• When someone sends a message on Twitter, and they are quoted either by themselves or someone else, the current convention is to say, “X tweeted Y.” Not since the phrase “X xeroxed Y” has a company been so pleased with the public’s use of a corporate verb to express their actions. I think it is time to show some resistance to this portion of Twitter’s master plan to dominate our lexicon.

    When someone “tweets” something, they are writing it in the public domain. Thus, if I choose to quote a public figure, is it necessary to say that “Jim Carrey tweeted Y,” or could I not say, “Jim Carrey said/wrote/stated Y”? Is there anything gained by always crediting Twitter when referencing a comment from it?

    Until this phenomenon, the branded medium by which people express an idea has not been universally indicated when quoting them. That is not to say that media nouns have never become verbs; sometimes we might say, for rhetorical purposes, that Dickens “penned” a phrase, but not always. And never do we say that Shakespeare “Bic”ed a play or that Austen “Random House”d a novel. I acknowledge that the word “tweeted” gives an audience more information than they would have gained from a simple “said” or “wrote,” but is that extra detail always useful to our understanding?

    It seems to me that, when speaking from the first-person perspective, noting for one’s audience that one is quoting a tweet can often be useful. For instance, the phrase, “I said that I will give up alcohol” may mean less than saying, “I tweeted that I will give up alcohol” because the latter tells us that it was a public announcement. (But even then, one could simply state that they made the announcement “on social media” or even “on Twitter.” One doesn’t necessarily have to transform Twitter into the verb of the sentence, which makes the social media outfit an essential component of one’s phrasing). When journalists are quoting celebrities or academics, however, we can assume that their subject’s statements are public, and therefore, amalgamating the expression with its platform is not as universally necessary as the constant usage implies. Nor does it appear to be consistent with how we refer to other carriers of correspondence. In my estimation, for instance, the press is less likely to identify the medium of communication when discussing non-Twitter statements. For instance, if a politician makes a remark at a press conference, the location of the remark is not always identified, and the phrase “X press conferenced Y” is never used.

    Thus, I believe the statement “X tweeted Y” (1) limits our expression (as we seem to be using the verb in any case that it applies, instead of employing the linguistic discretion that we would when referring to statements made in other media), which in turn (2) harms our language aesthetically, and (3) plays into mighty Twitter’s hopes and tweets for world linguistic domination.

    On its own, Twitter’s ability to infiltrate our language in this omnipresent way is not going to break the dictionary, but if we don’t resist, then the next global online phenomenon will try to do the same, and soon our sentences will look like a collection of billboards. Ultimately, the phrase “tweeted” may be relevant and informative more of the time than I am estimating here. Currently, however, this is hard to know because we are using the phrase indiscriminately and are thus giving special privilege to Twitter that we do not offer to other communication media.

    I’m not anti-capitalist, and so I’m not saying that the word “tweeted” should never be used; but I dislike the product placement in our sentences, and more significantly, I fear that such uncritical language usage is homogenizing our expression.

  • WARNING: The following entry features two seemingly unrelated babbles, but I hope they will come together in the end.

    Part 1: THE BEST OF LANGUAGE

    I have recently made a pact with myself to read the novels of Charles Dickens. I met him as a kid, when my dad read to me Great Expectations, which may have given me a false expectation of the writer since my dad, along with my mom who read books to my siblings and me, is one of the greatest readers aloud of books that history has ever known. Both of my parents provide pathos in their tone that enlivens the spirit of every character. My particular favourite was the lawyer with the thick fingers, Mr. Jaggers, to whom my dad’s voice delivered a confidence and intelligence that would have left Perry Mason jealous. I then read Hard Times in university (at the instruction of a professor), which I think must be one of Dickens’s few concise works, as it didn’t take long to get through. I recall it being humorous, in spite of its dark themes, but embarrassingly I don’t remember much about the story, so from it alone I still cannot claim to have verified Dickens’s greatness.

    So, this year, I decided to take on A Tale of Two Cities, in part because it is so well introduced by Dr. Frasier Crane in the excellent sit-com, Cheers

    FRASIER (reading to his less literate bar buddies): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times–”

    NORM: Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. Which was it?

    FRASIER: “It was the age of wisdom, in was the age of foolishness.”

    CLIFF: Boy, this Dickens guy really liked to cover his butt, didn’t he?

    –but also because I wanted to have the work read to me as an audiobook during my many free times on transit, and the audio version for A Tale of Two Cities was available at a good price on my local internet.

    The book, I quickly discovered, would have been more appropriately given the label of “Hard Times,” both for its characters, and for its reader (listener), as there are many passages of description that baffled my mind. Upon two or three listenings of the bulkiest sections, however, I understood most of it, and whenever the characters spoke to each other, the story soared. Each person in the narrative has a distinct character (and voice provided by the amazing narrator, Peter Batchelor, who proves himself to be a worthy Dickens-reading understudy for my dad) as their lives mingle together with both the nuance of a true story and the unexpected turns of a mystery novel. Dickens’s puzzle pieces fit so well together in service to the grand story, and yet all of the characters act as autonomous beings, never wavering from their individual motivations.

    The finale of the Tale arrived in my ears as I jogged the New Westminster sea wall; with a cool wind in my face, I was stunned as each of the characters collided into a perfect heart-palpitating conclusion. I was forced to come to the following determination: Charles Dickens is the greatest novelist whom I have met so far.

    After the tale was done, I dialed up the audiobook store again, and selected David Copperfield because it was both selling at a good price, and because my new friend and narrator, Peter Batchelor, would be supplying his voice again.

    I was warned, upon this choice, though, that I might find it to be aggravating because, in the novel, Dickens apparently spends much of his time telling stories from the past in the present tense. Uh oh.

    Part 2: THE WORST OF LANGUAGE

    I have been ranting (in my non-blog life) for a while now about the omnipresent usage of the present tense to describe events that happened in the past. I understand that, when telling a story, rendering it in the present tense can sometimes create the impression that the narrator and listener are experiencing it as it happens. However, the trend has turned to a requirement in the media. One of my two radio stations, CBC, insists on utilizing the present tense in all of its documentaries to the point that, when experts join the discussion to give their belated perspective on events, it is often confusing which parts of the discussion are current and which are past. Moreover, interviewers often don’t even give their witnesses the option of using the correct tense.

    INTERVIEWER: So what are you thinking when you first see the dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Well, I’m thinking: that’s the biggest rhinoceros I’ve ever seen!

    INTERVIEWER: And when do you realize that you’re dealing with a dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Well, I’m talking to my colleague, Dr. Expert about it, and she says that rhinoceroses don’t breathe fire, and so I realize I’m onto something. My rival Bernie McSkeptic says it’s the greatest discovery of the 20th century.

    INTERVIEWER: Bernie the dragon skeptic was there, too?

    SCIENTIST: No, he just said that now on his Facebook page. He’s listening to this interview.

    INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see, well let’s get back to the story. I understand you’re worried that your puppy is going to be eaten by the dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Oh, yes, he chases the dragon initially, but he escapes, and I’m totally relieved.

    INTERVIEWER: Me too!

    SCIENTIST: But then he gets eaten a few minutes later.

    INTERVIEWER: Oh, I thought he survives?

    SCIENTIST: He does… initially. And then he gets eaten.

    All right, that’s enough. I realize I may have exaggerated the point a wee bit here, but the fact is: often, when listening to stories on the radio, or in a television documentary, it can actually become confusing at various moments in an interview whether the speaker is describing their current thoughts on a past incident or their past thoughts as they happened in the then-present.

    Thus, I have come to the following demand: all media should desist in wielding this tool completely because they are incapable of using it sparingly in particular incidences where they think it will bring specific tales extra significance. Instead, like underlining every word in a document, they use present tense storytelling almost exclusively, and so the technique has lost both its power and its clarity.

    Conclusion: THE MAGIC OF DAVID COPPERFIELD or PAST TENSE

    David Copperfield begins with the phrase, “I am born,” which sets the tone for a novel that, although it is told from the perspective of a time long passed its events, nevertheless dips into the memory of its protagonist, and so sometimes shares those memories from his perspective of re-living them.

    Amazingly, though, ten chapters into this tale told in two tenses, not once has Dickens irritated me. The majority of the story is cheerfully described in the correct, past tense, but occasionally the narrator zooms in on a sequence and gives a verbal snapshot about what he was feeling at the time of the event. The result is never confusing, but always clearly delineated as an exception. I, as a reader (listener), always know when the storyteller is providing a close-up memory that he is feeling as though it is happening again in the present tense, and when he is panning out from the story and offering his long distance perspective of the past.

    And so I am tempted to reverse my call for a ban on the present tense in past tense storytelling in the media. But not quite. Instead, I will now authorize the following middle ground: anyone in the media who possess something near Dickens’s skill may use the present tense for past descriptions. For future reference, all others must stop immediately.

  • Every year, the Canadian Press poles the nation’s news editors for the purpose of naming its annual Canadian “Newsmaker of the Year.” This year the vote determined that an alleged murderer who posted evidence of his crime on YouTube was their man. Consequently, many politicians and citizens have condemned the collective decision and have petitioned the news agency to take the title away from the accused. The protestors argue that such recognition for the suspected murderer is disrespectful to the victim of the crime, while simultaneously giving the alleged villain more of the attention he seemed to be seeking. They argue that “Newsmaker of the Year” sounds a lot like “Man of Year,” and so gives other potentially dangerous individuals impetus to do something equally cruel in pursuit of fame. I agree.

    But, while I concur with all of the above points, I’m not convinced of the protestors’ conclusion that the CP should have found a “Newsmaker of the Year” who had made a positive contribution. To my mind, if the Canadian Press is going to have a “Newsmaker of Year,” then—given that the making of news is often the province of negative agents—on what definition of “newsmaker” would murderers be excluded? Instead, I think the only way to avoid championing horrific acts is to abolish this careless contest of significance that is the “Newsmaker of the Year” program.

    The Canadian Press’s editor-in-chief, Scott White, explains that “Newsmaker of the Year” is neither a popularity contest nor a commendation. He argues that editing out unpleasant newsmakers from contention would be like excluding certain politicians from an election. This is an interesting analogy, except, while freely voting for government is a crucial aspect of running a democracy, a newsmaker election seems to have no journalistic purpose other than crowing a top newspaper seller. So, if White’s right (and I think he is) that the only way to have a “Newsmaker of the Year” is to sometimes allow for murderers to receive an extra shot of fame for fame-seeking behaviours, then maybe we don’t need to name a top newsmaker each year. The risk of copycat crimes outweighs the benefits of a self-indulgent poll.

    I don’t see anything wrong with looking back at the significant stories of a past parcel of time. If the Canadian Press wants to review the previous news year for us and discuss the most significant stories, then could they not achieve such results without creating the impression that the most followed event of the year has won some sort of newsmaking championship?

    In similar meta-news-manufacturing, CNN and other 24-hour news stations often ask their viewers to vote on what is the top news story of the day, so that the anchors can then refer to the top choice as “the most popular news story.” What for? Once again, such voting and ranking creates a callous celebratory tone as it connotes an audience’s appreciation for certain stories. Whether those “voting” are enjoying the negative stories or not, the language of such polling gives an impression of approval. But, again, for what purpose? Do we really need to know what story people think is the “top” story of the day? I could accept the legitimacy of such information if it were under the guise of viewer analysis or feedback. Perhaps questions such as “What is the most significant story of the day to you?” or “What story should lead our news coverage?” would be reasonable if the news agencies presented the results as a sociological look at its viewers without the fanfare of a beauty pageant. But, instead, the presentation of these surveys is akin to a simple top ten list that allows news followers a chance to “play along” with the news as though it were a game show.

    While such polls of the day are immature,The Canadian Press’s “Newsmaker of the Year” is both childish and reckless. Many have argued that giving an alleged murderer a grand designation is wrong because it is nourishing his malevolent ego. I agree, but to my mind the greater crime here is that this manufactured title is giving potential killers a bigger carrot of fame to chase.

  • Last April, I wrote about a bad habit of many journalists to infer the emotional states of the people (hereafter “newsmakers”) they’re covering based on the newsmakers’ expressed emotions. The reporters syllogisms were as follows:

    Premise: Newsmaker appears to have/is expressing emotion X.
    Conclusion: Newsmaker has emotion X.

    I countered that this is a leap of logic wherein the reporters have assumed an infallible power of reading minds. The simple flaw in their logic is easily illuminated by noting the fact that humans sometimes misrepresent themselves. The only conclusion that could truly be drawn from the above premise is that “Newsmaker seems to have emotion X,” or better yet, “Newsmaker has expressed emotion X.” As with any other subjective conclusion, it should be up to the news audience to determine whether the newsmaker was sincere or not.

    I did not receive a lot of feedback on this commentary, and so I suspect that it seemed to some to be a petty correction. If someone is crying, then surely we can assume they’re upset about something. I wouldn’t disagree in our everyday lives. If we see a friend expressing great emotion, I think it would be reasonable to assume (unless we suspect from experience that they have a habit of utilizing such alleged emotion for an advantage) that they are sincere, and so worthy of an expression of compassion. However, when reporters treat those in the news as though they are incapable of artifice, they are undermining their claims to journalistic objectivity. Consider the following two very recent examples, with which I intend to reinvigorate my argument against this crime against journalism:

    (1) In the United States, President Obama will soon be nominating a new high-powered person to take on the role of Secretary of State to replace the outgoing Hilary Clinton. Most indications are that his first choice is US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, while his second choice would be Senator (and former Democratic Presidential candidate) John Kerry. There are many politics enveloping each choice, one of which is that, if John Kerry were approved, he would have to give up his Senate seat, which would give a recently-defeated Republican candidate an excellent chance of taking his spot. This would be good for the Republicans. Therefore, when the Republicans express grave concern about Susan Rice’s candidacy, they may (at least in part) be playing politics. Nevertheless, I heard the following on MSN-BC:

    REPORTER: The Republicans are very upset by the possibility of Susan Rice’s appointment.

    This reporting statement gives credence to the notion that the Republicans have sincere reservations about Ambassador Rice. Maybe they do, but by framing this statement as an objective assessment of emotion, the broadcaster has told the audience that they have every reason to trust the political party’s “concern.” I doubt that the reporter was trying to influence us in that way (since it is, after all, a Democrat-leaning network); instead, they were most likely once again under the influence of lazy journalism. In lieu of taking the time to describe exactly what they could objectively see and hear, they rounded off from their nearest perception (that the politicians sounded upset) to fact (that the politicians were upset).

    This is why I argue that, even in cases where it seems patently obvious that an emotion is sincere (such as with apparently grieving people) reporters should be obsessive about never saying more than they can legitimately claim to know. Instead of referring to someone as “sad,” they should describe what they actually witness, perhaps that “the person’s voice faltered,” and then we the audience will draw our own conclusions.

    (2) In Canada recently, a man was arrested at the border for allegedly trying to smuggle kids (who weren’t his own) into the US. His stated justification was religious, and so the radio station said, “X man believes Y religious precept.” Such a statement presumes that the man is not a religious con artist. Hopefully, we the audience might still suspect the insincerity of the man’s religious claims, but we have to consciously see past the broadcaster’s credence-giving statement. None of us knows what any other person believes: we only know what each other says. But, by couching religious claims as “beliefs,” broadcasters imply their sincerity, and so fallaciously create the impression that all devout religious representatives are equally devout religious believers. This is a serious leap of shorthand. Religious spokespeople already have extreme power in our world; they don’t need the extra benefit of being treated as though they always say exactly what they truly believe.

    In short, it is not the job of journalists to tell us who to trust; all we need is facts.

  • Okay, I admit this one is mostly a pet peeve, and I feel bad even bringing it up, as some of my favourite people indulge, but it’s time I took a side: I believe it is silly to write without capital letters.

    (1) THE FORMAL CASE

    Personally, whenever I read an email message expunged of capital letters, unless the communication came via a phone that lacks easy capitalization, the message seems to me to be encumbered by laziness. The writer does not seem to feel that I, as a reader, deserve the expense of effort they would have needed to utilize their SHIFT key.

    But who am I to judge? If my fellow email corresponders choose to type without grammar, spell check, or capital letters, that is their right. Perhaps they enjoy letting the letters fall where they may without the confines of “correctness.” And maybe in particular social communication circles, going uncapitalized is simply the preference of the group because it is perceived as easygoing.

    Nevertheless, I think it is worth noting that, in certain cases, following some rules of language can be a way of showing our correspondents that we respect them—kind of like not accentuating a burp during a dinner party. And so the more formal, and the less we know someone, the more I think such belches of grammar and spelling can stand out.

    I have recently witnessed job applications in which candidates omitted capital letters from their cover letters. Baffle me! Can they really expect a professional agency to take them seriously if they don’t take themselves seriously enough to apply the occasional SHIFT key to our initial interaction? Should the employer also expect a high five instead of a handshake during the interview?

    (2) THE PET PEEVE CASE

    Now—just for fun—I’m going to try to make the case against a capital-free existence even in personal correspondence. In my humble suspicion, capital letters have a useful function in our language: I think they help to alert the reader to natural punctuation breaks in our paragraphs, and so make our writing easier to digest on the first pass.

    I’m in favour of using original styles to communicate material, and so I wouldn’t make this argument if I could see a single benefit to excluding capital letters.

    As far as I can tell, there are four possible arguments for a expunging the SHIFT key from one’s typing vocabulary:

    (2.1) EASE

    Perhaps non-capitalizers think that the SHIFT key is far too labour-intensive given its modest gains. As you wish: if the shift-free genuinely believe that pressing an extra button once or twice a sentence is a significant waste of time and calories, then I support their decision. However, I do request that they check their data. When I’m at my keyboard, one finger hits the SHIFT key while the others keep on typing, so I don’t actually find shifting takes any extra time, nor in fact, many extra calories (indeed, my shifting finger does not seem any more buff than my non-shifting fingers).

    (2.2) TREND/HABIT

    It seems some have cut capitals from their emails because of the text-messaging boom. When one is typing on one’s small phone, capital letters are often more difficult to employ, and so, I think, much more acceptable to exclude. As a result, given the popularity of non-CAPS-texting, capital letters may seem passé to some even when they’re easy to apply. Moreover, because people are used to going capital-free in text messages, they may argue that it’s simpler to maintain that habit in emailing as well.

    My argument here would be that text messaging is a form of communication shorthand. Since each letter costs a lot more energy to type on a phone, it’s all about finding the simplest message to get your point across. “c u b4 the show,” for instance, gets “See you before the show” done on a smaller budget. That makes sense to me. Similarly, in the past, Morse Code left many words out to send the most pertinent information; this does not mean, though, that when famous sea captains wrote tell-all books about their experiences, they wrote in simplified beeps of language. No, it was merely the Morse medium that gave them that exemption. The definitive convenience within one does not have to undermine quality of the other.

    (2.3) PERSONALITY

    Probably the most common explanation for removing capitals from one’s writing is that of personality. Anti-capital snobs believe that they have a unique flavour of being that is illustrated by their lack of oversized letters. I do not intend such a shiftless existence any harm, but I must ask the practitioners of this theory if they are aware that many people have used the very same “unique” same small-lettered technique before them.

    (Indeed, I understand that the now expired poet, e.e. cummings, was one of the first to go capital-free. Most commonly, he de-capitalized his poetry and sometimes signed his name sans capitals. Some speculate, however, that he offered the latter as a gesture of humility as opposed to a recommendation for others to do the same.)

    Not that things worth doing have to be unique or original (good manners, for instance), but, if one’s reason for excommunicating the capital letter is because they think it illuminates an originality of personality, I must suggest that it does not.

    (2.4) AESTHETICS

    A friend of mine has explained that she uses the no-capital system because she likes the look of it. Fair enough. The only thing I can say to her is that most of the time one’s written words are meant for other people to read, so might it not be worth considering whether they enjoy such diminutive lettering, too? Moreover, given that written language is generally meant for communication, does she not worry at all that she might be giving up clarity for the sake of looks? Or is going capital-free the ultimate victory of fashion over substance?

    (3) THE COUNTER CASE

    For those who would like to take me down via an appeal to hypocrisy, I freely acknowledge that I have probably made at least one grammatical error somewhere in this message. However, please note that I have specifically tried to avoid such mistakes. In contrast when one goes capital-free, one is choosing to resist.

  • This may seem like a small matter, but I think it is a symptom of how many in our media unduly segregate their subjects into only black or white. Consider the following fallacious phrases that I have witnessed in the media:

    “Is the new gas tax going to help the environment or is it another burden on families?”

    “Are boiled lobsters animal cruelty, or are they good eating?”

    Um, why can’t it be both?

    Use of such ridiculously black vs white phrases is so prevalent in our media that I have come to the speculation that the use of false dichotomies may be taught in broadcasting and/or journalism schools:

    PROFESSOR: All right, what you need to do for every issue is ask the audience to choose between the top hope of each side of the argument.

    STUDENT: What if the answer is somewhere in the middle?

    PROFESSOR: Boring! Remember: Black or white will excite! Grey won’t pay!

    STUDENT: Right, I forgot.

    PROFESSOR: Memorize it!

    STUDENT: So how do we do it?

    PROFESSOR: Okay, give me a significant government policy.

    STUDENT: How about the recent plan to build a major new transit line?

    PROFESSOR: Good, what’s a possible benefit of this policy?

    STUDENT: That it’s good for the environment and will reduce congestion.

    PROFESSOR: Okay, and what’s a criticism of it?

    STUDENT: That it’ll cost lots of taxpayer money.

    PROFESSOR: Perfect! Here’s your headline question: “THE NEW TRANSIT LINE: ENVIRONMENTAL HERO OR MAJOR TAX BURDEN?” Now everyone has to move their philosophy to one side or the other!

    It is the popular media’s craving for the simplicity of definitive answers, I suppose, that provokes them to invoke false dichotomies – in spite of the fact that false dichotomies are among the great enemies of logic. To quote myself in the Twitter version of SethBlogs: “You either agree that false dichotomies are a blight of human communication or you believe in violence against puppies.”

    Which brings me to my very important hockey-based point. Well-known hockey player, Ryan Smyth, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and has played most of his hockey career for the Edmonton Oilers, is famous for his ability to go into the tough areas in front of his opposition’s net to score goals. Hockey pundits, therefore, categorize him as a tough-nosed veteran player and nothing more.

    No hockey commentator whom I’ve heard has noticed that, when he’s not in front the opposition’s net, he moves like the most iconic and distinct Edmonton Oiler skater of all time, Wayne Gretzky. I’m not saying that Smyth possesses the Great One’s magic skills (who could?), but his stride and passing motion look more like the all-time NHL scoring leader than any player I’ve ever seen.

    This should not be surprising given that Smyth would have learned his love of the game while Gretzky was winning Stanley Cups for his city’s team, and so the young Oiler fan might have patterned his style after his hero. Smyth lacks Gretzky’s bounty of abilities, obviously – perhaps part of the reason he added a toughness to his repertoire since he couldn’t score 200 points a season like his idol – but Ryan Smyth, in spite of being a lumbering skater, is—-to my eye—-one of the best passers in the league.

    And yet TV announcers who follow him always seem surprised when he provides a great pass—-I’ve never heard them acknowledge that it’s a regular part of his skill set. I guess they’ve long answered the question: “Is Ryan Smyth tough in front of the net or is he a great passer?”

  • This is nothing new.

    Most agree that advertisers and political agenda holders will try to mislead us with statistics and emphasis. Indeed, the statement “You can use statistics to prove anything” has been around for years to capture our general frustration with the misuse of facts and figures. I think it should be noted, though, that numbers can only prove what is true, so in reality, they cannot prove anything you want – but, with clever emphasis (or non-scientific collecting of them), they can be used to imply flawed conclusions.

    For instance, a reporter who is assigned to do a story that demonstrates the (alleged) substandard play of the local sports team will take the team’s following list of results—

    WIN
    LOSS
    TIE
    TIE
    LOSS
    TIE
    TIE
    TIE
    WIN
    TIE

    —and, from one side of his mouth, say that the team is playing so poorly that it has only won two of its last ten games. But if the same scribe is asked to demonstrate that the team has fared well, then he or she will happily note, from the other side of their mouth, that the team has impressively only lost two of its last ten games.

    In reality, if viewed collectively, the statistics are perfectly clear that the team has fared exactly evenly (2 wins, 2 losses, 6 ties) in their last 10 games. The numbers did nothing wrong! The blame should be squared at the interpreter of those stats who cruelly abused their earnest willingness to help and emphasized only the part that seemed on the surface to support their conclusion.

    Thus, in defence of statistics—which, when compiled scientifically, are innocent figures, who just want to depict their environment as accurately as possible—I have collected over the past few weeks some examples of emphasis gone wrong:

    (A) “The 53 year-old grandfather of two”:

    In a recent feel-good story, a reporter was trying to emphasize the impressiveness of a man’s swim across some great distance—especially since he was older than the average practitioner of such an activity. Apparently, the man’s 53 years on their own didn’t sound old enough, so the journalist referred to him as a “53 year-old grandfather of two.” My understanding, though, is that there is no evidence to indicate that 53 year-old grandfathers of two are any older than 53 year-old grandfathers of one, who in turn have not been shown to be any older than 53 year-olds in general.

    (B) “We’ll cover the tax on your purchase”:

    It seems on the surface here that retailers are simply trying to capitalize on their customers’ general tax resentment, and so are saying, “I’m on your side: I’m going to cancel out the tax.” But, in fact, if they had simply given a discount equivalent to the tax rate, they would have saved the customer more money:

    If, for instance, an item cost $100 and the tax rate was 10%, then – before the discount, the total price of the purchase would have been $110. But the noble, anti-tax warrior is covering that total tax of $10, so the consumer only pays $100. In contrast, if the company had simply given a 10% discount on the purchase, the pre-tax price would have been $90, which – taxed at 10% – would be $99 total.

    Not a remarkable distinction in such a small purchase, but when I recently overheard a car company boasting that they would cover the tax for their beloved consumer, their tax-hating friendship seemed particularly expensive (on a $15,000 car, the distinction between “covering a 10% tax” and “giving a 10% discount” would be a distinction of $150, i.e. $1500 savings vs $1650).

    (C) “Three-time boxing champion”:

    In most sports, to be a three-time champion means that you have three times gone into a championship tournament and won. So the more-time champion you are, the better. In the boxing world, however, the “times” are calculated differently because, in that world, you stay the champion until someone defeats you. So, when you first win, you’re a one-time champion. If you lose your belt and regain it, then, you become a two-time champion. Thus, someone who never loses their championship will end their career as a one-time champ, while someone who loses it twice and regains it twice is a three-time champion. This is still impressive, but, unlike in other sports, being a three-time champion is not necessarily better than being a two-time champion.

    Nevertheless, when advertising the appearance of a champion boxer, promoters will universally capitalize on the phrase “3-time champion” as though it means the same superior result as it would in other sports.

    (D) “The lowest/highest paid X in the country”:

    Politicians enjoy defending or criticizing social facts in their own jurisdiction by comparing them to adjacent neighbourhoods. For instance, to prove that BC’s rate of X is too high or low, they’ll say, “BC has the third most/least X in the country” (as compared with the other nine provinces).

    Such a factoid presumes two things: (A) that there is a significant difference between the highest and lowest, and (B) that because X is the most, it must, by definition, be too high, and if it is the lowest, it must be too low. In fact, it may be that, even though Canada, let’s say, gives the most per capita of any country in North America to fighting curable diseases in Africa, a moral philosopher still has the right to argue that we should be giving more. Meanwhile, even though a certain population may be the worst paid in their profession in the country, that doesn’t necessarily mean that, ethically, they’re underpaid. Maybe Canada as a whole pays a lot for that profession, and so even the tenth-rated province may still pay pretty well. Similarly, Shakespeare’s “worst” play isn’t necessarily bad. It may still be better than most of us could write.

    (E) “50% percent more”:

    Anytime someone compares an increase only by percentage, it’s likely that they realize the numbers on their own aren’t impressive enough to compel us. If, for instance, the Canucks are penalized six times compared to with the rival team’s four times in a hockey game, the difference doesn’t sound particularly significant. But our beloved GM Mike Gillis would prefer to say, “We were penalized 50% more times than the opposition!” Wow, that sounds like a lot!

    Percentage comparisons, I’m sure, can be useful, but when they’re used without the numbers to justify them, I can’t help wondering what the presenter of them is trying to hide.

    (F) “People who do X, tend to…”:

    I recently heard an advert on TV for multi-grain cereals stating that those who eat multi-grain foods tend to weigh less. Clearly, the cereal seller is hoping that we will notice this correlation and assume causation: “It must be the multi-grains that are causing those people to weigh less, so, if I eat them, there’ll be less of me, too!” In fact, of course, it may simply be that the person who eats multi-grains tends to care about their health, and so tends to do other things for their health as well – such as exercising more often – which in turn may be the actual cause of their leanness.

    Obviously, this correlation vs causation distinction—as with all of my examples—is no great epiphany. We all know that advertisers, politicians, and interest groups manipulate the numbers for their greater good. Moreover, numbers themselves will rarely be perfect given that the collectors of statistics can so easily over-focus on particular groups or ask leading questions. But at least the statistics’ governing body—the scientific method—aims in good faith to cull such errors in collection. In contrast, the quoting, referencing and emphasizing of particular statistics without considering their context and complexity seems to be occurring without a police officer. So, for the sake of promoting the integrity of statistics in general, I think it’s worth pointing out these deceptions whenever we see them so that the well collected and well-defined facts can stand out as the sincere creatures that they are.

  • As we gather around our televisions to witness the Vancouver Canucks vs the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, we will hear, with increasing frequency, about the beauty and honour that the referees could bestow on the game if only they would “let the players play”! I couldn’t agree nor disagree more.

    By “letting them play,” Canada’s leading alpha male and CBC commentator, Don Cherry – amongst many other hockey aggression protectors—-means that the NHL referees should, as much as possible, keep their whistles out of the games and not call so many penalties. To his mind, such red tape disrupts the players’ ability to decide the contests via their own grit and determination.

    Cherry apparently sees hockey as a test of heart and aggression, so that, when one player “illegally” fouls another in the joyful pursuit of that great good, the referee should most of the time ignore the infraction so as not to stunt the beauty of the battle. After all, if a player crosses a line in the rules while seeking his gritty dream, and we punish him for it with a sanction that could hurt his team, then we will force the player to pull back his heart-felt play to avoid further reducing his team’s chances. To the hockey-is-war fan, such restrictions are obscene: the referees’ egos, they claim, are ruining game!

    But what about the skill of the game? Some of us come to hockey broadcasts because, along with impressive physical confrontations, we love exquisite stick handling demonstrations and deft passing plays, but every time a grunt worker illegally obstructs one of our athletic Einsteins, he limits the skill players’ ability to play their game. Since the early 1990s, when Gretzky and Lemieux roamed the rinks and the goals flowed like Cherry whine, NHL scoring has reduced significantly. In fact, by 2005, the game had become a little dull to many viewers, which provoked the NHL to set up a competition committee to investigate ways to allow the skill players more room to demonstrate their talent.

    One of the many resulting rules is that players in the defensive zone can no longer throw the puck over the sideline glass to stop the play: if they do so—-intentionally or not—-they will leave their team shorthanded for two minutes. Don Cherry hates this rule. “The players don’t mean to do it,” he has ranted many times. Instead, he argues, they are simply trying to get the puck out of danger by banking it high off the side wall, but sometimes they accidentally shoot it too high and so it goes out of play.

    This argument implies, first of all, that the players would never purposely throw the puck out of the play because it would be unsporting. Has Cherry met the NHL mentality?

    This is a league made of goalies who are applauded if they can “accidentally” knock their own nets off their moorings so as to stop the play if they think they’re about to be scored on (“Nice veteran move,” commentators will cheer, as though winning is an intrinsic good regardless of the rules broken to achieve it). In a sport that salutes the motto, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”, of course players would intentionally throw the puck out of play in order to save a goal! They’d tackle their opponent every time they touched the puck if they thought they could get away with it.

    The League has said that, if a player directly sends the puck out of play in his defensive zone, he goes to the penalty box for up to two minutes. Brilliant! Cherry’s right that most of the time the players, therefore, are no longer going to purposely throw the puck in the stands, but this just means that they either don’t have sufficient skill to get the puck away from danger without sending it out of play, or the offensive team is doing such an excellent job of pressuring them, that they don’t have time to make a stronger play. Sounds good to me. I don’t see a problem with penalizing a player for unintentionally going out of bounds in their failed attempt to complete a high-risk play. Similarly, I’m sure tennis players don’t mean to hit the net: and yet, when they do, the judge will not let them play through the error because they intended a better shot. Walking the tight rope between a high-skill play and a penalized one requires great skill at great risk. If you don’t have it in you to complete, then don’t try for it.

    (In Cherry’s version of the hockey universe, players who lack the skill to keep the puck in play are rewarded with a reprieve from danger that the higher-skilled players would not receive, and thus sometimes ironically acquire better results for lesser execution.)

    The NHL rules are not perfect (personally, I would like more skill-protecting regulations in place), but the league has improved conditions in recent years for skill players. Whereas previously a defensive player could often get away with holding onto an offensive player’s stick, there is now a specific penalty called “holding the stick” that has, to my hockey eye, reduced the ridiculous behaviour. (Can you imagine a baseball catcher, upon realizing his opponent is about to have a good swing at a home run, simply reaching out and holding the offensive weapon?) To the Cherry crowd, such penalty calls are petty: “C’mon, just let them play!”

    Well, what about the high-skill player who’s trying to create some offence? What’s wrong with letting him play by penalizing those who use illegal methods to stop him?

    Officially, NHL referees are told that, if they see a penalty, they are supposed to call it regardless of the effect it will have on the game, but, as these playoff games become increasingly significant, the on-ice umpires cannot escape the pressure to stay out of deciding the outcomes of the matches. Thus, when games go into overtime, infractions that would have been called in the early part of the game, seem to be called less often.

    This hands-off approach pleases the Cherry-minded who will accuse those refs who don’t follow the unofficial “Let them play” rule of tampering with the players’ ability to decide the game for themselves. It implies that gritty, by-any-means-necessary players are more worthy of determining the results than skill players. But why not give skill a chance, too? Why not let those who possess it be unencumbered by the rule-evading specialists? If we call the penalties according to the line that the league has determined fairly balances skill and grit, then players can by all means decide the outcome within those limits. If they want to play without hearing the referees’ whistle, then all they need to is play by the rules. Let the skill players, play.

    P.S. Go Canucks, Go!

  • Once upon a time in history, citizens were presented with soothsayers whose duty it was to predict the results of athletic events. Some say that the prognosticators were so pure in their perceptions that they did not need to know anything about the subject matter of their postulations. Even more impressive, it has been speculated that the predictors weren’t aware that they were making predictions! Apparently, you see, these Nostradamus impersonators were populated by animals, such as monkeys, elephants and octopi, who were provided references to competing groups so that they could, somehow in their behaviour, indicate the more likely victor.

    I’m hoping I’ve tricked you into imagining that I’m referring to an ancient time where animals were sometimes elevated to the status of deities who could apparently see all. In fact, the omniscient creatures that I refer to have existed in our recent history on our televisions, where various broadcasters have competed to provide us with the most endearing animal pundit.

    Most recently, I witnessed a local-to-me television station employing a divine critter of their own to anticipate the results of my Vancouver Canucks. Is this continuing ritual meant to be merely adorable, or, in those cases where the animal “selections” prove accurate, are we also supposed to be intrigued as well? When Paul the Octopus selected food from the logo of the team that would win particular football/soccer matches eight out of eight times during the 2010 World Cup, some seemed genuinely amazed and apparently wondered if the animal actually had some extra sensory understanding of the sport.

    (I have no idea whether any of these animal surveys are conducted scientifically, but let us assume that there was no accidental or intentional biasing of the subject: it won’t affect the ire of this rant.)

    If it’s true that some people believe that the only reason the sea creature could have chosen his food so consistently with the results of the matches is because he was powered by some greater force or perception, I think it’s worth pointing out that, when it comes to chance, every unlikely possibility is obligated to come true now and then. “Improbable,” that is, simply means that something is less likely than all the other options combined: it doesn’t mean that it can only happen with the assistance of magic. If, for instance, you flip a coin twice in a row, the chance of getting heads both times is 25%. Thus it “probably” won’t happen, but it certainly might. In fact, it is one of only four possibilities for what could happen:

    (A) Two heads in a row
    (B) First heads, then tails
    (C) First tails, then heads
    (D) Two tails in a row

    Each of these combinations has exactly a 25% chance of happening, so each possibility is, in fact, improbable, and yet we know that 100% of the times that we successfully flip a coin two times in a row one of these improbabilities will come true. Thus the improbable is to be expected (we just don’t know which improbable is going to occur).

    Similarly, each individual who buys a ticket has a tiny chance of winning the lottery, and yet, with every draw, it is likely that someone will come up big. That doesn’t demonstrate that the winning ticket holder was psychic: it simply means that, if you throw a ball into a crowd, it’s probably going to land in someone’s hand even though every person in there had a small chance of getting it.

    When it comes to individual animal predictors, then, it is not actually surprising that they are sometimes “right” many times in a row. The law of probability demands it! (25% of the time in the case of two coin flips, 12.5% in the case of three flips, and 0.39% for eight guesses.) Paul feeding “accurately” eights times in a row is to be expected occasionally. After all, every possible combination of eight coin flips had an equal 0.39% chance, and yet one of them had to come true: and Paul’s 1 in 256 prediction had just as good a shot as any other.

    It may still seem surprising that Paul would win the lottery right while the cameras were watching him, but how much failed animal predictor footage was thrown away before Paul’s accuracy was brought to the public’s attention?

    Sometimes, the coin-flip combination you guess for will be the one that comes up, but once again, that doesn’t make you, nor any confused animal, a psychic. It just means that you and chance were in the same place at the same time. My bet is that, on average, when any of us make predictions that have a 1/256 chance of coming true, we’re probably right approximately every 256th time, so don’t be surprised when your wild guess does come true.

    Perhaps, most people aren’t actually impressed when the animal nudges their nose at the right prediction, but are instead pleased to see a cute creature on stage, and so are happy to play along with the prediction game that justifies the non-human appearance. Fair enough, but in that case, instead of imposing psychic behaviours on our animal neighbours maybe the broadcasters could spend the time studying the creatures’ natural behaviours and tendencies.

    Unless you genuinely believe there is something more than the standard workings of chance contained in an animal-logo-nudging exhibition, I submit the display provides us with no nutritional content other than the animals’ natural charisma. The spectacle is not even original any more! So, instead of spending animals’ rare time on screen forced to pretend that they care about our sports, maybe we could let them teach us about their genuine interests.

    I look forward to the day that the sports announcer says, “We were going to take this time to show you the basketball game predictions of Humphrey the Hippo, but we realized that we could let you flip your own coins at home, and so, in lieu of such artificially constructed animal behaviour, we would now like to spend one genuine minute with this Hippopotamus and Dr. Henrietta the Hippo Scientist.”

    Go Canucks, Go!

  • I’ve been criticized, in my non-blogging life, for ranting at journalists who attribute particular emotions to people they cover. Consider the following fictional coverage of Jane Newsmaker’s comments on Joe Bad-guy’s criminal sentencing:

    JANE NEWSMAKER (yelling): I’m disgusted that Joe Bad-guy didn’t get more time in jail.

    JOHN REPORTER: Newsmaker was angry that Bad-guy didn’t get more time in jail.

    SETH: What?! How does Reporter know whether Newsmaker was genuinely angry or not?

    SETH CRITIC: Well, Newsmaker looks pretty angry.

    SETH: Yes, but it’s perfectly conceivable that Newsmaker’s not actually emotionally involved in the case, but is presenting so for a political purpose.

    SETH CRITIC: No, from a reporter’s perspective, it’s reasonable to describe an angry-looking person as angry.

    I have been baffled more than once to find that smart people are not always convinced by my perfectly logical rant on this point, so I was delighted to hear from CBC radio, yesterday, proof in an example. As you probably know, there is speculation (based on an apparently leaked draft of a report by Canadian Auditor General, Sheila Fraser) that the Conservative government of Canada have been up to some inappropriate financial dealings:

    MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: The Conservatives have been spraying money around like drunken sailors in Tony Clement’s riding…

    CBC COMMENTATOR: Ignatieff was clearly shocked [by the controversy].

    Shocked?! I have no idea whether or not the leader of the Canadian Liberal party is indeed startled by the controversial happenings in Tony Clement’s Huntsville riding, but I can see plenty of reason why it would benefit him to be perceived as shocked. After all, to be seen as a leader with integrity is a highly coveted position in this political campaign and so, if one politician is caught in a controversy, it looks good on their rivals to be so above the alleged misconduct that they are dismayed by it.

    In support of that very point, the possible Conservative villain Clement, himself, accused his critics of using the controversy to score unearned political points. He claims that the final report by the Auditor General will exonerate him, but he says because his rivals know that Sheila Fraser won’t reveal those details until after the election, his enemies are merely feigning rage about what she’ll eventually say.

    I hope Clement is wrong about the Liberals’ intentions, but his counter-criticism is now part of this political dispute. For the CBC reporter to state outrightly that Ignatieff “was shocked” is to take a position on the debate. It is to suggest that, in fact, Ignatieff is speaking from the heart on this issue. I’m not saying that he’s not, but a reporter should not make a claim in any direction on what is motivating any political leader. Leave the opinion-making to editorialists (and bloggers, of course :)).

    I doubt the CBC journalist made this inappropriate psychological claim with any intention to bias his audience. Instead, I think he is merely guilty of lazy journalism probably as a result of the common trend amongst reporters to describe their subjects with the emotions they perceive in them. It is simple and effective to characterize someone who is yelling as “angry,” since it seems so clear that they are piping mad. And what’s the harm, some would argue? In many cases, such attributing of emotion to newsmakers appears innocuous. For instance, when a widower responds to his wife’s death, it seems so right to note that he is grieving.

    Nevertheless, the fact is reporters never know with certainty what any newsmaker is thinking and in turn they do not know whether or not a person may be presenting an emotion (that they don’t actually have) for a political purpose. For instance:

    WIDOWER: I loved my wife dearly. I will spend the rest of my life trying to track down her killer.

    REPORTER: The football star was devastated by his wife’s death.

    And the possible truth of the matter: the widower was the killer. Once this fact is suspected, the lazy reporter will have a lot of explaining to do: “What made you so sure the athlete was devastated? Did you really just take his word for it?” To avoid such an embarrassing fate, my suggestion is simply that reporters stick to the facts:

    CORRECTED REPORTER: The teary-eyed football star vowed to find his wife’s killer.

    In this case, if it turns out that the widower is the killer, the reporter would no longer need to recant his testimony because everything he said was true (there was indeed tears in the famous athlete’s eyes and he did promise to find the killer). All that journalists need to do is make a habit of always reporting only what they can verify about their newsmakers and they’ll never have to worry about accidentally making outrageously false claims.

    Portal to my update on this rant.

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