Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Wednesday Quiz II:5 -- Twentieth Century Battles

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season II -- Quiz 5

Twentieth Century Battles

The Wednesday Quiz is a "closed-book" test of knowledge and intuition; please do not look up answers, ask others for help, or answer as a team.

Questions about the rules and the ~Fabulous Prizes~ are answered here.


This week's Quiz is an is-it-or-isn't-it game about something that's really kind of an oxymoron. The idea of a "battle" -- two armies engaging each other in a specific, limited context of time and place -- was pretty much obsolete by the 1910s. So we are using the word "battle" here in a broad context to indicate any sustained military unpleasantness. Having said that, for each grim little tale,

Is It or Isn't It an Actual (and more or less accurately described) Twentieth-Century Battle?

1. Antietam (1941) -- As the French Army retreated in disarray at the beginning of World War II, nearly two thirds of its soldiers were caught near the village of Antietam between Italian forces advancing from the south and German forces advancing from the north. Surrounded, outnumbered, and cut off from supplies, the French capitulated in what is still the "biggest surrender" -- measured in number of POWs captured -- in history. Paris would fall to the Germans eight days later.

2. Bangladesh (1971) -- From its declaration of independence from (West) Pakistan in March to eventual victory in December, much of Bangladesh was a field of continuous chaos and violence. Killing of civilians by the U.S.-backed Pakistani troops was a commonplace, and although the figure of three million fatalities claimed by Bangladesh is probably somewhat high, the figure of 26,000 claimed by a official Pakistani inquiry is generally considered extremely low.

3. Bay of Pigs (1969) -- Often thought of as merely a humiliating fiasco for the United States, the Bay of Pigs in fact exacted an enormous toll of military and civilian casualties. Preliminary bombing of the heavily-populated landing area caused, according to Cuban estimates, nearly a quarter of a million deaths.

4. Borodino (1903) -- As Greek armies steadily drove troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire north during the Second Balkan War, the Italian army was sent across the Adriatic to support the Archduke's cause. Arriving in the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula weeks before their supplies of food, heavy weapons, and ammunition were ready, the Italians were quickly surrounded in the Borodino Valley and attacked with withering, continuous artillery and machine-gun fire. Roughly 235,000 soldiers and civilians perished.

5. Kampala (1951-53) -- After Uganda's Idi Amin recklessly invaded his southern neighbor, the larger and better equipped Ethiopian army quickly shattered his armed forces, launched a counter-invasion, and laid siege to his capital, Kampala. Somewhere between 600,000 and 900,000 died before international pressure led to a lifting of the siege two years later.

6. Leningrad (1941-4) -- Nazi Germany, with a little help from Finland, lays siege to the Soviet Union's second city. Close to a million soldiers and another million civilians die from cold, starvation, and combat in what was probably the Century's single deadliest sustained battle.

7. Okinawa (1945) -- The largest of the many amphibious assaults in the Pacific Theater of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa was an attempt by the Americans and their allies to secure a base for the bombing and presumed invasion of Japan. In addition to tens of thousands of American casualties and more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers killed, an enormous proportion of the Okinawan civilian population died during the battle.

8. Passchendaele (1917) -- From June to November, Allied troops assailed the German trenches in hopes of capturing the Belgian village of Passchendaele, the idea being that this would force U-Boats to stop using Belgian seaports. Over the course of six months, and at the cost of 140,000 combat deaths, the Allies managed to advance five miles and capture the village. Except, it turns out that U-Boats hadn't actually been using Belgian seaports. The Germans recaptured the village at the Battle of the Lys, five months later.

9. Stalingrad (1942-3) -- Troops of Nazi Germany and their allies occupied most of this strategically significant Soviet City in the fall, but found themselves trapped when Soviet armies cut off their supply lines at the beginning of the cold, cold winter. Holding the city was a logistical impossibility, but German dictator Adolph Hitler, a big advocate of the power of positive thinking, insisted that his troops do it anyway. Estimates vary widely, but well over a million Soviet, Germany, Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian soldiers died in the engagement.

10. Somme (1916) -- Estimated as the 10th deadliest battle of the 20th Century, and the deadliest outside of the Russian Front of World War II. The British and French attempt to break out of World War I's stalemate of trench warfare. The British famously lose some 60,000 soldiers on the first day of the attack; after an eventual million or so combined deaths on either side, the battle ended with the Allies having advanced several miles in some locations.

Submit your answers in the comments!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Great Movies: "Chinatown"

Roman Polanski, 1973.

Previous Contact: I have watched Chinatown more times than I've watched any other movie. Back when I taught Geography, I showed it regularly for classes as a dramatization of human ecology in a modern context. I also watched it with Mrs.5000 only a little over two years ago, just before beginning the Great Movie project. I didn't really look forward to seeing it again so soon, great though I knew it is, and in fact I considered recusing myself from it on the grounds that I'd already watched it to death.

- - - - - -

And yet, it took me less than thirty seconds to lose myself once again in this lushly realized story of crime and water in 1937 Los Angeles. It is a beautiful movie, in which every detail of sets, wardrobe, and cinematography is absolutely immaculate. Technically, it is very nearly a perfect movie, and at, what -- 10th? 12th? 14th? -- viewing, there are still plenty of surprises and subtleties to discover in the script and in the sets.

Chinatown was conceived as an homage to earlier film noir detective movies such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Like them, it features a tough, wisecracking private eye who wallows in the corrupt, seedy margins of human life -- in this case often by photographing people having sex with people not their spouses -- but who manages to preserve his own personal code of honor. Like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, he falls for a beautiful but troubled woman with too many secrets, and complicated hijinx ensue.

This kind of homage could have been the recipe for a very corny movie indeed, but Chinatown not only honors but surpasses its predecessors. Much of the credit goes to the script. The Big Sleep was stylish but notoriously incoherent, and The Maltese Falcon was fun in spite of a dumb, contrived plot. Chinatown, by contrast, is fiercely intelligent as a well-made whodunit, as a moral drama, and as a kind of social criticism (the kinds of conflicts over water and land dramatized in the movie are central to the history of the American Southwest).

Too, Jack Nicholson inhabits a stunning performance as Jake Geddes, the private eye at the center of the mystery. Geddes embodies all of the cliches of the pulp fiction detective, but he is also strangely complex enough to be realistic. He is mercurial, prickly, disillusioned. At times he is vulgar and insensitive -- forcing his uncomfortable colleagues to listen to a joke about "screwing like a Chinaman" at the worst possible moment -- but at other times he reveals a sharp, literate intelligence. "Look," he tells his rich, highly educated client. "I do matrimonial work. It's my métier. When a wife tells me that she's happy that her husband is cheating on her, it runs contrary to my experience." "Matrimonial work"? His "métier"? This is a guy who knows how to talk to a wide range of people.

Most of the classic B&W noir movies ended, if not exactly happily, at least with a reasonably comfortable state of affairs. Chinatown ends incredibly bleakly. You could say that this makes it true to the downbeat mood that underlies the whole film noir concept. Or, it could be argued that it's a miserable, depressing way to end a film, unkind to the characters and the audience alike. You make the call!

Plot: A private eye is suckered into disgracing a water department official who stands in the way of a complicated piece of real estate fraud. When he finds out he's been duped and the official turns up murdered, he decides to go after the people behind the crime. Can one man stand alone against the corruption of the rich and powerful?

Images: Lushly filmed in a kind of lightly sepiatone color that captures the otherness of the past but also presents the late thirties more or less the way they must have looked in real life. Made in 1973, Chinatown was about the past of only 36 years earlier -- most of those working on the movie knew the setting very well, since it was the one they grew up in. The movie is now 37 years old, which is a remarkable reminder of how much the pace of social and, in many ways, technological change has slowed since the 1960s. The world has changed a lot between 1973 and today, but it changed A LOT between 1937 and 1973.

Dialog: There is not a line wasted in this movie, and there are very few lines that don't carry new resonance the second or third time you hear them. The acting and delivery is incredibly strong from the leads almost down to the last extra. I say "almost" only because there is one conversation, between Geddes and a little boy on a horse, that rings false. In most movies, you wouldn't even notice a problem, but Chinatown is so otherwise exquisitely made that this imperfection always makes me wince a little.

Prognosis: Chinatown is the best film ever made that you might with good reason really, really hate. The plot is important, and demands a lot of attention to follow, so it's definitely not a good choice for those who like to watch movies for sheer escapism. The character of Geddes is pretty perfectly rendered, but you might find yourself really disliking him and his masculine bravado. Women (and men) get slapped around quite a bit. The ending is not exactly going to lift your spirits. Against this, all I can say to recommend it is that it is one of the very finest movies of all time.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Flag Friday V

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.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Parsons: He dislikes its "corporate logo" look and its "too many stars," and calls it "too busy." He gives it a “C+”, 64/100.

Michael5000: Yeah, I'm kind of with Dr. Parsons on this one. What I don't think he realizes -- although he probably wouldn't like it if he did -- is that, if I'm not mistaken, there is a map element to the still relatively new B&H banner. The yellow shape is Bosnia. Do you see it? With the stars kind of where the Dalmation coast of Croatia would be? No? Well, maybe it's just me.

Well, anyway. It is indeed very corporate-looking, kind of what I might expect from the flag of Lufthansa or something. Also, I find the 2:1 proportions disconcerting. Tooooo loooooong!

Grade: C


Parsons: Praising "good colours" and its "simple" quality, he gives it “B+”, 79/100.

Michael5000: I'm partial to the flag of Botswana. I like the way it takes the tricolor -- the rock-solid standard of flag design -- and very subtly changes it up with those thin white stripes. Nice. I find the colors pleasing and distinctive, as well, at least in isolation -- Botswana's flag certainly won't be confused with its neighbors. It strikes me, though, that in actual use the Botswanan flag might not cut an especially spectacular figure against the perennially sunny southern African skies. Here, I found a photo:

See my point?

Grade: B+


Parsons: "Starmap original but atrocious. Worst flag of any independent nation state." Disliking the writing and calling the whole flag "too busy," he assigns a "D-", 35/100.

Michael5000: In general, Parsons and I share a distaste of fussy detail and of writing on flags, so I can kind of see where he is coming from. At the same time, his dismissal of Brazil's flag is a bit over the top. The starmap here is no more "atrocious" than the starmap on the flag of Parsons' native New Zealand -- it's merely a light blue circle with an asymmetrical pattern of that most common of flag elements, the star. The country's motto, a rather hopeful one at that, is spelled out in a block, san-serif font, making the whole flag within the reach of a Betsy Ross used to working in small-scale applique. Too, she or he would only need four colors of fabric -- this simply isn't as busy a flag as Parsons makes it out to be. It passes the kid-with-crayons test without any trouble at all; it would be fun to draw, and no one's going to sweat the details of star location.

Dr. Parsons, writing from the Eastern Hemisphere, may also be unaware of how popular the Brazilian banner is here in the Americas. Like another people from a large American country, the Canadians, Brazilians love them their flag and tend to display it proudly. From my own American city, perhaps 4000 miles from the nearest Brazilian border, I bet I see at least one Brazilian flag every day, if I were paying attention, slapped on bumper stickers or signs or t-shirts by people who miss, love, or just idealize the South American superpower. The light blue circle within a yellow diamond within a green field is attractive, terrifically distinctive, and immediately recognizable. It is, whatever the details within that blue circle, inarguably among the most successful flags of any independent nation state.

Grade: A

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Our Darkest Hour!

You have probably noticed that the L&TM5K is published exclusively online. This conserves paper resources, saving dozens of trees daily. Why? Because I am totally into loving the Earth, that's why!

Also, I really enjoy behavior that smacks of the arbitrary. So for both of these reasons, The Life and Times of Michael5000 supports EarthHour2010.

The idea is that this Saturday night, at 8:30 local time, you turn out your lights for an hour. This will save a little bit of electricity, and, I suppose, make you feel kind of like you are part of a worldwide movement for positive change. And to a certain extent, this may well be true. I suspect that it is also intended to inspire you to donate to the World Wildlife Fund, or whatever it's calling itself now. Which would be handsome of you, of course.

(There is also a map on which you can sign up to "help your state turn color, and unite with the rest of the country." You might think that this kind of thing would be right up my alley, but actually the excitement of, um, "helping my state turn color" is kind of ruined for me by the fact that the map's legend is totally weak. If you wanted to get me excited about changing my state's color, I'd have to know what the color indicated. Duh! Also, I have no particular desire for an daily email from the World Wildlife Fund for the rest of my threescore and ten.)

To be honest, it mostly just sounds kind of fun to turn out all the lights. I'm going to go all out, too -- ALL the lights are going off! Also the computers! And anything else electric! With the exception of clocks, which would be a real pain to reset! We'll be reading by candlelight like we was Abe Lincoln or something!! Um... pending Mrs.5000's approval, of course.

Have a happy Earth Hour on Saturday, y'all! Oh, and I hope you had a happy Earth Day on Monday.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Wednesday Quiz II:4 -- The Quiz of Fives

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season II -- Quiz 4

The Quiz of Fives

The Wednesday Quiz is a "closed-book" test of knowledge and intuition; please do not look up answers, ask others for help, or answer as a team.

Questions about the rules and the ~Fabulous Prizes~ are answered here.


This week's Quiz is a straightforward single-word and short-answer quiz. Answers are worth ten except where otherwise indicated.

1. What are Shahadah, Salāt, and Zakāt? (A general answer is worth seven points; specific answers for eight, nine, or ten)

2. Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen make up more than 96% of the human body. Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, Chlorine, and Sodium make up nearly 2% between them. What is the fifth most common element in your bod?

3. The United States and Indonesia are third and fourth; Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria are sixth, seventh, and eighth. What's the fifth most populous country in the world?

4. Who was the fifth President of the United States? (Or, for instance, the fifth Prime Minister of Canada or Australia, or fifth head of state of your local sovereign national unit.)

5. Name a letter that is worth five points in Scrabble.

6. What are the fifth Books of the New Testament and the Old Testament? (Five points apiece).

7. "Ben," "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," "Rock With You," and "Billie Jean" were Michael Jackson's first four #1 singles in the United States. What was his fifth #1 hit?

8. What is the fifth letter of the Greek or Hebrew Alphabet? (Two bonus points for both, unless you're already at 100).

9. What is a "fifth" of liquor?

10. Beethoven's Fifth _______ is commonly called "the Emperor."

Submit your answers in the comments!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Great Movies: "The Shawshank Redemption"

The Shawshank Redemption
Frank Darabont, 1994

Previous Contact: I saw The Shawshank Redemption in a theater during its original release, and thought it was pretty good.


Regardless of its virtues as a movie, The Shawshank Redemption is very interesting as a phenomenon. Most of the people who saw it in first release were like me -- they thought it was pretty good -- but there weren't a whole lot of us, and the movie closed as a substantial financial failure. Afterwards, though, it had a spectacular second life on video and DVD, fueled largely by word-of-mouth. By the end of the decade it had lodged itself, apparently permanently, at the top end of the Internet Movie Database user-voted list of the 250 best movies of all time. As of this writing, in fact, it is in first place with an average rating of 9.1 after nearly half a million votes cast. And Roger Ebert, the dean of American film critics, lists it here on his first list of one hundred great movies.

This is all pretty baffling. Not because it's a bad movie -- it's not, not by any means -- but because it is such a... well... average sort of movie. Actually, not even average: above average. Solid. Well-made. But for the life of me, I don't see how there's anything great about it.

If I was going to try to shoot it down, I would focus on a certain sentimentality, slow pacing, a ton of voiceover exposition, and a prison full of hardened felons who act more like a university charity club. Also -- hmm, how can I say this without introducing a spoiler? -- there's an ethical problem: we are asked first to be horrified by the fruits of slave labor, but later to be delighted by it. But then, these are really just quibbles, more than balanced out by a somewhat unusual story line, strong acting, a terrific prison set, and some genuine dramatic surprises for the first time viewer. It's good! Honest!

Plot: Educated banker dude goes to prison -- Shawshank Prison, hence the name -- after maybe killing his wife, maybe not. He fails to succumb to the inhumanity of prison, and is able in small ways to render it more humane, kind of. To redeem it, if you will. Hence the name.

Visuals: Very strong visuals throughout, with two standout shots: the first, a swooping aerial shot that establishes the prison where the story takes place, and the second the bleak prison interior where the characters must stand outside their cells at the beginning and end of every day. It must be said, though, that Shawshank was probably the only bleak, corrupt mid-century maximum security prison where all of the inmates were allowed to maintain fabulous designer haircuts.

Dialog: As a rule of thumb, a director who tells a story through voiceovers is confessing weakness. They tend to be boring, and the folksier they are, the worse. This is remedied by strong acting from the principals; the movie is well cast with very well-known and accomplish actors. More quibbling: in the early going, there is an awful lot of Coarse Prison Talk that is delivered as if by priests who are trying to be a good sports while playing gangsters in an edgy parish play.

Prognosis: It's quite a good movie! According to a (fairly suspect) source I found here on the interwebs, it was the 8th most frequently listed American movie on critics' "Best Films of 1994" lists. And that seems about right.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Great Castle5000 Bedroom Remodel

You might remember that Mrs.5000 and I spent a lot of time this winter finishing up a remodel of the Castle5000 upstairs bathroom -- a remodel that had, in fact, been chugging along off and on for years. And you might well suppose that having polished off that heroic task, we would just call it good and go rest on the fainting couches or something.

Bedroom ReModel 2010: The Before Pictures

But no! We are prolonging the winter housework season into spring this year, so that we can create some order and the semblance of a cared-for environment in the North Tower. Our boudoir has long been in a vaguely romantic state of shabby decay. Note, if you can see it, the dirty, cracked paint job, and the chunks falling off of the ceiling. (The floor isn't as bad as it looks here, with a dropcloth over newish carpeting.)

Even one of our own architectural alterations of the Castle, the his 'n' hers matched closets, are sealed (and only semifinished) behind these semifinished doors and walls.

The last attention paid to the room likely came during the 1960s or early 1970s, by my guess.

These built-in shelves combine a certain student-apartment functionality with an almost total lack of aesthetic appeal. We're going to make it all handsome (knock wood) and put in shelves that don't sway under the weight of books.

And we'll replace this with something a little a little less -- how to say it? -- elderly aunt-ish. Which, oddly, makes me feel a little sad, because it reminds me of lower middle class life in the 1970s. But it's time to move on.

So To Work!!

So, starting with the ceiling, we've been tearing into the project with characteristic vigor and zeal.

More updates on this exciting project as events unfold.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Reading List: Manufacturing Consent

Manufacturing Consent
By Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky

I’m going to do something I don’t usually do with my projects: I am going to exercise some discretion. Specifically, I am going to NOT read a book on the Reading List. I’ve read the introduction, and I’ve skimmed through it, touching down here and there, and determined that to read it is not worth my time and effort – my time and effort that could otherwise be spent, I don’t know, griping about the flag of Cameroon or something.

So obviously, what follows is not a “book review.” But I think I can make a reasonable case for why I’m not reading Manufacturing Consent. So let’s start at the very beginning; it is, we are told, a very good place to start. Let’s look at the first paragraph.
This book centers in what we call a “propaganda model,” an analytical framework that attempts to explain the performance of the U.S. media in terms of the basic institutional structures and relationships within which they operate. It is our view that, among their other functions, the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy. This is normally not accomplished by crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalization of priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the institution’s policy.
OK, there are several things to say here. Starting with the most important:

1. Um… No shit, Sherlock. All of the above has been patently obvious to anyone with the vaguest knowledge of the American media since long before William Randolph Hearst stoked up the Spanish-American war. This is not to say that it isn’t worth talking about, but talking about it like you’ve just stumbled on to a hitherto undiscovered, sinister secret makes you look a little foolish.

2. Calling the phenomenon a “propaganda model” – hmm, nothing inflammatory there! Nor do section headings within the book such as “2.4.3. The lack of zeal in the search for villainy at the top” inspire perfect confidence that Herman and Chomsky don’t have a bit of a propaganda model of their own going on.

3. The book has to be organized in terms of a “model,” and particularly a vaguely structuralist model, to justify the participation of second author Noam Chomsky, an enormously important figure in the field of structural linguistics. As far as I can tell from my skimming the text, however, the book does not address how the actual material and experiential structures of the news media – newsprint, magazines, radio and television news programming – affect what is and isn’t considered “news.” Which is a pity, because that’s a much more interesting and less obvious topic than “hey, the guys who own the presses influence what gets printed!”

(Hint: because television, the most powerful distributor of alleged “news,” is a primarily visual medium, it inherently privileges unimportant things that are interesting to look at (eg. car chases, fires, groups of people who have gathered together with colorful signs to yell about an issue) or easy to film (eg. a person making a scripted speech at a prearranged time and place, a random person on the street invited to extemporaneously shoot their mouth off about an issue they have no particular interest or expertise in) over really important things that don’t make good visuals (eg. policy making, economic and legal issues, public health.))


4. As far as I could tell – again, I was just skimming – Herman and Chomsky seem oblivious to some of the more banal dynamics of how news is generated. For instance: when something happens, reporters call a bunch of people who they think might give them some content. What’s going to become news depends in large part on who happens to be sitting by the phone, or who calls back first.

Nor is this simple fact of life irrelevant to what Herman and Chomsky were trying to talk about, because the “powerful societal interests” are obviously in a position to have people stationed by phones, or ready to call back firstest with the mostest – or at least, the most pre-digested – easy-to-reprint thematic content.

5. The book is 22 years old. During the time since it was originally published, much of the pretense of media impartiality has fallen away. Herman and Chomsky’s complaints of insidious media bias seem almost quaint now, when “fair and balanced” FOX News winks at you with only the faintest cheerful pretense that it is not “propagandizing on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control and finance it.” Too, the case studies in the book are events of the 1970s and 1980s, stuff I studied and was concerned about in college and have no particular need to revisit from this late date.

So, with apologies to whoever nominated it for the Reading List, that’s why I didn’t read Manufacturing Consent. I’m not dismissing it entirely – I know that a lot of people found this an enlightening book at the time – but in 2010 I think you’d have to be pretty media-naïve to glean much of contemporary relevance from it.

The Reading List Marches On!

Since I read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (pictured, left) and skimming the above, I've read Candide, which was a hoot.

Next up is Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is even as we speak waiting for me at the library.

Then it's on to Judy Blume before taking on the big three-part challenge: Iliad, Odyssey, Ulysses.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Apparently Not Disappeared After All

Despite having been a daily fixture of the blogosphere for damn near three years now, I receive strangely few communications from people wanting to take advantage of my unique ability to reach out to a highly educated, mildly affluent, and stunningly attractive demographic. In particular, I feel bad for all of the publishing companies that have not offered me book contracts, as they are really missing a bet. Dudes! The content is already written!! All you'd have to do is print it, market it, distribute it, and try to keep up with demand!

But I digress. What I was going to say was, it was kind of a special moment for me last week when I got an email from a person actually involved in marketing! Specifically, she is involved in the marketing of Disappear Fear, the band whose record I reviewed last week as part of my Library Book Sale CD Trove series. I referred to the band in the past tense, but it turns out they are still a going concern. According to the bio I was sent, in fact, they are actually a Pretty Big Deal in the folk scene. Nobody ever sent me a bio before!

So, here's what the email said, basically:
On March 9th SONiA & disappear fear released CD # 14, "Blood, Bones and Baltimore" (they are still around and still going strong). You can listen to samples of each song at and hear 3 full songs on . I am attaching a new bio for you. Thanks for blogging and keep in touch.
That actually seems pretty gracious, coming from the management of an act whose output I suggested could be boiled down to three greatest hits from sixteen or seventeen years ago. But then, I guess when you contact powerful blog tastemakers like myself, you need to be upbeat lest we ruin you with a cruel dismissive turn of phrase.

Blood, Bones, and Baltimore* is a pretty cool name for a record, and SONiA** is looking great, rocking some highly natty dreads. They/she are doing a roots-rock sort of dealio on this record, though, and since I am decidedly not into roots rock, I'm not going to be able to gush for you. If you're more rootsy than me, give it a shot. Regardless, it is kind of fun to see her/them doing well. It's like hearing that someone you liked in high school has an incredibly awesome job that makes them famous among people in a certain niche group.

* I know how to use commas in a list, even if whoever calls such shots at Disappear Records doesn't.

** Her name, her capitalization.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Wednesday Quiz II:3 -- Judge a Book by its Cover, Again

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season II -- Quiz 3

Judge a Book by its Cover, Again

The Wednesday Quiz is a "closed-book" test of knowledge and intuition; please do not look up answers, ask others for help, or answer as a team.

Questions about the rules and the ~Fabulous Prizes~ are answered here.


This week's Quiz is a visual fill-in-the-blanks game. For each image,

What's the title of the book?

There are 14 images this week, because I got a little carried away. Your first 8 correct answers are worth 8 points apiece; after that, they're worth 6 points apiece.















Submit your answers in the comments!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Great Movies: "Peeping Tom"

Peeping Tom
Michael Powell, 1960.

When this nominal thriller about a cameraman serial killer was initially released, it was apparently widely panned by critics and quickly withdrawn from theaters. It has latterly achieved some degree of stature on the strength of Martin Scorsese's enthusiasm for it, along with that of Ebert and other critics. Those guys know a lot about movies, so I'm assuming there is some form of technical excellence hidden in there that is of, well, technical interest. That aside, there is very little to recommend in Peeping Tom. Plot, character, and situation are of no particular interest, and as is the case with so many "psychological thrillers," the psychological aspect of things is spoiled by the failure of the characters, or in this case even the actors, to act in a natural human fashion. Powell was apparently aiming for "excruciating suspense," but ended up with "leaden pacing."

Well, it's Ebert's list, so he gets to pick 'em. But Peeping Tom is among the handful of films on the list that we can say, without qualms, simply should not be on a list of Great Movies. It is not terrible, by any means, but neither is it at all interesting or remarkable. It isn't a good movie, let alone a Great one.

Plot: Emotionally disturbed man kills a few women. We hope that he doesn't kill the sympathetic female character.

Visuals: Colorful and lurid, when there is any color at all. Lots of scenes take place in the dark, with one or more characters watching a movie. Several scenes are simply shots of people's faces as they watch movies. Ebert is excited about how this "implicates us in the act of watching," but this is sophomore seminar stuff. Truth is, it is not interesting to watch someone watching a movie. This is why, at a theater, we tend to focus on the bright screen in front of us instead of the people around us.

Dialog: Stilted. Ebert claims that casting a man with an Austrian accent for the lead role was somehow inspired; in fact, it raises the question of "where is he supposed to be from anyway" and then never resolves it. The leading woman, Moira Shearer, puts in a strong performance as the neighbor girl who is inexplicably attracted to the block of wood who lives next door; she makes the best she can of a weak screenplay. The musical score behind everything, incidentally, is strangely inappropriate piano exercises.

Prognosis: Life is short. The only reason to spend your time on this movie is if you are a serious scholar of the evolution of serial killer flicks, or if you are a Martin Scorsese fanboy. In which case, more power to you.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ducks Slapped With Four-Game Suspension by Michael5000

It has been a tough time recently for the University of Oregon football program, with key players making decisions that have not exactly helped them overcome the stereotype of the "dumb jock." Last Friday saw, for starters, star running back LaMichael James pleading guilty to "misdemeanor harassment" of his girlfriend. (I'm not sure what exactly constitutes misdemeanor harassment, but I'm pretty sure it's not what you'd call "classy.") Then we also got to see star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli plead guilty to second-degree burglary for having looted some computer equipment from a frat house. Because when you are a big football star with possible NFL potential, I guess swiping somebody else's laptop just seems like a good way to further your prospects. Whatever.

The 'Gonian reported Friday that James will be suspended for the first game of the 2010 season. Masoli will be suspended for the entire 2010 season and, presumably, will have to give the stuff back and say he is very sorry. So that's the official decision. The story was printed, though, under the interesting headline "Oregon fans may levy toughest judgment in aftermath of Jeremiah Masoli, LaMichael James."

Judgement Levied

Well, I don't know about other fans, but I have wasted no time levying my judgment in the case. On Sunday evening, I submitted it in writing to the U of O Athletic Department.

To the Athletic Department,

As I'm sure you're aware, the Oregonian suggested Friday that in the aftermath of Jeremiah Masoli's & LaMichael James' suspensions, "the harshest judgment could come from fans and a university community exasperated by a head-spinning series of transgressions...." Indeed. Today, I am formally announcing my official judgement as a fan and community member: I am penalizing the University of Oregon football program with a Four-Game Suspension of my fan support.

The details are as follows:

->The Suspension will cover the first four games of the 2010 Season, including three pre-season games (vs. New Mexico, Tennessee, and Portland State) and the September 25 Pac-10 opener against Arizona State.

->While the program is under suspension, I will not attend, watch a telecast of, listen to a radio broadcast of, or read media accounts of their four games. I will, furthermore, not care whether the Ducks win or lose.

->I will not wear any of my University of Oregon licenced sportswear, nor my green and yellow tie-dye t-shirt, from August 1 until October 1, the end of the suspension period.

->During the suspension period, I will abstain from discussing Ducks football with friends, acquaintances, and coworkers, explaining if pressed that this is a condition of the suspension of fandom.

->My support for the Ducks for the remainder of the 2010 season will be probationary and conditional on there being no further egregious instances of players making complete asses out of themselves.

This suspension is final and is not subject to appeal. I look forward to resuming my enthusiasm for Oregon Ducks Football this October.


As of this posting, University officials have not yet responded to news of the sanctions. I will keep you informed as events develop.

Update: The Athletic Department Responds!

This just in from Eugene:

Michael,Thank you for your feedback. We have passed your email on to the appropriate sources for further review.
Thank you for your support and GO DUCKS!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Flag Friday IV

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: Characterizing it as "simple," he gives it “B-“, 65/100.

Michael5000: It's true, Benin's flag is simple. It also retains the advantages of the tricolor -- three solid, contrasting fields that are recognizable from a great distance -- while configuring them in a straightforward but unconventional manner. It passes the Betsy Ross Test with -- heh, heh -- flying colors, and poses no challenge to the child with crayons. And yet, there is something just slightly uninspiring about it that I can't quite put my finger on. I think if the dominent red were above the field of yellow, the overall effect would have been marginally more powerful. Yet, it is not so.

Grade: B-


Parsons: Citing "graven images," he gives it “D+“, 45/100.

Michael5000: Bhutan, unlike Benin, has a flag that offers a substantial challenge to any but the most talented sewer. It's not an impossible job, though -- the central dragon can be rendered as a black-on-white applique over the diagonally-separated red and orange fields. And although the dragon is likely to defy the ability of most children to render it accurately, it is also more likely than most flag elements to excite a child into giving it a go. Unique and immediately recognizable among the world's flags, Bhutan's is one that gets away with breaking the rules because its overall effect is so distinctive and striking. And, let's face it -- the dragon, clutching its four orbs, is nothing but pure awesomeness.

Grade: A


Parsons: Citing "plagiarism" and calling it a "bad tricolor," he gives it “B-”, 65/100.

Michael5000: "Plagiarism"? Nonsense. This accusation is likely just a manifestation of Parsons' dislike of the red/yellow/green color combination. Certainly, Bolivia's tricolor looks nothing like any other South American flag, and, out of the world's flags, could only really be confused with Lithuania's -- not likely to be a major source of mistaken identity.

Moreso than in most countries, Bolivians seem to favor the "state flag" to the "civil flag." A lot of countries have this distinction, the state flag being a kind of "Sunday best" version used at places or occasions of particular national pomp or ceremony. In this series, we are generally looking at the everyday civil flags. But again, Bolivia seems to rock the state flag quite a bit -- one more reason that, should you wake up in a strange place with no memory of how you got there, you are unlikely to be perplexed as to whether you are in La Paz (red/yellow/green) or Vilnius (yellow/green/red).

Now then, there is talk about the existing Bolivian flag being combined or replaced with a rainbow-checkered symbol called the "Whipala." This proposal is associated with recently re-elected President Evo Morales, who enjoys the support of Bolivia's large indiginous population; the Whipala itself is a symbol of Incan heritage and pan-Andean indiginous identity.

Now, I don't pretend to know anything about the internal politics of Bolivia. And I can certainly see that the Whipala flag could be welcomed as a distinctive alternative to the European model of national flags. Yet at the same time, I have to confess that my reaction to the varient proposed here:

is, man, that is one ugly flag.

Grade (for the existing civil flag): B

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Library Book Sale CD Trove XIII

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

Disappear Fear

Disappear Fear was a rock act fronted by two sisters that was popular with the Women's Studies crowd during the early 90s. It's possible you remember their most popular song, "Deep Soul Diver," a simple but pretty pop tune with a little bit of atmospheric edge to it.
This eponymous album was, I believe, their second, and I was one of the limited number of male people in the audience when they toured in support of it in 1995. It was a terrific show, very entertaining, and I had the pleasure of talking with Sonia Rutstein -- the one on the right on the album cover, albeit with more clothes on -- for a minute or two afterwards. She was quirky and charming, and signed the T-shirt I had bought oddly. "Oh, I sign my name backwards," she explained when I asked. "It's so I don't get conceited about it."

I kept, and occasionally still listen to, the first two tracks ("Washington Work Song" and "Who's So Scared") on a mix tape (remember those, kids?). They are good tunes with amiable rhythms and tight harmonies, the group's strength. Both are also songs of political opinion, the first about, hmm, the inadequacy of the Federal government's response to social problems, the second about the pain caused by people's prejudice against those of other ethnicities, religions, sexual preferences, and so on.

And thus we come to what was arguably Disappear Fear's Achilles' heel: their music was more than a little didactic, sung beautifully to a fan base that pretty much already agreed with them on every particular and was quick to forgive the simplistic look at political life urged in the lyrics. This made their shows reasonably inspiring to the like-minded, but inevitably put a cap on their potential audience as well.

Well, nothing wrong artists wearing ideology on their sleeves. What I find on relistening, though, is that I was write to pluck "Washington Work Song" and "Who's So Scared" out of their context. The rest is by and large more of the same, but not as good. A few experiments with style have mixed results, with the reggae song ("Dance All Night," I think) being a too-obvious attempt to sing like Bob Marley. "Is There Anybody Here," an anti-military manifesto, is every bit as wince-worthy in its easy, vastly generalizing surity as is any "Support Our Troops" bumper sticker.

Prognosis: See if you can download "Washington Work Song," "Who's So Scared," and "Deep Soul Diver," and you're pretty much set for Disappear Fear. If that leaves you wanting more, I'll send you the CD.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Wednesday Quiz II:2 -- Asian Independence!

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season II -- Quiz 2

How the Asian Countries Got Their Independence Back

The Wednesday Quiz is a "closed-book" test of knowledge and intuition; please do not look up answers, ask others for help, or answer as a team.

Questions about the rules and the ~Fabulous Prizes~ are answered here.


This week's Quiz is an is-it-or-isn't-it game. For each story of how an Asian country came to be,

Is It or Isn't It more or less the real story?

NOTE: Yes, difficult. The Isn'ts, for what it's worth, are pretty comprensively wrong.

1. Bhutan -- No one really knows much about the origins of this mountain kingdom, because most of its records were destroyed in a fire in 1827. There seems to have been some sort of local autonomy under the Mongol empires, and something approaching the current nation had evolved by the 16th Century.

2. Brunei -- The division of the island of Borneo into Dutch and French territories in the 18th Centuries left a small pocket on the north coast as a neutral zone. The Islamic community from the more densely populated south migrated to the area and declared an independent sultanate in 1851. Although a British protectorate from 1876 to 1897, Brunei has remained basically independent ever since, its export economy sustained by a territory that is almost entirely comprised of highly fertile agricultural land.

3. Hong Kong -- A former British trading outpost, this small island country became independent in 1958. Special diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, its neighbor to the north, has allowed it to thrive first as an industrial nation -- at one time, almost everything was "made in Hong Kong" -- and today as a financial and trading center.

4. Laos -- "Laos" is, significantly, the Vietnamese word for "West." When the French occupied "Indochina" in the Nineteenth Century, they drew a convenient colonial border down the Mekong River, the traditional heart of the Vietnamese nation. Although differences in language, culture, and history across that border were and are trivial, the line and the political entities it created have proven sadly durable. Laos gained its independence separately from Vietnam when French Indochina dissolved in 1962.

5. Malaysia -- Nothing like modern Malaysia existed until well after World War II. What had traditionally been a bunch of local kingdoms became, during the colonial era, a bunch of local colonies under the British Empire. The peninsular part of the country merged as the Federation of Malaya in 1948, and then merged with the various island bits in 1963 to form Malaysia.

6. Mongolia -- Long having been a poor and exploited area under Chinese control, Mongolia -- or at least some ambitious Mongolian leaders -- took advantage of instability in China to declare independence in 1911. The Chinese marched back in in 1919, but then, after White Russians began using Mongolia as a base in 1920, the Soviet Union re-established an independent Mongolia as a nice, cozy communist client state in 1921.

7. North Korea -- In the 20th Century, Korea was occupied as a virtual slave state by Imperial Japan. It was liberated after World War II by the Allied powers, who split the country into temporary administrative zones. Due to philosophical differences regarding the role of the state in a country's economy, however, the administrative zones hardened into separate countries which then endured a devastating war followed by a half century of mutual antagonism.

8. The Philippines -- Although the Philippines declared independence in 1898, the islands were simultaneously being sold by Spain to the United States for $20 million dollars after the Spanish-American War. The Philippine-American War ended with American control over the islands. During the 1930s, plans were made for a transition to independence, but these were disrupted, as were so many things, by the armies of Imperial Japan. After the war, the Philippines finally attained independence on July 4, 1946.

9. Singapore -- When Malaysia became a country in 1963, the island city of Singapore was part of it. But since the federal government of the new country was dominated by Malay nationalists, and Singapore's population is mostly ethnic Chinese, there were serious tensions from the get-go. Less than two years later, the Malaysian parliament voted to kick Singapore out of the country. Singapore set up a government and declared itself a country on August 9, 1965, one of the few instances in history of a country achieving independence involuntarily.

10. Thailand -- Originally the northern, mainland portion of the Dutch colony of Indonesia, the area that is now Thailand was largely ignored by a colonial administration centered in faraway "Batvia" (Jakarta). This created a power vacuum in which a coalition of regional leaders -- or warlords, depending on who you ask -- could eke out a more or less functional administration by the beginning of the 19th Century. After the obligatory Nineteenth Century period spent as a British protectorate, full independence was granted in 1881.

Submit your answers in the comments!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Great Movies: "Bonnie and Clyde"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Bonnie and Clyde
Arthur Penn, 1967

One of the many strange tricks that fiction can play is fooling us into empathizing with the bad guys. Take the hit men in Pulp Fiction -- they are mercenary killers, pretty much the most loathsome manifestation of human being by most moral yardsticks, yet for many they are sympathetic characters. They are charming, they are passably intelligent, and since we are rushed through their crises and dilemmas with them -- will they be able to dispose of the body safely? will the crime lord's wife be saved from her overdose? -- we come, to a certain extent, to identify with them.

So with Bonnie and Clyde. As we watch the fictionalized tale of these bungling crooks and their improvisational crime spree, something strange happens. We want them to succeed. They are dangerous, even careless killers, and this is presented with what by the standards of 1967 was incredibly graphic violence. But because we see the quirks and the personal relationships within the gang, because the characters are given a great deal of personal charm, and because we are shown a few instances of trivial mercy -- a customer at a bank they are robbing allowed to keep his own cash, for instance -- we develop a bond with them. We like them. We tend to root for them, even when they are busily killing law officers that the film has not invested with a back story.

Plot: There's these two young Texans who have little going on in the way of economic opportunity, scruples, or smarts. They meet, fall in love, gather a few hangers-on, and begin a life of crime. The authorities try to stop them.

Images: Recently, I remarked that Raging Bull's use of black and white photography made it seem in harmony with the decade in which it was set. Bonnie and Clyde is perhaps the opposite, bringing the 1930s to life with gorgeous color photography. Shot around thirty years after the fact, with memories of the Great Depression still vivid in many peoples' minds, the film is a convincing and beautifully detailed look at life in another era.

Dialog: A terrific script, acted exquisitely by a cast of unknowns who would go on to be big stars over the course of the next few decades.

Prognosis: Ebert claims that this is one of the most pivotal movies of all time, with a vast influence on all the movies that came after it. This is honestly a little hard for me to grasp, and Ebert is not especially specific about what he means by it. Maybe since most of the movies I've ever seen came after Bonnie and Clyde, I am so accustomed to its pervasive influence that I have a hard time recognizing its specialness.

In any event, this is not a film for those who dislike seeing actors pretending to die horribly of gunshot wounds. For those not so bothered, though, it has to be said that it's an incredibly well-crafted piece of work.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mrs.5000 Gets Quantitative

If you are at the opening of the "Quantified Aesthetics" show at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts on Friday, don't miss Mrs.5000's newest piece. I believe it is called "3x3."

If you spaced the opening, you still might be able to score a cheap last-minute plane ticket. Try Northwest; they hub in Minneapolis.

You know, this probably isn't the right place for an airing of grievances, but once again I put in literally several minutes of table saw time on this piece, and once again she refuses to credit me as co-artist.

More on the Quantified Aesthetics show can be found at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts site, here. Where you'll note that Mrs.5000 is featured prominently. Why? Because she's the awesomest, of course. But you knew that.