dal niente

Month: November, 2010

Reports from the Front Lines

So, I’ve decided that I want to try and get into law.

This isn’t really a small thing for me.  I’ve always been a gamer at heart, and by that, I mean that I seek fun through the exploitation of systems– I like to be efficient.  At times, I’m OCD and like to hack away at a problem until I get it working the way I want it– even if that’s not how the game is supposed to be played.

Law school introduces a few new fears though.  The first of which is that I’ll be playing in a system that is built on a tradition of regurgitation.  It’ll be years until I can really hack thing the way I like to– the first half decade of study will be me memorizing things, which is the kind of study that not only I hate most, but I’m worst at.

Further, it puts me in a financial hole.  If I go the course that I’m planning, I stand to be set back by about 100k.  That’s one hundred thousand dollars.  I have a fair amount saved up for someone my age– but not that much.  That means taking out loans, and being the pauper student who lives in a one bedroom apartment for the next few years, never paying for anything outside of my budget.

And finally, it places a strain on family.  The interesting thing is that if this was a few years ago, I’d say fuck it– who cares?  I’m going to do this.  It’s not exactly that I’m that much closer to family on the whole… but more like, we’ve come to understand eachother a lot better, and I’ve learned to compartmentalize.  By compartmentalize, I mean, I can store the worst parts of family in this box that I choose to ignore.  The reason for this is because 1000 years of Chinese tradition have made certain ideas simply untouchable– I might as well try ripping their DNA out of them, reprogramming it, and then shoving it back in.  I might succeed… but it wouldn’t be them anymore, now would it?  And those 1000 years of Chinese tradition come into direct opposition with 26 years of… well, me.

 

The plan is for me to apply to Law in a Juris Doctor program in Australia.  I think I’ve lived a professional life after my undergrad that gives me a reasonably competitive application.  While I was in university, I was caught up with a number of things and only managed to get a 70% overall average… that’s not good enough for any law school in Canada or USA, but it’s good enough for Australia, and it just so happens that [CM] is there too, which is no small motivation either.

 

I introduced the idea a couple of days ago to my parents… they were ecstatic at the idea of law, but less ecstatic about going to Australia.  And by “less ecstatic” I mean, “not pleased at all.”

I don’t need their aprooval. I think that … realistically… with loans and stuff… I might not even need their money…

 

But, wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, in that stupid dreamy way, if my parents would, for a moment, just stop trying to be safe and efficient and conservative, and just think, you know, maybe for a minute, some other way than their own?

 

I don’t want them to feel abandonned or disregarded… but if those are the only options they’re giving me…

 

The earliest I could get into law school would be another half year, assuming I’m even accepted.  I’m waiting until the end of December to apply because I’m going to be using grades from my masters as extra weight in my application.  There’s still time for me to turn their opinion… just need to keep strong.

 

I wonder, sometimes, if I even care about their aprooval, or if it’s just… pity.

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The Corporation

Taken from a lecture by my MAIS 601 professor at Athabasca University, by Wendell Kisner, about at week ago.  This email is in response to a week of studies, research and debate about modern corporations.  It is posted here with permission.

 

Today we have to deal with something that modernist theorists like Hobbes, Mill, and even Marx did not see – the multinational corporation. Can the social theories we’re reading accommodate this phenomenon and effectively subordinate it to the sphere of political freedom? Or will we need to develop new categories? These are still open questions.

As the group work revealed, the problem with corporations is not just a matter of personal virtue, as if we could get rid of human corruption (e.g. Enron, BP, etc.) and then have “good” corporations. Joel Bakan portrays the corporation as a profit-generating machine – and that is not meant to be a moral judgment but is intended strictly as a description. A corporation has to remain beholden to the legal requirements of fiduciary duty. This is what Milton Friedman invoked in his (in)famous New York Times 1970 essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” (the full article can be found at http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html). The argument goes like this:

Corporate CEOs are hired to do one thing: maximize investment return for shareholders. That’s their contractual obligation. If they use corporate money to do anything other than this – like, for instance, to improve working conditions for its employees or reduce pollution, etc. – then they are in fact spending someone else’s money without permission. Friedman calls this “taxation without representation.” Therefore when CEOs try to engage in philanthropy or fulfill any perceived social responsibility other than solely increasing investment return they are, according to Friedman, doing something immoral.

A now-classic example cited by Bakan (which is actually from an era before many corporations went multinational) is the Ford Motor Company in the early twentieth century: guided by the ethic that “business is a service, not a bonanza” and should make money only incidentally (Bakan, 2004, p. 36 ff), he was in the habit of returning profits back to the consumers in terms of automobile price reductions. One year when he did so he was sued by two shareholders who claimed in court that the money Ford wanted to return to customers was actually their money and should be given to them. The judge agreed, finding in favour of the plaintiffs and rescinding the savings Ford had wanted to provide, subordinating Ford’s ethic to the legal opinion that “a business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders” and cannot be in place “for the merely incidental benefit of shareholders and for the primary purpose of benefiting others.” (Ibid.)  The plaintiffs were the Dodge brothers, who used the money from the suit to finance their Dodge Motor Company.

Ford was thereby legally prevented from following what we might well understand to be the truly ethical course of action. So even if a CEO like Ford tries to do the right thing, he may well be prevented by the nature of corporate structure itself. In this sense it is descriptively accurate to say that the corporation is a machine. That it is, it’s a legal device for maximizing profits that makes use of human beings as its working parts but which does not and cannot value them as anything other than a means to an end. Corporate “social responsibility” is securely demoted to the strictly subordinate position of either serving corporate self-interest, in which case it is disingenuous, or becoming a liability if genuine. So corporate hypocrisy is legally mandated and, in addition, is provided an ideological gloss from Friedman and his heirs asserting that if a CEO tries to do the right thing, s/he is really doing the wrong thing.

Thus we can certainly hold individuals responsible who serve on corporate boards, but at the same time we need to recognize the reality of structures that not only encourage irresponsible behaviour, but which in a certain way require it (evaluating moral responsibility, that is, in the broader social context outside of mere fiduciary duty). Corporate structure requires that profits be placed above people – unless there are other structures in place (e.g. government-mandated regulations, public opinion, etc.) that prevent it, and even then only because such structures will reduce profits (through fines, boycotts, government-mandated liquidation, etc.). This also necessarily means that if such costs can be factored into the costs of doing business such that a greater investment return can be generated than otherwise, once again there’s every reason for the corporation to go ahead with it and bear the repercussions. Or, alternatively, it may be advantageous for a corporation to move production to a place on the planet that’s less legally “restrictive” (from the point of view of capital).

If the corporation can get away with polluting a given area and then leave the cleaning bill for the public purse – that is, if it can get away with “externalizing” its costs – it has no reason not to do so unless there are forces outside the corporation that would prevent it. If a corporation can produce whatever it brings to market more cheaply by, say, polluting the water in the production area, and if possible public exposure and concomitant political fallout are deemed to be minimal (if these projected costs are significantly less than the projected profit margin) then it has every reason to do so and virtually no reason not to, given the structure of fiduciary duty which takes legal precedence over every other concern. Or, to put it another way, any reason for not doing so would have to come from outside the fiduciary relation that defines what a corporation is. Thus corporations are driven to “externalize” the costs of production – whether those costs be that of wages for workers, cleaning up pollution, designing safer equipment, or providing safer conditions. A multinational corporation might also enter a region to set up production, irrevocably contaminate that region with pollutants, make a huge profit, then either go elsewhere or even sell off its holdings and thereby “commit suicide” – leaving lots of money in the pockets of some people. That’s why Bakan calls the corporation an “externalizing machine.”

Bakan however thinks that the way to reign in corporations is through government regulations. But it seems to me that this has been tried and powerful business lobbies – at least in the US and, to a lesser extent, in Canada – have steadily and persistently worked to erode, undermine, and sometimes out-and-out abolish such regulations. So even if, against the tremendous opposition that would come from business lobbies and the power they wield in the current representational system, we were to restore the government-mandated regulations on corporate activity, what would keep us from winding up in the same place down the road? Does it require something like a Maoist “perpetual revolution,” a constant vigilance and constant activism on the part of citizens? How likely is this?

Getting Ducks in a Row

So, at this point, my basic goal is to get myself to Australia, and to manage to stay there for the next few years.

 

There are a few routes to getting this done, which are separated into two routes.  I can either study, or I can work.  I don’t really have a preference for either one overall.  Here are the pros and cons:

 

Study:

  • I’d want to get into something like Law.  It’s something that [CM] brought up… I’m sometimes under the impression that she might be afraid that I’m only considering it because I want to keep up with some status thing to match up with her med school plans, but that’s not it.  I mean, maybe it partly is, but is that a bad thing?
  • Getting into Law isn’t easy, given my GPA, but it’s not impossible.  First step would be to finish the two grad courses I’ve already started, and then use those to boost my credentials on an application to law in Australia.
  • It’s really crazy, but tuition is less than half to study in Montreal.  It’s something like 8k CAD per year to study in Montreal.  The same program at the same school for international students is about 20k per year, which is comparable to studying in Australia.  A law degree in Australia ranges anywhere between the 55k AUD (1 AUD is roughly equivalent to 1 CAD at the moment) to 120k AUD, depending on where you study– I don’t I really care enough to go for the super expensive one!  I only mention the 8k mark because… well… it’s so much cheaper.  Lucky for me my GPA prevents me from even daring to apply to law in Montreal, so that scratches that right in the eyes.
  • Studying law in Australia would essentially wipe out all my non-retirement savings, and require me to take out a loan.  I think that this is probably the biggest reluctance I have to studying this kind of program.  Considering this option actually has lead me to a great deal of introspection, and it’s really forced with me to be honest about some things about myself:
    • firstly, although i pride myself at being a hard worker, I only work at things I’m passionate at.  Does that make me a hard worker, and does that make me disciplined? Or does that make me a quitter in terms of other things in life that need to be played a certain way?
    • I’m afraid of investing in myself.  I pride myself on the fact that even though I started off poor, I’ve got a sizeable nest egg saved away because I was very disciplined about investing– I started when I was 18, maybe even younger, to invest in a few bonds, and then moved quickly on to mutual funds.  Maybe it’s this chinese upbringing that makes me want to just horde money– but what really am I saving this nest egg for?  Why am I so afraid of cashing it all in to better myself?
    • I think it’s because I know that I’ve failed at school once– and though I plowed my way through it, finished college, got my university degree and now am working on my masters, I’m still suffering the consequences of those youthful indescretions.  And I’m afraid I might do it again.  And then I’d have nothing, really nothing to show for it.
    • You know how people always talk about ambition and wanting it, and how if you have that discipline, that perseverance, that drive, that you can just go out and get it? I don’t know if that’s me.
    • Fundamentally, I, at present, lack the confidence to know I can succeed at law.
  • There are definite pluses– studying in Australia means an automatic student visa, more or less.  That means that I get to continue my relationship with CM in person, and be done with this long distance thing.  Chances are that I’d be studying at a different university, maybe even one in a completely different province, which means I might not be even able to see her everyday… but, it’s a start!

Work:

  • Working in Australia might be the simpler option. There are two routes:
    • Work holiday visa, which works for anyone under 30 years of age.  This visa is basically designed for tourists who want to visit while earning some cash to support their visit.  This isn’t a great visa for me because I’m turning 30 in 2012… which means it’s only a temporary method of being with CM.
    • Skilled Worker visa.  Unfortunately, I’m an English major.  That means I don’t quite fit into any definition of skilled worker.  Thankfully, my work experience at the hospital places me in the officially recognized job class of Medical Aministrator– and that is a visa-able position.
  • Obviously, working in Australia is the most affordable way of being in Australia.
  • In the working route, the challenge is finding a job.  This means I need to scour every clinic and hospital in Australia and see if they want to sponsor me as a skilled migrant worker… I have no idea how easy/hard this is.  Only way for me to know is to try.

Comparison:

Well, the truth is… it would be really nice to go the law route.  It would be nice to study something and get into a socially recognized position where I can make the changes on the planet that I’ve always wanted to… I mean, my work right now is important, I have no doubt about that.  But I’m at only a few rungs from the bottom of the food chain right now… the pay is good, the security is good… but how much of what I want to do with the world lies in this sort of work that I currently have?  Maybe I should go the established corporate route.  It would take some major invesetment, but the payout would be good, and then I’d be at a whole different level of existence after that, right?

On the other hand… just working on the things that I am passionate at? Is that bad?  Is money even really important to me that I need a better job?  Is the corporate route the only way to affect change?  Working for just shorter term money has the advantage of being flexible, even if it’s not efficient.

The truth is… I feel as if I “know” the way Montreal works. I have never had a hard time finding jobs, and every time I’ve gotten a job, it’s always been one better than the last.  But am I selling myself short? Even if I feel comfortable overall in all of Canada, saying with a fair amount of confidence that I could get a job anywhere in the country and be not only good at it, but happy with it… maybe I need to fight.  Maybe I need something that isn’t just easy.

I think a lot of investing in myself is a scary thing because I don’t know what’s outside of Canada, aside from as a tourist.  Sure, I’ve been all over Asia and I’m adaptive.  I pick up cultural habits pretty well, I even absorb languages better than I would have guessed.  But work ethics?  Job markets?  Economies?  How do I fit in the international scene?

The fact is, in my current employment state, I don’t fit into the international scene that well.  And it’s a testament of what I’ve been studying in my masters lately that this… just… kinda makes me feel bad.  I don’t want to be a farm boy from Montreal.  That sounds silly.  But how many of us grow up in our major city and think we’re better than people in the countryside?  

I grew up in LaSalle… a suburb of Montreal.  When I started spending most of my time in Montreal for school and work, I enjoyed that yuppie life very much– I felt so cosmopolitain, so educated, so versatile and avant garde.

But then I started travelling.  And then I realized that, on the contrary of it being a small world– it’s a pretty fucking huge place.  And even Montreal feels small now.  Even Montreal feels backwater.

Don’t get me wrong… I love Montreal, and I consider it my home.  But who we are at home and who we want to grow up in the world?  Not the same thing for me.  But how can I get out of Montreal?  Pay my way though with hard labour? Or … play the game… become one of those people who goes through the system, and then becomes an international citizen?

 

 

… hmm.

 

Well, that was useful… I think that through writing this all out, I’ve decided what I’m going to try for.

Tyranny of the Sushi King

“I don’t feel so good,” I said at some point in the night.  We were at the Traders hotel in Penang, Malaysia.  I felt like I needed to throw up.

Rewind a bit.

At this point, [CM] had been having a sore throat for a while now, since a couple of weeks ago when we left Hong Kong. It was probably from all that yiet hay food we’d been having for several weeks.  (**translation: yiet hay has no exact in English, but in this context it roughly means food that will give you a sore throat, like lots of spicy or deep fried things.)  Anyway, she got a sore throat so bad that she was losing her voice and wasn’t feeling to great, so by halfway through our stay in Penang, you could find three different brands of throat lozanges in our hotel room scattered about.  One of them was a drug that said “by prescription only” which, surprise surprise, I managed to get over the counter from some dude running a somewhat sketchy pharmacy (go shui for Asia! **translation: things that fall off the backs of trucks).

She was also running a bit of a fever. She probably had strept throat or something, but in any case, we decided that for one day, she’d just stay in the hotel and rest.  I’d go out and forage for food in the nearby area.

Penang is an interesting place– I’d heard a lot of things about Malaysia, but I didn’t expect it to look so much like the Philipines.  Numerous buildings that looked basically like shacks with tin metal supplements, or buildings made of concrete were often cracked and with mouldy foundations.  Lots of shifty characters about that I wouldn’t want to cross at night, no holds barred Thunderdrome-style street driving, and some of the most sketchy looking taxi drivers I’d ever met.  Actually, with regards to riding in taxis, I was at all times ready to garrotte the driver if it seemed like he was deviating from what CM and I guessed to be the route to our destination– and it turned out that that instinct was pretty good, because we heard later from her family in Kuala Lumpur that Malaysia recently was plagued by an epidemic of taxi kidnap/ransom events.  Basically none of the family of friends of family females ever dared to take a taxi alone anymore.

I felt mostly safe– it still felt a lot safer than the areas of Philipines that I was in in past years, but regardless, I was on my guard as much as was possible while still having a great time seeing the sights and taking in the local gastronomy with CM.  I think the advice that most people try to give you when going to a place like this is to not look like a tourist, but that’s easier said than done.  I’m not dressed like the locals, you can notice that whenever I need to cross a street I hesitate a lot more than others, and the big thing is that not only don’t I speak Malay, but whenever locals try and speak English or Cantonese to me, i can’t for the life of me understand what the heck they were saying.  The Malay accent of English and Canto just doesn’t latch on to anything in my brain for some reason.  All in all, it just contributes to the sort of body language that reeks of vulnerability. I wouldn’t really want to get caught alone at night in some of the orange-lit tunnels or underpasses areas near the hotel (some of which spanned about an entire block) so as much as possible, I tried to move fast and purposefully whenever I was alone.

The plan was to get some take out food.  We’d been eating at various hawker stalls for several days now.  Let me tell you– the food in Malaysia is awesome.  It’s similar to Chinese food and Filipino food, but it’s got these variances that I was really unfamiliar with, so it was all essentially new to me.  The hawker stalls sell some of the most original,  greasiest, spiciest, cheapest and most delicious food I’d ever tried– but the typical stuff didn’t seem like a great idea for CM given her condition, so I was looking for something a bit cleaner for her system.

I ended up going to a place in a nearby mall called Sushi King.  It seemed reputable!  I mean, it had a brick and mortar shop with airconditioning (as opposed to the outdoor, rusty/dusty/greasy fan-ventilated hawker cafes that cooked food at the roadside with propane operated mini-stoves).  It had fancy menus and decor and all that, and the chefs even greeted you in Japanese the way they do in Japan.  I went for sushi because I figured, well, we don’t have a microwave at the hotel– if CM isn’t feeling like she’s got too much of an appetite, at least we can throw everything in the fridge and eat it later.  I ordered a buncha sushi and a soup-noodle bowl with an omellette, as well as some edamame.  For good measure I picked up some mushroom soup from a nearby Pizza Hut.

When I got back to the hotel, I was in the elevator when she started calling me.  Apparently I’d been gone for a while.  No real problem; it was true, the Sushi King was really slow at putting together my order.  Thankfully I had nothing exciting to report.  We dug into the food once I was in.

 

A few hours later, I felt sick.

And it wasn’t just me.  She felt sick too.

 

Later on in the middle of the night, we concluded that we’d been food poisoned.  I started chugging root beer to speed the promise up… and what ensued was one of the longest most painful nights in a long time, with my head hung over a toilet while she rubbed my back.  She was actually laughing weakly (but uncontrollably) at how violently I was wretching.

“It helps to scream when you vomit,” I advised her afterwards, wiping the corners of my mouth.  As she took her turn (she took 4 turns to my 1 actually) I held her hair back so she wouldn’t get any chunks in it.  The culprit revealed itself– it was that omelette with the fish in it, we think.

 

All in all, quite a memorable couple of days!  To be honest, it was a pretty miserable time… but if there’s anything the vacation highlighted to me, it’s that there’s nobody that I feel more comfortable being miserable with on such an intimate, rock bottom level than CM.  Miserable as it was, it was fun in that we did it together, and through all that wretching we were actually laughing quite a bit.  I guess we coulda gone the typical route and gone on tour busses and going to all the nice fancy shmantzy places and all that, but doing things ourselves and getting poisoned along the way makes for so much more vivid (and smelly) a memory.

 

 

 

CM and Jinryu: 0

Sushi King: 1

End, Book 1

It’s 6:07 AM, Hong Kong.  I’ve had maybe three hours of sleep tonight.

In about 5 and a half hours, I’m on a plane back to North America.  [CM] is in bed next to me.  I’d like to think that it’s a great strategy for me to stay awake as long as possible so that I’ll sleep more on the plane, but that’s not why I’m up.  I just can’t sleep.

I’m in an emotional limbo right now.  Don’t feel sad or unhappy… I mean, I do.  But I’m not breaking down.  I just feel… empty.  Maybe in a good way?  CM and I have been talking a lot in the last few days about my eventual departure date, and I think it was really therapeutic for both of us.  I think we’re handling this well.  As well as we could be expected to, given the circumstances.  We’ve had our moments of weakness, but CM has really been supportive and strong for the both of us– all those reasons I love her for, she’s still all that and a bit more every time I falter.

 

I’ll head back to Montreal.  The plan is that she’s going to have to wait a while longer.  I need to finish these two grad courses finally, go back to work, spend some times with family again and talk.

 

We need to figure out how to get me job in Australia.

 

Postings about my 5 weeks in Asia will follow!