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.

Minya Konka and its glaciers

Most people think that glaciers can only be found at polar areas. I saw one at low-altitude and low-latitude in the region of Gongga Mountain (贡嘎山, also called "Minya Konka" in Tibetan language, meaning mountain with white ice). It is one of the most formidable mountains in China and the highest mountain (it peaks at 7565m) in western Sichuan, sitting in the range of Daxue Shan (大雪山). Even though Mt. Everest reaches the top of the world, Mt. Gongga is more difficult to conquer (photo credit goes to Flickr.com. You have to be patient and lucky enough to have this shot).

Starting from Chengdu, one takes Cheng-Ya (成都-雅安) highway and then
switches onto Route G318 (国道318) at Ya’an to Luding. Route G318 goes
from east to west, penetrates the entire Ganzi Tibetan perfecture and
leads into Tibet. It is a tough however heroic road. It only takes about 7 hours driving from Chengdu to Hailuogou (海螺沟), a touring base for one of  the Gongga Mountain’s glaciers, which makes it one of the modern glaciers that are so close to urban areas. Hailuogou belongs to the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Perfecture (甘孜藏族自治州) and is in the region of two well-known cities of Kangding (康定, 康定情歌每一个人都听过) and Luding (泸定,泸定桥,红军过大渡河的地方. Now it costs a tourist 10RMB to walk on it, which produces some mild revenue for the local government).

Gongga Mountain stands high and its glaciers reach deeply into forests. Facts — the glacier tongue is at 2680m and coexists with the surrounding forestry. It spans 14 kilometers in length, 150 meters in width and 100-200 meters in depth. The glacier looks mighty and mysterious, as my friend put it. (photo credit goes to Flickr.com. Unfortunately I didn’t bring a camera).

 

Because of the climate change, the glaciers have been receding at an accelerating rate. For the example of Hailuogou glacier NO.1, in recent years, its tongue receded on average 15 meters per year. Glaciers are important reservoirs for fresh water and crucial for a sustainable ecosystems. For the science of glacier and glaciation, one can refer to its Wikipedia entry here.

Analyzing Xinjiang 7.5 unrest

An outbreak of riots in Urumqi, the capital city of the Chinese far west Xinjiang province produced an another major human tragedy in modern Chinese history. The deadly riots on last Sunday July 5th resulted in at least 180 death, hundreds were injured and more than 1000 were arrested, according to figures released by the government. The city of Urumqi is now under curfew and in lock down by police force. The tragedy is still unfold as we speak. The most recent ethnic uprise in China was the Tibetan riots in March 2008, which left 19 people dead, most of which are Han Chinese.

What kind of people are Uyghurs?

A crash-course question for most Chinese is why a tragedy like this has happened in the first place. Why do there exist apparent ethnic frictions between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang? What kind of people are Uyghurs (维吾尔)? I am not sure how many Chinese have knowledge of this region of our country and its people.

[Side notes. (1) A basic education: when one criticizes Chinese, it doesn’t necessarily mean this person must be a foreigner who hates Chinese or a Chinese traitor who betrays his homeland. I am a Chinese, and I believe I am entitled to criticize Chinese. (2) when one criticizes Chinese government, it doesn’t mean this person hates Chinese people. Citizens should all be protected with a constitutional right to criticize and monitor their government.]

I should admit that I was not well-informed to know this part of the
country ever since I was a child. "Xinjiang is a good place"
(新疆是个好地方,天山南北好风光; 维吾尔人能歌善舞,维吾尔姑娘很漂亮). This was what I learned and it
has remained in my impression. I didn’t have any clue that there actually exists ethnic tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Xinjiang, or the "New Frontier", is a vast Chinese western province (also called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) that has a complex ethnic mix and a long border with neighboring countries including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Demographically, Uyghurs account for a half of the entire population of around 20 million in this region. In the city of Urumqi, Han Chinese consists of the majority of population, about 75%, while 12.8% are Uyghurs and the rest are other ethnic groups including Kazakhs and Hui (Muslim) Chinese. In the southwestern city of Kashgar, or Kashi (protests were also reported there, following the Urumqi riots), Uyghurs are composed of nearly 90% of the population while 9% are ethnic Han Chinese.

Uyghurs are closely related to Turkic people in ethnic identity and language. In religion, this ethnic group mainly are Sunni Muslims, one of the major branches of Islamism. Sunnis account for between 85-90% of the global Muslim population. Another major Muslim group is Shia (or Shiite), which are majorities in countries like Iraq and Iran. Historically, Uyghurs lived in Altai Mountains. Modern Uyghurs mainly live in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and others are spread out around the world including China’s neighboring countries and small Uyghur communities elsewhere.



Information control and its impact

After the deadly riots, the authorities locked down local cell phone and internet access in Urumqi and blocked social websites including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube across the country, citing that these measures are aimed to minimize the spread of riots. Also, major web portals are only allowed to report information that aligns perfectly with the official government lines. If you read news on Sina.com or Sohu.com or watch CCTV, you get literally the same information word by word. No independent reports of this tragedy by domestic media is allowed. In these websites, you often cannot leave comments. Even if you somehow could, sensitive posts are swiftly removed. Left alone that this practice to restrict citizens to access information should be considered illegal given, it backfires and effectively damages the credibility of authorities (the Chinese government does not have much credibility left anyways) and this allows rumors become more truthful. That’s why this leaves big room for media to speculate by often injecting objective guesses (I refer to foreign media, of course. China does not have a free domestic media, period. Surprisingly, many Chinese believe this is a good thing that helps us to avoid doing stupid things because Chinese people are not capable of living our own life and making our own decisions).

It remains a myth to me why in this open, modern and information-driven human society, the Chinese government is still trying its best to limit citizens to access information. I know that there are many explanations and excuses that side with the government, but I never see anyone that can elaborate a sound reason. The mentality is largely to accept what you cannot change no matter how bad it is. Take it a little further, one can have a better feeling if one somehow manages to persuade him/herself that he/she deserves all these and that the government is actually doing this for his/her goodness.

Tight information control makes objective analysis difficult and independent investigations impossible. The harm made to Chinese people and Chinese society by information control is not a simple case to analyze.

Rule of law and social justice

Many foreign media reports believe that minority groups are marginalized by Han Chinese. However, on one hand, minority groups such as Uyghurs enjoy special policies that are not available to Han Chinese. For example, minorities can have more than one child and they get extra points to college entrance exam just because they are minorities. Any in many cases, violent crimes by minority towards Han Chinese were often tolerated with regard to so-called "ethnic harmony". All the above policies or special treatments indicate that Chinese government does not manage our country with rule of law that is applicable to all citizens and institutions. In fact, all these unjust treatments produce more discrimination and divide between ethnic groups and Han Chinese.

In China, social and political life is hard to come by even for all ethnic groups including the majority Han Chinese. I won’t be surprised that minorities meet more difficulties in adapting because of another layer of cultural (or even language) barrier. I think that this perhaps factors as one hypothesis for why minorities don’t feel given equal opportunities.

I like this blog from the Atlantic that discusses the issue related to Chinese government information control during the Xinjiang riots.

Fighting lung cancer — attacking the habit of smoking

Last year, my classmate from high school (actually we went through elementary, middle and high school together) was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Stage IV is a clinical classification of cancer patients, which denotes a cancer progression that is in its most advanced stage, meaning that tumors can be found in distal organs. For my classmate, derived tumors were found in her brain and liver. She is now a vigorous cancer fighter and a cancer survivor. Our prayers go to her as well.

As many of us know, the rate of cancer occurrences (of many types, in particular, lung cancer and breast cancer) in China was skyrocketing during the past years when the country is undergoing face-lifting industrialization. As a consequence, industrial pollutions (in air, water, land and sea) are rampant. We have been paying huge environmental and human price for the unchecked development and life-style adaptation. For example, death caused by lung cancer has seen a stunning rise of 465 percent in the past 30 years (from this piece of news by Xinhua news agency). Lung cancer is the leading malignant cancer in China, which causes about 1 million annual death across the country.

A tobacco nation

Besides industrial pollutions, smoking is blamed as the NO.1 cause for lung cancer. More than 85% of all lung cancer cases were caused by active or passive (second-hand) smoking. Smoking also induces many clinical complications including cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. According to the US Center of Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is the most important preventable risk to human health. Other causes include genetic factors (if you have a close family member who were diagnosed with cancer, you have higher risk to develop cancer) and radon exposure (a radioactive material found in earth). Both my classmate and her husband are nonsmokers, but her father died with bladder cancer a few years ago. It’s likely that she is having a genetically related case.

Unfortunately, China has the largest smoking population in the world with more than 70%, or 350 million, adult males being smokers (see the figure below for the percentage of male smokers world wide, data based on a 2008 World Health Organization survey) and a rising female smoking population (Chinese females are in fact doing pretty well in resisting to cigarettes. China is among countries that have a lowest rate of female smokers, less than 5% of the adult female population). In the basic, China is a staunch "tobacco nation". People smoke in bars, restaurants, airports, elevators, gyms and everywhere. Even doctors need education to quit smoking. According to this story by Associated Press citing Chinese source, about 56% doctors smoke in China. To my personal experience, nearly all my male high-school classmates have had history of cigarette smoking and some are still smokers.

However, the government has yet to develop a significant campaign to educate public to be aware of the danger of smoking, encourage smokers to cease smoking and reduce the exposure of non-smokers to second-hand smoking. Currently, there is no major legislation that puts hurdles on tobacco makers and bans smoking in public spaces. Given that the tobacco industry generates huge revenue for Chinese government, the attitude is largely reluctant to address smoking-related public health issues. In fact, nearly all tobacco companies in China are state-owned. One can read this 2007 article from New York Times to gain some insights.

As an encouraging sign, the government has raised tobacco tax by 6 points to 11%, in an effort to prevent people from smoking according to this China Post article. However, this policy actually increases tax revenue for the government. Nothing has been said how the government uses the tax to help educate young people to move away from smoking, neither anything about funding programs that help smokers to quit.

You CANNOT drive on Chinese soil

Sorry, you cannot drive in China

I was working on getting my US driver’s license changed to a Shanghai one. I’ve heard terrible stories that all said getting a driver’s license here is largely an ordeal. You have to take a driving class and bribe your teacher even if you already pay all the fees, and stuff like that. In the US (for example, in Texas), you pay 20USD and take a test, and that’s about it.

Life is much easier if you already have a license from another country,  which might save you loads of troubles. Basically you get your license translated into Chinese by a certified agent (50rmb), then go to the police department that is in charge of processing driver’s license applications, pay all the required fees (photo taking 60RMB and health check 40RMB, health check for a driver’s license? anyways), take a written test (I did not get to this far), and then you are done.

For my case on last Wednesday, everything went quite smoothly as planned, at least for the earlier part. But…., after the health check found me "color blind", I was out. Yes, out! for my life time to be a driver in my own country. Well, I was not surprised that I have color deficiency. Specifically, I have subtle trouble in distinguishing red-green mixtures in some conditions. I will come back to the pop science of color vision below. I knew this since I was a child. In fact, it’s an inherited deficiency, from my mom who is color blind as well.

However, I was upset (still unsurprisingly) by the fact that one cannot drive just because that he/she is color blind. The society provides no room to accommodate you. Well, in this country, this reality is not a big deal and it is just the way of life. For example, you can be deprived of education opportunity if you have a hepatitis (it happened to a graduate applicant to our institute last year) or a heart condition (it happened to my cousin more than twenty years ago even after he passed the entrance exam, twice). You have a problem? You eat it. Sorry, no social help for you. The mindset goes like "you are the problem for the society and you should feel ashamed", and never like "the society should do better to help you to develop"

Human vision of color

So, what is color blindness? Can you tell the number buried in the following color diagram? If not, you are perhaps color blind. I can tell there is a 2 (red color) to the left, but cannot tell the number to the right.

                                    

Color blindness is a strong and disproportional term, which is often
misleading. Most color-blind people like me only have a certain degree of
deficiency in color perception, not a complete loss. It’s not true that we can only see black and white. That’s totally not cool! You can only find one such case in 10 million people, meaning that there are perhaps two people in Shanghai who can only see black and white.

The science behind color vision is technically called "trichromacy", which is a complex mechanism that human eyes use to percept color. In short, retina contains four types of cells — rod cells and three types of cone cells. Each type of cone cells has a light absorption spectrum that spans a certain wavelength different from the other types. The combination of three spectra from the three types of cones spans the entire visible light spectrum such that human can distinguish color based on the wavelength sensitivity of cone cells and color intensity received. The plot below shows absorption spectra of human cone cells (for details, see this wikipedia entry). Letters ‘S’, ‘M’ and ‘L’ indicate short, medium and long wavelength, respectively. The black curve is the spectrum of rod cells which can assist in color perception at a low light condition. The closeness between the M (green-sensitive) curve and the L (red-sensitive) curve explains why most color-deficient patients are green-red deficient because the distance between these two curves can be obscured by relatively minor disruptions.

                  

The majority of people with color deficiency are born to it, indicating it is mainly a genetic disorder. Color blindness is also sexually disproportional. Among Asian population, near 5% of all males are color blind, compared to only 0.4% of all females (so, my mom is very special with regard to this fact). The explanation has to resort to recessive gene inheritance in X chromosome. I am not going to get into the details of this. Go studying some basic high school genetics if you are interested. Or, go to Wikipedia.com to check it out.

OK. So, can you drive if you are color blind?

A more relevant question is "Can color-blind people drive?" The short answer: yes. In fact, most countries issue driver’s license to people regardless of their color perception. There are a few countries that still decline driving rights to color-deficient people, like Singapore (a collective society, no wonder).

The major concern for color deficiency is the ability of accurately recognizing traffic lights. Again, as I mentioned above, the majority of color-deficient people
have little problem in telling the differences of plain colors, which
is actually the case for traffic lights. Also, traffic lights almost always go in fixed orders with red on top, yellow in the middle and green at the bottom, or red to the right, yellow in the middle and green to the left.  This actually eliminates drivers’ the reliance on color. Traffic lights can be distinguished by its intensity as well. Finally, it can be also a design issue. In places in Canada, traffic lights not only show green, yellow and red, but are also in different shapes, which help people with color deficiency to properly recognize signals.

Science journalism for the uninformed

The discussions about science journalism are heated up these days. With the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists going on in London, many media including Nature (it runs a very nice special), Science and the blogsphere (e.g., here and here) put out columns to discuss the current status and the future of science journalism.

What is science journalism? For me, it obviously indicates that two outlandish professions come together. What is common about science and journalism? Both are of evidence-based (in contrast to ideology- or belief-based) profession that embraces criticism and skepticism. Scientists report findings in research by collecting, analyzing and showing data. Journalists report stories by collecting, interpreting and disseminating facts. How different are these two professions? They play distinct roles in our human society. Scientists discover new knowledge, improve technology and seek hidden truth. Journalists provide information, stimulate public debate and serve as watchdogs. Why do we need science journalism and reporters for science? — two immediate points: to improve the public awareness of science and to provide guidelines for the policy making by governments.

Here in China, science and journalism as formal professions, are still far from mature. If you search "科学新闻" in Baidu.com, you won’t get much back. If you go to science and technology sectors of major web portals like sina.com or sohu.com, you’ll more likely get flooded by information about how to use cell phones. This lack of does not bode well for a country that wants to become more influential. Looking for excuses, people often relies on the point that the Chinese culture does not encourage critical thinking, direct confrontation, vigorous arguments and debates about issues that affect personal and public life. For more important reasons in modern China, the country’s governing power often deliberately prevents citizens (with state-run mechanisms) from monitoring the short-term and long-term government policy that spends taxpayers money and impacts their lives.

New York Times started a dedicated science section ever since 1978 (I am now a daily subscriber to its RSS feed). In 1989, there were 95 newspapers that routinely run science columns (down to 34 in year 2008 because of the emergence of web reporting and the current economic crisis). There are also established science writing programs that provide trainings for future science journalists (for good examples, University of California at Santa Cruz, Boston University, MIT). The World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) has a helpful online training courses in multiple languages including Chinese.

In the developing world, Arab and India have increasing emphasis on science journalism. See this essay in Nature, which describes the current development of science journalism in the Arabic world, in which I see much similarity to the current situation in China: walk along the government line instead of be critical and skeptical because most media are state-owned, lack of English-language skills in communication, lack of PR departments in research institutes and universities that write and disseminate high-quality research news. Also,
as a side note, one of my students is going to Saudi Arabia for graduate study in
biology. We used to see flocks of students going overseas to the United States (still the best destination for graduate students to gain higher education).
Now things are evolving.

China is yet to develop a professional reporting industry (left alone science journalism). I am not aware of any major news outlet that has any serious reporting for science (UPDATE: in earlier this year, a new magazine called Science News starts to publish biweekly. I will be certainly following it). Not in China Daily and not in Shanghai Daily (both are state-owned media in English language). Even if these newspaper publish science reports, most reports are copied from foreign news agencies (most time without even citing the sources) and it is uncommon to find original reports. When you go to any newsstand on the street, you won’t be able to find any magazine that contributes science contents to general public (with exception such Chinese translation of Scientific American). The iconic examples in the US are Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Popular Science, Seed Magazine, National Geographic (China has a cooperative counterpart of NG, which publishes translated articles from NG. In the current July issue, it runs a story about my home city — Chengdu. Great!). All the above news media run professional web contents as well.

In this country where internet contents are systematically filtered and blocked and where TV, radio and newspapers are controlled (by your tax money), there is a dire need to report in a journalistic manner. We’ve witness that science debates fell on deaf ears. Rationales gave way to unjustifiable decisions that ignore hard evidences and scientific data. Notorious examples include disastrous Three Gorge Dam (see this report at Scientific American) and wasteful Shanghai Maglev.