gor[b] Paul Gorbould: Words and Pictures


Pandora’s boom box

Call me jaded, but it's not often that new internet offerings amaze me these days.Last week, a colleague pointed me toward something that certainly qualifies: PandoraPandora is an offshoot of the Music Genome Project, which analyzed songs from over 10,000 artists to break down and catalogue the musical qualities of each song, one attribute at a time.

In a nutshell, Pandora a streaming audio player that creates custom radio stations based on your own tastes. Its premise is clearly spelled out on the homepage: Can you help me discover more music that I'll like?

The interface is simple: enter an artist that you enjoy, and Pandora starts playing songs by that artist and artists with similar characteristics. You can give each song a thumbs up or down, and Pandora uses that information to find other acts that it thinks will fit your tastes.

I was listening to Interpol on my iPod this morning, so I entered that band. Pandora created a radio station called Interpol Radio, playing that band and others like it. I rated a few songs, then selected the option to add another "root" band: The Clash. The new station, which I renamed "InterClash Radio" took characteristics of those two bands (and the songs to which I gave the thumbs up) to find other acts I might enjoy.

Some were artists I already knew (and liked): The Cure, Talking Heads, U2. Others I had never heard of, but quite enjoyed (Radish, The Apples in Stereo). There were also bands I didn't care for (Velocity Girl, Polvo) - but the thumbs down icon cuts them short, and they didn't reappear.

[Test drive my InterClash radio station here]

After doing this for a while, Pandora asks you to register (free.) There's an option to pay $32 a year if you want to get rid of ads - while they say that this might include audio ads (which I loathe) I didn't hear any during the two hours I listened.

The technology is simple to use, and it's a clever idea: help people find new bands, and offer tools to promote them and buy the music. Good idea, no-brainer business model. It's an audio extension of "people who have bought this book also liked..."I have no idea how they negotiated the copyright minefield, and I don't really want to know.

But I have to say, I'm not sure that the big picture implications are terribly comforting.

If the internet already serves to isolate people into communities of similar tastes, Pandora can only kick this trend up a notch. The premise is that Pandora will expose you to acts you didn't know about, broadening your horizons.

But the more I listen, the more I vote, the more I'm served only music that is well within my current tastes. Pandora isn't just preaching to the choir, it's singing to it.

Still, it's pretty hard not to open the box...

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Is “chairman” sexist?

Soon after creating the short-lived Chairman Mayo blog, I found an completely unrelated reason to dig into the etymology of the word "Chairman". An online group was choosing a leader, and this question was raised: is "chairman" a term that is sexist, or at least gender-specific?Most people on the forum thought that it was, and prefered "chair" or "chairperson." At least one, a woman, was really offended by the political correctitude of the latter. Here's what she said:

Chair manager. That's what it stands for. Not man who chairs. Hence, chairperson is and always will be silly. I think we're all reasonable, intelligent people - we can see that "chairman" is not a sexist term used to oppress women .... Chairperson is just silly, and not in a fun way, but in a way that came from the "Let's never offend anybody ever. Any references to "man" ever must be changed to "person", unless it's "woman" in which case we'll use womyn.

Chair manager? I'd never heard that, so I did some digging into the etymology of chairman.

From a cursory search, I found no reference to 'man' being short for "manager," and a little to support it coming from "man". Obviously there's a separate debate over whether "man" as a suffix is sexist.

My first stop was the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

chairman→ noun (pl. -men)
1. a person chosen to preside over a meeting.

As will become a pattern, there's nothing to specify that it must be a man, but that doesn't prove the opposite either. The key observation is that the plural is "Chairmen" - the plural of man; there's no obvious connection between "men" and "managers".

Next stop, the mother of all dictionaries, ye OED:

a. The occupier of a chair of authority; spec. the person who is chosen to preside over a meeting, to conduct its proceedings, and who occupies the chair or seat provided for this function.Chair

A chairman or chairwoman: usu. intended as an alternative that avoids sexual definition. Cf. CHAIR n. 9b.

Hence {sm}chairpersonship = CHAIRMANSHIP.

Not much of use, but note the recognition that there is often a sexual definition associated with it.

Then: Online Etymology Dictionary

c.1225, from O.Fr. chaire, from L. cathedra "seat" (see cathedral). Figurative sense of "authority" was in M.E., of bishops and professors. Meaning "office of a professor" (1816) is extended from the seat from which a professor lectures (c.1449). Meaning "seat of a person presiding at meeting" is from 1647. Chairman is first attested 1654; chairwoman 1699; chairperson 1971.

Interesting word origins on the physical seat here. And it confirms that "Chairperson" is a modern invention, but obviously "chairwoman" goes back farther than predicted; to this I would ascribe some continuing sense that "man" was seen as gender-specific prior to the modern period.

Then I dutifully went to my workplace bible, the CBC Language Guide:

To avoid sexist language (e.g., referring to a woman as a “chairman”), the CBC prefers the neutral and increasingly common noun “chair” in general contexts:She’s been the board’s chair for the past two years.
He was appointed chair of the committee in 2003.

Another option is to pick a different word, such as “head.”

Chair is also fine as a verb:

She chaired the meeting.
chairman, chairwoman, chairperson

Although “chair” is preferred, it’s OK to use “chairman” or “chairwoman” if the sex of the person is known.

The term “chairperson” is less common than “spokesperson.” It’s also unnecessary (unless transcribing direct quotations) because “chair” is shorter and equally neutral.

Warning: It’s inconsistent to use “chairman” for men and “chair” for women in the same news story. So pick one form and stick with it from beginning to end.

CBC is no authority on etymology, but again substantiates that there is a common perception of gender-specificity, and that people may have a problem with that.

This gets supported in my last source, the Wiki entry:

ChairChair and chairperson are gender-neutral terms describing the same position, with chairman or chairwoman denoting the gender of an incumbent. While chairperson dates from the 1970s, the use of chair (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) to refer to someone in charge of a meeting dates from as early as 1658.

Also Wiki's non-sexist language entry:

A business might advertise that it is looking for a new chair or chairperson, rather than chairman, which gender-neutral language advocates feel would imply that only a man would be acceptable for the position. Some advocates of gender-neutral language see it as unobjectionable to use gender-specific terms provided they are equally applied. For instance (continuing the example), one could refer to a male in such a position as a chairman, provided that a female would be referred to by the equivalent term chairwoman. Others claim, however, that the sex of the occupant of the chair is irrelevant and thus chairperson or chair are the only acceptable terms. (It is perhaps worth nothing that traditionally the term chairman has explicitly included females, such a person being addressed as Madam Chairman rather than Mr Chairman.)

Interesting point on Madam Chairman - obviously not everyone takes offense, nor sees it as gender specific. But I think it's rather outweighed by discussion of those who might.

Anyhow, no mention of "manager" anywhere. If anyone finds such a reference, I'd be interested to learn about it. Anyone?

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Chairman Mayo

When I first started goofing around with blogs, I created an generic one called "Chairman Mayo". After all of a week, I dropped the charade of anonymity - nothing I have to say is that controversial, and as a journalist I make a habit of standing behind what I write.

Chairman Mayo Avatar So, why Chairman Mayo?

No good reason. In one of those lame-o pun moments, it occurred to me that if I were to one day open a sandwich restaurant, I'd call it "Chairman Mayo." Of course, I have no plans of doing so - a more reasonable aspiration might be to lobby to get the name in the background of a street scene on The Simpsons (somewhere between the Try-N-Save and I Can't Believe It's A Law Firm.)

[Update: My colleague Tara reminds me that the inspiration for this pun came from a charming mispronunciation in the CBC Archives clip, "Stalin, Mao and your mother's fruitcake", featuring 1950s homemaking guru Kate Aitken.]

An auxiliary reason for choosing such a name was to come up with something not repeated a bazillion times on the internet, so my imaginary audience might be able to find the damned thing. But that was an instant failure - a quick Google search shows almost 700 other Chairman Mayo entries. Amazingly, most of these are actual chairmen of actual organizations, men who actually have the first or last name of Mayo.

Just asking... if your name was Mayo, would you voluntarily seek out a Chairman position, or title? Spending the next few years with people addressing you as "Chairman Mayo," and having the more worldly ones snigger each time they said it? If my name was Mayo, I wouldn't be applying for those jobs, or I'd demand a title change as a condition of employment.

Other Chairmen Mayos:

  • Chairman (Wayne) Mayo of the Texas Appraiser Licensing Board
  • Chairman Mayo A. Shattuck III of Constellation Energy
  • Chairman (Michael) Mayo Sr. of the Milwaukee County Economic and Community Development Committee

Then again, I'm only Chairman of a dumb little blog, and I picked the name voluntarily, so who ya gonna listen to?

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