Sunday, October 31, 2010

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Home office of National Life Insurance Company, Montpelier, Vt., one of the most beautiful office buildings in the United States. Founded in 1850, National Life now ranks in the top 1 1/2 per cent in assets among the 1800 life insurance companies in the nation, of which it is the ninth eldest.

Provenance: Sent by L&TM5K reader nichim, September 2010.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

DorkFest Friday

Dorkfest Friday

Today was supposed to be a Flag Friday, but let me tell you something about Flag Fridays: they're popular, but they take FOREVER to crank out.  So, since we are in the stealthy crunchtime of the year...

And by the way, have you gentle readers noticed that?  Summer is always a busy season, but you EXPECT it to be busy.   You also expect that "eh, once September gets here things will start to calm down."  But they DON'T!  THEY SPEED UP!!!  And every year I get caught gasping for breath this time of year, just in time to start experiencing the pre-holiday stress rampup.

So anyway, no Flag Friday for you this week.  If you like, you can go back to Flag Friday VI, which is a pretty good one that you haven't seen for a while.   (You can also meditate on the unfortunate news that the "Myanmar" government of Burma went ahead with the crappy new flag design discussed there, which was implemented last week.

This is the first of what I suspect will be an increasing parade of missed deadlines as I try to "lighten up" about the goddamn blog, which is after all supposed to be a "fun hobby" and not a "life's work."  Since there's nothing going on here until the Bear checks in on Saturday afternoon, I encourage you to push your personal dorkiness envelope by taking the Wednesday-Quiz-in-Exile's scathingly difficult test of Australian geography!  Please note that this activity is not especially dorky if you yourself happen to be Australian.

Celebrations of personal dorkiness continue to be welcome in the comments.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Movies: District 9

At the Movies with Michael5000

District 9
Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson, 2009

Ebert: 3 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

My Official Preconception: "Some kind of grim, dystopian science fiction quarantine drama, I think. Sounds cool. I like grim, dystopian science fiction."


District 9 is a grim, dystopian science fiction quarantine drama that puts its hooks into you from the first seconds and keeps them there until the final scene.  It is a movie in which an alien starship has come to planet Earth, but unlike previous generations of film extraterrestrials they come not in fiery attack, nor in a hyperintelligently choreographed Close Encounter, nor even for dilettantish research outing a la E.T.  These aliens -- a hell of a lot of them, in a massive, massive ship that ends up stalled in the skies over Johannesburg -- are disorganized and starving.  Since it turns out that they do fine with human-style air, water, and food, but don't have human-standard conceptions of good manners, they end up in a fenced-in shantytown that looks very much like real-world urban shantytowns from Mumbai to Rio.

Now there is some obvious social commentary going on in a movie about an underclass being kept in slum conditions, in South Africa no less.  Science fiction excels at sociological analogy, and District 9 is good science fiction.  For anyone with two brain cells to rub together, this is obviously a movie about how human groups treat each other, yet for a big-budget project it is remarkably non-didactic.  It would be a fun film to show to a high school social studies class to see what the brighter students made of it; of course, you would want to make sure to have your permission slips collected and on file, what with the frequent and almost unbelievably moist graphic violence.

District 9 is structured according to, and quietly but remorselessly parodies, two of the most prevalent emergent media forms of the last 20 years: the vapid cable-tv documentary and the first-person shooter.  From  its first moments -- there are no opening credits -- the film jumps straight into documentary format, complete with screen graphics, the central figure of the documentary talking self-consciously into the camera, and sudden cuts to "experts" who comment on the situation from their desk chairs, backed by their many thick books.  When the film eventually abandons the conceit of documentary footage in order to advance its story -- not everything that needs to happen can plausibly happen "on camera" -- the tone has been so well established that it is able to jump into and out of documentary form for the rest of the film without disturbing the sense of veracity.

Now "veracity" is a tricky word when we're talking about a hovering spaceship full of bug-men hanging brokenly in the African sky.  Ebert, in his review, points out several concerns that can easily be seen as logical flaws.  But one of the strengths of the movie, for my money, is how the extreme situation is simply treated as The Way Things Are by the human characters.  District 9, rather brilliantly, is not set in the days and weeks after the great ship arrives; it is set twenty long years later.  People in J-burg are thoroughly jaded to the presence of extraterrestrials, and no longer react to their presence in the streets.  The organization set up to oversee human-alien relations is the very soul of bureaucracy, a cubicled place where people have long since, you can tell, settled into dull routines and long, mildly unsatisfying careers.  There is no sense of wonder or possibility in the relationship between Us and Them; They have become merely a pain in the ass that nearly all humans wish would simply go away.  Sure, it's a mystery how that massive spaceship can hang up there in the sky, but it is no longer an especially interesting mystery.  It simply hangs up there, just like it has for as long as much of the population can remember.

Now I have mentioned the first-person shooter genre, and I mentioned incredibly moist violence.  And, you know as well as I do that the people who make our big-budget films fervently believe that the essence of drama is conflict, preferably armed conflict.   It is therefore not giving much away to tell you that the movie builds slowly but very steadily towards much vigorous gunplay with exotic forms of hyperpowerful weaponry.  Well, take it or leave it.  There's a reason that more person-hours have been spent playing shooters than were spent building all the wonders of the world combined, and it has to do with a quality that usually gets called "gripping."  District 9 has "gripping" in spades.

Prognosis: * * * * This movie has something for everyone who can handle repeated portrayals of sentient creatures, including humans, being suddenly reduced to shreds of meat.  Thuggish sullen teens and socially frustrated adults can enjoy watching things explode -- though let's face it, most of us enjoy a good explosion or two, don't we? -- while the more sociologically inclined can make as much hay as they want to with District 9's obvious, but subtly skewed, anthropological analogies and deft manipulation of modern media genres.  Cool.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Your Wednesday Dorky Postcard from Michael5000

Dorkfest Continues!

After a mild warm up period of pre-Fest maneuvering, it was inspiring to see L&TM5K reader Morgan school us in the gentle art of THROWING DOWN!!!  Nor have other readers taken his claim to be the biggest Dork in the room lying down, and it has been exciting for instance to see 2007-08 Vice-Dork fingerstothebone return to high-level competition with a powerful entry of her own.  Elaine, nichim, and Mm Mud have all made strong steps towards embracing and honoring their inner dorks.  Others, if I am not mistaken, are employing strategies such as "keeping something in reserve" and "jockeying for position," which is itself pretty dorky behavior.

Yankee in England, demonstrating the principle of dorkiness not just in word but in deed, requested a logo for this year's fest, and naturally I could not rest until I produced one.  You may copy it out and use it to promote Dorkfest among your friends, or just to brag about your participation.

Rules Change!  Did I say Saturday morning?  I meant Sunday morning.  You've got until Sunday morning to get your entry into the comments.  You can use Monday's post, this post, whichever.  I'll find it.  

Remember: your post must -- at least conceptually -- begin with the phrase
I embody dorkiness by ____________.
And please: no bashful demurring, no denying that YOU could have anything dorky to contribute.  You've got plenty, I assure you.

And now, as you are entitled to a Boring Postcard on Wednesdays:


As the Northumberland County seat since 1772, the town of Sunbury is viewed from market Street where some county offices are now located. On the banks of the Susquehanna River, scenic and historic Sunburgy can be seen from an elevated vantage point near Shikellamy State Park.

Provenance: Sent by L&TM5K Reader Dug, Summer 2009.  Possibly not intended as a "Boring Postcard" per se.  No offense intended.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Forgotten Lands: Gurye

Kingdom of Gurye

Capital: Baracet
Population: 15,650,000 (2001 estimate)
Area: 109,060 km2
Independence: 9th Century

Economy: A relatively underdeveloped industrial sector produces mostly for the domestic market; major exports include bicycles, agricultural equipment, and solid wood furniture. Agricultural exports include pears, almonds, oats, and hay.
Per Capita Income: US$18,660
Languages: Ratash
Literacy Rate: 97%

At its peak in the Seventh Century, the ancient Guryean Empire stretched nearly 1000 miles from the An Pûr River on the western border to the Arkravian Mountains on the east. Unusually, modern Gurye shares no land in common with its classical ancestor state. Weakened by infighting among aristocratic clans with rival ambitions to the imperial throne, the Empire contracted and finally dissolved during the Eighth and Ninth Centuries. Beset by the nomadic horsemen of the expansionist Empire of Kyr, the Guryeans migrated westward across the An Pûr to their modern homeland on the Ailandian Plan.

Ratash, the language of Gurye, has changed so little over the centuries that modern Guryens are able to read the epic poems describing these events in their original form. Most citizens are deeply invested in their national past; Ghandi, who studied law in Gurye as a young man, held that “in a Guryean you find a man who knows more about the events of the Ninth Century than of his own.” This deep investment in national history and identity may explain the lack of any significant sentiment within Gurye for joining modern transnational bodies like the European Union.

Its lack of significant strategic importance allowed Gurye to escape the upheavals of the 20th Century with only minor changes to its borders. The capital and largest city, Baracet, boasts a quietly thriving tourist district in the beautifully preserved mediaeval town center. Halberd-wielding soldiers in full regalia still walk a vigil on the walls of the massive castle, now the national museum, around which Baracet was originally built. Potential visitors are warned, however, that the city offers little resembling nightlife, and after sundown the streets have a distinctively abandoned feel to them.

Flag: Two lions, rampant, menace each other on a yellow field framed top and bottom with horizontal stripes of maroon red. The banner dates to the Twelfth Century; the lions represent two competing families that, after decades of contending for the throne, unified themselves in a political marriage in 1184. It was originally the private banner of Otto II, the emperor whose accession was made possible by this event, but gradually came to represent the nation as a whole over the course of his long and successful reign.

National Anthem: “Stir to Glory, Men of Gurye.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

DorkFest 2010

A frantic Email arrived last Thursday from a regular L&TM5K reader asking "Have I missed DorkFest this year?" No, gentle reader, you have not missed DorkFest. But you have certainly taken an early lead.

DorkFest 2010

DorkFest is the traditional October festival where we come together to share our dorkiness together in a mutually supportive and respectful environment underlain with a seam of nasty, unforgiving competitiveness, resentment about having been passed over in the past, and complaints that one has nothing to add to past years' entries. From the entries submitted, it is my duty, in conjunction with the lame duck Dork, to choose the blog's official Dork and Vice-Dork for the coming year.

But first let us praise the great Dorks of the past.
2009 Dork: Eversaved
2009 Vice-Dork: Jenners
2008 Dork: Rex Parker
2008 Vice-Dork: Rebel
2007 Dork: g
2007 Vice-Dork: FingerstotheBone
Wow, that's a seriously dorky crowd! Think you have what it takes?


I will dare to define dorkiness here as "the shaping of one's life around one's arbitrary enthusiasms." Apply for dorkhood by submitting an answer that begins with this phrase:

I embody dorkiness by ____________.

Your entry -- which must be in the comments by Saturday morning -- may be anywhere from the theoretical minimum of five words (eg. "I embody dorkiness by geohashing") to, well, the sky's the limit. Links to web locations that demonstrate your dorky achievements are acceptible. Supplementary material may be emailed to the obvious gmail acccount.

Simple references to previous years' entries are less fun and effective than are previous years' entries cut and pasted along with acid little resentful comments appended.  And you can add recent achievements.  What have you dorked for us lately?

Eversaved and Jenners are ineligible for office this year, and -- Jenners -- it is traditional for the Vice-Dork to seethe with resentment at this juncture that she does not ascend automatically to Dork, let alone to be barred from even running.  

Entries with remarks that are implicitly or explicitly flattering of the L&TM5K content are always especially welcome.

Submit your DorkFest entry in the comments.  Chop chop!!!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael5000 Verifies an Assertion

Theophilus tells us that in fact there are "three kinds of folium, one red, another purple, and a third blue."  How is it so versatile?  [The source of folium] is a representative of a broad class of vegetable extracts that change color depending on the acidity of the solution: red in acid, purple when neutral, blue in alkali.  Litmus, an extract of a Scandinavian lichen, is another, and so is the juice of red cabbage.
-Philip Ball, Bright Earth; Art and the Invention of Color
Red cabbage, chopped and ground with yoghurt and baking soda (left) and with vinegar (right) and left overnight.
...and on a completely unrelated note: DorkFest 2010 starts Monday!

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Fishing at Mouth of Swan Creek Shadow Rock Beach Park
Forsyth, Missouri

Forsyth's picturesque Shadow Rock Beach Park created by new Bull Shoals Lake. Photo shows visiting anglers fishing at Junction of Swan Creek and the Lake. Once the location of site of Historical Forsyth, Missouri which was moved to top of the hill (left) when Dam was authorized.

Provenance: Unsure.

Want a boring postcard from Michael5000? Just ask -- he's got plenty!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Reading List: The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai
Helen DeWitt

The first thing to know about The Last Samurai is that there aren't any Samurais in it. Well, except in the sense that it makes much reference to, and is in a way structured around, the Akiro Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai. Of the two principle characters, one is passionately, perhaps obsessively, attached to the film, and the other reenacts, or thinks he reenacts in an allegorical sort of way, a few specific scenes from the film. It is a bit subtle, and I'm not sure I caught it all on the first reading, but I think we can safely say that the Kurosawa film is deeply interwoven into the narrative, and leave it at that.

No, wait. I can't leave it at that. Because for as much as The Seven Samurai is referenced in this book, virtually all of the referencing is to events in the first half of the movie. This is significant, because this focus on the anticipatory half of the film highlights how the characters in The Last Samurai are more or less frozen in inaction. They spent all their energy acquiring a treasure-house of knowledge, but are each for their own reasons unable to achieve anything meaningful with what they have learned. They spend so much time recruiting samurais, so to speak, that they never get around to defending the village.

Now, this all might be a little more clear if I told you what The Last Samurai is about. Here goes: It's about a single mother in London and her little boy, a child prodigy with a superhuman gift for languages. In the earlier stages of the novel, the mother's voice is dominant. She talks a lot about how difficult it is to raise a child who has an insatiable thirst for learning and no hope of interacting normally with peers.  We sympathize with her plight.  As the boy grows older, however, he gradually takes over the narrative and, seeing her through his eyes, we begin to realize that his mother is decidedly eccentric and probably a bit mad. As he begins to realize this himself, he goes out to search for alternative adult role models, armed with all the wisdom of a precocious 11 year old and a vast but highly eclectic knowledge base. The resulting encounters are funny, poignant, and quietly tragic.

Obviously, this is not your garden-variety third-person-omniscient novel. Each of the two primary characters speak in the first person, often about each other and often unreliably. They overlap and interrupt each other. Often, they tell stories about people they've met or read about, and the subjects of these tangential stories become their own first-person narrators and sometimes tell stories of their own. All of these narrative layers, occasionally interspersed with various documents and quotations, create something of a scrapbook effect. Since I'm still a little hungover from Ulysses, I can't help but see the direct or indirect influence of James Joyce in all of this, but perhaps I shouldn't evoke the U-word since there is nothing turgid about The Last Samurai. Indeed, for a book that takes on some rather bleak themes (such as "what's the point of even going on living in such an awful world anyway?") and allows its characters rather fewer triumphs than they might hope for, Samurai is quite funny. Certainly, it was engrossing enough to keep me up late three nights running. It is in fact quite brilliant and lovely.  I loved this book.

Sadly, The Last Samurai is still Helen DeWitt's only published novel, ten years later. Once you've read it, this will make you wonder more than usual about how much of the author's own experience of life is represented in her central characters.  It's none of our business, but we'll still wonder.  But, we won't be able to have that conversation until you've read the book. So get cracking!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

More Movies: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married
Johnathan Demme, 2008

I didn't have an official preconception of Rachel Getting Married because it wasn't really on the official More Movies list, nor even on the optional More Movies list. I watched this film on the advice of my attorney. As with In Bruges, I assumed from the title that it was a delightful romantic comedy.


Rachel gets married in Rachel Getting Married, all right, but she is only a supporting character in this quirky, original drama, and her wedding isn't so much the story as the setting. The central character is her sister Kym, a charming, intelligent, and deeply troubled woman who arrives in the busy bustle of Rachel's wedding with all the grace and subtlety of a cannonball. Her family must deal with her, and she with her family, while the inexorable force that is the wedding moves forward on its unalterable schedule. Weddings are special, strange times in the life of a family, when emotions -- joy, ideally, but all the other ones as well -- run at a feverish pitch. What Rachel Getting Married is "about," to the extent it is about anything, is how families and friends adjust and adapt to deep disruptions during these most vulnerable of moments.

Rachel's wedding itself is a marvelous confection, as lovely and idealized as the most fancifal of real-world wedding cakes. The families and friends who are gathered at her father's extremely large and well-appointed house are almost absurdly articulate, talented, charming, and culturally inclusive. It's a fantasy of the Best Wedding Ever, quite pleasant to observe in and of itself, but also serving as a remarkable backdrop for Kym's troubled state of mind, the gradual revelation of her disturbing past, and the increasingly complicated family dynamics that her presence catalyzes.

This is the kind of movie where the camera mingles freely with the characters, wandering through the house and yard catching snippets of action and conversation; even if the credits didn't include a big shout-out to Robert Altman, it would be easy to see his influence on the cinematography. Ebert's review includes an apt discussion of how the camera sees the wedding through Kim's point of view, not literally but psychologically. Characters who are important to her stand out; people she is not emotionally attached to slip into the crowd. When she wanders around the house, we often see it not from her adult height but filmed very low, from the perspective of a child who grew up there. Even time is presented in a kind of filmic stream-of-consciousness, with emotionally powerful events (eg. the rehearsal dinner) occupying lots of screen time, but with casual jumps over hours of less intense events.

Although Rachel Getting Married is not a plot-based movie, it is worth mentioning that Ebert's review, the imbd summary, and the Wiki article on the film all describe the plot incorrectly. [[Spoilers Ahoy!]] All three say that Kym is on temporary release from a rehab center to attend Rachel's wedding, and that the movie ends with her return to the center. However, it is clear at numerous points in the film that Kym has been released with the expectation that she is out for good. The ending of the film, moreover, is not as simple as all that. It certainly did not look to me, either from simple observation or in considering clues we were given at the beginning of the film, like it ended with Kym returning to the rehab center. In assuming she was, I think people are missing a major ambiguity. This film doesn't end with a simple period, it ends with a hanging question mark.

Prognosis: * * * * -- I've had so much to say about this movie that I haven't even mentioned that it is delightful and sorrowful both, immersive, charming, dazzling, and a shoo-in candidate for my best-of-the-decade list. I mean, if I were to make a best-of-the-decade list.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Your Wednesday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

17th St. Causeway -- Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

"Florida's Newest Major Attraction"

Main Arena and Show Tanks. Entirely enclosed stands with extensive seating capacity. Porpoises exhibit skill and reasoning to thrill and delight everyone.

Provenance: Unsure.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Story of Gokū and the Five Bat Kings: A Tale of the Forgotten Lands

I almost forgot about the Five Bats River, where the 5 mythical Bat Kings reside behind each of the 5 small waterfalls along the river. The myths date back to pre-Islamic days and are now more or less forgotten...
The tale of the Bat Kings is the foundational legend of classical pre-Islamic Gokuran culture. This telling is translated from the earliest and most elaborate surviving version, which appears on a 14th Century manuscript discovered during renovations of a Venetian chapel in the 1970s. It is thought to have found its way to Venice via Arab traders no later than the 1640s, and to have been placed in the chapel most likely by monks who could not read the document and were unaware of its significance.

The Venetian manuscript is quite singular in several respects. It is a transliteration of Old Lowland Gokuran in Arabic script, the only known document in this form. Physically, it is a parchment scroll fastened on plain rods carved from native New Guinea hardwoods. That it survived in nearly pristine condition in the damp environment of Venice for centuries is a tribute to the skills of the medieval Gokuran craftsmen who, through a process that is still not completely understood, somehow treated their product to ensure its durability. Oddly, the manuscript is written out along the length of the parchment, perpendicular to the normal direction of scroll text. It is difficult to imagine why it was laid out in this fashion. However, the alignment must have been carefully planned and composed, as the text fits precisely within the long, shallow rectangle of the unrolled scroll.

What inspired the original scribe to record the tale at all, let alone in this odd arrangement, is unknown. However, its authenticity is corroborated by its similarity to a number of later recorded versions of the Gokū myth. The significance of the tale is reflected in its durability; as late as the 19th Century, folklorists found a version of the story still in currency among the older rural Gokurans. It is the only legend from the pre-Islamic period in Gokura that we can confidently feel we have inherited in a complete, intact form.

The Story of Gokū and the Five Bat Kings

In the time before the sun, Gokū was chief among the people,1 and all was dark along the river. The sea was dark, and the forest was dark, and no crops could grow along the valley, for there was no sun.

And Gokū said to the people, “It is not proper for us to live like the blind fish of the cave!2 Let us travel up the river, where we might find the sun.” But the people were afraid, except for four warriors, first sons of first sons of four well-regarded3 families, who said to Gokū, “We will go.”

the first bat king

All the day, the five warriors travelled up the river, until they came to the place of the great falls in the river there.4 And in those days, in the cave behind the falls, there lived a mighty bat king! Many were the strange monsters5 at his command, and he was older than time, and he was as large as a goat, and much feared in the valley.

Gokū passed through the waterfall6 and fell to his knees.7 “King among bats,” cried Gokū, “we are men from the valley, and we seek the sun.” “You will not see the sun as I live,” replied the bat king, and he struck out at Gokū with his teeth and his claws, and his strange monsters swarmed out from their hidden holes to join in the fight. The battle raged fiercely for an hour, and the bat king was slain. His wings were tattered, and his spirit was broken. “You men of the valley fight well, “he said, “but beware: there is one among you who will betray the rest.” And then he died.

The next day, Gokū readied to set forth again. But one of the warriors, Maktar, said “Why should we fight and tempt death for this thing called the sun that no one has ever seen? As it has been, let it remain.” And Maktar left Gokū then, and turned his back on his companions, and he became the father of the men of the forest,8 strong hunters and crafty finders of things, who are not wise and do not know how to grow food in the fields of the valley.9

the second bat king

The next day, Gokū and his three remaining warriors set out again. They travelled up the river for three days, and left the valley, and came to a place where two waterfalls come down from the cliff, left and right.10 Behind the left-hand waterfall there was a cave, and in this cave behind the falls there lived a second mighty bat king! Many wild beasts were at his service, and he was older than time, and he was as large as a water buffalo, and his minions feared him greatly.

Gokū passed through the waterfall and fell to his knees. “King among bats,” cried Gokū, “we are men from the valley, and we seek the sun.” “You will not see the sun as I live,” replied the second bat king, and he struck out at Gokū with his teeth and his claws like the first had done, and his wild beasts swarmed out of their forests and meadows to join in the fight. The battle raged fiercely all through the day, and the second bat king was slain. His wings were tattered, and his spirit was broken.11 “You men of the valley fight well,” he said, just as the other had. “But beware: there is one among you who will betray the rest.” And then he too died.

The next day, Gokū readied to set forth again. But one of the warriors, Oetal, said “The beasts and monsters are too powerful. Who is to say that we will not be slain? I am afraid.”12 And Oetal left Gokū then, and ran from his companions, leaving them in danger. He became the father of the people of the mountains,13 cowardly men who tremble in the passes, who do not build good huts or eat grain.

the third bat king

The next day, Gokū and his two companions set out again. They travelled up the river for five days, into the wild mountains, and came to a place where the river poured over three high falls.14 Behind the middle waterfall there was a cave, and in this cave behind the falls there lived a third mighty bat king! Spirits of life and death15 were at his service, and he was older than time, and he was as large as a hut, and the mountain peaks themselves lived in fear of him.

Gokū passed through the waterfall and fell to his knees. “King among bats,” cried Gokū, “we are men from the valley, and we seek the sun.” “You will not see the sun as I live,” replied the third bat king, and he struck out at Gokū with his teeth and his claws like the first two had done, and the spirits of life and death manifested themselves16 to join in the fight. The battle raged fiercely for two long days, and the third bat king was slain. His wings were tattered, and his spirit was broken. “You men of the valley fight well, “he said, just as the others had. “But beware: there is one among you who will betray the rest.” And then he too died.

The next day, Gokū readied to set forth again. But one of the warriors, Ūtū, snuck away from the others and stole gold from the cave of the third bat king. He stuffed his robes with coins of gold,17 and filled a sack with gems, and strapped seven great swords to himself, and ran from the others without a word. Ūtū became the father of the men who live over the sea,18 men who love only gold and think only of ways to own good things without plowing the land or doing honorable deeds.19

the fourth bat king

The next day, Gokū and his one last companion, the warrior Hurn, set out again. They travelled up the river for seven days, until they came to a broad waterfall where the river plunges into a canyon from a long lake.20 The cave behind this falls was damp and the water dripped from the ceiling like rain, and in it there lived a fourth mighty bat king! At his command were strange monsters, wild beasts, and spirits of life and death, and he was older than time, and he was as twice as large as the bat king that Gokū had slain before, and was much feared by all of the men, everywhere.

Gokū passed through the waterfall and fell to his knees. “King among bats,” cried Gokū, “we are men from the valley, and we seek the sun.” “You will not see the sun as I live,” replied the fourth bat king, and he struck out at Gokū with his teeth and his claws, and his strange monsters swarmed out of their hidden holes, and his wild beasts swarmed out of their forest and meadows, and the spirits of life and death manifested themselves, all to join in the fight. The battle raged fiercely for three long days, and the fourth bat king was slain. His wings were tattered, and his spirit was broken. “You men of the valley fight well, “he said, “but beware, there is one of you who will betray the other.” And then he died.

The next day, Gokū readied himself to set forth again. But his last companion, Hurn, suddenly turned on Gokū, swinging his great axe. They fought by the shores of the long lake all through that day and all through that night, and in the end Gokū defeated Hurn. And Hurn21 was the father of all bandits, and pirates, and unlawful men, but because he was killed there by Gokū, there are no bandits, or pirates, or unlawful men among the people.22

the fifth bat king

The next day, Gokū set out alone. He travelled up the river for eleven days, until he came to a towering waterfall where the river plunges down the face of the mountain.23 In the cave behind this falls, there lived a fifth mighty bat king! At his command were more strange monsters, wild beasts, and spirits of life and death than Gokū had slain in all of the caves before, and he was older than time, and he was again as twice as large as the bat king that Gokū had slain before, and was much feared by all the world and stars.

Gokū passed through the waterfall and fell to his knees. “King among bats,” cried Gokū, “I am a man from the valley, the last of those who set out to seek the sun.” “You will not see the sun as I live,” replied the fifth bat king, and he struck out at Gokū with his teeth and his claws, and his strange monsters swarmed out of their hidden holes, and his wild beasts swarmed out of their forest and meadows, and the spirits of life and death manifested themselves, all to join in the fight. Gokū was sore pressed. The battle raged fiercely for seven long days, and the fifth bat king was slain. His wings were tattered, and his spirit was broken. “You have fought well, Gokū,” he said. “Your people shall see the sun.” And then he died.

Gokū becomes the sun

Gokū climbed the face of the mountain, and looked out at all the world and stars. He climbed until he was at the high place of the mountain, and could climb no farther. And then he continued to climb, and as he did, he began to glow, and the higher he climbed into the sky, the brighter he shone. And when it was noon on the first day, Gokū realized that he had become the sun, and he smiled down on the people. He gave light to the men of the forest, and to the men of the mountains, and even to the men who live over the seas, but it was only the people24 who learned to grow food in the fields of the valley. And Gokū smiled upon the plants growing in the fields, and they grew, and the people gathered the food from the fields and became strong and wise.


1chief among the people – Or perhaps, “the strongest man among the people.”
2the blind fish of the cave – Blind cave-fish are commonplace in eastern New Guinea. As the story seems to suggest, caves are found frequently in the landscape of Gokura and the surrounding regions.
3well-regarded – The adjective seems to imply aristocratic or “noble” families.
4the great falls in the river there – “The Falls” – they are not otherwise named – are an obvious and well known geographic feature in Gokura, about 10 km from the city’s center on the Five Bats River. There is indeed a shallow cave behind the waterfall, which is a sheer plunge of about four meters. The location can be visited today in a public park, which also features a heroic statue of the mythical Gokū.
5monsters – The original word describes a powerful animal, but does not carry the same negative moral connotation implied by the English “monster.”
6passed through the waterfall – Here, and in subsequent iterations, the text reads iGokūrata, “Gokū emerged.” The conventional interpretation is that he emerges from the sheet of falling water into the cave interior; however, some scholars speculate that the verb connotes an “emergence” into an alternative, quasi-divine plane of existence.
7fell to his knees – Here, as subsequently, the text emphasizes Gokū’s properly respectful approach to the bat king, who is by definition royal, “well-regarded” (see fn.3, above). It is significant that the (identical) conversations between Gokū and the bat kings are conducted in a polite and respectful register, not in the confrontational register that would also have been available to a speaker of Old Lowland Gokuran.
8men of the forest – in Gokuran, Maktī. Cf. Makt, “forest.”
9do not know how to grow food in the fields of the valley – The classical Gokura associated wisdom and intelligence with the ability to cultivate food. The skills of neighboring forest hunter-gatherers are here dismissed as uncivilized and unsophisticated.
10two waterfalls come down from the cliff, left and right – This description has not been convincingly correlated with a real-world location.
11his spirit was broken – Here and elsewhere, literally, “he had lost his arms and legs.” This idiom, rendered literally, resonates oddly when applied to a giant bat.
12Who is to say that we will not be slain? I am afraid. – These two sentences are spoken in the register that signifies a child speaking with an adult.
13people of the mountains – in Gokuran, Oetalīī. Cf. Ota, “mountain pass.”
14three high falls – Likely a reference to an unnamed series of falls with a total drop of about 12 meters on the Five Bats, about 70 river kilometers above the Gokura/Papua New Guinea border.
15Spirits of life and death – This has been interpreted by others variously as “ghost,” “ghouls,” “demons,” or “evil spirits.” The original, however, contains neither the implication of a post-death human apparition, nor of a morally evil entity, but rather a morally neutral supernatural being with powers over human mortality.
16manifested themselves – Or simply “appeared.”
17stuffed his robes with coins of gold – There may be an element of humor intended here. Since classical Gokuran “coins” were roughly the size and shape of a modern hockey puck, and since period garments are thought not to have had pockets, Ūtū would have had to remove his robe to carry out this action. He is thus depicted as abasing and humiliating himself by running off naked with his stolen treasure.
18men who live over the sea – The passage translates literally as roughly “men who, from far waves, arrive from their towns.” The name Ūtū is somewhat akin to the word Ūnutin, “boat,” but this may be simply coincidental.
19men who love only gold… – Even before the Islamic period, the Gokurans are known to have been heavily involved in interregional trade. Their distrust of their trade partners – whom, as non-farmers, they would have considered barbarians – is manifest here.
20a broad waterfall where the river plunges into a canyon from a long lake – Easily identifiable as the falls at the outlet of Utūra Lake, on what is today considered a tributary of the Five Bats. However, there is no cave behind these falls in reality.
21Hurn – Hurn is not a word in Old Lowland Gokuran, but to a speaker it would suggest a negation of the word Hurinī, “Guest.” If this is meant to cast the character as a “not-guest,” the implication would seem to be of a person who is incapable of interacting with others according to social norms.
22there are no bandits, or pirates, or unlawful men among the people – The illogic of this passage has suggested to some scholars that it is meant ironically, or humorously. “The people” refers of course only to the Gokurans themselves.
23a towering waterfall where the river plunges down the face of the mountain – There are numerous waterfalls on upper tributary creeks in the Five Bats system that may match this description.
24the people – Meaning, of course, the Gokurans.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Wall Maps, part I.a

When I posted my map of the Belgian Congo a few days back, several people wanted to see the map that inspired me to take it out of storage, Niece #1's vintage map of Brazil.  Niece #1 delivers:

I hardly need point out that everything about this map is heart-stoppingly wonderful, from the inset elevation map in the lower left to the almost self-parodic nationalism of the emblem in the upper left, to the big red arrows indicating ocean-borne exports, to the inset hemisphere, in case you wondered where Brazil was relative to other places.

I hardly need point out that not every college junior decorates their rooms like this.

Next on "The Wall Maps": What's good for the Michigoose...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Black Hand Tunnel, near Newark, Ohio

In earliest recorded times Black Hand Rock, on the bank of the Licking River near Newark, Ohio, bore the outline of a giant human hand, reputedly of Indian origin and identified in legend with the blighted romance of a tribal chieftain. A highway now traverses what was the first electric railway tunnel in the United States.

Provenance: Unsure.

Want a boring postcard from Michael5000? Just ask -- he's got plenty!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Flag Friday XVI

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: Without comment, he gives it an "B-", 68/100.

Michael5000: It's refreshing to see a red, gold, and green African flag not getting accused of plagiarism.  This spares me having to retell yet again the story of how the African flags got their stripes.  Longtime readers won't be surprised that I'm not crazy about this one.  Too 2:1ish.

Grade: C+


Parsons: Says it's "original," and gives it a "B-", 65/100.

Michael5000: Now here's a red, gold, and green flag that could just barely be accused of plagiarism, since it can't directly buy into the pan-African thing.  You realized that Guyana isn't in Africa, right?  O.K., O.K., just checking.

Unfortunately nicknamed "The Golden Arrowhead," the Guyanan flag was designed by a Massachusetts consultant.  He didn't include the white and black piping though, which was added later.  Good call.  The black and white make the flag.  It's handsome, crisp, and -- especially regionally -- admirably distinctive and uncluttered.

Grade (for the current flag): A-


Parsons: Praising that it is "simple" and has "good colours," he assigns a "B", 70/100.

Michael5000: The civil flag of Haiti is certainly simple as can be, and I guess red and blue are "good colors."  Trouble is, from what I can tell from perusing the internets, nobody nor their dog uses the civil flag of Haiti.  Like many other countries in its part of the world, Haiti favors a much fussier state flag:

The business in the center, which includes no less than six Haitian flags, which presumably have among them 36 Haitian flags, which have 216 Haitian flags, which have....  duuuuude......   ...but wait, I digress.  The business in the center, which includes some cannons, a scroll, anchors, bayoneted rifles, Haitian flags (duuuude...), and a palm tree, seems to appear in a wide range of sizes relative to the flag as a whole.

There was apparently a minor flap at the 1936 Olympics when Liechtenstein and Haiti realized they were flying the same (civil) flag -- Liechtenstein, with much fewer people and a more recent design, stepped down and stuck a crown on their blue-and-red, which was mighty gracious of them in my book.  The more common state flag of Haiti certainly gets points for being distinctive -- it is immediately recognizable among the world's banners.

It loses some points for being busy, failing both the Betsy Ross test and the kid-with-crayons tests.

Grade (for the state flag): B-


Parsons: Accusing Honduras of both "plagiarism" and of having "too many stars," Parson allows this flag a "B-", 68/100.
Michael5000: Plagiarism?  What the what?  Because it's similar to the flags of neighboring countries El Salvador and Nicaragua?  Well, um, they used to be a single country?  And they made adjustments to the flag they were used to when they separated into the modern independent countries?  So that's not plagiarism?  I mean, geez, how are we going to make any progress in vexillological criticism if you don't check these things out, Dr. Parsons?

The Honduran flag is certainly not jaw-dropping in its special beauty, and it probably looks a bit washed out against the Central American sky.  But I say, three cheers for a Latin American country that uses its civil flag as its state flag, and doesn't feel the need for a persnickety coat of arms on either of them.  Hip hip!

Grade: B+


Parsons: Without comment, it gets a "B-", 68/100.

Michael5000: The Hungarian tricolor rocks.  The colors are firmly associated with all things Hungarian -- check out any bottle of paprika -- and the dominant red and dark green sandwich the white center stripe in a perfect balance of color value.

After the second world war, a Stalinist device was added to the center of the flag.  As things lightened up later in the century, it became a popular gesture of defiance to rip those puppies off -- they were too fussy! oh, and symbolic of a totalitarian nightmare -- and you had lots of flags that looked like this:

There is a movement afoot in the Hungarian government to get some sort of state seal back on the flag.  Bad call!  You've got it good, Hungary.  Stick with the tricolor, the whole tricolor, and nothing but the tricolor.

Grade: A

Thursday, October 14, 2010

More Movies: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Andrew Dominik, 2007

Ebert: 3 1/2 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

My Official Preconception: This was on the optional list, so this is an unofficial preconception: I had a sense that it would be a Western drama about the assassination of Jesse James by the purported coward Robert Ford.


There are, among real movie critics, two schools of thought about this movie.  One is that it is a brilliantly crafted and deeply effective psychological drama.  The other is that is a bit of a muddle, visually very pretty but difficult to follow and a bit of a chore to watch.  Both opinions are correct.

Let's start with the weaknesses.  The movie (hereinafter AJJCRF) aims at historical veracity, and seems to hit the mark for the most part.  It also details the complex relationships among a dozen or so men from the same social class over a series of several months.  They all, with great historical accuracy, dress pretty much the same, have similar names, and have similar concerns and mannerisms.  Although some attempt has been made to sort them out by haircut, the passage of time demands that hair grow out and beards come and go.  As a result of all this accuracy, it is essentially impossible to keep track of who everyone is, let alone why they are sometimes very nervous in each other's presence, or why they occasionally feel the need to shoot each other.  Occasional expository voice-overs reminiscent of the narration in a Ken Burns documentary completely fail to clarify anything.

All of this is fairly frustrating, of course, but if you have the patience to just roll with the confusion it won't really matter in the end.  Instead of trying to figure out what the characters are up to, I advise kicking back and just enjoying the scenary.  For AJJCRF is the kind of film that I think of as a true "moving picture" -- its sheer visual beauty is really quite something.  There is plenty of very attractive time lapse photography (which will have you chanting "Koy-yan-is-qat-si" if you are of a certain frame of mind), but also a lovely range of visual effects that mimic 19th Century photography.  The color palette is elegantly spare, creating a consistent mood of bleak decline.  Check out the scene where Jesse James and his family walk to church; it serves almost no narrative function, but it is so goddamn pretty it nearly took my breath away.   Serious.

The AJJCRF soundtrack is a generally effective partner in the business of mood-creation, but I would note in passing that it is possible to overdo it with the hurdy-gurdy.

Anyway, back to the narrative.  You have the very famous and very excellent actor Brad Pitt playing the notorious outlaw Jesse James, and this misdirects us a bit.  It makes us assume that this is a film about Jesse James.  It's not, really.  True to the title, this is a film about Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James.  More than two hours of screen time is spent establishing the strange relationship between these two men, showing the psychological decline of the outlaw and establishing why Ford, who admires James more than is entirely healthy, ultimately chooses to kill him.  The best stretch of the movie -- the point at which it redeems itself for its flaws in pacing and storytelling -- is the coda, the portion after James is dead, when Ford must face the strange consequences of having killed a celebrity criminal figure.

Prognosis: * * * 1/4 -- Well, why not.  I can't decide whether to give it 3 or 3 1/2 stars, so this will reflect my views precisely while vexing KarmaSartre at no extra cost.

This came close to being a great movie.  If a little more work had been put into distinguishing the characters and clarifying the action of the first 4/5ths of the film -- or perhaps if its running time had simply been trimmed down a bit -- its superb strengths would not have to be weighed against its significant flaws.  Very highly recommended for those interested in American history, the glamorization of criminality, cinematic photography, and/or Brad Pitt.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Your Wednesday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Cristalli di Gesso con Zolfo e Calcite
Miniera Ca'88 Bernardi
Sassoferrato (An)

Provenance: PostCrossing Postcard IT-99359, sent from Italy by PostCrossing user Lucyan.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Forgotten Lands: Gokura

Islamic Republic of Gokura 

Capital: Gokura
Population: 742,486 (2000 census)
Area: 3,200 km2
Independence: 1946

Economy: Shipping, finance, and light industry dominate an internationally oriented economy. Agricultural production is exclusively for local consumption. Gokura prints no money of its own; the local merchants and cashiers are willing and almost uncannily able to accept, calculate a rate for, and make change in any significant world currency.
Per Capita Income: US$43,340
Languages: Kurakura, Chinese, English, Malay
Literacy Rate: 98%

If the impossibly rugged and remote island of New Guinea is to a certain extent a world of its own, then this prosperous little country occupying the lower valley of the Five Bats River is the least typical part of that world. Papua New Guinea, the country that occupies most of the eastern half of the island, is one of the least technologically developed countries on Earth, but Gokura is a gleaming oasis of modernity. Where Papua New Guinea is loosely governed by a weak central government, in Gokura the state is deeply involved in the lives of its citizens. Papua New Guinea is overwhelmingly Christian and largely off the beaten track; Gokura is Muslim and, at nearly the eastern tip of the island, sits on a natural bottleneck for oceangoing traffic.

Converted by traders and missionaries in the 13th Century, Gokura represents the very easternmost spread of traditional Islam. Held by the Portuguese during the colonial era, it was incorporated into Japan’s military empire in the 1930s, gaining independence after liberation by Australian troops during the Second World War. Though much smaller and less discussed than other Asian growth economies, it has developed a similar prosperity over the last half-century through success in shipping, manufacturing, financial services, and technology. A rare high-profile moment was a 1998 cover story – “Asia’s Other Tiger” – in the business magazine The Economist.

Gokura is a self-avowed Islamic state. Non-observance is tacitly tolerated, but public practice of faiths other than Islam is strictly prohibited. The city and its surrounding farms convey an impression of immaculate order, tidiness, and cleanliness. The government ascribes the extremely low crime rate to a faith-based public education system and strict enforcement of traditional Islamic law.

Flag: Intersecting green diagonals, trimmed with gold on official banners (but not on the less expensive flags seen on many schools and public buildings), against a black background. No official account of the flag’s design is known, but presumably the green was chosen to represent Islam.

National Anthem: “Where the Shining River Falls.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

Element of the Month: Praseodymium!

October's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 140.908 amu
Melting Point: 935 °C
Boiling Point: 3520 °C

"Praseodymium" is a pretty fancy-pants name for a chemical element, especially one at the relatively low element number of 59. It is -- brace yourself -- yet another silvery colored metal, just like everything else, although it does oxidize easily, which often gives it a light green surface. It oxidizes so easily, in fact, that if you leave a chunk of it lying around in the open air, it will just turn into a pile of powdery greenish Praseodymium Oxide within a year, so like your mom always said, take good care of your Praseodymium. Don't leave it on the stove, either, as it burns at 150°C. Best is to store it in mineral oil until you need it, actually.

This stuff is pretty darn rare -- it's about as common as thorium, samarium, and gadolinium here on the Earth's crust -- and only occurs in minerals with other rare metalic elements. Because of this, it wasn't isolated until 1885, when it was collared by the immortal Baron Carl Auer von Welsbach, father of the modern cigarette lighter. It did not have a lot of obvious commercial applications, although it was found that you could use its oxides to dye glass a chartreuse color that could also be achieved through far cheaper means. That discovery didn't really go anywhere.

The Centerfold!

Modern applications are few in number and rather specialized. Like everything else, it gets thrown into alloys for aircraft engines. When alloyed with nickel, it somehow allows brainy science guys to generate low temperatures very close to absolute zero. The flint in your lighter -- thank you, Baron von Welsbach! -- is 4% Praseodymium, and it's used in ceramic dyes, to make things yellow, and in welder's goggles, where it filters out yellow light. And most interestingly, it's used in the arc lights used in movie lighting and projection, so it enhances our quality of life that way (depending on the movie, of course). You could live without it, though -- it is biologically inert as far as anyone can tell.

If you want to experiment with Praseodymium, be prepared to develop an intuitive sense of how hard it is to isolate. You're looking at around US$5000 per kilogram, roughly the price of really good saffron, choice Beluga caviar, or clandestine rhino horn. But only about a quarter of the price of good cocaine, apparently, although I find online information on this point to be shamefully disorganized.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Bellingham, Washington

Provenance: Unsure.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Bear Chronicles

Aboard the barge Monster
The Oxford Canal, August 2004.

The Wall Maps, part I

Niece #1 recently acquired a vintage wall map of Brazil that is so stunningly beautiful that when I saw it for the first time I was shut down mid-sentence and just stood there, mouth open, gaping at it.  

This inspired me to bring out of cold storage, and find a hanging space for, one of my treasures.

Now, the "Belgian Congo" was one of the great unambiguous atrocities of modern world history, so as a historical artifact this map is tainted by what your philosopher of cartography might call its reification of King Leopold's personal slave state.   

But damn, it's beautiful.

And in addition to the rich historical specifics, it has an awful lot to say about time, change, and the enduring, and about how the way we describe the world really does turn out to color the way we experience it and the way that things happen in it, even if not necessarily in the strict linguistic sense.

Check this out: the LEGENDE, along with its lovely TEINTES HYPOSMETRIQUES, locates Missions catholque et Missions protestante.  On a map 2500 kilometers across!  

And maybe this is what makes this map so fascinating: it tells us so much more about the mindset of its makers than it does about the place they thought they were describing.