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 What people are saying is that backpacking no longer represents what it once did, when it came into prominence in the 1970s during the “hippy trail,” when hippies traveled across Asia and Europe in search of… themselves.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.

In one ear and out the other

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A significant percentage of adults have forgotten elementary school lessons, but does it matter?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 17, 2016

A recent survey conducted by YouGov revealed something worrisome: grown-ups have forgotten basic lessons in math, English, and science. One in five adults in the study admitted to having trouble with calculating fractions and percentages. About a quarter of adults cannot recall how to use a semi-colon in a sentence or the names of all the planets within the solar system.

Now, it might seem embarrassing for an adult to forget about lessons they spent so many hours studying in their youth. But that type of knowledge is now trivial. We live in a wonderful age where we are as smart as our phones. We calculate our bills with them, we end arguments with them, and we can easily relearn all that was taught to us in elementary school via watching YouTube on them.

The ability to remember everything taught to us is not necessary a product of smarts, but rather the product of skilled memory. We remember what’s important for us. While we are able to train our memories like we are able to train our bodies, many of us have more important things to deal with.

Remember when you were young and you memorized all 150 (at the time) Pokémon? Try recalling them now. We remember what is important to us. If we enjoy sports, we’ll remember names of athletes. If we like video games, we’ll train our fingers to remember combinations. If we like history, we’ll remember specific moments and characters from the past. We choose what to remember.

Adults who have forgotten about math, English, and science lessons aren’t stupid. They’ve been putting their cognitive energy into other things in their lives that require it. They don’t have time to sit down and review their elementary school lessons once a week. Nobody is going to randomly do long division if they don’t have to.

But should they? Sure they should. Everybody should be confident with math, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be proficient in everything.

Elementary education is the basic foundation for lessons in the rest of our lives, but now that we are older we can happily decide what we need to know. And luckily, we are living in an age where if we do want to learn something or review something, we can do it with a few clicks. Intelligence is not the ability to memorize everything. Intelligence is the ability to find the answer when it is needed.

Adults today are different from the adults of the past. We can store our knowledge in the cloud and pull it down when it is needed. This gives us more room in our brain to think about other things.

Americans want to move to Canada if Trump wins

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It’s so American to abandon a problem they’ve caused

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 17, 2016

Whether it’s meant as fodder for comedy or as a legitimate survey, the American people sounded off. According to a poll conducted by Ipsos, 19 per cent of Americans said they would move to Canada if Donald Trump wins presidency, and 15 per cent would do the same if Hillary wins.

As a Canadian, I first thought this was a compliment, since we do call one of the most livable countries in the world home. Sure, we have our own problems, but compared to America’s, our issues seem so fixable.

Then, I thought a bit more about it, and realized it was not a compliment to Canada. If Americans idolized Canada, America would be like Canada. No, like an angsty teenager threatening to run away from home, Americans are doing the same when they are not getting what they want. Grow up, I say. The problem is not going to fix itself if you just run away from it. Time and time again, Americans are dealt a heavy lesson and seldom do they learn from it. Just watch the American news; it’s the same episode every day. It’s history repeating itself.

I digress. At this moment, less than one per cent of Canada is made up of American immigrants. That is an insignificant amount—and usually we see Canadians crossing the border south rather than the other way around.

Yes, perhaps the Americans feel like victims, but give me a break. Resorting to flight instead of fight is no way to solve a country-sized problem. If a country is your home and you feel passionately enough about the politics that govern it, you’d fight for what’s best.

Instead of trying to piggy back off of us Canadians, why don’t you try to learn from us? In 2015, we went through a pivotal election that ousted the Right Honourable—and backwards thinking—Stephen Harper from his seat as prime minister. During the campaign, the country was divided, but we banded together to do what’s best on Election Day. Some of us might have threatened to move to Switzerland or somewhere else if Harper won, but many took to the polls to vote, not necessarily for the candidate they believed in, but the candidate that would beat Harper’s Conservative party. It was strategic, and it worked.

Democracy is your right; however, welcoming yourself to someone else’s home is not. Americans, known for their arrogance and self-righteousness, often thinks that the whole world belongs to them. They think that Canada is their little brother, who, if their get-rich-fast plan falls through, will let them just crash at their place until they get their footing back.

It doesn’t surprise me that Americans would consider moving up north, but it would surprise me if they actually do. Like government, like citizens—if you talk the talk, then you better walk the walk.

Whole Foods to start selling ‘imperfect’ fruits and vegetables

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Why we should stop being so shallow towards our food’s appearance

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 17, 2016

First it was organics, now Whole Foods is aiming to make the buying and eating of “imperfect” fruits and vegetable as mainstream as drinking kombucha.

Approximately 20–40 per cent of all fruits and vegetables end up in the trash. According to Environmental Protection Agency, US consumers wasted 35 million pounds of food in 2012. There are a number of reasons why such a large quantity of food ends up in the garbage, and including the fact that supermarkets have a high standard for the produce they sell. So, like a model for a talent agent, the tomato in your supermarket must also go through an appearance assessment.

Now whether this experiment is going to work for Whole Foods and a number of other forward-thinking grocers is still up in the air. Consumers, especially consumers in developed countries, are quite fickle about what they buy. We work hard for our money, so why would we buy something of lower quality when we can have the better one for the same price?

Still, there is something heartwarming about finding a good home for these rejected fruits and vegetables. Like an orphanage for food, it’s good to know that Whole Foods is doing its part to change the superficial ideal that is ultimately harming our society. Buying “ugly” food is not a novelty, though. It’s not a freak show, it’s not for a one-time entertainment, it’s something we need to make habitual. That is where the challenge will be.

We must remember that in the end, it all just ends in the same place. Why does it matter how good an avocado looks before you mash it up into guacamole? Why does it matter how a carrot looks before you toss it in a stew? Sure, some fruit and vegetables—those you set on a platter for a house party, for example—need to look somewhat desirable, but in the end, why does it matter?

We are so shallow about fruit and vegetables, but when it comes to animals we are fine with them being unattractive. Beef, pork, and seafood are not as cute as the little potato, but many of us eat them all the same. As long as you can tell the difference between fresh and spoiled, it rarely matters how the ingredients look.

In fact, I believe we should start eliminating the idea of disgusting food from our society altogether. Our diets consist of many environmentally damaging productions. Acres of forestland are dedicated to cattle. Animals that were once in abundance, like species of salmon, are now being carefully rationed for fear of causing a greater imbalance. Yet, there is one species in the animal kingdom the Western world still finds grotesque: insects.

Like ugly fruits and vegetables, insects are often scorned for their pesky nature. We see them as many things, but nutritious is not one of them. However, many people in developing countries depend on them for survival daily.

Pushing for ugly foods to be sold is a small step, but there is a long way to go to create a sustainable world. If that is the goal, we need to change our opinions about imperfect fruits and vegetables—and soon our opinion about all things edible.

No money for elaborate Carnival

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Image via abcnews.com

Why there is little for Brazil to celebrate

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 9, 2016

There were no flowery floats, high-tempo samba music, or scantily clad performers this year. For Brazilians, the cancelation of the world-famous, multi-day, nationwide street festival known as Carnival must have felt as though someone pulled the plug on Christmas.

The announcement that many Brazilian cities would be putting a hold on the celebration, which traditionally ends on Ash Wednesday, must have been disappointing, but not completely surprising. It seemed like an easy decision; after all, when you are sick and broke, the last thing you would want to do is invite everybody over for a party, right?

Brazil is currently caught in one of the worst recessions in decades. With declining tax revenues and the Zika outbreak, over 40 towns and cities have decided to spend the money annually spent on the parade on resources such as new ambulances. Nobody can deny the value of medical services, but with approximately eight per cent of all employment in the country based around tourism and travel—nearly the same amount as unemployment—the absence of Carnival will undoubtedly take another big bite out of Brazil’s fast-shrinking gross domestic product.

Around the world, Brazil has a particular image: party host. In the past few years, Brazil had won bids to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. This led to liberal spending from the government, with the World Cup alone costing an estimated $14 billion. That’s a lot of ambulances. See, what ended up happening was that the country priced itself so high that only wealthy tourists can afford the luxury—and Brazil makes sure tourist are wealthy with their travel visa qualification process.

Now, it’s not the World Cup or Olympics that are causing Brazil’s economic downfall. There are a number of reasons, including corrupted political parties and energy companies, inflation in commodities, and the fact that the economy of China, one of their leading exporters, is also slowing down.

What’s happening with Brazil is something every country can learn from—heck, it’s something every person can learn from.

It seemed like yesterday Brazil was touted as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Not only did its continent ride on its back, but the world as well. The spotlight was on Brazil, and at a time when any wise government would have taken a step back and assessed the whole situation, the Brazilian government did not. It turned to greed rather than insurance. Instead of solving problems close to home—poverty, crime, employment—it, like a drunken frat boy, took one drink after another until he needed a friend to call his parents to drive him home.

The Brazilian power rose too high, they partied too hard, and they got too greedy. Now, they have to forgo a traditional event that their own citizens cherish. It’s sad to see such a rapid fall from grace, but I guess that’s often how a hangover feels. One moment you are on top of the world, booming. The next, you are waking up with the realization that your economy is now a bust.

There is a time to celebrate, and there is a time to pay it forward and invest within. There needs to be a balance. To keep partying, you’ll need to stay healthy—and wealthy. I love Brazil, and I hope I get to celebrate there again soon.