Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

2005 Canadian Blog Awards

Robert of MyBlahg fame is accepting nominations for the 2005 Canadian Blog Awards. Nominations are open until November 20. The categories are:

Best Blog
Best Liberal Blog (small-l-liberal, i.e., all lefties)
Best Conservative Blog (all uh, righties? is that a word?)
Best New Blog (blogs that started in 2005)
Best Group Blog
Best Humour Blog
Best Photo Blog
Best Culture Blog (art, literature, movies, music, etc.)
Best Personal Blog
Best Media Blog (for journalist-bloggers)
Best Business Blog
Best Religious Blog
Best Sports Blog
Best Blog Post
Best Blog Post Series

This is the second year the awards have run; the results of last year's awards can be found here.

Lazy language

A link to a February 2004 piece about Belinda Stronach by Adbusters editor Deborah Campbell appeared in my inbox this morning. Published prior to Stronach's leap to the Liberals (i.e., back when she was battling Stephen Harper for control of the Conservatives), the column is a critique of the media's characterization of Stronach as 'blonde' and 'attractive' and their constant references to her wardrobe, marital status, and sex appeal. While I largely agree with Campbell that this sort of sexist commentary was and has continued to be rampant in media characterizations of Stronach, it is when she brings language into the equation that we begin to part ways:

The focus on her use of "uh," "um," and "you know" is hard to fathom when you consider that such lazy language is typically edited out of quotes from male politicians, even on radio clips. Watching a series of guests on the national news revealed that every single one of them--including the anchor when diverging from the teleprompter--used these fillers.
It's correct for Campbell to point out that these markers exist in the talk of powerful men just as they do in Stronach's own talk, but her characterization of their functions is inaccurate. In fact, each of the markers she mentions serves a useful purpose: 'uh' and 'um' as devices that let your fellow conversation participants know that you're not finished speaking yet (for example, when you need to pause to formulate an upcoming thought), and 'you know' to structure units of spoken language and to communicate your orientation toward what you're saying. We all use these as a normal and appropriate part of spoken conversation; there is nothing inherently "lazy" about any of them.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it is also incorrect to dismiss all three of these markers as mere "fillers." While it is true that 'uh' and 'um' are a sort of filler as I described above, the function of 'you know' is far more complex. What has been written about this one little marker could fill many volumes, but a 1986 Language in Society paper by Janet Holmes seems particularly relevant here. Holmes examined the distribution and functions of 'you know' in a corpus of spontaneous conversation, and contrary to what many linguists of that time expected, it was found to be equally common in both women and men. More interestingly, though, she also found that men use it in a rather different way than women do. Specifically, men use it more often to elicit reassurance or to express linguistic imprecision, while women use it more often to address their conversation partners' background knowledge or knowledge of the information being conveyed.

Ironically, the common interpretation of 'you know' is often diametrically opposite to Holmes' findings. When men use it, it tends to be described with positive language, while when women use it, it is most often described with negative language. Even trained linguists have fallen prey to this sort of bias, as Holmes points out:

There is the possibility of bias or distortion deriving from unexamined assumptions concerning what constitutes "rational" and clear communication. Despite the fact that 'you know' quite clearly serves a range of invaluable and positive functions in an interaction, it is often described in essentially negative terms. [...] Moreover, when differences in usage between women and men are isolated, they are frequently interpreted to the prejudice of women and regarded as evidence of women's linguistic deficiency. [...] Quite clearly the eye of the beholder can make a dramatic difference to what is perceived and presented to the reader. As I have suggested elsewhere, one (female) person's feeble hedging may well be perceived as another (male) person's perspicacious qualification.
If you ask me, that puts parodies such as this one, in which Stronach is portrayed both as using 'you know' abnormally frequently and as making vapid and clueless statements, into a rather sharp context.

I have no particular political stake in putting a stop to media criticism of Stronach--despite her apparent penchant for party-hopping, she's pretty unlikely to ever make the leap to the NDP. But when even a column stridently defending her such as Campbell's inaccurately describes her language as "lazy" and full of "fillers," it seems fair to step in. Especially when a more careful look at that "lazy language" may well serve to underscore Campbell's quite valid point.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The myth of affordable Canadian tuition

By now, we're all aware that Canadian university students are paying a lot more in tuition than their parents or even their older siblings once did. Nationwide, costs have risen by 118.2% in real dollars since 1990-91, a recent Statistics Canada study on enrollment in professional programs indicated that fewer and fewer middle-class Canadians are enrolling, as they are no longer able to afford to pay costs associated with attending these programs, and more and more universities are even finding it necessary to establish food banks for students who are cutting corners to pay for tuition. Sobering statistics, especially when compared with various European countries' ultra-low fees. But at least we're still better off up here than the Americans are, right?

Except that as it turns out, that oft-repeated truism isn't actually, you know, true.

Carol is a student at a large Midwestern U.S. university[*]. Hers is a "state university" [**], i.e., a public institution funded by her state's government [***]. The tuition cost there is figured at around USD$6,000 per semester, which sounds staggeringly high to a Canadian. However, that amount covers not only fees for classes, but also fees for student health care, registration, room, board, and books. Additionally, the quoted $6,000 is much higher than what Carol--and the vast majority of her fellow students--actually pays. In the U.S., most public universities such as Carol's have pledged to meet 100% of the financial need demonstrated by each incoming student, in the form of a financial aid package that comes to them as a combination of grants and loans.

Every February, all U.S. students who want to be considered for federal aid fill out a form called the Federal Application for Free Student Aid (FAFSA). This form takes into account two factors: any income the students earn (90% of which they are expected to contribute toward their education and education-related expenses, such as room and board) and the income of anyone claiming them as a dependent (10% of which is also expected to go into the same pot). So based on Carol's parents' lower-middle class income and Carol's own earnings from a part-time student job, the U.S. government gives her, per-semester, a grant amounting to USD$2025, various other small grants amounting to USD$1100 in total, and federal loans (which she must pay back) totalling around USD$3500. This means that her actual per-semester out-of-pocket cost--for tuition, fees, room, board, and books--is more or less zero. And none of those grants are performance-based--for those students with truly stellar grades or even certain extracurricular involvements, those numbers can go up substantially.

Contrast that with Helen, a student at a large university in western Canada, where tuition costs around CAN$2000 per semester. On the surface of things, that sounds like one heck of a lot less than Carol pays, but keep in mind that that amount only covers actual fees for courses, not room, board, or books. Like Carol, Helen also fills out a yearly form determining her financial aid, which is then calculated based on an expected parental contribution of 10% of their income, how long she'd been off from school over the summer, and how much money she'd made during that time. As in Carol's situation, the Canadian financial aid system Helen is subject to is set up so that any difference is made up between the amount her parents are deemed responsible for and the actual cost. However, in contrast to Carol's situation, that difference isn't given to Helen as a combination of grants and loans, but exclusively as loans that Helen will have to pay back.

Now, if you remember, Carol also ends up with loans amounting to about USD$3500 per semester, which runs a little higher than Helen's Canadian per-semester debt. However, Helen is expected to pay for room and board and books by working over the summer, or by asking for money from her parents, or perhaps by winning the lottery. The Canadian Student Loan program does offer students like Helen a certain amount for room and board if they can't come up with it any other way, but that is always over and above the amount already given to her for tuition. Which means that if Helen actually wants to eat and pay the rent, the per-semester amount of debt she accrues by attending her Canadian university ends up being more than the per-semester amount of debt Carol accrues by attending her American university.

With respect to graduate education, the differences can be even greater. One factor that many Canadian graduate students don't take into account when pronouncing Canadian universities more reasonably priced than their American counterparts is the fact that many U.S. universities have tuition waivers (hard-won by graduate student employee unions) for any graduate students who work part-time for the university as teaching or research assistants. These are neither need-based nor merit-based, but simply a benefit that goes along with being a graduate student employee. And it comes on top of a meagre salary, from which graduate students can then pay room, board, books, and other life costs, leaving them with no (or at least minimal) loans. For example, I was a graduate student at a state university in the U.S. for six years, during which I taught one section of a class per semester. I never paid a cent in tuition, not the entire time--and neither did any of my out-of-state or international student colleagues. By contrast, my graduate students at the Canadian university where I now work do get paid for serving as teaching assistants, but what they receive doesn't even cover their tuition, much less their room and board. They have to take out loans to cover that.

Now, I am by no means praising the U.S.'s commitment to higher education, here--compared with the low costs of European universities, an American education is indeed appallingly expensive. But the next time you hear Canadians reassuring themselves that while a Canadian education is costly, at least it's cheaper than in the U.S., you might want to draw their attention to the fact that those statements don't actually hold up under scrutiny. And if Canadians really want to be able to claim that our students are better off than American students, then we'd better do something serious about escalating tuition costs, and we'd better do it now. We can do that by offering more generous financial aid packages to students who need them, we can do that by lowering tuition costs, or we can do some combination of the two, but continuing to do nothing at all isn't tenable.

[*] Carol and Helen are both real people who volunteered to have their information used as illustrative examples here, but their names have been changed and other identifying details removed to protect their identities.

[**] Many Canadians don't realize that the U.S. has two types of universities: public and private. Public universities, which form the bulk of U.S. institutions of higher education and are usually called "state universities" because they are funded to a large extent by the individual states, are analogous to Canadian universities. Because university funding comes from state governments rather than the federal government, there are two sets of tuition fees: one for "in-state" students, and one for "out-of-state" students. The cost for out-of-state students is dramatically higher, and since Canadians looking to go to university in the U.S. look at the cost for out-of-state students (natch), they are often under the impression that it costs this much for everyone. That's not the case--most students at state universities are paying in-state rates.

[***] In fact, state universities like Carol's are funded at an average of CAN$5000 more (pdf) per student per year than Canadian universities receive from Canadian provincial governments.

Friday, October 14, 2005

2005 Canadian blog survey

Aaron Braaten of Grandinite has posted the results to his 2005 Canadian blog survey (which will comprise the data for his master's thesis in Economics at the University of Alberta), with the preliminary results available as a .pdf file. A few random tidbits:

Politically, respondents indicated a strong preference for the Conservative Party of Canada and the New Democrats.

The number one reason for blogging: to write.

Blog readers had a higher tendency to be male than bloggers.
And then there's my favourite paragraph:
Bloggers had a greater tendency to be single, whereas blog readers had a greater tendency to be married. Just as a related observation, in my own blogging experience an oft-cited complaint is that the font is too small to read.
Your guess is as good as mine what he meant by this. Is the implication that marriage makes you go blind?

Even without the random connections between marital status and vision impairment, though, it's an interesting bunch of stats. As a data nut, I love this sort of thing. Thanks for making us your guinea pigs, Aaron.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Electoral reform in the Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Canadian Parliamentary Review is a quarterly journal published by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and its focus is the Canadian Parliament in all its glory and controversy. The current issue, available online in both English and French, contains useful information for anyone interested in electoral reform. In particular, this particular idealistic pragmatist recommends the following:

This article by Conservative MP Scott Reid, a no-nonsense look at many of the issues involved in the debate on electoral reform and the major obstacles to any real change. His arguments for why electoral reform needs a citizen-driven process (something I strongly support) are very much worth a look. I don't agree with Reid about a lot of things, most notably his previous arguments against official bilingualism in Canada, but he's clearly a smart man with a lot of interesting ideas.

This article by UBC political science graduate student Hilary Pearce, which argues that our steadfast desire to maintain geographic representation compromises other kinds of representation. Again, I don't agree with Pearce about everything--I would personally maintain that the geographic component is an essential part of representation in a country with strong regional identities such as Canada--but this paper nonetheless provides thought-provoking arguments that our assumptions may be standing in our way.

This review by Trent University's Dennis Pilon, which is a critical dissection of a book called Elections by John Courtney. Courtney's book argues in favour of maintaining the first-past-the-post electoral system in Canada, and Pilon takes him on point by point. One section even makes the point I was attempting to make back in this discussion, but more clearly and with a lot more finesse:

Courtney claims that PR leads to instability, party fragmentation, and a lack of accountability between voters and government. But as evidence he cites Israel, Italy and the Netherlands – hardly a representative sample. Effective comparison requires an assessment of an appropriately broad universe of cases and ones that share roughly similar political circumstances to the country in question (the politics of Israel and Italy are hardly comparable to Canadian conditions). And given the considerable literature that exists today on voting system effects, Courtney’s sweeping generalizations about PR systems require more support than a fleeting aside.
Anyway, this quarter's issue is worth a look for all wannabe electoral reform scholars, as well as any Canadians just trying to inform themselves about the issue. And best of all, it's free.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

"If you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist."

I hate it when bloggers simply repost someone else's words without adding any content of their own, and I swore to myself when I started this thing that I would never do that. But this Guardian editorial needs no comment, and yet it deserves to be spread. Forgive me.

Are religious societies better than secular ones? [...] Remarkably, no one, until now, has attempted systematically to answer the question with which this column began. But in the current edition of the Journal of Religion and Society, a researcher called Gregory Paul tests the hypothesis, propounded by evangelists in the Bush administration, that religion is associated with lower rates of "lethal violence, suicide, non-monogamous sexual activity and abortion". He compared data from 18 developed democracies, and discovered that the Christian fundamentalists couldn't have got it more wrong.

"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion ... None of the strongly secularised, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction." Within the US, "the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and midwest" have "markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the north-east where ... secularisation, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms".

Three sets of findings stand out: the associations between religion - especially absolute belief - and juvenile mortality, venereal disease and adolescent abortion. Paul's graphs show far higher rates of death among the under-fives in Portugal, the US and Ireland and put the US - the most religious country in his survey - in a league of its own for gonorrhea and syphilis. Strangest of all, for those who believe that Christian societies are "pro-life", is the finding that "increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator ... Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data".

These findings appear to match the studies of teenage pregnancy I've read. The rich countries in which sexual abstinence campaigns, generally inspired by religious belief, are strongest have the highest early pregnancy rates. The US is the only rich nation with teenage pregnancy levels comparable to those of developing nations: it has a worse record than India, the Philippines and Rwanda. Because they're poorly educated about sex and in denial about what they're doing (and so less likely to use contraceptives), boys who participate in abstinence programmes are more likely to get their partners pregnant than those who don't.
Go read.

Monday, October 10, 2005

And Germany has a marble game!

It only took three weeks. Over in Old Germany, the kiddies have finally sorted through their various squabbles and found a way to get their marble game off the ground. Angie Black will serve as the first female team captain (causing all the little boys to squeal "eeew!"), but various standins for George Red (who's apparently decided he's had enough of marbles for now) will get more turns at the hill. Guido Yellow, Josh Green, and the twins will be watching from the sidelines. A fine compromise, and an inspiration to all the marbles-playing children across the world who have yet to learn to share with their little friends.

(For those looking for more serious commentary in English, this upcoming TIME Europe article is really quite good.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Just say no!

I am hereby starting a "stop nomenclature abuse and recycling" campaign (SNARC for short). Anybody who uses a new political term that already means something else, elsewhere in the political world gets a demerit. Anyone who comes up with an alternate original term and makes an attempt at propagating it gets a great big kiss. He (or she) with the most demerits loses. She (or he) with the most kisses can die happy.

Oh, and ten bonus demerits automatically go to anyone referring to Ralph Klein's health care plan as the Third Way or to U.S. Congressional Clinton-lovers as New Democrats. Because I said so.