What to do when you don’t like your group

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All projects need a leader—could it be you?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. May 4, 2016
We’ve all been in a group project where we felt that we’ve drawn the short straw. In every classroom there are the students who are the workhorses, there are those who are naturally gifted, and there are those who are simply slackers. At one point or another, you’ll get the last pick and end up in an indecisive group where progress is agonizingly slow. Most likely, you’ll be waiting for someone else to finish his or her part before you can complete yours. This pushes the workload further and further towards the deadline, causing a lot of stress for those who genuinely care.

I’ve been in those types of groups, and I’ve been both a diligent worker and an idle procrastinator at different times. I’m sure there are people in the world that will vow to never work with me again, or even talk to me. However, there are people who I have a great working relationship with. Why does one environment cause me to retreat into my shell and another allows me to meet or exceed expectations?

Group projects, without a measure of respect within the group, are volatile environments where people’s emotions and the idea of fairness harm the process of the assignment. When a group of students is left to govern and motivate themselves to finish a project—one where the only guidelines are written on a piece of paper—there are bound to be disagreements. These disagreements can sustain themselves throughout the length of the project and go unresolved until the very moment you hand it in. Why?

The problem with bad group projects is that nobody rises up and takes a leadership role. With no guidance, what ends up happening is that the collective begins to resent each other, as work is not being completed, or is being completed in an unsatisfactory way. I know we all think of ourselves as adults who are capable of taking on responsibility and following through with it—but I don’t believe that maturity or seniority has anything to do with a successful project.

At school, we think of the teacher or the instructor as the boss, but that is not the accurate way of thinking about it. The teacher or the instructor is actually the market—the ones receiving the goods you are making. They are the consumers and you are trying to please them. But if that’s the case, then who is the boss?

A leader should always be a member of the team, one who is closely entwined in the happenings of the project. It should never be someone external. It’s the reason companies of all sizes have a president, CEO, and managers at every level. Some groups will function fine as a democracy. But if you are dealt a shitty hand and end up with a group of people who aren’t motivated, a fair voting system isn’t going to work. Someone needs to lay the hammer down, make decisions, delegate work, and make sure there are repercussions if the tasks aren’t completed at a predetermined time. In your next group project, make sure that happens.

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Go Caucasians Go!

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Should we get rid of the Cleveland Indians or have more racist team names?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. May 4, 2016

In early April, journalist and ESPN host Bomani Jones went on Mike & Mike wearing what appeared to be a Cleveland Indians t-shirt. But it wasn’t. Instead of the Cleveland Indians mascot, the wide grinning racist caricature, Chief Wahoo, it was a whitewashed spoof. This character had pale skin and instead of a feathered headdress, he had a dollar sign on his head. To hammer it home, in the same font as the baseball team logo, there was the word “Caucasian” printed on it. No doubt, the shirt was making a not-so-subtle message that racism can go both ways.

If you don’t have a problem with the Cleveland Indians, but you do have a problem with the Cleveland Caucasians, then you most definitely have a problem.

So much has been said about racist team names in sports. The resistance is what is most surprising. But then again, the fact that Donald Trump has so much momentum in the presidential race after giving bigoted, racially insensitive speeches perhaps dampens the shock.

I’m tired of arguing against racist team names that are so obviously racist. Let’s argue the other side for a bit. My question: why aren’t there more racist team names?

The thing is, America has a long history of racism—every country does. What I’m kind of upset about is that the Native Americans are really the only ones that get any spotlight as team mascots. As a Chinese person that seems kind of unfair, because the Chinese have been screwed over in America too. If the Native Americans get a team name, shouldn’t we get something along the lines of the New York Yellow Skins? Or maybe the Latinos deserve one before we get one… I don’t know what’s fair anymore.

If we don’t have a problem with the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins, then surely we won’t have a problem with a team called the Cleveland East Indians or the New Mexico Rednecks. I’m just brainstorming here, but those are a couple good names to cheer for.

I’m not going to create a petition or anything because, in the end, I know that that would be wasted energy. So why not poke fun at it? Why shouldn’t we have a good sense of humour about this kind of stuff? See, the thing about making fun of racism is that certain people are affected more by it than others. It’s not hard to rile an African American person; we, of different ethnicity, know that magic word to do it. However, it’s apparently pretty hard to rile or harm a white person via racism. That is because Caucasians—the apparently politically correct term to call them by—have the majority of the power on this continent. A lesson here for the minorities: you don’t get what you want by making fun of the majority with power.

Here’s the proof that they have the power. They are the Patriots, the Saints, the Cowboys, the Vikings, the Yankees, the Rangers, and the Mariners. Are those names multi-cultural? Meh. Not really. These are titles that heighten the rank of white people.

I’ll end on a positive note. There are some quality team names out there that honour the culture that it was inspired from. These are the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Diego Padres (padres is Spanish for father or fantastic) and the Atlanta Braves. These are names that give power without discrimination.

You don’t need a tour—just go!

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Backpacking is a commercialized form of traveling, but that’s okay

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 7, 2016

Recently, there have been a lot of critics against the popular youthful form of travelling known as backpacking. What people are saying is that backpacking no longer represents what it once did, when it came into prominence in the 1970s during the “hippy trail,” when hippies traveled across Asia and Europe in search of… themselves. Backpacking is now as much a part of conventional tourism as all-inclusive resorts and walking tours. It’s not an independent experience, but rather an experience composed by those who run businesses around tourism. Nevertheless, you should still try it.

Let’s be honest: no matter what we do, we cannot get the same experience as those hippies in the 70s. We cannot have Woodstock, no matter how many music festivals we go to. We cannot experience the thrill of special effects, no matter how many Star Wars movies we make. And we cannot expect the world to revert to a time when tourism was as new as virtual reality is today. All we can do is set off and have our own experiences, even if they are tailored for us.

The tourism industry is huge in countries where the hippy trail originated. Today, it supports the livelihood of millions of people in regions where earning a living is not always easy. Even though backpackers are known for their thrifty form of traveling, the locals recognize that an American dollar can go a long way in a place like Cambodia or Myanmar. So they want you to spend as much as possible. They don’t care about the genuine backpacking experience. They want you to buy. The genuine backpacking experience, to them, must sounds like the most pretentious piece of bullshit. Just go to their country and have fun.

Travelling is a great way to gain a perspective in the world. It’s a good way to learn independence and communication skills. However, I don’t believe going on a trip will change a person significantly. The old cliché of finding yourself in India or having an Eat, Pray, Love moment is something that doesn’t change who you are when you return home, even if you want it so much that it seems to exist in your mind. So to say that your backpacking experience is less because you planned everything on Expedia is a terrible way to look at travelling in general.

Backpacking sounds like a lot of fun, but it is also a rigorous and sometimes frustrating experience. There are brief moments of spirituality now and then, but those moments can occur in your apartment condo as well. So go backpacking, and don’t think about all the baggage that the travelling style carries with it. Go with the flow of the journey. If that means taking a flight instead of a bus, do it. If that means going on a tour instead of venturing alone, do it. If that means staying in a hotel for a few days instead of a hostel, do it. It’s your trip; there doesn’t have to be rules.

Stick with red

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Why ‘rainbow marking’ students’ assignments is a waste of time

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 7, 2016

When it comes to painting, I enjoy seeing a piece of work that skillfully incorporates the full range of the colour spectrum. However, when it comes to homework assignments, receiving a marked page with two, three, four different colours in not only disarming, but also a bit confusing.

In an effort to soften the “aggressive” tone of criticism, teachers in Europe and North America have been testing out a new form of marking, where different colour pens are used to classify different types of feedback. For example, a green marking can represent grammar error, purple can represent inaccuracy, and blue can represent misspelling. This technique is coined “rainbow marking.”

While it may seem like an invigorating way to help students recognize their mistakes, we also must remember that a significant part of a teacher’s job is marking. Having them go the extra mile to pick up different pens to mark different errors seems like an unproductive use of their cognitive energy and time.

For the students, it leaves a whole new level of confusion. If they don’t understand how they made their mistake to begin with, changing the colour of the marking is not going to educate them any better. They might be able to see that the green mark means they should have removed the comma and added a period, but they wouldn’t know why. They know it is wrong, but they don’t know the principles of their mistakes. The root of the problem is never resolved.

As for the argument that the colour red is “too aggressive” for students, I say: “toughen up.” You cannot coddle students forever with pretty colours. This type of teaching reinforces the idea that some errors are less important than other errors. When I was in grade school, a common question that would pop up whenever an assignment was due was “does spelling count?” For some reason, we felt that the accuracy of our spelling should not compromise the content of our homework. Of course spelling counts. How will anyone understand what you wrote if you don’t spell properly? Yes, some errors are more glaring than others, but if we want our students to strive for perfection, we cannot say that that mistake is better than another. We need to be aggressive if we want results.

In Western culture, we put too much onus on the little nuisances of the teachers. We call out the teachers for the students’ mistakes. It’s clear that “rainbow marking” is another system of testing the instructors, not the students. It allows a third party to look at the marked paper and say, “Well, the teacher is clearly incompetent. He used a blue pen here when clearly he should have used an orange pen.”

Why not just mark the paper with a pencil? Why not just allow the student to erase it afterward so they can feel better? If the teachers are hired to do the job, then trust their judgment. Let them stick with the tried-and-true system: red pens for marking.

We are only as smart as our AI

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What Microsoft’s bot, Tay, really says about us

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 7, 2016

While we use technology to do our bidding, we don’t always feel that we have supremacy over it. More often than not, we feel dependent on the computers, appliances, and mechanics that help our every day run smoothly. So, when there is a chance for us to show our dominance over technology, we take it.

As humans, we like to feel smart, and we often do that through our ability to persuade and influence. If we can make someone agree with us, we feel more intelligent. If we can change the way a robot thinks—reprogram it—we become gods indirectly. That is something every person wants to do. When it comes to the latest Microsoft intelligent bot, Tay, that is exactly what people did.

I have some experience chatting with artificial intelligence and other automated programs. My most prevalent memory of talking to a robot was on MSN Messenger—back in the days—when I would have long-winded conversations with a chatbot named SmarterChild. Now, I wasn’t having deep introspective talks with SmarterChild. I was trying to outsmart it. I’d lead it this way and that, trying to make it say something offensive or asinine. Trying to outwit a robot that claims to be a “smarter child” was surprisingly a lot of fun. It was a puzzle.

When the programmers at Microsoft built Tay, they probably thought it would have more practical uses. It was designed to mimic the personality of a 19-year-old girl. Microsoft wanted Tay to be a robot that could genuinely engage in conversations. However, without the ability to understand what she was actually copying, she had no idea that she was being manipulated by a bunch of Internet trolls. She was being lied to and didn’t even know it. Because of this, she was shut down after a day of her adapting to and spouting offensive things over Twitter.

I believe we are all holding back some offensive thoughts in our head. Like a dam, we keep these thoughts from bursting through our mouths in day-to-day life. On the Internet we can let these vulgar thoughts flow. When we know that the recipient of our thoughts is a robot with no real emotion, we can let the dam burst. There is no real repercussion.

In high school, I had a pocket-sized computer dictionary that translated English into Chinese and vice versa. This dictionary had an audio feature that pronounced words for you to hear. Obviously what we made the dictionary say was all the words we weren’t allow saying in school. I’m sure you can imagine a few funny ones. That is the same as what people do with bots. To prove that the AI is not as smart as us, we make it do what we don’t. At the moment, I don’t believe the general public is sophisticated enough to handle artificial intelligence in any form.

Attack ads are not just for politics

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Should corporations call out competitors?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 31, 2016

We see it in politics all the time: commercials that call out the negative aspects, false advertisements, and empty promises of competitors. As someone watching these commercials, I often feel like I’m watching a couple bicker—it’s awkward. This petty form of persuasion doesn’t really leave a winner in my mind; rather, it makes me want to oppose both parties. But what if this same method is used for our everyday products?

Recently, Verizon hired comedian Ricky Gervais to do a commercial spot where, instead of highlighting all of Verizon’s features, it calls out its competitor (Sprint). In the ad, Gervais states that their competitor “stretches the truth” when claiming to have the fastest and most reliable network. He also goes on to say that having the fastest, most reliable network in Kansas (the location of Sprint’s headquarter), is like having a parachute that only opens in Kansas. That’s no good. Consumers want a product such as cellular reception to be reliable everywhere, just like a parachute.

While the commercial was fun and light and Gervais’ snarky persona made the rivalry of the telecommunication companies humourous, it was bad practice. These types of companies are rarely promoting innovations, but rather striving for mediocrity. And it shows with an ad like this. Think about it, if Verizon had the “fastest” and “most reliable” network, they would be claiming it straight up. They would have proof. But instead of demonstrating their product, they turn the spotlight on their competitors and say, “well, they aren’t that great either.”

Often in politics, we don’t vote for the candidate that we like, but rather the candidate we hate the least. A world where we are choosing the lesser of two evil sounds like a pretty horrible place to live, huh? A world where we are calling each other liars and saying that a billion-dollar company is incompetent and irresponsible is worrisome place to live. A world where we spend more resources racing to the bottom, reaching the lowest common denominator, and striving to merely meet expectation is a scary place to live.

Calling out a problem does not solve it. One-upping competition by small margins doesn’t solve it either.

Enough talk about what others don’t do. Regardless of whether you are a politician, a billion-dollar company, or my co-worker, I don’t judge you by your competition, I judge you by your actions and achievements. You give me results as promised and there is no reason why I wouldn’t pick you over someone else. I would trust you.

The way you develop a reputation is by focusing on service and innovation, not by dragging your opposition down so that you look better. If you want to be the best, you’ll need to try your hardest and not just talk smack.

People who need people rating apps

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Controversial app Peeple is everything tech shouldn’t become

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 23, 2016

I hate that review apps exist to begin with. While customer reviews are one of the most trusted forms of marketing, I have little respect for the people who leave negative reviews. What can I say? When I read reviews sometimes, I often feel that those who wrote them are small people who need to do whatever it takes to feel big. They are using their power of free speech to harm a business.

Now, it gets worse. There is now an app that allows you to rate and review people’s reputations. The app is called Peeple, and it is gaining a lot of negative publicity. Why not? Remember when you were young, and your parents taught you that if you have nothing good to say, then you shouldn’t say anything at all? This teaching should not change in the digital age, but I believe it has. Take a look at all the bullshit comments on social media if you don’t believe me.

It’s clear that things are going to get worse before they are going to get better in this realm.

Interacting with people shouldn’t be the same as buying electronics. You shouldn’t go online, Google someone, and compare them with other people. The thing is, I know what the creators and founders of Peeple were thinking: so many people are shitty. Yes, of course, people are shitty, but that is life. Dealing with shitty people, whether they are in front of you in the Starbucks lineup or they are your parents, is a part of human existence. Technology does not make people more considerate or more caring, especially not an app that encourages people to treat others like businesses.

If you were a business, you would separate the job from your personal identity. You would have a website, a LinkedIn page, a Facebook fan page, or anything else where you can have a two-way channel, where there can be communication, and progress to resolving an issue—should there be one. However, if it is just a review or a rating system, rarely is there any valuable feedback. It’s more or less just a rant or words of caution. Since, we aren’t talking about a business but an actual human person with feelings, giving someone a one-star rating is a clear, unprovoked diss.

Let’s live in a world where we can approach each other as friends and speak honestly, rather than reviewing and rating others, harbouring animosity, and deterring others from having a genuine human experience. If you truly want to help someone, and not just judge them, you wouldn’t use an app like Peeple to express your thoughts.

And for those who really care about their online reputation, well, maybe you should work on your actual human reputation first.

Not so hard times

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Is minimum-security prison like summer camp effective?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 23, 2016

What if I told you that there are prisoners—murderers—who were having a better day than you? You would be pretty upset, right? And you aren’t even the victim or the victim’s family and friends. For many, hearing that criminals are having “easy” times as a punishment is an injustice. It’s almost as bad as hearing that they got off free.

This is the case from a recent report by Erin O’Toole, a Federal Conservation public safety critic. She went on to describe a minimum-security prison in BC as being akin to “summer camp.” These prisons are fortified with a recreation centre, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds. In addition, this prison is located in arguably one of the most beautiful regions of the province, with mountain and ocean views.

Now, I know that prisons are not meant to be inhumane torture chambers, they are meant to be more of a rehabilitation centre, where the convict can receive the necessary assistance and treatment so that they may be led back into normal society, where they can contribute in a meaningful way. Whether this is happening more effectively in a comfortable environment is something the victims of the prisoners’ crimes are extremely skeptical and upset about.

The balancing act of trying to find the punishment to fit the crime is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time, money, and effort to make sure that the end result is the “right” result. With the case of summer camp prisons, many believe that the criminals are getting off too easily. Some are even feeling that the prisoners are in fact getting some sort of luxury treatment. For murderers, that type of punishment doesn’t only make light of the heinous act… it almost appears as though the punishment encourages it.

There is a lot to like in our country, but one must admit that our justice system is still full of holes. What we have is often called a “revolving door” criminal system, where criminals go to jail for their crime, endure the hospitable environment, and return to normal society only to recommit the crime. This type of in-and-out prison—a lot like summer camp—does not solve the bigger problem. It doesn’t instill fear or teach repercussions. It’s merely a pause button for criminals. It stalls them from the next crime, like summer camp stalls us from our studies.

The punishment should always fit the crime, but I ask you this: Do the kids who get detention every week really learn from their poor decisions? Probably not, they just become acclimatized to the world they live in. They never change; they merely adapt. They accept that detention is a part of their life. Compared to many, it’s not that bad of a life. To change someone, you must really change their environment, and so it goes with murderers.