Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Things They Should Invent: make commutes multitaskable

I commute by subway, and I read on the way. This has value. Not massive value, but some value. There's no question that it is of more (if only a little more) value to society for a person to spend X minutes reading than to spend X minutes doing nothing.

However, I can't read on buses because I am prone to carsickness. Rail is fine as long as I'm not facing backwards, but on wheels I can't read even for a few minutes. This is relevant because my employer is considering relocating our office to a location that would be served by rail under Transit City, but without Transit City would only be served by buses. I'm already opposed to this possible location because it's inconvenient for me and makes my commute several times longer, but with the removal of money from Transit City in the recent provincial budget, I'll also lose the ability to multitask my commute. What could be an hour spent reading becomes an hour of dead time. Between my employer and the province, they're stealing time from my life and no one is getting anything in return. I am more valuable to my employer and to society if I show up at work having read the day's papers than if I have to catch up at work or translate without being fully up to speed. I am more valuable if I have read 50 pages of whatever book I'm working on than if I haven't. I'm even more valuable if I've spent the commute gaming to destress and clear my head than if I arrive at my destination with the same (or more) stress.

This multitaskability needs to be a factor in broader transportation planning. I don't think people think of this because a lot of people drive, and you can't multitask while driving. But if they can get people out of cars and into transit, then each of those transit passengers gains usable time. If that transit is on rails instead of buses, a significant segment of the carsick-prone population can multitask. And if they can provide wi-fi and enough capacity that everyone gets a seat, then nearly everyone (except those who are prone to carsickness even on rails) can actively make good use of the time.

They recently determined that the average commute in Toronto is 80 minutes. Imagine if every Torontonian gained 80 minutes of useable time, where they could read a newspaper or a book or use the internet! Time that was once a complete write-off can now be spent being informed or educated. Some people could get work done on their commute and therefore spend less time in the office. Students could get a good chunk of their homework done before they even get home. Parents could unwind a bit so they come home to their children more relaxed, and the idea of spending the evening tending to your kids might be more appealing when you've already caught up with the latest episode of Lost on the way home. You could walk in the door caught up on your Twitter feed and your Google Reader and your Facebook wall, so your time and energy is now available to attend to your family or your home or prepare healthy meals or work out. All of that has value.

Economists are always talking about how important productivity is. As personal technology becomes better and less expensive, we're increasingly able to do practically anything in an hour spent sitting quietly. They need to take this into account in transportation planning, so 80 minutes wasted (and perhaps spent polluting and at higher risk of dying or killing, if you're driving) becomes 80 productive minutes.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Things They Should Study: gender ratios of different neighbourhoods

The other day I was sitting in my hairdresser's chair looking out the window, and I noticed that about 80% of passers-by were male. This morning, about 75% of the people in my section of the subway platform were female. I haven't made any other observations (I think this is going to lead me to walk around counting though), but it would be interesting to study whether there are patterns in different neighbourhoods or different places or different times of day.

Mash-ups of the day

Beyoncé vs. Motown:

Lady Gaga vs. Sesame Street:

Yoinked, as usual, from Malene Arpe

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Things They Should Invent: buyer-focused shipping

I get a lot of hits on this post, where I complain that is now shipping with UPS instead of Canada Post. Every once in a while I look at the google results that brought people to that post, and literally all the commentary on the subject is from people who are disappointed by the change. I didn't find one single customer who thought it was an improvement.

Curious now about why they would choose UPS, I went googling for the advantages to using UPS, and found that the alleged advantages are very shipper-centric. There's no focus at all on what's convenient for the receiver. While it is the shipper who's paying UPS, the receiver is generally the customer of the shipper. Shouldn't our needs be taken into account?

I would, quite seriously, pay extra money for my online purchases to be sent by Canada Post so they will end up in my mailbox rather than an hour away at Jane & Steeles. Why can't merchants make that an option? If a courier must be used, I would totally pay extra for a service that lets me request delivery within, say, a one-hour window. Why can't they make this an option?

Someone should poll customers and find out what their shipping preferences are, then retailers should provide services that meet these preferences.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Teach me people skills

Suppose someone is talking to me, and I can't think of anything to say in response. It's a point in the conversation where a substantive response (i.e. more than "Okay") is expected, but I've got nothing.

What should I say?

I already have in my repertoire admitting that I can't think of what I'm supposed to say at that particular point, but that doesn't always work. Any other ideas?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Things They Should Invent: formula for calculating what percentage of consumer goods are reasonably priced

There are formulas for housing affordability. You shouldn't be spending more than 1/3 of your income on rent (and there's a proportion for mortgage payments, but I forget what it is). So it's easy to extrapolate from these numbers and determine for what percentage of the population housing is affordable, or whether a given household can afford a reasonable proportion of the available housing, etc.

It would be interesting to come up with similar calculations for, like, everything. Determine what percentage of one's income should be spent on a particular product or service, and then compare that with income data. Based on income data, is cable reasonably priced? Are beauty products? Is furniture? Rink time? Nonstandard-sized bras? Movie rentals?

Then they can work out all kinds of interesting things from this. Are feminine hygiene products affordable to households receiving welfare? What percentage of police officers can afford a family vacation to Disney World? To what percentage of the population is organic food unaffordable but nonorganic food affordable?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Things They Should Invent: "Yes, and…" debates

In improv, you're not supposed to shoot down someone else's idea. You're supposed to go along with it and build upon it.

This idea should be introduced into political legislatures. You can't shoot down ideas or diss people. You can only talk if you have something new and productive to add, to build on existing ideas.

It wouldn't work all the time - and we do need some time to shoot down generally harmful ideas - but there should be designated "yes, and" periods so we can actually get some work done once in a while.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sometimes I hate introvert brain

One effect of my highly introverted brain structure is that thoughts and ideas don't always come to me in words. They come to me in abstract, intangible concepts, which then need to be consciously and mindfully put in les mots justes before I can express them. This is why sometimes in conversation I just sit there saying nothing. This is why I sometimes just freeze up in my other languages - when the concept isn't coming out in perfect words, it isn't coming out at all. (Hoshi Sato demonstrates this phenomenon here.) It's actually an advantage in translation, because I'm less likely to become married to the idea that a certain word is a certain concept, so my translations are more idiomatic and I don't fall for calques or faux amis as often. But sometimes it's a disadvantage in real life, because people tend to evaluate you based on the words on the tip of your tongue.

Today this is annoying me especially, because I just read this article, and there's something he's missing. It's a nuance. I'm certain it's present IRL, but the USian author of that article can't see it from where he's sitting. I know it's there. I can feel it in my brain. I could point you to the precise part of my brain where I can feel it. But it isn't coming to me in words.

It's like I'm a fish who has lived in salt water my whole life and has never been in fresh water, talking to a fish who has lived in fresh water his whole life and has never been in salt water (it's amazing what modern telecommunications technology can do!), trying to explain to this freshwater fish what it feels like when ocean salinity levels change. I know there is something he isn't groking, but I can't articulate it because it's both a subtle nuance and an inherent part of my cultural environment.

And, current events being what they are, by the time it comes to me in words, it will be irrelevant.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

If you only read one of my Eddie Izzard posts, read this one

I know I've exceeded my quota of posts about Eddie Izzard, I just really need to draw everyone's attention to this and then I'll stop fangirling get back to posting like a normal human being.

Remember how last summer Eddie was being a complete and total looney by running around the circumference of Great Britain to raise money for charity?

Well, it turns out he raised over 1.1. million pounds! That's British Pounds, which is, like, way more than dollars.

Beyond total awe and respect. I don't have the words.

Update: direct from Eddie's twitter feed we're now over 1.6 million pounds!!! I'm extra happy about that, because it's greater than Eddie's number of twitter followers!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fact: the majority of Canadians support birth control

The most surprising thing about the (now refuted) Conservative decision to exclude contraception from maternal health initiative for developing countries is that a sizable, if not vast, majority of Canadians supports the use of birth control.

This is not social commentary, this is a fact. It is based on statistics and logical extrapolations from statistics.

Look at the chart at the bottom of this article (the article itself is irrelevant). There are 11 million prescriptions for contraceptives issued in Canada every year out of our population of 33 million.

Unless there have been recent innovations of which I'm unaware (and if there have, please do let me know in the comments), the contraceptives for which a prescription is required are only used by women, i.e. on or in the woman's body. Most often, when contraceptives are being used, there is at least one man and at least one woman involved in the relationship. So if we use a really extremely cautiously low estimate that half of the women using contraceptives have a male partner who actively supports their contraceptive use (and I do think the number must in reality be much higher - if it were only 50% our society would be far more dysfunctional), that would mean that half of all Canadians are actively involved in and supportive of family planning using prescription contraceptives. If every single one of the prescription-contraceptive-using women has a partner who actively supports her contraception use, this number increases to two-thirds of all Canadians.

On top of this one-half to two-thirds of Canadians, there are a number of other demographics of which at least some people support the use of birth control. (Because we're starting at 50% as a baseline, the numerical value of "some" isn't especially important.) The largest of these demographics will be people who are now too old to conceive. This is a large demographic because it includes the baby boomers - people like my parents who came of age during the sexual revolution and with the advent of the Pill. It's safe to say a large majority of this demographic used birth control during their fertile years, or the sexual revolution wouldn't have played out the way it did.

Other groups who support birth control but wouldn't show up in these statistics include:

- People who use non-prescription contraception. This includes condoms (male and female), spermicide, IUDs, and diaphragms.
- People who do use contraception to plan their families, but are currently in the having babies portion of family planning and therefore aren't using any contraception at the moment.
- People who did use contraception to plan their families, but got sterilized after their families were complete.
- People who do use contraception when they're in a sexual relationship, but are currently not in a sexual relationship.
- People who engage only in same-sex relationships, but have no objection to other people they have nothing to do with managing their private lives as they see fit. (This is likely to be a very high percentage of people who engage only in same-sex relationships; the fact that same-sex relationships have for so long be persecuted by outsiders who have nothing to do with them, this demographic is more likely not want to go around persecuting others for their personal choices).
- People who are infertile, but have no objection to others planning their families as they see fit.
- People who don't engage in family planning themselves, but have no objection to others doing so.

All the demographics that I have listed above consist only of adults. However, the 33 million baseline I used for the population of Canada is our entire population, including children. Children under the age of, say, 10 should be subtracted from this baseline, because they probably wouldn't even know about the concept of contraception.

So based on these numbers, I'm really surprised they thought it politically viable even for a minute to exclude contraception from maternal health. There is no way to make the numbers conclude anything but that the majority of Canadians support it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

This is harder than I thought

The loss of this little dog, who isn't even mine, is really kicking my ass. I've been trying to figure out why (I've known dogs who have died before, I've known people who have died too) and I think it's because a) it was unexpected, b) this is the first bereavement I've had as an adult, and c) I don't actually have any claim to this dog.

My previous bereavement was nearly 10 years ago (which is a hella long time to go without bereavement!), when my grandfather passed away. (I know some people aren't going to like that I'm comparing a dog and a grandfather, but this is the emotional frame of reference I have available.) He spent the better part of a year dying, so by the time it actually happened we were ready. We'd grieved months ago. In comparison, it only took a day or two for the little dog to start acting not entirely well, go to the vet, get diagnosed, and get put down. Even though he was nearly 15, I wasn't expecting this.

When my grandfather passed away, I was still a teenager and had only just moved out of my parents' house. While intellectually I felt like I should be fulfilling an adult role, functionally I wasn't yet expected to. It was okay to just go hide in my room for a while. If I did anything to help out, the grownups saw that as a bonus. But here I can't go hide in my room and leave the condolences and the business of everyday life to the grownups. I have to hold my own, pull my weight on my team at work, plus keep food in the fridge and get my taxes done, and on top of all this do right by the dog's human.

And that's the other problem. He's not my dog, he's someone else's dog. When my grandfather died, he was my grandfather. Yes, he a husband and a father to other members of my family, but our grandparent-grandchild relationship was perfectly valid, so I was perfectly entitled to grieve however I needed to. But this little dog is not mine, so the grief belongs to his human. I have to be supportive of his human. I can't give the impression that I think the decision to have him put down was incorrect (and intellectually I don't think it was incorrect - intellectually I know we're bearing the pain so this poor little doggie doesn't have to - but emotionally I'm still sobbing "But he's just a little dog! He barked and wagged and ran and played and never hurt anyone!"). You can skip out on obligations because your grandfather just died, but you can't skip out on obligations because a dog you've never even lived with just died.

So it's not just the grief, it's that I don't feel like I'm allowed to have this grief, and that I'm supposed to be strong for the person who is allowed to have this grief.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I just found out that one of the dogs in my life passed away. He was a tiny little bundle of energy who was just so excited and thrilled about everything and anything. The first time I met him (nearly 15 years ago) he tried to eat the buttons off my clothes. The last time I saw him (a few months ago) he licked my face so excitedly his tongue went up my nose.

I was never by any remote definition his human, I have no claim to him, technically I'm not the one bereaved.

But I'm still grieving. I can't help it.

(PS: if anyone posts rainbow bridge, I'll kick their ass)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Things They Should Invent: hair removal methods that change the colour of regrown hair

As we all know, methods that remove hair from the root may reduce hair regrowth, but results may vary. However, as we also know, existing hair removal methods can only remove hairs that are currently sticking out of the skin. Hairs that are dormant are not removed. So you go through your favourite hair removal method, and then a few days later there are hairs growing back in that area. Are they the same hairs regrowing, or are they previously dormant hairs waking up? We have no way of knowing, so it's hard to tell how well the hair removal method is actually working.

What I want is a system that causes any hair that was once removed to absolutely, infallibly grow back looking noticeably different. For example, where my body hair is black, the regrown hair would all be blonde. Then I could tell if it's actually working.

More information please: how does severance pay work in the private sector?

There was a story in the news a few days ago where, with the changeover to HST, some tax jobs are changing from provincial to federal and the people who hold those jobs are getting severance pay even though they're going directly to work for federal. This is being presented in the media as an outrage.

This leaves me with one question to which I don't know the answer: what would happen in a similar situation in a private sector? I've never been in a situation in which severance pay is involved, but it seems to me just based on logic that you'd still get severance pay. You lose your job because your employer no longer provides your particular service. So you either apply to or are recruited by the people who now do provide that service. That's a sensible way to go about job search/staffing. But severance pay is not a function of how sensible or successful the laid off employees' job search is, it's a function of the nature of the lay-off, no?

So, in the private sector, when there are layoffs with flawless outplacement, do the laid off workers still get severance?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Two perspectives on O Canada

As a Translator

One of the first things we learned in translation school is that the single best resource for translations is previous translations. Why re-do work that has already been done? You are being derelict in your duties if you don't search for previous translations when it is reasonable to expect their might be one. However, the very next thing we learned in translation school is not to perpetuate bad translations. If there are flaws in the previous translation and it's not being explicitly quoted in the target language, you are obligated to correct the flaws. The previous translator was fallible, just like you are. You are being even more derelict in your duties by letting a sub-optimal translation stand without improving it.

Another thing we learned in translation school is that when you cannot capture the precise connotation necessary, you should always err on the side of not making people look worse than they are in the source text. A profanity can't be translated by a stronger profanity. A slur can't be translated by a more hateful slur. Something that will cause the audience to react negatively can't be translated by something that will cause the audience to react more negatively. Clients have trust us to as their very voice, and taking their carefully-chosen words and turning them into something less tactful is unforgivable.

O Canada is a translation. It was originally written in French. The English version isn't a particularly close translation of the French, because the purpose of the text is to be a song, and it is more important that it serve that purpose (rhythm, rhyme, message) than that it capture every single nuance of the French meaning.

However, even given the latitude of literary translation, there are two lines in the English version that are problematic: "in all thy sons command" and "God keep our land glorious and free".

Both of these lines are exclusionary, and nothing similarly exclusionary appears in the original French. (There is " sait porter la croix", but that's not as strong as "God keep our land".) Therefore, the translation elicits a stronger negative reaction in the audience than the original. This is doubly unforgivable, because the audience in whom the text elicits the negative reaction are also the people in whose mouths these words are being put. We sing the anthem on our own behalf, so this suboptimal translation is forcing us to represent ourselves before the world with exclusionary sentiments. To do this simply because it has been done before is to perpetuate a flawed translation, and given the context and the importance of the text, to do so would be beyond the pale. If this crossed my desk and I let it stand, I'm quite certain I would be promptly relieved of all responsibilities where I have the final say on any text, because my employer could no longer trust my judgment.

As a Conspiracy Theorist

When I first heard they were considering making O Canada gender neutral, I assumed they were changing it to "in all of us command". It turns out they actually wanted to change it to "Thou dost in us command," which is unnatural and physically difficult to pronounce. Then they cancel the change because it's unnatural and physically difficult to pronounce.

This isn't the first time I've heard people choose the most awkward gender-neutral construction possible, then complain that "politically correct" language is awkward. "Firemen, er, and um firewomen? Firepeople?" Um, how about "firefighters"? "All of mankind! I mean, um, personkind?" How about "humanity"? I do find myself wondering if they do this on purpose.

When I point this out, people often tell me that it isn't malicious, it's just that other people aren't as good at thinking of words as I am. I find this difficult to believe (who hasn't played dumb every once in a while?) But if it actually is difficult and you seriously can't think of a suitable, neutral, non-awkward word, ask a professional like me, or look it up in Termium.

Standards: I do not think it means what you think it means

A book came out recently with the thesis that people should lower their romantic standards, even going to far as to suggest that people should marry someone who doesn't meet their standards.

Based on what I've seen in reviews, the book makes a good argument. The examples given of too-high standards look foolish, making those of us whose standards aren't anywhere near that foolish feel smug and good about ourselves, and making it tempting to buy the book as a gift for people who you think are handling their private lives foolishly. I'm sure it will sell very well.

But I find myself wondering whether it really is ultimately helpful to ask people to ignore their standards. Standards tend to be there for a reason; that's why they're standards. Think about your own standards. Aren't they there for a reason? Even if they're foolish?

As an example, we'll take the most foolish of my own standards: I find facial hair repulsive. Yes, this sentiment is foolish, shallow, petty, and hypocritical. However, the fact remains that it's like an emergency power cut on my libido. I would, by far, much rather go to bed alone than feel facial hair touch me while my noun is being verbed, no matter how skilled the mouth surrounded by that facial hair or how awesome the person whom it's attached to.

Now suppose you were looking at me as a prospective partner. And suppose you have facial hair, or would like to retain the option of having facial hair in the future. (If you can't identify with having facial hair, replace it with any other part of your body where you want the option of not necessarily diligently removing hair for the entire rest of your life.) Would you want me to try to ignore my revulsion and move forward in our relationship? Would you want a partner who's struggling not to cringe every time you kiss her, or engaging in a sexual power struggle over personal grooming? Wouldn't you rather I leave you alone so you can use your time and energy to pursue someone who isn't repulsed by standard personal grooming choices?

The same goes with all my standards. They're there for a reason. Even when they are objectively foolish, they're either factors that would cause me to find it more enjoyable to spend time alone than with someone who doesn't meet a given standard, or factors that would be a hindrance to making a life together in the long term. And I'm sure that your standards are the same. I just don't see that any good could come of trying to ignore them.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Meh, what the hell

Let's watch Eddie Izzard smash Craig Ferguson's furniture:

Things They Should Invent: translate criminal skills into marketable job skills

Inspired by a text I was working on, it occurred to me today that some of the skills involved in being a drug dealer could be useful in the straight job market. Drug dealers need to build a client base, market themselves appropriately, anticipate and manage supply and demand under constantly shifting market conditions, and keep overhead down. They have to have people skills, negotiation skills, business planning skills, and networking skills. They're franchisees or entrepreneurs working on 100% commission.

I can't do all that, and I have a respectable, socially-acceptable grownup job!

I wonder if they take this into account in criminology? I know one thing the corrections system does is try to make offenders into people who will be productive members of society once they're released, which includes making them employable. I wonder if they take into consideration how their criminal skills could be rebranded as marketable job skills?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Programming note

Know what's fun? A gigantic urgent project that will take an extra five person-days per team member due for Friday sans faute, and this in a week that started out with the entire team having only two hours free collectively.

So blogging will be light to non-existent for the better part of this week.

On tap:

- Do Slavic languages' treatment of verbs of motion affect urban planning in those countries?
- What George Smitherman and his supporters need to do to win my vote.
- The argument for steadfastly clinging to your most ridiculous standards for romantic partners.
- O Canada: a translational analysis and a conspiracy theory

Meanwhile, enjoy Eddie (au masculin today) torturing his translators as he demonstrates his thesis that Rome fell because Latin is hard:

Monday, March 08, 2010

How they could have made Own The Podium a success with simple rebranding

The problem with Own The Podium, (apart from its arrogance and inhospitality) is that it took perfectly satisfactory potential outcomes and redefined them as failure. Every Canadian athlete sets a personal best? FAILURE! It's universally acknowledged as the Best Olympics Ever? FAILURE! A world record is set in every event? FAILURE! We win a number of medals proportionate with our population? FAILURE! We top our own Olympic medal count record? FAILURE!

However, if we do own the podium and win the most medals of any country, we've merely met our stated goal. There's no remaining awesome in that achievement.

This could all have been avoided with a more benign branding choice. Instead of Own The Podium, they could have called the program something like Olympic Dreams, with the stated goal of giving Canadian athletes the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give the performance of a lifetime on home ice. The thing where they let Canadian athletes get more practice time in the Olympic facilities? "We have built state-of-the-art sporting facilities using the very latest technology, and our very own athletes have volunteered to test them extensively to make sure that every possible problem has been anticipated and solved once the torch is lit." (Of course, that would have been hella embarrassing once Nodar Kumaritashvili died, but as a branding choice without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it's pretty good.) All the investment that went into technological advances in sporting equipment? "We're using this golden opportunity to foster the Canadian sporting industry and showcase its innovation and expertise on the world stage."

Then they could have proceeded with exactly what they did anyway, the program would have been a success by any definition (Joannie! Tessa&Scott! Alexandre Bilodeau! The hockey teams!), and our record gold medal count would have been the icing on the cake rather than a half-assed attempt to move the goalposts after the fact.

Analogy for today's Anthony Wolf column

Anthony Wolf writes a column about why it's not fair for a custodial parent to remarry against their kid's will.

I agree with his thesis, but I think it could be explained better, so I made an analogy:

Imagine your daughter is a few years older and has gone off to university. She lives in apartment-style student housing, sharing a two-bedroom suite with another girl. Partway through the year, the other girl decides to move her boyfriend into the suite. Your daughter objects, saying she hardly knows this guy and doesn't want to share her home with a guy she hardly knows. She doesn't want a third person on the shower schedule. She doesn't want a strange man she didn't even choose herself into what has so far been female-only space. She doesn't feel comfortable with him seeing her bras hanging up to dry or her used pads in the bathroom garbage can. She doesn't want to bump into him when she gets up to pee in the middle of the night, or lose the ability to sit in the living room in her jammies and watch movies.

But her roommate insists. "You don't get to control my life," she says, "Aren't I entitled to some happiness?" So she moves in the boyfriend. There's now a man your daughter didn't choose living in her home against her will. That's not fair to your daughter, now is it?

It's equally unfair for you to move in your man against her will. "But I love him!" Yes, and your daughter's roommate loves her man. That still doesn't make it fair to your daughter.

At this point, many parents will say "But I'm the adult, I'm supporting her, I'm paying for the house." Yes, and that makes it even more unfair, because your daughter can't move out of your home. She's completely trapped. Plus, because your man is an adult and your daughter is a minor, he technically has parental authority over her. So think back to the roommate situation, and imagine your daughter's roommate is also her landlord, and when the boyfriend moves in he'll become her landlord too, and she has signed a lease that they won't allow her to break. That's not fair at all, is it? If that were an actual landlord/tenant situation, she might actually be able to take them to court!

So if a member of the household objects to bringing a new member into the household (especially when the current household member is a 14-year-old girl in a female-only household, and the prospective new member is a strange man), do them the decency of waiting until they're in a position to leave if they choose. Four years isn't too long to wait.

(As an aside: Personally, I can't imagine four years being too long to wait to get married in a case like this where you have an extremely good reason to wait. You still have the person in your life, they're still there for you, you just can't share a household quite yet. You've found the love of your life! A four-year wait is small potatoes, especially when you can still see them and talk to them every day.

Time goes faster when you get older. While I'm technically old enough to be the mother of a 14-year-old, given social norms the lady in the column is probably somewhat older than me, so four years would seem like even less time to her. I seriously cannot put myself in that mental place of not being willing to wait.)

Things They Should Study: is ESL harder when both parties are ESL?

I overheard a conversation today between two people, from two different countries, both of whom spoke English as a second language, speaking to each other in English because it's the lingua franca here in Toronto. They seemed to be having some difficulty, and I wondered if it's because both of them spoke English imperfectly in different ways, and they weren't accustomed to each other's imperfections. I didn't hear enough of the conversation to tell if this was the case, or if they would have had as much trouble with a native speaker of English.

However, it also occurred to me that it might be easier when both parties are ESL, because both their vocabularies evolved the same way, from textbook English. I was once told (by an expert in my field) that the typical speaker of English as a Second Language in their professional life has an English vocabulary numbering in the thousands of words, whereas a native speaker of English has an English vocabulary numbering in the hundreds of thousands of words. Most of the time we don't notice this. If someone speaking ESL knows words like "good", "great", "excellent", "fantastic", "wonderful", native speakers probably aren't going to notice that they don't know "groovy", "copacetic", "the bees knees", "gnarly", etc. But native speakers can sometimes come up with words like that and confuse ESL speakers, whereas other ESL speakers most likely wouldn't.

When I was in Germany, there were exchange students from all around Europe there, and how well I managed to converse with them varied based on the quality of their German (and, I'm sure, the quality of my German.) I can't identify any general trends. (My other languages were basically canceled out by the German immersion. After two weeks there, I couldn't even speak French, even though I could still understand it perfectly. When I reached for a French word, it came out in German.)

It would be really interesting to do research on this.

Things They Should UNinvent: public opinion polls in lieu of factual information

"Canadians say rising health costs unsustainable."

So? Are they actually unsustainable, or do people just think they are? Did the people polled conduct economic projections, or did they just state their opinion?

They often have this kind of question as the daily poll on newspaper sites. "Do you think the housing market will slow down by the end of the year?" "Do you think the worst of the recession is over?"

It doesn't matter what peoplel think! Give us facts and information!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

How to teach writing: make the content obvious

My high school English classes focused on two things: writing skills and literary analysis. The problem was that they tried to teach us writing skills by having us write literary analysis essays. For me, this meant that I had trouble focusing on my writing skills because I was struggling to come up with decent literary analysis. (I neither particularly care about nor am very good at literary analysis.) This was compounded by the fact that some teachers would give you better marks for coming up with a creative and unique interpretation and fully justifying and supporting it with the text, while others would give you worse marks for not coming up with the standard interpretation. I never reached the point of giving a moment's thought to "Is the structure of my argument optimal? What questions would the reader be asking at this point?" because I was too busy trying to come up with a thousand words about symbolism.

They did try to teach us stuff about business correspondence and such as well, but the problem here was they taught us all about the structure without any thought as to the content. In Grade 9, they "taught" us how to write a resume by saying..."Your assignment is to write your resume." Problem: I'm in Grade 9. I've never had a job. What do I actually put on my resume? Yeah, they gave us all kinds of inapplicable advice, like "List achievements, such as "increased sales by 30%," but that doesn't help a teenager get their first job. So I put my education and extracurriculars all the right format, and got a decent mark for it because I got the format right. But I still had no idea what I could actually put on my resume to get a job.

I didn't actually learn how to do that properly until well into university, in the English and French writing courses that were part of my tiny and obscure translation program. The way they taught us there was "Find an ad for a job you're qualified for and could totally do. Then prepare a resume and cover letter to apply for that specific job." They did give us some examples of how you might tailor hypothetical resumes to hypothetical situations, but the most valuable thing was working with my own actual personal history and actual real-life ads for jobs that I am in fact qualified to do. I knew all my information and I knew why I met the requirements of the job, I just had to work on presenting it. I didn't have to worry about "What do I write?", so I could focus my energy on "How do I write it?"

One of the humanities courses I took had a similar approach to essay-writing. The prof had clearly found that his students weren't always on even ground in terms of understanding and being able to meet the expectations of university-level essays, so for our first assignment he gave us something that was intended to simply teach us how to meet these expectations. We spent some time in class talking about Goffman's definition of a total institution until we all seemed to more or less grok it. Then we got the assignment: pick something - anything in the world - and write an essay explaining why it meets Goffman's definition of a total institution. We had the definition all set out in our textbook, we had discussed it extensively in class, we all knew the arguments for a few of the standard examples of total institutions (but were free to pick anything else in the world), and since were were all picking our own example of an institution we all believed the argument made in our essay to be true. Since the content was obvious, we could focus solely on structuring our argument. So we did that assignment, got it back, and had a very clear idea of the prof's expectations and how to meet them, which served us well in conducting more in-depth critical analysis later in the course.

I think all English classes should take this approach. Create situations in which the "What do I say?" is obvious, so students can learn to express it well. Then once they've mastered that, you can spend time on literary analysis.

Things They Should Invent: coffee makers that automatically turn off when the carafe is empty

Having an empty carafe on the hot plate of a coffee maker is bad. It might damage the carafe, and there's no situation in which any good can come of this.

Solution: put some kind of weight detector under the hot plate. If the carafe is empty and the coffee is not in the process of brewing, it switches off the hot plate.

Since the weight detector is there, it could also be used to stop the coffee from brewing at all if there's no carafe on the hot plate.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bilingualism as an expense

You sometimes here people talking about language training or bilingualism in terms of cost.

Second language training (most often French) is an academic subject. Bilingualism is a skill.

Can you think of any other academic subject or skill that people think of in terms of expense? "You want to teach our children calculus? But what will that cost?" "I don't know why all these special interest groups insist that public servants have to be computer literate. That's just a waste of taxpayers' dollars."

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against non-bilingualism - it's what keeps me in a job! (My motto: Je parle français so you don't have to!) I just find it really odd that it's thought of in terms of expense, when I can't think of anything other academic subject or skill that's thought of that way.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Lookit the itty bitty bunny!

(Yes, that's a dandelion he's eating! That's how small he is!)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

In all of us command

When I was in Grade 3, a substitute teacher told us that the words to O Canada had been changed. The line "in all thy sons command" was now "in all of us command". That seemed eminently sensible to me, so I started using it and never looked back.

That's why it surprised me to hear in the Speech from the Throne that they're considering changing O Canada to make it gender-neutral. I thought they did that 20 years ago.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

This is so cool!

Sesame Street from 1977. Buffy Sainte Marie explains breastfeeding to Big Bird, while actually feeding her real-life baby! I love how it's so simple and age-appropriate, and yet answers every possible question without any drama

Dog show dress codes

A while back, I discovered that dog shows have dress codes for humans.

This video takes this phenomenon to its natural conclusion:

Monday, March 01, 2010

Things They Should Invent: bathroom electrical outlets that are nowhere near the sink

Everywhere I've ever lived has had the electrical outlet just to the left of the sink. This means that for practically everything I might use them for, the cord has to go over/next to/through the sink, especially since I'm left-handed.

Surely there's a better way!