Monday, December 17, 2012

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.

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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cold-proof choo-choos

It has been cold here. We received more snow here, prompting a British colleague to ask me when it would ever stop.

The weather prediction for the next couple days is not unbearable.

But let's not talk about the weather; that is not an exciting lede. Let's talk about trains. The NZWeek has a story: China's cold-proof trains to withstand sharp temperature changes.

So now, those of us who live in the "renowned imperial capital of Changchun" will be able to zoom to Harbin for the ice festival in mid-winter and zoom to the famous beach-side community of Dalian in mid-summer.

In frigid northeastern China, in the city of Harbin is hosting its 26th annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Massive buildings built of ice from the frozen surface of the nearby Songhua River, large scale snow sculptures, ice slides, festival food and drinks can be found in several parks in the city. At night, visitors who endure the bitter cold will see the lights switched on, illuminating the sculptures from both inside and outside. This year's festival opened yesterday, January 5th, and will remain open until some time in February. Collected here are several photos from just before the festival, and of the opening night. (Boston Globe, Jan. 6, 2010)

Dalian has won several awards from the United Nations for its environmental progress. The Chinese government has chosen to focus here as a starting place for instituting environmental regulations in China. The air quality is the best in all of China, and because of this and the multitude of parks and beaches, Dalian has become a popular vacation destination.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

China: Oil and Energy

Irresponsible reporting is not why I read the New York Times and Washington Post to the exclusion of other newspapers, but this article from the Times has its emphasis seriously misplaced: Oil Supply is Rising, but Demand Keeps Pace. It is only when you get down to about the sixth paragraph that you get the less than rosy picture that oil production and consumption will keep growing for years to come. Of course, the title of the piece (written by somebody else) does betray that fact so maybe I should cut the writer some slack for his Pollyanna lede.

"In 1969, the United States consumed a third of the oil used in the world, while China used less than 1 percent. Last year the United States’ share was less than 22 percent, while the Chinese accounted for 11 percent. The I.E.A. forecasts that by 2030, the American share could be less than the Chinese one." The patterns of consumption are changing and so are patterns of generation and production. The Oil Forecast chart that accompanies the article shows what is happening.

Also, of interest are the changes in electric capacity. In the United States, the chart below shows in stunning relief the nuclear booms (no pun intended) of the mid-1970s and mid-'80s. More obvious still, is a huge increase in natural gas plants since Enron went belly-up. If you look carefully, you all see that from the late '60s to the mid-'80s, we actually built a lot of oil-powered electric plants (brown).

The same data does not exist in the same form for China, but my conjecture is that coal is to China what natural gas has been to the United States. Forecasts from the EIA available at are the foundation for my supposition. Specifically, their international energy outlook says,
At present, China is installing approximately 900 megawatts of coal-fired capacity (equivalent to one large coal-fired power plant) per week. However, it also has been retiring old, inefficient plants to help slow the rate of increase in the nation's carbon intensity. From 2006 to 2010, China retired almost 71 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity, including 11 gigawatts in 2010, and it plans to retire an additional 8 gigawatts in 2011. [referencing IHS Global Insight, "Chinese Government Reportedly Meets National Target for Closing Old Coal-Fired Power Plants" (June 26, 2010), website (subscription site)].
In other words, they are opening "modern" coal plants at the rate of about one gigawatt per week while taking old ones off line at a slightly higher clip. Despite looming siting and approval battles, nuclear production is at the bottom of what most expect to be an upward slope. That is to say, as China's consumption catches and eclipses America's, oil, coal and nuclear will be the foundation for this growth.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

More About Weiqi

Miss me? Want to play the Game of Go. I have found a website that teaches you how and allows you to play: It will even allow you to improve your rank. This is the first video in a series which will explain the three fundamental rules and the major concepts (judgment and balance) of this ancient game.

I hope to get really good, but, truth be told, to be really good, you must start when you are really young. A month ago, my Chinese teacher took me to a special club for learning the Game of Go, or Weiqi. It was all aimed at children. Since ancient times, playing this game has been considered one of the primary arts here.

The Four Arts (四藝, siyi), or the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar, were the four main accomplishments required of the Chinese scholar gentleman. They are qin (the guqin, a stringed instrument. 琴), qi (the strategy game of Go, 棋), shu ( Chinese calligraphy 書) and hua (Chinese painting 畫).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Flying Tigers and Shenawlt

Before going to Chongqing, I had never heard of Chennault, despite his appearing on the cover of Time and Life during the course of the Second World War. I had heard of Four-Star General Joseph Stilwell, relieved of command by FDR in 1944, but was not familiar with Lieutenant General Claire Lee Chennault (September 6, 1893 – July 27, 1958). In one of the most infamous internecine debates of the war, Stilwell differed as to strategy with his subordinate, Claire Chennault, who had the ear of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In the end, Chiang Kai-shek asked FDR to recall Stilwell and replace him with anybody else, because "Vinegar Joe", who would die of stomach cancer a couple years later, could not cooperate with his Allies or Chinese leadership. 

A contentious officer, Chennault was a fierce advocate of "pursuit" or fighter-interceptor aircraft during the 1930s when the U.S. Army Air Corps was focused primarily on high-altitude bombardment. Chennault retired in 1937, went to work as an aviation trainer and adviser in China, and commanded the "Flying Tigers" during World War II, both the volunteer group and the uniformed units that replaced it in 1942. His family name is French and is normally pronounced shen-o. However, his family being Americanized, the name was instead pronounced "shen-AWLT."

My photograph of the bust of Gen. Stilwell on a rainy Thursday morning in Chongqing.
In Chongqing, there are two museums right across from each other. The one that gets the attention and glory is the headquarters of Stilwell, but there is so little to see and I was reprimanded for taking pictures of the sparsely furnished apartments. Across the street is the gem: the museum of the Flying Tigers. Lots of fairly well-written captions and a series of photographs brought me up to speed and filled me in about the air campaign in Burma during WWII. If the two museums would combine and seek some serious donations of planes and other paraphernalia, this sleepy little street could become one of the most important tourist stops in the city.

Further down this 1.5 lane, two-way byway is the gate to the property that served as the headquarters of Stilwell.

The entrance to the Flying tigers Museum could easily be missed.

The baseball bat used by the Flying Tigers. Sooo cool!

The dining room of the Stilwell residence. The only picture I was able to capture.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

For the Gorgeous San Xia!

I bought a book: The Magnificent Three Gorges Project. It was 120RMB with ten postcards thrown in for free. It is in dreadful Chinglish and the preface, signed by "Editors", concludes with:
  • For workers of the Three Gorges Project!
  • For people move out of their hometown in reservoir area!
  • For friends who loves the Three Gorges!
  • For the originators who brought culture here!
  • For the grandness Three Gorges Project!
  • For the eternal Three Gorges!
This chant should give you a sense of the book's perspective. There is even a section on how the dam is ready for the "menace of war." The book opens with the magnificent Mao Zedong's magnificent poem, called "Swimming" scrawled in his magnificent calligraphy.

Ma Zedong's "Swimming"
In 1956, the year my nearly eighty year-old father graduated from Harvard ("tough as nails, hard a bricks"), Mao is said to have offered a blueprint for the project, but the people of the Yangtze River valley would need to wait until 1992 for the National People's Congress to resolve that it should be constructed. Even Sun Yat-sen had designs on tapping the power of China's greatest river.

Lonely Planet, among other unreliable sources, contends that it is the largest dam in the world. By only one measure is it so. It has the world's largest instantaneous generating capacity (22,500 MW), with the Itaipu dam in Brazil/Paraguay in second place (14,000 MW). The highest dam is an earthen embankment type dam of 300 M in Tajikistan. Hirakud Dam in Orissa, India, is the longest in the world. It is 26 km or 16 miles long. Also, the Afsluitdijk in the Netherlands, build between 1927 and 1932, is 30 km long [32.5 km if you take the parts on land into account]. It divides the Zuiderzee [now called IJsselmeer] and the Waddenzee so it is really a dam, not a dijk.

It is not the largest lock in the world, either. It takes about 40 minutes to go through each of the five steps. This picture shows the second set of doors closing aft of the Princess Jeannie (our cruise ship), followed by a picture taken several minutes later that shows how it drains.

Of course, the beautiful parts of the Three Gorges are what remains of the natural environment.

One of the only places in the world where water flows uphill! (Just kidding.)

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ad from the Chongqing Rail Transit

For obvious reasons, I am dedicating this entry to my parents, but with the caveat that I would find this ad repulsive in the United States, but in the land of Confucian filial piety, I find it even more horrendous and distasteful. Perhaps I am giving the Lee's what they want by sharing their ad. I hope not.