Thursday, May 31, 2007
Today's topic is irony. I'm probably going to look back on this and regret I wrote it.
Mrs. Mentok is going to either love or hate this topic. My beloved wife is a teacher-librarian and far, far more literate than I. She regularly comes home from the library with boxfuls of books for her personal reading and seems to inhale them at an alarming rate. But, as husbands are wont to do, I still make the mistake of thinking I know more than her on certain subjects.
We've had a long-standing "disagreement" about the definition of irony (by "disagreement", I mean one of those silly recurrent husband-wife issues that sometimes descends into outrageous shouting matches and lengthy cold-shoulder treatments).
Mrs. M holds to the widespread, accepted view that "ironic", when applied to real-life situations, essentially means something coincidental or unexpected. Indeed, there are dictionaries and reference works that support her view.
I take the snobby view that irony is much subtler and must, in one way or other, relate to the ancient Greek dramatic device, namely that the audience must know more about a situation than the characters e.g. Oedipus Rex, where the audience knows he's marrying his mom and he doesn't.
I've been doing more thinking on the subject of irony lately because, at work, I'm tied up with this gigantic research/writing project. Basically, I have to absorb over 1,000 pages of technical documents, find the "logic thread" running through them and then summarize everything intelligibly in 20 pages. It's pretty stressful.
I'm leaning on an old professional trick of mine to see me through. I've always maintained that the trick to non-fiction writing is to find the fiction underneath it. Put another way: the point of fiction writing is to convince the audience that a made-up story might have actually happened; the point of non-fiction writing is to convince the audience that something that actually happened is a good story.
This is sometimes difficult, because ordinary human life and experience runs exactly opposite to the direction of story-telling. When we live our lives, we are constantly thinking about the future and planning how to get to an uncertain goal. In story-telling, we are looking backward and the goal is already certain, yet we must convince the audience that it is not.
In other words, as I see it, all non-fiction writing is essentially an exercise in irony. You must present the past as though it was a path of destiny and make the result sound inevitable.
For example, look at my story about my trip to Scotland, a story I've told a million times. When I get to the part where I say to the pub patrons that I think the UK should have a federal system, I have to convey my own fear and uncertainty at the time when the room suddenly went silent. I have to use dramatic technique to convince the audience that I don't know what's coming next, even though it was my own experience.
I don't know why this obsesses me so. I guess I'm driven by the view that mastering irony at its most subtle level is essential to mastering story-telling, fiction and non-fiction. So I continue to pursue it ... like a deer in the woods ... purely for professional reasons, you understand.
Help me out here. How do you see irony? Describe some situations you have found ironic.
posted by Mentok @ 11:45 PM, ,
Monday, May 28, 2007
We're driving along on a big road trip, ourselves and another family. We have two vehicles, a van and a car. Mrs. Mentok and I are navigating in the lead car.
The radio keeps blaring this travel advisory that Plutonium Boy is in the vicinity.
We see Plutonium Boy off in the distance in front of us. He's over 40 feet tall, a glowing, vaguely humanoid mass of radioactive energy. He doesn't seem especially hostile, but you can never tell with these sorts of things, can you? But he's pretty far off and he's in front of us, so I'm not too worried.
Plutonium Boy has a military escort - a couple of helicopters and a few armoured personnel carriers - but they don't seem to be interfering with him or really doing anything to contain him. He's just lackadaisically weaving back and forth across the highway.
"Does somebody actually have a plan for dealing with this? They don't seem to be doing anything," I complain to Mrs. Mentok.
Mrs. Mentok, ever deferential to authority, assures me otherwise.
"I'm sure they know what they're doing," she says.
I decide to minimize any risk by taking a side "road", which turns out to be just a rough trail through a deep dark wood.
Suddenly in front of us appears a brilliant white stag. It seems to be surrounded by a white halo. Its big, complex antlers branch and rebranch many times to create many pencil-thin points, each of which seems to be tipped with a diamond. The stag's blue eyes shine with a faintly malevolent intelligence.
"Be careful," says Mrs. Mentok. "They tend to charge when they get upset."
The words are hardly out of her mouth when the stag does exactly that. Its antlers get thoroughly caught in my grill. I stop the car. The stag quickly disentangles himself and runs off.
'Chrissakes, does my insurance even cover this sort of thing?' I wonder
I decide to pull over to assess the damage. The van behind us pulls over as well. I didn't mean for this to be a major road-side break, but before I know it everyone has piled out of the vehicles. Worse, my oldest son, the teenager, manages to strew a bunch of the luggage all over the ground in his clumsy efforts to get out of the van.
'Oh, great', I think. 'That kid is such a slob. Now we're going to be held up if Plutonium Boy comes along.'
Well sure as shit. I look up and here comes Plutonium Boy tromping through the woods. Somehow we ended up in front of his path. He's headed at about a 45 degree angle north of our position, so we're still probably pretty safe, but he's a lot closer now so I'm pretty freaked out.
I start casting about for a good strategic position. The vehicles are not a good idea, because they're too close to PB's path and we won't be able to get them moving in time now. There's a farm house nearby but, as with the vehicles, I figure it's best not to be in a fixed location if PB goes nuts or anything.
Finally I settle on the nearby lake, which is surrounded by bushes. We can hide in the bushes, stay mobile and, if worse comes to worse, dive in the lake.
"Everybody, down here. Run to the lake."
I turn around and see everybody standing on the side of the road, transfixed by the horrible wonder of seeing Plutonium Boy up close.
"I said run to the lake, quick!"
Jee-suss! Why do I always have to repeat myself three times before these kids listen to me?
Labels: Had any weird dreams lately?
posted by Mentok @ 9:56 AM, ,
Friday, May 25, 2007
Soldier: 'Allo! 'Oo is it?
Arthur: It is I, King Arthur, and these are my knights of the Round Table. Whose castle is this?
S: This is the castle of my master, Guy de Lombard.
A: Go and tell your master that we have been charged by God with a sacred quest. If he will give us food and shelter for the night, he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail.
S: Well, I'll ask 'im, but I don't think 'e'll be very keen-- 'e's already got one, you see?
Lancelot: He says they've already *got* one!
A: (confused) Are you *sure* he's got one?
S: Oh yes, it's ver' naahs.
A couple of weeks ago, I was ever so flattered to receive a Thinking Blogger Award from Marcy at Lost In My Inbox.
Today, believe it or not, I've received a second one, from our old friend FiL at Pogoagogo.
Ha, ha. Fooled 'em a second time!
This is all rather incredible to me, considering this blog started as an outlet for bad jokes and fake news stories and continues largely as a way for me to goof off and procrastinate at work.
Now, I'm thoroughly shamed into doing my own Thinking Blogger Awards. I would have done it earlier, but at first I thought it was supposed to be a big chain-letter dealee where you couldn't name someone who was on someone else's list.
But now I realize I was being too anal about the whole business. After all, it's not like there's money involved, is there? (Is there?) Instead, the only rule I'm abiding is that you can't name someone who's nominated you (sorry FiL and Marcy; you would have been top of the list otherwise.)
So here goes:
Library Mama at The Books Nook - (aka Mrs. Mentok) she makes me think I'd better watch what I say, 'cause it will end up in her blog. Seriously, I have found it fascinating to watch her develop her own blogging voice. Plus there's something very noodle twisting about reading about one's own life from someone else's perspective.
Good ol' Luc at Hacks and Wonks - I've been too lazy to put this back in the active links, which was a big mistake. H & W, written by an old political convention buddy of mine, was the first blog I read regularly. It's still one of the better Canadian political blogs out there.
X-Efficiency - another blog by another old friend, one of the smartest guys I know. Economics (theory and practise) and politics are the themes here.
Contrast Podcast - I know it's a podcast, not a blog exactly, but this site has inspired me to do a lot of thinking about music and radio comedy. (I'm still chuckling about the "feem toons" fr. CP 60)
Rick Mercer's Blog - First, I'm probably cheating citing a celebrity blog. Second, my Tory friends will probably hate me for for citing a man some have called "the biggest ass-kissing, fart-catching, brown-nosed Liberal whore alive." (note I am merely quoting this, not asserting it.) But for my money he is still also the funniest Canadian of his generation.
So there you have it. There are many other people who deserve mention and would most certainly be here if it was a list of 10... or at least that's the excuse I'm pitching.
There are also many others who make me think .... make me think they're loonies, that is. You all know who you are. Don't make me name names ;-)
posted by Mentok @ 11:37 AM, ,
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Some people don't like dentists. Believe it or not, I don't like dermatologists. With apologies to anyone who might be related to one, dermatologists are the biggest bunch of frauds in the medical professions, in my opinion.
Until today, I hadn't been to see a dermatologist for about 20 years. Back then, I had this weird rash on my fingers that wouldn't go away. The dermatologist told me it was a form of eczyema or possibly dermatitis. She gave me a prescription for cortisone cream and sent me away.
The cream made the rash go away, but as soon as I stopped using the cream the rash came back. Frustrated, I decided to do my own research. What I found was amazing.
'Eczyema', as it turns out, is a Greek word. It means "a rash".
'Dermatitis' is a Latin word. Care to guess at its translation? Yup: "a rash".
Many, possibly most forms of eczyema /dermatitis / rash are caused by stress, minor allergies or other environmental irritants that can't be pinpointed. In other words, most of the time a dermatologist can't really diagnose a particular rash.
To add further to the medical hilarity, synthetic cortisone is one of those trial-and-error pharmocological concoctions for which "the effective agency is not fully understood", to quote a medical text.
In other words, they don't really know how or why it works.
So, with this in mind, let's go back and replay my previous visit to the dermatologist:
"Hey, doc, I've got this weird rash. Can you tell me what it is?"
"Why yes. In my expert opinion, it is either what we call a rash or it might possibly be a rash. Here some goo you can put on it. We don't really know what it does, but it seems to work."
My mystery rash eventually disappeared on its own without medication and never came back. Since then, pharmacies have started selling cortisone cream over the counter, so now I just self-medicate on the rare occasions I get a skin ailment.
The one corner of credibility I allowed for dermatologists was their alleged expertise for potentially cancerous skin conditions. It was this that drove me back to visit a dermatologist today.
Over the past few years, I've developed a couple of new out-of-sight moles that concerned me. In addition, I had this faint red skin discolouration on my chest that seemed to be getting a brighter and brighter red as time went on.
As regular readers know, I was a smoker until last year. I dragged my feet about getting these skin conditions checked out because, as silly as it sounds, I was too embarassed to talk to a doctor about potentially cancerous skin conditions while I still smoked. So the upside of these blemishes is that they were a big part of my motivation to quit.
Oddly enough, the minor skin discolouration almost totally disappeared within a couple months of me quitting, so I think they must have been related somehow.
Finally, a year later, I got around to seeing a dermatologist.
Me: "Hey doc, whaddaya think of these moles?"
Dermatologist (barely looking up from her notes): "Nothing to worry about. I have an assistant who can freeze them off for you. I'll make an appointment for you."
Me: "How about this skin discolouration? Could it be related to my previous smoking?"
Dermatologist (perfunctory, bored glance): "Beats me. I haven't seen anything like it. I doubt the smoking was related to it. Nothing to worry about though. I can give you a cream to put on it if you like."
The whole appointment was over in 5 minutes. I'm sure her useless opinion and paper-pushing earned her several hundred dollars for that amount of time.
So here's your chance, dear readers: Got any medical gripes you want to get off your chest?
Rachel Yamagata - Under My Skin
posted by Mentok @ 4:37 PM, ,
Friday, May 18, 2007
This bit sounds like one of my fake news stories:
Updated Fri. May. 18 2007 11:01 AM ET
CTV.ca News Staff
At least 80 per cent of women surveyed in a new study say they have been approached in a sexually overt way while at a singles bar.
The study, "Sexually overt approaches in singles bars," published this month in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, surveyed female university students aged 18 to 28. Most of the women were in their first year of an undergraduate program.
Can you imagine? College girls aged 18 to 28 being the subjects of sexual advances? What has the world come to?
I'm just trying to imagine the difficult job of these poor research assistants who had to go out to singles bars, night after night, and talk to co-eds, all in the name of science. "Ah, excuse me miss. Can you tell me: do guys around here ever try to hit on you?"
OK, OK, I know there's a serious issue in this story, but you have to admit that headline just sounds goofy.
posted by Mentok @ 9:53 AM, ,
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
You know what I'm really getting sick of? The constant parade of what I like to call the "pretension du jour".
Now, don't get me wrong. Even though I'm Tory (sorry JC), I like to think I'm pretty progressive about most lifestyle things. I try to eat vegetarian at least a couple times a week. I don't think strict vegetarianism is the right dietary choice for humans, but I respect people who make that choice and I recognize that, for health reasons, we should all try to eat veggie more often.
But it seems like there is this steady progression of self-righteous twits trying to outdo each other in how pretentious they can be in their dietary and consumer choices. As though there weren't enough real problems in the world.
Vegetarianism got to be old hat, so along came vegan.
Vegan cooking started to get too tasty, so along came the whole PETA non-exploitation stance.
PETA went too Hollywood, so along came Fair Trade.
Starbucks started carrying Fair Trade coffee, so then came organic.
Well, now the supermarkets are selling brand name organic foods, so you had to know that all the hippies of the world weren't going to sit still for that for too long.
So now we have the Eat Local movement, wherein you only eat stuff that grows within a 60 mile radius of where you live (distances seem to vary according to, I don't know, the sanity of the person involved perhaps.)
The theory, I guess, is that all the shipping, refrigeration, etc. is ever so bad for the planet, yada yada.
I watched a bit on the news about a local woman whose family had just finished a year of an Eat Local pledge. She was going on and on about how great it was and how much better the world would be if everyone did it as much as possible all the time.
Now, here's a couple of quick pieces of info: where I live, we have at best a four month growing season. Just about the only thing that grows in any great quantity around these parts is wheat. There is nothing remotely resembling a citrus fruit that grows within 1,000 kilometres of this place.
I cannot think of a less sane place on Earth to try to practice strict Eat Local principles, except perhaps the Arctic.
Oh sure, in summertime there are local market gardens where one could load up on carrots and such, but then you'd have to either freeze or can them yourself, and wouldn't that undercut the whole energy-saving rationale?
Plus, have any of these save-the-world knobs considered the impoverished farmers and workers in Third World countries who depend on trade in fruits and vegetables for what little income they receive? How did 'Fair Trade' suddenly morph into 'No Trade'?
The notion that we should shut down world trade in food, of all things, just to satisfy the moral pretensions of the professionally outraged is just too stupid for words.
As a counterpoint to this, shortly after seeing the news item about Eat Local, I saw a fundraising commercial for one of those evangelist Christian overseas missions. I usually tune those things out, 'cause like most people I generally dislike evangelist types. But this one caught my attention. They were raising money to buy medicine to treat leprosy afflicting poor Third World people.
So, on the one hand, you've got these "right-wing" evangelist types who everyone (including me) loves to sneer at, yet they are doggedly, thanklessly working away to try to fix a real problem.
On the other hand, you've got all these Green snots who get all the attention, are total media darlings yet half the time they seem to be wasting their time and ours with all these pointless half-baked notions of theirs.
Well, there's my rant du jour. Man, we're getting a lot of these things lately, aren't we? What do you think? Am I over-reacting or do these fad-causes bug you as much as they bug me?
posted by Mentok @ 1:00 PM, ,
Monday, May 14, 2007
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(Visits from my mother always end up discombulating my karmic balance)
posted by Mentok @ 12:26 PM, ,
Friday, May 11, 2007
If there was an election for President of Earth, I think Tony Blair would have a pretty good chance of winning it.
I'm sure statements like this must be infuriating to many British people, who had to live with the guy as a regular old human politician. But in the image he projected abroad, he always came across as a true leader. Few other politicians of this generation can boast that.
Those who work in politics in democratic countries (at least those that don't have term limits) live every day with the knowledge of their inevitable, horrible doom. The end, when it comes, will always be bad. No matter how popular and heroic you were in the beginning, no matter how much good you managed to accomplish in your time, your final days will be mired in scandal, back-stabbing and discontent.
Blair learned this the hard way. Hell, we all learn it the hard way. Is there an easy way?
Thanks Tony. Best wishes for all your future endeavours.
posted by Mentok @ 12:47 PM, ,
Thursday, May 10, 2007
For no particular reason, I've been taking vitamin B supplements recently. As those of you who have tried this know, vitamin B has the side-effect of turning one's urine an almost radioactively bright shade of yellow.
So I was taking a whiz this morning and I was thinking, "Wow. The Green Lantern would be powerless against my urine!"
...'Cause his weakness is the colour yellow, you know. Which is pretty lame if you ask me.
Usually, when I get on these tongue-in-cheek comic-book critiques, my target is Superman. But these days there are so many of those "Superman Is A Dick" websites that the Man of Steel seems like too easy of a target.
The Green Lantern, on the other hand, has been largely spared serious scrutiny. He got his power ring from this super-advanced benevolent society, the Guardians of the Universe from the planet Oa, who have established a galactic police force. Does this "super-advanced" civilization not have any sort of engineering safety standards? Isn't there any kind of Green Lanterns union that can file a grievance about these things?
Really, could you ever imagine this happening on Earth? "Here you go, officer, this is a new sort of taser we've developed. The only problem with it is that it doesn't work on anything yellow." My guess is that invention would be headed back to the lab until the whole yellow weakness thingy gets fixed.
Here's another question: why is the Green Lantern always an athletic guy? He doesn't have to do anything remotely athletic. He flies around and points the ring at shit. A guy in a wheelchair could do that job. In fact, that would make for a much more interesting comic.
As a kid, my biggest pet peeve with Green Lantern was the over-use of the plot device of his power ring running out of juice at a crucial moment. There were always these scenes where he would be surrounded by bad guys and the giant green hammer generated by his ring would suddenly go limp and disappear at the worst possible moment.
His ring, you see, has to be charged up at his lantern-battery once every 24 hours. Once a day... that's it! Dude, do it before you go to bed every day. Put a post-it note on your toothpaste tube: "Charge ring." Set up Google to send yourself an email reminder. I mean, you use the ring to fly around and travel in outer space. It's kinda important that it always, always, always be charged up.
But apparently the Guardians of the Universe also don't have annual performance reviews, 'cause otherwise I'm sure 'failing to charge ring regularly' is something that would go on a Green Lantern's work record.
OK, I've had my fun. Your turn: got any favourite comic book pet peeves or hypotheticals?
posted by Mentok @ 9:53 AM, ,
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Now that I've opened the door a crack to political comment, I'm afraid there's more that wants to push through.
The recent Scottish election - which saw a separatist party win the most seats in the Scottish parliament - got me thinking about nationalism. Even though separatism in Canada is probably at its lowest ebb in over a generation, nationalism is still a topic we know too much about.
Of course, here in Canada we don't have a nation so much as we have a marriage between two peoples. Like all marriages, it has its ups and downs. The Quebec nation, you know, is very cool and stylish, a real trophy wife. But then there's the temper trantrums, the PMS, the selfishness and her outright refusal to get a jay-ooh-bee to pay for her expensive tastes. Deep down, we know she loves us, in her own way.
The old line they used to feed us in Canadian political science classes is that nationalism is a peculiarly European notion that never really worked well and therefore has no relevance to our modern world.
Yet it keeps popping up.
The Canadian dogma on this topic was originally fed by that big tit-head, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who back in his college professor days used to sneer big long sneers at nationalism of all sorts, as only he could.
But let's review the practical record. Trudeau helped write the constitutions for two countries: Canada - which at any given moment has at least one and sometimes as many as three active separatist movements; and Czechoslovakia - which swiftly became Slovakia and the Czech Republic almost immediately after Trudeau left town.
Trudeau was clearly wrong to underestimate the abiding pull of nationalism, but I think he still had a point overall.
When you think about it, an average human feels so many loyalties criss-crossing every which way. Are the loyalties of language and local culture so powerful that they deserve to be the only ones that are considered politically?
And anyway, who are we kidding with all this talk of "culture" in this world where we all shop at Wal-Mart / Asda and watch CSI: Miami?
This of course leads to another argument that has sometimes been used by Quebec separatists: in the context of the Eurpoean Union and NAFTA, individual countries are becoming less like separate houses and more like condos living side by side in a big high rise building. So what does it matter if people change apartments every so often? If our beloved fucking bitch Quebec wants to get her own place next door, well as long as she pays her share of the bills and as long as we get together for some ex-sex every once in awhile, maybe that's not such a bad deal... or so the argument goes.
Likewise, what does it really matter if Scotland separates from Britain at this point? As long as it stays in the EU, Scotland and England would still be part of the same super-country anyway.
In the short term, this is really a moot point, because the Scottish separatists will never wield real power anyway.
Yet I have this sneaking suspicion this is an issue that won't go away soon.
What do you guys think? Is nationalism dead? Is it relevant? Does anyone really care? Is your national identity something that is overwhelmingly important in your life, or is it just another piece of the puzzle?
posted by Mentok @ 11:39 PM, ,
Saturday, May 05, 2007
This expressive little fellow is the chemical symbol for isopropyl alcohol. I have put him up in honour of Marcy who says some very nice things about me over at her blog Lost in Your Inbox.
I am, of course, unworthy of such praise, but the humility it inspires will motivate me to try harder to live up to it, and for that I thank you, Marcy.
Apparently, prolonged exposure to isopropyl alcohol can cause a condition called "defatting". I'm going to try 'er tonight on the old beer gut and see what happens. Wish me luck!
posted by Mentok @ 12:22 AM, ,
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Zurich (FN) - Scientists in Switzerland today released findings from a study showing that, ironically, environmentalists are partially to blame for global warming.
"The connection is really quite obvious. Environmentalists exhale carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The more environmentalists there are, the more greenhouse gases are produced. It's as simple as that," said Dr. Jules Rodin of the Zurich-based Daimler Ecology Institute.
Rodin urged the public to reduce their dependency on environmental spokespeople through simple conservation measures. For example, environmental groups could share one spokeman instead of making separate statements or use more conservationists, who are known to expel fewer greenhouse gases than environmentalists.
He also recommended that environmental groups consider switching to electronic spokesmen.
"You could easily rig up an electronic system to deliver standard phrases such as 'moral crisis' or 'impending catastrophe'. Even when you factor in the GHGs used to produce the power for such devices, they would still help cut environmentalist-caused GHG emissions by 90 per cent."
Not only the environmentalists themselves but also the intensity of environmental language was observed to have climatic effects.
"In relative terms, there are good kinds and bad kinds of environmentalist statements. If you use a ton of fantastic, mind-boggling hyperboles or if you say the same thing over and over and over and over again, that's obviously going to have a much more harmful effect on the environment," said Rodin.
posted by Mentok @ 11:58 AM, ,