Some thoughts on irony

It’s a pity about irony. It’s really interesting, but almost universally misunderstood. It can be funny — but it is not the same as humor. Ironic language can be delivered in a sarcastic tone — but irony is not the same thing as sarcasm. And, most importantly, it simply isn’t about things like dying on your birthday.

The best starting point for understanding irony is paradox. Like paradox, irony involves a juxtaposition of conditions which both do and do not appear to coexist or be capable of coexisting. In the case of irony, one of the conditions generally adheres to strict logic, while the other represents a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the logical principle at hand.

Frequently, the ironic juxtaposition is humorous as well as ironic, and that’s the reason that irony so often gets confused with humor. Here’s an example, in the form of an exchange between two professors (an exchange I overheard many years ago):

Professor 1: I told a student he was stupid today. 
Professor 2: Really?
Professor 1: Actually I got him to tell me how stupid he was.
Professor 2: Oh, the Socratic method!

(Professor 1, for the record, has a curmudgeonly streak but also a heart of gold.) The irony here resides in the juxtaposition of two propositions: that getting a student to work his own way to understanding an idea is the basis of Socratic method, and that a teacher would employ Socratic method to expose a weakness on the part of the student.

The irony, moreover, is a quality of the final statement itself. Irony is first and foremost a rhetorical device. That’s one way it differs from paradox: a paradox really is a set of internally contradictory conditions that can’t be resolved, whereas irony is, so to speak, the pronouncement of paradox in situations that don’t actually fail to resolve. Professor 2 spoke ironically. Humorously, too; but ironically.

Here’s another example — this time a mealtime conversation between students (of whom I was one) and their teacher. The teacher had, as he generally did at this weekly restaurant meal, ordered tongue.

A student: You really do like eating tongue, don't you?
Teacher: I agree with Mozart about the importance of silence. That's why I eat them so assiduously. 

If you like silence, you’ll eat tongues. That makes (a kind of) sense. But the idea that eating tongues will actually lead to more silence is absurd. The statement itself is ironic.

Actions can be ironic too. This example is a little more elaborate, but so good that I can’t resist it. My poker group plays a version of poker where your cards are lined up in front of you in a row, some face up and some face down. Over the course of the game, cards that were not wild can become wild. (Real poker players: please don’t wince.) When a card becomes wild, we typically push it forward about an inch so that there are two rows: the wild cards, and the non-wild and face-down cards.

One time I had only one card, and it became wild. I only had one row of cards — since only one card. Nonetheless, I reached down and pushed my single card forward an inch.

This action was ironic. Strictly speaking, it made sense: we push wild cards forward. But it was also absurd, since I only had one card; I wasn’t separating wild cards from non-wild cards. There’s no actual paradox involved because the situation was under my control, and indeed of my own making. The irony resided in the juxtaposition of the inexorable logic and the irreducible absurdity.

There is of course a ton more to say, but enough said for now. Irony is all around us, but often not recognized. I think it deserves better than it generally gets.

Schrödinger’s Gecko: thoughts on “could” in advertising

I’m struck by the use of the word “could” in advertising. Fifteen minutes “could” save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance, says the abominable GEICO.

What does that mean?

I have a car insurance policy, and if I were to apply for a GEICO policy (which I never will, because of their commercials) they would presumably figure out what to charge me, and the amount they come up with either will or will not be fifteen percent — or more — less than what I’m paying now. It’s deterministic: there’s no uncertainty as to the outcome.

So what’s with “could”?

“Could” means: we haven’t run the numbers on you yet, so we don’t know. That’s the thing: they don’t know. But their not knowing doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. There’s no time-bound factor here; I’m not going to get fifteen percent off based on how well I eat for a month, or how fast I can walk. Everything is in place already.

“Could” is the advertiser’s way of saying, “From our perspective, it’s uncertain whether or not you would save money because we don’t know anything about you. In fact, no uncertainty is involved, but we can’t admit that. We have to make it sound like what we don’t know is indeterminate.”

It’s a subtle yet rather clumsy way of treating potential customers as an undifferentiated mass, while pretending to have their interests at heart.

O’Connor sings “Ode”; or, getting used to life without Facebook

It came to my attention recently that Sinéad O’Connor recorded “Ode to Billy Joe” in 1995. My first reaction was to think of all my friends on Facebook who would find this fact very interesting and cool. But I haven’t been on Facebook since about ten days after the November 8, 2016 disaster.

I’d been very active on Facebook for about eight years. In many ways, I love Facebook. Being in touch with all those friends and relatives is amazing. I cannot name a stratum of my life–from kindergarten to grade school to summer camp to teaching to… anywhere–from which I did not have friends, sometimes many friends, on Facebook.

I’ve defended Facebook against its detractors many times, especially against the criticism that it’s a waste of time. It’s time spent communicating with friends. What could be wrong with that? How better to spend one’s time?

And if it were only that, then that argument would hold. The problems for me arose acutely during the 2016 campaign, though I can see in retrospect that they weren’t entirely new. The best way to sum up the difficulty I faced with Facebook is to say that what I needed in 2016 was an echo chamber and, contrary to popular myth, Facebook isn’t one.

I have no interest in “discussing” and/or “debating” so-called “issues” like capital punishment, women’s health, LGBTQ civil rights, and so forth. There’s nothing to discuss.

Facebook is problematic for me in this connection for at least two reasons.

First, there’s the endless, inescapable stream of claptrap from the right. Some of it comes from my friends; a lot of it comes from their friends, who see that they have said something on my page and come along to argue with it.

Second, I am not nearly as adept as I wish I were at ignoring the bait. To my sorrow, I really do find myself wanting to tell the haters and bigots and enemies of the Constitution what I think of them–even though I know full well that it’s a waste of electrons.

After the election I decided that I actually could not stand Facebook any more. Oh, and about that time thing: it had become a serious drain on my time, and it wasn’t all a bunch of joyful communing with friends. I found myself spending, say, ninety minutes in the morning, and more time later, mostly swatting at right-wing gnats. That is not an appropriate use of my time. Moreover, it made me miserable during the campaign (during which I was already pretty miserable, because I saw clearly all along that Fuckface was going to win), and after the election my already small reserves of tolerance for Facebook-style “discussion” were essentially depleted.

I’ve done a good job of avoiding Facebook. I logged in to say thanks for everyone’s birthday wishes last week, and that’s pretty much it.

But it’s a hard adjustment. I’m used to telling lots of people things all the time. When I learn that Sinéad O’Connor recorded “Ode to Billie Joe” and have to keep it more or less to myself, it feels weird.

That’s OK, though. I’m working on repurposing the Facebook time and mental energy to other things. I don’t yet know how my role in the resistance will pan out, but I want to give it a chance to do so. Facebook can of course be a rallying point for people of good will (that is, Fuckface’s enemies). But, to use a favorite phrase of my late father’s, it exacts a price.

Prostate Cancer Awareness begins with prostate awareness

This is not medical advice. Please consult your doctor(s) about medical questions and issues.

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. I’m pleased to say that it’s also the month when my three-year post-surgery blood test returned good results. My PSA (more about PSA below) is still “undetectable,” as it has been since two months after my July, 2013 radical prostatectomy.

Prostate cancer awareness is very, very important. But what’s struck me forcefully over my three years as a prostate cancer patient and survivor is the number of men who have no idea what their prostate does. I’ve started asking them point-blank. Nine times out of ten, I get shrugs. Many men think the prostate does nothing, like the appendix. Those who know what the prostate does tend to have a medical background, or to have had prostate cancer themselves or in the family.

The prostate secretes semen. The testicles do not secrete semen, despite vulgarisms that suggest otherwise (like “bust a nut”). The testicles produce sperm cells. Those are the things that swim upstream looking for eggs to fertilize. Semen is the delivery mechanism for sperm cells. Semen comes from the prostate.

It follows, then, that after your prostate is removed, you can no longer ejaculate. When I mention this fact to other men, I often get asked “Why not?” or “Are you sure?” The answers to these questions are, respectively, “Because semen comes from the prostate” and “Yes, I am fucking sure.”

Here are some generalities, based on what I have learned as member of the Reluctant Brotherhood.

The nerves that enable erection run along the prostate. If those nerves are implicated in the cancer, they have to be removed. If they’re not cancerous, they still have to be peeled away from the prostate, which traumatizes them. In those cases they take a while to recover, possibly measured in years. In short, erectile function after a prostatectomy covers a wide spectrum. And medicine and/or devices play a role for many men.

While ejaculation is not possible without a prostate, orgasm is–even in the absence of erection. The strength and quality of orgasm will vary from man to man, and may improve over time.

Urinary incontinence after a prostatectomy also varies on a case-by-case basis (that’s a pattern with this disease and its treatments). At its worst, you’re looking at a lifetime of Depends and other ameliorative measures. But if you’re lucky, you don’t have any serious problems with incontinence. Maybe a little bit when you sneeze.

The main way you detect prostate cancer, or at least become suspicious of its presence, is through a PSA test. PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigen. It shows up in the blood in higher concentrations when there’s cancer. If the doctor feels it’s warranted, they (yes, I know they is really plural but I hate “he or she”) will order a biopsy. A digital exam of the rectum is also used in diagnosing cancer and other prostate disorders.

Please do not fear any of these diagnostic techniques. Do them if your doctor suggests them. In fact, if you’re old enough–I think the guidelines say forty, but again, I’m not dispensing medical advice so please research it–and/or have a relevant family history, you should ask about them.

As regards treatment, the big three are surgery, radiation, and “active surveillance” (sometimes called “watchful waiting”). Active surveillance means not intervening, but continuing to measure and monitor via PSA and possibly follow-up biopsies, and then intervening with surgery or radiation if it becomes necessary. In my case, active surveillance was not an option because while the cancer was not terribly aggressive, there was quite a lot of it. I talked to two radiologists and two surgeons, and decided that surgery was right for me.

Prostate cancer is a grim disease. It has a reputation as a “good” cancer, because survival rates when it’s caught early are pretty spectacular and because some manifestations of it are slow-growing enough not to warrant intervention. But the permanent changes from treatment are significant in every case, and extremely significant in some cases. And around 30,000 men die from it every year in the United States. It’s not to be taken lightly.

So be prostate (cancer) aware, this month and every month.

Again: This is not medical advice. Please consult your doctor(s) about medical questions and issues.