it with an elegant setting, however.

IV: The Door

With the wall on the left here, which is also the foot of the tub -- we had to take it out, reframe it, put up new sheetrock, etc. There's new trim around the door. The door itself is unfortunately still an awful sickly yellow. And this is by far its good side.

V: Built-In Shelves

Easily the best carpentry I've ever done in my life. Just don't look too close at the details. A few coats of paints will hide most of the flaws nicely.

VI: The Floor

Did I mention, the floor is pretty heinous? We're going to cover it with a bamboo composite that will hopefully brighten things up a little bit and make it look a little more, you know... clean.

VII: The Light Fixture

You have NO IDEA how glad I'll be to see this go.

Wish us luck!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Library Book Sale CD Trove V

Reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

Prokofiev: Symphony #6.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
Theodore Kuchar, Conductor

Prokofiev and Shostakovich are the two giants of 20th Century Soviet music, and even though they have distinctly different styles and biographies, I have never really been able to untangle them from each other. Their lives and work were both formed through a weird fusion of the Russian classical tradition, the new musical ideas of the day, and the brutal absolutism of Stalin’s dictatorship. Stalin and his minions demanded that culture serve the state, and so mandated that composers create music accessible to the average person. Meanwhile, composers elsewhere were busily cutting off the limb of atonality and serial composition that Schoenburg had led them on onto. Thus it is that we arrive at a slightly uncomfortable state, with the only symphonic music written between Appalachian Spring and Phillip Glass that has anything resembling an enduring audience today being the stuff that was written according to the dictates of a man and a system that caused as much pain, fear, and suffering as anyone, ever. But this does not make it bad music.

If you read up on Prokofiev’s Sixth, you’ll be told that 1) it is “about” World War II, and 2) that it is riddled with slyly dissident material. Both things may well be true, and if you want to think about that while listening, be my guest. To my mind, though, saying an instrumental composition is “about” an abstraction is asking it to carry an awful lot of weight.

What you have in the notes is a piece rooted deep in the Russian tradition. Indeed, there’s no ten-second segment of the Sixth that would not be able to pass as a short segment of a Tchaikovsky symphony. At the same time, though, the work as a whole is nothing like Tchaikovsky. There are no grand, sweeping gestures, no sweet sweet sweet melodies, and no relentless march towards a towering conclusion. The mood ranges from analytical to ironically jaunty, with no moments of titanic triumph or of maudlin despair. For anyone who might happen to have Lietenant Kije on their mind, there is nothing here so grabby as that very fun Prokofiev piece, although the scherzo does manage to work up a reasonable toe-tapping head of steam.

Prognosis: I like any given measure of the Sixth, but it hasn’t really come together as an interesting whole for me. I’ll keep it, but I doubt it will ever be in heavy rotation.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New Acquisitions in the Mrs. & Michael5000 Boring Postcard Collection

Collected on a recent trip to Silverton, Oregon.

Rest Haven City Park, Columbus, Wis.

SOUTH SHORE APARTMENTS -- South Ocean Blvd., Del-ray Beach, Fla. Phone 5305. Located one-half mile south of city limits on Hwy. A1A. Large comfortable bedroom units completely furnished. Private beach. Open year round.

Canyon, Texas. Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, on the campus of West Texas State University. The largest museum collections on a campus in the State.

Pepperell Mill. Opelika, Ala.

Bird's-eye view of La Crosse, Wis. from Grandad Bluff. This thriving manufacturing, wholesale and retail city is an awe inspiring sight when seen from Grandad Bluff towering 600 feet above the city.

NATIONAL COWBOY HALL OF FAME and Western Heritage Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Side view of the main entrance to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. The building's architecture suggestive of the pioneer's tent and camp circle was dedicated June 26, 1965.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Great Movies: "Sunset Boulevard"

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder, 1950

Preconceptions: I first saw Sunset Boulevard sometime in the late '90s and remember it as being a nice piece of film noir, minus the usual detective.

- - - - -

Sunset Boulevard is a movie that people who love movies love, because it's about movies. That puts it at risk for being overrated, but it's not; it is a strange and terrific tale brought magnificently to life in black and white.

The film is dark and gritty without being particularly realistic. The three primary characters -- the faded star of the silents, her butler, and the younger man who passively ends up as the third person lodged in their lushly decaying California palace -- are all characitures of madness. The star is disappointed vanity made manifest; the butler is resigned obsession; and the young narrator is the very picture of giving up on hopes, settling for less, giving up on the hard work of retaining one's personal autonomy.

Do they behave realistically? Well, not especially. But since they represent elements of everybody's life experience -- anybody here who hasn't had their vanity disappointed, hasn't pursued an unhealthy obsession, hasn't settled for less? -- the movie works as a universal fable for loss and the feeling of being past one's prime. The characters are real enough that we cringe at their humiliations, but just unreal enough that we can laugh uncomfortably at their excesses.

Plot: Failing young screenwriter finds himself in a bizarre relationship with a former movie star who is pathologically unable to accept her fall into obscurity.

Visuals: Terrific sets, especially the megalomanical shrine of the star's mansion and its rotting exterior. Nice visual tricks in the scenes set at the studio. Great black and white filming of the primary characters in the light-and-dark of the mansion's interior.

Dialog: Witty and crisp, in the best noir tradition. Dialog is used as much in establishing the characters and relationships as it is advancing the plot -- a relatively great proportion of the script is taken up with demanding, insisting, and refusing.

Prognosis: The trick to Sunset Boulevard is to not assume that because it's an "old movie" in black and white, it must be literal-minded. Nah. It's SUPPOSED to be edgy, and when watched with that in mind it is strange and awesome. Recommended for anybody with any appreciation for dark drama.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Great Don Quixote Mashup

A couple of months ago, with my awesome instinct for the kind of material that lures in a wide internet audience, I posted lists of two sentences from Don Quixote as they appeared in a number of different English translations. Perversely, it turned out to be a pretty popular post. The Adviser even went so far as to throw down the literary glove:
I challenge you, M5K, to select your favorite bits from all the translations to create an all-star mashup of the first graph.
Now, I don't know if he was tweaking me for the way I reviewed Gilgamesh, but it hardly matters. I'm helpless before a good challenge.

The Famous Opening Sentence

Version 1. In this one, I do exactly what The Advisor said: I cut and paste from the translations I originally listed to get what I think is an accurate and sensitive version of this famous and much-footnoted sentence, as well as a reasonably elegant one:
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a village whose name I don't care to remember, there lived not long ago one of those gentlemen who keeps a lance in a rack, an old shield, a skinny nag, and a greyhound for racing. His stew had more beef than lamb in it, and he ate hash most nights, lentils on Fridays, scraps on Saturdays, and perhaps a pigeon on Sundays -- these accounted for three-fourths of his income.
Version 2: OK, that was fun, but it's hard to resist the lure of really interpreting Cervantes. So here's what the sentence feels like to me, written out like I imagine Cervantes might have done it if he were living today. And a West Coast American.
A while ago, in some village or other in La Mancha, there was one of those gentlemen farmers whose ideas, ideals, and household goods always seem to lag two or three generations behind the times. He had the obligatory antique lance in its antique lance-rack, and an ancestor's ancient shield hanging on the wall; he had a skinny old greyhound for racing, and an even skinnier horse for riding. He ate lamb when he could get it, but usually settled for beef. On Friday he fasted on lentils, and on Saturday he fasted on leftovers, but on Sundays he feasted, sometimes allowing himself a pigeon as a special treat. Three-fourths of his income went to buy food.
The Obscure Random Sentence

Version 1: Same deal: the cut-and-paste job.
Just then, one of the lads who brought the goatherds their provisions arrived from the village. “Do you know what is happening down there?” he asked.
Version 2: Trying to make it feel right.
About then, one of the village boys the goatherds paid to haul up their supplies arrived. "Do you know what's going on down there?" he asked.
So there you are, Advisor. There's your long-distance dedication. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make a fool out of myself by suggesting I have some kind of special access to Don Quixote, and can write.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to Do Good

A couple of years ago, I shared with you the secret of How to be Knowledgeable. In case you've forgotten: the trick is to use the "random" button on the Wiki! It will help you learn things like:
And so on! But did you know that, in addition to using the Random Article link to become knowledgeable, you can also use it to DO GOOD? It's easy! Perhaps! All you should have to do is go to some random Wiki articles -- and make them better! Thus enhancing the total store of human knowledge! Thus making the world a better place!

Let's try it! Follow along as I make the world a little smarter!

1: Dave Gelperin

On my first outing, I find a fragmentary biography of a living computer guy who does things I only vaguely understand. No worries! I Google the gentleman, and find out a little more about him through the bios at a NASA site and at his own company's website. I port over some uncontroversial-seeming information, tighten up the text a little, and call it good. My first contribution to human knowledge went down easy!

2: The Treaty of Falaise

On my second draw I get a 1174 treaty between England and Scotland. The text is a little bit rough, so I try to polish it up a bit. Then I Google to see if there's any other reputable information out there. I find a few nuggets in a book of Scottish history, and weave them in. Dutifully footnoting, I realize that the Scottish history book was published in 1900. Oops. I hope that it was an "oldie but a goodie," and move on.
Next, I draw the novel "Gone With the Wind." This seems like an awfully high-profile article to be dicking around with, so I try again and get a tiny Polish village. The text is fine, and no other information seems at hand, so I draw again and get an obscure species of pine. I draw AGAIN, and get:
3. Sheila McKechnie

This article on a British homeless advocate is complete and well-written, but has a banner complaining that it lacked references. It doesn't take much effort to find reputable sources to back up all of the major points, in a Guardian and a Times obituary and on the website of the foundation started in her honor. I add the references, but only by dropping in the URLs. In retrospect, I realize I should have listed authors, titles, etc.
Next, I get a minor British actress whose entry is modest and impeccable, undoubtedly made and monitored by her publicity people. I know when I'm not wanted. I poke the link again, and find the less well-groomed entry for:
4. Thomas H. Bayly

This 18th Century Virginia politician's article is written in what looks like 18th Century prose; it was probably copied over from a public domain source. I try to spiff it up a little, and then add in a factoid derived from a Google search: dude has a significant building named after him.

5. David W. Williams

A mess. This article needs me. I find the article for this Los Angeles judge riddled with multiple tags complaining of its lack of references, its poor style, and its possible bias. I am quickly able to determine that the article consists of his New York Times obituary, verbatim, with an extra paragraph from his San Francisco Chronicle obituary cut and pasted onto it. NOT COOL! Plus, there's a competing page with his middle name spelled out, which is just straight biographical data from a register of Federal judges.

I scout around and find a third obituary from the L.A. Times -- the judge's hometown paper -- and get to work. I edit! I trim! I paraphrase! I organize! I meld! I cite, and more thoroughly this time! And somehow, with no previous knowledge of the subject whatsoever, I manage to distill four documents into one that is arguably more authoritative. It certainly feels more authoritative!

[Parenthetically: It's interesting that, writing about a man who died in 2000, I am working close to the threshold of when it is reasonable to use obituaries to edit a Wiki article. If it was an article on someone who died in 2007, for instance, I would have to assume that the writer of the obituary looked at Wikipedia in preparing the article, and a fact-loop would be created capable of destroying the very nature of truth!]

So go ahead! Go out there and do some good! Just don't get hooked.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Library Sale CD Trove IV

Reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

Vivaldi: Gloria; Alessandro Scarlatti: Dixit dominus
English Concert & soloists
Trevor Pinnock, Conductor

With baroque choral music, even moreso than with baroque music in general, it's all about textures. It's just not a style that you go to for the melodies. Even the baroque choral greatest hits, the "Halleluah Chorus" and its little sibling "For Unto Us a Child is Given," are more about power and pattern than they are about a memorable tune. In live performance, baroque choral music can be an enveloping, sublime experience; after all, most of it was crafted to enhance religious worship. On recording, for better or worse, it is generally more used for pleasant background music than it is actively attended to.

This 1990 recording is by very big musical guns, and is for all intents and purposes flawless. It also has probably the #3 baroque choral hit, the first movement of the Vivaldi Gloria, as its first track. So, it's an easy winner and a steal for a buck fifty.

I've put some work into trying to distinguish between the Vivaldi and the A. Scarlatti, and I think it's fair to say that Scarlatti has a lighter touch. He seems to deploy his soloists in multiple short lines, as opposed to Vivaldi's extended vocal solos. I've noticed, too, that Vivaldi's music doesn't always blend flawlessly with the text (for vocal music dorks in the crowd -- Hi, Elizabeth! -- I'm thinking especially of the concluding statement of Gloria in Excelcius Deo in the first movement, which sounds kind of forced to me). So on balance, I'll say I prefer the Scarlatti. But really, unless you are deliberately looking for it, you're not even going to notice the transition.

Prognosis: Definite keeper.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Three Dorky Updates

(of last week's Three Dorky Endeavors)

I: Running in Rows and Columns

The running spreadsheet continues to motivate. Since last Tuesday, I'm proud to announce I have set new all-time records* for distance run on the 3rd, the 7th, the 8th, and the 10th of a month!!! And I might as well just say it now, I'm going to break the all-time record* for distance run on the 11th today. (And actually, I'm on pace for a 100-mile month, which really would be pretty cool.)

Meanwhile, it has occured to me that my spreadsheet also needs to track distance by day of the week, but we'll save that hack for a rainy day.

II: International Man of Chess

I did lose to the guy from Barbados, but that only got me to 24.58% of's "countries" -- still a little under 1/4. I'm happy to tell you, though, that I have games in progress with representatives of Lesotho, Curacao, Ghana, Belarus, Syria, Lebanon, Slovokia, Italy, and the Phillipines, so eventually a few of them ought to batter me over the 25% mark.

Oh, and Calico Cat wanted to see the chess spreadsheet. Here's a slightly doctored version:

III: Like County Collecting on Steroids. Or Maybe Acid.

People, I am SO EXCITED** about geohashing! I woke up at dawn on Sunday to drive across to the Evergreen State and find a nondescript place in a muddy field! Successfully! It was freaking awesome!

IV: Like Regular Old County Collecting

I continue to color in the new computer version of my county map, bit by bit, state by state. I kind of like the way it looks right now, through the letter "I".

V: Just in Time for the Holiday Season...

I've wrapped up the Bible-readin' year on Michael Reads the Bible. Having made it through Proverbs, I've now finished 20 of the Bible's 66 Books (30.3%), 659 out of 1189 Chapters (55.4%), and 16401 out of 31102 Verses (55.7%). The idea of being more than halfway done with a reading project is pretty amazing, but there you have it. Ecclesiastes for the new year!

VI: It's a Love Story, With a Twist!

Meanwhile, I've got material on John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore up on Rennaissance Man. Short version: without a doubt, it's the finest incest-fueled revenge slasher tragedy I've ever read! But it's not for everybody.

VII: Did You Notice How There's Going to be a Wednesday Quiz?

'cause there is.

VIII: I Forgot to Stop at Three!

So we'll just cut to the footnotes:

* Records date to August 2009.

** Fillup Monkee voice.

The Great Movies: "Citizen Kane"

Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, 1941.

Previous Contact: I watched Citizen Kane once before. I can't remember when. It struck me as both very clever and well made, and a little slow. I expected to love it this time.

- - - -

Now, do you really think I'm going to pan Citizen Kane? Of course Citizen Kane is brilliant. That is going to be evident to anyone who pays attention to the technical elements of the movies they watch, and it's explosively obvious if you've spent much time (as I have, these last few years) watching the movies of its time and earlier.

There are plenty of visual innovations in Kane, but the one that stood out for me in this viewing was deep focus. Ebert tells us that 1941 camera and lighting technology had only just begun to allow deep focus, which is when everything in the frame -- close foreground to distant background -- is equally sharp and clear. This allows all sorts of optical effects which, in turn, allow the construction of really striking images. Indeed, Kane has been visually quoted so often that stretches of it feel like a catalog of Famous Movie Images.

The story is epic and told in an innovative, non-linear style. It offers genuine insights into human nature without being all pretentious about it, and mixes in a fair amount of wit and style. It's terrific.

And yet, that slowness that I noticed on the first go-around still lingers. The fault, I think, is in the mock newsreel that is shown right after the famous opening scene ("Rosebud!"). It is supposed to give us a general orientation to Kane's life before we see it in its fragments, but it lasts too long and is more bluntly expository than it needs to be. Too, the journalistic quest that structures the movie -- the search up and down the Atlantic seaboard for what the word "Rosebud" might have meant -- is improbable enough to be distracting. During the first scenes of the quest -- the first trip to Atlantic City, for any aficionados -- everyone talks a little too fast and the action is a little too compressed, as if the movie knows it has a momentum problem and is trying to keep us engaged until the good material kicks in.

For such a larger-than-life movie, Welles did a good job of avoiding overstatement. One of Kane's misadventures, for instance, involves trying to create a career in opera for his second wife. It would be easy to play for laughs by making the character a comically terrible singer, but instead she is played as a perfectly average singer. This keeps it from being funny that she is put in the position of having to be a diva, and makes it sad and kind of horrifying instead. It's a much better way of showing the destructive power of Kane's bottomlessly selfish generosity.

Plot: Poor boy gets incredibly rich, powerful, and famous, but never gets over being sent away by his mom when he was a little boy. O.K., the psychology is a bit Freudian, but not excruciatingly so.

Visuals: Tremendous.

Dialog: Lots of memorable lines. There were a few scenes that I had misremembered as being from The Great Gatsby, which is, like, kind of funny because that's a book, and Citizen Kane is a movie.

Prognosis: It is a great movie. It is perhaps the single most important step on the History of Film Grand Tour. If you're not a history of film person, there's still a pretty good cultural literacy case to be made for it. Plus, it's a good story well told. Recommended if you're young and smart, and if you're grown-up whether you're smart or not. You may or may not find it wildly entertaining, but it'll be good for ya.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Too Much Truth in Advertising?

Pawn Shop Window, SE Division Street, City of Roses:

One has heard that drug users who are desperate for a fix sometimes pawn their own or other people's belongings in order to get cash quickly.

But you seldom see it spelled out quite so bluntly.

Refreshing, no?

Friday, November 6, 2009

November's Element of the Month: Ruthenium!

November's Element of the Month:



Atomic Mass: 101.07 amu
Melting Point: 2250 °C
Boiling Point: 3900 °C

With an atomic number like 44, you might expect Ruthenium to be one of your average, run-of-the mill elements. But no, it's only the 74th most abundant element here on the crust of the earth. It comes in right behind #73 Gold, which for some reason gets a lot more press. Ruthenium is a silvery whiteish metal, kind of like platinum and often found in the same places that platinum is. It was isolated and named in 1844 by the Estonian-born "Russian scientist" Karl Klaus, a man who clearly overcame considerable ethnic confusion on his way to scientific immortality.

The Centerfold!

Industrially, Ruthenium is apparently kind of a poor man's Rhodium, if that means anything to you. It's used in alloys, to harden platinum and palladium in electronic parts, to make titanium more corrosion-resistant, and in nickel-based combos to make high-performance metals like jet engine blades. It's also used to make the tips of your fancier brands of ball-point pens. True story. Ruthenium is apparently an earnest young element with high ideals, for there are hopes that it may become useful in new methods of generating solar power, in cancer treatment, and in cleanup of hydrogen sulfide.

If you are want some Ruthenium of your own, here's some good news: you've already got some! It's in your hard drive! If you want more, you might have to do some shopping around, as the human community only mines about 12 metric tons of the stuff per year. More good news: after a big price spike in 2007, it's back down to around only 90 bucks per ounce.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Library Sale CD Trove III

Reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

The Art of the Duduk
Artist: Djivan Gasparyan

The duduk is, it turns out, an double-reeded Armenian woodwind instrument more or less halfway between a recorder and and oboe. It has a mellow and sorrowful tone. Djivan Gasparyan appears to be the grand old man of the instrument. You've actually heard him before, in fact, playing on movie soundtracks or behind the likes of Sting and Peter Gabriel. His playing on this recording swoops and soars as he pulls genuinely haunting and evocative tones out of his instrument. And that's the good news.

The bad news is everything else. Gasparyan is backed (on this 1996 recording) with early-1980s instruments playing stiff, unimaginative, and way-too-perky dance pop riffs. Stale synthesizer sounds and electronic drums sound a much too close to the demo setting on those cheap keyboards you can buy at department stores. This instrumentation is augmented on some tracks by what is either a fake string section or an especially wooden real string section. On the best tracks, the whole thing aspires to a low-rent version of Loreena McKennitt exoticism. On the worst, it's kind of like listening to John Coltraine soloing in front of a newly-formed Spiro Gyra cover band.

Prognosis: Well, you win some, you lose some. I'm glad to have learned about the duduk, but have no further interest in this particular CD. If you want to give it a whirl, it's yours.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

White Smoke over the Dork Conclave

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum!

Despite the relatively small numbers of entrants this year, it was nevertheless a difficult conclave, as the very strong merits of the applicants had to be weighed in the balance. And let me say this: pretty much every one of you reading this is a great big dork.

Indeed, the greatest challenge of DorkFest is in seperating out the exogenous evidence for dorkitude, if you will, out of the equation, and to focus on the evidence as presented. Otherwise, how could Honorable Vice-Dork Emeritus ever lose? Why, only by competing against Mrs.5000, whose almost limitness dork potential I have special insight into. In this matter, though, I must defer to the judgment of Honorable Dork Emeritus Rex Parker, who found upon reviewing her entry (a gloating tour of her room full of 'lyrical trash' in the Castle5000 dungeons) that "there is something too... accomplished and competent about" Mrs. 5000. I suppose I can see that.


As of the time of this post, we do not technically have a Vice-Dork. The position has been offered to Jenners, whose recent post on Halloween costumes past is representative of the work of a woman who has embraced her dork identity. One hopes she'll stumble into this ceremony sometime during the day and give us and answer and perhaps a brief statement?

If she declines to serve or just doesn't show up, it'll have to go to the Supreme Court.

Habemus Dorkam!

Just from the method of her application, the third L&TM5K Dork has shown strong signs of excellence. There was an initial profession that, with various career-determining deadlines looming, she couldn't possibly compete. Then, there was a confession that, having looked at past competitions, she didn't feel worthy. And then came the highly detailed three-page Dork CV, fetchingly dated "Dorktober 2009" and submitted with a little flurry of apologies for its inadequacies.

Gentle readers, the blog Dork for 2009-2010 is sporadic commenter and 2009 Decathlon Champion Eversaved.

The CV has been posted on the Life & Times of michael5000 Facebook site for your perusal and review. This link might get you there, if you have committed the faux pas of not being an L&TM5K fan on Facebook.

The Acceptance Speech

To the esteemed L&TM5K community, and especially to the 2008-2009 Blog Dork Rex Parker, Vice Dork Rebel, and dorkily worthy fellow 2009-2010 Dorkfest competitors: I thank you for the privilege of serving as Blog Dork for the 2009-2010 year. I promise to fulfill my role to the best of my ability and to, "act in a dorky manner befitting the high intellectual and moral standards of the L&TM5K readership and the larger dork community."

Fifteen years ago I was just a big-boned, buck-toothed, turtleneck-wearing, country-singing nobody. I was a socially awkward, politically-engaged fifth-grade reject flying under the radar of everyone. Little did I know that I would one day represent the L&TM5K readership and the larger dork community by holding such an honored position. As Blog Dork, I promise to support all dorky endeavours. I will never make fun of my fellow dorks, which could cause them to relive traumatic high school experiences that may or may not have involved having a bottom locker underneath the locker of the most popular boy in school and/or public rejection at the junior year winter formal.

In conclusion, I extend my sincerest gratitude and best wishes to all.
Ever Saved
Blog Dork

See, I think she's going to do fine.

Eversaved, congratulations and, incidentally, best of birthday wishes. The Mr. Shain Memorial Card will be coming at you soon. And Rex -- we'll get a replacement out to you too.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Three Dorky Endeavors

I: Running in Rows and Columns

I've been running off and on since I was in high school, but I never kept track of it. In August, though, I decided it was time to push myself a little harder, so I brought to the act of running the one thing guaranteed to make it yet more exciting: a spreadsheet!

It's a good spreadsheet. For every date, 1 to 31, it tracks the maximum distance, the average distance per run, the average distance overall, and various other arcana, and it's set to turn encouraging colors when I do well and nasty colors when I'm sub-standard. Plus, there are a bunch of statistics for monthly totals as well.

And here's the weird thing: it totally works. On days when I don't feel like running at all, I'm now totally motivated to get out there and run just a couple laps around the park, just to get a number on the board. On days when I feel like running, I know that taking a few EXTRA miles will make my numbers look good. Since I've started this, I've run more days than I haven't (I'd like to get it up to 2/3 next year), and I'll cross the 200-mile mark tomorrow. For what that's worth.

For those of you who know me on the Facebooks, yes, this is why I'm constantly nattering on lately about how I just set an all-time record for miles run on the 28th day of a month. Or whatever.

Down side: it hasn't helped much with the weight.

II: International Man of Chess

It's been almost a year since occasional L&TM5K commenter Morgan got me involved with He has since stopped playing online chess, but I've stuck around like a chump, gradually picking away at my project of playing a game of chess with someone from every country in the world -- and this according to's very inclusive definition of "country," under which there are close to 300.
There is, of course, a spreadsheet involved in this one too.

I am pleased to announce that as soon as I lose this match I'm playing with a guy from Barbados, I will have crossed the 25% mark in number of countries played!

Down side: I'm at more like the 15% mark in number of countries won against.

III: Like County Collecting on Steroids. Or Maybe Acid.

You are of course familiar with XKCD, the droll internet cartoon, the self-described "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." You know, the one with the stick figures! And you may vaguely remember having seen this specific strip:

Well, I learned recently that there is a small and I daresay quite dorky community of people who have taken this algorhythm to heart and begun making treks to the random locations that this formula generates in their local graticule of latitude and longitude. So -- to make this perfectly clear -- where some people might try to get their passports stamped at every national park, or play 100 golf courses before they die, or keep track of the counties they've been through, or (like Brother-and-Sister-in-Law5000) climb every "fourteener" in Colorado, the Geohashers travel to randomly selected locations.

Well, of COURSE I had to get in on that action. My first geohashing adventure, completed last Saturday, is chronicled here.

The introductory page of the Geohashing Wiki is here.

And if you live in or near the City of Roses and want to go on an expedition, I am SO IN!!!

Oh, did I mention there are achievements?!?

Down side: I frankly can't see one.


DorkFest results tomorrow!