Daily Archives: July 13, 2011

Sideband #11: Eleven Eleven

These go to eleven.

I know people who feel the funniest moment in all of film is the bit in This is Spinal Tap about the volume knobs that go to 11. It does seem clear that the bit has become a well-known cultural meme. Just about everyone (who’s anyone) knows exactly what you mean when you refer to turning it up to eleven. For those of you just exiting the cave (Plato’s or otherwise), here’s the bit:

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God is an Iron

The universe is perverse. I don’t mean that in the peeking into windows sense (although the universe is indeed peeking into all our windows every moment), but in the ironic sense. The universe is deeply, hugely, fundamentally ironic in ways that are incredibly perverse.

It is ironic in that the only constant is that nothing is constant.

It is ironic in that the only absolute truth is that nothing is absolutely true.

It is ironic in that its most basic everyday aspects are its greatest mysteries.

It is ironic in that the toast always lands buttered side down.

Science fiction author Spider Robinson wrote that, “God is an iron.” Which seems to make no sense until you hear the explanation: “If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron.” (From his  short story God is an Iron, 1977, which later was incorporated as the second chapter in his novel, Mindkiller, 1982.) Robinson wrote, as a postscript to the story, “God is an iron… and that’s a hot one.”

The first Wiktionary definition reads: A statement that, when taken in context, may actually mean something different from, or the opposite of what is written literally; the use of words expressing something other than their literal intention, notably as a form of humor.

The great George Carlin put it another way, “Irony is ‘a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.’ For instance: a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck. He is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.” (From his book, Brain Droppings, 1997)

In the Robinson story, after being told that God is an iron, a character responds, “And I’m a pair of pants with a hole scorched through the ass?”

That’s really the substance of this post: how the irony of the perverse universe scorches us. To riff on Carlin’s bit, it is (weirdly) coincidental that Christina Taylor-Green, who was shot to death in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting last January, was born on 9/11. She enters the world on the date of one tragedy and leaves as part of another. Coincidence, not irony. (There is a bit of minor numerical coincidence in the two 11s in 9/11 and 2011.) The scorching irony is that the young, with so much life ahead, so much to offer, die and leave behind those who, having lived much life, would gladly go instead.

That was much on my mind when, as I wrote recently, two friends from my circle, lost their footing on the sandbar and were washed away. And it’s not that they were in any way courting death. There is no behavior that invites brain cancer or a brain aneurysm. They were people who were needed and who are sorely missed. I would have, without hesitation, gone in their place. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be missed, but as a fairly alienated loner, my exit wouldn’t rip such large holes in the tapestries of others.

That is scorching, bitter, irony at its worst. Those that are so very loved and needed, with so much ahead of them, slip from the sandbar while others stand dumbly rooted and can only watch. Not the expected result, although it’s hard to live long without coming to expect that ironic behavior of the perverse universe.

Which maybe makes it not irony at all, but the way things work.  (Hell of a way to run an airline.)

Irony is, perhaps, best summed up in the ancient story of the rich man who sees Death in the market place in Damascus. More importantly, Death sees him and seems very taken aback by the sight of him. The man, knowing you see Death only when you are about to die is very frightened. He decides to flee to the distant city of Sumara, so he buys a horse and rides it fast as possible. He rides it so fast the horse dies. The man runs on furiously in his panic. He manages to finally reach Sumara, normally several days away, in just one day. But upon arrival, the man collapses in mortal exhaustion. When Death shows up to claim him, the man asks why Death was so surprised to see him in Damascus. “I was surprised to see you in Damascus yesterday,” replies Death, “because I knew we had an appointment in Samara today.”

That’s irony for you.

Sideband #10: A Full Hand

Sidebands are 10; a full hand; a (very small) odometer moment.

The accident of genetics and evolution that gives us ten fingers (and ten toes) causes us to count in tens and celebrate things that occur on tens boundaries. Turning 30, 40 or 50 years of age is viewed as cause to bring out the black balloons and mocking birthday cards. Yet celebrating 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of marriage is increasingly cause to celebrate (especially these divorce-prone days).

Despite the (admittedly very pedantic) fact that the new millennium actually began in 2001—the first year of the new epoch—most people celebrated the odometer change from 1999 to 2000. (In our IT department we had to deal with the Y-to-K issue. We spent a huge amount of time going through all corporate documentation and changing all those “Y”s to “K”s.  It was never clear why that was so important, but we got it done and just in time for the party.)

The baseball world was all agog this past week, because New York Yankee Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit (and he did it with a home run, a feat only ever equaled by Wade Boggs back in 1999—the last year of the previous millennium). Seems like getting 2999 (or 3001) hits is a pretty big deal, but 3000 is a record book entry.

In particular, we revere the major odometer numbers—the ones with all zeros (except for the “1” on the very left): 10; 100; 1000; 10,000; 100,000; 1,000,000; etc. There is, perhaps, an instinctive reason for this. These numbers represent the digit positions themselves and are the basis of how we naturally represent numbers.

And they progress upon themselves:

  • 100 = (10 x 10)
  • 1000 = (10 x 10 x 10)
  • 10,000 = (10 x 10 x 10 x 10)
  • (and so forth)

As we’ll explore some other time, they can also be represented like this:

  • 10 = 101
  • 100 = 102
  • 1000 = 103
  • 10,000 = 104
  • (and so forth)

But for now, Sidebands are 10.  Happy 1oth!