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In case it wasn't terribly obvious, I thought I should make it official that the blog is on hiatus indefinitely. I'm not ready yet to cut the cord and say it's over; I still like the idea of having the blog around for occasional rants.

The truth is most of what I used to do here I now do on Facebook for a bigger audience. I miss the avatar aspect of blogging (there are people in the world now who refer to me as Mentok a lot of the time) and of course I'm leaving behind any hope of building a wider audience, but really who was I kidding?

So, if you were a regular reader and you haven't yet caught up to me on Facebook, please by all means drop me a line here (I'm still getting comments put through to my email) and I'll get you hooked up.

Otherwise, thanks to everyone who helped make Blogger blogging such an addictively fun, engaging experience for me. I'll maybe see you back here later.

posted by Mentok @ 12:56 PM, ,

Piss on it!

I ask you: How difficult is it to manufacture a proper urinal?

Apparently, pretty damn difficult if you're the Crane Plumbing company.

Long-time readers (are there any of you left?) may recall that I once had a dream to write a book about urinal etiquette and trivia, so over the years I've kept an eye out for urinal details. I can tell you without hesitation that Crane makes the worst urinals going.

Their biggest problem lies in the sheer sloppiness of their design. The inferior hydro-mechanics of Crane models leads to frequent splash-back problems. This produces a fine urine mist whose are effects are (usually) invisible but which causes an especially nasty damp sensation on the trousers.

On the other hand, American Standard: now, there's a fine urinating experience for you. I don't know what it is - I'm not an engineer - but something about the subtle fold-back ridges running along the edges of American Standards seems to act like a magic force field preventing all splash-back. While Cranes often leave you feeling sullied, American Standards consistently deliver that refreshed feeling that one expects from using a well-designed urinal.

The worst part about this is that there probably isn't much accountability. I don't expect that Crane gets many letters telling them "Your urinals suck!", and even if they did they probably wouldn't take them seriously. Do they have any sort of customer satisfaction metrics? Do they do any sort of focus testing for new models? Have they even made a new model since the '50s? I seriously doubt it.

At work, they just switched from American Standard to Crane, so this is all top-of-mind for me at the moment.

posted by Mentok @ 2:14 PM, ,

Oscar Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

I always worry when an Oscar nominee gets hyped too much or becomes too much of a media darling in the build-up to the awards. I often find that, for a movie to be regarded as a Great Movie tm by the general public, it has to be a rather blunt instrument, if you know what I mean. My fears about this were worsened when Mrs. Mentok (who's seen at least as many movies as I have) called Slumdog Millionaire "cliched" after she'd seen it.

Slumdog Millionaire is cliched and it is a bit of a blunt instrument, but it's still a good movie and well worth seeing. I think of the movie as a bait and switch: they use the bait of a very conventional Bollywood-style love story to trick you into watching a series of rather shocking stories about life in India's slums.

I expect the plot is familiar to everyone by now: an impoverished, uneducated call centre employee, accused of cheating on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, proves his innocence by recounting the stories of how he learned the answers. These stories fit into the framework of a sort of love triangle story involving the contestant's morally corrupt (but fiercely loyal) brother and a girl with whom they have been friends since childhood.

I won't give you a spoiler, but you'd have to have been living in a cave since before the invention of radio not to be able to figure out how it all ends up. If the story was set in North America instead of India, no one would take much notice of it.

The plot, however, is entirely secondary to the stark images of grinding poverty. The filth and deprivation are disgusting, and the depths to which greed, hunger and lust can drag the human spirit are horrifying. Yet, it is also inspiring to watch the unconquerable spirit of survival and the ability of children to play and laugh in the face of the worst conditions.

Another thing I liked about the story is that demystified life in India. You hear so many hippy types moon about how Indian people are so much more spiritual, less materialistic and more fundamentally happy than Westerners. This movie shows the gritty realities of Indian life - greed, exploitation, crime, violence, tribalism, classism, corruption. What do you know - the same flaws the rest of the species has. The only time "spirituality" (if you can call it that) rears its head is when we're shown an insane, bloody clash between Hindu and Muslim slum dwellers that leaves half the slum in flaming ruins. Through all of this, the movie also reaffirms our better natures - our capacities for love, loyalty and selflessness - which allow us to occasionally behave better than quarelsome apes.

I enjoyed the movie and recommend it, but it isn't the sort of film you'll want to watch over and over.

posted by Mentok @ 1:33 PM, ,

Dr. Agatston and Mr. Hyde

It's funny the reaction you get from people when you tell them you've gone on the South Beach Diet:

"Oh, God, why would you do that?" "It's not healthy you know." "You don't need a stupid fad diet." "You'll just gain it all back as soon as you go off it."

Et cetera.

Let me answer the first question. Why would I do that? Because I was starting to get desperate. After quitting smoking almost three years ago, I put on quite a bit of weight that I wasn't happy about. I wasn't obese or anything, but I'd certainly gotten chunkier and wasn't at all comfortable with it.

Last year, I resolved to fix that. I didn't believe in diets, so I worked hard at fixing it with exercise. Ruthlessly disciplined. Four to six hours a week, on a program designed by a personal trainer. Weight training, cardio, horribly painful abs work. Careful monitoring of heart rates to ensure optimal exercise level. The whole nine yards.

After twelve months of that, I'd lost maybe five pounds out of the forty I was looking to lose. To call it frustrating would be an understatement. Sure, my heart and lungs were in better shape, but my waistline definitely wasn't.

So I turned to diet. After (in my view) basically wasting the previous year, I wanted fast results. The South Beach Diet promised that.

Designed by cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston, the South Beach Diet seems to have gotten lumped in the category "crazy unhealthy fad diet" along with Atkins or the grapefruit diet. Some of this criticism is fair, but mostly it isn't. The diet has a certain Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.

On the Dr. Jekyll side: the ultimate message of South Beach is that you should eat lots and lots of a variety of vegetables and fruits and moderate portions of lean meats. Limit consumption of fats, sugars and carbs, but don't eliminate them because they're essential for proper nutrition. When you eat carbs, lean towards "good carbs" such as whole grain breads. Avoid refined sugars and carbs.

Is there a nutritionist anywhere in the world who would argue with that message?

But that is end state of the diet, the so-called Phase Three of its three stages. It starts off with the monstrous Phase One, an essentially zero-carb, zero-sugar (including fruit) two week endurance test that is pure Atkins lunacy, except that Agatston's plan is low fat and doesn't encourage people to binge on proteins quite like Atkins does.

Make no mistake, near-zero carbs is a distinctly unnatural way to eat. These people who go on Atkins long term must be out of their minds. I started off scoffing at reports of side-effects, but before the end of the first week I was scouring online forums for tips on dealing with headaches, dizziness and gastro-intestinal difficulties.

Agatston presents the two-week carb fast as a detox period to help break the typical North American addiction to sugar and carbs. After the detox, his goal is to reeducate dieters to eat and appreciate "good carbs" and stay away from refined sugars.

I give this detox notion some credit. After Phase One, I found my tastebuds had changed. I tasted some Bull's Eye barbecue sauce (my favourite brand) but it now tasted weird, as if someone had taken a half-full bottle of sauce and topped it up with corn syrup. Reading the ingredients, I found that this is essentially what they do. The top ingredient in barbecue sauce is sugar, ahead of tomato paste! Previously, my tastebuds had been too desensitized to notice that.

But, despite these detox benefits, there is no doubt that Phase One is not a feasible long-term diet. Agatston sort of acknowledges this, but he's kind of vague about it. He just sort of gently encourages dieters to move on to other phases. I don't think either Agatson or his nutty, cult-like followers are definitive enough in saying "Don't even think about staying on Phase One longer than two weeks! It's unhealthy!" And that is a serious ethical flaw in my books.

Still, I've gained a lot of better habits from the diet. I'm eating way more vegetables, drinking way more water and I'm making choices about sugars and carbs much more intelligently.

And I've lost a lot: I've been on for three weeks (halfway through the transitional Phase Two) and I'm down 14 pounds and almost five inches off my gut - and still dropping!

Will I be able to keep it off? Who knows. People love - love! - to sneer in my face with stories about some friend or coworker of theirs who went on South Beach but put it all back on "as soon as they started eating normally."

Well, you know what? I know lots of people who have lost weight on nutritionist-revered Weight Watchers who have put it all back on as soon as they started eating "normally."

If "eating normally" means a typical North American diet super-high in carbs, refined sugars and fats, then no shit you're going to put weight back on if you go back to eating like that.

For all of its ethical pitfalls, South Beach has helped me reprogram my eating habits and I think that will be permanent, or at least long term.

Ultimate recommendation: if you're in a hurry to drop a few pounds for a special event (e.g. a wedding), you could do worse than South Beach Phase One. It's healthier (barely) than Atkins.

But I think most people should avoid Phase One and jump straight to Phase Two or Three. Or just do Weight Watchers. Potato - potatoe (mmm... potatoes!)

posted by Mentok @ 9:52 AM, ,

Oscar Movie Review: Revolutionary Road

With Oscar season upon us, it's time for some movie reviews. To help you save time and money, I'll start with the worst.

Richard Yates, author of the novel Revolutionary Road, was once a darling of American literature. His talent was compared to J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. This novel, his first, was a finalist for the National Book Award, along with such modern classics as Catch-22.

But his books never sold well. In fact, for awhile, ALL of his books went out of print. Before this movie came out, the name Richard Yates barely registered with anyone any longer outside of a few obscure, elite corners of academia.

It's easy to understand how he fell so far. His view of the world is skewed and myopic. The product of a broken home and two broken marriages, and a victim of alcoholism and mental illness, Yates seems to have made the classic mistake of thinking that because he was unhappy and fucked up everyone else must be unhappy and fucked up too.

There is this certain type of person who loves to sneer at regular, ordinary family life. Many of these are amongst the intelligentsia, many others are in artistic or other sorts of lifestyle communities. These are the sorts of people who derisively refer to children as "spawn". Whenever I hear that word, I feel a tremendous urge to whack such people in the head with a baseball bat.

Richard Yates might as well be the patron saint of such people.

This movie is a two hour long rant about how regular, middle-class family life is a horrible, soul-destroying living death. Such a contention, in my books, is ignorant and tantamount to a hate crime. I would sooner recommend going to see a snuff flick or a hardcore anal bestiality porno.

Winslet's acting was adequate, although it was a little hard to tell because it was so hard to identify with the character's gigantic determined-to-be-miserable stupidity.

posted by Mentok @ 12:36 PM, ,

The Watchmen: A Book Review

Somehow or other, I managed to get through the 1980s without reading the Watchmen series, despite being at the time a rabid comic fan. With the much-heralded movie soon to be released, I had to correct that.

I really wanted to like the Watchmen, because it's all about a concept that I've often liked to noodle about: what would costumed vigilantes and/or superpowered beings be like in the real world? Several works have examined this question, such as the early episodes of Heroes and even the current Batman movie series.

Comic legend Alan Moore's take on this contains a lot of cool ideas. First, in this alternate but initially believable reality, costumed vigilantes emerged as media-inspired copycats. Soon after the notion of costumed crime-fighters appeared in comic books, some half-wits started to imitate it in real life. You can easily imagine that actually happening.

In the story, these vigilantes were initially tolerated by the authorities, largely because they served as a useful public distraction from the Depression and WWII. Eventually, though, the public tired of them and they became a nuisance to the authorities. They are first largely hobbled during the paranoic McCarthy era before finally being outlawed in the early 70s. The story picks up about a decade later, as former vigilantes slowly start to come out of hiding as members of their dormant fraternity start getting mysteriously killed off.

The story also maintains believability by allowing for only two super-powered beings, both of whose back stories seem fairly plausible. One super being, Dr. Manhattan, is so powerful that he is no longer really human and is manipulated by the US government as, essentially, a living weapon that allows American hegemony to extend even further than in our reality. No Superman code of ethics here - this is the "real" world.

The story contains all sorts of cool little well-reasoned tidbits. For example, Moore reasoned that, since comics are an escapist media, if superheroes really existed comic readers would lose interest in them. In Moore's imaginary reality, comics have instead focused on pirate stories.

Yet, for all of these positive features, I was disappointed. I had much the same reaction to it as I've had to other Alan Moore works: Great concepts, enthralling opening chapters, but as the series drags on it runs out of steam and becomes poisoned by too much of Moore's dark vision of the world. Moore is great at making imaginary things seem real, but piss poor at describing the real world in a believable or empathetic way.

There is a theme that runs through all his works: "the Establishment" launches horrifically evil conspiracies aimed at crushing personal freedom in order to fulfill their own greed and lust. Moore's obsession with this idea has become profoundly boring for two reasons. First, Moore is so naive about the way "the Establishment" actually operates that his outrageous conspiracy plotlines lack credibility. Second, Moore's characters - "heroes" and villains alike - are all so rotten - so murderous, valueless and sociopathic - that there is scarcely such a thing as a sympathetic character in any of his graphic novels.

This is especially evident in the scenes dealing with Dr. Manhattan, ostensibly the ultimate hero of the story. His ultimate power has left him completely emotionally detached, like Spock or the Borg on Star Trek. He no longer cares about life and death and therefore is unconcerned about an imminent nuclear war. His ex-girlfriend goes to try to convince him that human life is worth saving. Supposedly, Dr. Manhattan has an epiphany about this and decides to intervene, but it's hard to understand why. Moore's own view of humanity is so bleak and cynical that I think Jesus Christ might have second thoughts if he had to listen to Moore babble on.

Maybe they'll be able to fix these things in the movie. Maybe the scriptwriters will succeed in creating characters with whom we can identify.

But, whether they succeed or fail, one thing is certain: Moore will no doubt condemn the movie version of his story, but not before he cashes his cheque. I think that says more about Alan Moore in particular than it does about the human race in general.

posted by Mentok @ 3:45 PM, ,

Everything I know I learned from schoolyard jokes

A great deal of ink has been spilled about how various sorts of modern folk tales - such as urban myths, old wives tales and fairy tales - actually have hidden moral meanings that help socialize children and adults alike into accepted behaviour.

But one category of modern folk tale that has so far escaped examination is the school yard joke.

From the time we're helpless toddlers until we are self-assured adolescents, we hear hundreds if not thousands of these little witticisms. These range from the innocent little puns of children to the offensive drolleries of teens.

Few of them are really very funny, yet they endure because, just like fairy tales, each of them teaches us an important life lesson.

To start off the discussion, here are a few of my favourites:

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.
Sometimes the simplest answer is the best

Knock knock! Who's there? Banana. Banana who? Knock knock! Who's there? Banana. Banana who? Knock knock! Who's there? Orange. Orange who? Orange you glad I didn't say banana?

Take your Ritalin, dammit.

A duck goes into a hardware store and asks the manager: "Do you have any gwapes?" The manager says: "No, we don't have any grapes. This is a hardware store." The next day, the duck comes in again and again asks the manager: "Do you have any gwapes?" The manager, getting agitated, says: "No, I told you before, we don't sell grapes at a hardware store." Third day, duck again comes in and asks: "Do you have any gwapes?" This time, the manager lets him have it: "If you come in here again to ask for gwapes I'll nail your beak to the counter." The duck scoots out, but the next day he comes back again. This time he asks: "Do you have any nails?" The manager says: "Ah, no, actually, we had a big sale and we're sold out of nails at the moment." So the duck says: "OK, then, do you have any gwapes?"

Don't drop acid while you're working.

The teacher asks the class to draw something beautiful on the board. Little Suzy goes up and draws a flower. Little Jenny goes up draws a butterfly. Finally, Little Johny goes up and draws a dot. The teacher asks: "What is that supposed to be Johny?" Johny says: "A period." The teacher asks: "And can you tell us why you chose that?" Johny says: "I don't know, but my sister missed two of them and my dad said, 'Well, that's beautiful! That's just fucking beautiful!'"

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

One day, little Johny Foguerphaaster was making out with his girlfriend in the garage. They had just started going at it when Johny's mom called him for supper: "Johny Foguerphaaster! Johny Foguerphaaster!" "I'm tryin', Ma, I'm tryin'!" he replied.

Obey your parents.

posted by Mentok @ 4:49 PM, ,