Tuesday, December 16, 2008

User Names

According to my browser's auto-complete function, the following are all examples of user names I have used when posting comments on the comment boards at the Onion AV Club.

Or more precisely, these are all things I've typed into the "name" field, but I do remember that in some cases, the user name I tried had actually been reserved by somebody else, so I couldn't comment under that name. I remember specifically that this was the case with "Comic Book Guy"; there are probably others as well.

I'm amazed at the number of different names on this list. However, I know that many of them I only used once, often as part of a one-time joke that probably made a bit more sense in context ("FBI guy" and "Leslie Nielsen" were both examples of that).

A 96 percent heterosexual man
A British Columbian
A Canadian, so why do I even care?
A mildly buzzed contrarian Canadian
A semi-regular who doesn't wanna log in
A west coaster who now lives in Toronto
A young socialist-leaning hipster
An aspiring academic
Another Obligatory Simpsons Reference Robot
Aspiring Jay Leno writer
Barbara Hershey Squirt
Borat Sagdiyev, Esq.
Bucephalus Winterbottom
Burns and his PR guys
being slightly more serious than I usually am
Comic Book Guy
Comic Book Guy Jeff Albertson
Daniel NES-tor
Danitra Vance
Dorky Canadian
doesn't matter
don't wanna log in
FBI guy
Fay Wray
Fissure Stevens
Floyd Bent Son
Fox Television
Fuhrman, pushing the boundaries of taste
Grape Frougape
Guy who stretches things
Guy who uses broad ethnic stereotypes
Homer J. Fong
Homer Jay Simpson
I stole these jokes (can you guess the source?)
Jerome Allen "Jerry" Seinfeld, standup comic
Kang or Kodos
Lenny Leonard
Leslie Nielsen
Leslie Nielsen, again
Lou Costello
Man nostalgic for seasons 4 through 8
McBain, hosting a late night talk show for some reason
Mitch Hedberg
Mitch Hedberg, Esq.
Mr. Peter Griffin of Quahog, RI
Nameless maneless salesmen
Non-clever name
Norm MacDonald
Not logging in right now because the web is slow because I'm multitasking
nonuple dash
Old man
Paco von Sourcream
Prinskipple Skipper
Scarface Q. Pinkington the 8th
Seinfeld and Carlin's less talented cousin
Skullturf Q, too lazy to log in
Skullturf Q. Beavispants
Slobmeister Q. Funnyface
Snare-ah Impalin'
Snorfgasm Q. Publicpants
shitass petfuckers
TV-watching guy
Tha Revverrennnd Chah-aunceee Grizz Leigh
That Russian guy whose name I forget
The Barenaked Ladies
The Liger
The dogs with bees in their mouths and when they bark they shoot bees at you
The guy who posts Onion headlines at the AV Club
Those hippies from the film "Herbie the Love Bug"
Too embarrassed to say
Two Harry Shearer characters
white male
Yeenoghu, Demon Lord of Gnolls
You Know Who

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Alcoholic, hamburger, Watergate

Those three words have something in common.

People have coined words like "chocoholic" and "shopaholic" that mean addiction to chocolate and shopping, not chocohol and shopahol.

People have coined words like "cheeseburger" and "mooseburger" that don't mean a food item originating from the cities of Cheeseburg or Mooseburg.

People have coined words like "Nipplegate" and "Strippergate" that refer to scandals that aren't related to a hotel called Nipplegate or Strippergate.

I'd be amused to learn of other examples. I'm not sure if there's much more to say in terms of what's going on behind the scenes. I guess in each case, after the original word became common, it got reanalyzed in the popular imagination. "Alcoholic" got reanalyzed as "alco" + "holic", "hamburger" got reanalyzed as "ham" + "burger", and "Watergate" got reanalyzed as "Water" + "gate".

So then people associate the suffix "-holic" with addiction in general, people associate the suffix "-burger" with patties on a bun in general, and people associate the suffix "-gate" with scandal in general, even though doing so isn't "true" to the etymological history.

And by the way, it would be kind of silly to say that therefore coinages like "chocoholic" are illegitimate or wrong. It would be a little like saying the expression "the algorithm" is wrong because the "al" in "algorithm" historically comes from a definite article, making the "the" redundant.

Or, at the very least, the time to object to "chocoholic" would have been when the word was first being used. Now that it's caught on, it's too late.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

MS Word and dangling modifiers

I'm currently using Microsoft Word (gasp, shudder) to co-write a textbook (or "textbooklet"). Today, I typed the following sentence:

"Quite often when using statistics, our data will involve more than one variable."

It promptly got underlined in green by Word's "grammar checker". Usually I don't trust the grammar checker, but in this instance, once I looked back at my sentence, I realized that it does commit one of those "dangling modifier" type of boo-boos. So I changed the sentence to

"Quite often when we use statistics, our data will involve more than one variable."

The grammar checker didn't object at all.

So I guess my question is, is that really what the grammar checker was objecting to? The dangling modifier? But how would it know? Isn't that more a question of semantics than syntax? Suppose you type a sentence like

"Raised in Arizona, it is easy to miss the open land."

How would you program a computer to try to recognize that "raised in Arizona" doesn't really modify the "it"?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

More grammar oddities

Why can we say

"A bird with red wings was observed."
"A bird with red wings was seen."
"The observed bird had red wings."

but not

"The seen bird had red wings."?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thoughts on Sarah Palin

Like many others who've been watching the news in the past three weeks, I'm fascinated by Sarah Palin. I disagree with her politically on a number of issues, and I'm not thrilled with the Bush administration, so I won't be cheering for the Republicans on November 4th. But I think that selecting her to be McCain's running mate, although it may have seemed like a surprising choice at the time, may turn out to be a stroke of genius. This small-town mother of five has potential to resonate with a lot of people. I also think there's a portion of the criticism directed at her, when it gets personal, that can begin to come across as classist or condescending, and this style of personal criticism can sometimes backfire.

I could rattle off many areas where I disagree with Palin's politics. She opposes abortion even in the case of incest, and would support a constitutional amendment banning abortion in such cases. She's open to the idea of altering the Alaska constitution specifically to deny state health benefits to same-sex couples. She's opposed to stem-cell research. She's signed proclamations declaring a "Christian Heritage Week" and a "Bible Week" in Alaska. She also gives the impression of being a little glib or cavalier on environmental issues -- maybe people from large and resource-rich states are more likely to take certain things for granted. She is young and may be a little in over her head with respect to national and international issues, with war and national defence. Furthermore, you don't need to be that much of a cynic to think she was picked as McCain's running mate largely for reasons of image, and not necessarily because she was the most knowledgeable or experienced among the five or six leading candidates.

So if I was an American citizen, I'd be pretty unlikely to vote for her. But despite all of that, there's this weird part of me that wants to "root for her" in some abstract way. Maybe part of it is a sympathy thing: although I disagree with her politically, I also sense some condescension or classism or sexism in some of the things people say about her. Some folks seem a little too quick to dismiss her as "white trash" or make disparaging remarks about how small her town is, how remote her state is, or how large her family is. (Maybe I'm slightly guilty too; I've had a bit of a laugh at the names of her kids.) But actually, I think it's kind of cool that it's possible for a woman to have five kids under the age of 20 and also be a contender for one of the most powerful political positions in the land. It doesn't negate that I have serious disagreements with her and her party on a large number of issues, but there does remain a small part of me that thinks it's kind of cool that a woman born in the 1960s, who's a hockey mom from a remote Northwestern state, and who's closer to my age than to my parents' age, can have reached the position she's in.

I guess part of what bugs me is when political disagreements turn into full-on "culture wars" where people express not-very-veiled disdain for the sociocultural group that political candidates belong to. Both the left and the right can be guilty of that. Even if everyone takes the "high road" and makes it just about the issues, there's obviously still going to be much disagreement about "big" topics like abortion, or war, or crime and punishment, or church and state. So it bugs me when on top of that, you have people (and it can come from either end of the spectrum) sneering at a political candidate because of who they are and where they come from. It could be "Ha ha Sarah Palin, you have five kids and your town is small and you eat moose." Or "Ha ha Barack Obama, you're an overeducated city-dweller who probably watches PBS and attends wine tastings."

My mother's father, who lived in Calgary from the age of 34 until his death at 81, was a supporter of the Reform/Alliance party after they became a political force here in Canada. As for me, they've always been my least favourite of the major parties, both before and after their merger with the Progressive Conservatives. I loved my grandfather, but we were from different generations and I guess we just had different priorities for what we think government should do. But even though I never liked Reform, it has always bugged me when people from other parts of the country dismiss the party and their voters with an attitude of "Oh, there go those angry Westerners again." With U.S. politics too, in people's conversations and on internet message boards, I sometimes encounter a dismissive attitude about Red State voters, almost like "How sad that a bunch of rubes in Dayton, Ohio, and other flyover places get a voice in choosing their next leader."

The educated metropolitan Left really needs to watch these sorts of remarks and not dismiss people like Sarah Palin as being "white trash". Politics today, for better or for worse, is very leader-driven, image-driven, and personality-driven. And I gotta tell you, if there were only a 44-year-old Alaskan mother of five -- even one who ate moose and talked with a Joan Cusack accent! -- who was pro-reproductive rights and pro-science and not a religious zealot, and who was also a wise and skilled negotiator with a thorough and nuanced grasp of world affairs, well, I'd not only want to vote for her, but I'd damn near wanna marry her. (Well, except for the part about helping to raise five kids.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Data is!

Some style guides insist that because "data" comes from the Latin plural of "datum", we are therefore required to treat the word "data" as plural, and we should write things like "These data are".

I disagree, and consider it completely appropriate to treat "data" as a "mass noun", like "milk" or "mud" or "information". The IEEE agrees that this is permitted, and defers to author preference in their published materials.

My main reason is a simple one: the word "datum" is not used in everyday English, nor is it used in statistics or computing science. It is an obscure word almost never encountered, even in professional or academic contexts, and it thus seems a little strange or perverse to insist that "data" is "really" the plural of "datum".

Moreover, the word "agenda" comes from a Latin plural whose corresponding singular noun, "agendum", is virtually never encountered in English. Nobody objects to the linguistic reality that in contemporary English, "agenda" is a singular noun.

Data is stuff. Data is information. I hope this data convinces you. Live with it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Names for musical genres

The following can be names of musical genres:

Rock & roll
Rhythm & blues

The following cannot:


Monday, July 7, 2008

An album for each year you've been alive

Here's an idea for a music-related list I got from today's Steve Hyden post at the Onion AV Club. Hyden apparently got the idea from Idolator. The idea is to pick one album from each year you've been alive. Sounds simple, but it took me the better part of an afternoon to compile my list.

I imposed the following rules on myself: No double albums, no greatest hits compilations, and no using the same artist more than once. Others may decide not to be so stringent.

Here's my list.

1974: Crime of the Century, Supertramp
1975: Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd
1976: Fly Like an Eagle, Steve Miller Band
1977: Little Queen, Heart
1978: Van Halen, Van Halen
1979: Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young and Crazy Horse
1980: Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Warren Zevon
1981: Tattoo You, The Rolling Stones
1982: Thriller, Michael Jackson
1983: Eliminator, ZZ Top
1984: Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen
1985: Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits
1986: Raising Hell, Run DMC
1987: Appetite for Destruction, Guns N' Roses
1988: Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, Traveling Wilburys
1989: New York, Lou Reed
1990: Shake Your Money Maker, The Black Crowes
1991: Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers
1992: Automatic for the People, R.E.M.
1993: In Utero, Nirvana
1994: Wildflowers, Tom Petty
1995: Fight for Your Mind, Ben Harper
1996: Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, Apocalyptica
1997: The Virginian, Neko Case and Her Boyfriends
1998: Ophelia, Natalie Merchant
1999: Reload, Tom Jones
2000: Fragments of Freedom, Morcheeba
2001: I Get Wet, Andrew W.K.
2002: American IV: The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash
2003: Elephunk, Black Eyed Peas
2004: Back to Bedlam, James Blunt
2005: Devil's Playground, Billy Idol
2006: Loose, Nelly Furtado
2007: La Cucaracha, Ween

Saturday, May 10, 2008


What do you do with soup? The answer may depend on where and when you're from, I suppose.

"I'm going to eat my soup."

"I'm going to drink my soup."

BOTH of these sound a little strange to me, and not quite right. I suppose the first sounds less awkward to me, though, so that's the one I would probably say. But neither of them sound all that great, and I think I'd be most likely to just say "I'm going to have my soup."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


It was pointed out to me today that one can distinguish between the two different meanings of the word "acid" as follows:

(1) "Argh! My skin is melting!" acid

(2) "Whoa, dude, my skin is melting" acid

Friday, February 8, 2008

Canadian pessimism?

There are two songs by Canadian groups about Superman being deceased, and two songs by Canadian groups about major world cities sinking.