Archive for January, 2010

Next week I have my class discussing Voltaire’s Candide, a classic of Enlightenment commentary and satire. To help my students prepare, I sent out a list of reading questions this morning.

When I checked my e-mail this afternoon, I had this reply waiting from one of my students:

I am sure we will be discussing this in class on Tuesday but I did not see how Candide was humorous or satirical.  The numerous calamities were a bit over the top but people being quartered and disemboweled seems a bit too disturbing to be funny.  Am I missing something or is it just a dark humor?

Sigh. I really don’t know how to respond to this e-mail. My first instinct is to wry a terse reply. Yes, you’re missing something.

My next thought was to write a slightly more expansive response. Yes, you’re missing something. Something big.

The response that comes to mind that I think would be most humorous (ironic, no?) would be to give this student a t-shirt that says, “A sarcasm detector, that’s a real useful invention.” But, alas, the humor might well be lost on the poor soul.

Instead, I’ll craft a lengthier reply that gently nudges the student to think about how the narrator’s initial belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” does not, perhaps, square with the awful things he encounters on his travels.

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Anyone who knows me well knows I enjoy good wordplay and frequently insert puns into my everyday conversation, just to show off how clever and witty I can be.

Over the years, I’ve given the world — or at least my closest friends and relatives — a ton o’ puns that have made the world a little bit better. We all remember the classics. (What do altar girls wear? Altar tops! Oh, the hilarity!)*

But with my proclivity for pun-ditry, it’s easy to take my wittiness for granted. And, as I learned today, even I fail at times to appreciate in full my own genius.

Take for instance the e-mail a student sent me today during the mid-class break. I had been lecturing about the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and right before break I was talking about Newton and his contributions to physics. I mentioned the concept of gravity, and how other thinkers had suspected such a force existed. But I mentioned that Newton is associated with gravity because he derived formulas that explained how this and other laws of motion functioned.

Evidently, at this point, according to my student’s e-mail, I added, “and that put some real force behind it.”

“Well placed,” wrote my student.

Indeed. So well placed was this bit of wordplay and so caught up in my own gravitas was I that my gem of a joke had gone unnoticed not only by most of my students, but also by me.

My un-WIT-ting pun also explains why this student and a couple of others around him were quietly laughing at one point during my lecture. And to think, I was afraid I had neglected to zip my fly.

Naturally, I wrote back to my student after class to thank him for his note, but also to take full credit for my ingenious pun. I saw no sense in confessing to the accident of my witticism. The joke, if unintentional, captured his interest and got him engaged in the course.

No, a candid admission of accident was out of the question. My unintended joke had done some pedagogical good, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice that for the sake of total and excessive honesty.

After all, I appreciated the gravity of the situation.

* I don’t care if there is no such thing as an “altar girl.” You can’t allow “reality” to get into the way of a legendary pun, just like you can’t allow the desire for straightforward storytelling to prevent you from recounting an anecdote in an especially tortured and convoluted way just so you can make a pun (or four) along the way. Like any good joke, the secret to great puns is in the set-up.

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One of the ostensibly nice things about my beloved Los Angeles Kings’ resurgence this season is that it’s led to increased attention and coverage in the North American media.

However, I’ve come away largely unimpressed with most of these stories, either because they tell me nothing I don’t already know from having followed the team intensely for the better part of the past two decades, or because they remain stuck in tired cliches that reek of journalistic laziness.

Take, for instance, a story I spied on the NYT this morning with the intriguing headline, “With Little Fanfare, the Los Angeles Kings are in the Playoff Chase.”

Oddly enough, I clicked the headline expecting a story about how the Kings have largely flown under the radar nationally, since it’s hard as hell for a West Coast NHL team to garner more than a cursory mention in the national media.

Instead, I got treated to yet another story about how Los Angeles isn’t really a hockey market.

Needless to say, I found the premise deeply insulting, and the reporting superficial.

The question surrounding the Kings is whether anyone cares.

Years of losing and mismanagement and the lockout of 2004-5 have dented the fan base, but there are others who have lost interest, too. The Los Angeles Times, until recently, rarely traveled with the team, a circumstance that prompted the Kings to hire a popular newspaper blogger to cover the team for its Web site.

First, virtually everyone outside L.A. grossly underestimates (and understates) the devotion of the Kings’ fan base, which may be small but certainly not lacking in passion. (Exhibit A: The graffiti tributes to Anze Kopitar during his rookie season in 2006.) The more salient point is that fan interest is inevitably tied to the quality of the product on the ice. L.A., like any city, likes a winning team, something the Kings haven’t produced too often in their forty-three years. Even the diehards are bound to invest less time and money on the team when it sucks. But as the team starts winning — and playing actual playoff games — attendance is going to trend upward.

Second, the article makes it seem as if the L.A. Times cut back on road coverage of the Kings due to lack of interest. In fact, the decision to reduce coverage is more likely a function of the hard times on which the L.A. Times and other newspapers have fallen. It’s rather pricey to send a beat writer on the road for forty-one games, with the attendant travel expenses, when the wire services can provide game recaps. It doesn’t yield better coverage — quite the opposite — but it’s a tradeoff many financially struggling news outlets are willing to make.

Third, the article greatly slights the credentials of Rich Hammond, described with what sounds like a disparaging note as a “popular newspaper blogger.” In truth, Hammond, whom the Kings hired to serve as a beat writer who would cover the team full time at home and on the road, was not just some “blogger.” Rather, he was a longtime beat writer for the L.A. Daily News who covered the team on a part-time basis the past couple of seasons after being promoted to deputy sports editor. Hammond maintained a blog, Inside the Kings, that was exceptionally popular as the go-to source for Kings news (it routinely generated the most traffic of any Daily News blog). But it was also more credible than some guy running a blog from his basement (though there are actually more than a few reputable hockey blogs in the digital world).

It just irks me to see this kind of cliched writing. It’s so passé in hockey circles to dismiss L.A. for not being a “real hockey market,” just because sports talk radio isn’t endlessly bloviating about the Kings, plus it happens to be 70 degrees in the winter. It’s just funny how Canadians and folks from cold weather climes assume you have to have lousy winters to be passionate about hockey. I think it’s just some a way to mask their envy of the balmy weather.

Anyway, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the NYT, just like other national media outlets, offers little nuance or insight in what amounts to a hit-and-run piece.

Instead, I’ll be quite content to let the rest of the North American media go back to ignoring my team. I’d rather stick to my “popular newspaper blogger” of choice any day.

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It’s a red-letter day for Slovak aviation security officials, who committed a big boo-boo in planting and failing to remove explosive from passenger baggage.

It seems that someone got the bright idea to test the baggage screeners by placing explosives in eight suitcases. In seven of the eight cases, the explosives were detected and removed before ever reaching the aircraft. But in the eighth case …

A bomb-sniffing dog found one of the two explosive components, which was removed. But the dog’s handler was evidently too busy to be arsed to remove the second component.

As a result, 96 grams of plastic explosive went in the suitcase of a Slovak electrician flying from Poprad-Tatry Airport in Central Slovakia to his home in Dublin.

Of course, no one bothered to inform the poor electrician that his bag contained explosives. And the explosives were so well hidden that the man didn’t find them after unpacking his bag.

It must have been quite the experience when a bomb squad from the Irish Army came knocking on his door yesterday morning to search for the missing explosives, then police detained him for several hours, thinking he was a terrorist, until the Slovak police explained he was just an unfortunate victim of their ineptitude.

I have to say, it sounds like there isn’t nearly the sort of furor we’d see if this kind of incident had involved the United States in the slightest way. I can’t even imagine what sort of stupid measures TSA would implement in overreacting.

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