Sunday, February 28, 2010

The REAL Olympic Closing Ceremony

Well, it says here that the games of the 2010 Olympics are over, so it's time to see how the countries of the world stacked up in their every-four-years festival of universal brotherhood and competition in the colder athletic events!

Now, some of my paisanos here in the United States of America, where the L&TM5K is written, are going to be all "U.S.A.!!! U.S.A.!!! We got the most medals, dude!!!" And doubtless our friendly neighbors to the north are all like "Well, you know, third place is pretty good, eh?" And over in the European Union it's all "Ach, Deutchland is ja die Nummer Zwei!" and so on. But you can all just calm down, because as we've discussed before, raw medal count is simply not a fair measure of a nation's relative studliness. Since countries come in different sizes, the only fair measure of prowess is per capita medal count. And I'm here to declare the winners.

Per Capita Medal Count of the 2010 Winter Olympics

Medals per 1,000,000 Citizens

1. NORWAY -- 4.69
With more than double the number of medals per capita of their nearest competitors, the stout Norwegians have clearly proven themselves the studs of winter. Hands down.

2. AUSTRIA -- 1.90
Recently recognized for their classic flag, Austrians now receive a big L&TM5K salute for frosty athletic excellence!

3. SLOVENIA -- 1.5
That country that used to be the north part of Yugoslavia? Yeah, they can kick your ass on skis. Or skates. Or whatever.

4. SWEDEN -- 1.18
5. SWITZERLAND -- 1.15
6. FINLAND -- .93
7. LATVIA -- .91
8. ESTONIA -- .77
The L&TM5K congratulates Most Favored Nation Estonia for finishing eighth among the more than 200 countries in the world!
9. CANADA -- .76
Unlike the 2008 debacle for host China, which finished with a dismal per capita medal count, this year's hosts finished high enough to be respectable, while still low enough to be polite.
10. CROATIA -- .68

Other Medalists

The Czechs and the Slovaks finished so closely that you'd almost think they were the same country!
GERMANY -- .37
Ach! Wirklich sind wir nur die Vierzehnste! Nicht so gut als die Skandinavishe Landern! Wie laestig!
BELARUS -- .32
KOREA -- .28
FRANCE -- .17
POLAND -- .16
Easily the studliest of the large nations in the summertime, the Aussies show that they can compete in the cold season too. But only just.
Another disappointing finish for a country that usually prides itself on its ability to take on any wacky military adventure at any time, anywhere. Maybe better save it for the warm season, cowboys.
RUSSIA -- .11
ITALY -- .08
JAPAN -- .04
CHINA -- .008
Despite its much-vaunted progress in recent years, China once again finds itself trailing painfully in international athletic competition. But before we poke too much fun at the People's Republic, consider such countries as India (the second largest country in the world) and Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria (the fourth through eighth) who, despite their massive populations, took no medals at all. Clearly, they are not trying hard enough. At least not in winter.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Flag Friday III

Flag Friday is a periodic discussion of the world's national flags; the project is explained and indexed here.

These discussions are about graphic design, and perhaps about nationalism and national symbolism in general. They should not be taken as critical of the countries, ideals, cultures, or people that the flags represent.


Parsons: Citing "good colours" and that it is "simple," he assigns it “B“, 70/100.

Michael5000: Bahrain combines the two most common flag colors -- white and red -- in a pattern that is simple but, save for neighboring Qatar, nearly unique. It is not wildly attractive, but it is serviceable and effective.

Grade: B+


Parsons: Citing "plagiarism" and "bad colours" and describing it as "eyewatering," he gives it a "C+", 60/100.

Michael5000: The motif of a circle centered within the rectangular is among the most obvious possible flag designs, yet there are exactly two that use this simple, efficient design. To accuse Bangladesh of plagiarism (of Japan, presumably) is therefore just plain nonsense. Nor is a mix of green and red generally considered eye-watering; I don't know how things are in New Zealand, but here in the United States of America our biggest holiday is branded with that color combo. It could be argued that a red-on-green flag poses problems of recognition for those suffering the most common form of color blindness, but this is the only real design flaw of the Bangladeshi banner. Otherwise it is distinctive, simple, and immediately identifiable.

Grade: B+


Parsons: The "silly trident thing looks ridiculous," he says, but he likes the "good colors." gives it “B-”, 65/100

Michael5000: The colors are good, and the trident -- a bold, simple, and symmetrical shape nicely picked out in black against the gold field -- is an excellent symbol for an island county. Far from looking ridiculous, it gives Barbados one of the most handsome and immediately recognizable flags of any nation.

Grade: A


Parsons: He dislikes the "bad colours" and feels it is "noisy," and awards it a “D-”, 39/100

Michael5000: Again, green and red are not "bad colors" except in the narrow sense of posing difficulty for the colorblind. The "noise," presumably, is the pattern of ticking on the inside margin. Modeled after traditional Belarussian weaving patterns, I personally find this marginal pattern not only attractive but also a charming, folkish expression of national sentiment. Although a fine-grained pattern, it is simple and consists of only two colors, so although it might not stand up to Aviatrix's child-with-crayons test (see comments, here), it is well within the ability of a talented seamstress. Overall, a handsome and distinctive flag.

Grade: A-


Parsons: Praising its "good shape," he gives it a “B+”, 75/100.

Michael5000: I don't particularly care for the squarish 13:15 proportions of the letter-of-the-law Belgian flag, and apparently most Belgians don't either, since banners of a more flaggy 2:3 ratio are far more common in actual use. But my real concern is the colors. Although of honest origin -- the Belgian flag, romantically enough, was slapped together with material from a local fabric shop as the country declared its independence -- it is simply too similar to the flag of Germany for comfort. Yes, the colors are in a different order, and yes, one is vertical while the other is horizontal, but having two countries with the same tricolor next door to each other is getting close to defeating the whole purpose of a flag. Also, for my money the combination of red, gold, and black is among the ugliest in use on tricolors.

Grade: B-


Parsons: Disliking "writing" and "graven images" and characterizing it as "too busy," he assigns a "D", 40/100.

Michael5000: I believe this is the first instance we've seen in this survey of the seal-as-flag school of design. Counter to the whole concept of a flag, which is meant to indicate nationality at a distance, the fussy detail involved in a seal defeats both whole-cloth manufacture (you certainly couldn't have put THIS flag together at the fabric store in the fervor of revolution!) and the crayons of the nation's children. Use of a seal notoriously ruins the flags of most of the U.S. states, and here the flag of Belize. A few genuine and appropriately scaled design elements -- the circular white space in which the seal is placed, and the thin top and bottom stripes of red -- are mitigating factors.

Grade: D

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Library Book Sale CD Trove XII

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

William Henry Fry: Santa Claus Symphony
Royal Scottish National Orchestra

The received wisdom about symphonic music in the United States is that nothing that happened before, oh, 1920 is worth talking about. Then you have Aaron Copland, who established something resembling an American voice, and later the discovery of the music of Charles Ives, an eccentric New England insurance executive who wrote a great deal of music for symphony that had however had virtually no audience whatsoever.

If you dig a little deeper, you find that sure, there were of course plenty of American composers running around in the Nineteenth Century. They are almost universally held in contempt as being too German. And indeed, formal music in the U.S. was often written, conducted, and played by German immigrants, and almost all American composers worked from the musical models laid down by the Classical and Romantic German masters. In music history, this is seen as Derivative and Very Bad. The usual whipping boy is John K. Paine, a perfectly competent composer whose two symphonies sound vaguely like Schumann. He's pretty good, really, but your only hope of hearing his work performed live is to go to a music history concert, where the orchestra might play an exaggeratedly stiff rendition of a few bars so the audience can titter before getting down to appreciate some real American music, probably some -- let's face it, somewhat overrated -- Ives.

So Holy Crap! what we have here is some American symphonic music that actually predates John K. Paine. William Henry Fry, according to jacket, was "the first native-born American to compose for large symphonic forces." And you know what? He's actually pretty good. The Santa Claus Symphony is, as you might expect, big and jolly, but with a certain joyful seriousness to it as well. It is, perhaps unfortunately, seasonal music, with a broad quotation of Adeste Fidelius that would inevitably ring strange during summer months. Other pieces on the CD are an Overture to Macbeth, the Niagara Symphony, and The Breaking Heart. The last of these is fairly poor, calling into question the depth of Fry's output, but the Macbeth is quite stirring and dramatic.

Fry and Paine were not Beethoven and Mozart, but then neither were Schubert and Berlioz. And I am certainly not inclined to call for an America First! movement, where we would all express our love of country by carefully cultivating a taste only for our own native composers. That would be silly. But it wouldn't be much more silly than pretending that our national traditional of formal music began only when Ives got home from work, when Aaron Copland thought he'd found jazz, or when George Gershwin developed high-culture ambitions. Those three guys are important figures in the history of American orchestral music, but they didn't invent it. Hats off to the Naxos label for exhuming our deeper music heritage.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Wednesday Quiz Pauses for Breath

The Winners!

Congratulations once again to the winners of the First Season of the Wednesday Quiz! The top five contestants were:
1. DrSchnell -- 763.33
2. la gringissima -- 759.16
3. Mrs.5000 -- 710.84
4. Cartophiliac -- 628.33
5. Elaine -- 615
The Fabulous Prizes!

The top three winners selected from among the following prizes, which will also be the Season Two prizes:
1: Half-credit toward a custom-made crib, child's, or lap quilt by michael5000. This quilt will be handmade from scrap, salvage, and recycled materials; you will select from a broad menu of sizes, color, and pattern choices. HOWEVER: This prize is only HALF credit -- and you will have to win another half-credit in a future season of the Wednesday Quiz in order to claim your prize!
2: A set of four (4) Fabric Blocks, lovingly handmade by michael5000. Or, a set of two (2) such blocks custom made to your personal color, size, and/or thematic specifications!
3: A $20 Gift Certificate to the City of Roses’ own Powell’s Books, usable either at actual Powell’s locations or online at!

4: Either a $20 Gift Card to corporate coffee juggernaut Starbucks, or a $30 Gift Card to the Sound Grounds coffeeshop in Portland, Oregon, where much of the content for the Life and Times of Michael5000 is written!

5: Sponsorship of a year's membership at, where you can play against Michael5000 on a regular basis! Or not!

6: A batch of Michael5000’s signature oatmeal-almond-chocolate chip cookies, mailed straight to your home!

7: A boring postcard every week, for six weeks, mailed to your home from Michael5000!
DrSchnell went with the Powells certificate, la gringissima chose the cookies, and Mrs.5000 selected the custom blocks.

Season Two!

...starts next week! We start over with everyone tied at zero. A season is twelve Quizzes long; with your best eight scores counting towards your final score.

Will the topics be the same? No. When I decided to launch the Wednesday Quiz, I came up with a list of 60 topics -- five seasons' worth -- and put them in random order. You never know what's coming next.

Will the rules be the same? Instead of grading the Quizzes on Wednesday evening, I am now allowing entries until at least noon Thursday, Pacific Time.

How can I maximize my chances of success? Mostly by playing every time. I recommend putting the Wednesday Quiz on your calendar.

Why bother? Because the Wednesday Quiz is simply the best weekly test of arbitrarily selected general knowledge in the entire blogosphere. Also, don't forget the fabulous prizes.

See you next week!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Great Movies: "Raging Bull"

Raging Bull
Martin Scorsese, 1980

Previous Contact: I saw Raging Bull on VCR when I lived in Emporia, Kansas, and was spending a lot of time watching critically acclaimed movies. I thought it was amazing.

- - - -

Raging Bull is the movie about boxing about which everyone is obligated to say, "you know, it's not really about boxing." In a sense, that's right; Raging Bull, a biopic about ("a biopic of"?) the prominent 1940s boxer Jake LaMotta, is "about" the corrosive effects of jealously. Or, maybe it's about Italian-American life in the 1940s; that community is certainly recreated in deep and loving detail. But in the interest of common sense, I feel compelled to point out that an awful lot of screen time is devoted to very graphic, very moist, very tightly framed portrayals of men beating the living crap out of each other. So let's 'fess up: Raging Bull may be "about" several things, but one of them is certainly boxing.

Plot: In the clearing stands a boxer, a fighter by his trade, and he carries a reminder of every glove that laid him down or cut him 'til he cried out, in his anger and his shame, "I am leaving! I am leaving!" but the fighter still remains. Also, he is pathologically jealous of his wife, and this drags his life, her life, and the lives of everyone who knows him, through hell.

Images: Without taking the trouble to actually compile such a list, I can confidently say that Raging Bull would be on my list of the ten best filmed movies of all time. It's beautifully shot in crisp, starkly elegant black and white. B&W was apparently chosen to avoid the bath of red that the fight scenes would have been in color, but it also works to situate the movie in its time period; I'm told that they had color in the 1940s, but we are used to thinking of that era in terms of its monochrome photography. Interior sets and period clothing are beautifully reassembled with poignant attention to detail. The film slips into color only for a montage of "family films" spanning a gap of two or three years in the story, and although this device to denote the passage of time is a common enough trick in the movies, it is rendered here with particular grace and beauty. Where a lesser movie would have treaded water for a few minutes, Coppola Scorsese gives us a sweet, heartbreaking cinematic tour de force.

Dialog: Since pretty much everybody involved in making this film was an East Coast Italian-American, I'm going to assume that they got the conversational style of the culture of their youth more or less right. The characters are complex, carefully drawn, and beautifully acted. In almost any setting, there is popular music bumping along in the background, from the street or from the next apartment over. Did everybody just constantly keep their music blasting at full volume in the 1940s? Probably not, I think. It's an effect intended to bring the time and place to life, of course, but it's a little overdone.

Prognosis: Recommended for anyone who wants to see a really, really well-made movie about dysfunctional relationships that has lots of violent, explicit boxing scenes.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Song of the American Road, pt. 4


We are here and it is cool today. We are marked on the map. 1275 miles. -Fran

World's largest cheese kitchen (one of them).

Monday. Had 16 for Sunday dinner. 11 slept in the cabin. Mary and I slept in the car. Her cousin caught a big salmon. Weather is perfect. A little windy today.

Now there are just 6 here. Mary's cousin is here with us. -- Wish you were here. Love -- Linda.


Hi you all. We are really having fun our trip was smooth the weather is warm, but not too, only so sticky see you all before too long

love E Russell


Hi -- Having a break from the Rat Race. Weather perf.

The Bakers

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Reading List: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (the third one)

OK, let’s just get this out of the way right up front: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, like the Harry Potters before it and presumably the Harry Potters after it, an engaging children’s book that is fun for adults to read as well. And as several of you have energetically argued in recent history, it is perhaps not – shall we say – symmetrical to subject it to the M5K style of vaguely analytical review.

But, my friends, we are in the midst of a project here: I’m reading a list of books and talking about them the way I talk about books. And Harry is on that list. He is fictional, so I can do him no harm. If J.K. Rowling even became aware of my existence, I suppose it’s possible that she might shed a tear on the way to the bank. Or she could just have me killed. Perhaps by having someone drop a bag of her daily royalties checks on me. My point is, I can't hurt Harry Potter. He is invulnerable to the likes of me. So don't fret.

More of the Same

Occasional L&TM5K commenter ChuckDaddy has suggested that the repeated story arc of the Harry Potter series is among its strengths, and I am inclined to agree. Each of the three books so far, and as I understand it the remaining four as well, have the same essential structure. Harry undergoes unpleasant tribulations with his foster family before leaving for his singular “public school.” At school, there are a few minor personal entanglements involving him and his two best chums, and also an attempt – or a perceived attempt – by the powerful Dark Lord to kill Harry and, presumably, to lay waste to all humanity. Harry acts in foolish ways that expose everyone to horrible danger – although this is not really highlighted – and then performs a brave exploit to save the day. Also, there is Quiddich. And then the school year ends.

Now, this is a nice setup. Within this framework, the books function essentially as detective stories. There is always a central mystery, often involving one or more reversals of What We Thought Was Happening. As in a good mystery, we are given all sorts of little clues and strange incidents along the way, all of which turn out in the end to have been symptoms of whatever was really going on. Unlike in the best mysteries, the clues we are provided are never nearly enough so that we can intelligently speculate in advance. The revelations, when they come, are always a bit arbitrary. They don’t so much clear up the mystery as make us realize that incidents earlier in the book had more significance than they seemed to at the time.

Onward and Upward

Reading HP1 & HP2, I greatly admired Rowling’s prose style but complained of a lack of emotional variation. The latter did not register on me this time; either this aspect of her writing got better or I got into the groove of things a little better. Nor was I bothered by the thinness of the characterization any more; having established her central trio over two previous books, Rowling seemed to invest them with a touch more subtlety of behavior this time around.

One problem is still very much present, though. The plot of HP2, I wrote, “relies on the principal characters showing an almost pathological refusal to discuss obvious crises with the adults who have the power to make things better.” Same thing this time around. For much of the book, our friends have reason to believe that a powerful, malevolent figure is trying to get into their school in order to kill at least Harry and possibly the entire student body. Harry possesses a map that shows how this person would be able to pull it off. Yet he declines to tell any trusted adults – he has, by the way, excellent rapport with several benevolent and powerful grown-ups – because to do so would mean he could no longer sneak off to a candy shop. Are you kidding me? Dude is 13, not 5.

Other than this fairly glaring detail, the plotting continues to improve as the series ages. Sure, the revelations are still arbitrary, but what the heck. Prisoner of Azkaban ends well. There’s a neat little play on the time-loop gambit that brings things around to a satisfying conclusion and reestablishes the status quo. And then Harry goes home for the summer.

I Get It Already

So, yeah, like I said up top, the Harry Potter books are fun to read. I enjoyed Prisoner of Azkahban more than I enjoyed The Quiet American. I enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoyed The Brothers Karamazov. But then, I enjoy popcorn more than salad. To notice the things that separate the Harry Potter books from great literature is not to damn them, although it is perhaps to put things in perspective.

All else notwithstanding, there are two specific aspects of the Harry Potter books that I personally find grating and that will continue to put an upper limit on my enthusiasm. The first is the character of Hagrid, a big blubberin’ sack o’ sentimental 'n' stupid. The second is quiddich, which is to the Harry Potter books what the history and practice of whaling are to Moby-Dick: long, boring, unnecessarily technical chapters that the books would be better off without. One man’s opinion.

The Reading List Continues

On Deck: Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

In the Hole: Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Career Opportunities!


An accountant's duties are interesting, varied and of real worth to his employers. He has standing!

Do you feel that such things aren't for you? Well, don't be too sure. Very possibly they can be!

Materials Science!!

Every day you can read glowing descriptions of how plastics are improving old products and creating new ones. Learn the hundreds of interesting phases of the plastics industry and be ready for the position that will give you the security and satisfaction you want.

YOU MAKE THINGS -- To give you practical experience in working with plastics, we supply handsome, colorful, rods, sheets and tubes of plastics from which you can if you wish, make useful, attractive creations. You cement, saw, buff, form, dye, decorate, cast and laminate various types of plastics. You design plastic articles -- develop your own ideas. You may earn money while learning.


Mount common specimens, squirrels, crows, fish, frogs, pigeons. Make useful and humorous groups. A highly interesting hobby. You will be amazed and delighted.

Make wild-game and domestic specimens into alluring
CRAFT-ART, like the lamp shown above. You can devise a vast variety of alluring creations. Easily learned. Decorate with mounted specimens, book-ends, door-stops, hat-racks, match and pen-holders, and scores of delighful and USEFUL home articles and gifts.

--from among the many, many goofy ads in the December 1946 Popular Mechanics.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Wednesday Quiz I:12 -- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season I -- Quiz 12

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The Wednesday Quiz is a test of knowledge and intuition. Looking up answers or asking your buddy will go down on your permanent record. Questions about the rules are answered here.

This week's Quiz is a identification game. For each image,

Name the Famous Guy

Here are Thirteen images of men who were Time Magazine's Man of the Year or, after 1999, Person of the Year. Identify them for 8 1/3 points apiece. In the unlikely event someone gets all thirteen, the score will be rounded down to 100.

1: 1939 AND 1942

2: 1930

3: 1987

4: 2009

5: 1979

6: 1957

7: 1981

8: 1977

9: 1927 (the first Man of the Year)

10. 1958

11. 1978 AND 1985

12. 1999

13. 1935

Submit your answers in the comments!


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Great Movies: "Hoop Dreams"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Hoop Dreams
Steve James, 1994

Previous Contact: I saw Hoop Dreams at a campus showing not long after its original release.

- - - - -

Hoop Dreams is a documentary about two talented young basketball players from the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. It follows them through four or five years of their lives, showing not just their experiences playing basketball but also about how other peoples' interest in and investment in their talent shapes and distorts their lives. It is one of those remarkable documentaries in which the subjects get so used to the cameras that they let their guard down almost entirely. At one point, one of the young men's fathers apparently buys drugs on camera.

This kind of transparency makes it a hell of a sociological document. Hoop Dreams seems to give an outsider (like me) a good hard look at some of the daily challenges in the life of the black working class. Despite being in some sense "about" peoples' passion for basketball, it is not at all flattering of the system through which young people are recruited and trained to be athletes. In fact, I think my original viewing of Hoop Dreams pretty much marked the death of my enthusiasm for the sport of basketball. That probably wasn't the directors' intent.

Plot: Two kids are recruited by a private high school's basketball program, potentially the first step towards playing professionally. Will they defy the astronomical odds against any one individual athlete getting to play in the NBA? Oh, please. It's a documentary, not an after-school special.

Visuals: Gritty and grainy, but captured with an amazing level of access to everyone involved with the story.

Dialog: The messy dialog of real life. People say a lot of ironic and self-contradictory things; the film has clearly been carefully edited to include as many of these gems as possible.

Prognosis: Depressing. Probably a good movie to watch to gain empathy for the hardships of others. Don't expect to be especially entertained.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Aztec Camera and the Graveyard of Music

I often envy the younger version of myself, who owned far less music but was more viscerally invested in it. After discovering rock music, for instance, I had a cheap little briefcase-like contraption that housed as many as 24 cassettes, and when it was still half-empty I knew each of those casette tapes awfully well, and I cared about them a lot. Then came the exciting time when I had more than 24 cassettes, and had to make the very interesting choice of which best 24 tapes would make the cut for the briefcase. And then, eventually, I had more casettes than I knew what to do with.

Too, when I bought my first CD player in 1990 it was a thing of considerable excitement to choose my first four or five CDs. Every new acquisition would be the focus of attention for at least a month or so. But as months go on, and then years, the shelves are eventually rotten with CDs, and now too the hard drives of my computers are clogged with unlistened-to music as well. At this point, I don't know whether I could realistically listen through my CD collection in a year without concerted effort, and that's not even addressing several dozen casette tapes that are still around and, believe it or not, more than a cubic foot of vinyl that has somehow persisted into the modern age.

Wouldn't less be more? Indeed, in my early 20s I had the chance to carry out the desert island experiment, taking just ten of my favorite cassettes to the island of Great Britain for a year. They served me well, and I don't remember feeling starved for music, just very attached to what I had. And thus I often think: if I divided my music collection into two equal piles, and tossed the lesser pile away, might it not make things better? Less cluttered? Might it even improve my relationship with music?

And sometimes I think, "well, I'll just start through the collection, listen to everything, and if it isn't great, it goes." And so I start at the beginning of the alphabet, and I listen to the 1990 Aztec Camera album, Stray. And here's the problem: I like that album. It's got good, catchy songs. Listening to it now reminds me of how it was one of my first CDs, a quirky birthday gift from a friend, and reminds me of the time in the early 1990s when I was listening to it regularly in a dingey apartment on Lynch Road in Lawrence, Kansas. These things make me not want to get rid of it. And this is a cycle that has been repeated four or five times.

Well, that's fine. There's no particular shame in holding on to an accomplished but somewhat obscure record from twenty years ago, even if it's a record that I only listen to and enjoy when I'm trying to decide whether I should throw it away. But to see the real magnitude of the problem, you have to multiply that record by, I don't know, hundreds. And at some point, these CDs, cassette tapes, vinyl albums, even computer files become more than mere clutter. They become depressing in the aggregate, a vast graveyard of music that I only wander through from time to time to pay my honest respects. Wouldn't less be more?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Year of the Tiger!

Credit: apparently occasional L&TM5K commenter Margaret's buddy Scott Nasburg.

Update: per Nichim's comment:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Library Book Sale CD Trove XI


This is the 1000th Michael5000 post, if you count all four blogs.


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

Salve Antverpia; Romantic Symphonic Music from Antwerp

Choose one of the following.

1. Out of the incomprehensibly huge library of music written over the past few centuries, there is of much that is very good but hardly ever listened to. The reason for this is simple: it is overshadowed by a relatively small body of work that is exceedingly excellent, and has grown to be recognized as such over the course of time through an informal dialogue among music student, performers, listeners, and marketers. For those of us inclined to listen to a little music from 220 years ago, there is little point in listening to the excellent music of Salieri when we can listen to the distilled genius of Mozart. Those of us inclined to listen to a LOT of such music might listen to a little Salieri, a little Benda, a little Cannabich, whatever, but only a serious scholar would dig into the research library archives to find the doubtless perfectly competent music of yet more obscure composer. And that’s not even to mention the scores of composers (get it? get it?) whose work has literally vanished from the Earth.

So it is with this collection of perfectly pleasant, perfectly well-crafted music from the Low Countries. There’s nothing wrong with the music of Flor Alpaerts, Jan Blockx, Jef Van Hoof, Lodewijk Mortelmans, or Daniel Sternefeld. Quite the contrary. It is charming music, with moments of suspense and release, the occasional surprise, and the occasional splash of drama. But neither is there anything truly remarkable, anything to make you feel like the musical ideas of this stranger from the past are still owed your attention. You could listen to the good music of Salve Antverpia, and this might be interesting if you were from Antwerp, say, or had a specialist’s interest in the specific region and period represented. Otherwise, you could listen to the comparable but much more perfect music of Beethoven, Brahms, and Dvorak, or even Weber, Respighi,and Smetana. Life is short, and you are only going to spend so much time listening to music of the past. Why not listen to the best?

2. There is a kind of cultural brainwashing that goes on, a careless but insidious collaboration among those who teach, write about, and sell music. It convinces us through the sheer force of repetition that a narrow range of material represents the great work of our culture. We learn one way or another that Mozart’s last few symphonies are “great,” and we hear them and hear them again until they become so familiar that they are engrained in our bones, and thus we come to agree that they must indeed be “great.” And thereby we become radical conservatives, wanting like children to hear the familiar again simply because it is familiar, or if not at most something that is like the familiar – perhaps some Salieri instead of Mozart if in a daring mood.

Thus it is quite impossible for a person of our times to give a fair hearing to this collection of Romantic orchestral music from the Low Countries. We may grant that the composers are competent – they make no noises that offend us, and some noises that remind us of passages in pieces we have been made to think of as “great” – but unless we were to devote months or years to making the work of Alpaerts, Blockx, Van Hoof, Mortelmans, and Sternefeld as familiar to us as their contemporaries Beethoven, Brahms, and Dvorak, we will inevitably see them as pretenders, people who tried to make great music but fell short of the standard of excellence. Children raised in an isolated colony from which the music of the A-list composers was carefully excluded, raised on the music of Salve Antverpia, might very likely see things differently.

Prognosis: You can have my copy if you want it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Wednesday Quiz I:11 -- Found In Translation

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season I -- Quiz 11

Found In Translation

The Wednesday Quiz is a test of knowledge and intuition. Looking up answers or asking your buddy is unconscionable. Questions about the rules are answered here.

This week's Quiz asks for two pieces of information about several books that, despite having been written in languages other than English, have become popular among some English-speaking intellectual types:

Who wrote it? and What language was it originally written in?

Five points for each correct answer. There are eleven books, making a gross score of 105 or 110 possible. Such a score would be saluted for its total awesomeness, and then rounded down to 100.

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
2. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude
4. Anna Karenina
5. The House of the Spirits
6. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
7. The Trial
8. The Tin Drum
9. Like Water for Chocolate
10. The History of the Siege of Lisbon
11. Snow
Submit your answers in the comments. (And incidentally, I've only read four of them, myself. )

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Great Movies: "Psycho"

Alfred Hitchcock, 1960

Previous Contact: I saw Psycho once before, sometime in the late 90s.

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Psycho is a strange kind of entertainment, and almost certainly a surprise to any first-time viewer. Now, as a person capable of reading the English language, you almost certainly know that it involves a woman who stays at a creepy hotel with a creepy proprietor, and that she's eventually going to get stabbed in a shower while jerky, piercing music plays. But the narrative arc that you would expect, starting out with that information, is not the narrative arc you're gonna get.

[spoilers from here on out]

The first half hour of the movie, for instance, has nothing to do with motels. It's about a petty embezzlement scam pulled off by a Phoenix real estate administrative assistant. After twenty minutes and no motels, you might well think you'd somehow grabbed the wrong movie. But no, at 0:26 she finally finds the famous Bates Motel, and you settle in for what you figure must be a long series of increasingly disturbing episodes leading up to the famous shower scene. But no, the shower scene happens almost immediately. With more than half the movie still to go, you've lost the heroine who was the entire focus of the first reel, and a very different sort of movie -- a doomed search to find the missing person -- takes over.

Psycho was almost universally considered the most shocking movie of all time at its release, despite that it is not particularly graphic. For all of the tightly-wound music and human vulnerability of the shower scene, you never really see wounds. Instead, there's just shots of the knife, shots of the victim screaming in terror, and a modest amount of blood. What really made it a horrifying scene -- at the original release, people would apparently often trip over each other scrambling for the exits -- is its unexpectedness, its appearence out of nowhere from within a plot frame which would ordinarily guarantee us that the heroine would be alive and redeemed by the end credits.

Take away that big surprise, and you're left with an unremarkable plot, albeit one carried along by strong performances and strong direction. And before you get too excited about the innovative pacing of Psycho, you have to consider a long, pedantic speech that a psychiatrist makes at the end of the movie to explain what has been going on in the killer's mind. This speech would be deadening under any circumstances, but since the killer's mind is pretty much an open book by this point, it is an especially regrettable send-off to the movie.

Plot: Woman checks into the wrong hotel and is attacked by its manager, the titular Psycho. Then her friends come and look for her.

Visuals: Sharp, moody black and white. Excellent representation of familiar things, like the experience of driving at night when you're too tired, and of the unreal, like the final discovery of the hotel keeper's mother. The juxtaposition of the fantastical Bates residence looming up over the prosaic motel isn't especially subtle, but it is pretty nifty.

Dialog: Largely solid and amusing. Anthony Perkins does a supurb job of creating his character just through the slightly off-kilter delivery of his lines. Character actor Simon Oakland does about as good a job as anyone could as the psychologist, but there's just no selling that speech.

Prognosis: If you like Alfred Hitchcock, you'll like Psycho. If the idea of the shower scene scares you, just close your eyes when the shower starts.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Coffee Table Book Party: "Joys of Jello"

Joys of Jello, 3rd Edition

Many of you will have seen copies of this little cookbook floating around the bookshelves of your older relatives. I inherited my copy from the kitchen of my late grandmother.

It is important to understand that, well into living memory, such dishes as "Molded Chef's Salad" were made and served with no sense of irony whatsoever -- even outside of the MidWest.

I challenge you, L&TM5K reader, to make Ring-Around-the-Tuna, serve it without warning to your family or guests, and report back.

Jell-O Gelatin, the introduction begins, first grandly shimmered its way into American dining rooms in 1897. Just how many brands in your kitchen go back 65 years?

Jell-O Gelatin's long-time popularity comes from many good things. Its lightness is one -- a big one. Jell-O Gelatin is so light it seems to make any meal sit a little lighter. Its fresh fruit taste, so much like the fruit that inspired it, is utterly satisfying. And it's easy to fix in all kinds of ways -- some we'll wager that have never entered your mind.

Specific recipes available on request.