Are there still rooms left for us?

This year the planet Earth reaches its landmark human population, 7 billion! And projected to be 8 billon in year 2030 and 9 billion in year 2050. Homo sapiens perhaps consist of the largest mammal population in the earth. The topic was highlighted by the January 2011 issue of National Geographic, which showed a tremendous acceleration of human population growth in the past millenium of the 20th century. The number of mega cities with population exceeding one million has increased from a mere 3 in 1800 (Beijing had 1.3 million then together with Tokyo and London) to a staggering 442 in year 2010 with Asia having most crowded cities. Population growth was in no doubt one of the central focuses of the media this year. Many media sources discussed the consequence and solutions to accomodate increasing number of humans. Building vertical cities become a future trend given that it’s after all a reality.

(Figure adopted from prb.org)

With the advent of industrialization and advance of medicine, human life style morphed from nomadic and periodic migration to modern city dwelling. The former life style was at the mercy of mother nature and gradually phases out in most human society. The latter provides a long-term residence but in the meantime features more frequent and more damaging pattern of short-term human travelling for business and pleasure as well as trading transportations in air, land and ocean.

Aggravating the situation, consumption culture imposes much more stress on the environment. Mass consumption as a vehicle drives the global economy, labor market and international trading, and large-scale consumption is also a determinant for policy making, a pressure for foreign relations and a motivation for scientific and engineering research.

How much pressure the Earth can uptake for our consumption desires? Is there a tipping point that leads to a catastrophe?

housing bubble in china, and elsewhere

“安得广厦千万间,大庇天下寒士俱欢颜”, not for the modern Chinese. The country is falling without values, but people just cannot care less.

People love owning properties and are crazy about owning costly properties such as houses. A tent, a shelter, an adobe, an apartment, a mansion, and a skyscraper…, from ancient tribes to modern societies, each of these structures provides human a shield that separates us from the outside, the hostile however natural environment. It satisfies human’s basic sense of protection and security against the unpredictable and the uncertainties. Never mind that this is an irony that unpredictability and uncertainty have been driving human development ever since human beings came to their existence in this planet.

OK. Enough for the philosophical blah blah… Let’s look at the Chinese housing saga. I had a few friends who had bought apartments at early 2000. Obviously now, these friends of mine are considered a lucky group that gained handsomely in personal finance, thanks to the Chinese housing bubble in the recently past years. We saw empty residence towers in big metropolitans such as Beijing and Shanghai. Now houses are merchandises, goods, means of investment, but not for sheltering ordinary people from the hostile surroundings. Instead, everyday people are under pressur to endure unprecedented physical, financial and mental stresses only to acquire a humble place to support their families. Young people struggle to buy houses and hand over with their parents’s hard-saved cash to the real estate developers. Personal and social values follow in a twisted manner that reflects the substantiated impact by the housing bubble. An ownership of an apartment is required by a Shanghai mom to her future son-in-law so that she can feel relieved for her daughter (for what?). The most common talks at lunch and dinner tables are about buying, selling, and pricing of houses (topic that is equivalently hot is the stock market, which is also busting a bubble this year). Housing slangs including “fang nu”, “wo ju”, “luo hun” are now part of the pop culture.

(Image Bloomberg. People who made down payments on homes at a China Vanke Co. development protest in Shanghai outside the Vanke Shanghai Center, standing opposite a row of security guards. Caption from Los Angeles Times, Dec. 13, 2011)

Years of zealous growth in housing values evangelicated people to pursue real estate ownership as nearly as a religious endeavor. Recent real estate price drop due to the Chinese government  intervention has angered many fresh buyers who believed the only way for housing price to go is up. This is an old bubble in America, but in China it is going through a whole other uncharted water. See a report from Los Angeles Times for a recent account.

Feel free to breath the dirty air

The infamous Beijing smug stroke again a few days ago. The situation was so dire that even some Chinese official acknowledged that China should adopt a better standard to measure the air quality and to report the results to the public. However, air pollution is not something new to ordinary Chinese as well as the lack of government effort to protect citizens from such hazard.

This time the authority was embarrassed by data released from the Beijing Embassy of the United States. The Embassy has installed meters on a roof to measure the level of fine particulates PM2.5 (particules smaller than 2.5 micron) and updated the information hourly via a Twitter thread. Instead, the Chinese government only reports the level of PM10, particulates bigger than 10 micron, and conveniently omits the PM2.5. It’s scientifically well known that PM2.5 particulates penetrate deeply into the lung beyond the protection by cilia, and presumably do much sever damage to human health. Health complications of inhaling PM2.5 particles might include pulmonary and cardiovascular disease such as asthma and bronchitis. More science still needs to be done to differentiate the effects of different types of PM2.5 particles.

In response to the data from the US Embassy, Chinese official asks the public not to trust the readings from the US embassy roof (I know the existence of this device perhaps more than two years ago from reading James Fallows blog at Atlantic.com).

A more interesting report emerged from New York Times. China’s high authorities in Beijing are protected from breathing the dirty air by some extravagant air purifiers.

NASA published a satellite data map about PM2.5 pollution worldwide from year 2001 to year 2006 (see below). At anywhere in the world, you might inhale numerous PM2.5 particles per breath. According to the satellite image, the number stays several fold higher if you happen to be living in China which has some highest readout in the map.

Steve Jobs, and the iPhone made in China

I know out there countless tributes have been paid and still are being paid to the premature death of Steve Jobs from all over the world. In China, from state-owned media outlets to netizens with microblogs, the nation is definitely well aware of the news.

Like other people elsewhere, I owned a few Apple items including an iPod Touch, an iPad and a Mac Air laptop. A few days, I had a discussion with one of my friends, saying that you will hate your cuttie little Apple gadgets if you care to think about the conditions for the people working for Foxxcom, a contractor of Apple, which makes the iphones and other Apple products.

Last year, 13 workers jumped to their death in a few months’s period because of their intolerable factory life.

We are familiar with the claim “Designed by Apple in California, manufactured in China” imprinted in every iPhone. I don’t know how other people respond to that. But making a trendy product with sweat labors does not seem revolutionarily innovative. People used to pursue exotic fashion and cuisine by driving wild species extinct. Now, the contemporary goes to people’s desire for chic electronic accessaries at the expense of other humans to whom they are not geographically and emotionally related.

The Foxcomm tragedies are indeed overall a Chinese problem. A factory owned by Taiwanese Chinese operates in mainland, which employs Chinese workers and is subject to regulations imposed by local and national Chinese governments. It is Chinese job to clean this up. Of course, we know the Chinese legal system was not designed for justice, as usual.

I am not sure how much legal stake that Apple has in China. For any standard, it is certainly minimal for the Foxxcom debacles. The Taiwanese company kept its operation, still making Apple product, and it would have expanded to Chengdu, a interior city in Sichuan, seeking even cheaper labor cost.

Do we really need iPhone, iPod or Mac Air so badly like we need a light bulb, an automobile, or an aircraft? (see this article from Christian Science Monitor). Do we need them so badly that none of Chinese factory girl’s death seemed to hold us back? Do we need them so badly that we worship a successful tech. business executive like a legend?

A trekking trip in Jiangxi

Finally, I decided to take advantage of the long National Holidays to to get out of the city and to have a trekking trip in the mountains. My destination is the Wu Gong Mountain with the elevation of 1918m, the highest peak in Jiangxi Province. In Chinese, it is called 白鹤峰 or 金顶.

In the morning, I redeemed my miles in my frequent flyer program from China Eastern Airlines, and in the afternoon I took a flight From Shanghai Hongqiao Airport (SHA) to the city of Changsha (CSX). From there I had a plan to ride a train to Pingxiang, an entry town to Wu Gong Mountain. But I had a better luck to take the last bus of the day directly from the airport to Pingxiang. I saw it was raining ever since the bus headed onto the highway, and it would be raining all night long, not a encouraging sign for an outdoor trip.

The bus took about 1 hour and 40 minutes, and we arrived to the town after dark. I tried to find my hotel. The locals seemed not have a good sense of their streets. I asked one store owner near the bus stop, “Do you know where is Yuejin North Rd.?” She shook her head and told me that she had no idea. I then found the street just about 20 meters away from her store at the intersection. I called my hotel to ask direction and neither of the two girls who talked with me knew how to direct me. In the end, I managed to navigate to it in a rain shower. I stayed in the hotel for one night, and headed out to the mountain the next day.

The mountain is a big attraction to hikers and tourists in Jiangxi Province and nearby Hunan Province. The hiking turned out being an adventure, a long and winding ordeal. In the bus from Pingxiang to Maxiang of Luxi County, I met two hikers who also planned to trek through the mountain range from Jiulong Mountain passing the highest peak to Mingyue mountain, a trail that spans about 70kilometers.

We caught a small minivan that shuttled us to the trail head, where there are several hostels for hikers. We saw a young couple who were not certain whether they could go up the mountain today or not. The guy asked me whether we can hold on for a while when they discuss whether to venture with us. But the two hikers with me were not willing to wait because they thought the girl might slow us down. So we walked on and told them to catch up with us if they wanted to. They never came up.

It was already about 2pm and it was still raining, and it would be raining for the entire day.

At the beginning of the trail we saw a group students taking a break. The two hikers stopped and took a couple of pictures. They then charged on. I was never able to keep pace with them. They were from Xiangtan, a town southern to Changsha, where Mao attended his teacher’s college. They were veterans from the People’s Liberation arm (PLA). Apparently, the experience gave a huge physical advantage.

Soldiers of PLA have to go through many physical challenges during their tenure in the arm. I had a brief military training at the first month of my freshman year, which was required for all students joining major colleges countrywide. That was before the year of 1989. After the students protest in Beijing in 1989, some colleges such as Peking University were required to put the new comers through a one year military training to tough up and to be patriotic. What I remembered the most clearly was that the one-month long training put 7 kilograms on my weight, which was great since I was thin at that time. In fact, most of my schoolmates gained significant weight. Because of the regularity of the military life and daily physical exercises, we ate and slept everyday at precise timing like domesticated animals.

After the two veterans disappeared somewhere up in the mountain, I decided hiking with the group of students for the rest of the day. There are seven of them in total, two couples and three boys. The rain took away some of the pleasure of hiking. It dropped the visibility and we could not observe the entirety of the scenic landscape even when we hiked up to the high ridge grassland. The students were all schoolmates from a college in Zhuzhou, a city to the east of Xiangtan in Hunan province, which is about an hour ride by bus to Pingxiang. They were at their senior year and all of them are facing decision for their postgraduate life, whether it will be a graduate education or a job, or else. Most of them are originated in Hunan except for one student who came from Jiangsu Province.

The students walked slowly but in a steady pace. That suited to my condition. My backpack was too heavy for me, and it made the trip very strenuous. I had packed a single-person tent, a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Also, I had a Mac Air laptop, some spare clothes, my old canon SLR (Rebel XT) camera bought in America (which was not used), a bottle of water and some food. I even carried a plastic bag of food in my hand during the whole trip, which was a huge annoyance from time to time and was definitely marked as a bad plan. The tent, the sleeping bag and the pad were all unused. They could be only justified for enhancing my physical endurance, which was not what I seriously intended. My original plan was to trek for at least two days until I reach the Mingyue Mountain range. I abandoned that plan soon after I realized that the heavy backpack made that impractical.

We hiked up to the grassland at the mountain ridge about 5pm. It was still lightly rainy and windy. The trial was well-marked but muddy and slippery. They students did not expect a hike like this, and they complained that the driver who shuttled them to the trial head tricked them. Otherwise, they should be those regular tourists who ride buses to the main entrance, pay the entrance fee, take the cable carts to the summit. I was battered down by my giant backpack. The rain seemed to have added extra weight to it. My knees and back were hurt. It would took up another three hrs to reach the summit, actually a spot scenic spot that is close to the summit, called Wugong Shan Sheng, the god of Wugong Mountain. Nobody at the point was at all spirited to venture to the summit. By then, it became completely dark and I put on my headlight. The students came unprepared and only one of them had a cell phone that had a flash light. At ridge of the mountain, we saw house lights down below in the valley, and many of students were excited thinking we were near the destination. In the dark, and in particular when the air was misty, it was difficult to tell the distance from the light. It would still took us another 4 hours walking helplessly in the muddy, slippery and grassy trial before arriving the end of it, the bottom of the mountain (the tourist entrance). It was 11:00pm, and we were exhausted, hungry and cold.

By the parking lot near the entrance, a restaurant apparently looked closed for business but there was light on the second floor. We yelled to the upstairs and the owner and his wife came down. They were not unhappy for new business around mid-night. They cooked for us. It was a nice meal much needed. The couple were locals. They rent the place from the government for 8 years in total, and they pay annual tax of 30,000RMB. The mountain only attracts tourists and backpackers during good seasons and holidays. They roughly have 6 months good business each year. It is not an easy business according to the wife. It was certainly not good during this particular rainy holidays. The male owner had a car and he drove us down to the valley to find a hotel. We settled down in a hotel run by a villager family, a 60RMB a night with hot water shower.

The trekking itself was a disappointed one because the rain and hiking in the dark. Nonetheless, the trip gives an outlet to the boredom of city life.

We took a bus back to Pingxiang the next day. I slip sway from the group when the bus arrived Pingxiang, and then I took a bus to the railway station. No ticket left for Shanghai. I took a train to Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi, which is 300km to the east of Pingxiang and closer to Shanghai. Non ticket left for Shanghai in the same day there either. I bought a ticket for the next day (a harmonious high speed train) to Shanghai HongQiao Transit Complex (Yes, that’s the name for the railway station of a mega city of international appeal). I found a Hanting hotel, a national motel-like chain, cross the street from the railway station in Nanchang.

Many railway stations in Chinese cities like the ones in Nanchang and Pingxiang still much looked like what they were more than a decade ago, even though the railway system and technology have been undergoing through a dramatic change during this boom period (as same as the other sectors in the country). But the quality of the service and the attitude of serving passengers remain largely unchanged. The waiting rooms are crammed with overflow of passengers, the floors are dirty and remain unattended, and the staff is reluctant and unhelpful to travelers who ever try to seek advice. Checking into a platform is always a rush of human stream through narrow entrances in a short time before a train departs, and the exit hall ways are as disastrous.

The key reason for such a big gap between the infrastructure development and service providing is that the railway system is a state monopoly. It is owned and run by the Ministry of Railway that is somehow separate from another seemingly related one called Ministry of Transportation. Most government-run businesses in China do not match their products with upgraded services, even though the nature of some business like railway is designed to provide a service.

The on board service focuses squarely on profit, and sometime it is irrational. In the morning harmonious train to Hongqiao, I was taking a nap and a stewardess walked through our cabin, “Does anybody want a coffee?”. “Me!” I reflexed. She poured the coffee from a jar into one paper cup, “Ten yuan”. A small cup of instant coffee costs ten yuan on a harmonious train of new China? It was outrageous for sure, but this was in fact a horrible business. Nobody in my cabin of more than 100 people asked for a coffee except for me who mistakenly thought it was complimentary, and my neighbors must have been amazed by the level of my morning urge for caffeine.

A rational private vender would never charge 10 yuan, because you do not have a business by overpricing your merchandise to a ridiculous level (not even for potential customers who are stuck in a harmonious train for 7 hours). But that won’t matter to a state-owned monopoly. It is not because they do not want to make profit. They do not have the attitude to work with a due diligence. It is an old habit and a usual mentality passed on from the communist era. A simple and one way thinking with little desire to adjust.

It feels good to be back to Shanghai. Look forward to the next trip.

A Metro Commuter

Shanghai has one of the world’s most comprehensive Metro and light rail systems, which is still under rapid expansion as the city undergoes unprecedented transition. Now, I take part in this like many other people who happen to live in this mega city.

A map of Shanghai Metro

I recently moved from my old apartment at the city center near Xujiahui to a new one in the southwest suburb (the University Town in Songjiang district), a rural area only a few years ago. It means that I officially started my life as one of the millions of Shanghai commuters who move by the Metro system on a daily basis from home to work, and back. My routine commute is Line 9, a route connecting Songjiang District to Pudong District, straight from the station near my apartment to the one close to my office. The entire ride takes 13 stops and about 45 minutes. Factor in the walking time that takes me travel between stations and home or work, everyday I spend two hours for a round trip commute.

My new apartment costs one third less in rent but is almost twice as big as my last one in downtown. For this exchange, I pay extra cost of subway fair (12RMB round trip) and spend extra time in transit. I can have regular readings or listennings to podcasts during my commute. I am now reading Peter Hessler’s books about his personal experience in china. I’ve finished his first book, River Town, a book about his teaching and life in Fuling, and now I moved on to his second book, Oracle Bones. I look forward to read his third book “country driving” after I finish this one (Update: I am in fact reading the third one now. I just learned that Ho Wei, Hessler in his Chinese name, was awarded the MacArthur fellowship, a prestigious prize that present to a person who has a marked capacity of self-direction. Congratulations! Ho Wei).

The greatest annoyance to me in the subway is that many morning commuters eat their take-out breakfasts during the ride or do some other trivia that might be more appropriate at a private setting. I can smell their food and hear their chewing sound. One time, I saw this tall and pretty girl who held and watched her cell phone in one hand and in the meantime ate her food held by the other. She was eating so loud that I could hear the clamping noise of her mouth from about 15 meters away in a crowded car. For herself, the whole act was under complete isolation and she was so relaxed as if the Metro is an extension to her living room. Today, I saw a man at his thirties loudly clipping his finger nails and let the clip-offs fall all over the floor in front of other commuters.

Every entrance of a metro station has a security check point, where you need to put your bag through a X-ray scanner for screening. I have a mixed feeling for such “heightened security measure”. I still consider China is an internally peaceful country with little terrorist threat, at least in the east coast region. It looks paranoid to have such equipments installed everywhere (I even saw metal detectors installed for bar entrances in Songjiang).

But given the importance and vulnerability of the Metro system, a concern of public safety seems in the meantime well justified, even though Shanghai Metro system has never been attacked ever since the transit system started its operation in 1995. All previous incidents were due to either technical fault or mismanagement. However, like many Chinese systems, there is no clear rule regulating what type of bags must be subject to the X-ray. Even if there exist such rules, they are not enforced systematically. One time I put my messenger bag onto the belt of a X-ray machine and the screener personnel just stared at me without even looking at the screen. “You don’t even look at what is in my bag.” I complained. He grinned and then looked embarrassed but still didn’t want to go back to his actual work and check what might be inside in my bag. Sometimes, in Songjiang University Town Station of Line 9 one guy instructs people to put their bags through the scanner and another guy who supposedly should inspect the screen could not care less or was just doing other things.

Clinton brought home two American Journalists

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton went on a North Korea trip to bring two jailed American journalists back to the US to unite with their families waiting in California. The Obama’s White House considers it as a "private" trip and a separate event so
that it doesn’t juxtapose other issues, in particular the highly-sensitive nuclear
program in N.K.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee (a Chinese American and a Korean American) were detained along China-North Korean border in March for illegal entry into the country (North Korea, one of the darkest and most mysterious countries in the world, as put in an ABC news) while collecting research materials for report about human (N.K. refugees) trafficking from North Korea into China. They were sentenced to 12 years hard labor earlier this year. The two women journalists are employees for Current TV, a cable channel based in San Francisco, founded by former U.S. vice President Al Gore.

North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Il pardoned the two journalists after meeting with Bill Clinton. The N.K. state-controlled media described that the release signals its "humanitarian and peace-loving policy".


Photo taken from New York Times website (released by Xinhua News Agency). Laura Ling (left) and Euna Lee (in red) headed to a charted jet in a Pyongyang airport. The airplane later departed to a US military base in Japan and en route to Los Angeles.

Clinton is one of the highest-profiled Americans who ever visited North Korea which was listed as a terrorist nation the U.S. Department of State and was claimed as a member of the "Axis of evil" by Bush Administration after September 11 attacks (Jimmy Carter, then another former U.S. president went in 1994 to negotiate with North Koreans for its early nuclear crisis). The details of this surprising deal will come out when Clinton and the two journalists (on board now in a private jet) land in Los Angeles later today. In the mean time, another Clinton (Hillary), the U.S. Secretary of State, is on a diplomatic trip to Africa.


Photo adopted from a NYT website.

UPDATE: Clinton’s trip to North Korea is a symbolic gesture that was asked by North Korea. The U.S. Administration (White House + Hillary Clinton’s Department of State as well as some private channels) has already done the negotiation and made the deal before Clinton actually took the trip. The former U.S. president was assured that he would come back with the two women if ever he went. Nonetheless, his visit will surely bring long term impact to the frozen US-North Korea relationship. This Q&A session from Washington Post has some very interesting points w.r.t this matter.

Beer with Obama

Want to have Bud Light with Obama? go get arrested, by a (white) police, in Cambridge, and you must be a (black) professor from Harvard.

The hotbed race issue in America went to White House these days.


(photo taken from Times Online. From the right: Obama, Crowley, Gates, Biden)

Total solar eclipse on July 22


We are expecting to observe a total solar eclipse (TSE, 全日食) on July 22, a rare event that can be seen in many areas in east Asia and in some Pacific islands. One can see the above figure (from NASA website containing much detailed information about this TSE event) for the projected TSE path that spans from east India into Pacific Ocean (the band indicates areas where TSE can be observed). NASA has also published on its website a projected TSE path through China (see figure below). People in major cities including Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing and Chengdu will have the chance to watch it. Places closer to the central line of the band have longer TSE time. Shanghai has about 5 minutes. Partial sonar eclipse (PSE) can be observed across much large areas.

Question: can we actually see the Sun on July 22 here in Shanghai?
Given that pollution and cloudy weather might block the clear sky, we
could only experience a dark period on July 22 without directly seeing
the TSE process. According to a weather forecast, Shanghai will have a T-storm or rain-shower with a 100% chance of precipitation on Wednesday. It’s not clear to me how this is going to affect the observation.

Predicting ethnic violence

Much to my surprise, a quantitative model built at New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) in Boston can predict where an ethnic violence may happen. The president of NECSI, Yaneer Bar-Yam, talked with Seed Magazine that their model was able to predict ethnic conflicts in India and former Yugoslavia with appreciable accuracy. This was a very interesting outcome. I am curious to learn whether the model can be applied to analyze the recent ethnic outbreaks in Tibet and Xinjiang. It is not certain to me whether the editor and Bar-Yam were aware of the Xinjiang riots when producing this piece.

This serves as another demonstration that science can provide a guide for policy making that might impact public and personal lives. The article can be downloaded from the institute’s website here.