Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Why vote?

I found that really cute.

It’s my first time studying political science and now I wonder where it’s been for the last 24 years.  LSE might do it differently than other schools because it’s got quite an economics bent to it, but that’s what makes it really cool.  I’m working on a project right now about strategic voting and finding out all sorts of theories to explain things I kind of already had an intuition about.

Canada is the poster child for strategic voting.  After the right merged, we are left with a political spectrum with too many parties vying for the vote of a fairly liberal country, allowing a conservative minority to sneak away steady victories.

If you look at the political spectrum, you can see that Stephen Harper falls far to the right of where the country actually lies, and that well more than half of Canada is unhappy about it.

It is postulated that the median voter, the guy in the middle of a population, will be the tiebreak in any election (half the nation will be more liberal, half will be more conservative,) and his opinion will be the one that decides who wins and who loses.  When the party representing the country is so far to the right of our median, we have to wonder how we ended up with a country that is so unrepresentative of ourselves.

Strategic voting has become increasingly an issue of study in Canada because of how unsatisfied the voting process has left most Canadians; when I looked up strategic voting in general, all I could find was examples where Canadian ridings would try to vote in a coordinated fashion to defeat conservative candidates, share votes, trade votes, discuss their votes, etc.   It seems like no matter how the left has coordinated efforts, our attempts to unseat Harper has only been like struggling in quicksand; the more we try to escape the more deeply entrenched we are in his vision of Canada.

It is just the way the rules are designed that has led us to this.  But a bigger question to ask is this: in a system in which you know you are going to be dissatisfied with the result, why vote at all?

There are some academic papers that question the cost of voting; and it is a hugely costly exercise.  But the fact that even in elections, such as strategic-voting/dissatisfaction poster child Canada’s, there are rewards.  If they don’t come from winning your ideal choice of policy, then people must derive some kind of benefit beyond the results of voting.  Maybe the act itself is an act of love and devotion.  I think these benefits, not the likelihood of “your guy” winning, needs to drive a desire to vote nowadays.  Especially now with a growing sense of pervasive cynicism about the ability of candidates to commit to their promises.  We need to be motivated to continue, out of love and devotion, if the results themselves are not enough to get us to the polls on Tuesday morning.

I was flipping through facebook and found an old note I posted when I was 20, voting in my first federal election.  I was a bit idealistic back then, but I think I still harbour the same sentiments.

“Maybe it’s just me, but ever since I tracked the 2000 US presidential election as a seventh grader in California, I’ve been really looking forward to voting. Probably because I’m from China and therefore my parents are entirely apathetic about the democratic process (not a surprise). More likely because I naively believed my high school civics teacher, Mr. Serjeantson, when he said that it was a responsibility and a right. After all, I’m the first generation to take this seriously. Just think about all those who *fought* for this. Cool!

And that’s why I’m upset. I’ve heard more “I’m too busy”‘s with regards to this election than I have for any given invite to a birthday party or conference. Apathy in our age group is the highest it has ever been despite the huge investments made to get young people out to the polls. If you have enough time to get wasted with your friends and go out on a Saturday night, you clearly have enough time to get online and find out who shares your values in your riding. “I’m too busy” is bullshit. No one is ever too busy to take a right and a responsibility for granted.

I am a strong believer that people will make time for what they personally consider important (which is why I never sleep, haha!). So the next time you decide not to vote, just remember, it is not because you are too busy. It says you just plain don’t care. 

I personally don’t care who you vote for, but I care about the fact that you don’t care enough to vote. If you are too busy to vote, then are you too busy to know what you believe in? Are you too busy to care about your future and the future of those around you? What do you stand for? If you don’t know, how do you really know who you are?”

I think I don’t make any sense.  Maybe I’m too tired from studying this.  I think what I’m trying to say is, if you love something enough, you will do it without asking what’s in it for you.  And you hope.



(Obama 2012)


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Coke’s Karmic Points

There’s an ad for Coca Cola about how they are donating money to help fund community grants.  The ad involves a lot of young “urban-y” (whatever that means) looking people doing lots of interesting breakdancing spins, supposedly the result of Coke’s community support.  Then they unleash the numbers: $10 million over ten years. That’s a million dollars a year, and I don’t even know if that includes an adjustment for inflation yet.  For one of the largest companies in the entire world, this is kind of chump change.  They might actually be spending more money on the ad campaign itself than on the grants.

Lots of the work I did at the NFB around the Pink Ribbons film involves companies spending more money on advertising their charity work than actually doing it.  The question is, as a consumer, do you notice how much of your purchasing behaviour is affected by the size of a company’s donation?  Or is it simply all the same?  I’m asking because I honestly don’t know.

Related read:

The Effects of Product Type and Donation Magnitude on Willingness to Pay More for a Charity Linked Brand

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River of Assimilation

A couple of weeks ago, Tetsuro read me part of a paper that he was going to submit for a class.  The paper was supposed to be on Youtube, but basically kind of took a bit of a detour into some of the inner workings of his mind and ended up sounding like a bitter, vitriolic rant against certain types of interracial unions that are quite common today.  While I tried to steer him back towards the original point of the paper (namely, Youtube, and that’s it) there was a section that I found particularly poignant.  In the revision, this section was lost, but I think it is important enough to be published publicly and shared with people for the greater good.

Despite the promises of Multiculturism, the fate of cultural minorities within Canada is to have our jaggedly multisyllabic ethnic identities worn smooth in the river of assimilation.

My mother’s name is Yoshiko Shigematsu, an unmistakably, unadulterated Japanese name. Her daughter’s name (my twin sister) is Hana Shigematsu, (that user-friendly familiar combination of a Western first name combined with the ethnic surname, such as Steve Chong or Jennifer Sahota), who upon marrying her French-Canadian husband, became Hana Levesque, whose daughter’s name is now Juliana Levesque. In just two generations, any legal signifiers of her Japanese heritage as now been effaced, effecitively removed from the public record. When my niece, Juliana Levesque (who is half-Japanese) introduces herself over the phone, people will assume she is white, and in a way that assumption is accurate. 

– Tetsuro Shigematsu, PhD Candidate, UBC Faculty of Education 

My Name Is . . .

And that had me thinking about the way we choose to name our children, particularly people of colour and immigrants.  My own name was Mengyao for the first few years of my life, a combination of “dream” and “distance” in Mandarin that was an homage to my father’s living in Canada at the time of my birth, scouting out a new country for my mother to eventually call home too.  Then before the age of four or five my parents decided to name me Rebecca because my white daycare workers could not pronounce “Yaoyao” in a way that I could understand.  Rebecca because my father read a Daphne Du Maurier novel by the same name in which the protagonist is haunted by the dead former wife of the man she marries (that dead woman is Rebecca, thanks Dad).   For years I wouldn’t touch my first name legally, and after a particularly stressful incident booking tickets to Costa Rica in 2008 under passport and legal names (which were different at the time) the decision was made to move to Rebecca as my first name.   Sometimes, I still ponder the greater ramifications of what I have done in the name of a bit of convenience (no pun intended).


Mengyao has more weight for me than Rebecca, but I made a choice.  In economics, we have a theory called signalling.  Signalling is all about how in situations involving two parties, party A might know more about himself than he can communicate to party B, but needs to find a way to convey this information.   In these cases, party A will jump through certain hoops.  Signalling is an important theory in used car sales (is the car a lemon or not) and in hiring individuals (is the individual’s resume accurate or not).  An example of this is when people get university degrees *points at self*.  The idea is that even though the likelihood of using the information from my degree is low, my degree itself is a signal to other strangers that I am indeed, smart.  If I didn’t have this degree, you wouldn’t know it.

And so in North America I think that people of color generally do use signalling with our first names as a way of letting those around us know how comfortable they should be with us.  If your last name is of Asian descent, then your first name can be a traditional white name (signalling that you have assimilated reasonably into the culture, thereby your more anglicized counterparts should feel comfortable inviting you to picnics, sharing office gossip or letting you be their “cool Asian friend”) or your first name can be Asian (which signals that you are still more loyal to your traditional Asian roots, and therefore your peers, culture and comfort levels should be more centred around Asian-y stuff).  When I was looking at the graduation lists a few years ago, I noticed that some Asian students would have their English name first legally, followed by an Asian middle name, or an Asian name first legally, followed by an infrequently used English name.  Implicitly, I make micro-assumptions based on which one comes first, as I’m sure most people will.

The Benefits of Having an English Name

If you have read Freakonomics, it will have you believe that with a name that sounds “ethnic”, you are significantly less likely to be called back for an interview, given the job, or basically to succeed in life.  I can see some truth to this.  I was once told that the hiring process for residence advising did happen to weed out girls with Asian first names; whether or not this was done intentionally, these girls never seemed to make the cut.

In a more depressing way, having an English name in North America determines how much society is supposed to show concern for you.  I’ll give you an example.  In the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, an American citizen, Furkan Dogan, was killed by Israeli forces with five gunshots at close range.  In 2003, an American citizen, Rachel Corrie, was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer during a human shield protest.  In terms of the publicity covering their deaths at the hands of the Israeli military, and American diplomatic involvement in each of these cases, AND in even the length of their wikipedia articles (you can find them here and here), you can see a stark contrast between the two.  I do suspect that a lot of it has to do with the “level of ethnic-ness” in their names, in the sense that something that isn’t English sounding isn’t considered American, and therefore is not of much concern.

Tetsuro once pointed out that even in the Olympics, the American coverage of Asian American athletes winning medals would sometimes diminish the magnitude of their achievements when these athletes had Asian sounding last names.  When I reflect back on this, I think Canada has much of the same problem; I didn’t know that Carol Huynh was the first gold medal winner for Canada at the Beijing Olympics until I read about her in a proposal to the National Film Board; considering we didn’t  have that many gold medalists that year, you’d think she would be profiled much more highly.

The Choice

And so this post boils down to the choice.  When you are a person of colour and your options are such that the road can be generally divided into two: choosing a name (for yourself or your children) that is Anglo-sounding and will result in better assimilation, or a name that pays homage to your cultural roots, then what is it that you do?  I know my parents eventually  bowed to pressure, and to this day they don’t regret renaming me Rebecca because they wanted me to have the best chances I could.  In other ways though, being Rebecca roughly coincided with when I stopped being Mengyao (when preschool started and I spent more and more time away from home).  The passage in the beginning of this post also makes me sad to think that entire generations of second, third generation children of immigrants, biracial children, etc, are being denied entire sections of their cultural identity.

Ultimately, I don’t have any easy answers for this.  All I can conclude is that we let our identities dictate the name that we choose for ourselves into adulthood, rather than letting our names dictate our identities.  And since none of us are so single-faceted, it’s our job to vocally advocate for the side of ourselves that isn’t represented in our first names.  It’s up to me to be self-aware of what makes me Chinese and to hold onto those things, even if I don’t sign Mengyao on all my credit card slips.

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Advice passed on to me last week at dinner with a friend:

When you are informational interviewing and looking for jobs, try to focus less on the type of work that the person is doing and using that as the basis of your search criterion.  Instead, think of the happiest people you know, regardless of their industry, rank, title, salary, etc, and ask them what makes them so happy, and how they got there instead.  

Makes sense, right?  After all, work, fulfillment, and money are just paths to happiness; better to just cut out the middleman, the proxy.

If I were able to follow this advice with a clean conscience, I’d be admitting to myself that my own fulfillment is the ultimate goal.  Part of me still believes that the only way I can find happiness is to fulfill a greater purpose, a purpose that will be refereed by my own conscience, but which extends past my physical being and towards others.

Ironic that the thought of chasing happiness makes me feel incredibly guilty.

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On my WordPress dashboard, I am being informed that lots of people are coming here searching for Brenda Song’s bathroom fellatio scene in “The Social Network.”  Wtf? Sorry to disappoint.

. . .  Moving on.

I’m working on marketing ideas for a documentary that is coming out in February called “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” and it is pretty awesome.  It’s one of the reasons that I took this job in the first place, to be able to gain access to some interesting ideas and points of view.  Here’s the link to the trailer.

Pink Ribbons, Inc Trailer

Here’s also a pretty fair description of how the Pink Ribbon Campaign started.

It’s not a novel discovery, that companies are putting a charitable face on their products in order to up sales, sometimes with very few intentions of contributing to the charity.  What’s profound is the way that this message is communicated.  I can see why breast cancer is considered the “perfect marketing charity”; it appeals to and garners sympathy from the demographic that is the most likely to purchase products in a household: upper-middle class women, often white.  Now the Pink Ribbon Campaign and other breast cancer fundraisers generate a lot of money.  A look at the BC Cancer Agency site will tell you that we still don’t know the environmental causes of upwards of 60% of breast cancer cases.  Half of these products are ridiculous looking.  No one knows how much money is actually going to research, prevention, support, etc.  Some of the marketed products actually cause cancer themselves.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that I rarely donate to breast cancer or other cancer fundraisers (except if a friend is doing the fundraising, but that’s more out of solidarity than anything else).  I personally know people affected by cancer, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking that things like cancer, heart disease, etc, are all first world ways to die.

From my meager second year cell biology understanding of things, cells in your body divide, die, and get replaced.  As you age, the likelihood of this process messing up at some point increases, possibly because the number of divisions causes something to go wrong in the coding (kind of like how a photocopy of a photocopy is okay for a while but will start to get blurry).  If you are a cancer patient, with the exception of childhood cancers, you likely have lived long enough for your body to develop cancerous cells, as the risk factor increases with age.  The fact that cancer rates are rising is not only associated with environmental factors like what we eat and where we live, but also is being attributed to our aging populations.

Why are cancer rates so low in a country with low life expectancy, like Swaziland (life expectancy is somewhere around 30-40 years)?  Maybe it’s because they are dying of other, earlier causes before cancer cells even have a chance to develop.  A large portion of deaths are from HIV/AIDS.

Okay, so maybe HIV/AIDS is a public health crisis isolated specifically to parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.  What about a non-African country that isn’t Thailand? The first one on the CIA Factbook with the lowest life expectancy is Afghanistan. The biggest cause of mortality there is complications from childbirth.  The second biggest cause is “lower respiratory infections.”

What about something on this side of the Atlantic?  What about Haiti?  Didn’t they have that cholera epidemic?

The list goes on.  What I’m trying to say is that lower life expectancy, in general, means a cause of death such as childbirth, or war and violence, or HIV/AIDS, or a childhood disease, or a famine or a drought, or because your living conditions do not stand up to natural disasters, or organized crime, or something that is equally undesirable.  All this money is going to funding research for cancer treatments, when cancer is primarily an older person affliction.

I’m not trying to be evil.  I’m just an economist.  With limited funds and given a choice between two groups of individuals, I’d rather see funds going to people who are less likely to have spent much time in adulthood.  I’d rather see a dollar going to a malarial net in a place where children are at risk, or to providing better water, or whatever.  If I had to distribute the (really sad) paycheck I get in a manner that I thought was fair, cancer and heart disease would not be the first place I would go.  I would start with the average age of the individuals affected and I would move my way up.  If I live until sixty in a wonderful, first world country like Canada, I will know that I have escaped the causes of death of the vast majority of this world’s population.  Cancer, heart disease, and maybe a handful of others would be the only thing left to get me.

I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone in this post who is affected by cancer.  Many of you raise funds on behalf of someone close to you; a mother, a daughter, a neighbour.  It’s just offensive to me when all this energy is directed at saving lives from cancer when it could be better spent saving millions more in other ways.  And no one puts a ribbon on those millions and raises their voice on their behalf.  There are people who live and die without a champion.

Stuff I looked at for this post:

Canadian Cancer Statistics

WHO Mortality in Afghanistan – http://www.who.int/whosis/mort/profiles/mort_emro_afg_afghanistan.pdf

WHO Mortality in Swaziland – http://www.who.int/whosis/mort/profiles/mort_afro_swz_swaziland.pdf

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My Job is Ambiguous . . . 

I’m still in the process of absorbing a lot of the films that the NFB is working on/has already made.  There are a lotttt of movies to watch, and I’m sure for a few weeks this place will become some sort of a referral service to the films that I’m looking at.  Don’t worry though, I have good taste, I think.

One of the films that is in the process of filming/development is really intriguing to me, but I’m not sure if I can post the name here.  It is following the life of Joseph Kony‘s former favourite wife.  If you don’t know you Kony is, you can read more about him at the Wikipedia link.  Interestingly enough, there’s also some news on him today, as President Obama has begun a mission to hunt him down.

A Portrait of Joseph Kony

I’ve read the proposal for the project and it’s actually really interesting.  Kony claimed that his actions were supported by the Ten Commandments, that his kidnapping of children for the Lord’s Resistance Army were the cost of setting up theocratic rule.  Most of the preview is centred around meetings with his former wife, Evelyn.  She talks about the days when he would sit down with her beside a river and tears would flow from his eyes.  I’m supposed to feel like he’s a more human character, that he isn’t some kind of monster.  He’s being sought for crimes against humanity, by the way.

Evelyn also used to be a powerful figure in the LRA, but she was kidnapped at the age of eleven and made Kony’s wife.  She has since left the LRA and Kony’s side, but not before spending eleven years in the LRA.  They had three daughters, and now everyone in Uganda wants Kony’s children to pay retribution for what he did to the country.  They probably also want Evelyn to pay for what she used to be.  When you are kidnapped, I’d say you don’t really have much of a choice in how you survive, let alone if you are also a child.

Nice vs. Good

So we have a portrait of a woman whose had a difficult life for reasons that were probably out of her control.  The only problem is the undercurrent running through the film of “Good vs. Evil.”  Without going into Evelyn’s story, she tries to paint for the audience her version of Kony, who was apparently sensitive and loving for many years of their relationship.   It is supposed to confuse an audience that is accustomed sorting through people in a binary way

I think this whole concept is framed incorrectly though, probably because I no longer think that good or evil exist, they are too subjective.  But let’s assume that they do for a second, shall we?  Another metric of character that sometimes gets confused with ‘goodness’ is ‘niceness,” and those two do not always move in the same direction.  There are probably some serial killers out there who are just bursting with charm and hospitality.

The portrayal of Kony as a man with two sides isn’t entirely accurate, because he has orchestrated the destruction of innocent lives through rape, murder, war, enslavement, etc.  I guess this would make him “evil.”   However, evil does not preclude someone from also being a “nice” person, which can explain Evelyn’s recounts of how candid and emotional and intimate Kony could be.  It is possible to possess both qualities simultaneously.

Manners in Nanking

Too bad the quality of ‘goodness’ in a person is so ambiguously defined, eh?  I guess my roots come from a culture of people who are on the surface, very rude.  Don’t try to convince me otherwise!  The Chinese, especially in China, are pushy, and loud, and prone to doing all sorts of things in public that North Americans would consider unhygienic.  The Chinese are also considered incredibly miserly.  From working in the service industry, I can tell you, we probably aren’t the best tippers, which is a constant source of my embarrassment.

The Japanese have a reputation for manners that is probably the opposite of the Chinese, especially internationally: Japanese tourists have often been voted the most polite, meekest tourists in the world.  There is also social pressure to conform to norms which prevents all sorts of common acts in North America, such as vandalism or littering.  This pressure also ensures that in public, the Japanese will go to lengths to avoid embarrassing themselves.  When I had a table of Japanese tourists, the tipping was unreal, and this was probably out of a fear of  undertipping.  Needless to say, I wasn’t complaining.

Our reputations as “nice” and “not so nice” cultures did not stop the Japanese from finding brutal ways to murder hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Chinese civilians during the WWI, in humiliating and painful and creative ways.  It wasn’t simply the conquest of a land; the torture of innocent men, women, and children, and their slaughter, can be considered sociopathic.  It wasn’t enough to kill civilians, the focus was more on prolonging the suffering and degradation than anything else.  The Rape of Nanking does not go over well in China; if you visit the south like I just did, you can still find an undertow of bitter resentment of the Japanese.  This is only aggravated by the fact that there’s still nothing in the way of education of children in schools about what happened, or any sort of official government apology to the Chinese.  I remember that I had to read about it on my own as a high schooler; and for weeks the images I saw would haunt me.

The Chinese have done some egregious things to repress people as well, but the point I’m trying to make is that a culture of manners and an outward projection of “niceness” does not stop a society from exhibiting the potential to act in “evil” ways.   The two qualities are entirely unrelated to each other.

Which Matters?

Ultimately, if both existed, I would choose to be “good” over “nice.”  I’m not a nice person, but I can fake it if an occasion calls for it.  Faking “goodness” would get a bit more tricky.  The more difficult problem is that my framework for “good” and “evil” has been slipping away from me for quite some time, and so I’m not even sure if I can be “good.”

Maybe I can’t be anything at all.

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What to live by: part 2

I’m starting to feel like maybe the desire to seek God is a human impulse, kind of like the part of my brain that tells me bacon tastes delicious.

Unlike other impulses, I am slowly losing the desire to placate this one.

Gee, that shit looks like fun.  Don’t do it. 


I found Scott Clifton’s Youtube Channel, Theoretical Bullshit, and you can watch the rest for yourself.  He’s clearly put a lot of thought into this, and there’s quite a list of uploads.

The sad part is the highest rated comment reads something like “you’re super hot.”

Which is true.  I feel bad, but honestly, women have to deal with this all the time, so I guess I don’t feel more bad than I normally do. I think my brain is just confused because never before have so many different parts of my body been excited all at the same time.

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