Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz is keeping the puppy


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.

It is very possible that answers will come out over the weekend.

1. Who painted this one?

2. Some of the earliest ones are said to have started in Bologna in 1088, in Paris around 1150, in Salamanca in 1218, and in a couple of English towns in 1167 and 1209.

3. It is "the tendency of a force to rotate an object about an axis," or "a twisting force that tends to cause rotation." The Brits often call it "moment," apparently.

4. "There is no patent," he said of his most famous achievement. "Could you patent the sun?" Who led the team that developed the vacine for polio?

5. Among his 39 operas are The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, Moses and Pharaoh, and William Tell.

6. This flag, which I believe was discussed recently in these very pages, represents what country?

7. It is the sixth most populous country in the world, has the second largest Muslim population (after Indonesia), and has the world's second highest mountain on its northern border. What's this country?

8. If you were going to be famous for just one thing, you probably wouldn't want it to be spilling [your] seed on the ground. But because he resisted his father's command to get his sister-in-law pregnant, this Biblical character was killed by God. Who is he?

9. While a Vice-Presidential candidate, what American politician went on television to defend himself against charges of corruption by bravely stating that he would never return the puppy, Checkers, that had been given to his children?

10. What are these?


Put your answers in Bologna, in 1088.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Element of the Month: Lawrencium!

August's Element of the Month:

Atomic Mass: probably somewhere around 262 amu, but it's hard to get enough of it on the scale for a really good reading
Melting Point: Nobody knows
Boiling Point: Nobody knows

Lawrencium, like June Element of the Month Einsteinium, is a fakey element. Except, Lawrencium is even more fakey than Einsteinium, in that the latter was at least created by humans accidentally, as a surprise bi-product of the great and heroic effort to create a weapon that could incinerate a city and all its inhabitants in a single go. With Lawrencium, by contrast, people actually sat down and decided to see if they could force a new form of matter -- an atom with 103 protons in its nucleus -- into being. And they could! Humans are kind of amazing.

Lawrencium is definitely an element in terms of having a discrete atomic number and a concomitant square on that big chart in the science classroom. It is definitively not an element in the sense of being a basic building block of the world around us. It doesn't occur naturally, after all, and it doesn't even occur unnaturally all that often. You could in fact easily slip all of the Lawrencium that's ever been made into your wallet, although that wouldn't be a good idea for several reasons. But it's a moot point anyway, because almost all of the Lawrencium that's ever been made isn't Lawrencium anymore. Even in its most stable form, half of a given pile of Lawrencium will radioactively decay into something else (generally Nobelium, if you must know) in roughly the time it would take you to watch Avatar.

The Centerfold!

The four lead researchers who are generally given the credit for
Lawrencium gaze proudly at a molecule of their new creation sitting
on team member Albert Ghiorso's index finger.
Lawrencium is a key ingredient in the first fakey compound that I have ever heard of. Scientists working in the Soviet Union -- a 20th Century political entity that has since disbanded into Estonia, Lithuania, and thirteen other countries -- created some Lawrencium and then very quickly, before it disappeared on them, sprayed it with some chlorine. The result was a few molecules of the improbable-sounding LrCl3, lawrencium trichloride.  Judging from the name, it seems like it would be a great household cleaning agent. I have however been unable to determine in my research if this is actually the case, and in any event even if it was I can think of several potentially tricky issues that would be involved in its manufacture, marketing, and use.

Despite the simultaneous research that the Soviets were conducting, Lawrencium is generally considered to have been -- what, "discovered"? "created"? "invented"? "designed"? "cooked up"? -- at the University of California in the early 1960s. Indeed, we will see the University of California mentioned a lot as we explore the fakey elements, for this institution was at one time one of the great centers of human knowledge and achievement, before legendary California Governor Ronald Reagan got his paws on it. "Cal," as it is affectionately known, is of course a member of the "Pac-12," a college football conference that was created by taking a naturally occuring conference, the Pac-10, and adding two additional protons. I would be remiss in not reminding you that the college football season opens on Thursday.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Fountainhead

Alert readers may have noticed that I didn't post anything last week.  This was because, in the parlance of our times, I "wasn't feelin' it."  Today, I make up for lost time with an enormously long post about something you're not interested in.  Thanks, good to be back.


I recently took on The Fountainhead, a very, very long and painfully serious potboiler about a brilliant architect who must battle with those who resent his genius. It is not a very good novel. It is written in a style that I think of as Mid-Century Stiff, a clumsy, formal, humorless prose that reminds me of my late grandfather’s office furniture. Its characters don’t really behave like people, and its crowds don’t really act like crowds. People speak in speeches, except when they are giving speeches; when they are giving speeches they recite the philosophical musings of the book's author, Ayn Rand. It is relentlessly didactic.

So, why bother reading a thick, joyless novel from sixty years ago? Good question. It captured my interest, I suppose, because it is a book with many partisans. When the folks at Modern Library chose a list of the “100 Best Novels” a few years back, their “board” picked a list of novels that are pretty much, well, great: Ulysses, Gatsby, and Lolita comprise three of the top four. We can quibble – Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence wouldn’t have come anywhere near MY top ten – but we can also recognize that these are books and writers that a large number of well-read people have felt represent a high level of excellence, baby.

But then the Modern Library folks also invited the general public to weigh in. And – along with Lord of the Rings – it turns out that the general public is mad not just for The Fountainhead, but for three other books by Ayn Rand as well. She owns 40% of the top ten! Now mind you, L. Ron Hubbard also has three books in the top ten, so you are already hearing alarm bells. Clearly, the vote has been jiggered by special interest groups in order to advance their specific agendas, a shocking state of affairs that I never would have thought possible on the internet.

Whee, Objectivism!

So what are Ayn Rand’s partisans partisans of? Why, they are partisans of a political philosophy called “Objectivism.” Let’s turn to the reasonable summary offered by the Wiki. There are some ontological trimmings, after which the real meat of the idea is like so:
the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest, that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in laissez faire capitalism, and that the role of art in human life is to transform man's widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and to which he can respond emotionally.
Now there is of course something to this, and indeed a loose version of the idea underpins the really quite admirable Constitution of the L&TM5K’s home country, the United States of America. And, if you are a precocious junior high school student, or have worked hard to resist an awareness of how complex and messy the world of humanity is, you could even work yourself up into believing that it was True in an absolute sense, boxing out all other Truths. Rand herself certainly seems to have convinced herself, and so in The Fountainhead we are constantly watching someone with a very large vocabulary and very formal diction acting as if everything were all very simple, and feeling very righteous for saying so.

It must have taken an enormous amount of effort to remain so Objectivist. In a long and insufferably pompous speech at the end of the book, her hero-character Howard Roark makes her case that the problem with the world these days is that there’s just too much altruism. No, really! Because, see, when we worry about less fortunate people, we are failing to honor the individual creators and innovators that create progress and wealth, and so we’re just dragging everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

Objective Thoughts

I won’t try to articulate an argument against Libertarianism, as it is basically a religious creed. Like Communism, another mystical political philosophy, it requires you to swallow some rather fantastic assumptions about what human beings would act like if only they had the chance, and once you’ve dedicated yourself to these precepts it is pretty tough to abandon the faith.

But I can’t help but point out that throughout The Fountainhead, Rand continually reveals her naiveté about… well, just about everything, really, but most importantly about the nature of art and architecture. See, Howard Roark is meant to be the manifestation of a Great Artist who works only from his individual vision, misunderstood and persecuted by people who don’t understand his great genius. But this is a deeply problematic space for an architect to be in, for while architecture is certainly the most creative of the trades it is also the most pragmatic of the arts. Rand wants to show that Roark is noble because he never compromises his creative vision.  For instance, he will not allow clients to alter his plans in even a single detail. Even were this approaching realism – and it ain’t; even contractors routinely alter architectural plans on site to deal with contingencies, and actual clients are notorious for wanting some say in how their hundreds of thousands of dollars get spent – it makes out Roark as not so much noble as clinically megalomaniacal.

It's significant that Rand never really tells us what exactly it is that's supposed to make Roark’s architecture so superlative. She makes references to straightening stairways, to allowing for effective entrance and egress, to the use of innovative materials (although many of the innovative materials she lists have proven to be pretty disastrous since 1943, but that’s hindsight for you), to making rooms that will get a lot of use relatively larger and more prominent, to placing a guest room somewhat away from the main area of a house – in other words, he is shown to understand the fundamentals of architecture at a level that might be expected from a subscriber to Sunset magazine. Beyond that, his buildings are profoundly impressive to a chosen few who “get it,” although most people think they’re ugly. Well, that’s one model of genius, I guess.

Trouble is, it’s not a very well thought out model of genius. It draws on a myth of lone-wolf artists suffering for their personal vision: the cartoon of the starving artist.  That concept is however pretty much a wholesale creation of press agents and hagiographic biographers. Seeing that, say, Beethoven struggled against the contempt of his peers, that Mozart died broke, that Van Gogh never made it in his lifetime, etc., etc., Rand has articulated some very precious thoughts about how the artistic genius must and will endure the contempt of society. But it is the vanishingly rare “great artist” who struggled to pursue an individual vision with no regard for the opinion of his peers. It would be awfully weird behavior, if you think about it.

To use the easy examples above: Beethoven had a personal vision, sure, and he had enormous influence, but he also wanted to make popular music that as many people as possible would like and want to listen to, and he devoted his energies to this cause. If he had the contempt of his peers, well, that’s mostly because he was kind of a jerk. Mozart had a quite successful career notable for his almost craven longing for public approval, and he wouldn’t have died broke if he didn’t gamble compulsively, chase skirt, and otherwise throw money around like a drunken sailor. Van Gogh wanted public acclaim very much, and indeed he was on the right track. If he had stuck it out a few more years, he might have ended up like, say, Monet, Haydn, or a thousand other artists that don’t really match Rand’s model: more or less happily churning out more or less commercial art that people liked, that paid handsomely, and that has since stood the test of time splendidly.

Indeed, the only certifiably sane artist of any kind that I can think of offhand who relentlessly pursued a personal vision with no care to the judgment of the masses is the nutball New England composer Charles Ives.  Ives has had some modest influence on subsequent composers, and is occasionally listened to today, but if truth be told he's only really known because he is the rare composer Americans can point to as having written music before Aaron Copland (our greatest national composer, an important artist of real vision and influence, and an unabashed whore for public acclaim) came along.

Towards the end of The Fountainhead, Rand takes a broad shot at the decline of cultural values by lampooning a playbill for a production of Romeo and Juliet that describes the play as “not at all highbrow,” but rather as a simple piece of popular entertainment. I kind of sympathize with her.  We int'lectuals want our enthusiasm for Shakespeare to reflect well on us. The trouble is, Romeo and Juliet is not at all highbrow. Its language is artful, and archaic, but it is in fact a very simple, if not simplistic, piece of popular entertainment.  While it’s safe to assume that Shakespeare wanted it to be artistically excellent, there is absolutely, positively, and inarguably no doubt whatsoever that he wanted as many people as possible to dig it and, more to the point, pay good money to see it. This key facet of the artistic process apparently never occurred to Rand (outside, presumably, of discussions with her agent), and so her whole treatment of Art and The Artist is pretty cringeworthy. She thinks she is a champion of individualism. What she really is, alas, is an embarrassingly overt snob.

The Rough Guide

Howard Roark, budding genius, gets kicked out of architectural school because his radical ways upset the hidebound prejudices of his professors. He accepts this with a weird stoicism that Rand clearly thinks very sexy, but which in the real world would just mark him out as odd and offputting. And indeed, Rand must work very very hard indeed to make her hero – in a startlingly pompous forward, she instructs that he is to be viewed as a “saint” – appear in a favorable light. She does this by making her army of secondary characters all outrageously foolish, manipulative, servile, venal, vindictive, vacuous, conservative, craven, and/or simply silly. This cast of straw men and straw women reaches such extremes that Roark seems sometimes to be wandering through a medieval allegory of the human frailties.

[Spoilers ahoy!]

Yet despite Rand's best efforts, Roark comes of as an asshole of monstrous proportions. He is contemptuous of those who do not share his tastes and purported gifts. His loyalty to his artistic convictions is such that he is self-destructive and abusive of the trust of his clients (Rand thinks this is awesome, of course). At one point he rapes a mentally unstable woman of his acquaintance (Rand makes clear that this is cool, because the woman likes it). At the book’s climax, he dynamites a large public housing complex that he designed because he resents that its plan was altered -- a gymnasium was added, and some cosmetic touches he doesn’t approve of were tacked on. (Rand, careful to point out that there were other gymnasiums already available in the neighborhood, thinks this is really heroic behavior. I am not making this up.) At his trial, Roark makes a long tedious speech about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of too much altruism, and the jury returns in five minutes with a verdict of Not Guilty. This is supposed to represent the vindication of Objectivism, but unfortunately for Rand it's a bit of a laugh-out-loud moment because of its sheer melodramatic absurdity.  [Note to young readers: In the real world, you are not allowed to dynamite buildings that don't belong to you, even if their designs were based on your ideas.  It's kind of like how you aren't allowed to kill your children if you don't like the way they're turning out, even though you made them yourself.  It sounds unfair, but them's the rules.]

Intertwined with the architecture is a bizarre romance which falls somewhere in the region between implausibility, insanity, and major kinkiness; to each their own. There is also a weird sort of bromance happening which is, well, complicated. The human relationships of the book defy short description because they don’t bear much resemblance to other human relationships I’ve seen in real life, or in other fiction for that matter. I don’t discount their possibility; Ayn Rand clearly occupied a much different psychological space than I do, and very probably interacted with her pals much differently than I interact with mine. But they are very strange relationships.

Rand eventually argues that the world has betrayed all we little people by forcing us to choose between sadism and altruism. This is sillybuggers on the face of it; the vast majority of us navigate through the world exhibiting no more than traces of either extreme in our daily lives. Not only is there room in the middle for a healthy self-interest tempered by the decency of common humanity, but that tends to be the attitude that prevails when circumstances allow. Indeed, we appear to be hard-wired for it, but Rand pushes the ol’ Cartesian dualism up to 11 and would probably have burst a vein at the very notion of humans being in any sense hard-wired for anything.

One of many things Rand heaps contempt on in The Fountainhead is trusting the judgment of others, rather than deciding the merits of an idea on one’s own. This makes it a little hilarious that her fans are out there manipulating lists of great novels. As for me, well, far be it from me to tell you whether The Fountainhead has any artistic merit (it doesn’t). You will just have to read it yourself and find out. Or, you could do something interesting.  Suit yourself.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Beverly Beach State Park

One of the very popular state parks along the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean, Highway 101, Oregon.

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

Thursday, August 18, 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.

"Romeo and Juliet"
Linda Welch, exact date not known

1 1/4" x 2 1/2" x 1 5/8"
Constructed Book and Box.
From Multi-Volume "Shakespeare" Series

We actually laid down plastic and stone cold bought us some art last week.

We had actually seen and admired the little jewels of Linda Welch's Shakespeare series before.  We pulled out the wallet that time too, something we don't do very often at all, but got a collage painting instead of a Shakespeare play.

Our decision to go with Romeo and Juliet, when The Tempest and Titus Andronicus among several others were available, was based heavily on the awesomeness of its cover box.

So, the book slides out of its box....

But, although the entire text of each play is used, it must be admitted that these are not the best editions for actually reading the plays per se.

If you are in the City of Roses, Linda Welch's books and small pieces are currently on display at 23Sandy -- you can probably figure out at what intersection to find this gallery.  Here's a partial show catalog.  The Shakespeare books are a steal at $45.  (If you happen to be the blog Shakespearean, be advised that Cymbeline is not available.  I talked to her about it.)

Remember, no matter how good artist's books look, they are not intended for human consumption!

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Pine apple Field in Florida

Made in Germany

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz is very clean


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.

It is very possible that answers will come out over the weekend.

1. His sons were said to be the ancestors of the twelves tribes of Israel.

2. This is the flag of what country?

3. In what movie is it repeatedly stressed that Paul's grandfather is very clean?

4. The green organ in this diagram is basically a storage tank that dumps its contents into the duodenum if fats show up that need to be digested. It's pretty handy, but you can live without it if you have too.

5. After accepting his Nobel Prize in Physics at age 37, this Italian scientist moved to the United States to escape fascism. He was a major figure in the construction of the first atomic reactor and in the Manhattan Project, and was apparently a really nice guy. Element 100 is named after him.

6. It is, according to a common dictionary,
A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe... and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts.
7. When this entity was created in 2002, it was considered the largest reorganization of the U.S. government in more than 50 years.

8. In this diagram, line PR and line QS are both _______________.

9. What 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh is subtitled "The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder"?

10. Until the most recent generation of commercial aircraft, most passenger airliners were more than 50% ____________ by weight.


Search your sacred and profane memories, then put the answers in the comments.  

Monday, August 15, 2011

Classical Music You've Never Heard Of, Volume 1: Arnold, Guitar Concerto

Malcolm Arnold: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (1959)

When I was a young lad, we stopped by a garage sale in Cannon Beach, Oregon, on a family vacation and I encountered a record of Julian Bream playing this 1959 piece along with the concerto by the baroque composer Albinoni, which is also very good. My mother was deeply skeptical of my request for the 50 cents needed to buy it, having not yet woken up to the reality that her son was a genuine classical music enthusiast. 

It was a sincere enthusiasm and one with a high social cost.  I was perpetually mortified that any of my schoolmates would ever find out about it.  I still vividly remember the crippling sense of shame with which I smuggled a collection of the Beethoven symphonies out of the middle school library in a grocery bag I had brought for this purpose. Happily, however, my mother had been raised to think of classical music as insufferably pretentious egghead stuff, which meant that I would get the same parent-annoying mileage out of my early record collection as some other kids got from heavy metal. (In time, of course, I would warm to rock and Mom would warm to classical, which is mostly what she listens to these days.)

The Arnold piece is a good antidote for anyone convinced that nothing written in the middle of the 20th Century is listenable. This attitude is as regrettable because it is untrue; the truth of the matter is that there is merely very little that was written in the middle of the 20th Century that is listenable. The Arnold Concerto is quite listenable; it starts out with some of what are generally called “angular dissonances” in the full orchestra, but they aren’t too too dissonant nor too too, um, “angular,” and the guitar presses things forward with an energy that is downright jaunty. Then, about a minute and a half in, a theme of surprising delicacy and sweetness pops out. It’s a lyrical little line that could be the melody of a lovely popular song – the guitarist plays it first, but eventually the strings will take a whack at it too. The upbeat, energetic tone sticks around for the rest of the piece, sometimes bopping along at a good clip and sometimes pausing for reflective moments.

There are damn few pieces for guitar and orchestra, which means that guitarists who want to play with an orchestra, or orchestras who want to perform with a guitarist, have only a handful of obvious choices. This makes the Arnold Concerto (or the Albinoni, too) reasonably easy to find; it makes the list fairly often whenever anybody decides to put together an orchestra-and-guitar album.

Here’s a link to the first movement for ya:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Passenger Terminal Building

This beautiful and ultra-modern structure of concrete, steel and glass was completed in 1960.  Within its 304,000 square feet of floor space are all conveniences for today's traveler.

Color photo by Grant L. Robertson

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Reading List: His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials
Phillip Pullman, 1995-2000

I don’t really have a sense of how popular His Dark Materials is, so perhaps I should start out by saying that it is an young adult fantasy trilogy in three volumes: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Its protagonists, as in all young adult fantasy, are children who find out that their parents are far more important than they thought, that they themselves possess strange powers, and that they must go on an epic journey to strange lands where they will encounter strange creatures and mortal perils, and who will find that the fate of the entire world(s) rests on their shoulders.

Aside from this basic skeleton, however, His Dark Materials goes way beyond replicating the conventions of its genre. For one thing, it handles the ecology, the interior logic, of a fantasy setting – in the first book, a vaguely steampunk alternative Earth created before anyone was using the word “steampunk” – about as well as I’ve seen it done. Rich local settings are established with closely observed details; the impression of a large and complex surrounding world is created by gesture – unadorned references to places, events, and entities that, for the characters, are too familiar to need elaboration. For another, Pullman rounds out his secondary characters very nicely with dialog. He doesn’t need to explain their personalities or motives to us; we can tell who they are from what they say. In other words, he’s a very good writer.

Beyond this, Pullman has the audacity to assume that young adults might have intellectual leanings. The whole trilogy is interwoven with Paradise Lost; I would tell you more about this if I had actually read Paradise Lost. I haven’t, but I like that Pullman thinks that I, or the young adults of my acquaintance, might want to consider doing so. I like that the fantasy aspects of his plot are linked to concepts of theoretical physics, with the assumption that we readers might have heard of these ideas and found them interesting. I’m frankly a little amazed that the staunch critique of religious culture implied in the books, along with its fairly radical theological notions – God (yes, that God) makes a deeply unflattering cameo appearance in the third book – ever found an American publisher.

And, it has sentient armored polar bears, which is awesome.

So there is no point dancing around the obvious question. And yes, His Dark Materials is far more sophisticated, better written, more literary, and all-around a superior creative achievement than the best-selling multi-volume young adult fantasy series of our times. It is, though, something of an unfair comparison – Dark Materials [note: I just typed “Dork Materials,” aptly enough] is written for an older young adult from the get-go, and does not have to deal with a legacy of children’s literature into its second and third volumes. Too, it achieves more because it aims higher and asks more from its readers. I love this about it.

So, with all this behind it, it’s a pity I don’t find the series as a whole just a bit more satisfying. The real culprit is The Amber Spyglass, the third volume. As events culminate, Pullman gets up a terrific head of steam, adding more and more elements to an intricate crisis. At about the point where you might expect some move towards reconciliation of the plot elements and the onset of some sort of resolution, though, he keeps throwing more balls into the air. I’m no young adult, alas! …and I have the gall to consider myself a fairly able reader, but halfway through The Amber Spyglass, I was becoming very challenged in my ability to keep track of what the hell all was going on.

And then – at the end of this deeply smart creation, steeped in history, literature, science, and anthropology – something brazenly banal happens, and as a result, the problems of the universe are solved. It feels like an extravagantly arbitrary stress on the structure of the narrative. It’s as if All Quiet on the Western Front ended with a little girl asking why people have wars, and none of the grown-ups being able to explain it to her, and this made everyone realize that war is bad, so it disappeared forever. I don’t exaggerate by much, and the only thing I can think of is that the finale would make more sense if I had Paradise Lost under my belt. From where I stand now, however, His Dark Materials is a beautifully woven fictional tapestry that gets mangled by internal stresses in the final act.

Nevertheless, this is a highly worthwhile reading both for its ambition and for many excellent vignettes, explorations, and episodes to be savored en route to the ultimate train wreck. I would highly recommend it to the young people and their natural allies in my life, if it hadn’t been them that recommended it to me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Dear Customer:

O Your ______________ has been checked and the estimate to repair is $ __________.  Please call 233-8811 and advise if you wish us to continue with repairs.
O Your merchandise has been repaired.  Please pick up at your convenience or call 233-8811 for delivery date.  The repair charge is $ ______________.

8855 S.W. 131 Street
Miami, Florida  33176

Provenance: Purchased at postcard dork convention, 2011.

Michael5000 May, or May Not, Be a Pipe

Hey, remember this business?

Margaret recently responded on her own blog, The Bindery.  The Gist: "Geez. I'm just trying to do some bookbinding over here, what do you want? Salon talk? Theory?"

(Answer: Well, sure!  Don't we all want that?)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to The Wednesday Quiz


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.

It is very possible that answers will come out over the weekend.

1. What Danish religious philosopher, often considered the first existentialist, gave us the concept of a leap of faith?

2. What country produced this postage stamp?

3. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the current President of the world's fourth most populous country.  What's the country?

4. The two big rivals among big-name composers in London in the 1710s were one Giovanni Bononcini and another guy, whose name has survived better. Of them, it was written:
Some say that Signor Bononcini
Compar'd to ______'s a mere ninny;
Others aver, to him, that ________
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle.
Who is the guy who won out over Singor Bononcini the long run?

5. What artist made these works?

6. Founded in 1831 and stationed in Algeria until the 1960s, this elite military force accepts recruits of any nationality.

7. The Cello Concerto and the Sea Pictutres are his best, in my personal opinion, but The Enigma Variations are better known. But mostly you associate him with graduations.

8. The landmark concept of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, this idea was all the rage in English departments for a decade or two. It's pretty incoherent if you really get in there and try to define it, but was popular as a vague piece of jargon deployed to imply "taking a close, analytical look at a text." [Caveat: The blog Shakespearean, while acknowledging the basic truth of the following, points out that "there's a lot more to it than that."]

9. This town stands near a city of antiquity that is probably most well known for having been sent some famous letters.

10. What famous tale says of Shield Sheafson,
A foundling to start with, he would flourish late on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Take a close, analytical look at the text of the clues, and put your answers in the comments.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Coffee Table Book Party: "Railway Maps of the World"

We've met Mark Ovenden before in these, um, pages, with my lukewarm review of his collection of Paris subway ephemera.  

His latest straight-to-coffee table collection of maps and and imagery seems considerably more awesome to me, but then it's focused on a topic nearer to my heart: maps of national railroad networks.

A lot of the content is simply old railroad maps.  Hard to go wrong!

Mixed in with a fair share of map-related railroad ephemera:

Intermixed with all of this are a number of short essays on various topics related to railroad history.  These are fun, well-chosen, and -- which is not always true in a book of this type -- accurate!  So, you've got some content to chew on while gazing at the pretty pictures, which is nice.

My favorite part of "Railway Maps" is the back half, which attempts a country-by-country atlas of rail networks.

It's a very mixed bag of historical, contemporary, and custom-made maps, with captions that provide some background about way the networks are the way they are, and what the implications are for the economic development of the countries involved.  (note for the skeptical: railroads were historically about the most important thing that ever happened after, say, the fall of the Roman Empire, and remain pretty critical in keeping civilization as we know it afloat)

Railroads!  Maps!  Nuggets of knowledge!  Pretty much a top-of-the-line coffee table book, if you ask me.   Still selling for close to the $35 cover price, though, so my plan is to wait a few years and then swoop down on a used copy.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Michael5000 Exploits Certain Inefficiencies in the Secondary Philatelic Market

Although I haven’t been a stamp collector since junior high, I’m obviously something of a stamp enthusiast. I have long carefully bought the stamps that would be the most fun to send and, hopefully, to receive, and for the past several years, I’ve ordered my stamps in bulk from the USPS philatelic catalog. This always gives me a nice variety of current stamps.

But then there was the whole deal a few months back with my state stamps, when I discovered that they could be sold on Ebay for, at best, face value. After that, the phrase “at best” floated around in my head for a couple of weeks, bouncing off other phrases and concepts, until suddenly it occurred to me that I might be able to extend my stamp palette. I might be able to move beyond merely using a variety of current stamps to using a variety of vintage stamps, without paying any particular premium. Cool idea! But would it work?

Turns out, it works weirdly well. Perhaps a little too well. I marched onto Ebay, made a couple dozen lowball bids on a variety of out-of-date unused stamps, as a matter of experiment – and started winning auctions right and left. And lest there be any confusion, I am not saying that I bought vintage stamps at less than their book value, the more or less meaningless value assigned by stamp catalogs. No. I bought vintage stamps at less than FACE value. Often at less than 80% of face value. For instance, I bought sheets of 29 cent stamps (the current postcard rate) that were printed in the early nineties, when 29 cents was the first class rate, for considerably less than 29 cents per stamp.

Now there is a certain melancholy backstory to all this. This kind of buyer’s market almost certainly represents the decline of the fine hobby of stamp collecting.  It is very likely is the product of a great many strapped stamp collectors trying to liquidate their collections in an absence of buyers that have caught on to the fire sale. And certainly I’m not doing the great but beleaguered Postal Service any favors by cashing in the chips that they passed out during the Eisenhower administration.

On the other hand, I’m doing my little bit to shore up the weirdly diminished value of older stamps. And, more to the point, I’m having a ton of fun picking and choosing stamps, and with luck my more discerning pals will enjoy my quixotic stamp choices. And really, just owning this mess o’ serviceable paper ephemera is kind of a treat.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000


Shelton is known as the "Gateway to the Olympics."  Located at the southwestern end of the Hood Canal, Shelton is deeply rooted in the forest industry evident by the large logging operations that began in the mid 1850's.  The oyster industry also plays a part as Shelton also hosts Oyster Fest each year in October.

Provenance: Sent by L&TM5K Ambassador-at-Large Heatherbee, May 2010.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Flag Friday XXXII

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.

Saudi Arabia

Parsons: Doesn't like "Weapons," "Writing," or "Graven Images" on this flag, but gives it a "C+," 60/100.

Michael5000: Well, there's writing and there's Arabic calligraphy.  Placing a highly stylized rendition of the Islamic profession of faith packs a rather different spin on a flag than does, say, just sticking the word "Kansas" on that sucker.  Although it is a busy pattern, or at least a complex one, it is just a white-on-color pattern, and this lends it a bit of restraint.  And, it's easy to pick out of a lineup.

Grade: B


Parsons: Pulling out the "Plagiarism" accusation, he gives it a "B", 70/100.

Michael5000:  For some reason, the fact that the center star is green is throwing me a little bit here.  I think it's just that the sample flag I found here is ratty and a bit off-specs.  It looks pretty good in other photos I've seen.

Grade: B+


Parsons: says "(see Yugoslavia)"

Michael5000: When Serbia and Montenegro split the sheets in 2004, Serbia took its basic red, white, and blue tricolor and slapped a regal double-headed eagle on it.  This is, to say the least, kicking it old school.

Although busy, the eagle is certainly bad-ass, in the parlance of our times.  And the busy-ness is not completely out of control; there are only six colors (including white and two distinct reds) in use here.  But the crown seems like an odd choice for a country that, as far as I know, has no plans to reinstate a hereditary monarchy.  And the shield-on-red-white-and-blue-horizontal-tricolor gambit would seem more distinctive if Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia hadn't all got there first.  This look didn't even exist when I was a lad; now Eastern Europe is choked with 'em.

Grade: B-


Parsons: "Urrgh... ohhh... feel sick..." writes Parsons. This flag has "Bad Colours," it's "Too Busy," and it "Makes [him] Nauseous," which adds up to a "C-," 50/100.

Michael5000:   I too have a strong aversion to the radial heptcolor of the Seychelles flag.  It's distinct, yes; it's simple, yes; but it just doesn't look like a flag.  Does it?  I wanted to see it on a pole:

Well, it's festive, and maybe not as bad in motion as it is in diagram.  But still, I've got an instinctive aversion that I can't quite shake.  (I had forgotten that there was a different pre-1994 flag of Seychelles, but as soon as I saw it it was immediately familiar.  Funny how that works.)

Grade: C-

Sierra Leone

Parsons: It has "Good Colours" but it's a "Bad Tricolour."  Don't look at me, that's what he says!  "B," 70/100.

Michael5000: I am very, very fond of the Sierra Leone flag.  It has good colors, and unusual ones, and since they combine felicitously it produces a good tricolor.

I imagine that it's hard to hit the mark on those light colors, and this bit of photographic evidence suggests that the colors may be a little deeper in practice than on the drawing board.  But still.

Grade: A