GM needs remedial English lessons

The Chevy Logo, worn

Poor English makes Chevy adverts seem desparate.

I recently saw a billboard that advertised the Chevrolet Malibu.  The caption read: “By definition, an Accord is a Compromise.”  Very funny.  The ad also puzzled me, because I’d never thought the word “accord” had anything to do with “compromise.”

So I looked it up.  In four dictionaries, including the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I found no evidence of “accord” meaning in any sense a compromise.  Indeed, it typically referred to harmonious correspondence, or some kind of mutual agreement.

After a little Googling, I did find one site that actually uses the word “compromise” in its definition of “accord.”  But that particular sense is based on the interpretation of “accord” in American Law.

If GM were advertising to lawyers, then I’d have no problem with this ad.  But since it is clearly targeted at a much broader audience, it seems entirely inappropriate to focus on such a narrow – indeed, technical – sense of the word.  And the tone of the ad suggests a definitive statement about the word “accord” that discourages questioning it.

I know I wouldn’t want to live in a country where everyone used language as lawyers do….

I’m not sure what to make of this – except to think that using the narrow American legal sense of a word is a really smarmy thing to do, especially in Canada.  Indeed, I’d say this ad definitely qualifies for status in the weasel words lexicon.

Message to GM: go back to grade one and learn how to speak real English, not lawyer-ese.  And while you’re at it, stop thinking that Canadians would know or care about American legal definitions.

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“Shouting Fire” will have you seeing red

I recently saw the new documentary “Shouting Fire: stories from the edge of free speech.”  I must say, it’s well-worth watching.  The film is about the First Amendment and free speech in the United States.  More specifically, it’s about the perceived endangerment of free speech in the US.  It consists of a collection of stories, each revolving around the use and abuse of free speech.  There’s even a Facebook page for people to find out more about the film and engage in discussions.  There is a clearly political tone to the piece: it’s makers seem staunchly in favour of the First Amendment as an inviolate tenet of American life, to be sacrificed for no one and nothing.

You may find yourself at once attracted and repulsed by this documentary.  I certainly was.  The story of  Debbie Almontaser, for instance, is a great example of how a thoughtful, caring person – who happens to be Muslim – was torn to shreds by the mass media.  Although Ms. Almontaser always represented herself thoughtfully and intelligently, she was naive enough to speak in ways that were easily twisted by certain news outlets and anti-Muslim racist groups in the US to appear to suggest exactly the opposite of what she actually meant.  Here is a case of good words, utterly in perhaps the wrong context, or with a lack of appreciation for the peculiarities of certain segments of American culture, becoming bad ones.  Perhaps Ms. Almontaser was too naive.  But it appears quite certain that a significant number of New Yorkers displayed ignorance on a cosmological scale, a streak of malice as wide as the Mississippi River, and a nearly clinical lack of empathy.

The documentary also covers the story of Ward Churchill, who was removed from his post as a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder for “research misconduct.”  Churchill’s writings are intentionally controversial and inflammatory (check out his titles in Google Scholar).  The man is clearly well-educated and has an excellent grasp of English.  It seems, then, that he intentionally chooses to write and say things that piss people off.

This isn’t what professors do.  Once granted the status of professor, one is expected to uphold a certain code of conduct – at least in matters of intellect.  This code includes, among other things, communicating in the most rational and reasonable way possible.  And communication is a vital characteristic of the professoriate: knowledge is useless if it cannot be communicated, and professors are the keepers of knowledge.  They may be passionate, but they must abide by the centuries old rules of good, meticulous research and its communication.  Time and time again over the centuries it has been shown that those who implement slash-and-burn policies of self-expression, writing, and speaking end up being ignored and, often, proved wrong.

It seems evident that Churchill intentionally abdicated this responsibility.  The question in the Churchill case is: does free speech trump a professor’s responsibilities?  It seemed that the makers of the documentary thought it did.  I disagree.  Churchill was granted the right of free speech as an American citizen.  But he chose to be a professor, knowing full well what the professor’s responsibilities were.  (I refuse to believe anyone would subject themselves to the personal suffering needed to achieve a professorship without knowing what they were getting themselves into.)  No one forced him to be a professor.  He could have gained just as much notoriety and disseminated his ideas just as quickly without being a professor.  His ideas would have been no more praised or vilified without his professorial standing as with it.  Because it was his choice, then he also had to accept the responsibilities that require, not a muzzling of his right to free speech, but rather a choice of language, tone, and vocabulary that is designed to not be inflammatory and intentionally confrontational.  He chose instead to abdicate those responsibilities.  This demeans the professoriate.  To maintain the status of the professoriate and the trust that others should have of it, he just had to go.

These are just two examples of the stories that are covered in this documentary.

You might love it, or you might hate it.  But whatever else, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Science Idol: The Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest

“Editorial cartoons can be funny.  Political interference in science is not.”

Vote here for your favourite political cartoon about the state of science in politics (in the USA – but they’ll accept Canadian votes).  Although the Obama presidency seems to moving in the right direction, Dubya did a lot of damage.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (USA branch) is trying to raise awareness of the issues by running a Science Idol runoff for the political cartoon that makes the most hay of the sorry state of science in politics.

Voting ends 11:59pm, August 12th.  So vote soon.  And maybe buy a 2010 calendar with the finalist cartoons too.

The world wants Obama

Too bad Americans are so insular because it seems the global jury is in on the U.S. Presidential Election.

If the World Could Vote is a fascinating website. It summarizes in a very nice visualization the results of a large number of international Gallup polls designed to indicate a global preference for either Barack Obama or John McCain as the next American President. For countries in which data was gathered, you can just left-click on the map to get a breakdown of results. The detailed results and a summary of the methodology are also freely available through the site.

Of the surveys conducted, it would appear that those who do have an opinion are largely behind Obama, by a factor of four.

There’s also another website run by The Economist that suggests Obama leads McCain worldwide by ten to one. (Which begs the question: what’s causing the difference between the two reports?) A less formal site also indicates a 10:1 proportion for Obama worldwide.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this kind of work will be widely reported in the USA; America as a whole tends to be a little too insular to even care about these kinds of international results. Still, doesn’t it make sense that – if these poll results are at all reliable – an Obama Presidency would go far to calm the nerves of an anxious global community? And shouldn’t that be a factor in the American voter’s decision-making on election day? After all, only about one in twenty of humankind is American.

Let’s hope it really is a Democrat’s world after all.

Yahoo! programmers might really be yahoos

Canadian is a “foreign language” for Yahoo! programmers.

I read about the new Yahoo! calendar, and figured I’d give it a test drive. So I used Google to find http://switch.calendar.yahoo.com and logged in to try it out.

Though I logged in successfully, all I got was the content at the URL http://switch.calendar.yahoo.com/m/unsp_intl.php?intl=ca. You can visit it yourself, but I’ll spare you the trouble. It reads:

Sorry…
The new Yahoo! Calendar Beta doesn’t work in your language yet. The team is working around the clock to translate everything in your language.
By the way, did you know there are over 6,000 languages in the world?

Now look at that URL again. It’s easy to guess what it means. The intl=ca part specifies my “international” designation as Canada. And unsp_intl makes me think of unspecified international (language).

So this is to say that the Yahoo!-ers who built the new calendar really think that Canadians don’t speak English. The same thing would happen to Swedish Yahoo! users – even though English proficiency is nationally mandated in that country. Not to mention all the other countries where English may as well be a national language.

This puts me in mind of a particular English word that was first coined by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels as the name of a race of “brutish” creatures, and which in modern times means a lout, a rude, noisy person, neither intelligent nor cultured. Yup, I mean “yahoo.”

Talk about truth in advertising.