Sunday, July 31, 2011

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

On the Nehalem River.

Provenance: Purchased by Mrs.5000 at an estate sale, March 2011.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Pale Fire, Realities Within Fiction, and the Return of Dr. Pnin

Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov, 1962

Pale Fire isn’t on my official Reading List, but I’m on a Nabokov kick and might as well enjoy it.

Unfortunately, there’s a fairly limited amount you can say about this book without getting into serious spoilers. It’s a novel with a unique structure, consisting of a 999-line poem in heroic couplets followed by extensive notes on the poem by a highly dubious literary editor. The poem, ostensibly by a minor literary figure named Shade, is autobiographical, down-to-earth, and by turns comic, wry, sad, and wistful. The commentary, by Shade’s neighbor, colleague, and sycophant Kinbote, often takes little notice of the poem itself, using it rather as an arbitrary setting-off point to tell a (probably) (completely) unrelated (tragicomic) story of its own. A preface by Kinbote, which is the first text we read, starts out with a straight enough face, but by the fourth paragraph is signaling vigorously that its author may be a few bricks short of a load.

Let’s start with the poem. It’s quite amazingly good! Which is not to say that it is the best poem ever written in the English language or anything; however, it is a believable approximation of the kind of long piece a respected American poet might crank out towards the end of his life. It needs to be that for the book to work, but at the same time it is an especially impressive achievement when you consider that it was created not in and of itself but to be part of a larger whole.

In this paragraph I shall up the spoiler content a little, and turn to the commentary. Now, it is always unfair to criticize a book for being different from the book you hoped for. Still, I had heard that in Pale Fire one gradually came to understand that the commenter is a little off his rocker, and that’s not so. He is in fact fairly bonkers right out of the chute. So, while it is unique, funny, and pleasantly weird, Pale Fire is not nearly as subtle as I hoped it might be.

And now, it’s pure spoilers from here on out. Kinbote’s annotations, as I mentioned, mostly serve to tell out a sprawling story that has little obvious relation to Shade’s poem. The real gems, though, are those that more closely approximate standard editorial notes. Since Kinbote is a bit dim, is disinclined to do a lick of research, and does not really grasp American culture, his stabs at exegesis are either profoundly banal – at one point, he explains who Sherlock Holmes is – or woefully inaccurate. It’s academic slapstick, but it’s good academic slapstick.

So that’s the basic layout. Part of the fun of Pale Fire, though, is that by invoking an exceptionally unreliable narrator it invites multiple interpretations of the text(s). For instance:

Who wrote the texts? Well, Nabokov, of course.

But within the fictional frame of the novel, it is not necessarily a slam dunk that Shade wrote the poem and Kinbote wrote the commentary. Kinbote is (arguably) so bonkers that one could easily imagine him writing the poem himself, or cribbing it from some other source, and inventing John Shade out of the same (possibly) thin air from which he creates the rest of his (possible) fantasies.

But then, Shade’s persona as we perceive it through “his” work and “Kinbote’s” anecdotes suggests the kind of irreverent creative mind that might contrive an imaginary and artistically abusive editor of his own work, just for the hell of it.

Who is Kinbote, anyway? Well, like I just said, he could be Shade’s whimsical sock puppet. But that’s not the most obvious interpretation. The most obvious interpretation is that Kinbote is delusional, that he has imagined a glamorous past for himself as the deposed king of a nonexistent Eastern European country, Zembla.

But wait – this is a book of fiction, and it is entirely within bounds in a novel for a country that does not exist in real life to be fictionally "real."  (Tolkein, for instance, does not intend for us to assume that Frodo is insane because he believes that The Shire exists.) It is possible that Zembla exists in the Pale Fire universe, and that Kinbote has delusionally fixated on its disposed king in the same way that women used to convince themselves they were Anastasia Romanov. Or, Kinbote could be telling the truth about himself throughout, and be the actual deposed king of an actual Zembla.

Incidentally, Nabokov said in an interview that Kinbote is actually a deluded member of the Russian department of the university at which Shade teaches, an extremely minor character whom is glancingly mentioned a few times in passing. Except, he said this in real life, not within Pale Fire, and as such his comment tells us something about what Vladimir Nabokov’s intentions were but nothing about who Kinbote is. Nabokov also said that Kinbote commits suicide after the book is over, but how the hell would Nabokov know that? Kinbote might well seduce a student and move out to L.A. after my copy of Pale Fire is over.

About that Russian department, though – we learn, very incidentally, that its chair is Professor Pnin, who we last saw at the end of Pnin leaving his previous institution in frustration and ignominy. He is said to rule his new department with a pedantic ruthlessness, which if you read Pnin you know he’d really, really enjoy. It’s nice to see Dr. Pnin land on his feet.

But this kind of literary interpenetration is just a kind of bookish Easter egg, and doesn’t really have much to do with the larger themes and ideas lurking under the whimsical surface of Pale Fire. Or does it?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Michael5000 Strikes Like Lightning

Meet Niece #4.  This is her, and me, in one of her less kinetic moments.  She is a vigorous and frank and fierce and lovely creature, and lots of fun.

I took this picture of us, which I love, on Christmas night.  I had wandered off by myself to read, but she followed me and we ended up chatting quietly for more than an hour, which is of course a pretty huge win for the serious Uncle.

Niece #3, who is obviously Niece #4's big sister -- Nieces coming in two sets of two -- had got one of the "StormQuilts" under the tree on Christmas morning, after having pretty much adopted it while I was finishing it at Thanksgiving.  So, at some point I told #4 that I hoped she didn't mind that her sister had got a quilt and she hadn't.  "No," she said, "but I do want you to make me one."

Now these were marching orders I was prepared to follow.  As it happened, I had already started work on a quilt for her, a stripy thing in a turned-down version of the toxic pink with which she had been decorating her room of late.  I was pretty pleased that she definitely wanted a quilt, and welcomed the chance to probe a bit.  "Would you want it to be pink?" I asked.

"No," she said.  "Not Pink."

Then, surprisingly: "I know what I want it to look like.  It should be dark blue, almost black, but with a bright lightning bolt going through it."

Oh!  Back home, I boxed up the pinks, and got to work on a new plan.  And here's Niece #4's quilt, which I finished up and sent her a month or two ago.

It's about 71" x 41", and the back is bright yellow flannel.  In the official catalog of my output, which is kept by me, it is Quilt Number 59.  It's more or less the 70th quilt I've made.  Go figure.

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000


The wild and rugged beauty of California's central coastline offers spectacular views to travelers along Scenic Highway #1.

Provenance: Gift of L&TM5K reader Elaine, 2010.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz, in its new incarnation, is generally credited with building this city


The Wednesday Quiz, in its third incarnation, is basically the same old weekly game of knowledge, intuition, inductive reasoning, and willingness to risk public embarrassment in a friendly and moderately supportive environment!!  With a minor twist that will probably make it rather difficult at first!  

Traditionally, it is a closed-book quiz, but who's going to know?

Answers sometimes come out Fridayish.

1. It's a kind of ecosystem that makes up about a third of the world's forest cover.  And it's usually pretty cold.

2. Whose compositions include "Semper Fidelis," "The Washington Post," and "Stars and Stripes Forever" -- as well as "The Liberty Bell," a tune you are almost certainly familiar with?

3. One of the foremost 20th Century abstract expressionists, whose work dealt primarily with color relationships, vehemently denied that he was an abstract expressionist. He was interested, he said:
only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.
It would have to be ________.

4. What religious community's meetings consist of "expectant waiting," often in complete silence, for divine guidance or inspiration?

5. Who is generally credited with "building" this city -- which is to say, commanding it to be built?

6. They had an empire called Oium until they were subjegated by the Huns in 370.  They recovered, and founded the successful Kingdom of Italy in the former territory of the Roman Empire by 500.  But fifty years later, they were pretty much wiped off the map by the Byzantines.  Who were they?

7. What are the orange bits?

8. What is Humphrey Bogart holding here?

9. Often thought of in the United States as a dietary deficiency, this "problem" is shared by most adult mammals and more than half of the human population, including nearly everyone in many Asian and African countries.

10. What sad fictional character says:
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks!


Touch me with noble anger, and put your answers in the comments.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

PostCrossing -- the stamps

Last month, I reintroduced PostCrossing to all y'all, and if memory serves made at least four converts.  And, I've obviously had a bit of a crush lately on postage stamps, something that I might add you'll continue to hear about for a bit.  The two interests dovetail nicely.  Most PostCrossing folks take care to choose interesting stamps for their postcards.

Here's a random little gallery of some recent arrivals.

Understated and purty...

I don't know what this shield signifies, but it makes me want to sign up.

I seem to have a thing for Belarussian stamps.  Overall governance has some issues, but they are doing well in the stamp design department.

The Swiss seem to be preparing for a postal game of Settlers of Catan...

The Germans celebrate world culture with Chinese and Japanese captions...

...and 175 years of German railroads, sticking with German.



Check out the engraving on this Chinese stamp commemorating my man Beethoven!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Michael5000, Card Sharp (II)

So, a few weeks ago we discussed how one could, with only a little investment of time, energy, and equipment, make greeting cards out of old greeting cards!  But what, you might have asked, about postcards?  Are they not better than greeting cards?  And of course, they are.

My experiments with postcard production began with a set of prepaid blank postal cards that I have been packing around since 1994, when I used them as part of a dull survey project connected with my dissertation.  Usually, you put the address on the "stamp" side of these and some sort of message on the front.  But why not put address and message (and extra actual stamp to cover 17 years of increased postage, of course) all on the same side, like on a normal postcard, and slap an image on the front?  Why not indeed.

That image was from a stamps-by-mail catalog; this one is from a 1960ish magazine.

Then I remembered I had some watercolor-your-own-postcards blanks, and am profoundly unlikely to take up watercolor any time soon.  So, I used a couple of these as image platforms.

Of course, not every idea you think is going to be interesting really pans out...

...but then others turn out better than you expect.

I haven't really gone very far with this, but there are some cards where I've laid down an initial image with the thought of messing with additional layers.  We'll see.

So anyway, at some point I remembered my recent insight that cereal-box cardboard is the same general weight as postcard cardboard and started rummaging through the recycling for packaging.  A little precision cutting, and my new image platform was ready to go.

I find I have to kind of fight an impulse to glue the image to the blank side.  It definitely doesn't work when you've got images on both sides of your postcard.

And then, sometimes when you cut up packaging the result is enough fun that you decide it's fit to send just like that.

All they need is a stamp!  Which reminds me, I should tell you sometime about certain peculiarities I've recently discovered in the secondary philatelic market.  But that's a story for another day.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000


Steamboat Arabia sank suddenly in 1856 in the Missouri River near Kansas City, after striking a submerged tree.  All 130 persons survived, but over 200 tons of frontier cargo was lost including dishware, china, tools, guns, hardware, clothing, beads, buttons, French perfume, medicine and bottled foods.  Excavated in 1988-89, the largest pre-Civil War artifact collection in the world has been preserved and is on display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

Provenance: Sent by L&TM5K regular Elaine, Spring 2011.

Note: OK, that actually sounds kind of cool.  This is the rare case of a postcard that seems less boring once you've read the caption.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000


Here are installed nine generators, each with a capacity of 125,000 K.W. -- the most poweful in the world.

Provenance: Purchased from some guy on Ebay, April 2011.

Monday, July 18, 2011


The L&TM5K Blog Sabbatical!

See you next week!

I'll send postcards!  On Thursday and Sunday!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

the world's longest bridge (23.83 miles), connecting New Orleans with the highlands to the north.  It was completed in 1956, at a cost of 51 million dollars, as part of the Greater New Orleans Expressway System.  Eight miles of the bridge are out of sight of land.

Provenance: Purchased at a postcard dork trade show, April 2011.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Thursday, July 14, 2011

It's the Book Arts!

a new occasional Thursday feature highlighting the work of Mrs.5000 and possibly friends, if they're so inclined.

Life Stories of Dying Penitents
Susan Collard, 2000

7" x 5" x 1 1/2"

Altered book with original 1888 cover.

Mixed-media on corrugated cardboard with etched mirror and zinc, sewing machine parts, glass jars, and other found objects. Lyrical snippets of text “liberated” from the sermonizing tales of the original book.

As one of the Pacific Northwest's leading book arts husbands, I often find it difficult to put into words the nature of the art form it is my job to support.

Although photographs are not really adequate to capture works that are not only three-dimensional but designed to be held, moved, manipulated, and interacted with, they are nevertheless worth a thousand words.

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000


At Knott's Berry Farm, Ghost Town, California, where often 8,000 dinners are served in a single day.

Provenance: From the Grandma and Grandpa5000 Collection, Gift of Mom5000, April 2011.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz works its way around a dandelion

Hey, great news!  The new Wednesday Quiz is ready!

...and by "ready," I mean I have chosen a format and roughed out what a couple of hundred questions will be.  There will still be some work to be done week-to-week, but I'll be good for it.

BUT WHY NOT THIS WEEK? I hear a vocal minority of you asking, and here's the deal: Next week I am going to take what I believe is the first ever

L&TM5K Blog Sabbatical.

...and it just wouldn't be right to start the new weekly quiz, then take a week off, and then resume.  That's just not how we roll around here.  Be ready to throw down in two weeks.

In the meantime, here's another cute bunny video you can watch.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Element of the Month: Niobium!

July's Element of the Month:

Atomic Mass: 92.90638 amu
Melting Point: 2477 °C
Boiling Point: 4744 °C

I'm sure you remember Tantalum, the Element of the Month for January 2010.  In fact it probably jumped to mind as soon as you saw the word "Niobium"!  Here's how I kicked off the Tantalum discussion back in that simpler time:
Don't feel bad that you don't know much about Tantalum; it took the world's chemists more than half a century to figure out what was up with this rare metal. The problem was that it only occurs naturally along with its sister element, Niobium, and people had a hell of a time deciding whether they were both the same thing, or different, or if there were three or even four different elements present in their mineral forms. It wasn't until the time of the U.S. Civil War that it all got sorted out, and chemists who had made their reputations by discovering Columbium and Ilmenium presumably slunk off humiliated into the footnotes when it became awkwardly clear that these elements didn't exist after all.
It was actually the German chemist Heinrich Rose who can take the credit for establishing that Niobium was a distinct element all by itself.  He did this in 1846, shortly after publishing his discovery of the element Pelopium.  You have never heard of Pelopium because it turned out to be just a mixture of Niobium and Tantalum.    So obviously these were tricky tricky elements to get straight, and hell, if Heinrich Rose could bat .500 in the major leagues he'd be the stuff of legend, so let's go easy on the poor guy.

Meanwhile, the name "Columbium" got stuck to Element 41 in the fracas, after having been a name that somebody else had given to a Pelopium-like mixture, and afterwards "Columbium" and "Niobium" were used interchangeably until 1949, when it was realized that this wasn't very scientific.  "Columbium" is currently a word looking for a meaning, but I bet it gets applied to one of the fakier elements (UnUnOctium!) one of these days.  (This might end up confusing commodities brokers, who appear to still be using the archaic name for Niobium.  Silly guys.)

The Centerfold!

What do humans use Niobium for?  Well, you can put a tiny bit of it in your steel alloy and add a lot of strength to it.  How does that work?  I dunno.  You'd have to ask a metalurgist.  Niobium also has a very high melting point (check it out!), is very resistant to corrosion, and "exhibits superconductivity properties," and these things all make it sometimes very useful to folks who make specialized stuff out of metals.

In the Earth's crust, there's around 20 parts per million of Niobium, making it the 33rd most common element among us.  There's a school of thought that this is less Niobium than you would expect on a planet like ours, so there must be lots of it in the Earth's interior.  I am really in no position to say.  Like Tantalum, Niobium has its market pretty well cornered by the Brazilians and the Canadians, although there are plenty of other countries with deposits if those two every get sick of the business.  Says here that the Chinese, who use about a third of the world output, are helping Malawi set up in Niobium mining; that suggests to this analyst that we may be looking towards a moderate drop in price in the mid- to long-term.

Art Alert!

My quest for a Niobium image led me to a wicked cool woodcut which in turn led me to The Periodic Table Printmaking Project.  I think you'll like it.

The Postage

These stamps are definitely from someplace where they use the Cyrillic alphabet!  Maybe Russia!  And they are pretty old.  I suppose I could try to learn more, but nah...  Maybe somebody will just do to the identity of these stamps what Ben and Jennifer did to the flag of Sao Tome and Principe --  which is to say, perform a dazzling feat of internet research.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Michael5000, Card Sharp (I)

For whatever reason -- probably because I didn't go to kindergarten and so never had the chance to get paste-and-paper projects out of my system -- I like to go on occasional binges of making greeting cards.  The ingredients for this are:

  1. a stockpile of interesting images.  You generally build this by locating books that are, due to damage or the march of time, unlikely to find anyone to love them in their intact forms, and then cutting them to ribbons.  Glossy magazines work well too.
  2. a stockpile of bad greeting cards.  These are available for a song or less at estate sales and the like; you just have to know that you are looking for them.  It is important to keep the envelope ratio in balance.
  3. Glue.  Because Mrs.5000 is Queen of the Bookarts (as, of course, are fingerstothebone and margaret), I happen to know of the "Yes! Paste" product and couldn't recommend it highly enough.  It requires a brush.
  4. Your basic cutting tools: Exacto, rotary cutter, cutting mat, transparent cutting rulers (hey! this isn't quite as simple as I thought!)

Anyway, the idea is just to cover up whatever lame image is on the front of the original card with something more interesting.

In both of these first two examples, the images are from art auction catalogs -- terrific, guilt-free sources of excellent glossy images if you can find them.  The cards were surplus Portland State University stationary that I picked up in quantity at SCRAP for a couple pennies per card.

Along with art books, any illustrated reference or technical material has potential, as do calendars and upscale magazines on interesting topics and, of course, atlases.

Now some greeting cards, of course, often come pre-printed with some sort of message or "sentiment."

...but might not have a cover that matches the personality of the sender.

The trick is to find a better image that matches both sentiment and sender.

Then too, there are a lot of cards (often ones that were made to be sold for charitable causes) that have surprisingly specific messages, and these tend to show up disproportionately as surplus.  Take this one:

I picked up ten of these somewhere, and while I suppose I'm all in favor of the preservation of Native Hawaiian folkways, it isn't really a fight that I have a dog in.  So to speak.  On the other hand, the general notion of young people maintaining the knowledge of their ancestors is kind of fun to mess with:

But aren't you more of a postcard guy than a greeting card guy?

Yes.  Watch for the sequel.