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: