Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

This was originally going to be an individual post about dying languages, but I think I’m going to split it into two.  

While wandering around the British Museum back in January, I was looking through the bookstore and came across an edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. InEnglish. Immediately enthused at the prospect of maybe being able to finally understand the story that my parents had been telling me about for decades, I texted my dad with the news, only to have him respond that:

  1. translations are awful, especially for something as classic as this.
  2. maybe I would be interested in something more modern instead?
  3. A link to the 1987 make of the “Dream of Red Chamber” on youtube.
  4. A link to some show about Chinese pageant contestants, which he assumed I would actually watch.

I’ve been thinking a lot about languages lately. Words without equivalents in other languages. Languages which have their own unique interpretation of the world. The idea that there are endangered languages in the world, languages that are being lost as users switch to more mainstream languages, a process which is being accelerated by globalisation.

There are a lot of similarities between endangered languages and biodiversity, but the main one is that they are being lost, and while in order for them to be preserved, there needs to be a certain level of public salience and commitment to keeping them alive. But how? I recall in biology class, it is still incredibly challenging to convince people to value biodiversity when there isn’t a strong economic value attached to its preservation. Biologists and economists have to get creative in understanding ways to convince a sometimes reluctant public to champion a cause which is sometimes quite costly and without clear, immediate, material rewards.

Biodiversity has been valued in several ways to make it more understandable for non-biologists, and some of these arguments might apply to language diversity.

Direct economic activity: pretty obvious, in the sense that biodiversity can be consumed (through products, consumption, medicine, etc). I’m not sure what the language analogy would be in this sense.

Spiritual/cultural/aesthetic value: in the sense that beautiful landscapes inspired countless poems and lots of general utility. Homes next to beautiful natural landscapes are valued at higher prices than otherwise equivalent homes. This has probably the most direct application to language diversity, in the sense that each language brings a beautiful unique interpretation of the world with it, and the inherent existence of these languages brings people happiness.

Recreation/tourism: biodiversity brings in revenue through tourism. I think I recall some sort of a segment from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in which hordes of American tourists travelled to a remote village somewhere in southeast Asia to listen to a traditional song performance, so clearly concept has some equivalent applications.

Education/research: biodiversity is valuable in that its existence allows researchers and institutions to learn more about the natural world. This seems like a bit of a circular argument; if biodiversity didn’t exist, then there would be no need to learn about it. At the same time, language preservation being justified by allowing people to learn about languages is also a bit of a weak argument.

Option value: just having something there is a value in itself, whether or not it provides any immediate benefit.  For example, there may be a cure for a disease or a new antibiotic that isn’t yet discovered in a rainforest, and having it around is a value in that this may one day be discovered and provide a direct economic benefit at a later date. Also, not sure how this applies to language preservation. It would imply that there is something hidden in a language that may become valuable in the future, which I’m having a hard time picturing.

Existence value: Just the act of being around is enough to provide some value, even without the possibility of a future direct benefit.  People are willing to donate funds to keeping the Amazon alive, whether or not they have any intentions of visiting or benefiting from its existence directly. I think this is the most applicable to language preservation; when I hear people communicating in a language I don’t understand, it’s kind of magical to just experience the unfamiliar combination of sounds and tones, and to know that these are being used to convey abstract ideas.  I imagine that this sense of magic is how people felt about wireless communication years ago.

It’s hard to come up with concrete arguments for why people should make a concerted effort to preserve the world’s smaller languages; rationalising the preservation of biodiversity is hard enough for conservationists to do, and many of their reasons don’t seem to apply.

I think I’m going to focus next week on my own personal understanding of why languages are dying, and why I think that I need to keep my own alive. It probably has nothing to do with a poorly translated version of a Chinese classic, but my parents will be happy nonetheless.

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The title is a reference to the guide, Mostly Harmless Econometrics, which is a staple for those without a math backbone.  Apologies for the really obscure references.  

My Terrible Procrastination

I’m approximately 8 weeks behind schedule on my public economics dissertation.  How is that possible, when we are less than 8 weeks into the Term?  It is, when you understand that the more I read, the less I think I understand about this topic.

Harmless Economics

Economics has rightfully earned a reputation for being abstract to the point of obscurity.  Theoretical physics and mathematics also practice this same level of abstraction, but unlike economics, those fields also don’t arrogantly claim that their usefulness lies in their applicability to real life.  It is this combination of both asserting relevance and simultaneously reducing complexity of real applications that leads to some dangerous assumptions about how the world should work.  For example, my research thus far;

The Many Facets of Carbon Emissions

Global climate change is an economic puzzle in that it involves a lot of different elements, that relate back to concepts of fairness and unfairness.

1) Historical Grudges

Given the amount of manmade emissions that have collectively been produced to date, it is arguably the currently rich countries that have benefited the most from this.  Carbon emissions are a by-product of industrialization, and industrialization is associated with the economic development of most of the West. Thus, climate change treaties are saddled with the burden of how to distribute future obligations based on historical responsibility.

2) Privately Produced, Publicly Suffered.  

Carbon emissions are an externality; because they are a by-product of industrialization, the benefits are economically accrued to a small group contained within national borders.  As an atmospheric gas, carbon emissions are free to move anywhere they want, and the resulting impacts of global warming will be experienced all over the world.

3) Different Costs, Different Benefits

They can be felt all over the world, but to different magnitudes.  It is arguably the poorest countries that suffer the most and have the most to lose from climate change.  The list of factors that will determine how much they suffer includes things such as dependence on agriculture, how hot it is currently, whether or not the country has the ability and technology to adapt (or buy air conditioning).

Many solutions have all been proposed but essentially they boil down to making actions that lead to pollution costlier.  How costly they will be for each country depends on a number of factors, but one of these is a relatively abstract dimension of economics called welfare weighting.  Below a commonly used and seldom understood example:

Negishi Weights: 

One general strategy for calculating how people should ration their consumption of goods and services is to look at the overall welfare they can generate from consuming these goods.  For economists, this problem looks like this: 



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Subject to: 

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You can find the in-depth explanations here.  The first line is the welfare you want to maximise.  The second line relates both the costs (from pollution) and benefits from consumable goods.  Given that producing more goods today gives you more pollution which will affect everyone’s welfare negatively later in life, the resulting solution should give you an allocation of consumption that produces the maximum amount of welfare, globally, over a long period of time, by considering the benefits from goods and the global costs.  The only “problem” with this was that, when the calculations were completed, regardless of wealth, would be given equal consideration in terms of welfare, produced results that emphasized large sacrifices being made by developed countries for the sake of protecting developing countries from environmental damages.

The result was ” the problem of climate change would be drowned by the vastly larger problem of underdevelopment“.

How to rectify this? Economists developed a system of Negishi weights, which would weight more heavily the impact of reducing consumption on countries that had a higher initial level of consumption (ie, more wealthy countries). This prevented large sacrifices of welfare in the developing world, and the solution would maintain a large portion of initial global inequality; all balance was restored to the universe.

In the process of “solving the problem of underdevelopment,” the implications of ignoring initial inequality were masked, to a large extent by undervaluing the welfare of the poorest regions of the world.  That is essentially what Negishi weighting does, and the implications of it are lost because they are difficult to locate in the models (if you are curious, it is the w in the first equation).  

Good Models, Bad Models

The process of using economic modelling solves a host of problems that would otherwise be unsolvable, such as how to allocate responsibility of sacrifices for climate change prevention.  However, its conclusions are often far reaching and affect many people, and the models makes far reaching assumptions about morality that often aren’t justified by mathematical reasoning.  These assumptions are carried all the way through the calculations, produce a solution, which is then packaged, presented, and sold to policy-makers with the real power to use these conclusions.  The lack of technical knowledge of those using these economic tools then prevents them from acknowledging the validity (or lack thereof) of any of those initial moral assumptions.  They lie embedded in formulas, secret and misunderstood by most of the people who will use them. They also remain safe from any criticisms people may have about their implications.

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As was suggested in the study on Negishi weights, the models themselves aren’t faulty and there is nothing wrong with making assumptions in order to reach conclusions.  However, the communication of these assumptions is necessary if economics is going to able to safely assert its applicability to the greater world. Rather than having a cluster of people at the level of academics, and another cluster of people working in policy, there should be more individuals somewhere in the middle.  For all the complaining that my colleagues do about having to read books like “Mostly Harmless Econometrics,” we are the necessary missing link in the puzzle.

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Darwin was a man who stirred up a lot of shit.

His ideas were not that crazy; after visiting the Galapagos Islands Darwin observed that finches had different beak features on each of the the tiny island pockets.  He concluded that they must have come from some larger population of finches that migrated to the islands, but as time passed, groups of finches would learn to eat the specific foods on each island from small insects, to large rock-like nuts, and thus grew to be more and more different from their neighbours.

The process that I outlined (very unscientifically and in very general terms, of course) is called speciation, and is the idea that time, distance, and some geographical factors can lead to the creation of sub-populations, and that over time, with isolation, these groups will eventually branch off completely and become unique species within their own right.  The test?  If chance and geographic factors are removed, and the groups are somehow merged together onto the same island, they are prevented from mingling together and producing offspring that are not infertile.  Mules are a good example of that time that donkeys and horses were not the same species.




Cultural Speciation

Cultures can speciate too.  I’ve become acutely aware of how race is categorized in the recent US Presidential elections, with Asians kind of being lumped together as a voting bloc (we only make up 3% collectively, so maybe this is to our advantage influence-wise).  But I think in our need to represent ourselves in solidarity we are forgetting that there is a cultural speciation that is happening all over North America.  Asian-Canadians are an entirely different culture from both Canadians and Asians and sometimes this is leading to a bit of tension.

A few days ago there was this article in a Vancouver e-paper about the shark fin soup ban.  I’ve included the link but the restaurant owner says the following:

“His culture is totally Canadian, and he has no feeling for shark fin,” Chung reiterated to the Straight. “Canadian-born Chinese are based on Canadian culture….They’re called bananas for a good reason. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not to be degrading. It just describes it well.”

From the rest of the article I can tell you that Chung does imply that there’s something wrong with being a banana. And who can forget  the CVC incident a few years ago when an Asian student society with a stronger “Canadian” cultural component found itself in the middle of hot water over some promotional campaign videos that mocked more “Asian” culturally dominated (wow, awkward wording) groups.

The reason for the tension is a level of cultural speciation.  I feel like while there is a continuum, a large clump of younger Asian Canadians immigrated to North America at least one generation ago and settled in areas where there was little cultural critical mass (*ahem*, Saskatchewan).  We grew up with friends who were not Asian, in classrooms that had little exposure to Asians before, and were generally treated like we were not Asian.  We were the “first movers.”  In the last fifteen years, there’s been an influx of Asian communities, places where Asians could read street signs their own languages, buy their own food, and generally forget that they were in Canada.  We aren’t separated by a geographical barrier, but we are separated by a temporal one that resulted in our being exposed to essentially two different cultural environments.

The result is two cultures that look the same but don’t really have much in common.  The worst part is that we aren’t recognized as two different groups by outsiders and are often lumped into the same category.


Where did the love go?

I’ve felt like there is a growing animosity between the two groups in general.  When I was younger I used to be embarrassed to be Chinese in thanks to a lot of externally inflicted self-internalized racism from grade 7 summer camp.  But the most animosity that I felt was not towards other groups, but towards other Asians. I used to take every “embarrassing” thing that a “more Asian” stranger did as a personal attack on my (self-evaluated) level of coolness.  My mother tells me that a lot of my “more Asian” peers tend to resent me and young people like myself for “choosing” to speak English, hang out with groups that are less homogenous and generally looking down upon newer immigrants.  We are kind of like the equivalent of “cultural traitors” and if the article is any indication, this is a thinly veiled sentiment across the board.  I don’t know how this happened, but we were raised in two different times and came out of the process hating each other.  The whole shark fin soup ban is kind of like a litmus test in terms of indicating which side of the “Asian spectrum” one will fall on.

How do we fix this?  We accept reality.  We do this by dropping our obstinant adherence to the belief that we have the same cultural obligations.   I think we need to recognize that the worlds that we faced when we grew up were not the same, we were not given identical cultural choices.  Our speciation took place not in spite of or due to our efforts, but just because of the circumstances surrounding the racial make-up of Canada at each point in time.

We need to accept that the speciation happened regardless of choice because we need it to blamelessly understand that culturally, Asians have diverged, and that because it was a circumstance and not a deliberate choice, “FOB’s” are not at fault for refusing to integrate into a “whiter” cultural norm.  On the other side, “Banana’s” are not at fault for “betraying their culture.”  Our peers were dealt evolutionary cards that we may or may not understand.


In spite of this, Mr. Chang is wrong about shark extinction.

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Fish Love

In my last week at the NFB I was working on a project that will soon be released about wildlife in Banff.  Occasionally, useless factoids from my degree will bubble to the surface and I’ll feel the need to share them with other people.   Today is one of those days.  Welcome to “Fish Lovin’ Techniques.”

Life is hard when you are a fish.  Procreation is very un-sexy and involves zero contact and primarily releasing fluids into a small ditch.  Let’s go through the three main Fish Lovin Techniques:

1) Territorial – Traditionally the competitive male, physically dominant, will follow and defend a female from the attacks of other males until she is ready to lay her eggs.  Think of this as your traditional Alpha Male.  In a Disney movie, Territorial male would be Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

2) Sneaker – a non-competitive male of a smaller size and aggression level that kind of stalks a Territorial and its female companion and waits until the female lays her eggs.  At this point, Sneaker male will dart in, race past an unsuspecting (and soon to be cuckolded) Territorial male, release his sperm cloud and reap the sweet fruit that the other chump sowed.   Think of this as the ultimate fish c*ckblock.

3) Satellite – I still don’t fully understand the concept of a Satellite, except to say that it impersonates the female fish in appearance.  Said “female” will then follow an established couple, descend, and eventually inserts itself between the existing male and female pair.  The male does not notice at this point because he thinks that he is not guarding two females.  Satellite will then wait for the female to lay her eggs, where he then fertilizes them, and like Sneaker, swims away before Territorial male can inflict too much physical damage.  Think of this as the ultimate fish drag queen.

Both the Sneaker and the Satellite often get roughed up pretty badly from their repeated attempts to steal females from dominant males.  So why haven’t those two strategies died out when they are pretty risky?  How are they sticking around long enough to pass on their puny or girly-looking genes onto the next fish generation?  Mainly, the strategies are successful in their own ways.  Neither the Sneaker nor the Satellites need to invest much effort in protecting a single female, or in following her around during the mating season.  Because of this, they can attempt to ruin the baby-making process for several females, thereby increasing their chances of success.  So the result is a combination of all three, Territorials, Sneakers, and Satellites, surviving.

**Extrapolation Time** (because what is a fish story if not an allegory for some human lesson?)

Our strategies at finding mates are things that work uniquely for our skill set and personality type.  It really pains me to see some of my nicer, more pure-hearted, sensitive friends trying to play the part of elusive assholes just to try and score more women.  Just like our fish counterparts, our own life success depends upon whether or not we play to our own specific strengths or weaknesses.

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I’m watching the David Suzuki movie right now, Force of Nature, and there’s an interesting segment where Suzuki visits a bluefin tuna auction in Japan. Remember all that uproar over the banning of shark fin soup?  Basically the same thing.

I believe that today’s children will look back on what’s happening here and say,

“That was criminal. What you did, was an inter-generational crime, that what you did was take part in the liquidation of a species that should have been the right of our children and grandchildren and all future generations, to know and enjoy and use.”  

But we are doing it right now, if that isn’t a crime then I don’t know what is.

I really detest when people try to frame the shark fin debate or the bluefin debate as parallel to the harvest of foie gras, and then posit that if foie gras isn’t illegal, then neither shark finning nor bluefin harvesting should be either.  It’s not the same thing.  The reason that shark finning or bluefin harvests should be regulated is because they aren’t regulated right now and wild populations will be unable to recover from human impacts if the current trend continues.  If it continues, then the species will be gone.  It’s not like wild geese are being used in the process of making foie gras.  Simple as that.

It can’t be racist to want to preserve populations for future generations to enjoy.

For more info on Force of Nature  . . . .. 

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San Jose vs. Vancouver.  Sharks vs. Orcas.  But who will win this playoff round?  Let’s look to nature for some answers.

It seems that the mammalian brain has once again found a way to use science to its advantage.  GO CANUCKS GO!

Speaking of Canucks/Sharks, I swear I saw Christian Ehrhoff today on the street.  He was  . . . very tall.  And beautiful.  At least I think it was him.  Either way, my jaw dropped for a good five seconds and before I could pick it up he was gone.

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Here’s something beautifully written from the Economist about the Fukushima and Deepwater disasters.  It’s kind of neat, using an analogy from nature to describe the way humans innovate.

TECHNOLOGY does not inflate like a balloon, expanding human power over nature evenly in all directions and at all scales. It grows like a sea urchin: long spines of ability radiate out towards specific needs and desires. Some of those spines now reach dizzying distances, allowing what would once have been impossible tasks . . . But the spines are brittle, and they stand alone. When one breaks . . . there is no ameliorative technology on a par with that which has failed. Instead there is floundering; there is improvisation; and there is vast damage. What was a continuous, miraculous conduit from the depths of the Earth or the heart of the atom becomes a noxious, tangled and inaccessible mess about which, for months, nothing can be done.


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