Archive for December, 2007

New Year … and new year’s resolution

December 31, 2007
This is the last day of year 2007. The year of 2008 is just minutes away.

And I am trying to make up some new year’s resolutions – they do not need to be fulfilled; their temporal existence signals that I am still having the youthful ignorance of the power of the time, that I still hold some belief that the free will can achieve some marvelous things, that making up these resolutions presents me an outlook of them already realized.

Forget 2007. That year is one when I recover from my silliness in 2006 but in 2008 I need to have a new start.

Here are a few things I have in my mind (probably only for now):

1, stop smoking and be healthy.
2, play go less frequently but every time to play, play with full attention.
3, read more and write more, get ready for future teaching.
4, publish or perish.

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Time to express?

December 30, 2007
Read and read and read and not write, at least not in quantity.

This has been life for all these years.

Maybe that is why sometimes I feel boring, because, it is really hard to try to understand different writers, smart or not, good or bad in style, humorous or tiresome, etc. And also because, there are just so many to read, for which I am sure that, no matter how fast I read and how many time I devote to it, I can only read a teeny tiny bit of all the babbles. Reading seems to be a road never ends. And I doubt if I can get closer to the truth by just reading more.

And maybe, another reason more important is that, probably at least once during one’s life, one has the eccentric gut feelings of the need of leaving a mark of one’s very existence. Life is ephemeral, and one’s existence is doomed to be forgot. The human being is a specie of animals that has a longer short memory: that is, history is reserved by folklores and history books and there are a few persons whose names are known even after 2,000 years. But 2,000 years is just a blink during the evolution of the humans, and already numerous heroes and elites just passed away without any trace of their existence except possibly, in a never-read book in the largest library.

Yet sometimes we just strive to do something, something to prove that we have existed in this earth, at this time. We treasure our names, we hold on the belief that if tremendous things will be done, our names will be remembered by our descendants. It is a short sight, something shared by all the animals, and we think the near future is the first priority. Under this kind of illusion, we belief it is possible that, we can leave a mark by doing something unique, or by expressing ourselves.

It is, of course, the easier one to express oneself, compared to achieving some extremely marvelous high points. That’s why I should just try to express and to write something.

Some benefits are foreseeable. First, surely, I can improve my language usage: writing, vocabulary, style, punctuation, pragmatics, etc. Second, I can improve my thinking, because writing is not easy: it requires force and elegance and deeply thinking. Third, at least I can kill some time by writing, and make life much happier. Forth, of course it will help my career and deepen my understanding of the principles and get me prepared for future teaching.

And, this is something I’d like to do.

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Books in 2007

December 30, 2007
Books I have read in the year of 2007:

Fictions:
The Hobbit, by T.R. Tolkin
The Lord of Ring (3 volumes), T.R. Tolkin
*Harry Porter, 1, by J.K Rollin
Next, by Michael Crichton
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
Of Men and Mice, by John Steinbeck
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Totally 9

Non-fictions:
*The Chinese in America, by Iris Chang
*McGraw Hill Reader, by Gilbert Muller, ed.
*Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
*Right hand, left hand, by Chris McManus
Electric Universe, by David Bodanis
*Western Attitube toward Death, by Philippe Aries
Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Mind Wide Open, by Steven Johnson
Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen
The Ig Nobel prizes (2 volumes), by Marc Abrahams
Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss

Totally 14

Textbooks:
Not counted.

So, all in all, 23 books in English I have read.

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Doing not well = Not doing it

December 29, 2007
Anything not worth doing is worth not doing well. Think about it.
– Elias Schwartz

I don’t know whom is this Elias Schwartz. With a second of googling I guess maybe the name belongs to Elias E. Schwartz jr "Ed", an army general, and now a grandfather.

But this quote is damn right (maybe to a perfectionist). This is the spirit of the A type persons, that they cannot tolerate any mistake, because any mistake may mean it is not doing well, which, according to this general Elias Schwartz, equals to something not worth doing, and hence, by doing that, a bit of the doer’s life is wasted, and wasting time is a sin that these perfectionists have zero tolerance.

But I am not a perfectionist. I just, sometimes, have the feeling of to become a perfectionist, thus to be more fruitful. I have this kind of feeling partly because, I have wasted too much of my time, and I feel not good about it. By definition of mitbbs.com, I am sure to be categorized into the "loser", and to be shamed by those "elites", or winners. Compared to them, I am old and poor, I am in a 3rd or 4th tier school, I am in a research field not known to most, I have not published any paper, and I don’t see a bright future.

I don’t know if I should feel shame about it. Sometimes I don’t worry about all these conditions, sometimes, I hope that I could be much younger, much wealthier, and publish a paper every 10 days. I know these are daydreams and I don’t take them seriously – just another way to waste, or kill, my time, since now the time seems to be boring and should be spent with doing nothing but daydreaming. I don’t feel happy all the time, although sometimes I do feel joyful. Sometimes even a small thing makes me happy, like reading this quote, or a splendid joke, or a great episode of Friends, or a new Ig Nobel award winner and the related weird research, blablablah. These are trivial happiness, and only with these, that I have not become pessimistic.

Of course, this quote stands for the ideas of a group of great people, that they think they are elites (and possible that is the fact), and they devote all their time working for the benefit of the people, or saving the world. They want to be "the best of the best of the best…", like the one navy in the film Men in Black. I admire these guys, I wish I could behave like them, that every time I play go, I am performing with my best knowledge, and every time I read, my mind cannot be distracted by the music, and more and more. And then, I will become a high ranking player in gokgs.com, and I will read more books in a month than those I read in a year.

Life sucks then. Some of the life is meant to be wasted, and that’s the way our brain works. The part, reticular formation, locates in the pons and regulates the alertness. Another part, basal ganglia, is activated every time a novelty appears and gives the brain reward for having novelty by sending more dopamine to nucleus accumbens. The brain tends to be diverted, distracted, attracted, motivated, to the new, and maybe that’s why people cannot always hold on their attention on one thing till it is done, especially when it takes a lengthy time.

So that is my attitude: take it easy, do whatever I want to do, make myself happy, and, sometimes, do it and do it well, when it is really important.

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A Christmas Carol

December 22, 2007
I just finished Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol, a story of a skinflint business man Ebenezer Scrooge, who, after the death of his partner, has no friend ever since for 7 years and hated Christmas the most. He asks his employee to come to work early on Christmas day because, he refuses the invitation of his nephew for the Christmas party, and he bluntly revoked the idea of philanthropy to poor miners. The night, when he retires to his dark, lonely residence, a ghost visits him, the one of his dead partner, who shares the same idiosyncrasies with Mr. Scrooge, and complains about the pains and punishment in his after life, and warns Mr. Scrooge of the same fate to come. The ghost also says that the ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas Yet to Come will come to visit Mr. Scrooge in sequence.

Then, the ghost of Christmas past comes and takes Mr. Scrooge to his past, when, as a young boy, he was badly treated and always left alone in Christmas Eve, but his sister, the future mother of his nephew, loved him and brought him happiness in the cold Christmas night. At this moment, Mr. Scrooge realizes that he should treat better to his nephew.

And then the Christmas present, who comes with a feast, and brings Mr. Scrooge to go around the families of his employee, his nephew, and the poor minors. Much fun Mr. Scrooge has during these time and he begins to think maybe it is better to enjoy the Christmas, not to shun it. Also, he has seen the poor lives of his employee and those minors, and is astonished to know a cripple son of his employee is going to die within a year because of poor nutrition.

And finally, the Christmas Yet to Come comes, without saying any word, and takes Mr. Scrooge, now eager to see his future and the moral lesson, to the streets, home of an undertaker, and a graveyard. Mr. Scrooge realizes that just before this Christmas to come, he will die and nobody will take care of his carcass and nobody will say anything good to him. He becomes mad to the scene and cries out that he will change.

So now, Mr. Scrooge comes back to his life and it is just the Christmas day. He buys a prize turkey to his employee, he donates a lot of money to help those poor minors, and he enjoys the Christmas eve with his nephew and his family and friends. The next day, he raises the salary of his employee. And he treats the cripple boy of his employee as his son. The boy doesn’t die.

Everything becomes happy.

And now, I am watching a TV film of the same title. What a coincidence! Guess who plays the role of Mr. Scrooge? Patrick Stewart, the professor in X-men trilogy.

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Guess what it is?

December 17, 2007

The answer:

This is the human nose. For more information, read the national geography article.

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Report from NY Times – in English and Chinese

December 5, 2007


December 5, 2007

China’s Turtles, Emblems of a Crisis

And its Chinese translation in pdf format by NY times

CHANGSHA, China — Unnoticed
and unappreciated for five decades, a large female turtle with a
stained, leathery shell is now a precious commodity in this city’s
decaying zoo. She is fed a special diet of raw meat. Her small pool has
been encased with bulletproof glass. A surveillance camera monitors her
movements. A guard is posted at night.

The agenda is simple: The turtle must not die.

Earlier this year, scientists concluded that she was the planet’s
last known female Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle. She is about 80
years old and weighs almost 90 pounds.

As it happens, the planet also has only one undisputed, known male.
He lives at a zoo in the city of Suzhou. He is 100 years old and weighs
about 200 pounds. They are the last hope of saving a species believed
to be the largest freshwater turtles in the world.

“It’s a very dire situation,” said Peter Pritchard, a prominent
turtle expert in the United States who has helped in trying to save the
species. “This one is so big and it has such an aura of mystery.”

For many Chinese, turtles symbolize health and longevity, but the
saga of the last two Yangtze giant soft-shells is more symbolic of the
threatened state of wildlife and biodiversity in China. Pollution,
hunting and rampant development are destroying natural habitats, and
also endangering plant and animal populations.

China contains some of the world’s richest troves of biodiversity,
yet the latest major survey of plants and animals reveals a bleak
picture that has grown bleaker during the past decade. Nearly 40
percent of all mammal species in China are now endangered, scientists
say. For plants, the situation is worse; 70 percent of all nonflowering
plant species and 86 percent of flowering species are considered
threatened.

An overriding problem is the fierce competition for land and water.
China’s goal of quadrupling its economy by 2020 means that industry,
growing cities and farmers are jostling for a limited supply of usable
land.

Cities or factories often claim farmland for expansion; farmers, in
turn, reclaim marginal land that could be habitat. Already, China has
lost half of its wetlands, according to one survey.

For the Chinese scientists and conservationists trying to reverse
these trends, the challenge begins with trying to convince the
government that protecting wildlife is an important priority. For
centuries, Chinese leaders emphasized dominance over nature rather than
coexistence with it. Animals and plants are still often regarded as
commodities valued for use as medicine or food, rather than as
essential pieces of a natural order.

“The whole idea of ecology and ecosystems is a new thing in the
culture,” said Lu Zhi, a professor of conservation biology at Peking
University.

Scientists say China’s status as a leading center of biodiversity
makes the threatened state of wildlife a global concern. Many of
China’s species are concentrated in the mountainous southwestern region
— sometimes popularized in the West as Shangri-La — as well as in
Tibet, Hainan Island and along the North Korean border. Endangered
indigenous animals include the giant panda, several varieties of
pheasants and monkeys, and a range of small mammals including shrews
and rodents.

“China is one of a small handful of countries, maybe a dozen, that
has remarkably high numbers of species, and a remarkably high number of
species that are not found anywhere else,” said Jeffrey A. McNeely,
chief scientist for the World Conservation Union.

Nearly every major international conservation group has established
a China office to promote different wildlife protection initiatives.
The group WildAid has sponsored a public education campaign featuring
billboards with the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming. “Endangered species are our friends,” Mr. Yao said at a news conference last year in Beijing.

China has a large system of nature reserves, mostly in the country’s
more remote western regions, though financing levels are far below
those even in other developing countries. No Chinese protection program
is considered more successful than the robust effort to save the panda.
Roughly 2,000 pandas now live in panda reserves. Other captive breeding
programs have helped pull the Chinese alligator and the Tibetan
antelope away from the brink of extinction.

But these successes, which involve animals of symbolic national
importance, are modest compared with the number of species that are
neglected and edging closer to extinction. Last year, the Yangtze River
dolphin, a freshwater mammal known as the baiji, was declared extinct.

“So many species are neglected,” said Dr. Lu, who also heads the
China affiliate of Conservation International. “Look at the baiji. The
extinction was announced and what has been done? Nothing. People felt
pity.”

Then, alluding to the Yangtze giant soft-shell, also known as the Rafetus swinhoei, she added:

“This turtle will be next.”

Surviving History’s Tides

Fifty-one years ago, a traveling circus performed at the new zoo in
Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in southern China. For a cash
payment, the circus left behind a large female turtle. Zookeepers
slipped the turtle into a large pond, where for a half-century it
hibernated in winters and poked its pig-like snout above the water’s
surface every spring. The walls of the zoo became the equivalent of a
time capsule.

Outside, the convulsions of modern Chinese history were scarring an
already damaged landscape. Under Mao, national campaigns were waged to
kill birds and other animals perceived as pests. Widespread famines in
the late 1950s and early 1960s drove desperate people to hunt or gather
anything deemed edible, even tree bark.

Since the 1980s, the pressure has come from the rapid push for
economic development. In recent years, turtle experts identified the
Yangtze giant soft-shell as dangerously close to extinction. Inside the
Changsha Zoo, zookeepers had no idea that experts were scouring China
for the species. In fact, they knew very little about their female
turtle. “We just treated it like a normal animal,” said Yan Xiahui,
deputy director of the zoo.

The species was first identified as distinct in the 1870s. A British diplomat in Shanghai sent a specimen to the British Museum,
where it was beheaded and pickled in a jar. Some experts debated
whether it was part of another species, and for years it received
little attention.

“It proceeded to be ignored by the world as if it didn’t exist for
roughly 100 years,” said Dr. Pritchard, the American expert, who has
seen the specimen in the British Museum.

With its wide, flat shape and leathery dorsal shell, the giant
Yangtze males can weigh more than 220 pounds; females are usually
smaller. By the 1990s, a prominent Chinese herpetologist, Zhao Kentang,
had realized the significance of the turtle and tried in vain to
persuade different zoos to bring the turtles together for breeding.

By 2004, after conducting field surveys in China and Vietnam,
herpetologists concluded that six of the turtles were still alive.
Three were in Chinese zoos in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou; two others
lived in a Buddhist temple in Suzhou; and a sixth lived in a famous
Vietnamese lake in the center of Hanoi.

Negotiations began toward a breeding agreement. By 2005, the turtle
in the Beijing zoo had died. Questions also emerged about whether the
Hanoi turtle was actually the same species. A leading Vietnamese expert
argued it was not. Monks at the Buddhist temple considered their
turtles religious icons and did not want to move them. Last year, a
deal was finally reached between the Suzhou and Shanghai zoos.

“Then in October, the one in Shanghai died,” said Xie Yan, the China program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been instrumental in guiding the discussions. “It was horrible news.”

In January, herpetologists gathered in Suzhou for a conference about
the turtle. Every zoo in China had been issued an urgent circular
asking for any information about their large turtles. Officials at the
Changsha Zoo responded. The Wildlife Conservation Society sent two
experts to Changsha.

“We were very happy because it was a female and had just laid eggs
last year,” said Lu Shunqing, one of the experts, noting that the eggs
were unfertilized.

The discovery of the Changsha turtle was critical. In August, one of
the turtles in the Buddhist temple died. Experts visited the temple and
found no proof that the second turtle existed. That left two undisputed
Yangtze giant soft-shells: the female in Changsha; the male in Suzhou.
Neither had commingled with the opposite sex in decades, if ever. And,
more problematic, neither zoo was willing to let its turtle go.

Restoring Diversity

Biodiversity, a linguistic marriage of biology and diversity,
describes the variations of life within a particular setting, or
ecosystem. That ecosystem could be a single pond or the entire earth.
Implicit is the idea that the ecosystem is sustained by the coexistence
and interaction between plants, animals and other life forms.

Few, if any, of the world’s modern economic powers, including the
United States, have industrialized without taking a dire toll on plants
and animals. In China, the Communist Party’s top-down, authoritarian
system has presided over a destruction of nature. Now, with
environmental problems threatening the economy, the party is trying to
engineer a top-down reconstruction.

Environmental construction, a government term, is now a high
priority. Yet the results are not always synonymous with biodiversity.
Since 1998, China has banned the domestic timber trade and started a
nationwide reforestation program. China is now one of the few countries
in the world where forest cover is expanding. Yet many scientists say
these new forests are more like plantations than habitat.

Often, the new forests include only one or two different tree
species and are far inferior to natural forests as incubators for other
species. Unintended results can occur. In Beijing, officials planted
millions of “female” poplar trees without realizing that the females
produced higher amounts of pollen. Workers have had to dig up thousands
of the trees, as floating springtime pollen often seems as thick as
snow.

Restoring animal populations is also complicated. Turtles, which are
both revered and consumed in China, were decimated in the wild by
pollution and hunting. Traders quickly pushed into Southeast Asia,
India and even the United States to meet demand.

“In conservation terms, it became a crisis,” said Dr. Pritchard, the
American expert. “It was first noticed six or seven years ago. The
China market had become packed with turtles not from China.”

In fact, Chinese markets teemed with animals, or animal parts, from
around the world. Today, conservationists express particular concern
about the illegal trade in tiger parts. China has signed an
international treaty banning domestic trade of tiger parts, but tiger
conservation groups say the illegal demand in China is a major reason
for the decline of tigers around the world.

Meanwhile, conservationists worry that officials may one day reopen
the tiger trade to appease Chinese businessmen who had run tiger
breeding farms to produce parts for Chinese traditional medicine.

Turtles, meanwhile, have made a comeback with the emergence of
breeding farms. Captive breeding also is now a popular government
response for certain endangered species. But many conservationists
worry that too little emphasis is placed on restoring habitat so that
animals can be returned to the wild. More than 10,000 Chinese
alligators have been bred, but reintroducing them to the wild has
largely failed.

Conservationists say environmental policies need to better take
biodiversity into account. Reforestation, for example, was largely an
effort to stop soil erosion, which contributed to floods, and to stall
desertification, the conversion of the land into a desert. The idea of
creating a true forest was not a priority.

Meanwhile, economic development still dominates. China’s richest
source of biodiversity is a “hot spot” in southwestern China along the
Nu River designated by Unesco
as a World Heritage Site. Even so, provincial officials are trying to
build a system of dams through the region. Local officials also have
tried to redraw the boundaries for the World Heritage Site in order to
create room for mining.

Conservationists are trying to speak the language of economics to
build political support for protecting habitat. Rice demand is growing
rapidly, even as farmland is dwindling. For decades, Chinese scientists
have used wild rice species to develop hybrids that increase
production. Now, development and farming are encroaching on wild rice
habitat areas in coastal southern China.

“If we let it go unchecked,” Dr. Lu, the Peking University
professor, wrote in a report about biodiversity, “Chinese wild rice
will become extinct in fifteen years.”

Success Far From Certain

Extinction remains a far more immediate possibility for the Yangtze
giant soft-shell. Next year, scientists will make a search in
southwestern China in hopes of finding another Yangtze giant soft-shell
in the wild.

In September, the Changsha and Suzhou zoos finally reached a deal.
Neither wanted to move its turtle. But each agreed that scientists
could attempt artificial insemination next spring. Each also signed a
contract entitling a certain number of offspring for each zoo —
potential stud turtles for future captive breeding programs.

Gerald Kuchling, a herpetologist overseeing the procedure, said
success was far from guaranteed. Several years ago, a tortoise in
Hawaii died after a similar procedure. In May, Dr. Kuchling conducted
an ultrasound examination of the ovaries of the female turtle in
Changsha. For years, she has laid unfertilized eggs in springtime,
though zookeepers say the number has steadily diminished, to about 20.

“The main problem is really to get a viable sperm sample from the
old male without harming him in any way,” said Dr.. Kuchling, who added
that using small electric shocks is one common method for eliciting a
sample. Manual massage is another.

In Changsha, zoo officials moved the turtle into a private pool for
better security and monitoring. But experts are concerned that
zookeepers are now warming the water inside the pool during winter,
even though it spent decades in the colder pond outside. They also are
concerned that the pool has no mud to allow the turtle to hibernate.

Under China’s system, the Ministry of Agriculture has oversight of
the turtle. So far, the ministry has agreed to provide 200,000 yuan, or
about $27,000, though none of the money has arrived. Asked for an
interview in October, the ministry declined. But ministry officials
later contacted the zoos and persuaded them to sign a new deal.

It was decided that the Changsha turtle will be transported to
Suzhou next year. A special breeding pool is supposed to be built.
First, scientists will try artificial insemination. If that fails, the
two elderly turtles will give it a go the old-fashioned way.

The fate of a species hangs in the balance.

Ma Yi contributed research.

Ma Yi contributed research.