Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Adventure

In my life, I have been extraordinarily lucky. Between twenty and thirty years ago, I was in a car accident with my maternal grandmother where I cracked the windshield with my forehead and...maybe that explains a lot.

In 1996, I was standing amidst four trees that were hit by lightning and I emerged unscathed, laying down in a tent to giggle for a half-hour or so as Monty Python-like God-rays streamed from the heavens.

In 2005, I flipped my Honda Civic in the snow at 4:30AM. Enough said!

Yesterday, I started to get into a taxi and he rolled over my foot with his rear tire. My foot was fully stuck beneath the tire, but my shoe (the important part) and my foot are both fine. The mystified driver (what were all those four-letter German words coming out of my mouth?) decided not to roll forward or backward, which in retrospect seems wise as he might then have crushed some bones. I just yanked it out and he agreed to take me and the two people with me to our destination, a service I think he would otherwise have been unwilling to provide. If you are not by yourself, it is increasingly hard, especially as a waiguoren, to get a cab here. If you are by yourself, they can pick up one or two other people en route and make more money.

I am writing this Boxing Day morning in gratitude for all of the near misses in life. Share your funny and miraculous, stories, too!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hark! The End of the World is Nigh...

Today is the end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar, or, at least, the end of the era of the Corn People, according to 2012: A Time for Change. To celebrate, I spent twelve hours in bed until I was rousted by a colleague asking if I knew about the fire at 7.8 Mall last night. (Alas, it is the beginning of the end!) I got up and ate candle sausage (腊肠) for breakfast.

Today is also the beginning of winter in China, which has 24 special days to mark the year. Some of the names will sound familiar; others are pure poetry.

立春 the Beginning of Spring

雨水 Rain Water

惊蛰 the Waking of Insects

春分 the Spring Equinox

清明 Pure Brightness

谷雨 Grain Rain


立夏 the Beginning of Summer

小满 Grain Full

芒种 Grain in Ear

夏至 the Summer Solstice

小暑 Slight Heat

大暑 Great Heat


立秋 the Beginning of Autumn

处暑the Limit of Heat

白露 White Dew

秋分 the Autumnal Equinox

寒露 Cold Dew

霜降 Frost's Descent


立冬 the Beginning of Winter

小雪 Slight Snow

大雪 Great Snow

冬至 the Winter Solstice

小寒 Slight Cold

大寒 Great Cold

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Father Verbiest and the Early Automobile

This post is dedicated to my amazing student known as Todd, who has memorized one of John F. Kennedy's speeches in a recognizable Massachusetts' accent! Todd wants to own his own car manufacturing company some day and has numerous sketches of models that he would like to build. For months, he has been reading David Macaulay's The Way Things Work with me and we also have long conversations about Allied and Axis generals, military uniforms and equipment, and geography. He is thirteen and nearly as tall as his teacher!

Represented (top): Father Matteo Ricci, Father Adam Schaal, and Father Ferdinand Verbiest
Bottom: Paul Siu (Xu Guangqi), Colao or Prime Minister of State; Candide Hiu, grand-daughter of Colao Paul Siu.
Father Ferdinand Verbiest (9 October 1623 – 28 January 1688) was a Flemish Jesuit missionary in China during the Qing Dynasty. He was born in Pittem near Tielt in Flanders (present-day Belgium). He was an accomplished mathematician and astronomer and proved to the court of the Kangxi Emperor that European astronomy was more accurate than Chinese astronomy. He then made some important adjustments to the Chinese calendar and was subsequently asked to rebuild and re-equip the Beijing Ancient Observatory, being given the role of Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Observatory.

If you have been paying attention to this blog for a while, you know that I have written about another Jesuit, Fr. Matteo Ricci of Maceratta in the Papal States (current day Italy) and the subsequent controversy about "Chinese Rites," which still rears its head in our current age. The image above pictures Verbiest, Ricci, and another Jesuit priest, Adam Schaal of Cologne, Germany. Below them are two prominent Chinese Catholics. The one on the left, Paul Siu, was also of great importance in the Qing Dynasty and is considered a pillar of the early Church in the Middle Kingdom.

You may also recall that I wrote about the Kangxi Emperor, who issued a statement basically condemning and banishing Christians as troublemakers and simpletons unable to grasp the intricacies of this five-thousand year-old culture. There are still people here today who feel that we can never understand the Chinese mind or culture. Despite his disgust with the Dominicans and Franciscans who rejected ancient Confucian practices of ancestor worship, the Kangxi Emperor had in Verbiest a valued adviser. Verbiest was the only Westerner in Chinese history to ever receive the honor of a posthumous name from the Emperor.

The steam 'car' designed by Verbiest in 1672 – from an 18th century print
Beside his work in astronomy, Verbiest also experimented with steam. Around 1672 he designed – as a toy for the Chinese Emperor – a steam-propelled trolley which was, quite possibly, the first working steam-powered vehicle ('auto-mobile'). Verbiest describes it in his work Astronomia Europea. As it was only 65 cm long, and therefore effectively a scale model, not designed to carry human passengers, nor a driver, it is not strictly accurate to call it a 'car'.

Steam was generated in a ball-shaped boiler, emerging through a pipe at the top, from where it was directed at a simple, open 'steam turbine' (rather like a water wheel) that drove the rear wheels.

It is not known if Verbiest's model was ever built at the time, although he had access to China's finest metal-working craftsmen who were constructing precision astronomical instruments for him.

The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Verbiest is full of the fascinating trials and tribulations that Verbiest experienced whilst in China. For further reading, you may want to see their description of his life and time.

Source: "Ferdinand Verbiest." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Verbiest>.




Monday, December 17, 2012

Ancient Chinese Temperature Measurement

Most people concur, Galileo invented the first documented thermoscope in about 1592. When informally surveyed by me, none of my Chinese friends could tell me how temperature was measured in ancient China so I decided to do some research. Surely a people who can come up with the compass and all manner of astronomical and meteorological equipment had some way of recording temperature, I thought, but I have come up short. It remains a mystery! We don't know what the ancient Greeks or Egyptians did, either, although there is some theoretical, printed matter on thermometers still extant from the Greeks. Philo of Byzantium and Hero of Alexandria knew of the principle that certain substances, notably air, expand and contract and described a demonstration in which a closed tube partially filled with air had its end in a container of water.

Verbiest's thermometer.
According to a short article in the Geographical Review:
Thermometers and hygroscopes were first introduced into China in the middle of the seventeenth century by Ferdinand Verbiest16 (1623-1688), a disciple of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). Verbiest entered China in the year 1659. From that year until his death he received numerous favors and honors from the Emperor Kan-Si [sic]. For several years he held the post of President of the Board of Mathematics and Astronomy
What I do know empirically is that it was -8 degrees F this morning in Changchun. We have had more snowfall this year already than I witness cumulatively in the previous two winters. I cannot see out the balcony windows because the condensation has totally occluded them.

Guns, Pesticides, and Mental Illness: WHO will do something?

As I sift through the commentary on the tragedy in Fairfield County, there seem to be two camps. One group blames guns and the other, mental illness. One group calls for gun control and the other for more resources for mental health. This is a ridiculous dichotomy. We should do something about both, but we get mired in a debate about our Constitutional right to bear arms and don't seem to know where to begin when it comes to mental health.

James Fallows makes a strong case for why we must do something about guns. He talks about an incident in China last Friday and makes his central point: fewer people died from somebody who was just as crazy as the mixed-up 20 year-old boy from Newtown. Take away the guns and fewer people will die, fewer families will be torn asunder.

ChinaKnife2.png
There are plenty of countries--from Greenland to Russia to Myanmar--where the murder rate is much higher than in the US. In fact, most of southern Africa and northern South America far outstrip the US. Murder rates are not necessarily linked to access to guns, but getting rid of guns will result in fewer deaths in the United States.

My former colleague, Lindsay Hanson, posted a Gawker story from a mother with a child who is monstrously violent. It is a sad reminder of how many seemingly innocent people suffer when their children go astray or turn out to have a bit of the devil in them. This mother's piece was moving, but it was the first, insensitively-worded, raw, hard-hitting comment in the comment section that really stuck with me:
I won't deny, I can't deny, that there is a crisis in mental health care in the US. However, if it was just a question of mental illness, then 33 of the 66 mass shootings the author refers to would have been committed by women. One 1 [sic] was. That undermines the author’s entire argument that the primary cause of these types of events is mental illness.
If you have a child that you know is capable of committing mass murder you have a responsibility to contain them by whatever means are necessary. Your child assaults you? Press charges. Medicate them. Even if it turns them into a zombie. Have them committed to a mental institution. Even if it's a shi**y one. Can't get them into one? Lock them in their bedroom. Surrender them to the state. They threaten to kill themselves? Let them. Because one day they will kill you. And your other children. And perfect strangers.
Just because all the choices are shitty it doesn't mean that you don't have choices. Pick one. Do something because they are your responsibility. And for f**k sake, don't own firearms.
This fellow's comment is a display of the incivility and lack of compassion that some people think contributes to the violence of our society and the breakdown in civil communication; however, he is all very clear about some basic facts:
  • In America, if a child is not 18, the parent is responsible and must take that responsibility seriously even if it means taking draconian steps. [The Gawker-mother has, by all accounts, tried to do what she can. This commenter seems to discount how debilitating her sense of helplessness is. She asked the hospital on an intake form for help! Society owes these families some measure of intervention, too. It may not take a village, but few parents would be able to manage a Michael on their own.]
  • Keeping guns in this woman's household would be akin to giving nuclear weapons to Hamas--one cannot be sure what would happen, but it is a not a risk worth taking.
  • Mass shootings are not only about mental illness.
It is only this last observation that I find interesting and rather haunting. So, then, what is the label that we should ascribe to their behavior? If it is not a result of mental illness, what is it a result of? Why are men so much more likely than women to engage in these desperate, public acts of gun violence?

Taking Away Guns Won't Lower Suicide Rates; Would Lower Accidental Deaths

Guns are not just dangerous as murder weapons; they are implicated in thousands of accidents every year and in thousands of suicides. In terms of suicide, though, it can be argued that if you take guns away, people will resort to other means. In 2009, the British medical journal The Lancet identified Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, Hungary, China, Japan and Kazakhstan as all having exceptionally high rates of suicide, 20 per 100,000 people or higher. (As an aside, I do wonder why the Estonians are the only Baltic State not on The Lancet's list.) In Japan, there are only a handful of murders with firearms each year, but people find a way to kill themselves.

China's suicide rate is amongst the highest in the world. Pesticides are China's smoking gun when it comes to taking one's own life. Pesticide ingestion was implicated in 62% of suicides in China between 1996 and 2000 (around 175 000 cases per year), according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, firearms were used in more than half of all suicides; hanging (23%) and poisoning (18%) lagged far behind as second and third. See also Miller M, Azrael D, Hepburn L, Hemenway D, Lippmann SJ. The association between changes in household firearm ownership and rates of suicide in the United States, 1981-2002. Injury Prevention 2006;12:178-182; doi:10.1136/ip.2005.010850.

The way to tackle suicide rates is not to control guns. This is a mental health and cultural problem.

Accidental death or unintentional death (the fifth leading killer in the US after such things as cancer and heart disease) claimed 118,021 Americans in 2009. Automobile accidents and poisoning were the causes most responsible, followed by accidental falls, fires and choking.
The nation’s accidental death rate has been gradually creeping higher and is up 12 percent compared to the lowest rate on record, in 1992, according to a report released by the National Safety Council.
The independent, nonprofit group warned that if the trend continues, the nation could surpass the all-time high of 116,385 accidental deaths, set in 1969.
From 1969 until 1992, the rate of accidental deaths — a number adjusted for population growth — steadily declined. The council credited seat belts and air bags in vehicles, smoke detectors in homes and stiff drunken driving laws with reducing deaths.
But ground is being lost because of increasing rates of falls among the elderly and accidental overdoses from legal and illegal drugs , said Alan McMillan, CEO of the National Safety Council. Meanwhile, deaths from workplace accidents and car crashes have been fairly stable.
If we want to attack accidental death rates, getting rid of guns is not going to be as effective as waiting for the last of the Baby Boomers to fall downstairs and to more effectively address our (legal and illegal) drug problem. Taking poisons off the market and implementing public transportation options that reduce automobile accidents are the real public policy fixes that we need.

While controlling guns is not the only thing we must do and is not an effective fix for some problems, it is hard to reason that we ought to tolerate the status quo.