Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Open Thread

You can present generic questions about irony here if you like.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Scales ask if his life is ironic. The first responder correctly pegs this as Catch-22, a particularly cruel situation where doing A causes B, which prevents C. But not doing A prevents B, which causes C. In life, all human beings like to think they have a choice. There is this magical thing called "free will" which exists in some sort of ether, and a Catch-22 violates this precept. The easiest thing to do is to laugh about Yossarian and Milo and Major Major Major Major, because laughter is easier than feeling bad about it. Irony is that catchall term where we don't know what to say, what to do, how to get by with what we see in front of us.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Historical inaccuracy

I'd heard some years ago about the dispute between the United Way and the Boy Scouts of America, and while researching I discovered this article.

Jack Kime, a supporter of the Boy Scouts said:

I register my refusal to passively sit and watch my America go the way of a Roman Empire, drowning in decadency and politically correct insanity.

The author, Austin Cline, responds:

Ironically, the Roman Empire was transformed into a Christian Empire where church and state were deeply intertwined.

For this discussion I'm going to avoid the clear bias on both sides, as well as any possible historical inaccuracy in the second statement, and comment on what the author was trying to say. Essentially, the author says that it wasn't decadency and politically correct insanity that caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, it was Christianity. Furthermore, the author asserts that decadency and political correctness are the opposite of Christianity. The illogic here is quite clear, the person who doesn't want America to become like Rome is actually trying to make sure America becomes like Rome! If a person says, "I want to live longer, so I'm going to smoke a cigarette", is that ironic? I would argue no. Stupid, certainly, ignorant and naive, but not ironic, it's just wrong. If I say, "I need 4 of something, so I'm going to add 2 and 3", is that irony? Well obviously not, everyone should agree. What is the difference between this and the blog post above? Not very much.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Stephen Colbert

On Thursday, Stephen Colbert was talking about the Anglican church. "The Anglicans are a church that started from rejecting central authority now has groups of people in it that want a stricter central authority to bring their foot down. Isn't that just delicious irony?"

No Stephen, it isn't. Of course people act like this. When you don't like what the authority does, you strike out on your own. When people start acting differently than you want them to, you run straight for authority to tell everyone how to behave. Now, it seems that this was a sincere joke, and not part of his character, which lampoons the Christian right, which seemingly wants big government in the bedroom and nowhere else. This isn't irony at all, it is hypocrisy. Those that split off from the Catholic church did so not because they wanted less central authority, they did it because they didn't like the policies that authority put in place. When they want specific policy to go into effect, they are happy with universal authority.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wikipedia Ironic?

This Wordie page on the Great Firewall of China uses the a completely meaningless form of "irony". Wikipedia defines the firewall, and was for a time blocked by the firewall. This is not even coincidental. Wikipedia tells the truth about things, including the Great Firewall of China, and the Firewall is about blocking truth.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Irony Mark

There's a mark for irony? This is a punctuation mark denoting use of irony in the sentence. Now, I know there is on font for sarcasm, but the idea that you need a marker for a rhetorical device is absurd. Next thing you know, we'll be wrapping all of our ideas in metaphor tags, creating quotation marks with our hands, and putting upside down punctuation at the beginning of sentences.

Wikipedia does have a discussion on why this is rarely, other than the fact the idea of it makes my stomach turn.

In some cases a whole text may be ironic, rather than individual sentences. Then it would either be the case that the irony mark cannot be applied to a single sentence or that it would have to be applied to too many sentences.

Examples of an entire text intended as ironic don't jump out, unless this refers to repeated uses of irony across sentences. For example, using "Bound to Happen" repeatedly isn't an ironic passage, it is adjacent instances of irony. This example seems pretty silly. The next is more interesting.

Irony is often intended to be misunderstood by a certain portion of its audience, either to enforce close attention or to create a boundary between those "in the know" and those who miss the point. Explicit use of an irony mark in such a circumstance would defeat the purpose.

Is irony intended to be misunderstood by some of its audience? Well I think this is obvious. Since we aren't using the words "literal intention", those who read into our sentences literally are not going to understand the reference. The same is true of metaphor. While this is an interesting point, the idea that irony might be deliberately used in an attempt to prevent certain people from understanding it is interesting.

Is "Mr. Tambourine man" ironic? Words are being used other than their literal intention. Does this mean that all slang, jargon, and argot is irony? Sarcasm certainly isn't, although it fits the literal definition. This is something I will have to examine in more depth in the future.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bound To Happen

For the origin of this quote, see The Simpsons episode "Simpson Safari". The use is truly ironic, because the term was used to described something of mind blowing unlikeliness. However, I have come to use it to describe something that everybody knows is going to happen, but is still surprised. Today, someone tried to tell me it is ironic that a person who eats cheeseburgers every day eventually has a heart attack. That's not ironic, that causality.

This term has come to describe a number of statistical phenomena, including selection bias, where people misinterpret the world around them. Take Alanis Morisette's man who was afraid to fly, and when he finally did, he died in a plane crash. This is a crazy coincidence, right? Actually, this is bound to happen.

Say 1 in 25 people is afraid to fly, and 1 out of 10 people on a plane are on their first trip. Add to that that a person who is afraid to fly is 5 times more likely to come with an alternative to flying, and ignoring small aircraft, the average plane holds 150 people. 25 * 10 * 5 / 150 = 5, so there should be a person who is afraid to fly on their first ever trip once out of every 5 plane crashes! Obviously a specific person crashing their first time up is rare, but so is that person winning the lottery! Given a large enough population, it would be absurdly unlikely for their to be coincidences. Therefore, the man dying in the song is not ironic, it's bound to happen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tetrahedra of Space

I was recently reading, Before the Golden Age, Book 1, a collection of classic SF tales from the 1930s, edited by Isaac Asimov. There is a 1931 story called Tetrahedra of Space, by P. Schuyler Miller, which is ruined by the fifth to last word.

The story is about several scientists in the Amazon. They discover alien lifeforms, which they eventually determine to be from Mercury. These lifeforms thrive in a dry climate, and since it is the dry season, they are able to spread. There are several battles between the humans and aliens, and eventually the aliens seem destined for victory. Then it starts to rain. The aliens are driven back, and severely injured. Finally, when the rain stops, the scientists are able to cleverly communicate to them just exactly how wet Earth is, and convince them to leave for Mars. A clever story, and while it doesn't quite hold up to modern SF, for 1931 it is very impressive. However, the last line ruins it for me.

Water and Earth seemed to be synonymous, and we were perfectly at ease in that dangerous element. For all that, they, the tetrahedra of Mercury, could "kill" it, which by inference, we could not. They weren't going to admit defat, by Man of water, but this was a big Solar System. We could have our soggy Earth! They were going to Mars!

Up from behind the wall of "killed" water rose two great, glorious pearls, marvelously opalescent in the rays of the setting sun - up and up, smaller and smaller, until they vanished into the deepening blue above the Andes. Ironically, it began to rain.

Now, had they ended with, "It began to rain", "Fittingly, it began to rain", "and as they vanished into the deepening blue above the Andes, the Earth began to weep", "seemingly on cue, it began to rain". He could have left the last sentence off entirely, and it would have been a better ending.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Proof of a German's theory by British Scientists

Below is a quote from Stephen Hawking's , A Brief History of Time , talking about an experiment designed to prove special relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1905.

It is normally very difficult to see this effect... it is possible to do so during an eclipse of the sun... it was not until 1919 that a British expedition, observing an eclipse from West Africa, showed that light was indeed deflected by the sun, just as predicted by the theory. This proof of a German theory by British scientists was hailed as a great act of reconciliation between the two countries after the war. It is ironic, therefore, that later examination of the photographs taken on that expedition showed the errors were as great as the effect they were trying to measure.

This is an interesting usage, because there are actually two layers going on here. This experiment is probably one of the most famous experiments of the twentieth century, and I've cited it any number of times, not knowing that it was in error. Where is the irony here? Thinking you are right, and then finding out you are wrong is often considered ironic. The bigger you are, the harder you fall, and likewise, the righter you think you are, the more ironic it is considered. And since this experiment contributed to a revolution in physics, this can't have been much bigger. Still, relativity was verified by countless other experiments, and this one experiment doesn't really hurt this.

The real meat of this statement is the symbolic nature of the British scientist supporting a German scientist. This was apparently seen as a reconciliation between the two powers after the Great War. Of course, there wasn't really a reconciliation, the Germans were treated poorly, and that led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. So combining that the experiment being wrong, and this symbolism, it actual foreshadows the rise of the Third Reich. Einstein, of course, was not really German, he was a German Jew, the distinction of which was made stark during the next decades. Britain did support Jewish scientists in relocation during the 1930s, so their support of Einstein in 1919 foreshadowed this as well.

Clearly, this is a nuanced situation, and the English language (probably all languages) have no words to succinctly describe this complex situation, so irony, as the catchall term, is used. Really, this is a combination of foreshadowing and the validity of something being overturned.

Verdict: Not ironic, but incredibly nuanced and interesting.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Is it Irony? Amy Winehouse goes to rehab.

Check out this story at Hollywood today . Singer Amy Winehouse, best known for her song rehab, in which she sings, "They try to make me good to rehab, I'm saying No, No, No", is going to rehab. It's a sad story, but not unexpected. Too many young artists get caught in the never ending downward spiral of drugs and alcohol. Everybody thinks they are the exception, they can abuse substances and not be like those who died from it. I can't imagine the stress of performing in front of large audiences every night, the pressure by the record label and fans to put out more hits.

Is it Irony? No, it's just sad, a lack of willpower.
Is breaking a New Years resolution ironic? No, it's Bound to Happen.

The anti-rehab hit “Rehab” is itself up for top Song and Record honors and would be what she performs for a worldwide audience – creating both an irony and an embarrassment. While the Recording Academy supports free expression it also avidly battles drug addiction through its highly regarded, and donation supported, Musicares program. It’s like the Firemen giving a Citizenship award to an arsonist.

This metaphor is completely wrong. I would say it's more like the Firemen giving an award to a man for singlehandedly protecting his town from fire, and while he was at the award ceremony, his town burning down. Or, it's like the Firemen giving an award to a man who failed to stop a fire. Amy Winehouse isn't the enemy in the war against drug addiction, she is a fallen soldier.

Verdict: Not ironic.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ironic Nazi Environmentalists

While listening to the NPR Science Friday podcast today about The Zookeeper's Wife , Diane Ackerman author of the book by that name, used ironic. It was a heart warming story of Polish Catholics using their position at the Warsaw zoo (which the Nazi's liked) to help rescue Jewish people during WWII. When talking about animals and the environment, Ackerman said, "It's ironic, the Nazi's were actually environmentalists". It only took me a few seconds to realize exactly why she used the term irony here, in what I am going to call "shades of gray" irony.

When people look at the Nazis, it is difficult to imagine how an entire race of people could commit such awful acts. Even today, 60 years later, we shudder at the evil. It is easy to imagine there being absolute goods and evils. It's easy to look at the Nazis and say there were pure evil, and the Americans were pure good. It's hard to realize that Nazis loved their mothers, their wives, and their children. Nazis treated their pets well, enjoyed art and music (by Germans), made scientific advances, and in the end, were not too different from any one else. We all like to think that if we were Germans at that time, we would have fought the Nazis, attempted to assassinate Hitler, and not gone along with it. But the truth of the matter is that we can't say what we would have done. There were only a courageous few who stood up to the Nazis, and even that in secret, like Arthur Schindler. T

So the Nazis weren't inhuman monsters, and the allied forces weren't paragons of virtue. The bombing of Dresden is one example, Hiroshima is another. We justify these things as necessary to save lives and win the war, and I think rightly so. But had Hitler one, Germans would have similarly justified their actions. To be able to sleep at night, it is necessary to dehumanize your enemies. It is comforting to think, "They are purely evil inhuman monsters, and I am a good virtuous person, and there is a solid line between us that can never be crossed". However, this just isn't the case. Nothing in this world is black and white, everything is a shade of Gray.

So when you hear what is generally a good thing about a Nazi (like being environmentalists), you say, "how ironic", instead of actually thinking through the consequences of that statement.

Verdict: Not Ironic

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Types of Irony: That's not ironic, it's coincidental

In the Futurama episode "The Devils Hands are Idle Playthings" , Fry makes a deal with the Robot Devil to exchange his hands with that of a random robot. A massive wheel is spun to decide on the unlucky robot. In the end, it comes lands on the Robot Devil, who says "Oh what an appallingly ironic outcome." Bender replies, "That's not ironic, it's coincidental." Indeed, it isn't ironic, it is just a cruel coincidence. The Robot Devil is happy to screw over any other robot, but ends up screwing himself over. My friend SmickD considers this the "car dealer who sells cars with bad breaks getting run over by one of these cars" kind of irony, which I call "Comeuppance".

Most people have an inherent concept of karma. The feeling that bad people should get what is coming to them. The previous post about the astrology magazine has a good bit of this. The Robot Devil is an evil character who gets screwed over by random chance, and this makes people think all is right with the world. Anyone could have died when the car's breaks stopped working, but it happened to kill the dirty car salesman, meaning that bad things do happen to bad people, and all is right with the world. Of course, if you said, "that's great, I enjoy vengeance", it would sound bad, so you say, "how ironic".

This is what I call Karmatic irony. Tomorrow we'll examine the slightly different type of irony which I call "Coincidental", or attempting to apply sense to random events.

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Astrology Magazine's "unforeseen circumstances"

A co-worker rushed to me to ask, "Is it ironic when an astrology magazine goes out of business due to 'unforeseen circumstances'", to which I immediately answered "No, it's just funny". But the more I thought about it, I realized there is irony all over the situation. Astrology, as we all know, is clearly bunk. A magazine devoted to astrology that claims to tell the future is using the term "astrology" to mean "foretelling", rather than "money making scheme to sucker poor schmuck's out of their hard earned cash". Since they seem to be talking about stars and planets, but are actually talking about a con job, the whole magazine is ironic. At least, it's ironic for me and those who know the truth, which almost certainly includes the authors. Now, when they actually fail to predict their own demise, the fact that we all knew it was full of crap to begin with means that it is no longer ironic, the words "money making scam with no predictive power" accurately describe the situation. Of course, the fact that they ran out of money (or at least won't be making any more) adds irony to the ending.

Now, if you are one of the every 15 minute types who believes in astrology, the death of the magazine is in fact ironic, since they used "future predicting" powers, and that turned out to not do what they claimed. As you can see from this relatively simple example, even the most casual usage of the word "irony" is difficult to analyze, made all the more difficult by the fact that it requires us to determine the actually intention of the person, as well as the literal intention of the word.

To summarize, the main reason we use the term "Ironic" is because we're too polite to call them liars.

Verdict: Not Ironic

Is it Irony?

This blog is an attempt to explore what is meant by the term irony, how it is used by the public, what it was supposed to mean, and how we can reclaim this word from nothingness. I tend towards being a strict ironist , but I think my definition may have to expand after examining all of the different cases.

Why am I creating a blog about what irony means? Every day someone will come up to me and ask if something is ironic, and 90% of the time, it isn't. Initial posts will deal with irony in the news, since proper word use seems something that should be understood by professional writers. We will also discuss various kinds of irony, Socratic irony, O. Henry style irony, etc.

I'll also be reviewing Steven Pinker (The Stuff of Thought) and using his thesis to explain how we can use irony to peer into the human soul and explore how the way we use language sheds light on the human condition.

If you come across a news article, tv show, movie, song, book, anything that uses the term irony, and you want to know if it is accurate, let me know, and I'll post about it.