Category Archives: China

Here Comes the Sun

In the last year I’ve been conducting an involuntary experiment: finding the effects of pollution on my brain. Beijing has provided the perfect setting for this, giving me plenty of opportunities to observe the nuances of having enough pm 2.5 particles roaming around in my lungs. If you don’t know what pm 2.5 particles are then you probably live in a beautiful fantasy world where you can see the sky on a clear day and buildings are not shrouded in mist half of the time, and by “fantasy world” I mean anywhere but China. Sometimes I have trouble believing I ever lived in such a place.

The last three months have been particularly enlightening. We have had an air quality index (aqi) of 200 for weeks on end: just so you get an idea, frequent exposure to anything above 20 is considered harmful and has long-term effects on your health. I haven’t seen a blue sky since, well, I really don’t remember. But it was long ago. This doesn’t mean it was cloudy or foggy: most days it was bloody hot. It was just smoggy.

People in Beijing say that pollution accumulates when there’s not enough wind or when it doesn’t rain. Surprisingly, though, these last months we’ve had plenty of wind and thunderstorms, which haven’t lowered the pollution index one bit. I work in a school and our students aren’t allowed to go out if the index is above 180. We’ve had them in almost every day for the last 2 months. Of course, the children are going wild. So are the adults.

Serious air pollution

Serious air pollution (Photo credit: Andrew.T@NN)

Today, though, things are different. The pollution index is only 60 and I can see the sky. It is exhilarating. It almost reminds me of what it was like to have a life, to be able to enjoy a walk in the park or just an evening in an outdoor restaurant. Unfortunately, the blue sky only lasted for 2 hours and now it’s gray again, though this time it’s clouds. At least I can see the buildings in front of me without the haze, which is kind of nice.

Anyway, the effects on my brain. First, I need to say I’m a light weight, which means stockier people will probably not be as affected. I’ve also had plenty of stomach problems caused by the amazing variety of bacteria and protozoa present in the city’s restaurants’ food, which has contributed to weakening my immune system and probably lowered my IQ a good 20 points since I came to live here. I am not joking: sometimes when I see stuff I wrote, say, 5 years ago, I can barely understand it, let alone produce something of the same quality. My brain is perpetually shrouded in mist.

Mist or not, I have observed a correlation between high pollution at night and not sleeping well. With the same number of hours, sleeping when the air is bad will usually lead to restless dreams and a pretty bad morning. It will also cause frequent headaches and dry eyes. When exercising in pollution, you can expect to experience mental fog for the rest of the day. I have checked this by biking to work with and without a mask on days where the AQI was over 200. The difference was spectacular and would go from waking up fresh to spending the rest of the day unable to write anything or focus on the simplest tasks.

Beijing smog as seen from the China World Hote...

Beijing smog as seen from the China World Hotel, March 2003, during the SARS outbreak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the pollution is extremely high (around 300 or more; this year we got to 700, which was literally off the charts) its effects are noticeable even indoors. When it’s only 200, spending 5 hours outside will make your lungs feel like you smoked a packet of cigarettes; there is a funny, ticklish feeling when you take a deep breath.

The pollution can be smelled and touched. It has a burnt metal tinge to it though, after a while, it becomes hard to notice. You only realize how bad it is if you wear a mask and then you take it off. This sometimes happens even at home: the smog gets in despite the filters and the fact that our windows are always closed. Of course, the inability to ventilate inside causes a build-up of CO2 and an absence of oxygen, which in turn will make everyone dizzy and sleepy in almost any interior setting. But the alternative is worse.

When I say pollution can be touched I mean that, after around 20 seconds outside, you’ll start noticing a layer of dust has deposited on your hands and your face. In fact, rubbing your eyes will very likely cause a persistent itch that will only fade when adding water and soap. Pollution and dust will gather on any device, which makes computers extremely short-lived. Bikes need constant maintenance, especially if parked outside.

The pollution doesn’t live only in the air. There is plenty of lead to go around, as it and other heavy metals can be found in spades in your vegetables. Even western brands such as Lipton lower their standards for the Chinese market, where their tea was found last year to contain high amounts of pesticides, some of which were neurotoxins. You can also find plenty of lead in yoghurts and pills, since they’re made with gelatin. Apparently, using industrial gelatin (made with old shoes, for instance) is cheaper. A study last year found more than 50% percent of all capsules for medicine to be made with the latter. The same applied to ice-cream, yoghurt and soft drinks.

Summarizing, I recommend anyone with a scientific attitude and a healthy dose of curiosity to come to Beijing and try these things out for themselves. They will find the city a rich source of information on the dangers of air, water and food pollution and will experience first-hand the advantages of de-regulation.

Me, I’m going to enjoy my day of clean air while it lasts and brace myself for the next two weeks of misery.

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Should We Ban Imports from Countries that Violate Human Rights?

As jobs continue to disappear in the industrialized world, many blame technology. They are partially right. However, there is another culprit: delocalization. Most of our products are now manufactured in developing countries, where human resources are substantially cheaper. This allows us to have greater purchasing power, since we can acquire goods that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, were they made at home. That’s the story they tell us, anyway.

However, all this talk of cheap products being beneficial for the working class is deluded at best and an outright, deliberate lie at worst. The working class is disappearing precisely because of this: all of those jobs have left and been turned into precarious, nefarious ones in countries that would allow this. The people who relied on these jobs have gone on to unemployment or a lower-quality, lower-pay position. How do I know it is lower pay? The answer is straightforward: as jobs get outsourced to developing countries, there is less demand for workers, whereas offer stays the same. Hence, less pay. Also, the data shows I’m right (see below).MiddleClassGraphs_web_21

So yes, we can afford an iPhone, but not because it is made in China. If it wasn’t made in China but in the US and every single manufacturing job that’s been outsourced had stayed in the US, you would be paying more for your phone, but you’d have a considerably higher salary. Don’t be fooled: outsourcing only has one beneficiary. I’ll give you a clue:  it is not the working class.

There’s something baffling about the whole outsourcing conundrum. If I have a company in, say, Spain, and I offer salaries under the minimum wage, with no social security, I will go to jail. The reason I’ll go to jail is what I’ll be doing is against the law; it’s against the law because it’s considered immoral. However, I can start a subsidiary of my company in China and do exactly that, but to Chinese people. In fact, I can be even more brutal and, if I’m lucky and have friends within the Party, get away with polluting, exploiting and pretty much whatever tickles my fancy. Why do the laws of my country allow me to do this? Beats me. I thought human beings were the same everywhere; apparently, I was wrong. Spanish people don’t want to be exploited? Never mind! I’ll go to China and find someone who does.

The fact that a Spanish company (or a Chinese company that exports to the West) can do this puts companies who do the right thing at a disadvantage. Now, before we go into why good companies are at a disadvantage, let’s focus on what I mean when I say “the right thing.” To me, it is a combination of:

  1. Offering decent wages.
  2. Having reasonable working hours.
  3. Providing social security coverage and/or insurance.
  4. Not abusing their workers verbally or physically.
  5. Other common-sensical stuff I’m sure I don’t need to add here, like maternity leaves, etc.

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China ...

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now to why good companies are at a disadvantage. Let’s see: if I have a company that makes some product and wants to compete with the rest, I have a choice. I can either act immorally (exploiting workers in developing countries with working conditions that would be inadmissible in the West) and have a competitive edge; I can also act morally and lose it, since my products will be more expensive than those of the competition.

But careful! This does not happen because companies are evil: this happens because our laws are made in such a way that they pretty much enforce this behavior.

(Of course, let’s not be naïve. If we have the laws we have, it’s because they’ve been lobbied for by companies. So probably they didn’t have a drive to not be evil in the first place. Like Eric Schmidt said when confronted with his Google’s questionable tax-evasion practices: “we are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” Apparently, for Schmidt “capitalism” means not paying the taxes that allow roads, hospitals and schools to be built.)

English: Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of G...

Way to go, Eric. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This situation was, until now, quite beneficial for Western companies. Only now they’re starting to realize it may not have been such a great idea. The Chinese, apparently, weren’t content with being exploited: they started creating their own businesses, using every single tactic from their Western counterparts and harboring the good will of their government, which enables them compete in even more favorable circumstances. This has resulted in the almost complete control of the telecommunication infrastructure market by Huawei, for example, which has strong ties to the Chinese government. Suddenly, Western companies are losing the edge.

This situation could be easily averted, though. It would be as simple as banning imports from countries which do not respect human rights or, at least, taxing them severely, so that employing people in sub-human conditions would stop being a good business decision. This way, manufacturing would go back to the West and jobs would be recovered. At this time of economic uncertainty, they’re sorely needed.

What would be reasonable conditions for lifting the ban/taxes and establishing a free market zone? Equal labor laws. It makes sense to have toll-free circulation of goods between countries with the same standard of living which treat their workers similarly. It doesn’t make sense to give the countries which do the wrong thing an unfair advantage. The recent attack against social welfare in Europe can be seen as the logical consequence of this: if countries like China do better, precisely because their workers are less protected, it seems logical to follow their steps in order to grow as fast as the Asian giant.

But this is a terrible idea: it aims to level the playing field to the lowest possible conditions. Shouldn’t be doing the opposite? Shouldn’t we be leveling the playing field so that all workers, Chinese included, had better conditions? Aren’t we going backwards? Who, exactly, benefits from this? I would argue not even the Chinese do. If China was not allowed to export to Europe unless it had better labor laws (and human rights, since we’re at it) the pressure on the government to make some changes would be huge, especially with the growing middle class and the amount of companies which depend on exports to the West in order to survive. This law would not only benefit workers in the West, but workers everywhere, by forcing their countries to treat them right or be left out of the free market zone.

Someone may question the economic viability of this. I would reply that this is not an economic argument: this is a moral argument. Companies should not be allowed to treat their workers unfairly. If they do, they shouldn’t be allowed to sell their goods, regardless of the benefits this may have for the economy. The economy, let’s not forget, is the people. And if the people cannot lead a dignified life, then the stock market can rise as high as it wants to. It won’t make a lick of a difference.

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Don’t Think about Sex

We live in an age that’s obsessed about sex. We sell things with sex, we talk about it incessantly and it’s present in almost every movie. Porn is readily available on-line and anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of curiosity has seen a fair share of it.

So why does this happen? Why weren’t we so obsessed before? How have we turned into this debauc

hed society?

Or have we?

As I was reading “The Antidote”, a pretty fun book on negative thinking, I came across a sentence about sex: the more you try not to think about it, the more aroused you become. This happens for the same reason that someone forbidding you to laugh makes things even more hilarious; if I tell you “don’t think of a polar bear” you will instantly, well, do what you just did. Could our current obsession with sex be related to that?

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sex and Christianity

So I started wondering about what the Christian obsession with vilifying sex has done to us. By telling us that even thinking about it is sinful, Christianity has spurred precisely what it was trying to avoid. Of course, the more you think about it, the guiltier you feel and the harder you try, thus making you think more about it. (It is also possible this was a clever marketing trick: force people into sinning and watch them come to church in spades).

Then I thought about how Catholic priests must be doing in that area and I understood a lot of stuff.

So we could see this craze about sex as being created precisely because of the taboo about sex that has been the norm in society for the last century.

English: US Secretary Gutierrez meets with Chi...

Chinese Minister Bo Xilai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sex and China

However, I think that blaming Christianity for this is a little unfair. I live in China, were Christianity has a testimonial presence, and the taboo about sex is as great as in the West. Not surprisingly, the debauchery happening behind the scenes is pretty shocking too. Every month we see as scandal involving some government official and a bunch of young ladies. Most actresses in the country are known to have reached fame through borderline prostitution. In fact, some of them do prostitution: a couple of famous actresses are actually known to charge one million dollars per session. Bo Xilai, recently convicted for corruption, was one of the customers. The minister of transportation slept with the whole cast of the TV show “Dream of a red mansion”; after that, all of these actresses went on to have extremely successful careers. The minister himself ended up in jail for corruption, being responsible for the high-speed train crash that killed hundreds of people some years ago.

I don’t know if the same is true for Japan, but if it was it would explain a lot.


Buddhism (Photo credit: shapour bahrami)

Sex and Buddhism

One of the things that shocked me when visiting monasteries in Thailand was that women were not allowed to wear “provocative” clothes, with the argument that they would be distracting to the monks. I don’t know about you, but I have done maybe 100 hours of meditation in my whole life and I have no problem not getting distracted by a woman in a tank-top. You’d think that those monks, who supposedly are way closer to enlightenment, would have even less trouble not caring. Even if they did, couldn’t they make their arousal the subject of their meditation, just like they make pain? I suspect this idea that women shouldn’t mix with men in temples or that provocative clothes shouldn’t be worn around monks are based on ancient prejudices, rather than in logic. Crap, if you’re in such control of your emotions you don’t even fear death, a woman wearing a short skirt hardly seems like a challenge.

This image shows the coding region in a segmen...

This image shows the coding region in a segment of eukaryotic DNA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sex and Genetics

I know many people who haven’t been raised as Catholics, but they too seem to be obsessed about sex (though this obsession does seem to wane with age). Could it be that it’s just the way we’re programmed? After all, sex is the one thing our genes need us to do. The obsession, then, is thoroughly justified and will happen whatever you do. Of course, if you try not to think about it, the whole thing may get even worse.

What to Do, What to Do?

So what’s the healthy attitude towards sex? How should we approach it? Should we think about it all the time? Not think about it? Think about it but not attach to the thought? Write about it in our blog?

Fucked if I now.

(This post was inspired by livelysceptic’s recent series on sex).

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David Yerle Writes about a Chinese Wedding

Wedding decorations

Wedding decorations

David Yerle goes to a Chinese wedding and decides to write about it, even though it has nothing to do with science, technology or philosophy.

He gets to the newlyweds’ house the day before. The place actually belongs to the groom’s parents, who will give it to the couple as a wedding gift. In this case, the bride has graciously acceded to let the parents live with them, so they won’t have to move out.

Everything is new, from the furniture to the flat screen TV set, including a ceiling lamp which plays music when turned on. David Yerle wonders what that’s for.

The next day the ceremony starts at five in the morning. With firecrackers. Their function is to let the neighbors know a wedding is taking place. Judging by the power of the explosions, the neighbors are well informed. Next, the relatives start trickling in.

After the firecrackers it is time for the groom to go and pick up the bride, who is at her parents’ house. He takes a car and a cohort of relatives, who drive away into the dawn not to be seen for a good three hours.

Tubes with something similar to confetti in them

Tubes with something similar to confetti in them

David Yerle stays in the background and is shown on parade to a group of relations who have never seen a foreigner before. He smiles and says “ni hao.” He doesn’t understand a word because his Chinese is not great and, anyway, everyone speaks in dialect. After a while the novelty wears off and the relatives move on to better things.

The bride arrives at eight o’clock, preceded by a couple of detonations to announce her. In the backyard, mat has been prepared so that she can kneel before her parents-in-law to show respect. A brick has been included in the mat to make the showing of respect a bit more difficult and because people find it funny.

Everyone leaves at eight thirty to go to the restaurant, where a very early lunch is being served. On one side there are the groom’s mother’s relatives; on the other, the father’s. The bride’s relatives are nowhere to be seen: the parents are not allowed to go, sending in their stead two women who are in charge of protecting their daughter from her new family. The men are in charge of the feast and are not allowed to eat; the older women have to cook and will have a morsel after everybody else. The restaurant does not have enough dishes and some of them have to be supplied by the groom’s family.

The food the women were preparing

The food the women were preparing

In the restaurant’s patio a man has a list of names written on a background of red paper. People come and give some money, normally around 10 RMB, which will be recorded next to their names. The final sum will be allotted to the groom’s parents.

When the lunch is over everyone heads back to the house for the final ceremony. In it, the bride, surrounded by their two protectors and a myriad of women from her new family, is made to bend down in front of her new relatives. When she refuses to do so, they force her. When she finally does, one of the women hits her in the head. Others follow suit and keep trying throughout the ceremony. Her protectors do what they can to make sure she avoids most of the harm.

While some people try to hit her, others give her money. An older man produces another list with names on them, which are called one by one. People give different amounts depending on their degree of relationship to the newlyweds, going from 10 RMB to 4,000. When everybody has given their share, it is over. The relatives go back home.

The house is a mess. There are sunflower seed shells all over the floor, together with packets of cigarettes and confetti. The family does not clean it: according to the tradition, it has to be left that way for a day.

At night the relatives come back. First, the women. They swarm into the bride’s new room and make her and her husband perform different actions, with the goal of amusing themselves at their expense. After a while the bride runs away, crying, and seeks shelter with her sister-in-law, who provides it. Time goes by. The women try to convince her to go back to her room. Finally she does. They are satisfied and, shortly after, they leave.

It is time for the men. They, too, come with the purpose of humiliating their friend. This time, it’s the groom’s turn. He bears it a little better than his wife, whom they try to get into the game. She refuses. In this case it’s a friendly pull and push which goes on for almost half an hour, until the men give up. At half past nine they leave.

The bride lets out a sigh of relief. Finally, the wedding’s over.