Archive for June, 2007

Circumstance and Pomp

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

zju1_2365.jpgnew campus is constructed on wetlandsmain medical school buildingspring lab outingI

t’s commencement week at ZheDa = ZJU = Zhejiang University. (Since the Chinese language doesn’t have letters, it can’t form “initials”, but it does have syllables, each corresponding to a character, so it can leave out all but a few key ones, leaving a shortened, but euphonious expression.) A little late by American standards. The start of the Spring semester is governed by the Lunar New Year, and consequently shifts back and forth, when reckoned a la Pope Gregory. Fitting, given the number of people in places of power who think of universities as quaint, at best, or tending toward lunatic.

But you would recognize the scene. In the field house of the Yuquan campus (the old, but still much used campus nicely situated just west of West Lake) some 10,000 graduates marched across the stage. All color-coded by school and degree level. The man at the podium changed with the colors. Only the guy center stage stayed and stayed, for all ten thousand, I presume — clearly some sort of custodian in academic robes. Like most other spectators and students I drifted in and out of the field house as “my group” came and went. Only later did I confirm that the focal point of the on-stage photo opportunity was the university president, a custodian in academic robes.

I think I am not guilty of chauvinism to suggest that everything, including the mortarboard, was patterned on western, indeed, American academic custom. Names and faces notwithstanding, there were few hints that this was taking place in China. Missing, I register only in retrospect, were any grand academic musical ouvertures. But why not some of the clang-and-bang of a Chinese Opera ensemble? Now that would be just the right local seasoning for this mock turtle soup.

Of course, the real observances occurred before and after the official. Several parties — read, convocations at a local restaurant — with increasingly bleary eyed “gan bei’s” led up to the day itself. Nonetheless everyone was sober enough to tromp in larger or smaller groups to sentimental spots (on whichever campus they regard as mater) for photos in black robes under a by now sweltering Hangzhou sun.

Not incidental to the occasion was a program aired on CCTV a few days ago, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the reinstatement of the university entrance exam system. Reinstatement after an interruption of several years during which the Cultural Revolution declared that the only appropriate credentials for university entrance were proletarian ones. The results of that excess exuberance were, by all accounts, not so good.

Yet is there not a grain of sense to be found there? Performance on a one-swat, homogenized exam, as currently in force, is not so hunky-dory. For those urban elite with excellent secondary training, it’s a hell of a lot of pressure. For those children so carelessly left behind in the educational slums of China’s backwaters, it’s a non-starter.

But the day belonged to those celebrating their successful entrance and exit from a system not of their devising. I didn’t begrudge them a heartfelt “congratulations.”


Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

browsing for pornkindergarten behind my apartmenton the way to worknew housing near campus

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

Some of my readership (i.e. one of the four) have asked about internet access in China. Let’s consider Wikipedia, about whose inaccessibility I have groused previously. The public facts go something like this: in the fall of 2005, when Microsoft and Yahoo and Cisco Systems, were falling over themselves trying to please the Beijing censors, the Wiki folks said “nothing doing, we’re all or none” — and were summarily nullified. Supposedly the ban was lifted a year later, when the Chinese satisfied themselves that they could filter out the bits they didn’t like without Wiki’s collaboration. But in fact, from March until now I have garnered nothing but “url unreachable” messages when I have clicked of Wikipedia links.

One would think that with all that negative reinforcement I would have given up on clicking wikilinks. But I did click – in my jubilation I forget the context – and was finally rewarded with the Wiki homepage! But hold on. Let’s click the Chinese version: sorry…; How about “Tiananmen”? “Tiananmen Square” yields all impressive discriptions and photos of the vast area. “Tiananmen massacre”: sorry…; “Tiananmen movement”: sorry…; sorry…; sorry… So I can happily conclude that indeed the Chinese university system is turning out crop after crop of very talented network engineers, who, quite without the collusion of amoral Western computer scientists, are quite able to put in place very nuanced “filters” on web content.

The good news — tongue now removed from cheek — is that I can talk to some of the students here in the Medical School about such things, and find them well informed. Remembering the PBS Frontline documentary last year on the “Tiananmen Tank Man”, the technological gauntlet is flung down; how can I resist? okay; Frontline: okay; there spread before my eyes are all the excellent documentaries. Almost there, let’s click “The Tank Man”: “An error condition occurred while reading data from the network…”! Damn it! So I reluctantly descend into the netherworld of “the pirate’s bay”. Searching for “tank man” …. there it is! Click “download” and …, got it! With sincere apologies to the intellectual rights of Frontline, but invoking the Jesuit doctrine of ends justifying means, I succeed in enlightening two-billioneths of the Chinese masses.

Maybe. Let’s hope neither are snitches.

Earth Tones

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

Three months on, and not a single health problem, unless you consider a marked increase in farting a health problem. Not surprising to me, given that my intestinal flora has doubtless been wholly revamped and my dietary intake qualitatively changed. Though I’m not aware of any mathematical models that would predict the direction of the shift to a new equilibrium, it seems to have been an upward adjustment.

If we assume the same rate of methane production pertains in a billion plus Chinese bowels, exposed to the same flora and taking in the same raw materials, that represents a lot of gas. Methane, as anyone who cooks with gas will know, is a high-caloric, colorless and odorless gas. You’re probably thinking you’ve spotted a flaw in the argument already: odorless? Yes, it’s simply spiked with a little mercaptomethane, as a safety feature, so that you’ll know when you left the gas spigot on. Ah, you meant biologically? Well, that’s also spiked with a few contaminants, presumably part of the intelligent design not to let us get away scot-free with sinful acts.

But let us not lose the main spoor. I’m thinking globally. Because of its caloric content, it, in its billion-fold manifestation, represents a huge loss of energy, and renewable energy at that, daily renewed. At the personal level, this may explain why the Chinese seem to eat so much but stay so slim. A large portion of those food calories they just blow off. To the perspicacious, this immediately suggests a business plan. If Dannon, for example, could hire a few genetic engineers to graft a couple of methanococcus genes into their lactobacillus, they might actually sustain a claim that eating their yogurt has a net negative effect on calorie balance. Atkins, move over. Sure, it would have to bear a G.M.O. label, but Americans don’t give a fart about that.

Methane, even more than carbon dioxide, has a powerful greenhouse effect. But think twice before you write that off as a fatal flaw. Consider Chinese greenhouses, which allow them to get three harvests of veggies per year, one has to assume because the the density of methane in Chinese greenhouses. Sevananda would endorse that. And Karl Rove could parlay the “China-Effect” into a compelling reason to tighten the new Bush post-Kyoto-proposal: it’s only fair to hold the Chinese to their current 1/5 per capita CO2 emission, compared to the U.S., because their per anica CH4 emission is so terrific.

I am sure there is a connection here also to the old Alsatian aphorism that a farting horse doesn’t tire. I’ve tried googling to find a correlation between flatulence and economic growth. But without success. The economists – Marxist or capitalist – apparently haven’t got a whiff of an idea. Economists generally make do with mere correlation, but my hypothese promises scientific explanation with a direct cause-and-effect relationship. And to think of some of the lame issues which have won Nobel prizes in Economics.

Don’t just divulge these ideas to anyone. I need to do more research before applying for patent protection. The bath water is running, and I have been able to find some wide-mouth Chinese jars.