Saturday, February 22, 2014

Defining the middle class

The middle class is all the rage these days amongst Canadian politicians, but no party has bothered to define it.  Here are some suggestions for how I think it could be defined.

  1. Divide the population up into income quantiles, i.e. parts of equal size where each person in one part has a lower income than everyone in the next part.  Take the people in some of the middle quantiles to be the middle class.  For example, if five quantiles are used, then they are called quintiles.  We could take second, third, and fourth quintiles to be the middle class, or maybe just the second and third, or maybe just the third and the fourth.
  2. Adopt some measure for average income (mean income or median income, etc.) and some measure of deviation from the average (standard deviation, absolute deviation, etc.).  Pick some number x and say that someone is in the middle class if they are within x times the chosen deviation measure of the chosen type of average. 

    For example, suppose that the chosen average is the median and the chosen deviation is the absolute deviation.  Let M be the median income, and let D be the absolute deviation of income from the median.  Then someone with income I is middle class if the difference between I and M is less than x times D (in math notation, |I-M|
  3. Ask someone "Are you middle class?"  If they say yes, then they are middle class.  If they say no, then they aren't.  (In the interests of academic honestly, I feel compelled to say that this wasn't my idea.  It actually comes to me, indirectly, from MP Scott Andrews, through James McCleod, politics reporter for The Telegram. Here's an image if the tweet disappears).

    Politically, this definition is probably the most useful, because many people consider themselves middle class even when they are not.  This definition is also the most hilarious, in my opinion.
These are only suggestions, of course, and should not be taken too seriously (especially not number 3).  Economists are probably better suited to giving an reasonable definition than some guy who knows math terms and what the word "middle" means.  Regardless, if a politician feels the middle class needs helping, and they have some ideas for helping it, it would be nice if politicians would articulate more precisely just what this middle class is.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Recycling Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs

As we rang in the New Year in Canada, a partial ban on incandescent light bulbs came into effect.  The full ban will come into effect at the end of this year.  For now, it is illegal to import 100W and 75W bulbs.  Next year, it will also be illegal to import 60W and 40W bulbs.  (Are there no domestic producers?  If not, will we see domestic producers popping up?  Or is the article misleading, and the ban applies to non-imported bulbs as well?).  Luckily, not many seem to know about it, so if you want to stock up, you might still have a pretty good chance.  I find 100W bulbs too bright for any room in my current dwelling, and 60W is not that much lower than 75W, so I'll be alright for now.

But once the full ban comes into effect, we'll have to buy compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs after our stocks of incandescent bulbs run out (which could take a while, since the bulbs don't burn out that quickly).  Aside from sharp glass if they're broken, incandescent bulbs pose no health or environmental threat.  CFLs, on the other hand, contain mercury, which causes health problems after too much exposure.  Thus, they must be properly disposed of, lest the mercury be released into the environment.

I haven't had many CFLs go on me, so I haven't had to deal with the disposal issue that often.  In fact, I'm having trouble recalling the last time I lost one.  Maybe I never have.  If I did, then I didn't dispose of it properly, because I would have had to go out of the way to dispose of it and I would certainly remember that.  As I'm writing this blog post, my desk is being illuminated by compact fluorescent bulbs.  When they finally expire (I've had them for 4-5 years by now), I'll be sure to dispose of them properly.

According to the article I linked to above, many besides myself do not dispose of the bulbs properly.  This reminds me of recycling pop cans in Ontario, something I wrote about a long time ago.  Other provinces charge a deposit on pop cans, which is given back to the consumer when the pop cans are returned for recycling.  Some states in the US do this as well, but for some reason, Ontario doesn't.  Ontario does charge a deposit for beer cans and bottles, however, and the return rates are much higher for beer bottles and cans than for pop cans (a few years ago, wine bottles were added to the list of things that customers pay a deposit on).  This suggests to me that even a small deposit of a mere dime (not worth much these days) is enough incentive to significantly increase the return rate.

Maybe the amount of mercury that gets released by a broken CFL is insignificant.  But if it could potentially result in serious negative consequences, one wonders whether it wouldn't be worth considering a deposit on them that would operate similarly to the deposit systems currently in place for beer bottles and cans.  Then again, someone wouldn't kill a six pack of compact fluorescent bulbs in an afternoon like they could a six pack of beer (one of the supposed upsides of CFLs, aside from lower energy consumption, is longer life), so maybe it wouldn't be worth the infrastructure.  On the other hand, if they intake is so low, the infrastructure demands would also be low, making it easy for this or that retail outlet to fit one into some corner of their store.


I fully support the move to more energy efficient means of illumination, but I've largely been disappointed with the quality of light from CFLs.  The colour is often not to my liking, sometimes there's a noticeable flicker, and sometimes they just take too long to light up.  I'm also nervous about breaking them by accident--they're rather fragile--and inhaling the mercury vapour.  Perhaps these things will get better in time.  Or perhaps CFLs will just fall out of favour as LED lighting, which is even more energy efficient, takes over.

Friday, September 27, 2013

About "about"

It doesn't happen often, but every now and then, an American makes his or her way across the border to Canada.  A small portion of those who do come here notices that we sound a little different from them, and a small portion of those who notice has the audacity to say something about it.  Out loud.  Can you imagine?

Here is the most recent example.

The word that tends to epitomize this difference is usually "about", which they claim we pronounce like "a boot", although some say "a boat" is a better reflection of what the word sounds like to an American.  The most common response from Canadians upon hearing this seems to be denial.

Here is the most recent example.

It's an odd response to me, considering how much energy has been spent here trying to justify the border identify differences between the two countries.  Here we have a distinguishing feature, albeit a very small one, that has been noticed by those that we've been trying to distinguish ourselves from, yet we don't want it.  Will we ever be happy?  Probably not.

Of course, those who deny that the "about" sounds the same as either one of the two supposed phrases are right to do so, because they don't actually sound the same.  But given the persistence of this perception, one can't help but wonder if maybe there's something to it.  The easy explanation is "Stupid Americans", because that's the easy explanation for everything.  Why can't I find decent looking clothes come in my size?  Stupid Americans.  Why is math hard?  Stupid Americans.  Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?  Stupid Americans.

But surely, even if Americans really are stupid, they can't be so stupid as to be unable to tell "about" from "a boot" and/or "a boat."

Part of the denial, I think is just a case of what seems to be a universal rule that other people are the ones with the accents, and we're (whoever "we" happens to be) the ones who speak normally.  However, the main reason they keep saying we pronounce certain words and phrases the same isn't because do, but because we pronounce them differently from Americans.

The sound that -ou- makes in "about" is what's called a diphthong, which means roughly that our mouth starts in one position and gradually changes to another.  One difference between Canadian and American pronunciation is that when -ou- comes before certain consonants, t and s mostly, we tend to shorten the pronunciation of it.  For example, the -ou- in "bout" is shorter than the -ou- (written with -ow-) in "bowed", the past tense of "bow" as in "take a bow."  For Americans, the sound has the same pronunciation no matter what consonant follows. 

It's the first half of -ou- in particular that gets shortened, so the second part, which sounds more like an -oo- sound, gets emphasized.  The first part doesn't disappear entirely, but it gets shortened enough that unless you're accustomed to hearing it, you won't.  So some Americans will hear an -oo- where we hear an -ou-.

Another difference between Canadian and American English is in the pronunciation of the so called long -o- sound, the one represented by -oa- in boat.  The American pronunciation is also a diphthong, even though it's not written as one.  You'll see this if you look up the word in a dictionary that uses the International Phonetic Alphabet. On the other hand, the Canadian pronunciation of the long o is almost a pure vowel.  The first part of the American -o- is the same as the first part of the Canadian -ou- in words like "about."  The second part of the American -o- is similar to the second part of the Canadian -ou-, so to an American ear, "about" can actually sound very similar to "a boat," even though they don't actually sound the same to a Canadian.

So no, we don't actually pronounce "about" like "a boat" or "a boot".  But yes, the American perception of Canadian pronunciation is based on something real.


Some related comments:

  • I have a Romanian friend who tried to tell me the pronunciation of the Romanian word for Monday.  When he said it, it sounded like "loon" to me.  When I repeated it, he said there was an "ee" sound at the end.  It's spelled "luni." So I tried again, but I was then informed that the "ee" sound was too long.  This, I think, compares to the tendency of Americans to miss that first part of the -ou- diphthong in words like "about" and "house".  A Romanian's ears are tuned to notice that very short "i" at the end just like a Canadian's ears are tuned to hear the full -ou- diphthong, and Canadians will miss the very short "i" just like Americans will miss the very short first part of the "ou."
  • "Eh" is another supposed marker of Canadian English, and something Canadians will object to in chorus when someone points it out.  This is even sillier than objecting to "ou", because "eh" is used worldwide, even in American English.  There is a usage of the word that is unique to Canada, though.  Perhaps this usage is falling into disuse, though.
  • The analysis above is somewhat simplistic, since accents are not uniform across either Canada or the United States, as this map illustrates.  In particular, the phenomenon described above is not as strong on the west coast of Canada as in other parts of the country.
  • The phenomenon is known as Canadian Raising.  It's Wikipedia, so caveat lector, but what's written there is consistent with other, more authoritative sources that I've read on the matter.
  • Although Canadian English is different from American, the "full hoser" accent that's used on American TV shows is a caricature.  We generally don't talk like that unless we're imitating Americans imitating us.  Occasionally, though it's very rare, I do run into someone (usually rural, and many generations Canadian) who sounds remarkably close to it.
  • I don't really know if the most common response is denial.  It could just be a squeaky wheel type phenomenon, where the loudest reactions come from those who don't believe it.
  • The first site that I linked to above, What's Different in Canada, does provide an interesting list of the many, usually small differences between the two countries.  He hasn't got to ketchup and picked flavoured potato chips yet, though.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Another year older, another year in which I had to scramble to renew my licence sticker after the last minute had passed.  It doesn't feel like a priority when I get the notification months before the deadline, which gives ample opportunity for it to be forgotten altogether.  The fact that the deadline is my birthday, which has so far fallen on the same date every year, doesn't seem to help matters.  It wasn't until a phone call with my mother very late on my birthday that I remembered that I had to do it.

Before I could renew my sticker (actually, renew the licence plate, which is signified by a new sticker), I had to get my car tested for emissions.  Having done that, I went to the ServiceOntario to see what hours the nearest locations were open.  There, I saw a message that read like it was tailor made for me,

Left it to the last minute? No problem.
I clicked on the link to read
You can renew a licence plate sticker online...
"Hey Great!" I thought.  Instead of driving with an expired sticker, I could just renew online and wait until it comes in the mail before driving again.  Ah, but there was more!
...from 180 days before the expiry date until 11:59 p.m. on the day the sticker expires. After a sticker expires, you need to renew it in-person at a ServiceOntario centre.
Well, this was the day after it expired, so I was out of luck.

But does this practice even make sense?  Before the expiry date, when you are still legally entitled to drive to the ServiceOntario offices with the existing sticker, you can renew the sticker online.  But once the sticker expires, you are no longer entitled to use the easiest method to renew it without driving your car [1].  You must get there ... somehow.  Without your car.  Unless you want to break the law.

I checked the FAQs, and while they repeat the fact that online renewals are only possible before expiry is repeated, no explanation is given as to why.  Here are some possibilities.
  1. It's part of a secret pilot project to marginally increase the number of people riding bikes.
  2. They're supporting the taxi industry by enacting measures that would increase use rather than cutting cheques to all the taxi drivers.  There's no money left for that because they gave it all to Ontario's craft brewers.
  3. It's punishment for being a slacker or just plain absentminded.  Also, no dessert and you have extra chores for week, and wipe that smirk off your face young man!
  4. Concerns about the productivity levels of ServiceOntario staff.  If you don't take an hour out of your day to go to renew in person, the staff there will have an extra 20 seconds that they won't know what to do with.  Also, the line-up will be maybe 19 people long instead of 20, and they might feel lonely with so few people in there.
Maybe it's something else, but that's all I could come up with.

Oh, there's a quote at the bottom of the FAQs page from the Premier herself,
We are working to bring people together and find common ground - because that’s what we do in Ontario. When we find fair, creative solutions to the challenges we face, we all succeed together.
Hmm.  So maybe this is part of her plan to bring people together.  I didn't find any common ground with anyone, though, but nor was I looking.  I wish I had read that quote sooner, so I would have known the real reason I was there.  I could have said something like "Sucks that we have to wait in line when we could be doing better things with our time, eh?" and the person I said that to would respond "Yep."  Common ground would have been found and our purpose fulfilled!  Because that's what we do is Ontario!

Might I offer a creative solution that, based on the last quote, the premier is keen on?  Unless you can come up with a really good reason why you can't, let people renew online regardless of whether or not their birthday has passed.  And if you have a really good reason why you must cut off the online option once the sticker is expired, do us the courtesy of telling us what it is.  Otherwise, it just looks like an arbitrary exercise of power.

Better yet, instead of sending us multiple reminders in the mail, give us the option of having the stickers sent to us automatically, at least in those years where no emissions test is required.  You're already sending us mail to remind us anyway.  Why not put the thing we need in the envelope instead of a reminder to get the thing?

Even betterrer, could we do the licence plate renewals without the stickers?  It seems like a throwback, and not even a quaint one, to days of yore, before police cars came equipped with laptops into which bored police officers waiting at stoplights could enter licence plates in order to determine whether or not a licence plate is valid (or whether the car was connected to other crimes).

Possibly even betterrerer, could cruisers be equipped some version of the licence plate recognition technology that's used on the 407?  Police officers wouldn't even need to do anything.  They wouldn't need to enter anything into a laptop.  They wouldn't even need to get out of the car.  The driver would simply get a notification in the mail (or maybe through some other newfangled technology, like email), which, maybe, if the the government is feeling nice, could then be paid online.  Maybe.  If you eat your Brussels sprouts and clean your room.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Parity Pooper

If you listen to the CFL commissioner long enough, the probability of hearing the word "parity" approaches 100%.  As far as the media is concerned, just searching for "CFL parity" in my browser history yields 3 results for articles with those words in the title.  There are probably even more articles whose body contains the word, even though it doesn't appear in the title.  In these contexts, the word means that teams are roughly equal in ability, that any given match could be won by either team (or, rarely, end in a tie), and it's almost always considered a good thing.  Other leagues and the journalists that cover them do it too, though possibly using different terms such as "competitive balance".

This article on parity gives some history to the concept and some explanation to why it might not be all that it has been cracked up to be (although it doesn't mention the CFL at all).  While I was reading it, a couple of other reasons crossed my mind.

First of all, it is hard to know with certainty whether or not parity really exists in a particular season.  Ignoring the possibility of a tie, we can run some simulations to show that even when every team is exactly as good as every other team, there still is a roughly 23% chance that the team with the worst record will have only 5 wins.  It should be emphasized that, despite the dismal record, this does not mean that it's the worst team.  We are assuming that all teams are equally good, so there is no best team and there is no worst team.  It is simply the team that won the fewest games.

Of course, it is possible that a team that wins only 5 out of 18 games is just bad.  But the fact that a team could be exactly as good as every other team yet still have a relatively high probability of finishing the season with the same record makes it hard to tell whether team is bad or just unlucky.

We could run a similar analysis for the other teams.  The numbers would be different, of course, but similar results would hold.  A league with parity would have some teams with poor records even if they are just as good as those with winning records.  So there's reason to be skeptical when the commissioner of your favourite league talks about it.

Secondly, there is a psychological reasons why we might not even want parity.  Surely, if your favourite team posts losing records year after year or hasn't won a championship in more than a decade, parity would be an improvement.  But is it still desirable if your team is the one that won the championship?  Under parity, each team is as good as every other team, so each team has an equal probability of coming away with the win.  Thus, the outcome of the game is essentially just the result of a physically demanding coin toss.  Each victory earned by your team, from the first regular season game, all the way through to the final playoff game, was not due to skill, but to chance.  Your team won the championship not because it was better than other teams but because of a 20 or 21 game lucky streak (well, a luckier streak than all of the other teams).

Thus, parity essentially does away with one of the things that keeps people invested in their team: the belief that it's better than all of the other teams (or the hope that it one day will be) [1].

At best, parity could give consolation to fans of those teams with losing records.  Rather than being forced to admit that their teams are no good, they can simply claim that the teams were the hapless victims of probability.  Then again, parity is often billed as the thing that gets your team wins, not the thing that causes losses, so it's not really much consolation at all.


You might be wondering why I ignored ties in my analysis.  It was because it's not clear how to account for ties.  We would expect more when there is parity, but it's not obvious how frequent they would be.  Some seasons have none at all, and those that do tend to have only one, so we might guess that the probability is at most 1 in 72 (the total number of games played in the regular season -- playoff games cannot end in a tie).   In any case, they seem to be rare events, so ignoring them probably doesn't change the analysis by much.

[1] That being said, I'm sure there are people who could simultaneously believe that there is parity and that their championship winning team is better than the others without seeing the contradiction even after being told.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


To the best of my recollection, it was approximately a year ago, or maybe two, that I first read the word "welp".  I didn't record the date, because it seemed like an isolated event and not something I would want to come back to.  It was fairly recent in the history of the English language, in any case.  I had to look the word up to make sure I knew what it meant.  I knew the word "whelp", but it didn't fit in the context.

According to the entry for "welp" in Wiktionary, it is an alternate form for "well" as in interjection, as in "Well, I was going to go to the store....", in the same way as "yep" and "nope" are alternate forms "yeah" and "no".   Wiktionary comes with the same set of caveats that come with Wikpedia, but their definition made perfect sense in context, and it might even be a more accurate representation of the pronunciation when people use the word that way. 

Since the first time I saw it, especially in the last few months, I've seen the word used all the time.  I've yet to see any language-y types take note of the phenomenon.  Even the good folks at Language Log, who often comment on trends in language, don't seem to have noticed yet.  A search for the word on their website only gives two results.  In one result, it is an acronym unrelated to this usage.  In the other result, the word doesn't even appear.

It's not a word in my browser's dictionary either.

Why the sudden proliferation?